Monday, January 5, 2009

The Mystique Of Vinyl And Why We Love CDs

Digital VS Analog. Vinyl VS CD. Pro Tools VS two inch tape.

There is a lot being written and said these days about problems with digital sound[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]. Sometimes it has to do with people listening to music in environments (cars and iPods) that reward severe compression and obscure any subtlety in the production. Other times it is about the virtues of analog, often vintage, equipment be it studio gear or home turntables.

The unifying theme is this; digital sound has not delivered on its promises.

When the CD was introduced in the 1980's why were we so eager to adopt it? The vinyl record was a well established standard millions of people had invested a great deal of money in. Even with the likes of Phillips Of The Netherlands and Sony behind it shouldn't the CD have had a more up-hill battle than it did?

Maybe, but remember this; familiarity breeds contempt. We had decades to get up close and personal with vinyl's drawbacks. Dust, scratches, wear, sensitivity to vibration, expensive replacement styli, warping when exposed to even moderate heat, RCA Record Club pressings with too many LPs made from the same mold...there is no shortage of problems with vinyl.

Also remember that in this same era, the 1980's, vinyl was loosing market share to cassette tapes. Cassette tapes were able to compete on one point, convenience. They were small, easy to use, required near-zero care and more portable than everything except radio. Attempts were made to improve the sound quality of cassette tapes but because the magnetic tape media itself is so narrow and moves so slowly in a cassette there was only so much that could be done.

Cassette tapes are truly a marginal medium for music. They just don't sound very good. Fact. This did not stop us from using them. They were so convenient relative to vinyl that we couldn't help ourselves.

As CD players became more affordable they supplanted both cassette tapes and a large portion of vinyl sales. The CD had many of the convenience virtues of cassettes including size and minimal care. At the time we were told that CDs sounded better than vinyl and I think a lot of us believed it. Now, however, the people who stayed with vinyl are saying it sounds better and most people seem to agree. How is this possible?

I think the question that needs to be asked before "which format sounds better?" is "what vinyl records are we talking about?"

If we take a CD most pople will agree sounds verry good, Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, for example and compare it to a vinyl LP we are going to get verry different relative impressions if we compare it to A) A clean but not new or "mint" vinyl LP of the same album, B) A painstakingly mastered Deutsche Grammophon LP of chamber music in mint condition or C) A Wang Chung 12" single left uncovered on the floor of a college dorm room for a few days.

Here is my point. The vinyl we abandoned for CDs twenty years ago more often resembled the last option above. Why are people now saying vinyl sounds better? Because the vinyl they are talking about more closely resembles my Dautsche Grammophon example.

The limitations of digital sound are very real. The resolution of the human nervous system is higher than 16bit/44.1Khz, and thank God for that! Eventually we will buy all of our digital music in 24bit/96Khz form, or higher, but it will still be digital and will still contain sampling/rounding errors.

There will still be a place for analog--not because of the inevitability of sampling quantization, but because it is unlikely that any digital format will ever have all of the virtues of top quality magnetic tape or vinyl record technology.

As I have written before, humans don't abandon technologies they truly like even when they adopt an additional one. For decades to come many musical productions will employ a combination of analog and digital technologies...and I'm not just talking about microphones. I'm talking about optical limiters, tube microphone pre-amps and even open reel analog tape. Why? Because we like them, provided they have not been left out on the carpet for too long.

No comments: