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What are the main differences between digital and analog effects?

Do they have different circuitry? Sounds? Features?

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3 Answers

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"Digital" means that the signal from your guitar is first run through an A/D (analog to digital) converter to translate it into a digital signal (meaning a series of 1's and 0's). The effect then performs computations on that digital signal, altering it somehow. In this regard, it's no different from a computer---in fact, a digital effect is just a computer with the specific task of processing audio signals. Then the altered signal is run back through a D/A converter before being output.

"Analog" means the signal is processed as-is, with little-to-no translation before or after (sometimes it's run though a buffer amp, sometimes not).

So yes, they have very different circuitry. That doesn't mean one is better and the other worse, though. As with all things musical, only your ears can decide which you prefer.

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In short, an "analog" effect is an electrical circuit that does something with the signal that comes from the guitar due to the nature of its components.

A "digital" effect is powered by a microprocessor (pretty much like the one you have on your computer) that uses instructions (like a computer program) to modify the signal.

The main consequences of this is that a digital effect unit can be programmed to produce any sound, considering it's fast enough to do the calculations before a noticeable latency is perceived.

On the other hand, and for kinda obvious reasons, analog effects tend to sound more "natural" and are considered to have - generally - a higher quality. Some higher-level digital effect units do a very good job of "impersonating" famous analog effects (like distortion and delay), for example.

With a digital effects unit (sometimes called multi-effects rig), you also have the advantage of having many many sounds available in a single equipment.

In addition, some effects (like the Harmonizer - which adds a harmony note to your playing based on a chosen scale) are basically inviable by analog means, and thus digital effects can go some places analog ones don't.

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Other features typically inviable on analog circuitry include tap tempos for bucket brigade echo effects. Several companies have built hybrids of digital and analog components in an attempt to bridge the gap however. –  Jduv Jan 14 '11 at 19:34
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With regard to analog effects having "higher quality", taking the example of delay, digital is far better suited to creating that effect. Analog delays used a continuous loop of tape which was constantly being erased and re-recorded on, so you had to replace the tape regularly as it would degrade, and you would of course get some audible hiss from the tape. Generally I'd argue that if people perceive digital effects as sounding less natural, it's got more to do with psychology and their expectations. People rarely do a proper blind trial of these things to test if it's true! –  Anonymous Jan 14 '11 at 23:50
    
Analog delays can refer to tape delays, or solid-state bucket-brigade chips. Analog Delay –  Anonymous Jan 15 '11 at 5:11
    
I think that digital effects (the cheap ones I buy, anyway ;) do sound less natural, but sometimes that's exactly what I want. –  Anonymous Mar 25 '11 at 12:18
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There are great sounding analog effects and poor sounding ones.

There are great sounding digital effects and poor sounding ones.

One is not better than the other per se.

Analog effects are said to sound "warmer" than digital, but this can be explained, at least in part, due to the more limited high frequency response of analog effects.

Digital effects, while having a more broad frequency response, do not necessarily sound better. Many digital products have an "iciness" that sounds fake or unnatural.

Digital is used more and more as the cost of the circuits comes down. Most multieffects are digital.

As far as delays, there have been several types of analog circuits. While the most commonly known is the "tape delay" mentioned above, there are also "oil can" delays, "disk delays", and other electro-mechanical devices. There are also non-mechanical devices such as the Boss DM2 and DM3. While analog delays do not precisely replicate the original sound (like a digital can do), many musicians like the sound better. In fact, if you yell into a canyon and get an echoed response, it doesn't sound exactly like your original yell either, does it?

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