There are some differences in the behaviour of analog and digital systems when high level signals are present, where there is the possibility that such signals could push the system into overload. With high level signals, analog magnetic tape approaches saturation, and high frequency response drops in proportion to low frequency response. While undesirable, the audible effect of this can be reasonably unobjectionable (Elsea 1996). In contrast, digital PCM recorders show non-benign behaviour in overload (Dunn 2003:65); samples that exceed the peak quantization level are simply truncated, clipping the waveform squarely, which introduces distortion in the form of large quantities of higher-frequency harmonics. The 'softness' of analog tape clipping allows a usable dynamic range that can exceed that of some PCM digital recorders. (PCM, or pulse code modulation, is the coding scheme used in Compact Disc, DAT, PC sound cards, and many studio recording systems.)
In principle, PCM digital systems have the lowest level of nonlinear distortion at full signal amplitude. The opposite is usually true of analog systems, where distortion tends to increase at high signal levels. A study by Manson (1980) considered the requirements of a digital audio system for high quality broadcasting. It concluded that a 16 bit system would be sufficient, but noted the small reserve the system provided in ordinary operating conditions. For this reason, it was suggested that a fast-acting signal limiter or 'soft clipper' be used to prevent the system from becoming overloaded (Manson 1980:8).
With many recordings, high level distortions at signal peaks may be audibly masked by the original signal, thus large amounts of distortion may be acceptable at peak signal levels. The difference between analog and digital systems is the form of high-level signal error. Some early analog-to-digital converters displayed non-benign behaviour when in overload, where the overloading signals were 'wrapped' from positive to negative full-scale. Modern converter designs based on sigma-delta modulation may become unstable in overload conditions. It is usually a design goal of digital systems to limit high-level signals to prevent overload (Dunn 2003:65). To prevent overload, a modern digital system may compress input signals so that digital full-scale cannot be reached (Jones et al. 2003:4).
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