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.
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.
“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.’’
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.’’
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.’’
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.’’