People say some bloody silly things about vinyl.
Take this guy, who taught his 13-year-old son the “sheer joy of listening to vinyl” via the medium of Cameron Crowe’s bullshit rose-tinted rock-mythology nostalgia-fest, Almost Famous.
The particular scene Nostalgia Dad bangs on about – “when the young aspiring music journalist has his mind set free by his older sister, who leaves him her LP collection under his bed when she leaves home” – isn’t actually about vinyl; it’s about music, and adolescence, and family, and missing someone, and a million other things. The fact that the music is on vinyl is a chronological accident because the film is set in the 70s, and is about as important to the emotional impact as the fact that the bedspread is made of polyester.
I could get angry and swear at Nostalgia Dad – for describing Miles Davis and Art Blakey as “cats”; for teaching his son that his father’s adolescent experiences are more valid than going out and forming his own; for making his son listen to Dire Straits and Dark Side Of The Moon; for confusing mythology and nonsense with significance and lived reality – but I’ve already written a ranty, opinion-spouting thinkpiece about the whole mythology side of the vinyl-vs-CD debate, so instead I’m going to gather some actual evidence and make a reasoned argument with supporting quotes from people who know far more about vinyl and CD as formats than I do. Because you can quote Henry Rollins waxing nonsense about “the sublime state of solitude”, or you can quote the guy from Pere Ubu stating that vinyl distortion is “NOT what we wanted” and link to him explaining exactly why.
Because, frankly, there have been a raft of blog posts, puff pieces and shitty listicles this year telling me how great vinyl is, and none of them have contained any evidence whatsoever beyond borderline solipsistic pontification. “Vinyl’s great! It’s really warm! You can hold it! The artwork’s really big! You can skin up on it!” This is post-blog writing at it’s worst, the kind of navel-gazing that we’re in increasing danger of mistaking for journalism (and increasingly replacing journalism with), where all you need is an opinion and a feeling and a few people to click ‘like’ or ‘share’ to give that opinion instant validation, even if it’s based on nothing at all.
Take that Buzzfeed piece (sorry Matt; I know it’s your job and fully understand why pieces like this have to live alongside the proper stuff); half the things it posits as being great about vinyl are dreadful things that I hate (surface noise; crate-digging; super-specific genre names in independent record shops that act as obfuscating gatekeepers rather than navigation aids), and the other half are completely incidental and can be ‘enjoyed’ with CDs (amazing set of speakers; sorting things alphabetically; supporting local independent shops; meeting someone cute while browsing). Neither Nostalgia Dad nor Fetish Hipster substantiates any of their proclamations with evidence, research, or fact; they just make vague claims and allusions and presuppose that the weight of rock mythology will carry them aloft. Well I hate rock mythology and I pretty much always have.
A few months ago I pitched a feature idea to NME about the relative merits of vinyl and CD, with specific focus on the negative side-effects that the current resurgence in vinyl sales is having. Dan Stubbs, NME’s news editor, said yes, and commissioned 600 words from me on the subject, which got published a couple of months ago. Sadly, Dan and NME have style and deadlines and readership and publishers to think of, and 600 words weren’t really sufficient to explore this massive, divisive, and hearsay-riddled topic, and I had many, many thoughts, quotes, and pieces of evidence left over, so I’m going to use them here.
One of the main thrusts of my NME piece was essentially that demand for vinyl is outstripping supply, vinyl pressing plants being unable to press vinyl as quickly as they used to in the past, because no new vinyl pressing machines have been manufactured since 1981; so the industry is relying on old machines. Poor technology + increased demand = falling quality. Vinyl gets used as a marketing hook, and has become a signifier of a premium product, promising you more than CD; the elusive experience that so few people seem to be able to qualify or quantify properly. It’s priced, packaged, and sold correspondingly, but it’s often not actually fit for the purpose it’s meant to be for; at least not as fit as it ought to be for the premium. Remember that the redemptive obverse of a record is to play music, not to look good on a shelf.
So here’s Steve Albini on the merits and demerits of clear, black, and coloured vinyl at The Quietus; scroll down to the penultimate answer, which starts with: “There’s a theoretical point there, which is that polyvinyl chloride is colourless, so if you’re adding something to it to colour it, then you’re changing the chemistry of it slightly, and that has potential to make it sound not as good by having inclusions.” The conclusion? New coloured vinyl probably sounds like crap most of the time, and is a gimmick, a piece of ‘added value’ designed to make you buy a record on one format rather than another (i.e. to buy it at all, rather than download it for free). Records for looking at, rather than listening to.
But Albini’s got no beef with vinyl as a format if it’s done properly, and that’s fair enough. Some people do, though. This is what David Thomas of Pere Ubu has to say about some technical myths regarding vinyl on his website:“The putative ‘warmth’ of vinyl is another one of those mass-hysteria hoaxes that the human race is prone to. ‘Vinyl warmth’ is not some semi-mystical, undefinable phenomenon. There is actually a technical term that audio engineers have for what you are hearing – it is called distortion. The bottom end is distorting. Now, distortion is a valuable audio tool, and an Ubu favorite, but only when the distortion is distortion we choose. You may like the phenomenon but it is NOT what we wanted and it is NOT what we heard in the studio.”
Which seems to contradict what some people claim regarding vinyl being closer in sound to the master tape than CD is. David Thomas isn’t the only person to think so; here’s what David Brewis from Field Music said to me via Twitter the other day: “When we’re putting records together, I have to steel myself for the deficiencies inherent to the vinyl pressings, even though I enjoy those same deficiencies in other people’s records – especially when combined with the ‘sit and listen’ element.” So vinyl is deficient, isn’t the sound people hear in the recording studio, and isn’t necessarily how they want you to hear their records, even if it can be enjoyable.
Michael Jones, much-loved ILX poster who works in digital media somewhere, and who co-engineered The Clientele’s lovely debut album, The Violet Hour, and mastered a bunch of Matinee comps for CD, dropped some serious science on ILX a decade ago, regarding the myths and misunderstandings about what CD and vinyl each bring to the table, from relative resolution and sample rates to analogue waveform reproduction and the happy euphonic accidents that David Brewis alluded to. Highlights and key points include (questions Jonesy’s responding to in italics; his answers in quotation marks; my emphasis in bold):
are you saying that 24/96k can rival the resolution in the grain of good vinyl? (I realise it’s not really comparable and that there are many other factors involved)
“Well, what is the resolution of good vinyl? In information theory terms (resolution = dynamic range x bandwidth), vinyl is miles behind – not even very close to 16/44.1k. It’s a mistake to think that an analogue system is inherently more ‘natural’, or has more detail. Every recording and replay system has its limitations.”
Do circuits exist that can provide a smooth (actually analogue) interpolation between the x levels available in a digital recording? Do good digital players do this?
“*All* digital equipment does this. There are no gaps or stair-steps in the sound – a continuous analogue waveform is reconstructed from the sampled info. The Nyquist theorem states that we only need sample a waveform at at least twice the highest frequency within that waveform to gather a complete record of the data. Now, bandwidth-limiting a musical signal to just above the upper limit of adult human hearing may produce its own set of problems, but we can be sure that the subsequent sampling doesn’t chuck anything *else* away.
“The fixed number of amplitude levels associated with digital means a limit to how small successive changes in the amplitude can be – but with analogue and its greater associated self-noise, the limits are even more restrictive. The noise obscures anything smaller than itself. So there’s *less* resolution in the amplitude domain with analogue despite it being a continuous system.”
Is this one reason that LPs can sound better?
“There are lots of artefacts associated with vinyl replay which don’t completely go away with even the most exotic turntables or pristine pressings. Happily, many of these artefacts are euphonic – phase anomalies magically expanding the stereo image, tonearm resonance warming up the mid-range, HF roll-off giving that silky tone. It’s more of a case of what vinyl adds to reproduction, than what CD omits. Beyond that it’s a matter of preference.”
Why not watch him say some of this stuff in person on Youtube? The ‘closer to the master tape’ fallacy gets mentioned here, too.
You can also read the Hydrogen Audio FAQ he linked me to when I asked him for a quote for the NME piece.
Graham Sutton is my usual go-to record producer and technical guy when I need a quote about dynamic range compression or distortion. Sadly he was out of the country working when I wrote the NME piece, but here’s a quote from an interview I did with him a few months ago which has some serious relevance here: “As an aesthetic, for the sort of music I’m involved in making, I also find I don’t like the sound of tape. I don’t want the medium to sonically alter what I’m hearing, I want a linear response and I don’t like hiss. I think part of why digital gets a bad rap is because engineers early on tried to apply the same tape-based tricks to digital without really using their ears, and things came out excessively bright and hard as a result. There’s also a sentimental attachment in the ‘rock’ world, bordering on elitism, to analogue – the smell of tape and the love of big old dusty machines – that just isn’t there in many other areas of music, for example classical, jazz, EDM, broadcasting, film, where this debate ended a long time ago.”
So love of analogue warmth seems like it might be a rockist hangover, a comfort-blanket for an industry, which, 40 years ago, was forward thinking, and cutting edge, but which is now retrogressive and paranoid and faltering. Looking through the records I’ve bought and enjoyed in 2013, and there’s notably less and less ‘rock’ (and pop and associated genres or whatever) and more and more electronica, jazz, avant-garde, whatever-you-want-to-call it. This has been an increasing trend in my tastes for quite a while now.
If you really wanted, you could visit the Steve Hoffman forums and get involved in some of the ranty exchanges that the vinyl-vs-CD debate regularly inspires over there. Neither side comes out looking particularly good though, and it’s very easy to descend down the audiophilia wormhole, which I’ve got no interest in.
A few years ago I got really into headphones and spent far too long (and far too much money) on Head-Fi, where I noticed that people would describe Sennheiser headphones as being ‘veiled’ in terms of sound; i.e. that the sound signature was dark, obscuring detail a little via a thin layer of distortion or lack of focus. This description is how I hear vinyl, pretty much; as if someone is holding a layer of net curtain between the speakers and my ears, which takes away clarity and space, stops me fully getting a hold on individual sonic details. For me a lot of the magic of recorded sound is how psychedelic and otherworldly and magical it can be, and clarity is a big part of that. Mythology isn’t, and though I like the fact that we have shelves full of CDs and I have to pull them out and put them on one at a time in a CD player, that’s less about ritual and mythology than it is about convenience and concentration and not feeling like a data-entry temp.
Here’s another shitty listicle by Matt, except that this one isn’t shitty, and actually talks some sense, in that it admits that a huge amount of vinyl fandom is about aesthetics and lifestyle and not about sound quality.
So I guess I am saying that CD is better than vinyl, in terms of cold, hard, technical, objectively measurable factors like dynamic range, frequency response, and resolution, but that’s not really the key point here: the main thing is that I prefer it; it suits how and why I listen much better than anything else. Vinyl sounds different, and if you prefer it, that’s fine, just don’t tell me, sans evidence, that it’s “better”. Because it isn’t.
(While we’re at it, let’s not conflate and confuse the terms ‘vinyl’ and ‘record’ anymore: ‘vinyl’ is the format, the medium; ‘record’ is short for ‘recording’, and is the content delivered by the format. My ‘record collection’ is mostly on CD, which is how I like it.)
A few people have asked me why I don’t just listen to MP3s (or any other digital file type). The answer is quite simple: I’d rather browse shelves than databases when choosing what record to listen to. Accessing and maintaining a digital music collection mostly makes me feel like a data entry temp. I used to look after library databases for a living. I’d rather not do it for my hobby.
It’s also been suggested that I’m the only person banging on about this debate and that no one else cares. That may be so, but I get sent a lot of links to articles, lists, and opinion pieces about how great and magical vinyl is (and occasionally about its actual merits as a format). In addition to the pieces linked in the original piece, here are some more things that people have written about vinyl over the last few years, some of them stupid, some of them sensible.
Top ten reasons why vinyl sounds better than digital. Particularly check out point 6, which is so unbelieveably wrong-headed and loaded that it makes me actually angry. “The quality [of vinyl] is incomparable as each groove contains every intended detail captured holistically, every frequency shift perceived.” Just nonsense. Never mind points 5 and 4.
Here’s another quote from Graham Sutton, which he posted on Facebook yesterday in a conversation about the original piece: “I hope you guys realise that almost all vinyl cuts (with a couple of notable exceptions) for the last few decades have passed through a digital delay via A-D-A converters, as a last safety stage before hitting the cutting lathe head, regardless of the analogyness or otherwise of the Master medium, or indeed whether the sequencing had been assembled on Sadie or whatever.
“If you like your music with added distortion that you find pleasing then great, but for anything else this argument is bunk. Vinyl has so many technical limitations it ain’t true.”
And that’s enough for now.