One of the greatest debates regarding guitar pedals is based on the pros and cons of analog and digital pedals. There are supporters of each of these two pedal types. Advantages and disadvantages are likely to be found no matter the type of pedal you use.
If you’re new to this field of musical gear and there’s still a lot of confusion regarding the whats, whys, and hows of analog and digital pedals, then this post might help you make some light.
Basic differences between analog and digital pedals
The first major difference between these two pedal types is that the signal of an analog pedal is continuous and is processed unadulterated whereas the signal of a digital pedal is made up of various individual points. In order for a digital pedal to work, the signal is passed through an analog to digital (A/D) converter that will translate it into a series of 0s and 1s.
Based on these numbers, the pedal will perform the algorithms needed to alter the sound and then the signal will pass through a digital to analog (D/A) converter so you can get a sonic output of the original signal.
Since the signal rendered by a digital pedal is the sum of a multitude of several individual points and the analog signal is continuous, the difference in the output you will get is usually felt in the pure sound the analog pedal delivers. All the signals that can be found in nature are analog, so that’s why an analog pedal will have a warmer and more natural sound than a digital one.
Another major difference between digital and analog pedals regards the signal sampling. One disadvantage of digital pedals is that they can’t replicate the infinite analog levels. Since the analog signal is continuous and smooth, without breaks, a digital pedal would need a huge amount of individual bits to replicate the exact levels.
This means that digital pedals can’t sample fast enough to reproduce the entire analog signal. This is rarely detectable, however. If an MP3 is poorly sampled, high-frequency notes and components such as cymbals might indeed sound off.
All digital devices will lose information in the signal sampling processing. The thing with this loss is that, once it reaches a certain level, the human ear will notice it. The amount of data that is lost through the sampling process is directly affected by the sampling frequency, which refers to how many samples are used for the analog signal to be discretized.
The human ear is capable of hearing vibrating waves up to 20 kHz (20,000 Hz). When the sampling rate is lower than this, the ear will miss out on higher frequencies and the so-called aliasing happens.
This occurs if the sampling rate is limited to a frequency range yet it interprets sounds that are outside of this particular range. Thus, if one frequency is coded into another, glitches are created.
In the case of certain digital pedals, an issue occurs when the guitar produces various frequencies and many of them are higher than 5 kHz. Thus, the higher frequencies your guitar creates might fall outside the sampling rate of some digital pedals.
Consequently, if you go for a digital pedal with a higher sampling frequency, you will enjoy a better sound. This requires a higher compute power, though, which means that such a unit will have a higher price attached. Therefore, if you want greater signal fidelity, look for a model that features the necessary A/D (analog to digital) processing power.
Digital pedals and programmed effects
Digital pedals make use of an algorithm that will process the sampled sound from the pedal input and that will take into account the same bits of data every time to produce the desired sound. The effects are programmed and thus they will always be the same.
Unlike digital pedals, the analog models alter the analog signal with the many subtleties capacitors, resistors, and transistors create. And it’s this alteration many musicians find to be an advantage or a disadvantage.
A musical instrument will not produce the same analog sound from one performance to another, at least not at a level we can find to be disturbing or significantly different. That happens because, for example, the strings of a guitar degrade or the instrument is tuned differently. This means that the sound will change.
When it comes to the digital signal, it is always the same since it is a processed signal. The digital pedal will faithfully reproduce it according to the formula it always uses.
Pros and cons
Both analog and digital pedals come with advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a delay pedal, for example. An analog delay pedal will deliver that natural and warmer sound many guitarists prefer. The drawback is that such a pedal will have less flexibility and less control over the delay as well as BBDs limitations, which means that you will get shorter delays.
On the other hand, a digital delay pedal will provide you with greater variability as such a unit features time and speed controls, programmable presets, and analog delay emulations as we have highlighted in one of our recent articles. They are also cheaper. The downside is that the sound they produce might be too clear for some players.
Choosing between an analog and a digital pedal is, after all, a matter of personal preference. Many players, though, prefer analog pedals because they will never have the imperfections digitally created signal might have. A digital pedal comes with pre-programmed effects and some voltage-related constraints. This means you will get the same effect over and over again.
Some players actually prefer that, so they go digital. Others like the way an analog fuzz pedal reproduces the subtle nuances of one’s performance. Such subtleties are reproduced thanks to the circuit elements that are analog.
If your budget allows you, you can get both a digital and an analog pedal for your board and alternate them so you can enjoy the benefits provided by both types.