the other theo

There is no dark side of the moon really… as a matter of fact, it's all dark.

Category: Music

Pono Blues

With announcements by Neil Young (about the Pono player) and Sony (about the $1200 Walkman) at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, it seems that high definition audio is back in the news.

Speaking as someone who started out being schooled in the Electrical Engineering arts, I’m somewhat skeptical about the whole thing.  As others have noted, the term high definition audio doesn’t specify anything.  An an analogue to high definition video, it presumably indicates a digital standard that is to compact discs what the Blu-ray disc is to the DVD.  I find that inference to be somewhat ironic since digital music players started out using low bit rate MP3 files that employed lossy compression which produced sound with far inferior fidelity to the 44.1 kHz/16-bit uncompressed audio available on compact discs.

Time and technology have improved the quality of digital audio that can be purchased online or ripped from compact discs at home, but how much is too much?  Bigger sampling rates, higher bit resolution, and less compression translate into bigger digital files.   The values selected for compact discs were not selected randomly as others have discussed extensively, and to my mind, quite convincingly.   The Red Book compact disc spec was not designed to be a compromise when it came to the quality of sound it reproduced.

There will always be those who quibble about the quality of the compact disc standard.   Sony and Phillips even went so far as to develop a successor standard, Super Audio CD (SACD) and this case is instructive.  The specs of SACDs are in every way superior; frequency range, dynamic range, and capacity are all better than Red Book CD and should exceed the human capacity to hear.   Yet, double blind testing by the Audio Engineering Society (AES) shows that SACDs do not sound better than CDs — in tests with about 550 people (many of them professed audiophiles,) slightly less than half correctly identified the SACD.    If SACD truly was better, the results would show something substantially better than the 50/50 outcome of a series of random coin flips.

So why bother with new standards like SACD?  I believe the biggest gain is in digital mastering.   Sony developed Direct Stream Digital (DSD) that substantially simplified and improved the equipment mastering chain for converting music on analog tapes or directly storing data from digital mixing boards.  As a next generation format supposedly superior to CD, Sony and other labels also took the time to make sure that SACD releases were re-mastered carefully to DSD instead of rushing crap out into the marketplace as was done with CDs in the 1980s.   I’d be curious to know if the sample loops in the AES study were taken from the same DSD master (e.g. different layers in the same hybrid-SACD.)  Proper experimental method suggests that they should.   A meaningful follow-on would be to compare the DSD version to some previous re-master in double blind tests.   My bet is that the mastering is a big part of the thing.

(That said, I own some SACDs.  I love the format and the sound.  Perhaps it is confirmation bias.)

As for the quality of the hardware itself, Apple sets the standard in the personal digital player domain and I’m going to guess that they would want to set it reasonably high.   Steve Jobs was partially deaf, and he could not demand audio perfection completely out of personal experience.   Yet he was known for making products into art, and I’m sure he did not want to put the Apple logo on a product that did not meet a fairly acute listening standard given the state of technology at any point and time.   Is an iPod/iPhone a true audiophile device?  Probably not.  I’d guess that it’s good to excellent, but not mind blowing.  Better circuitry for a dedicated listening device is a niche something like Pono could fill.

Where the Apple player and its competitors really fail (if you can call it that) is the ear buds or earpods.   There is only so much you can do with such a small volume of space.   They look cool, sure.  Apple also tries hard to create a product with real substance, but an over ear headphone can provide much better sound reproduction.   I recently acquired a pair of Grado SR60e headphones, and the improvement in listening experience is significant.

Finally, more and better options for digital data files are a welcome development.   A link in the sound reproduction chain that not too many people talk about is the file format and conversion software.   The initial popularity of digital music players was fanned by MP3 files — a format whose digital audio output is only an approximation of the input in order to get real size savings (i.e. lossy compression.)    Apple devices use AAC files with some some well understood software to create them, which is clearly a step up while still using lossy compression.

A number of audiophiles say that better fidelity and detail requires files that use loss-less compression — the reproduced output is identical to the digital audio input.   The price for that fidelity is file size — I recently started using Apple Lossless Audio Compression (ALAC) files for CDs I rip and they take up 8-10 times the amount of disk space.   I couldn’t fit my whole CD collection on my current iPod using ALAC files, but I should do some a head-to-head comparison one of these days to investigate what the differences are like.

Given much more economical fixes I can make to my music listening, I’m going to give Pono and its ilk a pass, for now at least.

I recall hearing Neil Young say that “we are living in a sonic dark age” in an interview or at a press conference sometime about 20 years ago.  At that time, he extolled the virtues of vinyl and analog sound in an industry that was milking the upgrade to compact disc.  I’m glad to see that he now sees that it’s a largely digital landscape. Trying to raise the level of expectation from the listening public is a laudable goal.   I’m just not sure that sound engineers would agree that he’s going about it in the best fashion.

Other Christmas Music

starbucks_cd_covers

All the Starbucks Christmas CD covers 1998-2014, except for 2000.

 

In addition to my recent rediscovery of the Robert Shaw Chorale, I’ve added substantially to my collection of Starbucks Christmas CDs this year.

I first encountered the anthology CDs of Christmas music that Starbucks sells in 1999 through someone I dated briefly.  I didn’t have much in the way of Christmas music in my collection at the time except the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack for Charlie Brown and a Christmas album by Harry Connick Jr.   A Merry Affair: Starbucks Swinging Songs of Red Velvet and Mistletoe Kisses was a nice compilation of jazzy carols by the likes of Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Hunter, and others that complimented my existing collection nicely.

Thinking it was a one off, I treasured the CD every December for several years but never bothered to think that there might be more. That changed in 2007 when I spotted Stockings By The Fire.  Seeing a similar formula to my 1999 purchase, I snapped that one up and the CD issued every year since.

I didn’t get the CDs for 1998 and 2001-2006 until this year.  Nearly all of them were available used online for 1 cent plus shipping.   That was a deal too good to pass up.   I haven’t gotten the 2000 CD yet because it took a while to track down the title: Hear Music Volume 3: Holly Days and Mistletoe Nights.

Now that I can look back on nearly 17 years of holiday music, certain trends become apparent.  Until I can find something older, it looks like A Merry Affair set the pattern that was used for most of a decade.  Starbucks’ Hi-Fidelity Holiday from 1998 is an oddly eclectic collection with tunes by Esquivel, Robbie Robertson, ‘Keb Mo, The Alarm, and Combustible Edison as well as a few by Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, and Bobby Darin.   With the exception of seven complementary tracks from the Cocteau Twins, the Beach Boys, Barbra Streisand, Sarah McLachlan, and Aimee Mann, the jazz/traditional vocalist-dominant approach lasted through at least the following seven CDs.  That started to change around to 2007 with the inclusion of tracks by Hem, Jack Johnson, Rufus Wainwright, A Fine Frenzy, and John Legend.   The following year saw tracks by KT Tunstall, Goldfrapp, and Beth Orton.    Making Merry in 2009 largely returned to the older formula for one year, but the lead off of John Lennon’s Happy Xmas next year stepped away again and stayed there through 2013.

Starbucks changed the formula entirely for 2014.   The anthology this year, Merry & Bright, is a collection of songs all produced by David Foster.   Some of the names like Andrea Bocelli have appeared on previous compilations, but this probably is the first CD since 1999 that doesn’t feature a track sung by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or Bing Crosby.

A Shaded Christmas Dog

Music is an important part of the Christmas season for me.   Be it the music of Christmas Mass, the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, or some 20th Century Christmas classic crooned by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or someone more contemporary, it’s music I only play for myself from the day after Thanksgiving until January 2nd.   That makes it special, and it’s a refuge during a month that seems to be nothing but busy with holiday hustle and bustle.

Lots of pop, rock, and country music artists like to do Christmas albums.   Too many of them end up sounding either sanitized or completely of their moment.  Nearly all of them cater to the secular Christmas motifs of the Northeast United States from the middle of the last century — snow, trees, fiery hearths, sledding, skating, roasted chestnuts, and the rest.   Very few (like A Christmas Cornucopia by Annie Lennox and A Winter’s Night by Sting) bother to even mine much of the large stockpile of older Christmas material beyond the most popular favorites.

So, I’ve leaned on some jazz-inflected compilation albums (primarily produced annually by Starbucks), a few individual albums by the likes of Mel Tormé, Harry Connick Jr., and Diana Krall, and some instrumental favorites like the aforementioned Peanuts soundtrack.

This year, I felt compelled to look for something different.   I wanted something more musical and less commercial (at least in the modern sense) and that dove deeper into the full range of Christmas material.  Somehow, I kept thinking back to an album in my Mother’s collection of vinyl:

rca_lsc-2139I’m not sure why.   I remembered what it is: four part a capella choral harmony.   Though it was not something I especially appreciated at Christmas as a child, it seemed something perfect for me now — quiet, accomplished, meditative, and truly classic (and rooted in the classical.)

But where to find this?   Doing a little research, I discovered that RCA vinyl aficionados call Living Stereo albums “shaded dogs” because of the darker backgrounds in their labels behind the RCA “His Master’s Voice” logo compared to regular RCA Red Seal labels.   This shaded dog had not been issued on its own since the mid-1960’s, despite selling quite well for years after its release.   At first, it seemed a dead end.

Further searching online yielded this possibility: 179672The similar format of the cover art suggested similarity (though the faces of the singing children suggest more parody than enjoyment), but what was it and what, exactly, was on it?   Availability at a number of online retailers also suggested that this was out print because it only could be found used, and generally for more than what one might pay for a new CD.

The solution ultimately came when I found a page for the CD at Arkiv Music.  It turns out that this is a 1994 BMG Classical Music Club compilation release of three classic Robert Shaw Chorale albums of Christmas music from the 1950’s and 1960’s:

  1. Christmas Hymns & Carols, Volume I (LSC-2139)
  2. Christmas Hymns & Carols, Volume II (LM-1711)
  3. Benjamin Britten: Ceremony of Carols/Rejoice in the Lamb/Festival Te Deum (LSC-2759)

Arkiv is re-issuing the recording with permission from RCA.  It is produced through an On Demand process by Arkiv that creates the CD and packaging as orders are placed.  Best of all, it’s a reasonable $20 for a double CD from Arkiv.    The producer of the re-issue even went so far as to include a lengthy review on the Arkiv and Amazon web sites discussing how the compilation was engineered and assembled in 1994.   Win!

I’ve had it for a couple days now, and I must say that it’s lighting up my Christmas season.  For fans of choral music and traditional carols (as well as Britten fans,) it’s definitely worth checking out.

 

Macca And The Stick

This entry is dreadfully overdue.   I put it on the back burner almost four months ago until I could get some graphics together to help illustrate our odyssey.   Here goes…

I got to see one of the most memorable concerts of my life back on 14-Aug-2014.   It was the last show ever at Candlestick Park, and it was Sir Paul McCartney.   It was Beatles songs played by a Beatle and, for most part, the Beatle that wrote them.   It was glorious.   It was long — nearly 3 hours with no opening act.   It was a once in a lifetime event.

It also took forever to get there.   We got the tickets from Auntie M. back in June as a wedding anniversary present.   So, the Missus and I piled into the car for a bit of a road trip.  The plan was to meet Auntie M. and a friend of hers for dinner about 15 miles south of Candlestick at about 5:30pm, and then carpool to the stadium to save on parking.   We had dinner paid for by 6:30pm.   Sir Paul was supposed to start at 8pm.   We had 90 minutes to go a little over 15 miles.  That couldn’t be a problem, right?

It was a monumental problem.  Everything went according to plan until we got about four miles away from the stadium, just past the Oyster Point exit on Route 101.   This diagram documents our approximate progress:

mccartney progress

Traffic on the highway began to back up in the far right lane of 101 about four miles from the Candlestick exit.  We got in line around 6:45pm… and inched along almost literally at a snail’s pace for nearly 2.5 hours.  At one point around 7:30pm, I joked that it would be faster to get out and walk.  Shortly after that, we saw people walking down the shoulder of the road past our car.   The line was so slow that we saw one person get out of the passenger side of a car, run into the bushes along the shore of the Bay to respond to the call of nature, and eventually climb back into the car (near the red dot.)

As time went on, we discovered that walking had its own problems.   We inched off the highway onto the exit and saw a woman with a small child in a stroller on the side of the road yelling into a cell phone.   She was yelling at someone… a husband, presumably… that she was running out of road to walk, and where was he with the tickets, and the child was getting tired and impatient.

We eventually inched our past the Candlestick main parking lot, which only appeared to be about 95% full.   The sight of being so close to the promised land with empty parking spaces here and there just on the other side of a chain link fence was infuriating… because we were directed away from the main lot to an unknown overflow location.   The one good thing about being so close to the stadium was that we could open the car windows and hear that the show hadn’t started… until about 8:45pm.   Sir Paul held the start of the show for 45 minutes to let the house fill… and thank goodness.

The heartbreaking thing about being so close to the stadium was that you could look back along the shore of the Bay and see the line of headlights extending along Route 101 back toward Oyster Point.   There were people 2 hours away from the Candlestick parking lot when the show started.   To paraphrase a line from Ken Burn’s Baseball, never were there so many people out to see a show who didn’t see it.

We eventually found our way to an empty lot about half a mile from the Stadium.  After quickly parking the car, we began the hike back to the stadium.   You couldn’t pay me enough to be directing traffic that night based on what we saw as we walked.   Nerves on the part of many of the concert goers were noticeably frayed.   The people directing traffic took the brunt of it.   When someone pointed out that the parking situation was a total disaster, one security worker said “yeah, I haven’t already heard that tonight”.

Honestly, why blame the men and women in the trenches?   This was a strategic screw up at the top.   The local media never did get a clear picture of why things went so badly in the next few days.   Someone supposedly attached to the concert promoter said it was McCartney’s people who handled parking.   I don’t know if I believe that or not.   This was nobody’s first rodeo (or should not have been): not at a stadium that’s hosted sellout sporting events over several decades, not for Sir Paul who has likely played bigger shows, and not anyone in between.  Were we the naive ones?   The people in close to the stadium seemed to have the best plan: they were ready to tailgate all day and all night.

As it was, we got to our seats around 9:25pm.   That turned out to be about nine songs into the set list.   Fortunately, there were many more to come after that.

paul_mccartney_candlestick_set_list

Set list courtesy of http://www.setlist.fm

It was a high energy show.  Sir Paul played until nearly 11:45pm, with only a few breaks (primarily before encores.)  The man is 72 years old.  I guess vegetarian living agrees with him.   I always remember hearing about these great 3 hour stadium shows that played the night away but had never been to one, until now.  A little research shows that this was pretty much Sir Paul’s standard tour set, with two additions: San Francisco Bay Blues and Long Tall Sally (last song played by the Beatles at Candlestick at their last concert gig.)

We were in the stands off stage right.   In addition to the screens flanking either side of the stage, there was a smaller screen on the side of the stage scaffold so we could still see the action.

IMG_1463

I haven’t been to an arena or stadium concert in a good many years.   Where people used to hold up lighters during the power ballads or anthems, now they hold up smart phones.

10580063_10152646376194275_1720392099978883392_n

I believe that this was during Hey Jude.

It all seemed to be over a little too soon.   After the show, we got a couple souvenirs and made the hike back to overflow parking.   Parking so far away turned out to have one significant advantage:  we were able to take some back streets into San Francisco and get out on the highway in about 20 minutes.   We heard the next morning that some people in the regular stadium lot were still waiting to leave at 2:30am.

The Music of the 80’s Lives Again

I am one of the Walkman generation.  Though my Mom had some great heavy classical vinyl albums in our house, I never developed much affection for the medium.  I’ve always seen vinyl for its utility (or lack thereof) and fragility.  Vinyl warps and scratches.  It gets dusty.   It is also decidedly not portable.

So, I started with a General Electric portable tape player, graduated to two or three different Sony Walkmans, and purchased something on the order of 80-100 cassette tapes before finally jumping over to Compact Discs in March of 1989.   I pretty much haven’t looked back to analog media since then, though I have branched out into SACD, DVD-Audio, HDCD, and Dual-Layer Discs in recent years.

I got a decent Fisher Boombox in the late 80’s, one that was good enough to support stereo “Line In” that allowed me to play CDs on it well into the 1990’s and digital music from an iPod since then.  It also allowed me to reach back into my tape library for anything that was out of print on CD or things like mix tapes for many years, until finally the belts on its dual tape decks finally gave out.

By then, it was after the year 2000 and I owned a decent 5.1 surround sound entertainment system, and while the boombox was worth repair, something more permanent seemed in order if I ever wanted to play any of my tapes back.  After talking with a friend who also had some archival interest in cassette tapes, looking at what was available in the mall electronics stores, and checking out e-Bay, I discovered that cassette deck manufacture peaked between about 1988-93 and that I really needed to look at a used deck from that period.  Eventually, I won an Onkyo TA-2058 on e-Bay for about $30.  It’s not absolute top of the line, but certainly good enough for my needs… and goodness knows how many hundreds of dollars it was new.  Knowing that maintenance would be an issue, I also found the English language service manual for the unit on a Russian web site for a few dollars shortly after I got it.

That deck served my needs whenever I intermittently felt the need until a few months ago.   At that point, it began to show some serious symptoms of failure.  It would play tapes, but only for short periods that ended with the tape slowing to a stop.  Consulting the exploded view of the playback unit itself, I saw that it had two belts (a main drive belt, and a counter belt) and deduced pretty quickly that they were the likely source of failure.

Finding the necessary parts took a while.  Original factory parts were rare, and had been sitting in plastic bags for nearly 20 years.  Finally I stumbled on an audio forum thread which recommended a guy by the name of Fred Marrs who manufactures (or has others manufacture) and sells belts for a bunch of good and great old tape decks.  Since he’s a one man operation, it took a few weeks to get the necessary replacement belts from him.

I was finally able to take some time today to install the new belts.  It went pretty well and the deck sounds great after the repair.

The TA-2058 with the cover off and belts replaced.

The TA-2058 with the cover off and belts replaced.

The work was tedious and cramped for space but did not require removal of the whole mechanical playback unit.  I was able to remove the plate that held the main drive motor from the back of the playback deck.

IMG_1481

The main drive motor with replaced belt.

I was then able to remove the front bezel (though that was not necessary), the front door, the door supports, and a front plate of the playback deck to reveal and replace the counter belt.

The counter belt runs between the left capstan and geared post that functions as the mechanical counter.

The counter belt runs between the left capstan and geared post that functions as the mechanical counter (here partially obscured by the left support for the door.)

Replacing the belts and reassembling the unit took surprisingly little time, and I was able to test the tape deck using my venerable boombox as a bench amp.

Here’s the repaired tape deck playing a mix tape that a friend sent me in the early 1990’s.  The video shows the mix tape, the partially re-assembled deck, the service manual, the boom box, and the old, removed belts.

Listening at 78 RPM

I’ve come to have a greater appreciation for the music of the first half of the 20th century over the years.  It’s crept in slowly, first by listening to bands like the Asylum Street Spankers, who consciously create modern music in the style of the 1920’s and 30’s.    More recently, it’s come out of listening to some of the early music itself after a blogger friend turned me on to the 1920’s Radio Network (a live radio feed near Norfolk, VA and online digital stream.)

Having heard a few 78 RPM records in person over the years, I have always wondered how much information ever went onto those grooves in the pre-vinyl days of shellac from before 1948.   The records that come down to us now are often worn and the playback equipment is tired.  Digital transfers often do not help much, because the aim too often is “hiss free playback” not “proper fidelity” (something that made early CD remasters of much more recent music inferior to their analog counterparts in the 1980’s and 1990’s.)

So, it was a very pleasant surprise to happen upon the YouTube archive of Ade Gregg, an Australian sound engineer with a love of Big Band Era and earlier recordings who spends a lot of his free time figuring out how to get the most sound off of a 78 RPM record.   He posted much of his material online between 2010-2013, some of it during a period when he was unemployed and trying to see if he could do work with 78’s for a living somehow.  From what I can see, he’s evidently got a two part system: a phono pre-amp that’s he’s put together himself to best reproduce the sound envelope of the era, and some custom and stock digital plugins that he uses with whatever digital mastering software he’s got.   Most to all of the stuff he’s posted is from records he’s picked up at junk and antique shops for cheap.

I initially found out about him while looking up some online sources for Hawaiian slack key and steel guitarists:

 

From there, I jumped to Jussi Bjorling singing one of the great tenor arias of all time:

 

There also was some of the cleanest Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli I believe I’ve ever heard (and apparently only playable from a computer because of some arcane Youtube permissions):

 

Finally, I heard some proto-Dixieland jazz:

 

I guess it turns out that there’s a lot of information in those grooves, if you know how to get it.

I don’t know what happened to Ade Gregg in the last few years, but I hope he gets his dream job.  If he can get sounds like this off consumer pressed records bought for cheap, I’d like to hear what he can do with surviving metal and acetate masters.

Check out his YouTube channel.  He’s got a ton of stuff (well, at least 100 other recordings) there.

The Non-Divinity of Vinyl

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