I’ve made various videos over the last few years comparing vinyl and digital releases of different albums – because sometimes vinyl is mastered with more dynamics than the digital formats, which is something I care about.
But I always try to avoid passing comment on the actual formats themselves – CD versus vinyl, analogue versus digital – because I feel these discussions are actually red herrings. They’re distractions from the real issues of what makes our music sound great.
But inevitably in the comments of these posts and videos, someone will eventually jump in with the timeless old chestnut:
‘Digital can never sound as good as analogue’
Now this is a popular belief these days, but the fact is there’s no theoretical reason to believe it’s true – correctly implemented digital audio can exactly reproduce any analogue audio signal with complete accuracy.
But when I say that, there’s always someone who says something like
“people who listen to CD are missing out on the emotional experience. I don’t expect you to understand, but I know it’s true”.
To which my response is – how dare you ?!
I’ve spent my whole career in pursuit of great sound, in order to record great music. Being a sound engineer is all about trying to capture the emotion and feel of the original performance !
So don’t try and imply that I somehow don’t “get it” – I grew up with vinyl, I know all about the feel of taking a record out of the sleeve, dropping the needle into the groove, that physical connection…
But none of those factors influence the actual sound that comes out of the speakers – only the way we feel when we’re using the format. Yes, it’s a factor in the whole experience, but it has nothing to do with the actual recording of the music.
Recorded sound is not sound
Recorded music is often nothing like the original sound in the room. I know, I record it ! I’ve heard the musicians playing in the studio or venue, I go to live, 100% acoustic events several times a year. Not as often as I like, but regularly. I also have plenty of friends who are musicians and I get to hear them play, my kids make music… I get it, I love real live music, and I’ve said so, often.
But that’s not what recorded music is. Microphones are not ears, the electrical signals they induce to run down cables are not sound waves, speakers are nothing like the physical objects that made the original sound. It’s all just an illusion, our best attempt to recreate what we experience when the thing making a noise is right in front of us, by somehow storing the pressure variations in the air around us. The truth is, it’s a minor miracle that it works at all !
At the end of the day, the signal that gets stored on the format we’re using (tape, vinyl, CD, mp3, whatever) is only a recording of the movement of electrical current in a metal wire. That’s all it is, after all the mics and pre-amps and mixers and compressors and EQs and delays and tapes and converters and clocks and bit-depths and samples rates – it’s just a recording of the changes in electrical currents in a wire. Well, several bits of wire, anyway.
And the accuracy of that reproduction is easy to quantify – an electrical wave in a wire isn’t magic, it’s the one the best-understood physical effects in the world around us. The “best” recreation of the original master is the one that reproduces that original signal most accurately – what the original artists and engineers originally intended us to hear. And great digital and great analogue are both capable of storing this signal well enough to reproduce it with superb accuracy – and emotional impact.
The clearest demonstration of this in my career so far was working on the remastering of a box set of singles from Andrew Loog Oldhams’s Immediate record label – including classic tracks like PP Arnold’s “First Cut Is The Deepest”, Rod Stewart’s “Little Miss Understood” and many less well-known tracks by acts like the Small Faces, Fleetwood Mac and The Nice.
The great thing about this project was that as well as earlier CD releases and as many original master tapes as could be found, we also had a complete mint condition collection of the original releases on 45″ singles.
This was fantastic, because we were able to compare all the available sources of every single song, including how the actual original release sounded, and use that information as part of the mastering process. What was surprising, was discovering which formats sounded best.
You might think the original master tapes would win every time. They didn’t.
You might think the actual original vinyl would always sound the best – it didn’t.
And you might assume that the original early CD transfers would always sound cold, hard and clinical – but they didn’t. Not by a long shot. Sometimes the analogue reels did !
There was no pattern.
For some songs, the original master tapes sounded incredible. For others, the vinyl just had a certain quality in the sound that the others didn’t. And for some tracks, the earlier CD releases actually sounded best.
(And by best, I mean you connected with the music the most, felt the need to dance more, felt the emotion of the lyrics more clearly…)
Sometimes we could apply processing to match different versions much more closely – sometimes not. But in every case, it was to do with the mastering decisions and quality of the transfer that determined what sounded best – NOT the type of format.
The single most amazing discovery we made had nothing to do with the sound at all ! It was to do with the music. It turned out that the version of “First Cut Is The Deepest” that was on every single CD release we could find… was the wrong take.
The vocal take on the original vinyl was softer, sweeter, lighter and sadder than the one we already knew, and it wasn’t on on any modern release we had access to. We’d never heard this version, and the vinyl was the only copy we had – so that’s what went into the box set. Prior to that release, no-one was hearing the very best (and original) version of that song.
The music is the most important thing.
So what IS so special about analogue and vinyl, then ?
All the other “flavours” of analogue tape or vinyl or tubes that we like, are just a matter of taste, in my opinion. If we grew up with record crackle and end-of-side distortion, there’s a good chance we’ll associate that quality of sound with some of our most intense musical experiences.
If the first time you heard The Beatles, or Pink Floyd, or Elvis, or Nirvana was connected in your brain with the physical act of dropping a needle onto record, then pressing “play” on a CD player or computer screen is unlikely to ever match it. Just like I love watching the amazing engineering of an old Studer tape machine as it switches from rewind to play, or the feel of resistance as you thread a tape across the heads.
But these are “added value” factors in our listening experience – they don’t affect the sound waves in the room. Those are determined by the movements of the speaker cones, which are made to move by the amplified signal of… the changes in electrical current in a wire.
If we get pleasurable endorphins released into our bloodstream because of the pleasant smell of old record sleeves, or seeing the large format artwork and reading the lyrics, that will change our experience of the sound – but not the sound itself.
It’s a kind of magic
If you prefer listening on vinyl despite the technical limitations of hiss, rumble, clicks and distortion that makes perfect sense to me – all power to you. Personally I love listening to music out of doors, combined with the experience of physical activity and connecting with the natural world, so an iPod is an ideal format for me to listen on – despite the technical limitations of lossy encoding, cheap consumer electronics and lightweight earbuds.
None of these things have anything to do with the sound quality of the format. They’re fascinating and there’s no doubt they affect our listening experience, but they aren’t magic.
All music reproduction is a kind of magic, to me – but the magic is in the music, not the format it’s reproduced from.
Image by jDevaun