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.


Music News & Notes

Sony: Michael Jackson Album Will Be Sold on iTunes, Contrary to Report

Michael Jackson’s posthumous album This Is It will be sold through iTunes, Sony told, contradicting a Digital Music News report that Apple’s policy of insisting that songs be sold individually had cost it the chance to sell the album.

“I’m happy to report that [that] story is incorrect,” said Epic Records (Sony) senior vice president of publicity Lois Najarian. “Michael Jackson’s This It It album will indeed be for sale on iTunes Oct. 27. I don’t have much more information to impart other than that right now, but suffice [it] to say fans will be able to purchase it there.”

If Sony is right, either Michael Jackson’s people have agreed to let iTunes sell songs from the album individually, or Apple has reversed its longstanding policy of insisting that songs on albums also be sold individually in iTunes. We’ve asked Sony and Apple about this and hope to have an answer shortly.

“I know that’s the question of the day and they are working on that now,” said Najarian, when asked about the bundling issue.

This widely anticipated album includes only one new track, also called “This Is It” (listen), which was co-written by Michael Jackson and Paul Anka in 1983, although four demos and a poem are also included. By making this only available as a complete album, Sony and Jackson’s estate would be able to force fans who want to buy the new track and the four demos to purchase 14 tracks they probably already own.


Rare outtakes from The White Stripes' first ever record to be released

Jack White's label Third Man to release rare tracks via online service The Vault

Outtakes from The White Stripes' first ever recording session are set to be released from the first time.

Alternative takes from the duo's 1998 seven-inch single 'Let's Shake Hands' – and its B-side 'Look Me Over Closely' – will be available via The Vault, the online service of Jack White's label Third Man.

The rarities will be available to The Vault's platinum subscribers, who will also receive an exclusive vinyl album 'The Raconteurs, Live In London' and a screen print poster for The Dead Weather.

The latest release is part of a regular giveaway organised by Third Man for Vault subscribers. Registration for the service is available until October 22, and also includes audio and video previews, pre-sales and more.


Elvis to release '100-song box set' to celebrate his 75th birthdayCollection to be released on December 8.

A "career spanning" Elvis Presley collection is being released to mark what would have been his 75th birthday.

A 100-song box set called 'Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight' will be released on December 8.

The collection will include many fan favourites but also lesser know tracks like 'My Happiness' the song Presley paid four dollars to record at the Memphis Recording Service in July 1953, a year before signing with Sun Records.

The collection will also feature an 80-page booklet featuring rare photos and a new essay by journalist Billy Altman.

A single-disc edition of 'Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight.' will be released January 5, three days before what would have been Presley's 75th birthday.


The Tragically Hip announce UK tour and album details

Canadian band head to the UK this autumn

Tragically Hip have announced details of a UK tour to support their forthcoming new album.

The album, called 'We Are The Same', is due out on November 17, and the band will call at four venues in the UK and Ireland this November and December.

The band have posted a new video featuring material from the album on their YouTube page.

This Date In Music History-October 15


Mickey Baker of Mickey & Sylvia ("Love Is Strange") turns 84.
Barry McGuire - "Eve Of Destruction" (1935)
Don Stevenson - Moby Grape (1942)
Richard Carpenter - The Carpenters (1946)
English balladeer Chris DeBurgh (1948)
Tito Jackson - Jackson Five (1953)
Dave Stead - Beautiful South (1966)
Ginuwine (1970)

They Are Missed:

Born on this day in 1938, Marv Johnson, who's recording of Berry Gordy's song "Come To Me" became Motown Records first ever-single release in May 1959. Johnson died on May 16, 1993.

The late Barry Sadler ("Ballad Of The Green Berets") was born in 1943.

Freddy Fender ("Before The Next Teardrop Falls") died of lung cancer in 2006.

Terry Gilkyson ("Marianne") died from complications of an aneurism in 1999.

The great songwriter Cole Porter died in 1964.

Founding member of the Moonglows vocalist Bobby Lester died in 1980 (age 50).


In 1955, Buddy & Bob (Buddy Holly) opened for Elvis Presley at the “Big D Jamboree”, held at Lubbock’s Cotton Club, Texas. Nashville talent scout Eddie Crandall was in audience and arranged for Holly to audition and record demos for the Decca US label.

Little Richard recorded "Good Golly Miss Molly" in 1956.

Jackie Wilson recorded "Lonely Teardrops" in 1958.

In 1960, the Beatles (minus Pete Best) and two members of Rory Storm's Hurricanes (Ringo Starr and Lou Walters) recorded a version of George Gershwin's ‘Summertime’ in a Hamburg recording studio. The track which was cut onto a 78-rpm disc marked the first session that included John, Paul, George, and Ringo together.

Elvis Presley recorded "Good Luck Charm" in 1961.

Jimi Hendrix signed his first recording contract in 1965, he received $1 and a 1% Royalty on all of his recordings.

The Four Tops started a two week run at #1 in 1966 with "Reach Out And I'll Be There."

The Monkees cut "I'm A Believer" in 1966.

Led Zeppelin played their first gig under that name at Surrey University in England in 1968. The band was formerly known as the New Yardbirds before the Who's Keith Moon suggested the band would "go down like a lead zeppelin."

'Hot Rats,' a largely instrumental solo album by Frank Zappa, was released in 1969. It contains one of his signature compositions, "Peaches En Regalia."

In 1971, fifties teen idol Rick Nelson was booed when he performed new material at an oldies show at Madison Square Garden. As a result of the experience, he wrote "Garden Party" which makes it to #6 in October 1972.

In 1973, the Supreme Court decides by a 7-2 vote to refuse to review a 1971 Federal Communications directive that broadcasters, in effect, censor from the airwaves songs with drug-oriented lyrics. The two dissenting votes are cast by Justices William J. Brennan and William O. Douglas, who say, "The government cannot, consistant with the First Admendment, require a broadcaster to censor its music."

Ike & Tina Turner dissolved their 19 year-old business partnership in 1976. Their divorce was finalized several months later. Ike’s drug problems eventually landed him in prison. Tina has a successful solo career.

Paul Simon's "Slip Slidin' Away" was released in 1977.

Fleetwood Mac released their album, "Rumours" in 1977.

Today in 1977, the song "You Light Up My Life" by Debbie Boone topped the charts and stayed there for an amazing 10 weeks.

In 1988, Bon Jovi started a four-week run at #1 on the album chart with "New Jersey."

Also in 1988, UB40 went to #1 on the US singles chart with their version of the Neil Diamond song "Red Red Wine," also a #1 hit in the UK.

In 1994, R.E.M. entered the US album chart at #1 with "Monster," the bands 11th #1.

Mariah Carey started a four week run at #1 on the US album chart in 1995 with "Daydream," the singers sixth album release.

Radiohead went to #1 on the US album chart in 2000 with "Kid A," the group's fourth album which was also a UK #1.

In 2006, the legendary New York Punk Rock club CBGB (Ramones, etc.) has its final show after an incredible 33 year run. Patti Smith, who played her first show at CBGB in February ‘75, performs. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, bassist, Flea, and Television guitarist Richard Lloyd also appear. CBGB closes some 14 months after a dispute with its landlord, the Bowery Residents' Committee, left the club without a new lease.

The Beatles To Bowie: The '60s Exposed, an exhibition of never-before-seen images of The Beatles, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and the Kinks, opened at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2009. The collection has150 photographs and runs for three months. The opening also commemorated the 40th anniversary of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."