The next installment of Joel Gunz’s music column Blood, Sweat & Vinyl examines Rush album 2112 and explains the difference between analogue versus digital and why analogue is (always) better.
Forgiveness. That’s what our ears have to offer. Optimized by evolution for the detection of both the footsteps of a bear otter and the subtleties of Bach. Eager to please as a golden retriever, they’ll gladly accept a pair of cheap-o earbuds for a K-pop workout mix and re-equalize the sound for you right inside your skull. In fact, given the chance, our ears will go one better. When I dropped the needle on my first vinyl purchase in well over twenty years, I was stunned by the medium’s musicality. I hadn’t felt that close to this band since … ever. Sure, digital recording may be technically superior to vinyl—but our ears don’t really seem to care about that. Even after abusing them with a lifetime of unprotected drumming, they offered me grace. Over my tinnitus, I heard the ring of truth.
For this epiphany, I couldn’t have been better primed than by the aforementioned record, a classic from rock’s greatest power trio—Rush, 2112 (1976; remastered, new, 180-gram disk). The title track speaks of a future time: sixty years after computers have won The War. A caste of priestly patsies keep the masses toiling under pressurized domes on a distant planet. Technology has eradicated the Individual. Imagination and music have been mayonnaisified. One day a young man discovers an ancient and strange oddity—a guitar—hidden deep in a cave. He secretly learns chords. He hauls his find back to town. À la Planet of the Apes, the priests cluck their tongues. Culture conflicts and elaborate prog rock jams ensue. It ends badly for him, and then badly for them, and then ambiguously for everyone else as a new race—the meek ones? Klaatu & Co.? Walmart?—arrive to inherit the earth by force. Occupying an entire side of the record, the twenty-minute-long fantasia explores lyricist and drummer Neil Peart’s favorite theme: the alienation of the analogue man in a digital world.
Once asked if he believed this dystopia was where the world was headed, Peart responded: “Well, things aren’t all that bad now, but it’s a logical progression from some of the things that are going on.” Oh, Neil, if you only knew. The meaning behind the organic tactility of that wooden guitar is analogous to the physical touch of a needle as it touches down on a vinyl record—analogue being the operative word. But let’s be specific. What are we talking about when we talk about the difference between analogue and digital music?
The tech differences are pretty straightforward. Digital works sort of like a water wheel dipping into a stream of music to scoop up little buckets of sound. That’s why they call it “sampling.” The faster it scoops, the better—as it goes about converting those samples into ones and zeroes and tucking them into a memory chip. No matter how rich its data, digital audio will always be just a sample set. The term itself implies incompletion—not to mention discontinuity: digital music comes at you like tiny pellets fired from a very fast machine gun. Analogue music, on the other hand, works completely differently. A recording device—in vinyl’s case, the cutting lathe—carves a physical portrait of a song into an acetate platter from which the records are pressed. From the edge of the record to its center, that spiraling groove is a single quantity that resembles the output of an EKG; peer closely enough and you’ll see your song’s heartbeat. Behaving in a manner consistent with how we experience music, it’s a picture of musical flow.
Back in the 1980s, it was assumed that a 16-bit digital sampling rate—equal to more than 44,000 buckets per second—would suffice for human hearing. That became the standard for CDs. It wasn’t even close. If you were there, you might have been among those who noted that Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” on CD did indeed sound sharper than vinyl—painfully sharp. Apple’s upload policy for iTunes now demands 24-bit sampling, and you can still hear the difference between that and vinyl. Why?
Here’s what I think.
This Record Review: Terms and Conditions
But first, a caveat: I barely passed high school algebra. I’m a drummer. I write for a living. And I’m about to hand you some ideas that are grossly oversimplified. They ignore a whole slew of ifs, not to mention a buttload of buts. My defense: I’m not making so much a scientific argument as I am a poetic one. Using science to explain the beauty of vinyl recording is like using meteorology to explain why we enjoy the feeling of wind on our face.
Still, we have to dig into the science a little. So, stick with me here—I promise to come back around to some of these unaddressed contingencies in future posts. In the meantime, look at this cool animated gif:
Analogous to What?
Opposite analogue’s physicality, a digital signal is a mathematical representation of sound. It has no such infinite range; it will always be as divisible as a Kit Kat. This makes for easy mixing, editing, and, of course, listening on the run. Still, measured against the infinite amplitude points of an analogue wave, digital music’s sample rate will always come up short.
So, to what, exactly, is analogue recording analogous? Technically, it means that the signal is an analogue of the live sound wave that produced it. But in practice, in the purest sense, it can mean much, much more.
Let’s start with a singer. Her singing causes her vocal cords to vibrate, producing an (analogue) wave in the air that matches the vibrations in her throat. When that wave reaches a microphone, it causes a thin metallic diaphragm to vibrate, converting it into electrical impulses. Finally, that wave is etched into a record, whereupon it’s picked up by a needle, re-electrified, and pushed through a speaker that works exactly like a microphone but in reverse, turning that electric wave back into a sound wave that enters our ear. Now, here’s the kicker: our ears are little more than tiny microphones, converting sound into neural electrical impulses. Beginning to end, that wave remains a wave. This, I believe, is why humans usually enjoy analogue music more than digital: the entire process is analogous to our own built-in audio system. We literally have a physical affinity for it.
On the other hand, when that singer’s voice gets digitized, the continuous wave of her singing is, in a sense, shattered and then glued back together. It’s kind of like the decaffeination process, where green (unroasted) coffee beans are soaked in water, releasing all their hundreds of chemicals. Caffeine is removed from that liquid and then the beans are added back in to re-absorb the remaining ingredients, after which they’re dried and roasted. It’s a violent process. Now you know why decaf tastes like ass. The analogue-digital-analogue process works the same way. It even removes purportedly unwanted noise from the system. Digital is the decaf, the near beer, the sugar-free Diet Pepsi version of recorded music. Wouldn’t you rather have The Real Thing?
Think About This
If you’re a digital listener, when was the last time you sat down, cranked up your CD player or Spotify playlist, and just listened? More likely, you, like me, were engaged in some other activity—maybe cooking, exercising, or driving. Why? Here’s my hypothesis. When the discontinuity of the digital waveform is augmented with additional ambient noise—the sizzle of the frying pan, our own breathing, the car engine—its digital sterility is either whitewashed by those other sounds or, lacking our focused attention, it becomes more tolerable. When it comes to sitting down just to enjoy recorded music without those extra fillers, the relative emptiness of digital music becomes readily (if subliminally) apparent. We manifest our distaste as antsiness or boredom. No wonder the art of sitting still while listening to recorded music for its own sake is disappearing! Cultural critics have blamed this on some fault of the listener, such as those damned darling ADD Millennials, but I say it’s the fault of the medium: digital music simply isn’t musical enough on its own. In addition, vinyl actually supplies some additional qualities to the experience that digital, by design, lacks. But that’s another discussion for another day.
They Did It Their Way
2112 almost didn’t get made. The technocrats at Mercury Records were less than amused at the ho-hum response to Rush’s ambitious previous album, Caress of Steel (1975), and came this close to pulling the plug on their contract. After some fast talking from their manager who promised the label it’d get a more commercial effort this time around, the trio secretly wrote and recorded the new project entirely on their terms—including the radio-adverse operatic form that filled the entire Side A with one song. The resulting album was more than commercial. It was an expression of pure musical love. With their backs against the wall, the band found its voice and used its first words to shout a hearty “Fuck You!” to anyone who would demand compromise. Recalls guitarist Lifeson: “I remember clearly saying, ‘OK, screw it. We may go down in flames, but at least we’ll know that we’ve done it our way….  was our protest album.’” The suits were aghast. Mercury’s marketing team was apathetic. But the fans voted with their dollars. The RIAA responded with a gold platter, followed by another, this time in platinum. Rush never heard boo from the bean counters again.
Form to function to content, the lyrics and musical structure of 2112 were wedded in perfect harmony. What Geddy sang in the final verse of the album’s final song, “Something for Nothing,” must decidedly not have been music to the suits’ ears:
What you own is your own kingdom
What you do is your own glory
What you love is your own power
What you live is your own story
In your head is the answer
Let it guide you along
Let your heart be the anchor
And the beat of your own song
For me, like so many other kids growing up in an authoritarian family and religious milieu, this matters. Fundamentalists and cults are expert at casting themselves as courageous outsiders, and I prided myself on my own religious zeal while also doing Jehovah’s Witnessism my way: I refused to follow the cult’s in-crowd by always insisting on a liberal self-education and by pursuing my talents in music and writing the best I could. Meanwhile, with the regularity of a morphine drip, the Watchtower magazine militated against my self-determination, using such Biblical bromides as “Trust in Jehovah with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding” and “Whoever trusts in his own heart is stupid” and “the heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate.” (Proverbs 3:5; 28:26.) My dreams were a guilty secret. I trusted no one. Paranoia was my constant companion. I’d call phone sex and chat lines just to talk (and, yes, more), knowing that the anonymous girls on the other end of the line were the only people to whom I could reveal my true self. Throughout those years, I was inspired by Rush’s “Freewill” (Permanent Waves, 1980):
You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears
And kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose free will.
My private cocktail of religious opiates worked. But you can’t outrun the truth forever. Barely conscious of the true self that I’d kept duct-taped and gagged in the shadows of my heart, I somehow knew I had two choices: (1) escape or (2) die trying. I “accidentally” allowed myself to get caught phone-chatting. The Congregation Judicial Committee acted quickly. I was shunned—and I was free.
Getting to Know My Sixteen-Year-Old Self
I wasn’t allowed to buy 2112 as a kid. The “Starman” logo on its cover was falsely rumored to be a Satanic symbol. (Depicting a solo, naked man pushing against a red pentagram, it represented, according to Peart, “the abstract man against the masses. The red star symbolizes any collectivist mentality” e.g. the Communist state.) Likewise, the band name was taken (again, mistakenly) to be a drug reference. As a result, I don’t think I’d ever heard the album all the way through until the other day when I brought that new vinyl home.
Of course, heavy metal has been raging against the machine for a long time. Rush didn’t invent that. However, their lyrics had more intellectual stuffing than most other bands’—and Peart’s drumming wasn’t bad. Though their politics changed over the years—the liner notes to 2112 paid tribute to (cough) “the genius of Ayn Rand”—their insistence upon the preeminence of individual agency never wavered. As Peart told Rolling Stone a few years ago, “It’s about being your own hero. I set out to never betray the values that [my] sixteen-year-old [self] had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.”
Coincidentally, “Subdivisions” (Signals, 1982)—probably an autobiographical piece about Peart’s sixteen-year-old self—came out swinging the year I turned sixteen:
Growing up, it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass-production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone
I lobbied my stepfather hard to let me purchase that album, pressing the case that, though the band may have had unsavory origins, they’d cleaned up their act. “See? They even got haircuts!” I played the above-mentioned song for him, its synthesized strings sharing more in common with fizzy New Wave pop than heavy metal. Something of a social critic himself, surely, he would appreciate this song’s critique of conformity—but with a roll of his eyes, he dismissed it as just more of the same teen angst that’d always fueled pop music. It’s nothing new / It’s just a waste of time (“2112,” Part IV, “Presentation”) I vowed never to allow such cynicism to overtake me. Even though I lost my way for a while, I always managed to hold my individuality sacred. Eventually, I caught up with sixteen-year-old me and he’s been guiding me ever since.
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