OK honey, I’m out the door.
Going to the vinyl store.
Only going to explore.
On that last I’m not so sure.
Please don’t stay so long this time
and try not to spend your one last dime.
How could listening be a crime
to sounds so sonorous and sublime?
There’s noting like the sensuous sound
of music spinning round and round.
Remember those groups of such renown?
Today’s just can’t get off the ground.
Remember that crowded listening booth?
Those simple songs just told the truth.
The bands today are so uncouth.
Like pulling out a wisdom tooth.
There’s nothing like Virginia ham
except one hundred eighty gram.
These new CD’s are such a sham.
Just not worth a tinker’s damn.
Like going to the candy store.
Remastered vinyl who can’t ignore?
Those with no sleeve I’m not so sure.
They may just be beyond the cure.
Play my record? Then you must pledge
that you will only touch the edge.
Didn’t you attend a fancy college?
What I’m saying is common knowledge.
That’s it. My decision is final.
Nothing’s quite so good as vinyl
Vinyl has been getting some bad rap lately. Have you been reading the blogosphere. Or even some respected “tech journalists”? Let us set the record straight (pun intended).
Vinyl is not perfect. It has some inherent drawbacks. It is subject to degradation over time, especially if not handled and cleaned properly. It requires very delicate, refined, and often expensive playback components to reproduce sound at its best. This is true, although there are some terrific bargains in today’s playback alternatives.
Are there some technical drawbacks to vinyl that cannot be overcome? Yes, but there are technical issues with other playback formats as well. We will not go into all of these technicalities here. Let us stick with the basics. Digital playback has to convert a stream of zeros and ones to an analogue waveform. The inferior sound that we often perceive on digital compared to vinyl has to do the DAC (Digital Analogue converter). The ear can hear anomalies in the digital waveform quite well. It takes very sophisticated equipment to smooth out the ragged edges. High quality DAC’s are essential.
Another problem with digital playback systems is the inversion of the polarity of the recorded signal. This definitely messes up the sound. DAC’s are known to do this, even expensive ones. You may test this out by reversing the input cables to one of your loudspeakers. Do this first with vinyl playback. The sound will become muddy with less stereo effect. Now do this with a CD. You may find that the sound improves by switching the cables. If so, you know that the DAC is inverting the polarity of the signal.
The main culprit to bad sounding CD’s is poor source material; poor recordings, poor mixing, and poor mastering. This is a complex subject that I cannot entirely deal with here. There are so many bad practices in today’s recording industry. What I will talk about, however, is good source material. The best source is live music. By that I mean music that has not been amplified in any way. (I do not mean to say that a live rock concert is not legitimate music that one can enjoy. It is, however, using amplifiers and loudspeakers to propagate the sound. Some of the sound propagation is deliberately distorted. That is their nature of the beast. But when the distortion is not part of the music it should not be added the playback system. We need a low distortion source to determine if this is so.)
Live acoustical music is hard to record. The best source is not do a recording. Rather, it could be broadcasted over high quality FM, using excellent microphones with proper placement and with the least amount of compression or limiting. Back in the day WETA in Washington, DC broadcast live performances from the Library of Congress auditorium. Listening through a Marantz 10B tuner with directional antenna to tune out any multi path distortion offered the best alternative to listening on sight.
The next best source would be a recording with minimal miking and minimal signal processing. This was done by the recording company Mercury. Their sound was called “Mercury Living Presence.”This was not some PR campaign. Record reviewers introduced this expression because they felt they were almost attending a live performance, Mercury decided to use it as part of their label. Find some of these recordings and give them a listen. A close second to them was RCA’s “Living Stereo.” Old vinyl often sounds good because old source material is often better.
In some ways recording engineering has made great advances, but in other was they have taken some rather large and unnecessary steps backward. For example, digital recordings potentially have a greater dynamic range than digital ones. This advantage is entirely lost when maximum loudness becomes the goal. High volume recordings do not allow for much variance between loud and soft passages in the music.
Much of today’s recorded sound comes from the mixing. A good mixer can coverup some bad performances just like autotune can correct for singers that are not on pitch. Hall ambiance is often lost however. There is no hall. The recorded sound may be acceptable but it will probable not fool us into thinking we attended a live performance. To be fair, a bad recording on vinyl will never sound as good as a great recording on a CD or a digital download.
The advantages of the digital format have not been fully realized. Digital playback could easily be improved, starting with the source. That will be up to the recording artists and engineers. Ultimately, it will be up to those who value good sound as well as good music and demand better recordings.