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Music Musings

Vinyl, I wanna love you but you make it so damn hard

I want to love you vinyl. I really do. Unfortunately you’re just not as *inherently* good sounding as digital music, and you’re a bit toxic…

Vinyl records have inherent distortions in playback, especially when you get to the inner grooves. So why *in practice* does vinyl often sound better than digital music playback? The simple answer is that digital is often done badly.

The vinyl format has physical limitations that force audio engineers to make particular choices. These choices happen to generally be good musical decisions too:

  • You can’t overuse brick-wall limiters – a tool that squeezes dynamics out of the music
  • You can’t have unnaturally wide bass frequencies
  • You can’t have excessive high frequencies (especially strong bursts)

Digital formats on the other hand are free from these limitations, so audio is often overly squashed, widened and brightened in a misguided attempt to “stand out” from other “competing” music releases. I’m reminded of the old proverb about giving someone enough rope… However, it is not simply the fault of audio engineers, because pressure often comes from artists or labels to make these decisions.

Another factor is vinyl is made from full resolution master files, but digital audio is often consumed in lower quality “lossy” formats for convenience. This is gradually changing though e.g. Spotify will be making “lossless” quality available later this year.

There is also a tendency for mixing engineers to use lots of different software plugins, not all of which are well-coded. Some of them don’t pay enough attention to potential pitfalls of digital audio such as aliasing and quantisation distortion (geeky description of these available on request!). These distortions are low level, but can build up a thin layer of “digital crud” that makes it through to both vinyl and digital final formats.

When done well, digital kicks vinyl’s butt right out of the groove. Vinyl has another, potentially worse, problem though – the PVC it is made from is rather nasty stuff from a health/air quality perspective. Details in the entertaining video below – it’s 20 minutes long, but well worth a watch.

I have omitted one big benefit of vinyl – the experience of listening to a full album – a carefully curated journey through a sequence of songs, while being able to admire the cover artwork, liner notes and lyrics. Well you can still get this experience with CDs (and lossless quality to boot), such as the Oil, Love & Oxygen album available here.

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