The sound of vinyl

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While speaking to the LA Audio Society last weekend my “speech” turned into a free-for-all – not quite a brawl, but a lively discussion. And this often happens when I speak in public; it’s something I encourage. The subject was vinyl vs. digital and how we optimize our systems for one or the other.

I have long pondered why vinyl is such an attractive format for serious music lovers. It’s a technically inferior reproduction medium, relative to digital. And yet, most of us have experienced vinyl’s allure. Despite its technical shortcomings, vinyl systems often sound more musically engaging and “real” than their digital counterparts. I’ve heard it, you’ve heard it, and for those that have not shared the same experience, I can confidently suggest you’ve heard of it.

Attending our meeting was my good friend, musician and writer, Dan Schwartz. Dan’s got a hell of a good set of ears. He once was a reviewer for TAS during the HP days. And Dan proffered a suggestion that resonated with me, one I want to share with you and then expand upon in the coming days. First, a bit of background.

I have long believed one of the major differences between the sound of vinyl and digital has more to do with the way they were mastered than the playback medium itself. To master for vinyl we must first compress the dynamics to fit into the available space, if the original was from a digital recording. If from analog tape, a smaller amount of compression is needed. To master digital we remove compression and adjust the peaks so they never exceed maximum volume (though some mastering engineers add a peak limiter to master digital). This is because the maximum dynamic range of vinyl is less than 70dB, while digital is close to 100dB for CDs, 130dB or more for higher resolution audio–a far cry from vinyl’s restricted dynamics. And yet, vinyl has this magic….

Dan suggested that one of the results of compression is to bring up the low level signals so they are actually louder than when first recorded–as if the microphones had been placed a little closer to the instruments, capturing more of the decay and overtones–inner details more evident without sounding compressed. This might answer one of the consistent compliments paid to vinyl systems, a feeling of getting closer to the music.

We’ll start looking into this and some other ruminations tomorrow.