Andrew Rondeau


My Love-Hate Relationship with Vinyl

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Why We Should Keep Making Vinyl

Before I start, I would like to refer the reader to a document on mastering vinyl records at the following URL:  http://www.urpressing.com/tips.html.  I make comments about records that can be understood by reading the document.

I have a love-hate relationship with vinyl.  Sometimes I marvel at how real the 50-year-old technology sounds compared to modern CDs and MP3s, and other times I curse the dust that pulls my attention away from the music.  Ever since the early 80s when CDs were a novelty for the rich; golden-eared audiophiles, nostalgic crudgemugeons, and naive music fans alike have preached about the realistic nature of the vinyl record compared to digital audio.  In this writing, argue that it’s time to accept, in terms of sonic quality, that modern digital technology has surpassed all real and imagined advantages of the vinyl record, and to provide an argument as to why we should keep the antiquated practice of publishing treasured modern recordings on vinyl.

The truth is that a well-mastered vinyl record has the potential to sound better then a CD, due to the limitations of digital audio in the 80s.  When used with a good needle, records have a slightly higher frequency range, about 25 kHz, then audio CD, which is locked at about 21 kHz, no matter how expensive the player is.  (We can thank our good friend Mr. Nyquist for this.)  While I do not know of any recordings that have notes anywhere near such high frequencies, overtones and harmonics in that range lend to the “realism” and “wow-ness” that us golden-ears are addicted to.

Remember how I just said that a well-mastered record has the potential to sound better then a CD?  (This is where you should go skim the above-linked document if you don’t believe me.)  Well, die-hard vinyl fans never seem to remember the technical limitations of this confused and misunderstood format.  On many of my disks I’ve noticed two main annoying characteristics that leave me wishing I spent the money for the CD.  S’es tend to get distorted, and there is a serious lacking of the high-end in the inner groves.  Unfortunately, no amount of studio trickery can fix this phenomenon, except for the possible re-ordering of program material.  CDs may not sound as good as the outer-part of a record, but at least they are consistent in their sound quality from beginning to end!

One of the biggest selling factors of CD, at least to the cotton-eared-masses, is that they always sound good.  Records scratch easily, and unlike CD, where there’s extra information stored to help the CD player recover from minor scratches, you’re always going to hear it with a record, for the rest of its life.  Don’t get me started on dust!  I just can’t seem to get it off of many of my used records, but I can wipe it off of my CDs with my T-shirt.

Oh yeah, another reason why CDs are so popular is their portability.  You can’t play records in the car!  There were some feeble attempts in the 60s, but they only supported proprietary formats and 45s.  Apparently they had to put so much pressure on the needle to keep it from falling out of the groove that it would wear the disk out prematurely.  Personally, I’m very happy ripping my favorite CDs and keeping a bundle of high bit rate MP3-CDs in my car.

I won’t get into how the curved movement of the arm causes minute timing and pitch distortions; and causes the needle to not be at the perfect 0-degree angle to the groove.  My turntable has a linear tone-arm.  So there!

I’ll admit that I’ve heard many records that blow their CD versions away.  Early Green Day on Lookout Records is one shining example.  Whatever ADAC they used to master their CDs simply did not pick up any bass.  While theory states that digital audio should always have better bass, the records provide the full sound that their style calls for.  This phenomenon is not unique and caused many metal fans to continue to use their phonographs for years after CD came along, and rightfully so.  I wouldn’t want to listen to Black Sabbath or Metallica without base; it’s a sin!

Likewise, I once listened to a well-produced pressing of Ride the Lightning by Metallica on record.  The cymbals sounded so real and clear, unlike anything I had heard before on CD.  With some records just beating the pants off of their CD counterparts, even I want to hold onto them until they are released in a high-fi format such as DVD-Audio or SACD.

The mention of DVD-Audio and SACD brings me to my first main goal of this document, which is to declare records officially obsolete and sonically surpassed by modern technology.  I’ve heard so many different naive audiophiles make the mistaken claim that “Digital will never surpass vinyl because it records everything between the samples; it’s a perfect analogue.”  Don’t forget that vinyl is limited by the laws of physics and mechanics, just like everything else.  The audiophiles are wrong in three ways, as listed below:

1.      Vinyl does a decent job at carrying two channels with proper mixing, but as the format war in the 1970s over quadraphonic audio on LP demonstrated, it doesn’t carry much more.  Many people, including myself, find that music in surround is much more natural and real then traditional stereo.  Digital, on the other hand, can discretely carry as many channels as possible.  (I’ve heard all the arguments against surround-sound and will only offer one counter-argument.  Listen to a good concert, and try to recreate the experience with traditional stereo.  You can’t.)

2.      During a school project investigating ski-base wear, I learned that all material surfaces, no matter how smooth, are rough and random at some scale.  This point is where vinyl, no matter how good of a manufacturing process is used, cannot hold a high frequency or soft note.  I do not know if anyone has performed any research into determining where this point is on vinyl.  How can vinyl record “everything between the samples” if even it has a limited resolution?

3.      The size and shape of the cutting lathe causes sounds to be clipped off, although they may conceivably be written onto a record,  Even if additional sound “between the samples” makes it onto the record, it’s too small to be picked up by the needle and will never make it out of the speakers.

DVD-Audio and SACD have a sampling rate that is so high that it surpasses even the most sensitive of records and needles.  Face it, a system that can reproduce a tone at 48kh without any special equipment will beat any system limited to 25 khz in any double-blind test.  As the demand for surround grows, I strongly doubt that records will be able to keep up, even if paired with modern matrixing techniques.

I think the final nail in the coffin for vinyl should be the mixing limitations that it imposes on artists.  Telling an artist to pick certain pans, phases, and levels because “it sounds better on vinyl” is just limiting creativity.  Nostalgia aside, let’s move on, folks!

Yet, I’m still drawn to vinyl.  I occasionally opt to buy the record instead of the CD for new recordings.  How can this be?  I think the answer lies in the reason why vinyl is the only audio format that is called a record.  (Pun intended.)  What is the best format for us to preserve our audio records, for generations and generations to come?  How are we going to ensure that archeologists thousands of years into the future will hears the music of the 20th and 21st centuries?

The answer is audio records.  Not CDs, not tape, nor DVD-Audio, SACD, hard drives, or any other high-fidelity format that we can dream of.  A record is the best medium for leaving a record (pun) of sound, for the following reasons.  Many master analogue tapes are rendered unusable after 20 years.  It’s tradition to bake tapes in a feeble attempt to get the sound off of them.  Even if the tape does survive, they’ll probably demagnetize by the time archeologists get to them.

I wonder how long it’ll take a future archeologist to find and read the pits on a CD, let alone a DVD-Audio disk or SACD.  It’ll probably take a few years to understand the coding system used on CDs, and even more to decrypt a DVD-Audio disk.  Who knows how hard it’ll be to understand SACD.

The reason why vinyl is so important is that it’s easy to figure out how to play.  A future archeologist will stick the disk under the microscope and see the wiggles in the grooves.  He’ll realize that he’s looking at sound rather quickly.  The archeologist might not play it at first with the correct equalization levels or at the correct speed, but at least he’ll hear something.

Thus, in conclusion, vinyl is dead for both consumers and audiophiles alike.  Digital technology has finally surpassed records on all fronts, including audio quality.  It’s important that we keep producing our most beloved recordings on record so that future archeologists will be able to easily play them back and understand 20th and 21st century music.


Addendum

This article stayed on my laptop for about a month after I wrote the first draft.  During this time, I would occasionally think about how the LP survived as an active consumer audio reproduction mechanism for about fifty years.  What strikes me the most about vinyl is that it is much more flexible then audio CD.  Red Book CD is locked into 2-channel stereo at 16 bits per sample, 44,100 times per second.  There have been some attempts to get around this, but they all have various levels of compatibility and do not work with existing CD players.

What options are there to extend the CD format?  The ‘net has rumors about a quadraphonic CD demonstration in the 1980s, but the format had half the playing time and did not work in a typical CD player.  There’s some additional data space that can be used during playback, which I believe is used by (some hifi CD format,) but it never caught on.  CDs encoded with DTS are available, but they will not play in non DTS equipment.  One could create a player with large buffers that uses data beyond the playback tracks to enhance resolution, but such a player would be too complex for mass marketing and suffer from playback time reduction.

Vinyl, on the other hand, is quite flexible.  It can be adapted to compete with modern digital formats, although with compromises.  Need a better dynamic range?  Leave more space between the grooves and record louder.  Need a better frequency response in the center?  Spin at 45 RPM.  All of the techniques used to make records sound better will work with any existing player, but suffer from shortened playback.

These “drawbacks” don’t seem to hurt a blossoming vinyl segment:  DJs, both at raves and clubs.  Shortened playback is not a problem for them, because they usually only buy a record for a 5-minute song and a few remixes.  What’s even more interesting is that DJs aren’t drawn to vinyl because of audio quality; they pick the format because of the user interface!

For club DJs, where the goal is to have a continuous and seamless set of music for the length of the performance, “play,” “pause,” and “stop,” do not give them enough control over their playback medium.  DJs need to be able to start playback at precise instants so that the beat between two songs matches perfectly during transitions.  They also like to read records so that they can judge them for the loudness.  Current digital technologies simply do not provide DJs with a good replacement for such an interface.  Maybe they will at a later date, or maybe, in the future, club-goers will just wonder what those big, black, shiny things are.