Vinyl holds actual sound waves and other myths

Vinyl holds actual sound waves whereas digital uses binary code to closely replicate those sound waves.

Do you believe the above statement?  Are you a vinyl fan and unconditionally think vinyl is better?  If so, I have strong disagreements with you.  I’m the son of a teacher, and I like to explain things.  Hope this blog isn’t coming off as too pedantic… Earlier this year I visited a nice audio store in San Francisco, Music Lovers Audio.  I commented on all the turntables in the store to a young and enthusiastic salesperson who explained to me that many customers had an interest in vinyl.  What greatly surprised me was when he also said that many new recordings were being released as vinyl.  Having a turntable to play older recordings, that I understand, but why buy a new recording on vinyl, especially since new recordings are almost always done with a digital recorder?

I started searching on the internet, and came across a number of articles that supported the salesperson’s claim.  Why is vinyl becoming popular?  In quick summation, some reasons include that it can sound better than digital, especially compressed mp3, the retro or nostalgia factor, and the novelty, for a younger generation mostly acquainted with music as digital downloads, of something physical you can touch and look at – vinyl often comes with a large booklet with photos of the artist and the recording and bio information and so on.

I am going on my soapbox here about what is often a lack of critical thinking when people discuss vinyl.  Let’s get some things out of the way.  I grew up before the age of compact disks and mp3 downloads, I have a fair number of vinyl records, and I like vinyl.  If someone wants to say that they enjoy vinyl, no argument from me.  If someone thinks vinyl sounds better than compact disks, I think that’s debatable, but I don’t object to that point of view.  When someone argues complete and total nonsense, examples to follow, I have a problem.

Let’s have a quick oversimplified view of how most vinyl is made.  First, there is a “master tape” – this could be a digital master, or an analog master.  If it is an analog master, it is very precious and fragile, as each time you play the tape or make a copy you cause some wear and tear to the original, and any copy of an analog tape is not a perfect copy and has more noise and distortion than the original.  So, copies of the original analog master are made for use in creating a vinyl record. To make a vinyl record, probably there are at least two or more copies of the original master – a working master, and then a cutting master which has sound equalized and compressed to make a vinyl record.  A vinyl record is produced in a process that I think of as like stamping cookies with a cookie mold, so with this analogy the cutting master tape is used to make the lacquer master from which the “cookie mold” that stamp/press the raw vinyl is made.

Now, if you start with a digital master tape, the process is basically the same except that at some point the digital data needs to become an electrical (analog) signal to “cut” the lacquer master, so either the cutting master itself needs to be converted to analog, or the data on the cutting master needs to be converted to analog.  Said another way – if the master recording is digital, there must be a digital to analog conversion to make the vinyl record, and all the arguments about the inadequacies about digital audio are thus present in the vinyl record that is made from a digital recording.

Consider that today the professional analog tape recorder is nearly an extinct creature in recording studios.  That means new recordings are almost all done using digital recorders, and the true master tape is digital.  Does this mean vinyl cannot sound better than cds or mp3s? No.  There are various reasons vinyl might sound better to some.  Perhaps the digital-to-analog conversion done in the studio, starting with a master tape quality digitial file, is better than the process at home with say a cd or mp3 file.  Perhaps the faults of analog playback from modest equipment are more pleasant than similar faults from modest digital equipment.

Recognizing that new recordings today are done with digital recorders though means that those who make blanket claims about the superiority of vinyl because is it analog and assert that digital is not real music are kidding themselves.  Let me say all this another way: if the source master is digital, then it stands to reason that the very highest fidelity to the master would be a digital file which is a perfect copy of the master.  Now yes, that does not describe mp3s or cds, so if you think vinyl sounds better than those formats, fine with me.

But vinyl cannot inherently be an improvement over the source file which is digital.
To circle back to the statement at the top of the blog, here’s an example quote from my perusing the internet, “When listening to vinyl, one is hearing the closest reproduction of the master recordings, be it digital or analog. Vinyl holds the actual sound waves of those recording session masters whereas digital is using binary code to closely replicate those sound waves.”  How ridiculous is that?  If the master recording is digital, how can the vinyl made by multiple processing steps of the original digital recording hold the actual sound waves?

In summary, if you are buying a new vinyl record today, from a new recording, the recording itself is very likely to be digital.  And, in order to create the vinyl record from the digital recording, there must be a digital to analog conversion.  So, if you are convinced (wrongly in my view) that there is some fundamental flaw with digital audio, then all the putative inadequacies of digital audio are present in the vinyl record that is made from the digital recording.

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2 thoughts on “Vinyl holds actual sound waves and other myths

  1. I have followed debates on various forums regarding this topic, and some vinylistas dodge the question, but others are prepared to suggest that they believe the vinyl sanctifies the digital audio. Here is Michael Fremer on the subject:

    “I just played 24/96 files of Tom Waits Bad As Me on a very exensive and superb-sounding digital playback system I’m reviewing, then played the 180 gram LP (anti-87151-1)…
    I dont care that it was recorded digitally, then mastered to LP from the same 24/96 files, and I dont care if the vinyl suffers “euphonic colorations-it sounded much better, and drew me into the music as the files did not……. I heard image three-dimensionality and instruments that were harmonically fully fleshed out, in a mix that, via files, sailed into the silvery backwash…..If thats a result of “euphonic colorations.” bring em on….”

    http://www.dynamicsounds-assoc.com/104536.pdf

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