The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Friday, June 24, 2011

Vinyl Records: How Sweet The Sound?

There are some good reasons to prefer vinyl records, but let's face it, it's also been turned into a marketing gimmick by labels desperate for new income streams in an age where people are buying less high profit ticket items like CDs.

I've been an avid music collector all my life. Like many of you who owned vinyl back in the day, my record collection often took up most of a room. The thin record covers gave us the illusion that the things were as easy to store as books. Until you filed enough away to go from a few thin items on your shelf to a large square or rectangle of records that were as heavy as a bowling ball collection. Which then ended up in milk cartons or crates, or just on the floor.

But that's another subject...what I find interesting is the notion that the vinyl LP is the best way to listen to music in the digital age. There are geeky technical reasons, generally centered around round and square wave theory, and the concept that sound can have "warmth" and so on.

Labels ushered in the era of CDs with high prices, promises those would become cheaper and kept prices high by adding extra q1content beyond the ability of most artists to provide it. As a result, the CD age inadvertently reverted to the 60s rock era, where artists would be given a decent amount of time and resources to produce singles, and then very little to fill out the rest of the album. In the case of reissues, the music was often dubbed indifferently or in haste to CD, and often sounded worse than vinyl.

When I think of vinyl, a story comes to mind...back in the mid-70s, a friend bought a 2,000 dollar (in mid-70 dollars!) stereo system and proudly showed it off. He went on about balancing the turntable arm, the cartridge needle, and it was set perfectly to bring the best out of an LP. It also so sensitive that the tone arm skipped and bounced around if anyone walked within 6 feet of the turntable.

Then he explained that vinyl needed to be virgin, not recycled (not very green), that pressings for the general public were of poor quality...

...and...didn't fully capture the fidelity of the original master tape...

The sound of that master tape, which contained the music that we all later listened to, had to be transfered to a mold that produced the vinyl record. Depending on a myriad of conditions, the record might or might not truly transfer the sound successfully. That led to a sub-market of audiophile level records that took the sound from the original master tape, was remixed from this or that tape, or whatever.

Then you had the actual process of putting a needle on the record grooves, which then began the process of wearing out the grooves, which made the sound deteriorate, and of course, scratches on the vinyl that often made a popping sound as loud as the music and so forth.

If you read record reviews from that era, those are full of comments like "lousy pressing," and once you got more than 15 minutes of music on each side the volume started to drop as the grooves had to be made smaller, thus producing less sound...and leave a record in the sun? Forget it, it became as useful as a DOS software disc.

The whole thing about the vinyl debate isn't really about how good it sounds. A good pressing combined with well recorded music does create a beautiful product...the point is, that a record is really a mix that makes the music sound a certain way. That warmth is really distortion and how the sound is transmitted and projected, and the appeal of old records is really about how it sounds, not how good it is.

Classical music, for example, depends on warmth. A lot of acoustic instruments are playing music that in most cases was intended to produce blended sounds and textures. That type of music benefits from the lack or separation. Rock, on the other hand, thrives on it. That's how most rock is recorded, with each instrument recorded separately so each element can be manipulated in isolation first, then in combination. Metal music wouldn't sound as powerful unless you took the drums and guitar and made each sound like thunder.

If a digital CDs sounds sterile and cold, and it isn't due to the artist lacking soul (or talent for that matter), then it's really a technical problem. It all started as a digital signal on tape, and then was transferred to vinyl. That process "warmed up" the sound. In guitar amps, reproducing that warm sound is pretty much standard even on cheap amps. If you hear music live, that's probably as accurate as it will ever sound and any warmth due to what is used to amplify that sound.

If you like vinyl, it's probably due to the fact that you like how it sounds on your system.

Are today's CDs actually better sounding? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on how the music is played, how good the mikes are, how well it was produced and engineered, and of course, if the artist can function in a recording studio as well as in concert.

The fairest thing to say is, the reason vinyl is making a comeback is that digital hasn't been an obviously superior product. The labels who moved to digital had a huge advantage in that they could have put the entire digital signal of the original master tape or file onto a CD and do more than even the best vinyl could achieve. The current wave of "remastered" music reflects some technological improvements, but also shows that the industry will only put out as much effort as it takes to get your money.

Like every era of music before it, digital music has been produced with genius, incompetence, greed, carelessness, blatant disregard for the consumer (I mean, does a refrigerator company try to make people not let anyone else use the product), or some combination of the above.

Like a sports team full of high priced talent and still doesn't win the championship, digital music is still only as good as the people who make it. So far, they've only been good enough to make most people prefer it to vinyl.