So is analog vinyl really superior to digital music files? In the case of mp3’s the compressed audio format degrades audio fidelity to a degree, although not many users can tell the difference between a compressed and lossless file format. Vinyl requires some roll-off of the low end frequencies to avoid the needle jumping out of the groove on loud passages. What remains is somewhat band limited but faithful to the frequencies in a way that digital can come very close to and in many ways exceeds. So why do some people prefer vinyl?
- To many it sounds better. If you grew up with it you know THAT sound, and prefer it over the exacting and sometimes overly clinical digital recordings.
- If you did not grow up with it, its a new thing that offers a tangible product, something you can show off if you are in a band. And it sounds better than MP3’s played through ear-buds.
- There is more room for liner notes and info about the band or recording that you can typically get onto a CD jacket.
- It’s cool, trendy.
- More expensive to manufacture, typically, 3-4X more costly than doing CD’s
- Somewhat limited frequency response, especially in the bass region
- Tendency for pops, ticks, hiss, and of course the dreaded skip when a groove is damaged. Some people like this so much that plugins have been devised that simulate bad vinyl! Really, and I have one…
- LP’s in particular store fewer tracks than CD’s, typically no more than about 40 minutes total. CD’s can get up to 70+ minutes.
- Difficult to get into digital form unless a download card is included in the packaging (you see this more often now)
- Requires an old school stereo system and turntable with a RIAA balanced input, or a turntable with RIAA built in.
RIAA equalization is a little known aspect of vinyl, explained here in a Wikipedia article:
“RIAA equalization is a form of pre-emphasis on recording and de-emphasis on playback. A recording is made with the low frequencies reduced and the high frequencies boosted, and on playback the opposite occurs. The net result is a flat frequency response, but with attenuation of high frequency noise such as hiss and clicks that arise from the recording medium. Reducing the low frequencies also limits the excursions the cutter needs to make when cutting a groove. Groove width is thus reduced, allowing more grooves to fit into a given surface area, permitting longer recording times. This also reduces physical stresses on the stylus which might otherwise cause distortion or groove damage during playback.
A potential drawback of the system is that rumble from the playback turntable‘s drive mechanism is amplified by the low frequency boost that occurs on playback. Players must therefore be designed to limit rumble, more so than if RIAA equalization did not occur.”There is an even more “trendy” approach of doing studio recording direct to vinyl, without any digital intervention. That requires taking the stereo mix from the mixer or console, directly to a vinyl cutting machine, in real time. Each master disc costs around $150.00, versus $< $1.00 for a CD. The band has to play perfectly, and there are no re-takes or editing. I would call this “extreme recording”, not for the faint of heart or the lesser of chops.
So really the issue comes down not vinyl versus CD, as each has their pros and cons. Unless you really want to spend the extra money, you will stop at the CD level, maybe with some MP3’s thrown in for your web site.
Instead, how can we best integrate analog sound into digital recordings to get the best sound out of digital, regardless if the final product is vinyl or CD? The answer for many audio engineers today is a “hybrid” studio setup, which I have discussed before in an earlier blog post. A professional hybrid setup offers the following:
- Really high quality microphones recording into high quality preamps and other outboard gear such as compressors and EQ’s. Tube preamps are often preferred here, depending on the sound source, voice timbre, etc. The idea here is to capture it in the best analog sound up front.
- High quality analog to digital conversion going into the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, AKA the computer), so that the sound is not degraded. This is not hard to do these days as the cost of A-D conversion has come down significantly. Some would argue that typical computer sound cards such as the Sound Blaster are sufficient, but I disagree mostly because they are very limited in what they offer for inputs, in addition to having inferior clocking which can influence the sound to a degree.
- Mixing tracks via an outboard analog “mix bus” or chain of, again, high quality tube or solid state EQ’s and compressors before doing one more D-A back into the master stereo track. This involves both analog “summing” of the individual digital tracks using a console or some other outboard device that takes however many tracks are in the recording and sums them down electrically to a stereo master track. Some engineers would say that staying ITB (In the Box, i.e. no round trip to the analog domain during mixing) is better. It really depends on how you work, but I prefer the outboard mixing approach before applying any plugins ITB, if at all. I just prefer what my analog outboard gear brings to the mixing process, and it’s often easier and more consistent than using plugins (albeit more expensive initially).
If the final product will be on vinyl, an extra mastering step is required to attenuate the extreme highs and lows, as needed, before sending the master disk to the cutting engineer. This takes much skill, and there is a small but growing cadre of young, professional vinyl mastering engineers that are servicing the trendy LP market.
So the take away is, not all digital is created equal! Adding a bit of analog spice makes the final dish taste better, to mix my metaphors (pun intended).