Digital vs Analog Sound: Can You Tell The Difference?

Digital vs Analog Sound: Can You Tell The Difference?

“We are analog beings living in a digital world.

— Neil Turok

There are endless tools to help you make electronic music in 2023. Hundreds of companies make high quality plugins tailored towards any type of sound. You would think that as the technology behind VSTs continues to develop, analog gear would simply fall by the wayside.

But, this just hasn’t happened. Look at the studios of today’s top-level producers: in many (or even most) cases, you’ll find some kind of analog gear. Maybe it’s a classic synth, hardware compressors and EQs, or some guitars and drums. Truth is, analog sound is all over electronic music today, and it likely will be for the foreseeable future.

Today’s top-level producers clearly think there is still a difference between digital and analog sound. But what is that difference? And more importantly, can you tell the difference?

That’s what this article is all about. I’m breaking down the difference between analog and digital sound, with a focus on synthesizers. Plus, I’m going to make sure you walk away from this article knowing the differences between and the benefits of both types of audio.




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"I'd buy a book full of tips like these."
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The Secret Key to Analog Audio

I need to start by highlighting what I think is the single most important concept in analog audio. It’s something that is essential to understanding the analog vs digital conversation, and it’s a concept that simply isn’t talked about enough.

I’m talking about Analog-Digital/Digital-Analog (AD/DA) conversion. AD/DA conversion is the process by which 1) an electrical signal is converted into a digital file (Analog → Digital), or 2) a digital file is converted into an electronic signal (Digital → Analog).

There is one reason why AD/DA conversion is so important: analog sound will only ever sound as good as the quality of the AD/DA conversion that turns it into a digital file.

Let’s break this down further: electrical audio signals run through audio cables, like the cables connecting a microphone or synthesizer to an audio interface, or the cables connecting your computer to your studio monitors.

As producers who work with DAWs, however, we work with digital files. In order to take the electrical signal from a hardware synthesizer or microphone and turn it into an audio file in our DAW, a computer algorithm converts the voltage of the electrical signal to a bunch of 1s and 0s, and ultimately creates a WAV or AIFF file. This is AD (Analog to Digital) conversion.

In other words, analog audio – or the sound quality of any analog audio source – will only ever sound as good as the quality of AD/DA conversion that is performed on it to turn it into a digital audio file. Because of this, the same synthesizer or microphone will sound DRASTICALLY different when passed through different AD/DA converters.

Most producers today use audio interfaces for AD/DA conversion. Universal Audio has taken over much of this market by offering affordable, high-quality AD/DA conversion with their Apollo interface line.

Remember: analog synths can sound amazing, but ONLY if they are passed through high quality converters.

The Great Debate: is analog or digital audio better?

Some people swear by analog gear, while others think software tools are just as good. Let’s break this down: which is the better option?

I think there are 6 parts of this debate. In the end, it’s a very close race between analog and digital synths.

1) Sound Design Possibilities

Winner: Digital

Simply put, there are greater sound design possibilities when using digital synths. Between extensive preset libraries and sound engines that step beyond the limitations of hardware synths, the palette of possible sounds you have at your fingertips is greater with digital than analog.

2) Access to Timeless Sounds

Winner: Analog

If you tried to produce a mainstage EDM record in 2023 with the sound design of Martin Garrix’s Animals, you’d be laughed out of town. But the sounds of pioneers like Jean Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream and the soundtracks of  Bladerunner and Twin Peaks are still sought after today. Digital sounds have a shelf life, whereas classic analog synths are timeless.

3) Workflow

Winner: Tie

Digital and analog offer two entirely different workflows. For some people, the ability to quickly cycle through hundreds of presets in a digital setting is a massive value-add. For analog users, physically touching an instrument is the source of all creativity and happy accidents. It’s a toss-up between digital and analog here, depending on the producer’s workflow preference.

4) Organization

Winner: Digital

From maintaining organized presets and channel strip settings to having your whole studio on your laptop, you’ll certainly be more organized when working with digital synths. Analog audio is messy, between the difficulties in saving sounds, having loads of cables and adapters to deal with, and the physical maintenance they need once in a while.

5) Sound Quality

Winner: Analog (usually, depending on genre)

I’m getting into this more below, but in general, I think analog sounds better. Only rarely do we feel the need to layer analog sounds because of the depth and richness they offer. That said, digital audio is better for certain genres, such as many styles of bass music.

6) Price

Winner: Tie

The conventional wisdom on this question is that digital synths are less expensive than analog ones. While it is true that VST synths almost always cost less than their analog counterparts, there is almost no resale value for VSTs. Analog synths, however, usually hold their value or even appreciate over time. If you spent $3,000 on VSTs five years ago, you would struggle to get much of your money back today. If you spent that much on analog synths five years ago, you’d easily get your money back, if not make a profit.

The Best Analog Emulation Synths

When it comes to the analog vs digital debate, the good news is that there is a middle ground! There are plenty of “Analog Emulation” VSTs on the market that are designed to package analog flavor into user-friendly digital synths. These are my three personal favorite analog emulation VSTs and libraries:

1. U-HE Diva 

Diva is the best analog emulation VST on the market. Period. It sounds amazing and is extremely versatile. It perfectly allows you to not only recreate classic synths — like the Roland Juno 60 or the Korg MS-20 — but it also allows you to create your own synths by combining the oscillators and filters of different hardware emulations. If you are shopping for an analog emulation VST, Diva is the best choice.

2. Arturia V Collection

Next is the Arturia V Collection, a bundle of over 20 VSTs that each model a classic piece of analog gear. Arturia created these synths — like the Yamaha CS-80 and the Moog Minimoog — to be as close to the original hardware synths as possible. Looking for faithful recreations of hardware synths? The V Collection is your answer.

3. Knif Audio Knifonium

The Knifonium is a mystical synth. When it was first created and released a few years ago, Knif Audio only made 12 units. Literally. There were only 12 of these synthesizers in the world, and they garnered a legendary reputation for being the warmest and juiciest synth ever created. Knif Audio more recently created a plugin version of the Knifonium. While the palette of sounds isn’t as diverse as Diva or the V Collection, I think the Knifonium behaves more like a real hardware synthesizer than any other VST.




"I'd buy a book full of tips like these."
- Some dude on Reddit





"I'd buy a book full of tips like these."
- Some dude on Reddit

Head-To-Head Quiz: Can you tell the difference between digital and analog?

Can you tell the difference between analog and digital audio? I have 15 quiz questions below to test your knowledge, with three sounds each from basses, leads, pads, noise/FX, and drums.

In terms of the sound design of the synth patches, the analog and digital synth patches are identical in each, and the volume of each audio file is the same. The only difference is that one came from a digital synth, and the other came from an analog one.

How many can you correctly identify? (see answers at the bottom of the article)


1. Triangle Sub Bass

Triangle Sub #1
Triangle Sub #2

2. Rufus Du Sol Style Horn Bass

Rufus Du Sol Bass #1
Rufus Du Sol Bass #2

3. Resonant Square Deep House Bass

Deep House Bass #1
Deep House Bass #2


1. Simple Distorted Saw Lead

Distorted Lead #1
Distorted Lead #2

2. Pluck Lead 1

Pluck Lead #1
Pluck Lead #2

3. 80s Lead

80s Lead #1
80s Lead #2


1. Simple Saw-Square Pad

Simple Saw-Square Pad #1
Simple Saw-Square Pad #2

2. Chorus Pad

Chorus Pad #1
Chorus Pad #2

3. Saw Stab

Saw Stab #1
Saw Stab #2


1. Chorus Noise Riser

Chorus Noise Riser #1
Chorus Noise Riser #2

2. Noise Stab

Noise Stab #1
Noise Stab #2

3. Pitched Riser

Pitched Riser #1
Pitched Riser #2


1. Noisey Hi Hats

Noisey Hi Hats #1
Noisey Hi Hats #2

2. 808 Boom

808 Boom #1
808 Boom #2

3. 909 Snare

909 Snare #1
909 Snare #2

Final Thoughts

Between the different workflows, sound design possibilities, and price points, I encourage you to try to test out if analog or digital better suits your production style. If you’d never tried using analog synths before, head over to your local music store to try out some demo gear. I know many producers who have unlocked new creative horizons by switching from one to the other — and I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened for you too.

Quiz Answers:

Triangle Sub Bass: 1. Analog 2. Digital

Rufus Du Sol Style Horn Bass: 1. Analog 2. Digital

Resonant Square Deep House Bass: 1. Digital 2. Analog

Simple Distorted Saw Lead: 1. Analog 2. Digital

Pluck Lead 1: 1. Digital 2. Analog

80s Lead: 1. Analog 2. Digital

Simple Saw-Square Pad: 1. Digital 2. Analog

Chorus Pad: 1. Digital 2. Analog

Saw Stab: 1. Digital 2. Analog

Chorus Noise Riser: 1. Analog 2. Digital

Noise Stab: 1. Digital 2. Analog

Pitched Riser: 1. Analog 2. Digital

Noisey Hi Hats: 1. Analog 2. Digital

808 Boom: 1. Analog 2. Digital

909 Snare: 1. Digital 2. Analog




A bit about me in case you're new here: my music has been streamed over 52+ million times.

I've done official remixes for artists like Beyonce, Tove Lo, and Nick Jonas, signed record deals with Universal, Island, and Sony, and worked with brands like Target, Samsung, and Equinox. I've even DJed some of the world's biggest stages, like Electric Daisy Carnival, Terminal 5, Fonda Theater, and Echostage.

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