Tuesday, July 5, 2016

IS VINYL BETTER THAN DIGITAL AUDIO? (PART ONE)

“Digital is zeros and ones, man…any way you look at it… Whether it’s a CD or a download, there’s a certain jaggedness to it. Vinyl wins every time. It’s warmer, more soothing, easier on the ears.”

        --Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton & The Allman Brothers


Is vinyl better than digital audio?

There’s as much debate out there about this question as there is for the question “is milk good for you?”

I love vinyl. Not that I hate CDs or MP3s, but I think there's a big difference in the way digital and analog formats communicate music.

This rant could easily go down the path of analyzing sound waves, sampling rates, signal-to-noise ratio and tons of other science behind digital and analog sound that will put most of you fast to sleep. I’m going to stay “zen” on this topic.

Those debating the merits of vinyl vs. digital usually concede that vinyl has a “warmer sound” than streamed music.  Because folks associate "warmth" with living things as opposed to machines, in many cases they may actually be using the term to mean "lifelike." (which is not how hard-core audiophiles would generally use the term.)

ROUND ONE: VINYL VERSUS THE MP3

Lets tackle a small first slice of the complex vinyl-versus-digital debate by looking at how vinyl matches up against MP3’s.

The MP3 audio format has been the de facto standard for online digital music files since the 1990's. Virtually every computer, smartphone and tablet recognizes and plays MP3 files. The MP3 is actually a digital audio “codec,” or, a method of compressing and decompressing digitized sound. When a song is ripped from a CD to a computer and converted to an MP3, the music is typically reduced to a tenth of its original file size. That’s right, 90% of the original information is discarded! (But MP3 advocates usually counter-punch that the MP3 discards data that's less likely to be heard.)

So, most of the music the world is listening to is stored and broadcast in a “lossy” format, where details are lost and quality is reduced. There is less original stereo information in an MP3, and whether the lead singer whispers or screams, you’ll probably hear it at the same volume. Oh yeah, the “bass boost” button better be a part of your MP3 listening ritual too.

But, MP3s are insanely convenient. You can listen to music during a parachute jump. You can access thousands of songs 24/7, or zing an MP3 file across the web twelve times faster than a CD WAV music file.

Vinyl, on the other hand, is a “lossless” analog format that enables artists to transport their music from magnetic tape to LP to your speakers or headphones without the complications of digital conversion. And because analog is a literal copy of a sound wave (and is in no way comprised of “samples”) it reproduces all frequencies across the sound-spectrum in high quality.



A vinyl record, in almost all cases, contains more musical information than an MP3 file — it’s well built to offer a superior listening experience to MP3’s or streaming sites. The catch is, you can’t take it with you. (Muhammad Ali excluded – link).  And that wealth of music information available for you to enjoy is best extracted with good equipment, though the cost of efficiently extracting the music from an LP via good equipment continues to go down over time.

Also, records have to be taken care of, you have to flip them to listen to an entire album. Playing a record is a mechanical process, meaning the stylus is physically contacting the groove of the record to produce sound, and over a long period of time, both the stylus and record can become worn down, deteriorating the sound. (I know, I’m starting to sound like one of those breakthrough drug commercials, where the list of side effects scares you away from the benefits of the drug.)

There are undoubtedly certain drawbacks one cannot escape with vinyl, and it’s not a realistic way for everyone to listen to music. But in the last two decades, the level of musical realism relayed by today’s turntables has gone through the roof. When all the listening groundwork has been done the right way, the intoxicating sound of an album cannot be denied.

For example, recently, I played an original copy of “The Best of Emerson Lake and Palmer,” circa 1980. It’s a mass-produced, common, run of the mill, standard LP -- nothing special about it.  I purchased it in great condition for only $2 at a flea market.

But this thing that was 36 years old—a record manufactured when Jimmy Carter was president—unfurled a wide, “you are there” 3-D soundstage of crisp, precise sound that put me squarely in the recording studio with the band. On “Lucky Man,” I could actually hear a small echo in Greg Lake’s voice coming from the walls of the room in which the song was recorded. Keith Emerson’s moog was packed with a menacing power I had not felt or heard previously -- his famous solo on “Lucky Man” wickedly whirled around the center of my listening room like a helicopter blade chopping through the air.

That’s what vinyl is all about! And the thrills can sometimes be dirt cheap.

The ritual that vinyl demands fits the respect good music deserves.

The world at large is gobbling MP3s, eating burgers and believing they’re eating steak! I love burgers -- you can get them anywhere, you can eat them in your car or on a plane – they’re cheap and plentiful. But when I’m home, have some time and I really want a good meal, I want filet mignon!

Imagine not even knowing that steak is an option?… our listening culture has been moving toward the convenient option becoming the only option…. but there is hope to be found in the steadily rising sales of records.

I’ll wrap up with one more punch on vinyl’s behalf —and it’s a biggie.

Steve Jobs, the man responsible for the iPod and the global domination of low-res MP3 files, was a vinyl fan!  It’s true!

Musician and audio quality evangelist Neil Young said in 2012, “Steve Jobs was a pioneer of digital music. But when he went home, he listened to vinyl.” That comment nearly broke the internet.

Young claimed he was working with Steve Jobs on a new format that would somehow contain 100% of music’s recorded data. "I talked to Steve about it,” Young said. “ We were working on it. You've got to believe if he lived long enough he would eventually try to do what I'm trying to do."

Neil Young’s claims were supported, in part, by Walter Mossberg, former technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal, who also confirmed that Steve Jobs had been surprised that "people traded quality, to the extent they had, for convenience or price."

Yep, most of the world wants hamburgers instead of steak.



Steve Jobs' Beloved Linn-Sondek Turntable

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