Sunday, May 10, 2015

My Take: Vinyl's Resurgence

Over the last five years, vinyl has encountered a renaissance, with sales spiking, and legions of fans and artists professing their love for the arcane format.  While I am a fan of physical products, and appreciate the renewed emphasis on owning a collection of music, there are elements of the vinyl philosophy that I cannot get behind; mostly the rampant confusion that leads people to incorrectly believe that vinyl is a superior audio format.

Every format we use to listen to music has limitations.  It is simply impossible for anything to accurately reproduce the entire spectrum of sounds that a band of instruments can create.  That much is not a debate.  What we are actually talking about, when we compare the formats available, is how they reproduce the sound, and which elements get left on the cutting room floor.  We are, therefore, talking about our preferences for how we like our music to be flawed.

What is not up for debate is that CDs are theoretically a superior format than vinyl when it comes to accurately reproducing as much of the sound as possible.  This might seem counter-intuitive, given how often vinyl is held up as the standard, but that urban legend comes bother from a misunderstanding of the science of sound, but more importantly from the fact that CDs have rarely been used to their full potential.

The fallacy began when CDs were first entering the market in the early 80s.  At that time, being new, the albums we were listening to were dropped straight onto the new discs, without making any adjustment for the realities of the delivery mechanism.  Vinyl did not allow for bass to be pronounced in the mix, to prevent the needle from jumping out of the groove.  While that was fine on a turntable, and because vinyl naturally enhanced those frequencies, it was murder on CDs.  Digital audio got a bad reputation because a mix that was intended for vinyl was put on the CDs, with the low bass levels required for the old format never compensated for.  What CDs did was show how much a mix had to be skewed from what it was supposed to be for vinyl to sound good.  But because producers did not yet know how to make music for the digital format, the thin sound that was first offered up became tautological proof that CDs weren't as good.  That is wrong.

Decades later, as the loudness war has been in full force, the same type of situation is occurring.  As volumes have been pushed past the point of no return, CDs have been offering people music that sounds sub-optimal.  The vinyl copies of many of these albums sound superior, but not because of anything the vinyl is doing, but instead because the producers have to make better versions of the album to avoid the record not being playable.  Because those issues do not arise with digital formats, producers have become lazy, sloppy, and no longer care about the quality of the product they are putting out.

When you listen to a record like Metallica's "Death Magnetic", the audible clipping and disturbingly poor sound quality has nothing to do with the digital sound, but instead lies in the production choices.  It's hard for people who don't have insight into the recording process to make these distinctions, which the vinyl crowd has jumped upon.  When new albums come out, and people clamor to say the vinyl sounds better, they rarely if ever make note of if it's even the same mix being put on both formats.  If the sound is not being optimized for both, there is no fair comparison to be made.

What is more frustrating is the fact that vinyl is being hailed as the 'true' way to listen to music, as being more natural, when the vast majority of albums being pressed were recorded digitally in the studio.  They are not truly analog recordings, so they are no more authentic than the CDs that have fallen out of favor.

But more than anything, what frustrates me is that great sounding music is not something we appreciate and demand.  We have become so willing to tolerate sub-par sound quality that a vinyl copy of a digital album somehow sounds like a revelation.  CDs are capable of some of the most astounding audio you will ever hear, but we seldom get that, because neither we nor the record companies think anyone wants it.  I use this as an example: Nightingale released their new album earlier this year, "Retribution".  It's a very good sounding album that is one of the best of the year.  But if you seek it out, there is a special edition of the album with a mix intended for the vinyl, where more of the natural nuances and dynamics are left in tact.  It is properly produced music, and listening to that mix, even as a download, is a thing of wonder.  That is what music should sound like, that is what music can sound like, and as long as people are buying vinyl because they have been deceived into thinking that anything pressed on wax sounds better, we're never going to get the music we deserve.

As consumers, we need to know what we are consuming.  We seldom do, and that has led to the destruction of music.

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