Or.. why I choose vinyl over compact disc.
In the great debate over which “physical” music format is better, vinyl or compact disc, the question gets broken into two categories usually. Which format has a higher sound quality, technically… And which format sounds better to the ear. Originally this article started off as an opinion piece. I was going to sit down and chat a little about my enjoyment of vinyl, why I prefer it to CDs, and what makes it such a different listening experience. Then I started doing a tiny bit of research, just to lend some fact and links to the article… and discovered the underground war. Apparently there is a rather bitter feud going between vinyl supporters and CD supporters. With the select few of us who have a preference but use all formats stuck in the middle.
To elaborate. I love music. I have hundreds of CDs, most of which I’ve ripped to MP3, as well as many gigs of other tracks I’ve purchased in a purely digital format. I also have hundreds of albums on vinyl (hundreds of vinyl just sounds odd to me). If I listened to everything I owned, back to back, it would take months (without sleep) to get through it all. And though I listen to most of my music on my computer (and still toss CDs in once in a while for those that I haven’t uploaded yet), I just prefer vinyl. It’s not so much a bidding war for my affection between the three, but an uneasy agreement that all three meet different needs. Vinyl just is, and will always be (for the foreseeable future), my favorite child. Cthulhu forbid I ever have actual children… And yes, I did suddenly throw digitally stored music into the fray. But I will add more to that topic later. For now…
When comparing digital (CDs and MP3s or other compression file types) to analog (vinyl) many listeners will describe the rewarding experience they get from stopping, flipping the album over, hitting play again, and resuming what they were doing. The people who don’t enjoy that experience are the people that don’t like vinyl. It’s an integral part of the vinyl experience… physically interacting with the medium to continue your listening pleasure. To properly care for vinyl you also have to clean it, which adds, again, to this experience. It used to be the case that you could just pop a CD in, hit play, and go off and do whatever – though this function has been nicely replaced with MP3s, making them “music for the busy.” You simply press play and go about your day. This illustrates the biggest difference to me – Vinyl is an interactive experience. If I’m listening to vinyl, I’m committing myself to listening to music. Nothing else I do during that time frame is going to be more important, or at least won’t stop me from immediately flipping that record over when it hits the end. But this doesn’t address the real issue of the format war… Which has better audio quality?
Well, you want an honest answer? Neither. It’s almost impossible to tell which has better “quality” because quality is a subjective term and truly depends on the listener. However, other aspects of the format are measurable. For instance, it is true that digital (CDs and MP3s) records more accurately than analog (Vinyl). But accurate does not necessarily equal better. Accurate means simply that, more accurate sound. But some people would rather listen to an analog sound wave for their music, citing a variety of reasons for it. And even then CDs and MP3s aren’t actually more accurate than vinyl. Uncompressed digital audio is. But in order to fit all the audio information on a CD, or make an MP3 a convenient storing size, the data is compressed a great deal. So you’re not actually hearing the original recording, so to speak, but a compressed version.
Is compression bad? No… not necessarily. When done properly, music is compressed to remove only the silence in a track. This is called “lossless” compression – most commonly represented by the wav and flac file types. Most people aren’t familiar with these however, but the far more prolific MP3 format. MP3s, though, are of the “lossy” compression type, which not only targets silence, but “noise” in the data as well, creating much smaller files – far more convenient for the average listener. But since when are computers always 100% accurate, and how does the computer determine what is “noise” and what is “music?” It gets tricky, and that’s what Audio Technicians are for – people who create the compression software, and study its effect, trying to make it better. But what about the home user? Am I supposed to be able to analyse the compression software as well? Okay… maybe I can, but you? No. Luckily these people are very dedicated to their jobs, and when working properly, high quality (320 kbps bitrate) MP3 compression will not remove anything from the data that the human ear can hear, so it’s a perfectly acceptable format, for most. Go here to read more on compression file types.
So, theoretically, the only way to really compare the accuracy of digital and analog music is to compare a completely analog recording with an uncompressed digital recording of the same performance. This last part is key, because if it isn’t the same performance of the music you get a variety of environmental factors that affect it as well. And then there’s the equipment used to record… etc. I think you get the picture. None of this is as black and white of an argument as either side wishes. Speaking of…
And opinion article on EE Times degrades vinyl supporters and rails against the arguments of vinyl supporters… without actually offering a real argument or evidence that vinyl listeners are wrong. This is another part of the problem. People like Rich Pell will offer their opinions on the matter, but then offer no proof to back it up, especially when their opinion is that a solidly planted argument uses made up facts… You simply can’t do that without offering proof. And considering that Pell is writing for an engineering news source, it’s fairly sad that A: he doesn’t offer legitimate evidence to support his argument, and B: that his argument is actually wrong. As I stated – compared to uncompressed digital audio, yes, vinyl is less accurate, but this does not make it “worse.” And Pell doesn’t even compare it to uncompressed audio, but CDs – which are highly compressed. Sadly though, I can’t say that the supporters of vinyl usually offer up better arguments… though, from what I have read, they don’t claim that their arguments are 100% truth without proper backup.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that vinyl will overtake CDs in the near future… Less and less consumers care about the music quality, and more about the quantity of it. The most prolific source of music being, of course, digital downloads. Now, of course, charts still show CD sales as the highest source of music acquirement… but that’s because none of the charts take illegal downloads into consideration. That’s because it’s hard to measure… but based off of estimates, digital downloading is the largest source of music consumption in the US. Followed by CD sales, which are on a constant decline. And in third… vinyl sales. Which are on a constant and massive increase. In fact, as of July vinyl sales have had a 41% increase since January. Not too shabby. But I digress… digital sales are on the rise mainly because it’s cheaper. Why buy one album on vinyl… or two CDs, when I can buy five or six albums digitally, download them straight to my hard drive, and either listen to them on my computer or iPod, which is how I listen to music 90% of the time anyway.
Well… I do have a response to that, but it’s not all that logical. I would rather buy it on vinyl because I enjoy vinyl more. When it all boils down, this is an argument about subjective preference. I prefer vinyl for the listening experience. I still buy CDs, either because sometimes it’s more convenient, or the band hasn’t released the album on vinyl… but usually, if I’m going to buy an album, I get it on vinyl. Besides, with all the streaming music media sites like last.fm, slacker radio, pandora, turntable.fm, etc. it’s hard to justify buying music at all anymore… but I do. Especially if I really like the album/band. I own every Tool album (that has been released on it) on vinyl. I own most of Pink Floyd’s discography on vinyl, as well as most of Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s discographies. All original too… none of this remastered crap. Why not remastered? Well, Brandon N Schory summed this up fairly well for me the other day when he said, “I prefer originals because I get the sound that the artist was looking for when they recorded… not what 30 or so years of experience has changed their mind about. Not to mention the producer and engineer…”
So the war between digital and analog will never truly end. But most subjective wars based purely on opinion never do… And like Brandon just said to me “It’s not about what you own, it’s about achieving, or listening to, the sound you want.”