Thursday, August 16, 2007

IN THE GROOVE (OR: A LESS LAME TITLE FOR A POST ABOUT VINYL)


Maybe it's the nostalgia factor. Maybe it's a analog warmth thing. Maybe it was Tanner's words of wisdom on WCAX news. Maybe it's the fact that I just spent $500 on a CD player and God has a warped sense of humor. Regardless, I've been on a big vinyl kick lately.

Apparently I'm not the only one--from recent surveys, it seems that while CD sales are plummeting drastically, vinyl sales actually increased by 10% last year. And I have a good feeling that when they release the figures for this year, the numbers will be even higher.

I think vinyl's resurgence is happening for a number of reasons.

1) Tangibility & the Event of Listening

Tanner covered this one pretty well in his interview, so I'll steal a few of his ideas and repackage them as my own. In an age where digital music has become overly abundant and essentially "free" (except for the debt exacted on your conscience) and metaphysical, the idea of physical music ownership is starting to get appealing for some people.

It's exactly digital music's capacity to be played anywhere at anytime (its supposed greatest virtue) that is killing its appeal, in my opinion. I bought the new Sunn O))) EP ("Oracle") today, and as I was stepping into my care I thought to myself "If I had bought this on CD, I could be listening to it right now." It's even worse when you download a song--you don't even have to put a disc in the drive; you just click the mp3 and it starts up.

It's that type of free and total access that cheapens the music listening experience, the "event" of playing an album for the first time. Instead of listening to the album passively as I try to pull out of a bad parking spot, I'll instead take off the plastic wrap tonight, put the huge black disc on my player & sit on my couch listening as I read the liner notes. It's a much more intimate and much more respectful and rewarding experience for both the album and myself as the listener.

2) Quality

Vinyl sounds better than standard CDs. There. I said it. There's a reason for this--a record is an analog recording, whereas a CD is a digital recording. What does this matter you ask? A digital recording is created through "sampling", which means you are taking little audio snapshots of a recording several thousand times a second. The quality of a sampling is measured as a "bit rate". For instance, you may have heard someone refer to a recording 44.1k or 48k. This means that either 44,100 or 48,000 sound samples are being used per second. It seems like a lot, but it's still not always enough--tiny parts of the recording still need to be cut out to make the bit rate.

Dynamic range further limits digital recordings. Not only are you losing information in the sampling process, but CDs also have range limitations. Human beings can hear noises from approximately 20Hz to 20KHz (20,000 Hz), but CDs unfortunately can not accurately reproduce this full range accurately. The bad news is, neither can vinyl. But vinyl usually has trouble with the high end of the spectrum, while CDs cannot reproduce the low-end bass, the physical rumblings that make us respond to music not only with our ears but with the rest of our bodies.

The ability to reproduce the crisp highs is the reason why CDs have long been falsely believed to be "better sounding" than vinyl. CD aficionados are often referred to in audiophile circles as "Tin Ears" for this reason. It really comes down to a matter of taste, but I find that most people who enjoy going to live music shows or play music themselves find the dynamic range of vinyl more realistic (especially with vocals and rhythm sections) and appealing.

3) Longevity

This will be a tough argument I'm sure, especially considering everyone at some point has listened to the ugly (or beautiful, if you're into that sort of thing) sound of hissing and popping of an old record. Yes, records get scratched. They also get dirty, smudged, knicked--all things that can happen to a piece of media. But so can CDs. And maybe its just me, but the sound of a softly skipping record is a lot more tolerable to my ears than a digital glitch.

While records don't age like a good Bordeaux, they don't degrade like a cheap Beaujolais with cork rot. Proper care of an album through regular cleaning, putting the discs back in their dust covers & keeping them stacked vertically in a low humidity environment will keep your vinyl just about as good as the day you bought it.

The great promise of CDs was that they would "last forever". This is a myth. The chemicals and metals used to make CDs oxidize and decay over time, and the coatings wear thin as a result of heat from playback. The average life span of most modern cheaply made CD-R discs is estimated at less than a decade. And CDs are just as likely to scratch as records (and because of their smaller size and the lack of physical contact in laser-driven devices, a small scratch may mean a huge skip).

As for digital files--anyone who has ever owned a computer knows that hard drives fail. Want to go all-digital? Prepare to lose your entire music collection with one bad sector.

A vinyl record, properly cared for, will last forever.

4) Cost

As anyone who is collecting new vinyl right now knows, records can be expensive. For example, I recently picked up CD copies of Sunn O))) and Boris' "Altar"--the CD cost me $12 while the LP cost me $30. Of course, the vinyl copy was a three-disc 180g collector's limited edition set with a poster & bonus tracks. But it's still quite a difference in price from the CD.

The reason why vinyl is often (but not always) more expensive than CDs is because of the simple macroeconomic theory of "supply vs. demand". Many of the vinyl pressing companies that were making records in the vinyl heyday of the 50s/60s/70s went out of business (or lowered their production capacity drastically) when the cassette tape and later the CD became the public's medium of choice. Now, as demand for vinyl quickly increases and the production capacity is only beginning to ramp up (and of course cautiously, as many wait to see if vinyl's resurgence is just a fad), it is inevitable that manufactures will try to cover the cost of new equipment by raising the prices of vinyl, knowing that consumers will pay it.

If vinyl's popularity continues to grow at the pace it is now, it's just a matter of time before machinery investments are recouped, profits start to stabilize, and the price of vinyl drops. It just might take a couple years. And in the meantime, if you can't afford new vinyl, why not buy used? Whereas a used CD can cost you $4-10 at record shops, the same album on vinyl can often be found for a dollar or less at thrifts stores and yard sales. I recently picked up a mint copy of Led Zeppelin II on vinyl at a garage sale for 50 cents--try getting it on CD for that price.

So that's it for my CD vs. Vinyl diatribe. Hope I didn't bore you all with the technical mumbo-jumbo, and as always this issue is up for debate in the comments section. As for me, I'm going to warm up the record player and listen to that new Sunn O))) album :)

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

good post. it's seems that in these sorts of format debates people areleaving out streaming subscription services like Yahoo music. My computer is hooked up to my stereo receiver and I can stream almost any album I can think of. Certainly, there are things they don't have but, technically, I have 10s of thousands of records at my listening disposal. The quality is not audiophile standard but the quantity is pretty astounding. I listen to music from 6am to 6pm 6 days a week. I need variety.
ben

jay said...

It's nice to have variety, but it was the abundance of choices that turned me to vinyl. Who was it that said that more choices you have the less free you are--Plato? George Carlin.

It just got to the point that because I had access to so much music that I would "acquire" hundreds of albums that would live in my iTunes library and never get listened to. Or if I did, it was just a passive, out of context listen on shuffle mode while I was surfing the web.

I like the deliberate act of having to select a single record, taking it out of the sleeve, putting it on the turntable & letting the needle drop. It's a much more active experience and makes me feel closer to the music and the recording.

I've just never had that experience with mp3s or streaming audio. I'm certainly not saying it can't happen; it just hasn't for me.

Tanner M. said...

Fuckin' A right jay - great post; i'm really glad i have friends that can take my asinine and nerve rattled sound bites on WCAX and turn them into something as worthwhile as this post.

jay said...

Hey, that was a great interview, certainly a heck of a lot better than my WCAX experience--interviewed at 6:30am, bloated & hungover at the polls on election day.

Glad you enjoyed the post!

Robert Benson said...

Love your post and I use an anology about digitized sound, I refer to it as "binary sound". The human ear hears in analog, so of course vinyl sounds better than its counterpart...just a bunch of 1's and 0's tyring to be music. But, I am very opinionated and just a bit biased :)

Robert
www.collectingvinylrecords.com

AlexF said...

Thank You! Very interesting article. Do you can write anything else about it?

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