The Non-Divinity of Vinyl

by the other theo

Sometimes it warms my heart when “everything old is new again”.   I read words and whispers on the Internet that a generation raised on lossy, downloaded MP3s and M4As and $20 ear buds has discovered that music can sound better than they’ve previously heard it.   Sales of vinyl record albums are up for the first time in years.   Bloggers, musicians, and other observers are waxing poetic about the experience of going to shops solely dedicated to the sale of music, checking out the artwork on physical media, and meeting people in person who share a love for music at least equal to their own.   Heck, Neil Young, Mr. “we have entered a sonic dark age” himself, recently decided “if you can’t beat’em, join’em.”  He is now promoting his idea of a portable audiophile music player called Pono.

While this is generally a good thing (except possibly the Pono part,) I’m going to pick up my cane, walk out on my porch, and clear my throat in preparation for letting the neighborhood kids know not to come on my lawn and tell me that it all sounds so much better on vinyl.    Vinyl isn’t a perfect medium for reproducing sound, dear readers.   The fact that it became as good as it did took decades of engineering and innovation.   As Jay Leno likes to say about steam cars, “the last days of an old technology are almost always better than the first days of a new technology.”   While I believe we are now well past the “first days” of digital music production and consumption, undue nostalgia can still overwhelm the unwary listener.

Here are a few reasons why I can’t get overly enthusiastic about vinyl albums:

  • There was crappy vinyl manufactured back in the day.   There could still be now.  My Mom has a pretty significant classical vinyl collection from the late 50’s and early 60’s, and while I’m willing to stack a lot of those thick vinyl RCA Victor Red Seal and Living Stereo albums against any ever made,  we also had a few late pressings of pop albums from the 70’s that were much more poorly manufactured.   Some records existed, straight out of the factory, that just skipped no matter what you did because the grooves were poorly stamped into the discs.   There is no way to know whether this is true prior to opening the package and playing the album.
  • Aspects of the vinyl mastering process that could affect playback were never standardized.   Vinyl record masters are cut on lathe that uses a sharp cutter driven by supercooled magnets to create the groove.  The shape and angle of the cutter affect the shape of the groove.   That shape affects the angle (called the Stylus Rake Angle or SRA) that the record needle should use to best play the  music back.   This was never standardized, though some values may have been common.  Properly setting up the SRA is a somewhat involved process.
  • Vinyl imposes some real limitations on how you sequence tracks on albums because of the physical geometry of the disk.   The disk turns at a constant speed and the needle travels from the outer edge to the inner edge of the disc at a constant rate.   This produces a long groove in one turn of the outer edge of the disc and a much shorter groove in a turn of the inner edge of the recorded part of the disk, but both grooves must contain about the same amount of music.    How does that affect the music?  It’s easier for a lathe to cut the high frequency squiggles made by voices and cymbals at the outer edge of the disk than it is at the middle because more record is passing under the recording stylus as it cuts.   You get much better high frequency fidelity at the outer edge, and mastering engineers recommend putting louder,  more dynamic music there.  This effect is exaggerated because of RIAA equalization — a process where bass is lowered and treble increased during record mastering and the opposite actions taken during playback.   RIAA equalization has the net effect of increasing the amount of usable space on the side of record and reducing surface hiss, but it significantly increases the size of high frequency squiggles in the groove.
  • The total amount of music on a side of a vinyl record is driven by its volume and amount of bass present on the recording.   Both cause the squiggles in the groove to become wider and deeper.   Wider and deeper grooves need to be spaced further apart, or the record skips.   If the music on a vinyl side needs to be longer, then it needs to be softer or have less bass or both, so that the grooves can be cut closer together.
  • Stereo reproduction in vinyl records also affects how music is mixed and engineered.   The two stereo channels are cut into the disk at the same time, each at opposing 45 degree angles (the Westrex “45/45” system, see here).   This has the net effect of causing each side of the groove to behave somewhat differently.  If the bass is doing different things in the left and right channels in the Westrex system, it’s like a car passing over potholes in the road that alternate between the driver and passenger side tires. The amount of bounce created can be enormous and bounce can cause skips.   Therefore, engineers routinely recommend mixing the bass track of a song down to mono (same on both channels) before the vinyl mastering process.
  • Vinyl records cannot play back more than two audio channels well.  Quadrophonic sound on vinyl was attempted in the 1970’s but wasn’t very effective.  It had more technical success in the world of reel-to-reel tape.   It’s not a big thing now either, but there are some very nice 5.1 editions of classic albums on DVD-Audio and SACD.
  • Playback of vinyl records degrades the medium as it plays.   Record playback means putting a sharp object in a groove (unless you’ve got a laser turntable, whose effectiveness audiophiles debate and which has never meaningfully caught on.)   Since the groove contains information in the form of bumps, the sharp object will eventually wear them down.  As the bumps wear down, the character of the playback changes.
  • It’s a fragile medium, with little in the way of automatic error correction.   Digital media are essentially streams of numbers.   It’s mathematically possible to verify that all those numbers are correct, and include redundant information that can correct errors automatically.  The same can’t be really be done with vinyl.  Cleaning of the disk and correct positioning of the turntable needle can minimize the effects of a scratch, I suppose, but that process is guided by the operator manually.   Dust, scratches, and warping can all affect the fidelity of vinyl recordings.

Now before someone starts yelling “vinyl hater!” at me, I think vinyl can sound great.  Generations of men and women smarter than me and with better ears than me spent a LOT of time learning how to make vinyl playback sound “just so”.    That effort has likely affected both how the disks sound and expectations of how we want them to sound.   Should Shakespeare or the King James Version of the Bible be rejected because they use archaic English?  Of course not.

My point is simply that I reject the blind belief in the superiority of vinyl records.   Vinyl can sound great!  It can also sound like crap!  The same two statements can be said about digital media.   If we can’t figure out a way to make digital media sound as good as or better than vinyl, that’s not the fault of digital media.  That’s the fault of the engineers for not trying hard enough, and the consumer public for not demanding more.

References:

  1. Producing Great Sounding Records by Kevin Gray, Record Technology Incorporated, 1997
  2. Why CDs Sound Better Than Vinyl by James Cruz, Rock Edition, 2012
  3. Myths(Vinyl), HydrogenAudio Wiki
  4. Disadvantages(Vinyl), HydrogenAudio Wiki
  5. RIAA Equalization, Wikipedia
  6. Mastering For Vinyl (video), Criminal Records
  7. Setting Up A Phono Cartridge, The Abso!ute Sound
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