Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Analog vs. Digital

     When I was in college, I splurged on a high quality Thorens manual turntable, which produced excellent sound through a Scott amplifier and Marantz speakers—far from top-of-the-line, but plenty enjoyable.
     A few years later, post-college, I rented a room in a house in which the owner allowed me to use his stereo system with CD player.  I did a side-by-side comparison of vinyl album vs. digital CD—same song playing at the exact same time through otherwise identical equipment and switchable at will between the two, convinced analog was superior.  To my disappointment and surprise, digital won, hands down:  it's highs and midrange were crisper and livelier, and its lows a lot less muddy.  Henceforth, whenever I had the choice, I always selected CD over albums.  But my listening pleasure didn't increase, it decreased.  I attributed it to nostalgia and grief over my obsolete equipment. 
     But after I moved out, I went back to my albums and found them as enjoyable as ever.
     About that time, I bought my first camera—a Pentax SLR—that shot great photos and was fun and easy to use.  I got into black and white photography, and did my own developing and print processing in a rented darkroom.  Some of my photos taken on grainy tri-x film blew me away—forceful, timeless, and immediate—no Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier Bresson, but plenty satisfying considering my humble amateur hands and equipment.  I still use the camera as backup to a Pentax Super Program I purchased used a few years back, and they still produce great shots.
     The digital SLR hype was something I wished to avoid for the remainder of my life—too expensive—and their photos looked too fakey, with hyper-kinetic colors.  Even the digital black and white photos from the white house looked flat and disappointing, especially compared to those of the Nixon and Kennedy eras.
     While browsing Pentax camera reviews on the internet I finally, finally, finally found digital black and white photos with the snap that I crave.  Turns out that for these, Pentax digital color photos were converted to black and white via a PC software that mimics black and white (and color) films.  And they were all set to mimic my all-time favorite:  tri-x.
     Why is it that superior doesn't always equal greater enjoyment?  Why is it that we are sometimes drawn and attracted to the imperfect in art or beauty?  Marilyn Monroe's mole?  Venus de Milo's missing arms?  JFK's distinctive accent?  Hemingway's clipped prose?
     The human mind has the amazing capacity to fill-in-the blanks—to complete a sentence before someone has finished saying it, to read into a poem more than was written, to feel more deeply about a painting than the subject matter alone.  It is this filling-in-of-the-blanks that I believe often draws audiences in, involves them, and increases their enjoyment.  Because, after all, nothing is more boring than in-your-face perfection.
     Digital is here to stay, but there will always be room for imperfect analog—and by that I mean that which mimics the imperfect in art or in the world.  Regrettably, vinyl records and photographic film will soon enough disappear, but pens, pencils, paintbrushes, and traditional musical instruments will stay for awhile longer—perhaps until the arrival of suitable digital substitutes.  Although I donated my record player and will probably one day do likewise with my cameras and other analog devises, a part of me will always prefer the warmth and personality of phonograph albums, film photography, handwritten letters, original paintings, and live musicians.  Old fashioned instruments, no matter how technically superior their microchip-enhanced replacements may be, will also always trigger fond memories for me.

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