Comparing analog and digital audio

In analog and digital audio, sound is transmitted and stored very differently.

Analog audio: positive and negative voltage

A microphone converts the pressure waves of sound into voltage changes in a wire: high pressure becomes positive voltage, and low pressure becomes negative voltage. When these voltage changes travel down a microphone wire, they can be recorded onto tape as changes in magnetic strength or onto vinyl records as changes in groove size. A speaker works like a microphone in reverse, taking the voltage signals from an audio recording and vibrating to re-create the pressure wave.

Digital audio: zeroes and ones

Unlike analog storage media such as magnetic tape or vinyl records, computers store audio information digitally as a series of zeroes and ones. In digital storage, the original waveform is broken up into individual snapshots called samples. This process is typically known as digitizing or sampling the audio, but it is sometimes called analog-to-digital conversion.

When you record from a microphone into a computer, for example, analog-to-digital converters transform the analog signal into digital samples that computers can store and process.

Understanding sample rate

Sample rate indicates the number of digital snapshots taken of an audio signal each second. This rate determines the frequency range of an audio file. The higher the sample rate, the closer the shape of the digital waveform is to that of the original analog waveform. Low sample rates limit the range of frequencies that can be recorded, which can result in a recording that poorly represents the original sound.

Two sample rates

A. Low sample rate that distorts the original sound wave. B. High sample rate that perfectly reproduces the original sound wave. 

To reproduce a given frequency, the sample rate must be at least twice that frequency. For example, CDs have a sample rate of 44,100 samples per second, so they can reproduce frequencies up to 22,050 Hz, which is just beyond the limit of human hearing, 20,000 Hz.

Here are the most common sample rates for digital audio:

Sample rate

Quality level

Frequency range

11,025 Hz

Poor AM radio (low‑end multimedia)

0–5,512 Hz

22,050 Hz

Near FM radio (high‑end multimedia)

0–11,025 Hz

32,000 Hz

Better than FM radio (standard broadcast rate)

0–16,000 Hz

44,100 Hz

CD

0–22,050 Hz

48,000 Hz

Standard DVD

0–24,000 Hz

96,000 Hz

Blu-ray DVD

0–48,000 Hz

Understanding bit depth

Bit depth determines dynamic range. When a sound wave is sampled, each sample is assigned the amplitude value closest to the original wave’s amplitude. Higher bit depth provides more possible amplitude values, producing greater dynamic range, a lower noise floor, and higher fidelity.

Note:

For the best audio quality, Audition transforms all audio in 32‑bit mode and then converts to a specified bit depth when saving files.

Bit depth

Quality level

Amplitude values

Dynamic range

8‑bit

Telephony

256

48 dB

16‑bit

Audio CD

65,536

96 dB

24‑bit

Audio DVD

16,777,216

144 dB

32‑bit

Best

4,294,967,296

192 dB

Higher bit depths provide greater dynamic range.

Measuring amplitude in dBFS

In digital audio, amplitude is measured in decibels below full scale, or dBFS. The maximum possible amplitude is 0 dBFS; all amplitudes below that are expressed as negative numbers.

Note:

A given dBFS value does not directly correspond to the original sound pressure level measured in acoustic dB.

Audio file contents and size

An audio file on your hard drive, such as a WAV file, consists of a small header indicating sample rate and bit depth, and then a long series of numbers, one for each sample. These files can be very large. For example, at 44,100 samples per second and 16 bits per sample, a mono file requires 86 KB per second—about 5 MB per minute. That figure doubles to 10 MB per minute for a stereo file, which has two channels.

How Adobe Audition digitizes audio

When you record audio in Adobe Audition, the sound card starts the recording process and specifies what sample rate and bit depth to use. Through Line In or Microphone In ports, the sound card receives analog audio and digitally samples it at the specified rate. Adobe Audition stores each sample in sequence until you stop recording.

When you play a file in Adobe Audition, the process happens in reverse. Adobe Audition sends a series of digital samples to the sound card. The card reconstructs the original waveform and sends it as an analog signal through Line Out ports to your speakers.

To sum up, the process of digitizing audio starts with a pressure wave in the air. A microphone converts this pressure wave into voltage changes. A sound card converts these voltage changes into digital samples. After analog sound becomes digital audio, Adobe Audition can record, edit, process, and mix it—the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

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