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It's easy to mistake one thing for another. In yesterday's post I mentioned liking vinyl vs. digital was a matter of personal taste. Fair enough, but multiple readers wrote suggesting the superiority of one vs. the other still existed, as if those opinions were based on the fact that we were comparing apples to apples—something we're clearly not doing. The source material for vinyl is often different than that of digital audio. Mastering engineers routinely master one way for phonograph records, another for digital. A major consideration for vinyl mastering is making sure the playback needle tracks properly, and what engineers place on the record works well with the cutting lathe limitations. Higher frequencies (as well as dynamics) are tough for cutting lathes. Vinyl groove width, measured in microns, can get pretty small as the frequency gets higher, challenging playback tracking. There are other problems as well. As frequency rises, the cutting head of the record lathe takes increasing amounts of power—power that has its limits. To accommodate these limitations, overall level as well as high frequency content is truncated on vinyl masters—often with multiband limiters. Digital audio hasn't the same limitations as vinyl, but it is not without its own restrictions. The one thing you can't tolerate in a digital recording is clipping - not even a little bit. So much of the heralded dynamics of digital are wasted when levels are turned down or compressors are added to make sure nothing clips. And we don't want frequencies over 20kHz upsetting things either. There are certainly examples of the same master used for both, but how often are mastering techniques spelled out for listeners? In my 40 years of playing with hi fi I have never seen this info published. Truth is, each format has its merits and problems. Make mine the most musical.
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Paul McGowan

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