Thursday, October 15, 2009

Turning directions: Many listeners find digital recordings too harsh, sterile

I would like to thank the people at Terra Haute Tribune Star for allowing me to reprint this interesting material.

By Reggie McConnell

Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — In 1983, when Sony introduced the compact disc, it boasted that it was giving the public “prefect sound forever.” A quarter of a century later, audiophiles are still waiting for Sony to make good on its boast. Many listeners find digital recordings too harsh and sterile sounding. They complain that CDs and MP3s prevent them from becoming immersed in the “musical experience.” Whereas analog recordings allow them to connect with the music on an “emotional” level. “Listening fatigue” is a common complaint of critical listeners attempting to cope with today’s digital formats.

Michael Fremer, senior contributing editor to Stereophile, is certainly a critical listener. His turntable costs $150,000. (That’s not a typo.) A stereo system like Fremer’s will set you back $340,000. Though he’s quick to stress that one can assemble a “musically satisfying system” for $3,000. Fremer has devoted a large portion of his adult life to evaluating the sonic differences between analog and digital recordings. And he’s pretty dogmatic on the subject of analog’s sonic superiority.

Fremer: “A $400 turntable will sound more ‘musical’ and enjoyable than a $5,000 CD player. The problem is the lack of resolution. Sixteen bits [digital’s ceiling] is barely sufficient. All you have to do is hear a higher resolution version of the same recording to know that.”

Perhaps that’s one reason for vinyl’s resurgence. Last year, nearly 2 million vinyl albums were purchased, according to Nielson Soundscan, which began tracking LP sales in 1991. Actually, that number is conservative since Nielson fails to track sales at small indie shops where vinyl thrives. Moreover, early indications point to robust sales for 2009, despite the year-long recession.

These numbers aren’t surprising to those in the record business. Chad Kassem, owner of Acoustic Sounds, has been selling vinyl records for 25 years. His business is based in Salina, Kan., and has become a Mecca for vinyl lovers. International sales account for a third of his business. Kassem began his career by selling LPs out of his two-bedroom apartment. These days he needs a 50,000 square-foot warehouse to hold his burgeoning inventory. Though Kassem sells CDs as well, vinyl accounts for 80 percent of sales.

Kassem, Fremer and Michael Hobson are responsible for saving vinyl. Hobson founded Classic Records in 1992 and began reissuing vintage recordings (both classical and jazz) from the 1950s and early ’60s. Fremer says of Hobson, “In the darkest days he put his money where his mouth was and began licensing titles for vinyl reissue.”

The dark days were the early 1990s, when it appeared vinyl was going the way of the dinosaur. Thanks to Hobson’s efforts, new vinyl reissues from vintage labels such as Mercury Living Presence, RCA, Decca and Blue Note are available today.

The fact that people are spending serious money on vinyl was made manifest to me earlier this year, when my friend, Brian Reece, showed me his latest vinyl acquisition. Reece is a dedicated Pearl Jam fan. Recently, the band reissued its classic 1992 album “Ten.” Like many bands, they chose to release it on both CD and vinyl. The week it was released over 10,000 copies of the deluxe vinyl version were sold for $140 per pop. The standard version sells for $19.

Examining the album, I was struck by the quality of the pressings. Thick, flawless 180 gram vinyl; nothing like the thin, warped crap that Columbia Records used to foist upon the public.

The Pearl Jam record is also available at Best Buy. That’s right, a big-box chain is selling vinyl. The consumer-electronics giant picked up on the trend last year and has devoted merchandising space for vinyl in all its stores. And while vinyl represents less than 5 percent of Best Buy’s music business, the key point is that vinyl sales are growing while CD sales continue to shrink.

It’s instructive to note that there are more turntable manufacturers today than existed in 1983. Moreover, they are doing a brisk business with people under the age of 30. Young people have played a major role in vinyl’s resurgence. Perhaps it’s because they have grown up listening to low resolution audio formats and when they hear what they’ve been missing they are eager to upgrade.

Fremer: “When kids brought up on MP3 files, who’ve only heard MP3 files, hear vinyl they flip out! I’ve seen it myself … I had a young friend (25) bring over one of his friends who is a big Dylan fan. He’d only heard Dylan on MP3s! I played him an original pressing of “Tangled Up In Blue” and the kid started crying … he said he’d never really heard the song before and had never really ‘felt’ it.”

So much for the notion that MP3s constitute progress. I, too, prefer the warmer sound of vinyl. Vinyl manifests a euphonic sweetness, if you will, that can’t be duplicated via CD. I own several recordings on both formats. The biggest difference I notice (besides vinyl’s sweeter sonic signature) is that it throws a wider, deeper soundstage. This serves to create a holographic effect. Images seem to float in mid-air, directly in front of my listening chair. You can easily place the location of the performers on stage. Good luck trying to duplicate that 3-D imagery with CDs.

(I should put my remarks in context by noting that I listen in two-channel stereo and do not utilize any surround sound or ambience restoration devices.)

With analog recordings, the sound is picked up via a microphone and fed to tape. The magnetic particles on the tape are configured in patterns analogous to the audio wave-form. Whereas digital recorders convert the audio signal to a binary code of ones and zeroes. Each one and zero is called a “bit.” Space does not permit further explanation, but it’s the processing of this binary information (or lack thereof) that accounts for digital’s disappointing sound.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing for music critics and sound engineers is having an inferior format hailed as “a quantum leap forward” by industry types who have a vested interest in digital’s commercial success.

Those wishing to take the Pepsi Challenge might begin with Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.” Compare a CD (even a CD is superior to MP3s) to the record. If you prefer classical, then I suggest RCA’s “Saint-SaĆ«ns Symphony No. 3,” Charles Munch conducting. Headbangers should A/B the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Stadium Arcadium.”

A cautionary note: Many of today’s vinyl releases are sourced from digital. Eschew! When purchasing vinyl make sure your selections are pure analog.

“Sweet” “euphonic” “warm”: but these are merely descriptive terms and tell us nothing insofar as the technical reasons for vinyl’s sonic superiority. Enter Doug Sax. Sax is the most accomplished mastering engineer of my generation. He notes that “Analog tape is high resolution, which means two things. One, the extended bandwidth over a conventional CD, and, two, more low-level performance than a CD … Analog tape has a full octave above a CD, with ease. And you can hear detail way into the noise floor. We’re [analog enthusiasts] used to that resolution.

“One of the great lies of digital is that digital copies sound like the original. They do not. Analog playback is not like the original, either — believe me … but it changes it often in a very musical way. When digital changes, it’s always unmusical. It never sounds better.”

Will vinyl ever replace CD as the preferred listening format? Of course not. The compact disc player is perfect for today’s instant-gratification-culture. Just push a button and the room is bathed in “music.” And let’s face it, there’s nothing sexy about cleaning a record every time you play it. But if you value great sound over convenience, then chances are you will find yourself shopping for a turntable sometime soon.



Shawn said...

Thanks for this!

Anonymous said...

I loved that article. Keep up the good work.

Robert Benson said...

Thx guys, I loved it to and got permission to post it, we may thank the people at the Trib Star!