Vinyl Schminyl

Right, I’m bored of supposed audiophiles babbling on about how vinyl reproduces recorded music better than CD. It doesn’t. You may like the experience of playing vinyl records, but the audio reproduction is not ‘warmer’, let alone better than digital. It’s all in your mind… or you’re not comparing like for like.

I’m perfectly fine with people saying they prefer the ‘vinyl experience’. For those whose formative years were spent listening to vinyl, I get it. They (and even I) have fond memories associated with the magic of vinyl from the days when getting hold of certain rare music was an adventure in itself, whereas nowadays, we can pretty much get all we want with a few clicks or prods on a screen. They (like me) probably still have a collection of old albums on vinyl, but there’s no way I’d buy any new albums in that format.

My own favourite kind of music, Progressive Rock, is especially cherished and associated by hardcore fans with the vinyl record. It was the perfect format, giving bands the opportunity to record expansive pieces of music, stretching them musically and giving them the opportunity to expand into longer, side-long, concept pieces – far beyond the three minute, ‘boy being meets girl being beneath the silvery moon’ pop song. It also allowed them to present the artwork as an integral part of the album, launching the careers of artists such as Roger Dean and the Hipgnosis team.

Then there’s the quasi-religious experience around the vinyl record: peeling off the film; studying the artwork in a large format; opening a gatefold; reading lyrics and studying the production notes; cleaning the dust from the needle and record; placing the needle on the record; the initial crackle of anticipation before the music starts, twenty or so minutes of audio bliss before the runout groove of the first side and the process of turning over the sacred disc to begin scene two of the play.

I get it. I really do.

I was born in 1971 and so I lived through the transition from vinyl to CD. I continued to buy vinyl albums up until around 1987, when I made a conscious effort to start buying albums on CD, even though I didn’t own a CD player for some time afterwards. After that, I only continued to buy rarities on vinyl from record fairs in particular. Oddly, the first CD I bought was not Brothers In Arms (like most of the population), but Rick Wakeman’s 1973 debut solo album, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

No sooner were CDs available, and many people were replacing their old vinyl collections with their CD counterparts, than we started to hear vinylphiles declaring that vinyl records offered a better audio experience than CDs. Many went out and defiantly bought the latest Smørg or Björnsen £1000 turntable, read What HiFi, and balanced speakers on tennis balls halves.

Most normal people merrily (or not so merrily) continued to get CD versions of albums they already owned and, despite the cost implications, most of us marvelled at the hiss, click, and scratch-free sound of our favourite albums on CD.

Now here’s where we have to be a little careful. A great deal of ’70s music was recorded at a boom time in recording studio technology, with studios stepping up to increasing numbers of tracks, and improved outboard equipment and instruments. Many artists took advantage of this and used the studio almost as an instrument in its own right. Coincidentally, the artistic freedom of the time led to music with a range of dynamics – particularly noticeable was the big, heavy production on the rhythm sections of that time.

Coincidental with the CD boom in the 1980s was a tendency to compress the buggery out of music in attempt to make it sound better on tin boxes. This meant that we could hear the details of the music on cheap audio equipment. The problem with compression is that while it may level off the audio and make the music dense, the very process robs the music of dynamics.

For me, the change in production values is particularly noticeable when comparing the Rush albums Signals (1982) with Grace Under Pressure (1984). Whilst the former predates the latter, it sounds so much better. Turn them both up on a reasonable stereo system and it’s immediately obvious which one sounds more ‘lively’, so the fact that there was a coincidental move to compress the life out of music at around the same time as CDs hit the streets is the first thing to consider.

“Ah!” says the vinylfile, “But you’re not comparing like for like. If you play the same album on vinyl and CD, the vinyl version sounds better!”

That is possible, but only if the CD mastering was done poorly. At the start of the CD boom, many record companies used the same vinyl mastered tracks for the CD version. The two formats require differently mastered versions, so it’s an unfair comparison.

But ultimately, it all comes down to science. CD has a greater dynamic range than vinyl and digital audio files leave vinyl standing. Put simply, vinyl is not capable of faithfully recreating the recorded version of music to the extent that some audiophiles claim, whereas digital is, so long as you aren’t listening to lossy MP3 versions of the music at low bitrates.

In a world where there’s a market for gullible consumers, record companies will be happy to charge a premium for vinyl versions of new albums – supply and demand, and all that, and there’s enough of a novelty factor for a new generation who didn’t grow up with vinyl and who hear their parents extolling its virtues for it to be a badge of honour to the cool set to buy their music on vinyl.

We also need to consider that not everybody has the same keen ear for music. In the days of the compact cassette, I heard many a piece of music played back on poor reproduction equipment, with misaligned, dirty heads. The whole top (treble) end of the music was missing, as though the cymbals been taken out of the music. Much the same effect was achieved by people who swore by Dolby noise reduction. Yes, the hiss went away, but so did the cymbals! Many were blissfully unaware of this, but of course, as soon as they played a vinyl version of the album (where there were no heads to get dirty or misaligned), the improvement in sound was obvious. I suspect that part of the preference for vinyl in many people’s rose-tinted view is down to a memory of comparing vinyl with compact cassette rather than any fair A/B comparison between vinyl and properly mastered CD versions of the same music.

Perhaps the truth for many is that when we moved from the 12 inch vinyl sleeve to CD Jewel cases, we lost something. Well, perhaps it’s too late now, but there is a middle ground. We should be buying CDs in 12″ cardboard sleeves. We should make it difficult to get hold of certain albums, requiring months of effort to track down elusive albums and rarities. Then, perhaps the ‘magic’ will return to those who talk longingly about the days of vinyl.

I’ll stick with digital, and yes, CDs. Give me the consistently faithful reproduction listen after listen. You won’t hear me proudly proclaiming that I listened to a CD so many times that I ‘wore out the grooves’, as I have heard many vinyl fans claim – even to the extent that they had to buy multiple copies of the same album.

Oh, and that 25 year old CD copy of my first CD purchase, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, still plays fine… the same way it did on the day I bought it, time after time… without any hiss or crackle.