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Wednesday
Oct092013

Digital vs. Vinyl: Where It Makes A Difference

The vinyl-or-digital debate rages on and audiophiles of all stripes have strong opinions on one side or the other. Saying anything almost feels like a reopening of old wounds. Technically speaking, sound engineers record modern music in digital, so most would say that digital playback sounds exactly like they engineered it. Since the early 1990s at the latest, oversampling of the digital stream has driven the difference between an engineered, digital recording and digital playback far beyond the range of human hearing.

If we can, let’s just concede that that’s so. Converting a digital stream to analog on vinyl sounds different because it’s vinyl, not because the recording is more accurate. In fact, vinyl playback is not just less accurate, but it has had less dynamic range than digital playback since the first days of CD. It’s not magic, even if it does involve a bit of rocket science.

Still, the two formats do sound different, even to an untrained ear. Paraphrasing Sherlock Holmes, after you eliminate the obvious, what’s left must be true. The difference between digital recording and analog playback is the loss of part of what the sound engineer or producer so proudly created. And, there’s really no question that a listener can hear the sound engineer’s hands on the dials in a digital recording. If you’ve ever worked with one, you’ll never not hear it, ever again.

There’s just something monotonous and sterile about a studio-perfect, over-engineered recording that jars the ear. Whether it’s the perfectly tuned, canned drum strikes, fattened up double or triple tracking, or waveform-adjusted, pitch-adjusted, over-echoed or flanged vocals, there’s something that’s just so, well, meh, about engineered digital sound. Then too, our ears are on opposite sides of our heads and our stereo vision tells us that it’s just not possible for the reverb and echo to have a single focal point in a live venue. On the other hand, absent the digital revolution, it would not have been possible to develop accurate baselines for audio equipment including loudspeakers; the inaccuracy of vinyl becomes a limiting factor.

With all of that in mind, below are five albums you can use to test out the difference. Before you get to that though, consider trying an experiment to get a feel for what ‘over-engineered’ means. These days, several vendors offer free sound editing software for evaluation purposes. For example, Audacity is open source and free. It’s a bit harder to use than a shareware package like GoldWave, but if you’re just interested in a quick listen, an evaluation copy of GoldWave is an easy setup. If you go with GoldWave, unless you want to be bothered by ads, don’t let the downloader automatically install the software for you. Do it yourself. When it opens, Drag and Drop a song you own as an mp3 into the editor box on the left.

Since I choose Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction as one of the five test albums and Mr. Brownstone is one of my favorites, I chose it. Listen to part of the digital recording, at least through the beginning of the vocals. Next, up on the Effect menu dropdown, choose ‘Filter’ and ‘Bandpass/stop.’ Under Settings, choose ‘Bandstop’ and in the Presets dropdown, choose ‘Reduce vocals.’ Let the filter run and listen again.

Digital music is recorded in multiple tracks. Double tracking is usually on either the left or right channel, but not both. Think of running a bandstop filter as extracting the center. In this case, what remains, a lot of double tracking, is revealing. The drums, bass, and power guitar are very fat. The lead vocal is double tracked with a slight lag and about half volume. That’s not all, but it gives you some idea before moving to the main event.

On vinyl, the flabby background baggage of the digital recording is, in a sense, undersampled. You get the strong base and the sharp drums, but the overall effect is better blended and fuller because the digital trickery is harder to hear. Of course, every song on Appetite for Destruction is a bit different, but the engineer used a similar tool kit on each track.

Here’s the album list:

#5 Nirvana, Bleach (1989)

#4 Guns N’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987)

#3 The B-52’s, The B-52’s (1979)

#2 David Bowie, Lodger (1979)

#1 Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970)

Notice that they run in a progression from 1970 forward in time. Each artist expanded the tool kit. On vinyl, Black Sabbath (1970) offers up darkness even more lush than the original, while making you feel the reverb you only hear as bloated on the digital version. The sharpest line between vinyl and CD may be at Sabbath.

Speaking of not overusing the same toolkit notice that Bowie’s Lodger bridges the gap between simple reverb and a more complex tableaux of tools. But Bowie is all over the map on Lodger exploiting every tool available while retaining much of the earlier flavor. Lodger is exceptional on vinyl because it crystallizes the transition to a more modern sound without sucking up to it.

If The B-52’s nailed the modern sound’s feet to the floor, then Guns N’ Roses sealed its feet in concrete. If you can’t hear it by Nirvana, well, you’re probably not going to hear it at all. As you compare, you might think of listening to vinyl as analogous to not watching sausage being made. If you have a quick ear and you know the digital tricks the engineer is playing you’d rather not hear them. It’s as unsatisfying as knowing where the magician hid the rabbit.

Still, while some people say that listening to classic vinyl is better, the truth is that you can always hear a difference. Ironically, it’s often more pronounced on over-engineered modern albums than it is on classics like Streisand or Sinatra, whose recordings were lightly engineered in the first place. Most studio jazz was lightly engineered, too. The difference on those is mainly a sense of richness that feels somehow closer to live.

Jason Kane is a music blogger who loves all things rock. He gets all of his vinyls from SoundStageDirect.com.

Digital vs. Vinyl: Where It Makes A Difference

Reader Comments (8)

Seeing as a CD can perfectly capture any audio signal, there is no reason why the sound of vinyl can't be reproduced on CD. Plenty of CDs have that fat, warm, analog, vintage, whatever, sound.

I often refer my clients to this article.

October 9 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

Your analysis completely overlooked studio room acoustics, which played an integral of all recordings up to the 1980s. The room, type of mic and mic placement determined the texture of a recording. Also, the physical placement of the players so they could feel and interact with each other.With the advent of 24, 32 and 48 track all of these sound qualities disappeared. Every element had to be totally isolated to the new producers and engineers. Thus the mix created the sound. And many of these new "mixers" had no clue about creating a good recording. They needed EQ, compression, delays, Eko, etc. to squeeze those numerous tracks into some sort of sound. This signal processing created a totally different artificial sound. As you said, vinyl records are far inferior to digital. Not even close. The culprit is the people who create the "mix".

October 12 | Unregistered CommenterRags

It is all in the original recording, where vinyl is only the means of conveying the music. The last part of a long complex process. It is what happens before that matters. If the before time was bad, then the final result will be bad, whether digital or analogue (cannot polish a &@!?). All recordings (except some electonica) start out as analogue and have to finish in analogue for you to hear it (you cannot listen to ones and zeros). Therefore an analogue chain (as we use in our studio) through well maintained equipment means less processing in the signal path. This analogue to digital and back again is where digital falls down, because it simply means a lot of processing in the signal path and unless you use a lot of good computers and low jitter DACs and A to D converters, it will alter the sound a lot. There are also all sorts of dull mathematical reasons and issues around slew rates etc which create sound differences between digital and analogue. Vinyl is often sonically better with a well set up TT, a good recording, and mastered and pressed properly, simply because there is less being done to the sound - tinned fruit vs fresh fruit. Digital is also excellent at 96k or even 48k if played through a well conceived DAC and computer...and above all, is convenient. However ,when we do back to back tests of a good master tape vs protools live recording done in parallel, through the same outboard and desk, both camps seem to always agree tape wins...but it is too much hassle these days for most professionals, excepting those who have created a niche out of it like us. Long live both formats!

October 14 | Unregistered CommenterDaz

In the current vinyl vs. digital debate everyone seems to have forgotten about the "clicks and pops" a vinyl album develops after repeated plays. And if you happen to jostle the tone arm while an album is on the turntable you're likely to scratch the LP making it permanently unplayable.

Whatever may be wrong with digital media, vinyl is clearly not the solution.

October 14 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Rosenthal

I think digital has the potential to sound as good as vinyl, but in most cases in the past five years or so, producers, engineers and artists don't allow it to by compressing the sound and boosting the volume so that everything peaks at 0db. Dynamic range destroying brickwalling ruins so many new releases today. With vinyl, it is not possible to brickwall to the extent modern CDs too often are because the needle would not stay in the groove. Who would have thought that vinyl's physical limitations would turn out to be its saving grace?

October 14 | Unregistered CommenterMark Poer

The problem, for us the engineers, is that digital have less depth than analog. So, we have to "create" that depth with... yes: Studio trickery. I know I'm talking about mixing but on the topic of the article: ¿Why is vinyl the format of choice of the pro Dj's anyway?.
Maybe when Hi resolution 24 bit digital files replace the cd (Fits in the same piece of plastic that the one on the CDs but the music industry opened her legs to the MP3... sad) That day the consumer will be able to listen to music on a more organic way. I've seen a couple of sites with new remasters of complete discographies on 24 bit files. Very promising

From my point of view, Digital is the best then Vinyl. As per digital sound comes it has extremely good quality sound and it feels pleasant to listen. So, Digital instruments are gaining more attention now-a-days because, these provide good quality output. Also, if we hear the same music in digital format and also in Vinyl format the Vinyl format is bit different from Digital format and we must say the digital format is best.

October 22 | Unregistered CommenterJames Ronald

From my point of view, Digital is the best then Vinyl. As per digital sound comes it has extremely good quality sound and it feels pleasant to listen. So, Digital instruments are gaining more attention now-a-days because, these provide good quality output. Also, if we hear the same music in digital format and also in Vinyl format the Vinyl format is bit different from Digital format and we must say the digital format is best.

October 22 | Unregistered CommenterJames Ronald

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