August 3, 2019

Effects Pedals

Analog VS Digital Effects Pedals - Does It Really Matter?

Newcomers usually ask me questions related to the Digital vs Analog topic. What are the differences? Which one is better? Why?

For the experienced users, this is a no-brainer: analog sound better and more natural. That's what we've been told forever... but, is this still true?

In this post, we will dive into these questions and try to find the answers that will help you make the best decisions before extending your current pedalboard or buying your first pedals.

SourceAudio's Nemesis Delay digital pedal

Technical Differences

Signal Sampling

You probably have heard that analog effects pedals sound more “natural”.

All the signals you can find in nature are analog signals, which are formed by an infinite number of connected points that can have any value.

Analog signals can be modified in a number of ways using passive electrical components (capacitors, resistances, inductors, …).

That’s OK for simple circuits, but if we want to design complex effects with some sorts of emulation, persistent memory, multiple effects in one single board (that would be a pedalboard) we would need to discretize the analog signal into a digital signal.

The signal fidelity of a digital effects pedal will depend on its A/D processing power

In the signal discretization process, the infinite points of the analog signal are reduced to a few ones that characterize (approximate) the original signal with the highest fidelity possible.

But… as I said, the signal loses some data in the transformation, losing part of the information of the original signal.

With this new digital signal, the device can pass it to a dedicated IC (kind of a CPU) and do some magic tricks, then transform it back to an analog signal and send it to the amplifier.

Sampling Frequency

Any digital device will always lose information in the signal sampling process, but the question is: how much data loss can our ears tolerate before noting it?

This is directly related to the sampling frequency: the number of samples used to discretize the analog signal.

The higher the frequency, the better the sampling at a cost of higher compute power which leads to an overall higher product cost.

So, the signal fidelity of a digital effects pedal will depend on its A/D (analog to digital) processing power. And, of course, manufacturers are always interested in minimizing their product costs, so they will try to use the cheapest but powerful-enough processor to create a profitable product.

Signal Processing

Imagine we’ve got a custom pedal that samples our guitar’s (analog) signal into a digital signal with a nearly infinite sampling frequency.

The resulting signal would be almost the same as the original signal, right?

Obviously, there is no device with such processing power, but you get the message. But we don’t need that infinite power to make a digital pedal sound like an analog pedal.

Of course, there will be some information loss, but our human ears won’t notice it.

Maybe, digital effects pedals have been known for destroying the natural behavior of our beloved guitars sound, but technology evolves rapidly, and more sooner than later if not already, will hit this field as well and the barrier that exists now between digital and analogic pedals will fade (if it’s not already).

How This Affect The Sound?

Well, it will depend, as you will be probably thinking. Maybe when talking about guitar effects pedals is more obvious that digital pedals will output a more “synthetic” sound…

But the goal of this post is to make you think about the status quo of digital instruments,  about how this market can/will evolve, about how the instruments we are used to could be transformed in the coming years.

Here is one of the best examples to demonstrate how thin the digital vs analog barrier can: the Seaboard RISE.

Digital effects will lead the future

  • Digital is the future. Analog circuits usage will be reduced to some specific functionalities
  • Nowadays, I prefer analog pedals (as they are more widely established), unless I have no other option than getting a digital one
  • For any other type of devices, I would check first how it’s built in order to figure out their A/D converting quality
Want to try high-quality digital effects pedals? Check the Source Audio catalog