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.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: dr2chase (Oct 15 2012, at 20:54)

Sigh. The math says you're not able to hear sampling artifacts, and biology (old age) says you're really not able to hear sampling artifacts. So it is probably just artifacts that you learned to love.

Someone somewhere must have built a vinylizer that will make digital stuff sound like vinyl -- except, there's probably no market, because "audiophiles" would never believe that such a thing could exist, and therefore would not buy it (you know, the gold-plated isotopically-pure-silver-cored litz wire monster-cable crowd), and nobody else would care enough to spend the money.

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From: Karl (Oct 15 2012, at 21:00)

So true, I love vinyl, regardless of the logical arguments against it. I think for me it's about feeling something physical. Being brought up in the age of digital video/music, I actually have respect for physically available forms of entertainment. I also think that the irregular crackling and snapping of vinyl is a perk, not a bug.

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From: Jelle Victoor (Oct 15 2012, at 23:22)

Hey Tim, glad to see that you are also a great fan of vinyl. I would be trilled to see some of your record gems in a future blog post. Do you keep track of your records on discogs?

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From: Dave Walker (Oct 16 2012, at 01:19)

Well, Psychoacoustics is a subjet it's possible to get a PhD in - I've met a couple of people who have one.

A vendor I'm not going to advertise here (but who does wild things with DSPs between media renderer and DAC involving realtime 9th-order interpolation, to get an audio stream which is apparently a perceptual 24 bit 96kHz, despite the shortcomings of a CD source…) told me when the firm released their new high-end range (to top the previous high-end range), that "the old stuff puts the musicians in the room with you; the new stuff puts you in the auditorium with the musicians".

As far as I understand, it's mostly down to capturing phase differences. If you can point to a specific musician in the soundscape, you know you have a setup that's working properly; I like the fact that, in Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part II", I can tell that Roger Waters is in the second row of the school choir, a couple of seats left of centre.

I don't know whether you have a particular test track that you use for setup (having moved house a couple of times with the current set-up, I've spent a day or so each time getting the speaker positioning spot on), but my own is phase-heavy; I find that if, in the main theme from Vangelis' "Blade Runner" soundtrack, the glissandos run bottom-left to top-right seamlessly, and the bells fall straight down the middle without shifting from a vertical line, the speakers and the room are working together properly - short of knocking any resonant frequencies out with digital notch filters, which is the next step.

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From: len (Oct 16 2012, at 06:37)

Because it sounds better. It is inconvenient. Swapping quality for convenience is the trope that drives digital technology and the web.

http://news.cnet.com/8301-13645_3-9964576-47.html

Sort of a yawner these days.

The significant issue is paying the artists to make very good music. Here the technologists and the artists are in direct conflict as the monies made from the web are used to lobby legislators to ensure the technologists don't have to pay for the content they use to support their business.

This has to change.

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From: Dave Petersen (Oct 16 2012, at 07:21)

I also like vinyl. However, I suspect there's something going on with the performances, and audio engineering that fits the pieces together. I was visiting a friend who had nice old harmon kardon tube amp setup, and a nice rotel solid state integrated amp. He could flip between the two setups easily with the same source. We were using vinyl 45s. As we went through a bunch of different blues/r&b material, on a subjective level it was quite clear that the older 50's and 60's material sounded better on the tube setup and the 70's, early 80's (pre-digital recording) sounded better on the solid state equipment. My theory, was simply that the closer the play back equipment matched what was used in production, generally the better the music matched what the artists & engineer's heard or intended.

I think a similar situation is true in live sound. Performers today are using a completely different setup than was used in the clubs (if you can find a real club). Sound levels are much higher, the ability to pump the bass and retain the highs vastly different. With modern monitoring systems, the performs match whats in the play back system, not necessarily whats coming out of their compadres instruments. (especially when in-ears are used)

My guess is that much of today's music sounds better digital than on vinyl. Those who came up with it probably even have favorite mp3 compression rates for which they produce.

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From: Chris T (Oct 16 2012, at 09:30)

I think the mastering stage is where the magic happens. There are albums that still haven't been mastered well for CD, such as George Harrison's All Things Must Pass -- magic on vinyl, either heavily muddy (original CD) or tinny (latest remaster) on CD.

Exercise: record your favorite vinyl to AIFF. Burn it to CD. Play it on a decent CD player.

Do you notice a difference?

Some audio engineers don't.

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From: Brad (Oct 16 2012, at 12:51)

I'm out of my depth here (not an audio engineer), but this post: http://www.cinchreview.com/bob-dylan-audio-scandal/570/ (which links to the real info at this post: http://floweringtoilet.blogspot.ca/2009/04/bob-dylan-together-through-life.html) introduced me to the concept of dynamic range compression (DRC). More DRC makes the same track sound louder, so it "pops" on the radio or in an advertisement (so it is highly sought, but not by the consumer). My understanding is that it is possible to perfectly render the vinyl "feel" into a digital format (specifically CD @ 44.1kHz), but professional audio engineers simply don't, because more DRC is possible in digital.

I don't have any vinyl myself, (it's a bit before my time), but there's a particular pirate that rips classic albums from vinyl into lossless FLAC -- so you get a true rendering of all the vinyl's flaws (or "character", if you like). I do tend to prefer these rips to my own CD copies.

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From: dr2chase (Oct 16 2012, at 15:56)

@Brad, re: DRC (also my initials). I don't know how prevalent it is in the CD or MP3 world, but I do know that it was applied to some vinyl records. Way-back-when I worked in college radio, and there was a Blue Oyster Cult single (Godzilla, I think it was live) that was compressed to a fare-thee-well. After a few seconds of intro, it would sit at peak for the whole song with the tiniest of wiggles. You could easily check all the levels in the whole signal processing chain of broadcast radio without interrupting the "music".

Also, compared to FM stereo, CD sampling is no biggie. L+R goes down the middle, L-R is amplitude-modulated at 38 kHz, the whole show is then FM'd out the antenna. That 38 kHz AM has to avoid all the same aliasing artifacts that you'd get with inadequate filtering, and the filters that make it happen work just the same way, phase change and all, but with a wall at 19 kHz, instead of 22.05, so you're even more likely to hear filtering artifacts.

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From: JulesLt (Oct 21 2012, at 04:36)

I think Brad and Chris T nail it - there is a feedback loop between playback technology and mastering - and with vinyl, 'mastering' goes right down to the physical cutting.

I recall reading how pop 45s in the 60s would be tweaked to sound good through transistor radios, Dansettes, and similar.

We're getting the same thing now with 'mastered for iTunes'.

And the whole raft of 'remastered' CDs was a great exercise in making people pay over for the mistakes made in the initial CD versions - which I think were often flat digitisations of a stereo master, without any of the delicate EQing that presumably went the final stages of cutting good vinyl.

The best specific example I can think of is an Auger/Driscoll album - the vinyl and remastered CD sound great, the first CD re-issue sounds weedy.

Or possibly it's that the first wave of re-issues put an emphasis on bright treble sounds, which made CDs sound 'clearer'?

Either way, during the initial years of CD adoption, relatively few people were doing like-for-like with the same recordings and separates - so often it was more comparing old and new stereo systems.

And lastly, I can think of examples of 'bad' vinyl, particularly in the 80s - Kate Bush 'Hounds of Love' sounds a lot better on CD.

(I do know of someone who uses some kind of tube pre-amp between their CD player and power-amp to get a more 'analogue' sound, but frankly that's getting into hi-fi mysticism).

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From: Stephen White (Oct 26 2012, at 14:53)

There's one way to listen to vinyl without wear: a laser turntable.

http://www.elpj.com/

(Disclaimer: I've never tried it.)

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From: Piers (Dec 01 2012, at 15:49)

I'll always go for sound over vision; however, for me this is very visual, and public vs private... I will listen to the same collection of mp3s while I'm working, but I love that my local coffee shop (Discovery in Victoria, fwiw) has a turntable, so I can see what's playing, flip through the stack...

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