9th November 2012
Behind the tech that makes vinyl so special
By Harry Sword

Vinyl record sales are on the rise. But just what marks vinyl out from modern alternatives?

Our collective enjoyment of music is intrinsically tied to place, memory and personal experience; any debate regarding favoured format is therefore likely to elicit a passionate response. First and foremost, it’s a deeply human topic – be it a pile of personalised mix tapes from old friends, a treasured stack of original reggae 12”s or even a lovingly curated iTunes party playlist – most music lovers have significant memories attached to their collections and, by proxy, their favoured listening medium.

However, there is one format that attracts fanatical devotion above and beyond any other– vinyl. For over a century, music lovers have held it dear for the physicality and warmth it affords sound, not to mention the addictive excitement of record hunting.

But – romanticism aside – what of the rude mechanics: why does vinyl still hold that elusive pull in an age of ever-quicker convenience? Humans Invent is on hand with a brief technical guide to the black gold, enlisting the help of two top vinyl-mastering engineers, Christoph Grote-Beverborg of Berlin vinyl cutting house Dubplates and Mastering, and Lawrie Dunster of London’s Curved Pressings.

Analogue Sound

The integral difference between vinyl and CD or MP3 is that a vinyl record is an analogue recording– that is, the physical recording is made to vary in correspondence to the variations in air pressure of the original sound. Put simply, the groove that is cut into the vinyl by the cutting lathe mirrors the original sound wave.

With vinyl you get a certain kind of saturation and added harmonics that you don’t have with digital

Digital sound, meanwhile, is produced by changing the physical properties of the original sound into a sequence of numbers, which can then be stored and read back for reproduction. In practical terms, you’re getting a representation of the sound – the CD taking a snapshot of the analogue signal at a specific rate (44,100 times per second, to be exact).

But what of the fabled ‘warmth’ attributed to vinyl? Christoph Grote-Beverborg has processed thousands of records across the electronic spectrum (and far beyond) for labels such as Tresor, Honest Jons and Ostgut Ton:

‘‘In terms of uncompressed digital audio vs vinyl, I can only repeat what has been said before: with digital audio the resolution is more limited than with analogue audio. The same goes for frequency range. But the real thing is what you hear. With vinyl you get a certain kind of saturation and added harmonics that you don’t have with digital. The sound has a ‘body'; it’s just more physical.

There is a worry that the quality of the turntable has declined.

“However, one important aspect no one ever talks about in the vinyl vs digital DJ discussions is that all may be well providing you don’t pitch (playing a record either faster or slower than its original speed, by using the pitch slider control on the turntable). As soon as you pitch records (which happens in 90% of music played in a club) the digital sound becomes grainy because either samples are skipped or added.’’

Christoph also points to cheaper hi-fi equipment as another major factor in degrading sound quality.

‘‘There are hardly any decent turntables that the average music fan can afford, especially now the Technics SL-1200 is discontinued. Also, the cartridge situation is bad. There’s no middle ground. Apart from DJ cartridges, which for obvious reasons you shouldn’t use when you just want to listen to records at home, there are only really budget carts – which don’t sound too good – or else it gets really expensive’’ says Christoph.

He continues, “A lot of people nowadays have crappy surround sound systems: it doesn’t matter if you hear MP3 or vinyl over them. Most of the stereo stuff, including amplifiers and speakers is plain crap nowadays; even companies that used to build good gear now build tinny sounding stuff. So you have to go for vintage gear or buy very expensive high end.’’

Crafted excellence

The mastering process is also of integral importance to how a finished piece of vinyl will sound – and it would be wrong to assume that just because a piece of music is cut to vinyl it will automatically sound good.

Christoph says, ‘‘The quality of records is just not as good as it was. One thing that worries me a bit is re-releases of old classics – be it rock, pop, jazz or reggae. Many of them are of appalling quality.’’

‘‘For example, there’s a big pressing plant in Germany, they got started with CD/DVD and only later went into vinyl…. so they bought cutting lathes, a galvano department (during the galvanic process a metallic copy of the original lacquer is produced – a ‘father copy’ with elevations instead of grooves) and a record press. They worked for the major labels, doing the odd promo 12″ of a Madonna track and the like – they only worked with big record companies. When the music industry entered crisis mode, they skipped these extras, so the plant had to look out for a new customer base, which was the kind of small independent labels we deal with.

“Suddenly they had a problem: all their records were coming back rejected due to poor quality. That didn’t happen once during the preceding decade because none of their previous customers ever listened to one of the records they ordered! So, the problem went unnoticed for years. This could lead to a situation where someone buys a re-release vinyl and brings it along to a friend’s place that’s got the CD. They compare and then come to the conclusion that vinyl doesn’t sound good after all. That will be bad for the whole industry.’’

Music fans are leaving the MP3 behind and returning to the tangible experience of collecting vinyl.

Lawrie Dunster, manager of London pressing plant and mastering house Curved Pressings is also a passionate vinyl advocate, knowing the perils of poor mastering all too well:

‘‘With records you get a better interpretation of the sound intended. The harshness of a lot of tracks mastered for digital just won’t transfer to vinyl, so it has to be mastered better. Vinyl is almost always professionally mastered – with respect shown to dynamics and full audio bandwidth, as opposed to a lot of digital releases which have had horrific software based home mastering using zero experience and cheap plug-ins, just to make them sound loud.’’ Says Lawrie.

The final destination of a record – home, club or both – is also likely to be taken into consideration when mastering for vinyl and an experienced engineer will be adept at considering the wildly different dynamics of the club and home space.

The quality of records is just not as good as it was. One thing that worries me a bit is re-releases of old classics

Christoph says, ‘‘It’s a hard one, because a record should sound good in every environment or situation. So you try to achieve that. When it is obvious that a certain track will only be played in a club, you take into account the high volume they will be played at, the average club PA and the typical room acoustics. An experienced mastering engineer has this offset etched into his brain. When you sit in the studio, it’s not about whether the music sounds good there, but how it will sound in the club. And with experience you just know, you ‘hear’ the club sound in the studio. For a living room environment there are no such considerations as above, as it will just sound good if the hi-fi is half-way decent. It’s much less challenging than club acoustics due to the moderate playback levels and the mostly damped rooms i.e. carpets, curtain, couches.”

He adds, ‘‘That said, aiming a mastering too much at one special environment or situation will compromise how it sounds in a different setup. So you have to be careful with that.’’

And to the future?

Christoph says, ‘‘The magic of a record, digital can’t compete with. When the DJ pulls out a 12″ from his crate, puts it on the deck and mixes it, it creates such an amount of joy and energy on the dancefloor, even people who are not into this vinyl thing and are not staring at the DJ can feel it. I mean, is there ANY other peace of technology that can bring so much instant joy & pleasure? I don’t know of any…’

Lawrie concludes, “It will be the only physical format and there will be no other. The r&d cost of coming up with a new physical format will stop it ever happening as most will always be satisfied with digital, so vinyl will survive.’’


Photo Credits: Shutterstock


The End
  • pickleschlitz

    The major difference between vinyl and digital is mastering. Digital as a format has better frequency response, distortion, and dynamic range, and it is a much more forgiving and flexible medium than analogue. Unfortunately this encourages a “we’ll fix it later” attitude that leads to poor sound.

    In the analogue era, engineers had to deal with generation loss and a myriad of other problems. They dealt with this by attending to quality control at each and every stage of production. Studio monitors were calibrated to perfectly flat response to ensure consistency. With home studios and digital technology, only the very best do this any more. Many mix using crappy bookshelf speakers because “that’s what the kids will be listening to it on”.

    When engineers pour the same care into producing digital recordings that they used to back in the analogue era, the results can be fantastic… even better than the best analogue recording. The proof of digital’s superiority to vinyl is simple to determine for yourself. Just take a great sounding record and capture it to your computer using a decent sound card. Balance the line levels and compare your capture to the original. I guarantee you that you won’t be able to tell the difference.

    • Tore Sinding Bekkedal

      I agree, and as a broadcast video technician I can personally relate. The ease of use and precision of digital audio recording crosses a threshold where you’re no longer forced to pay attention to the technical side of things – it allows people to de-emphasize the importance of technical skill in the creative aspect of what is, after all, simply the inherently technical task of recording voltage fluctuations.

  • Aaron Sluis

    You can’t have a serious discussion of why ‘vinyl sounds better’ without discussing the mastering process. The simple fact is that, done properly, both formats can sounds extremely good. However, it’s quite difficult to come across anything that was mastered to sound the same on both formats. It’s very difficult to compare apples to apples. Any discussion of vinyl vs. digital that doesn’t address this issue is worthless.

    • Tore Sinding Bekkedal

      “It’s very difficult to compare apples to apples.”

      Actually, I have an easy time doing that. I’m assuming that was a typo, but you were accidentally correct. ;)

      Both vinyl and CD are audio recording formats. You can measure their quality by many parameters – harmonic distortion, linearity, channel separation, dynamic range, signal-to-noise ratio, to name a few.

      You can objectively make an informed decision about which is better. And CD is better, by a very clear margin.

      One might make the case, as do I, that vinyl is nice. It’s nice to take a record out of the sleeve, dust it off, and place it on the turntable. But the notion that it is a superior medium is bunk.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-Jones/1466350552 Matthew Jones

    How does the RIAA-mastering technique, where the low frequencies of an analog recording are stripped, using a specific curve, during the record plating process, and replaced at the turntable, effect the final sound? I’ve heard of certain mastering engineers tweaking this RIAA curve to punch up certain frequencies, a sort of analog hacking.

    • Porcus

      Engineers apply EQ to alter the sound – RIAA-curve or not. They may want to tweak the curve to compensate for (presumed) deficiencies in the end-user’s playback chain.

      Would of course be totally unnecessary if the medium was anything close to what the article suggests …

    • Tore Sinding Bekkedal

      RIAA equalization is a purely technical thing, designed to work around weaknesses in the medium. Audio equalization is a creative decision – emphasizing frequency ranges for what sounds best to the people involved in producing it.

      The RIAA curve simply specifies that the waveform is committed to dents in vinyl in a non-linear fashion. It’s an equalization emphasis applied at the lathe, and inversely at playback – usually totally transparently to both the mastering engineer and the listener.

  • Jdelgado881

    “With vinyl you get a certain kind of saturation and added harmonics that you don’t have with digital”

    It’s called distortion.

    • Widest Smiles

      Good distortion is good distortion. Mics provide distortion, amps (even clean amps) provide distortion, mixing consoles provide distortion, the room in which the recording was done provides distortion. Our ears like natural distortion, and the distortion from Vinyl is, for the most part, pleasant, natural, musical distortion.

      • Porcus

        That is likely a much better explanation than the grossly erroneous technical details written in the article.

        But: if this is what you want, namely a musical instrument, then it should be added in the studio. That’s what they are there for. Doesn’t it sound like utter madness to impose end users to invest in a $$$ distortion device, with side effects as more fragile media (it wears out! Even after the first few plays, the specs deteroriate), less practical media, and lots of sonic compromise having to be made (e.g. partial mono)?

      • Tore Sinding Bekkedal

        Yeah, but audio reproduction is reproduction. To me, fidelity is how you measure its quality – and vinyl demands distortion, even if it’s out of place for the music being reproduced.

        Distortion might sound good in some cases, but in those cases I want that to be added in the recording or mastering phase, not while reproducing.

  • Anonymous

    When I was a musician, I had my records mastered at Fantasy Studios in California. The Engineer gave me some harsh news about one of my songs which caused the tracks on the record master to overlap, due to the bass being too heavy and loud. He explained that vinyl was made for music such as Lawrence Welk, not the club dance floor. I had to cut that bass down for the vinyl version, which sucked. I believe the reason vinyl sound better is because of romanticism, but put a younger person who wasn’t raised on vinyl into a double-blind study, and I bet the digital version will be preferred.

    • Widest Smiles

      Claiming that Vinyl isn’t for the club dance for is not only factually wrong to the highest degree, but idiotic as well. Try finding a decent dance club that doesn’t have a turntable set up. Club music and vinyl go hand in hand. You should have taken it somewhere else.

      • Widest Smiles

        club dance floor*

        Seriously though, try finding a popular club track that isn’t on Vinyl.

        • Anonymous

          Yes, but clubs are smart enough to use an EQ to distort the signal so that the quietly recorded bass becomes loud. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have Bose-type technology where bass is just added.

          Vinyl really is not that good at handling loud bass. Bass notes create stronger vibrations, and those vibrations cause the recording needle to jump. You have to record it quiet and then bump it up in studio.

          You’ll note that most actually recordings of DJs doing their thing are digital.

      • Anonymous

        Chill out man, you’re missing the point. I was bringing up an experience and a quote by a reputable engineer with 40 years experience mastering every type of music under the sun, as well as the fact that I had to re-produce a track so it would work on vinyl without the grooves overlapping.

        • Widest Smiles

          I’m chill, just saying if the guy says something like “vinyl was made for music such as Lawrence Welk” then that’s not, imo, the guy you should have mastering your vinyl.

          The ironic thing is that club music is one of the reasons vinyl has managed to stay somewhat relevant all these years. DJs making beats in dance clubs etc. I assure you, it’s possible to have vinyl with VERY substantial bass.

  • MarkaMeeba

    With vinyl, there is a ‘there’ there… digital is like those styrpfoam rocks at Disneyland, they look kinda real, but there’s no density… no-one is mentioning the real difference, IMHO, which is resonance.. Vinyl has it, digital doesn’t… period. It’s like the diff between a plastic musical instrument, and one made of wood… analog has ‘theoretically infinite resolution’ and that means that the warmth is preserved… I’ll take a crappy vinyl recording over any digital format, any day… This article is good news, people are intuitively grasping the fact that vinyl carries the magic.

    • tim ramich

      Except that vinyl has horrible a frequency response and noise floor because there is no such thing as infinite resolution, and we have things called molecules of PVC. Your entire post was emotional pseudoscientific nonsense fluff.

  • Jo

    There’s no inherent difference as such between digital and analogue. The reason is twofold: first, the Shannon-Nyquist sampling theorem ensures that all the information of an analogue signal can be digitally encoded and recovered, as long as the sampling rate matches the bandwidth. Second, and more importantly, your ear is digital: neuronal action potentials follow an ‘all-or-none’-principle, that is, their amplitude is independent of the stimulus. So no matter how faithfully analogue the original signal was, what enters your brain ultimately is always digital. What difference in analogue vs. digital can be heard is either due to habituation — the ‘warm sound’ of vinyl is mostly due to errors, such as hiss, clicks and pops, in the reproduction — or inferior technology/mastering techniques.

    • http://chriswoods.co.uk/ Christopher Woods

      As the workings of the inner ear have a sufficiently-close-as-to-be-infinite bitdepth (and are 100% analogue to the point where sound waves reach the timpanic membrane), is it arguable that their operation is fundamentally analogue? You can’t, as I understand it, have things like intersample peaks or missed samples with the human ear – it’s just the lowpass inherent in the design of our cochleas which limits our frequency response. All you can do is overload the input stage which will be naturally attenuated provided the impulse isn’t violent enough to defeat the ear’s natural defense mechanism.

      IMO The ear’s ‘bitdepth’ rivals that of the finest microphones and pres available to buy. Its ability to ‘regain’ low level inputted sound waves and distinguish subtle differentials in decibel levels is remarkable. What it has problems doing is returning to a steady state quickly, hence the effectiveness of pre- and post-masking as employed in audio codecs. The brain’s ability to interpret and interpolate data where it expects there to be some but in a nonlinear fashion is incredible. Along with those, its involuntary acoustic reflex is is both its primary shortcoming but an amazing safety feature.

  • Kohlrabi

    It is extremely questionable and sad if an recording/mastering engineers perpetuates the lies about vinyl vs. digital. Vinyl is not only much more expensive to reproduce on the user end, it has far worse specifications and distortions than digital.

  • cpt_nemo

    The author of this article is so grossly ignorant of how audio and audio recording works, that his whole article and conclusions can and should be ignored.

  • Tore Sinding Bekkedal

    ‘‘In terms of uncompressed digital audio vs vinyl, I can only repeat what has been said before: with digital audio the resolution is more limited than with analogue audio. The same goes for frequency range. But the real thing is what you hear. With vinyl you get a certain kind of saturation and added harmonics that you don’t have with digital. The sound has a ‘body’; it’s just more physical.

    (…)

    As soon as you pitch records (which happens in 90% of music played in a club) the digital sound becomes grainy because either samples are skipped or added.’’

    This guy really should not be interviewed as an expert. He isn’t one. First of all: Using the term “resoution” is meaningless. There are two types of resolution you can measure in audio, and in both types even standard CDs beat the best of vinyl by clear margin: There is dynamic range – resolution in terms of how exactly you reproduce the amplitude. Then there is frequency response, which in digital audio systems is half the sample rate.

    Secondly, “a certain kind of saturation” doesn’t really make any sense as far as I can tell, so I don’t really know what he’s referring to. but “added harmonics” means “harmonic distortion”. Firstly, harmonic distortion is a bad thing, and secondly I seem to recall that the minimum total harmonic distortion a listener can discern is 3%, and a typical THD figure for vinyl is around 1.5%.

    Now, “pitching records” in the digital domain – it’s simply a form of signal scaling. It’s theoretically possible that a digital player scales the time base by sampling the nearest neighbour, but that would be brain-dead. Anyway, it’s not as if it’s inherently related to the concept of digital audio.

    • lifelonglistener

      NB to all you licence-payers, BBC wants us to dump excellent “analogue” HiFi setups which receive FM signals for superb Radio 3 broadcasts into our homes and cars, workshops and guest-houses.. WE WILL NOT RECEIVE COMPENSATION FOR THE LOSS OF ALL THIS PERFECT GEAR.
      We are not all teenagers spending our life on public transport with Ipods and tiny earphones. Somebody in BBC is getting paid to flog digital listening. WHY??
      Please could one of you sound experts prove any differences once and for all.
      There is no proper recording nor recap of music etc via “podcasts” which just lurk un-heard and forlorn inside computers. Digital and internet radios are excessively choice-laden and complex.

      • http://chriswoods.co.uk/ Christopher Woods

        I have a great FM setup, I also have a DAB receiver (several) and I’m not impressed with the sound quality. It was fine when it first launched but they’ve bowed to commercial pressure (and anyway, the MP2 codec’s just not good enough.)

        HOWEVER, the 320 kbps AAC stream available over the web is absolutely gorgeous, and I can even stream it in foobar with a bit of playlist-grabbing magic (all perfectly legit). It’s the best I’ve ever heard Radio 3, or any radio station for that matter – and you don’t have a forced 15 kHz rolloff, like you have on FM. I pretty much exclusively listen to all radio online now, except when I’m in pottering around in the kitchen.

  • Flaser

    More audiophile bullshit.

    Unless these claims are backed up by double-blind research, people not subscribing to myth will treat it as such: here-say and purely subjective anecdotes.

  • tim ramich

    I believe if we presented music in two formats to people who have never been exposed to music reproduction systems before that they would choose digital. People have a boner for analog now because it’s trendy and people can’t grasp the math of how digital audio works.

  • Anonymous

    There is no human being on the planet that can hear the difference in the resolution, because it doesn’t work the way you think it does. The digital conversion is based on how acoustics work, and not just how humans hear it. It’s based on a fundamental property of how frequency and sound intertwine. At 44,100hz, nobody who can’t hear above 22,050hz can hear a difference. Humans mostly can’t hear above 20,000hz.

    Higher quality is only useful because some digital effects lower the resolution further, and thus you want to start as high as you can. Vinyl is actually of lower quality because of decreased frequency response, increase distortion, and hiss. This, honestly, is what vinyl enthusiasts seem to hear as warmth.

    It’s like how a digital representation of a sphere can be perfect, but a manufactured sphere must have deviations.

    • http://chriswoods.co.uk/ Christopher Woods

      The deficiencies of vinyl you describe are actually more akin to dithering in the digital domain than anything else.

      Sure, there’s harmonic distortion (and that’s assuming a perfect playback setup, with a perfectly aligned and balanced cart and tonearm) and the HF degrades catastrophically after even just half a dozen plays… And we’re also assuming the pressing was made with a brand new, flawlessly made and well-mastered stamper…

      … You just can’t get away from the constant underlying sound produced whilst dragging a gemstone-tipped metal needle through a groove pressed into a slab of PVC.

      I still love vinyl more than I’ll ever love MP3s.

  • http://chriswoods.co.uk/ Christopher Woods

    I was rooting for this article as soon as I saw it, I really was. However I just can’t escape the fact that it’s a poorly written article highlighting little more than the author’s fundamental misunderstanding of some critically important processes involved in both digital and analogue audio.

    Perhaps Harry should eschew further discussion of audio – this might have escaped wider attention in a small print mag, but the article’s been bared on the Internet, which happens to be full of expert, knowledgeable and formally qualified audio engineers (I’m going to non-boastingly include myself in this category).

    Moreover, this kind of article is dangerous because it further promotes common misconceptions about vinyl which do little except freshly confuse people who don’t have a technical understanding of the format. Then they go and repeat the same cobblers to other people, and all of a sudden your friends are stroking their movembers whilst telling you how they prefer “that certain kind of saturation”…

  • Suckamc

    The mechanical process of a tape running over a recording head and a needle running thru the vinyl groove creates friction that in turn creates resonance, harmonics and distortion. All contributing to coloring the sound in a way we perceive as warmth.

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