Signals in the real world are analog: light, sound, you name it. So, real-world signals must be converted into digital, using a circuit called ADC (Analog-to-Digital Converter), before they can be manipulated by digital equipment. In this tutorial we will give an in-depth explanation about analog-to-digital conversion yet keeping a very easy to follow language.

When you scan a picture with a scanner what the scanner is doing is an analog-to-digital conversion: it is taking the analog information provided by the picture (light) and converting into digital.

When you record your voice or use a VoIP solution on your computer, you are using an analog-to-digital converter to convert your voice, which is analog, into digital information.

Digital information isn’t only restricted to computers. When you talk on the phone, for example, your voice is converted into digital (at the central office switch, if you use an analog line, or at you home, if you use a digital line like ISDN or DSL), since your voice is analog and the communication between the phone switches is done digitally.

When an audio CD is recorded at a studio, once again analog-to-digital is taking place, converting sounds into digital numbers that will be stored on the disc.

Whenever we need the analog signal back, the opposite conversion – digital-to-analog, which is done by a circuit called DAC, Digital-to-Analog Converter – is needed. When you play an audio CD, what the CD player is doing is reading digital information stored on the disc and converting it back to analog so you can hear the music. When you are talking on the phone, a digital-to-analog conversion is also taking place (at the central office switch, if you use an analog line, or at you home, if you use a digital line like ISDN or DSL), so you can hear what the other party is saying.

But, why digital? There are some basic reasons to use digital signals instead of analog, noise being the number one.

Since analog signals can assume any value, noise is interpreted as being part of the original signal. For example, when you listen to a LP record, you hear noise because the needle is analog and thus don’t know the difference from the music originally recorded from the noise inserted by dust or cracks.

Digital systems, on the other hand, can only understand two numbers, zero and one. Anything different from this is discarded. That’s why you won’t hear any unwanted noise when listening to an audio CD, even if you played it thousands of times before (actually depending on your sound system you can hear some noise when playing audio CDs, but this noise, called white noise, isn’t produced by the CD media, but by the CD player, amplifier or cables used, and is introduced in the audio path after the digital data found on the CD was already converted back to analog – as you see, the problem lies in the analog part).

Another advantage of digital system against analog is the data compression capability. Since the digital counterpart of an analog signal is just a bunch of numbers, these numbers can be compressed, just like you would compress a Word file using WinZip to shrink down the file size, for example. The compression can be done to save storage space or bandwidth. On all the examples given so far no compression is used. We will talk again about it when discussing surround sound.


Gabriel Torres is a Brazilian best-selling ICT expert, with 24 books published. He started his online career in 1996, when he launched Clube do Hardware, which is one of the oldest and largest websites about technology in Brazil. He created Hardware Secrets in 1999 to expand his knowledge outside his home country.