Hipsters and Vinyl

I had a great conversation with some friends last night about vinyl vs. CD or digital. A very hipster fellow we all know was adamantly claiming that vinyl is the "most accurate" version of a recording you can have. This goes against everything I've ever learned studying music, science, or technology (and from listening to people who do live mixing). It's not the same thing as saying you like vinyl better, or prefer it, because personal preferences are subjective. When you start claiming vinyl is "most accurate," you are betraying your hipster ignorance of science, sound, and musicianship. The Misinformation: An initial Google search turns up an extremely disappointing, inaccurate entry on howstuffworks.com. I had thought highly of this website until I encountered their article on vinyl.

Over-Simplified Basics

 How recording works for digital:

  1. Sound goes out of the instrument or voice.
  2. Sound goes into the microphone (first loss of quality; nothing beats going straight into your eardrums).
  3. In Digital, the sound is stored, as an uncompressed master, losing no further quality.
  4. The sound is compressed, to make it fit onto a CD (slightly) or your mp3 player/iPod (a lot). For digital, this depends on the player you use, and how much storage space it has, because uncompressed or lossless files take up much more space (second loss of quality; how much depends on much you compress, FAR more for an mp3 than a cd).
  5. Every time you play it back, you get exactly what was made when it was compressed. No matter how many copies are made, they are always just as accurate. Playback is slightly dependent on your headphones/speakers, but the audio file never degrades.

 How recording works for analog/vinyl:

  1. Sound goes out of the instrument or voice.
  2. Sound goes into the microphone (first loss of quality; nothing beats going straight into your eardrums).
  3. The master was once stored on magnetic tape, but today would be digital.
  4. Sound goes from the master onto the record, which is very limited in the amount of information it can hold, limited by the accuracy possible in the depth and width of the grooves, etc. (BIG second loss of quality; a vinyl record cannot come close to holding as much detail as a CD; You can put an entire encyclopedia on a CD with room to spare, but not on a vinyl record. This is also essentially a repeat of the first loss of quality, because the sound must be physically converted again, by the cutting head, and every time you have a conversion in analog, you lose some sound information.).
  5. Record is played back on a record player (third loss of quality, the needle playback is another analog conversion, and this get worse over time, as the needle physically scrapes away the surface in the grooves).
  6. An associated issue is that while all playback depends somewhat on the speakers or headphones you have, with a record, the record player seriously matters.

Vinyl is Great (but Not More Accurate)!

Most current misinformation about CDs lacking quality was started when CDs were new, and still used older, lower quality master recordings that were made for vinyl and tape. On early CDs, you could finally hear how bad the recordings had been all along, because you could accurately hear all the flaws for the first time. You may not like CDs or digital better, which is cool. Vinyl has a lot of coolness. I have a certain nostalgia and enjoyment of the fact that such a primitive recording/playback method works so well. Big album art is lovely, and the ritual of using the record player is not without appeal. However, please, don't claim vinyl is "more accurate" than CD or Digital. You just betray your ignorance/bad vocabulary.

Sound Engineer Transformative Art

There may be certain, special records, recorded/mixed by absolutely brilliant people on period equipment that nothing else can sound the same as (don't flame me, all you Pink Floyd retroists!), but those are still not the most accurate to the original music. They are transformed works of art in their own right, as specific recordings/pressings. If you were in the room with Pink Floyd playing Dark Side of the Moon, it would not sound the same as the original vinyl pressing.

Digital and Compression

Mp3 (but not all digital) is compressed/lossy. You can compress it to different levels, and the compression is very audible, if you have a decent ear (especially on high tones that change quickly). When you compress the file, to make it smaller, you lose pieces of the music, and therefore, you lose accuracy. I can hear the compression on almost every mp3 I've ever heard, because I have a lifetime of listening to live, uncompressed music, and being taught to listen to the nuances in recordings and concert mixes. However, I choose to sacrifice this quality in order to carry a large pile of music around in my pocket and car. Always buy the highest bit-rate file your player can handle. 320 kbit/s is the best mp3 can do. If you want the most accurate possible listening experience, go FLAC, which is a lossless digital format. This is closer to the master recording, but it may require special player apps or hardware. It also really matters how the master recording was mixed and recorded, but this post is quite long enough already. That topic alone could be an entire book. Keep in mind as well, that when most young people hear vinyl now, and fall in love, they aren't comparing it to CD. They are comparing it to a highly compressed mp3 or iTunes file, which is all they've ever heard, and what they expect. The same age groups (teens and 20s) are also fascinated by mechanical sound storage, because it's antique/retro to them. They also think cassettes are awesome, and no one who is serious about audio quality will legitimately argue for cassettes.

Now, pardon me, while I go order a Florence and the Machine record on vinyl, just for the delight of it!

Good sources of information: