only a vinyl song

I’ve never been persuaded by arguments about vinyl’s alleged superiority as a sound-reproducing medium. Mostly, it seems, such arguments rest on very subjective descriptors, or on pseudo-scientific arguments concerning digital sampling (that, against all evidence I’ve ever seen, ears can too hear down to the intercalary nooks and crannies). Even that isn’t really that good an argument: revise the medium to a higher sampling rate and resolution. (The argument is usually against not just CDs as such but digital recording generally.) Even if vinyl is, ideally, a superior medium, that superiority ends up being extremely elitist…as in order for that superiority to be audible, one needs utterly pristine vinyl and extraordinarily expensive cartridges, turntables, amplification systems, etc. And of course, vinyl gets worn: it’s still prone to scratching, skipping, etc. I just listened to (admittedly, a digital recording of) a vinyl record – and I remembered a lot of things about vinyl I don’t like: even though the record was relatively clean, there was a lot of shearing-off of sibilants, occasional blips introduced either by microscopic flaws in the vinyl or something else (defects I do not hear in the digital realm), etc. (Given that it was a digital recording of vinyl, I will discount that I did not hear – but never did listening to actual vinyl anyway – supposed warmth, depth of stereo imaging, and so on).

And don’t get me started on 45s: pressed off-center, prone to decay if I so much as breathe wrong near them, etc.

Still, none of that is to deny that some CDs are or were crappily mastered, failing to take account of the RIAA rolloff for vinyl, etc. But CDs I bought 20 years ago sound exactly as good as they did when I bought them; I could never say the same for LPs, unless I’d treated them like the holy grail or never played them.

Here’s an A/B test I’d like to see the results of: instead of a CD and an LP of the same recording (which might merely reveal a preference for the sonic characteristics of vinyl – I’d never deny that vinyl has no characteristics…), let’s A/B an LP and a digital recording of the very same physical LP. If there are indeed limitations of the digital recording or reproduction medium (the notion that sampling inevitably degrades what we can hear), then that, and only that, would be revealed in such a test. I also think vinyl lovers are cued in to which medium they’re hearing by vinyl noise, the medium’s imperfections ironically leading the listener to hear it as superior. I’m sure attempts are made to minimize such obvious cues…but they do, of course, permeate the medium, even on a pristine LP there will still be some surface noise, etc.

I read a review recently (can’t track it down – it was linked from someone else’s Facebook page) of someone experiencing some crazed audiophile’s $100,000 turntable. What was amusing to me was that at the very same time this listener was awed by the spaciousness and clarity of what he was hearing (for a hundred grand I’d damned well hope he’d be awed), he also noted, in passing, the typical flaws of vinyl: pops, cracks, etc. – which for him were trivial distractions on the way to the big warm audio nirvana of this absurdly expensive sound reproduction system. My guess is that my reaction would be: how insane do you have to be to spend that much only to still have to hear pops and crackles when you can not hear any of that for a thousandth the price…and can, of course, get even better CD sound with high-end equipment?

I wonder, though: people are so used to hearing flattened-out MP3s, and recordings ultracompressed and completely saturated in amplitude, who’s going to be an audience for even moderately audiophilic recording equipment? Part of the problem here is that we assume “good sound” is something objective – and I’m not so sure. I mean, yeah: you compress everything all to hell, you’re losing a lot of detail…but where did that “detail” actually live? It’s not as if we’re talking about a naturally occurring acoustic phenomenon, a lone guitar string vibrating on an abandoned beach: the sound is processed (and colored, by whatever equipment is in use) from its very beginnings and at every step of the way. At what point do we say the sound is being “distorted,” or faultily reproduced, versus someone arguing that whatever distortion might exist is exactly the point? I mean whichever old blues guy first took a switchblade to his guitar amp’s speaker cone was surely accused of “ruining” the tone of his electric guitar. Pretty obviously, as the resulting distortion of sound was once fashionable (and became reproduced by less destructive, more controlled methods), the current “brick” sonic profile of most contemporary recordings is obviously fashionable – and when it’s not there, when there’s all kinds of unpleasant, distracting dynamic range, to the people used to that fashion, those records sound distorted or weird.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “only a vinyl song

  1. Gil

    While the current vinyl resurgence is a blessing to me by keeping my company operating, there is indeed a certain..superiority complex prevalent among vinyl lovers to the degree that not only should the record itself be perfect, but they will bitch and whine about the smallest ding in the jacket! This product does not travel well and it’s a bit of a nightmare for me who gets it from both ends as a receiving manager and the customer service guy. Besides that, I’m afraid my ears just aren’t good enough to tell a difference between the 2 formats (records and CDs) other than the pops and skips that can turn up on records.

  2. nooks and crannies

    Digital recording doesn’t actually have nooks and crannies–it’s a discrete transform, not an approximation, and the continuous signal is restored on playback. People are used to the pixel analogy, but thanks to the wave nature of sound, digital recording doesn’t work like that. Of course, bit depth and jitter cause some inaccuracy, but it’s far less than that of vinyl (which has literal nooks and crannies).

    The confounding issue is that CDs are often mastered for maximum volume rather than for sound quality, using techniques unavailable in the analog domain. So for any given release, the vinyl may sound better, simply because it hasn’t been mangled for car/radio consumption. But a well-made CD will always be more accurate than an LP.

  3. Thanks, Tim. I meant “nooks and crannies” metaphorically – but it’s good to hear from a Person Who Actually Knows What He’s Talking About in the realm of digital recording, since my info is all stuff I remembered reading some time in the past.

  4. Rafter242

    Hey, I’m old school. I love the smell of old books, twelve inch records and classic era movies. I think jeans and a white t-shirt constitute getting dressed to go out. (all James Dean style like)

    So, when cds came along, I was skeptical and took a stand on the side of analog. Not only were the early cds lacking in the full sound of albums at the time, but as an adolescent, the fiscal impact of replacing my music collection was out of the question. (It still is!) I’m also very organized and anal and the thought of having my music strewn across multiple formats gives me the chills. Not to mention the multiple storage, cataloging and displays of said collection.

    One day, electric cars (or somesuch) will be the defacto standard and people will still be comparing them to old internal combustion models based on the data we have now. We have been putting up with the very slow evolution of our current vehicles for over 100 years. To expect electric vehicles to come out of the gate and surpass our current benchmarks would just be silly. Give them time, my friends. Support the new player. This time, it is not just a money grab by the car ‘labels’ to get you to upgrade/repurchase your collection of vehicles.

    Likewise digital recording has evolved. People have since lost their tinny, harsh and sterile arguments so the current fave is how digital music is comprised of snapshots or packets of information. Music, when digitized, is chopped into little pieces (like 44,100 bits a second) and then recombined during playback and thus is not the smooth, full, rich analog sound.

    They are forgetting the biggest piece of this puzzle! How we actually hear that sound. We humans are electrical machines. Our entire bodies are run electrically, our heart, our nervous system, all our muscles and organs, even that lump in our heads. When a wave (vibration) reaches the ‘hairs’ or cilia of the tectorial membrane in the inner ear they vibrate and send a discrete electrical signal (or bit or packet) along a nerve fiber (wire) to the cerbral cortex (lump or cd player) which then reassembles (or translates) the signals back into the sound you are “hearing”. (That was a very simplified version, but feel free to go look it up yourself.) I don’t know what the sampling rate in your head is exactly, but it is the SAME process. I don’t care how analog you think the source is, live music per se, your brain is still converting it to digital.

    The same applies for your vision. Rods and cones behind your retina are triggered by, get this, only red, green and blue light! That’s right folks, our eyes are the modern equivalent of RGB monitors. (OK, fairly updated models) The multitude of colors we think we see are created in our heads as the brain recombines the myraid of electrical signals. I could on about filmstrips and frame rates etc, but I will spare you the details. I just want the analog nerds to put a cork in it.

    Oh yeah, the new Metallica release sounds severely crappy even on vinyl. (same mastering)

  5. B

    I know i’ve said all this before, but I do prefer the sound of vinyl even though I also really like CDs and I try not to be a snob about it. None of the arguments pro and con have ever been entirely satisfying, though i’ve tried to “diagnose” my experiences in order to explain it.
    I’ve done the “burn the vinyl” test and it’s interesting — it’s very similar to the “tape versus computer in the studio” experience, which i’ve also done. The big difference, to my ears, is primarily in how the low end behaves and the perception of “spacial relationships”, but I can’t explain why. The same vinyl source is not the same on CD-R as it was “live” in the same way that the same recording chain was not the same to a computer as it was to tape (although i’m a big fan of combining the two.)
    However, the limitations of the analog mediums do bother me — all the complaints about vinyl are things I can relate to. I also don’t have audiophile equipment — my experiences with vinyl hold true even on noisy beat-up records or crappy 45s on a portable player, so I know it’s not about “clarity” or anything like that.
    _Something_ is different for me, but I guess I may never know exactly why that is. Nothing in technical explanations can explain to me why I hear depth, relationships between instruments and low-end shape more realistically in analog mediums than digital ones, but there it is!

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