I recently picked up a first pressing, near mint vinyl LP of J.J. Cale’s Really. It sounds incredible. So does my copy of Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, also on vinyl and in really great shape. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing Off The Wall and Really on vinyl, and I can’t imagine hearing them any other way. While the chances of hearing J.J. Cale on the radio are slim, in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, there have been ample opportunities to hear MJ’s music on the radio. In digital form, the re-mastered older stuff (such as Off The Wall) doesn’t sound very good, at least, not to my ears. Why is that?
I remember when I first really got into music. I was in seventh grade. I had recently occupied the unfinished converted attic of my mom’s house, complete with orange shag carpet, plaid couch, and the family’s old hi-fi system from the ‘70s. My daily routine was to ride my BMX bike home from school, head to my room, and crank some old records. My favorites: Led Zeppelin II, The Jimi Hendrix Experience- Smash Hits, Heart- Little Queen, and anything by the Beatles. My memory of the sensation of feeling that music come alive out of those wood grained, 10” hi-fi speakers, filling up the room, is still vivid and exciting.
I haven’t really grown out of my seventh grade music listening phase. In fact, I recently made a pilgrimage to my mom’s basement, where I found the box of old records. My Little Queen record still sounds great. Led Zeppelin II is a little worse for wear- I guess I really liked that one. I suppose that my affinity for vinyl can be attributed to me listening to vinyl in my formative years. My brain associates the excitement of listening to records with the sound of vinyl. This may explain why a lot of the people my age who record and mix music tend to like things brighter, and more compressed than I; they didn’t grow up listening to vinyl. I listened to vinyl because it’s what we had, and I couldn’t really afford CDs of my own.
Does vinyl sound better than digital? I sure think it does, but this question really boils down to a matter of taste. Or does it? We recording engineers spend a lot of time these days trying to mimic the old analog sound. We lust after vintage pieces of recording equipment, the values of which have ballooned in recent years. We design and use software that aspires to model analog gear by way of complex algorhithms. I have been on a personal quest to achieve and master that typically ‘70s dry, warm studio drum sound.
But whether vinyl sounds superior to digital does amount to a matter of taste. I liken it trying to argue that music from the Classical period (i.e., Mozart, Haydn, etc.) sounds better than the music of 20th Century composers. Music from the classical period is generally more pleasing to listeners, but it is impossible to make a case that it sounds better.
Vinyl as a medium has two things going for it, though. First, vinyl is more dynamic, in terms of loudness. The limitations of the vinyl medium dictate that the overall volume (loudness) of the recording can only be so high, otherwise the needle is likely to “jump” out of the groove, or the music can distort. This means that the engineers who record and mix music for vinyl are forced to keep the overall loudness of the record at a conservative level, thus they cannot simply compress and limit the music, so as to “jam the needle,” as it were (and as is the standard technique in modern recording of pop music), because too much loudness causes distortion, etc. Ironically, this results in recordings that are arguably more “punchy” and exciting, because they are so dynamic. The listener “feels” every snare hit, every guitar attack more because the dynamics have not been squashed.
The second thing vinyl has going for it is the experience of listening to it. During my graduate studies at the University of Washington, I took a great seminar with Larry Starr, a renowned American music scholar. The theme of the seminar was “Great Albums.” Each of us presented a critique of a significant album to the class. Starr gave several of his own presentations throughout the quarter, one of which covered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles took great care in how they presented Sgt. Pepper’s, including the pace and sequence of songs on the record. As a class, after having listened to it on vinyl, we found it incongruous to listen to the record straight through, as one might do with a CD. The record was intended to pause between “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and “WIthin You Without You.” You could argue that converting Sgt. Pepper’s to digital goes against the artists’ intentions for the work (not to mention the cover art!).
It takes time to listen to vinyl. You carefully pull the record out of the sleeve, clean it off, set it on the turn table, drop the needle, and close the lid. Five or six songs in, you have to turn it over. The listener is involved in the listening process in a very real, physical, visceral way. My parents reminisce about eagerly awaiting the release of the White Album. When it did come out, they sat in their living room that night with a few friends and some beer and wine, and listened to the record, over an over again. The experience was a community event. Listening to records was an activity in and of itself, not something you did while driving, or while doing something else.
I know a guy who has a life-sized bust of Michelangelo’s David, cast from the real statue. He had it shipped from Florence to Seattle. His reasoning behind the extravagant purchase is that art should be handled, enjoyed in a very real and human way. With the casting you can run your fingers over Michelangelo’s chisel marks, you can give your whole attention and presence, physical and otherwise, to the work of art. While viewing art at a museum may not be as physical as touching David, museums offer the next best thing: a dedicated place to enjoy the art, free of any distractions. We seek the same sort of physical experience of the art when we go to a live show. But more often than not, we experience music passively. When was the last time you put a copy of the Mona Lisa in the background, to view while you were cooking? Vinyl demands your physical presence, it’s a ritual. Somehow, rifling through my iPod doesn’t feel nearly as human as pulling a record out of the sleeve.
Humans are more than just physical beings, however. There is a magic that happens when humans convene in one place and make music. Call it magic, call it metaphysics, call it what you will, but sometimes that magic is really special- it’s what we try to capture when we record music. I sometimes wonder whether vinyl is better at translating that magic. It’s not that digital doesn’t translate “vibe,” a James Brown record still grooves like hell, regardless of whether it’s on vinyl, CD, or mp3. But here’s my crackpot hypothesis: sound waves are in essence analog, they are physical waves made up of molecules. Analog recording mediums transfer these waves in an electro-physical way. Digital mediums, on the other hand, at some point along the way convert the sound waves into ones and zeros, and back again. The sound waves temporarily leave the physical world (at least the physical world on a scale which we can comprehend). Could it be that our ones and zeros can’t capture that special energy at a high enough resolution to compete with analog mediums? For that matter, analog doesn’t really have “resolution” to begin with, it’s not rendered at all. Analog simply transfers the energy. When analog energy morphs into digital energy, can it morph back to it’s original form, without losing information along the way? Do we (or at least some of us) perceive that loss, but can’t fully comprehend it? Has our technology still got some catching up to do, or has our technology gone too far?
All I know is that I love the sound of vinyl. It sounds like music to me.