The art of impurity

June 16, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

In a recent comment in response to my video about vinyl, viewer Richard Haggerty wrote:

"Vinyl is a physical medium, having a stylus riding on the surface causing friction. No matter how minimal, it remains no matter what measures you take to eliminate it. It's the laws of physics. This contributes to the feeling of warmth. It's like poetry read by a crackling fireplace. Next is resonance. Again, you can't completely eliminate that either. The vibrating cantilever effects all solid matter making contact in the chain. All this is not a negative. The physical properties are candy to the auditory nerves. It's the art of impurity."

Not only was this a well written, thoughtful comment, but it also sparked something in me.

Is there perhaps a measure of truth to what he writes?

Is it possible that some of what we hear with vinyl is caused by the friction of the needle rubbing the walls of vinyl—friction that adds a kind of audible bias like a warm blanket following perfectly the music.

The art of impurity.

What a fascinating concept.

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65 comments on “The art of impurity”

  1. How Haggerty feels about vinyl is how I feel about high voltage output transformer tube Amplifiers. The extra level of warmth and harmonic distortion from the tubes being a bit microphonic makes for a different, sweet blankety listen.

    Always grateful for the difference in HI-FI. 🙂

  2. Impurity yes, unperfection yes, friction and resonance yes, I have no problems with negative attributes to vinyl playback. But to connect friction warmth with audible warmth poetically and to try to match this to audible effects, stays pure poetry imo.

    This independent of my opinion, that the core of difference between vinyl and digital playback is not (or only to a minor degree) “warmth” (given latest digital technology and sophisticated and unfortunately expensive vinyl playback).

    In lower vinyl and digital classes I could agree that they can differ mainly by “warmth”, but most of us must be beyond this stage already since some time.

  3. Don’t forget that depending of the shape of the needle the cartridge doesn’t even sense the finest details and creates reading errors. Just compare any cartridges output with the output of the laser turntable. The difference in sound quality is stunning. And while you have to regularly replace the needle or cartridge I had no problems with the laser beam unit in my ELP LT. 🙂 And there are many more advantages of the contact-free frictionless optical scanning. Thus one can only assume that classical turntables primarily serve as a toy and not as a serious tool for best sound quality. And indeed it is a great toy with so many parts for endless combination. 🙂

    1. Optical laser scanning has indeed come a long way due to cheap computing power, one application being industrial 3D measurement and analysis such as 3D Automated Optical Inspection, etc.

    2. "Don’t forget that depending of the shape of the needle the cartridge doesn’t even sense the finest details and creates reading errors."

      PS, The groove is cut by a cutting tip on a stylus. As long as the tip on the playback stylus is shaped properly there are no reading errors. I have no idea what stylus tip you are using to compare to your ELP, but you should use a modern cartridge with modern stylus tip.

      1. You probably can recommend a stylus having the same sharp edges as the cutting lathe?! On the other hand many audiophiles rave about a Denon DL103 featuring a spherical needle - the worst solution at all. And finally don’t forget the poor performance of cartridges concerning inherent channel crosstalk.

  4. "The art of impurity" or just nostalgic/romantic familiarity?

    "...a crackling fireplace."...well, he got that right!
    Often the sound of said "crackling fireplace" will be picked
    up by the stylus, from the grooves, & audibly reproduced
    through the loudspeakers.
    Most of my generation (Boomers) grew up with vinyl records
    & so that sound is burned into their ROM, therefore it's no
    wonder that a lot of Boomers find the sound of vinyl as
    "candy to the auditory nerves."
    Pavlov's dogs...at the sound of the bell.

        1. I bought that album the day I passed my driving test as I walked home past my favourite record shop. I still have the album, but not the accessory.

      1. Agreed FR, my experience also. Believe my years of vinyl (76'-82') woes was because I wasn't willing to spend 25%+ of my annual salary to Upgrade my vinyl components (table-cartridge-arms-cabling-headamps-cleaners-record care-etc.)!

        1. Theo and FR, I wish you guys could have found a way to have a better vinyl playback system. In 2002 I upgraded from my old Thorens TD-150 Mk II TT and the Shure M97E MM cartridge to a VPI TT and a Benz-Micro MC cartridge. Yes, they cost way more than the old system did, but they totally change my vinyl experience. I have never looked back.

          1. I upgraded in the late 80s to used a Harris Broadcast turntable. When I first saw it (at Harris BCD) I thought it to be cheap because it looked overly simple had a wood tone arm and was manual. I had a linear arm (cough) Techniques of which I thought highly when I first bought it. My ugly Harris turned out to be gold.

    1. I wouldn’t go back but I’d love to know how? Surely if the source material isn’t perfect it’s game over? My experience was similar to Fat Rat’s, unsatisfactory, definitely not good memories.

    2. Yes for vinyl without snap crackle and pop play in the evening not at breakfast time,or the sweetvinyl website might have the answer.
      Personally I'm not that bothered by some surface noise.
      Also anyone going to the North West Audio show in the UK this weekend I will not be attending,but would like your thoughts on the Alchris Audio AR-66.

  5. It is the impurity of tone that makes a real pipe organ sound more interesting than, say, a pure tone generating Hammond organ, though each has its place in the musical world. Like an imperfect needle riding the irregular surfaces of vinyl grooves on an imperfectly rotating platter, real pipes, as most wind instruments, sound differently each and every time they are played, never the same. And wood pipes and instruments sound different from those of metal construction due to different resonances and harmonic emphases.

    The mystery of needle on vinyl sounding warm and natural is similar to how a digital recording played through tubed gear can create a warmer, more organic sound. The magic of vinyl and tubes, I suspect, lies in the imperfection of the reproduction, mimicking, even exaggerating, the imperfection of nature.

    1. …and the imperfection happening before the playback stage. Or as I mentioned a few times: to perfectly reproduce an imperfect or lossy signal not always helps. Anyway it’s certainly a goal to make as many stages as perfect as possible, even if the interim status may not be optimal.

      1. A painter imperfectly renders what his eye sees perfectly. Viewers often find the imperfect rendering more emotionally engaging than the actual scene.

        1. Similar as an unpimped photo of nature is still so much worse, that purism rarely leads to a great picture there.

          A little different in audio, as there, most characteristics we judge in Hifi relation, are much better there than live anyway (e.g. due to covering a soundstage experience AND details by a closer mic’ing than the usual audience distance). Certain others for sure can be much weaker.

          All this shouldn’t mean, that we’re not striving for a puristic signal transfer in all concepts incl. vinyl playback.

          Maybe, and I think that was Paul’s point, the kind of imperfection of vinyl contributes more to a great sound experience than the imperfection of digital, which seems to work more against it. Some long time further on the road digital must be better in all aspects, not only some.

        2. The comparison isn’t valid.

          The job of a visual artist is to create an artistic image. The gap between reality and the image is intended and expected as part of the artistic process.

          In contrast, when music had been recorded and mixed and mastered the artistic process has been completed. Differences between the master and the sound reproduced at my ears are a failure of fidelity of the transmission and reproduction process, not an extension of the artistic process.

          The purpose of hifi is to maximise the above fidelity. If the equipment chosen introduces welcome distortions that are avoidable, then enjoyable though one might find it to be, it just ain’t in the spirit of hifi.

          Perhaps we have here a pointer to a definition of an audiophile. Perhaps an audiophile is a person who makes a pastime of appreciating the nuances of a sound reproduction chain, either as faithful to the master as the technology permits (‘high fidelity’), or with distortions (e.g., harmonic additions or bandwidth limitations) introduced by their preferred equipment (e.g., vinyl discs and associated playback apparatus].

          1. The artistic process does not end at the mixing and mastering stage. There is the playback stage left to execute. It involves a different set of artists, of course, but nonetheless is vital to the final result.

            Gear in the audio chain are voiced artistically by their designers to render sound in a particular way. They can shape and color the output sound, through tubes and other circuit topology and components, such that it is not necessarily an accurate reproduction of the original recorded sound. The sound may be an intentionally stylized version of the original sound. Different audio component designers typically have different sound signatures, just as painters have different identifiable painting styles.

            That was my point.

            1. I think that our difference of opinion is that I think that the artistic process should end at the master stage, whilst you are content that the peculiarities of the transmission and reproduction of the sound should be considered as further steps in the artistic process.
              Let me try to persuade you that your acceptance of another artistic step after the master is a source of trouble. When the artist was finished recording and finished liaising with the sound engineers they have achieved a particular result, as close as possible to what they wanted. If then, there are other steps—transmission and reproduction—during which further artistic (as you would have it) processes take place, perhaps to ‘warm’ the sound, or to add ‘pleasing’ harmonics as a consequence of mechanical or electronic limitations in transmission or reproduction, then the artist might feel that their work had been modified. Perhaps they will think that ‘artistic licence’ has been taken, without their permission. Perhaps they will think that their musical work has been subtly distorted, perhaps spoiled. Perhaps they will be concerned that particular aspects of the sound they created may be lost. So, I think that the best way to honour the musician’s craft and intent (plus that of the audio engineers) is not to mess with the sound, to try to hear it as close to artists’ intentions as possible. If the manufacturer of transmission and reproduction technologies wants to add ‘warmth’ or harmonics or even, say, crackles, then perhaps that would best be done by first seeking the highest fidelity to the original sound that the artist wanted, and then having circuits that can be switched into the signal path, labelled, for example, ‘Bandwidth limitation (vinyl effect)’, ‘Added even harmonics’, or ‘Surface noise’.
              I suggest that if we do not demand from manufactures the closest approach to the original artistic intent, then the the very idea of high fidelity becomes meaningless.

              1. Sorry, your essay does not sway me. I think you missed my point. Like it or not, every audio system and room will render the recorded sound differently. Component designers artistically inject their own personal musical taste into the sound of their equipment, just as audiophiles apply their own musical tastes when they assemble their systems. It's not a sin for a listener to playback an original recording in a way that pleases him or her more. If it were, we would all have to use the same studio monitors or headphones and other gear the sound engineer used and reproduce their mastering room in our homes. Aint gonna happen.

  6. I think there is also something endearing about pulling out an album, cleaning it, dropping the needle and sitting there listening with an album cover to look at. That endearing nature has a positive psychological impact that spills into your attitude while listening, leading to a more positive listening experience. When you are having fun, everything sounds better.

    1. Thank You Reed.. Finally a positive view of vinyl!!
      I use CD's only in my short drive to work for obvious reasons.
      I had substandard turntable many years ago and remember hearing snap crackle and pops. I am not sure how but a better table and they will disappear. I guess the digital analog battle may never be won by either side but I for one will take the vinyl. I still remember listening to my first album purchase Kiss Alive and looking at photos and reading the inserts I really felt like I did experience the concert. They even have close ups of some of the people who attended the concert. I also have the CD with the tiny booklets I felt ripped off sonically and visually.

  7. I agree with Richard Haggerty about the resonance. It does add a feeling of warmth and spaciousness, but that effect depends on how the resonance is controlled and at what frequencies. It's one of the reasons that so many different turntables and tonearms can have a signature sound but also sound equally good. The designers will tell you that they've figured out how best to control resonances, but often the design principles will be at odds. They can't all be right. It really comes down to: Pick your coloration. Oftentimes the colorations from resonances are euphonic.

    As to the first point, if friction between stylus and groove is what causes the euphonic colorations or "warm blanket" of vinyl playback, he doesn't explain the mechanism for that. Yes, obviously it's "the laws of physics," but the sound being produced is low-level groove noise. That's more like hiss from analog tape, not a "bias" or a warm blanket. It's also a little like the underground trains that are subtly audible in a few famous concert halls. It's not always annoying, but it can be distracting, and it certainly doesn't add to the enjoyment of the music.

  8. A question for the moderator.
    Paul,
    Would you rather listen to the vinyl releases that have been done at Octave Records or the pure DSD version? And a reason(s) as to why you prefer one version over another.

    1. Not a ‘gotcha’ Paul. I know what I prefer and why I prefer the digital format. There’s plenty of room for those who prefer vinyl. No where have I ever read that there can only be one format. ✌️

      1. Mike,
        Not to pre-empt Paul, but he has said on a few occasion that he prefers the Octave vinyl.
        And as to why...well that's simple...because they sound better 😉

      1. Where’s the difference between the master DSD/DXD (the latter even being PCM which you here and there called far inferior to DSD) and the public file of the same resolution? Just asking because I also understood (as FR) so far you called the vinyl release better sounding than the pure DSD (whatever version of the ones mentioned you meant with that term)

        I just try to get orientation in the various statements.

  9. The Art of Impurity ... the perfect phrase to explain analog over digital, but especially live over recorded. We "strive for live" in our audio gear, by hearing exactly what was recorded, and any impurity, to quote Bill Murray in Meatballs, "Just doesn't matter ..."

    1. Yep, some like a lot of dope to distort reality. Some like maximum reality, without the dope. Some have never tried dope and don't know what they are missing. Some like to only sniff vinyl, avoiding the needle. Some get fully addicted and would have to go through rehabilitation to rid themselves of it. I'm talking audio, of course 🙂

  10. Paul's post today reminds me of "The Quest For Perfect Sound," the article I adore by Edward Rothstein of The New Republic (December 30, 1985), explaining the passion for high-end audio. In the article there is a quote that "analog seeks to approximate perfection, but digital perfects an approximation."

    For me, vinyl playback is not about nostalgia or handling physical media, or any of the other myths digital-only people tell themselves to cope with their cognitive dissonance about rejecting the greater suspension of disbelief of analog playback. For me, vinyl and tape -- as "impure" in theory as they may be -- afford me a greater emotional connection to the music I love.

    1. Reminds me of the movie "Marathon Man" in which the Nazi dentist is drilling through the Dustin Hoffman character's teeth while he asks, "Is it safe?" Imagine the scene with the lipsinked words: "Vinyl or digital?"

  11. I personally think this is pretty easy: in the time man has been on this planet, when did we ever hear sound perfectly? Not in any outdoor setting, not in any indoor setting. There are all kinds of imperfections going on all the time. To communicate sound in a way that is trying to reproduce what humans like is to incorporate the imperfections, whether we're aware of it or not. To eliminate them completely is to take the humanity out of sound. I haven't read a lot about psycho-acoustics, but I'd guess that what we might call "imperfections" are actually desired for reasons other than enjoyment - like maybe to keep us from getting eaten by some animal. Maybe in that case, vinyl records make us feel "safer"?

  12. I wish I kept the issue of Stereophile that contained an interview with Tom Dowd in which he explained the physics of vinyl playback; he did a wonderful analysis of the limitations of the medium. I'm sure Mr. Dowd would have loved today's discussion.

  13. I don't (tic) disagree with the (ppPPOP) the argument, vinyl CAN sound delightful, warm and satisfyi(bbbb-PHPP)ng and the surface noise, impurities and some distortion (the real key to pleasurable listening) ARE remarkable. However it is (pfffffT) the impuri(t-t-t-tIC)ies that AREN'T part or the original record...d....d.....d.....(stomp)ding that are a deal breaker for me. Like Rat says - mostly because it was ALL we had for hifi growing up. We had to put up with it. Now…. we don’t.
    To my discerning ears, every tic pop or fffffFFT is exactly like the muffled muted kyeyeing of Yoko Ono in the background of a Lennon song. That is ALL I HEAR!

    I miss every aspect of the vinyl life (I still have over 3000 albums) EXCEPT the bad noises.
    I always joke – that ‘warmth’ you think you’re hearing is actually compressed nostalgia buried amidst annoying hum, wow, flutter, ticks, crackles and pops… and the occurrence of my five pound hound jumping down from my listening lap to the wooden floor is enough to grenade a woofer clear across the room. 😉

    Some claim the rice krispies can be eliminated. Can they? At what cost? Financially or audio wise. Noise impulse eliminators actually mute the audio for a micro-second to "erase" the tic - essentially doing the same thing as turning your vinyl output into an MP3... How much does one have to spend on equipment to erase the flaws and limitations of an audio source from 1888? Advancements HAVE been made. There's a REASON auto stores don't stock and sell steam engine parts and covered wagon wood spoked wheels.

    ** I jest (mostly) - no offence to you retainers of steam engines, covered wagons or record spinny devices. They ARE quite cool, nostalgic and are visually quite admirable. But even our esteemed commander in chief drives a Tesla….

  14. I've heard a few vinyl setups that didn't suffer from tics, crackling and pops, you just have to have great pressings, a great setup, and a really good record cleaning machine. Again it's another rabbit hole, but it can be accomplished.

  15. The same is true with wine. Wine that is technically perfect tastes boring. Wine character comes from balancing all the idiosyncratic qualities of the grape and creating a wine worth drinking and talking about.

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