As an engineer and Internet guy, I feel almost guilty about the fact that I like listening to LPs so much; the technologies used to record the music and play it back should be obsolete. But I do.
[This piece was originally going to be the last paragraph of 5★♫: Hard Again, but it got out of control; you can love Seventies electric blues without caring in the slightest about audio technology.]
I’m OK with digital music; my big setup is perfectly capable of vanishing when it’s playing anything produced with even modest competence, and regularly does better, grabbing my attention when it’s wandered, making me think “damn, that sounds good.”
But there’s the occasional work on well-recorded vinyl that goes further: when suddenly, the musicians... Are. Right. There. Down at that end of the room, if I walked a few steps I could touch ’em.
Does this mean, on Hard Again, a crystal-clear 3-D sonic window, with the drums here and the bass there and every intake of the singer’s breath highlighted against the immanent silence? There are audiophile recordings like that (mostly boring). Um, no; remember, this is hardass electric blues played real loud. What you hear is this wonderful white-hot splodge of James’ harp and Johnny’s guitar, with Muddy’s voice booming and twisting in front and “Big Eyes” Smith’s unsubtle drum thunder behind. Which is exactly what good club sound is like, and this is music designed to be played in a good club. Johnny gets to barking encouragement whenever Muddy or the band go deep, and it’s obvious he’s not at a mike, but standing in a noisy room in the middle of the music posse.
Which is to say it’s more or less sonically perfect, in my view.
Now, I’m an engineer and I like measuring things and it’s counterintuitive at least that 35-year-old vinyl should offer sound that’s “better” along any useful axis than modern digital. I’m perfectly prepared to believe that there’s a euphonious distortion of some sort tickling my pleasure centers. But boy, do they like it. And I have to say it sounds like truth.
I’m far from alone in hearing truth-in-vinyl, which doesn’t make that truth actually true. But I’d like there to be at least a hypothesis (other than euphonious distortion) that at least passes the first-level sniff test. So here’s mine.
An LP contains a representation of the two stereo signals encoded as wiggles in vinyl, which are picked up by a mechanical device that wiggles back and forth in a magnetic field in such a way as to produce a (very) small variation in voltage. There is one deliberate application of equalization in the process, the correction of the signal coming out of the phono cartridge per the well-known RIAA curve (ah, for the days when the RIAA performed a useful function).
The vast majority of digital audio is recorded at 44.1KHz and if it were converted naively to an analogue signal would include lots of inaudible high-frequency artifacts that would cause problems. Since analogue “brick-wall” filters are hard to do well, oversampling is typically employed; the details are best left to someone with a deep understanding of digital signal processing, i.e. not me. But my impression as a well-informed layperson is that both D-to-A and A-to-D are actually hard to do well.
So, let’s assume that both the vinyl grooves and the 44.1KHz PCM-encoded signal accurately capture what the microphones heard; and further, that the amplification stages are generally very accurate. (I tend to believe these things). Given this, if there’s an audible difference between vinyl and digital, it’s mostly the difference between RIAA-curve EQ on one hand and the D2A/A2D/oversampling on the other.
It doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to believe that either of these dilutes the ultimate realism of the experience more than the other. I know which one I prefer, anyhow.
And having said all that, analog storage media wear out. Bits, properly cared for, are forever. But damn, I sure like the way good vinyl sounds.