Many of us prefer to listen to vinyl over other formats because it produces that je ne sais quoi, a mysteriously gripping and engaging effect which, for many listeners, seems to be unique to vinyl. (This assumes that we’re listening to older, or well-engineered modern records, as opposed to those cut from lower-resolution digital source files.) Vinyl gives you an audio hug; its warmth is somehow more directly accessible, emotionally inviting, organic and yes, transportive, than the impact I have felt from many CDs and some SACDs.
How can this be? Ignoring bit depth and noise floor topics, I believe there are significant factors which elevate vinyl recordings to a level of enriched quality that represents a medium, which when well executed, allow vinyl playback to work to a potential which perhaps best suits our listening abilities as human beings.
Although I ‘d like to state up front that this is more of an opinion piece and not a scientific point of reference in any way, perhaps some of you dear readers will relate to some of these factors based on your own personal listening experiences.
So, just what are some of the contributing factors which make vinyl sound so good?
Records have healthy restraints, in terms of mastering and their actual physical production, within which they can be heard at their best. At the same time, I feel these “limitations” lend themselves to matching our natural human hearing frequency range. One of the properties of record-cutting lathes is that they don’t “like” extremes in the top and bottom ends of the frequency spectrum. Regarding the low end, sometimes an engineer will cut the record with a more dynamically-controlled range, so that the bass doesn’t vary by huge degrees and may be less overpowering in the mix.
If the actual bass groove itself is too wide and deep and then suddenly changes to narrow and thin, listeners will be subject to a less “tight” or solidly-constrained bass. (In extreme cases, records have been cut that cause some tonearm/stylus combinations to actually leap out of the groove.) So, the engineer may sum the bass to mono and keep a more consistently wide groove, which contributes to the feeling of tightness in bass response. However, the length of the side of a recording must also be considered, as a wider groove will eat up more real estate.
If the grooves are packed too tightly together, it is possible that the stylus may pick up on the “ghosted” reproduction of signals on the adjacent groove. (Technically, a record only has one groove per side but you get the idea.) This “foreshadowing,” like print-through on reel-to-reel tape, is obviously undesirable and is usually a result of the requirement to cram a certain number of tracks onto a physically limited space.
But we’re here to talk about why vinyl sounds good, not the pitfalls of poorly-made records. When the engineer knows what he or she is doing, they will account for the right balance of bass dynamism according to the playing time of the side, and the amount of room available on the vinyl, and retain the integrity of the feel of the bass throughout.
What about the limits of reproducing the top end? When the vinyl cutter is subject to too high a frequency, the cutting bit becomes more subject to oscillation, and friction increases, resulting in more heat during the cutting process. This can result in not cutting sibilant and “hissy” sounds very well. For example, that jarring “tst tst tst” of an overly-sibilant high hat can be hard to get onto vinyl accurately (or for some phono cartridges to reproduce. Again, a good engineer will monitor and cut for a pleasing and non-fatiguing top end that the cutting lathe and playing stylus can actually reproduce. It’s another great example of where restrictions can provide parameters that make for a better outcome. Perhaps it’s like a virtuoso lead guitarist who plays in a band and makes more accessible music for a wider audience than their solo albums that showcase their virtuosity. Contextual restraint, I suppose you may call it. When Yngwie Malmsteen plays blues, rather than his usual blazing neo-classical shredding work, it’s like nothing else. (Well, maybe Richie Blackmore on too much sugar.) Here’s an example:
The point is, the restraint of playing the blues, combined with his insane technique, makes for a stunning result. And the same is true for a well-made record. The restrictions are what actually makes for a more liberating listening experience, because the attention has been put into the details where it matters the most.
On a vinyl record, we get a reproduction of the meat of the song without extremes of top and bottom end. We hear more detail through the broader midrange band of the audio spectrum which vinyl serves so well.
Another main contributing factor I believe is responsible for vinyl’s magic is that it is a physically mechanical energy-transfer medium. From the cutting of the groove to the playback of the groove via the stylus, physical vibrational transfer is key.
The Ultimate Stereo Audio System
Significantly, the hearing mechanism within the human ear transfers sound vibrations in a physically mechanical way through vibrational movements passed on through the tympanic membrane (eardrum – is it a coincidence that it’s named after a musical instrument?), and the tiny bones of the hammer, stirrup and anvil. But then, how about this for a cool stereo system…
After the vibrations pass through the tiny bones – the auditory ossicles (I’m oversimplifying here and also leaving out the role the inner ear’s vestibular system plays in balance) – the vibrations reach the Organ of Corti, which is the organ responsible for distinguishing sound pressure variation sensitivity, and which rests within the snail-like cochlea. The Organ of Corti has three rows of outer hair cells and one row of inner hair cells, all of which physically vibrate in a uniquely amazing way. At the ends of the hair cells are minuscule projecting groups of protrusions called…stereocilia. The hair cells as well as the stereocilia are of various lengths, and the stereocilia are electromechanical transducers – they convert mechanical energy into electrical energy, which is then interpreted by the brain as sound.
The hair cells (with the stereocilia at the tips) are connected to the basilar membrane. When this membrane moves in response to sound, the hair cells that are attached to it brush against the surface of the tectorial membrane, they bend, and in an electrochemical reaction, fire off the electrical impulses that the brain interprets as sound. And because we have two ears, we’re able to hear everything in stereo.
It is the process of the very physical movement of the basilar and tectorial membranes moving up and down, combined with the hairs and the stereocilia moving, which makes me think of the mechanical movement of the phono cartridge’s stylus as it tracks the surface of the vinyl. The very fact that a similar mechanical biological apparatus is used to convey sound waves to the brain is something I find incredible.
Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/Agung Pandit Wiguna.