Before I get started with this post, I assure you that there is nothing ironic about this discussion. I am not going to give you some hipster take on how vinyl is superior because of the ‘warmth of the sound’, or how you can ‘feel the music’. Instead, I hope to show slight nuances between the analog recordings found on vinyl records, and the digitally compressed recordings found on CD’s and MP3′s. Although I do prefer listening to albums on vinyl (mostly an intrinsic and tangible aspect of the physical record and listening to an album as a whole — the way the artist wanted it to be heard), I do not discredit the convenience and portability of the digital format. There is a time and a place for both technologies and as a music lover and a slight audiophile, I feel now is the time to embrace both the analog and the digital processes respectively, in the environments for which they were intended.
I would like to start by showing a Youtube clip from LaylaLaneMusic where the performer (Playing an acoustic cover of The Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun) switches off between an analog recording and a digital recording throughout the duration of the song. If you cannot hear a difference at first try turning your speakers up or listening through headphones. If you still cannot hear a difference or even that much of a difference, try clicking on your speaker icon and watching where the levels peak during each form of recording.
The differences may seem subtle, but the digital recording seems to resonate more, with less fluctuation of the levels, maintaining a constant level of output as opposed to the analog recording which has peaks and valleys. These peaks and valleys are the ‘warmth’ that are often referred to when discussing the values of analog recordings and vinyl. However, the speakers on your computer or in your ear-buds don’t have the capacity to produce a high-level output. Johnathan Wyner further explains the differences between the analog and digital recording processes in his video blog on YouTube. To help further visualize the analog and digital technologies, I have included a screen shot of a wave form. The top is taken from a vinyl album, and the bottom is taken from a CD. Both are the same track, from the same album. The only difference is the format in which they have been produced.
The peaks and the valleys of the top (white) track illustrate why analog is preferred by audiophiles and music ‘purists’ alike. It has more to do with what is shown in the bottom track (purple); however, that deters most people from embracing the digital future. The digital version of the song is not only without the peaks and the valleys shown in the analog version, but it has been so compressed and clipped that it appears to come at you like a wall of sound. Constant loudness. This is essentially meant when speaking about the ‘warmth of the sound.’ Sound is a waveform, recorded or not. Our ears pick up frequencies of reverberation and convert those wave forms into what we perceive as sound. In the digital format, the wave forms have been so compressed that they only resemble the impression of what the sound is supposed to sound like.
As I stated earlier, this is not intended to bash digital formats of recording and sound production, but merely to show the differences in quality and why one might be preferred over the other.
Digital music (MP3 players, Pandora, etc.) serve a very useful purpose today. Imagine going out for a run or driving in a car trying to keep the needle on your turntable from skipping. There are times when it is necessary to sacrifice quality for convenience and for the most part, as stated earlier, most ear-buds are not made to produce a high-quality sound so there isn’t much quality being sacrificed to begin with. Not to mention that there is a constant push to find the next best codec, where the digital process will be compressed enough while maintaining enough of the integrity of the analog qualities to render them almost interchangeable. Greg Milner, a columnist for a number of music and technology magazines, writes in his most recent book “Perfecting Sound Forever“:
The CRC (Communications Research Centre Canada) is one of only a handful of places around the world that are equipped to conduct the kind of rigorous tests that determine how successfully a codec fosters the illusion of everything while delivering just enough. (Milner 358)
For music lovers and audiophiles alike, the analog recordings found on vinyl will always reign supreme, however technology should not be dismissed simply because it is not ‘pure.’ The convenience serves an important purpose in today’s society, and the digital format in itself is quite impressive. However, I will remain content to sit back, relax, and listen to the hiss, clicks, and pops, of my turntable, getting up every 20 minutes or so to change the album side, dropping the needle once again, and returning to my musical bliss.
- Analog vs Digital Processing? And before or after? (gearslutz.com)
- Music Leads The Way In Return To Analog (hypebot.com)
- The Audiophiliac’s top LPs for testing speakers (news.cnet.com)
- Vintage vinyl is new ‘revolution’ (fox4kc.com)
- Why will digitized recordings from vinyl often sound better than modern manufactured CDs? (tboyreid.wordpress.com)