I’ve taken a liking to vinyl records again. They’ve always had a spot in my love of music, but it really wasn’t until recently I got back in to buying albums on wax. (Wax is a slang term for vinyl records, for the uninitiated)
But there’s a lot of myths and half truths regarding vinyl vs. CD, but mostly analog vs. digital on both sides that I think needs to be addressed.
For full disclosure, I will say when it comes to the battle between the 2 formats I’m on the side of analog/vinyl. Mostly my bias is purely based on aesthetics. When I get an album on vinyl, I like getting the whole package. The large album album artworks, the look of the vinyl record itself (colored vinyl, 180/200 gram weights, picture discs…etc.,) sometimes bonuses like additional artwork, linear notes, lyric sheets. posters, and just the feel of having something more loving than just a brittle jewel case with a puny little booklet. I do end up getting a digital copy (some times included) of the album for on the go listening. I do enjoy the more dynamic and the “warmth” of the sound, and the feeling of accomplishment of getting a great sound out of a almost obsolete format.
However, with that said, there’s a lot of bunk in the debate I feel needs to be addressed.
Digital proponents have said that analog, vinyl particularly, does not sound good. It’s crackly and poppy, low quality, comes with ‘hiss’, and very inconvenient.
Crackles and pops come when the vinyl disc is dirty or has sustained damage by mishandling. If good care and proper cleaning has been applied to the record, you an get a beautiful sound out of them, very compatible, and sometimes better than the digital copy (I’ll explain why later.) I do have some old beat up records in my collection I still play, but the newer ones I have bought are nearly pristine in sound because I make sure not to play them when dirty and take good care of them. If I’m tired or just feel like I don’t want to go though the motions, I’ll play my digital copy instead.
Hiss is always a factor in analog. Vinyl to a less degree if the record has been well taken care of. Tape hiss on reel to reel is there and present, but technologies have eliminated that issue altogether.
As far as inconvenient, they got us there. To put on a record, I have to make sure the table is clean, the needle is clean, and the vinyl itself is also clean, having to flip it over once in the middle and/or put on disc two and repeat the process to hear the second half of the album. Many albums have 2 discs, so having to mess with it 4 times to hear the whole thing can be a bit much. Like I’ve said earlier, there’s a bit of fun in that as well if all goes well. Opposed to CD or MP3, just plug and play. While this is great because you don’t have to think about it, it can also be it’s downfall. When I take the time to play a vinyl, I’m more attentive to what I’m listening to because I worked to get it that way, where as CD/MP3 there was no thought applied and thus can be turned into background ambiance with less worry. However, that can be simply overcome by having a love for the music and forcing yourself to be more attentive. Also CDs can have distorted or skipping playback if the CD is dirty or scratched, but you already knew that.
Here is where we get into dangerous waters. By combating digital fan’s perceptions of analog is no big deal, combating analog fan’s perceptions can be an uphill battle. Analog proponents are vicious and unforgiving. They will tear you apart an leave you for dead if you so much question their grigris. However, their positions are that digital is not up for the task as far as true quality of sound, the warmth of the sound is directly due to the “real” sound being recorded instead of 1’s and 0’s, digital lacks dynamic sound, and that digital is killing music though piracy.
Now this is where I get hate mail. A digital copy’s quality is not any worse than an analog copy. Let me repeat that:
VINYL QUALITY ISN’T ANY BETTER THAN CD.
Analog proponents will say a sound wave being compressed into a digital format will lose fidelity. A wave form is smooth and digital makes a computer representation that is lossy. As shown, the sound wave (red line) and the digital representation (grey blocky thing) isn’t the true wave form. While this is true, human ears are incapable of differentiating difference between the two. It’s kind of like having a printer that can print 20 million different colors when the eye can only distinguish only 10 million. It’s simply irrelevant. There has been double blind tests of this and it’s pretty conclusive that no one can differentiate the two.¹
An mp3 will sound worse than a vinyl copy, even even a CD because of the format’s “compression.” For a lossless CD quality digital file on an average song, the file size is about 30-40 megs. Studio quality can be even bigger. An MP3 “compresses” the sound file into a 3-4 meg file. With that comes audio quality loss.
When it comes to “dynamic” sound, the analog people win out. Music, particularly in the rock based genres, have been having a “loudness war” in the studios. Major studios have been putting an emphasis on loud mastering for digital media. 3 albums that have been panned for having loud and over compressed (we’re talking about audio dynamic compression now, not sound file compression like MP3s) were Metallica’s Death Magnetic, Black Sabbath’s 13, and the Remastered edition of The Offspring’s Smash. Particularly Death Magnetic was focused on in this issue because they issued 2 versions of some tracks for the CD and one for the Guitar Hero franchise which didn’t have the loud compression. When this happens, it gives a more distorted, and less realistic sound.
Vinyl seemed to be immune to this practice, even in remastered editions because vinyl has to be mastered differently than digital versions so they’re locked into a method that gives more dynamic sound.
However the “warmth” that comes from vinyl is just that; it’s an artifact of vinyl. I recently get a copy of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic on wax that was digitally remastered. One of the things I was really hoping to see is if the myth of analog warmth was a result of real sound or just an artifact of vinyl. After listening I can say the warmth is all there even though it’s a digital master on a vinyl album. I’d of been happy either way because I do like this album and I’ve only ever heard it on CD/MP3.
Now we all know that the piracy argument is bullshit and I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it because it’s way dumber of a fight than the analog v. digital debate. The internet has done nothing but propagate music to people who would of never heard about it before. People are still making music and making money from it even more than ever before.
No matter what, people will still take sides for irrational reasons. People will still propagate myths on both sides, and people will be unwavering in their decisions. If you like vinyl, fantastic! If you think CDs are better, great! Do what makes you happy. After all, that’s why you listen to music in the first place.