THE VINYL FASHION

some observations by Martin Davidson (2017)


I started buying vinyl LPs in the 1950s. Compared with shellac (78s), vinyl was much quieter noise-wise. However the sound of the actual music on shellac was much clearer and brighter - it just had to compete with a vast amount of surface noise including snaps, crackles and pops (SCP), even more than is associated with vinyl. Nowadays one can remove most of this unwanted noise using digital processing.

I first started issuing recordings on vinyl in the 1970s. The first pressing of the first LP I issued - a solo saxophone recital by Steve Lacy - sounded as if it had been record in a hail storm, although subsequent vinyl reissues were somewhat better, and CD reissues much better. (I am bemused by certain collectors paying more for the first edition in the recent past. I can only assume that they are not interested in listening to the music.)

It is true that the 1970s was a bad period for vinyl, and what I have heard of today's 180 gram vinyl is much quieter, but there is still some unmusical noise and distortion that simply does not exist on CDs. Is it the silent background of CDs that makes some people think they sound "clinical"? Is it the surface noise, distortion and rumble inherent on all LPs that gives them "warmth"? I certainly cannot hear any other inherent differences between CDs and LPs, once one takes into account the fact that certain CDs and LPs do have inferior sound.

I find myself agreeing with these comments which followed a recent article in The Guardian:
"There's certainly something different about the sound of vinyl. Unfortunately, it's generally scratches, low frequency (LF) rumbling and a general fuzziness. What people refer to as 'warmth' or an 'organic' sound."
"To replicate that classic vinyl LP experience in full without spending silly money, listen to a CD of your favourite music whilst eating a bowl of Rice Krispies."

In the 1990s I was able to issue music on CDs, and it was such a relief: no surface noise, no SCP, no print-through (pre- and post-echo), no rumble, and no distortion caused by loud sections and phase problems. It was also possible to have a much larger dynamic range between loud and soft sections, rather than have everything compressed to a small dynamic range. Most of the music I issue does not have continuous loud drumming and/or distorted guitar amplification, so all the above-mentioned problems are very noticeable.

Maybe people who claim they do not like digital sound need to invest in a CD player with a good D to A (digital to analogue) converter. Maybe they need better speakers to cope with the range of output that comes off a CD. I am still using the Leak Sandwich speakers that I bought 50 years ago. Whenever people (especially young people) hear them, they comment on how warm they sound.

In recent years, I have issued or reissued older material that was originally recorded on analogue tape. There were times when the tape was not available so I had to work from vinyl, which added another layer of problems to be fixed. This mostly has been a very time-consuming and tiresome process - I limit myself to about an hour a day in order to keep sane. Sometimes, when they are too tricky for me, I send them to an expert who has more digital equipment than I do. Thanks to working in the digital domain it is possible to come up with something that sounds much better.

I recently reissued a 1968 recording (Karyobin) that has not only been cleaned up but also remixed so that all the instruments are balanced. Shortly after this was reissued, an original LP (not mine, unfortunately) was sold on Ebay for over $700. That strikes me as being a ridiculous amount of extra money to pay just to get an unbalanced mix with surface noise and SCP!

It is almost certain that most of the vinyl releases now being produced have gone through the digital domain in order to clean them up and/or edit them. Both processes are so much easier using a computer - I haven't had a use for a razor since the start of the digital age. How can a vinyl pressing made from a recording that has been into the digital domain and out again sound better than a CD? Anyone who thinks so is surely not enjoying music without the above-mentioned defects.

Again I find myself agreeing with a couple of comments which followed the same recent article in The Guardian:
"Why are people paying for digitally mastered vinyl? That makes no sense. The only vinyl worth buying is that which has been mastered in an analogue fashion - which major labels stopped doing a while ago."
"They record them on digital mixing desks with digital software and then press them on vinyl. Seems a bit of a con to me. But you can sell anything with constant repetition and a million memes."

It appears that many people who buy LPs do not own a turntable to play them on. They just like the look of LPs, so they stick them on their walls, and listen to the music from digital downloads.

LPs are much easier to damage than CDs, just as 78s are much easier to damage than LPs. It is much easier to find the start of track, or a particular point in a track, on a CD than an LP. There are also useful additional features on CDs, such as programme and shuffle. An LP is limited to about 20 minutes of continuous listening, whereas a CD can contain an extended piece of music, or sequence of music lasting around 80 minutes. In other words, CDs are much more user-friendly than LPs.

The limitations of vinyl meant that the sound had to be degraded considerably to get from analogue tape to LP. If one wants the best in analogue sound, then one really needs to use reel-to-reel tapes, with backing to reduce print-through. They need to run at a speed of at least 38 cm/sec (15 inches/sec), meaning that one reel of 26.5 cm (10½ inches) diameter will hold about 30 minutes of stereo music. On the other hand, analogue cassettes have half the width of most reel-to-reel tapes and run at an eighth of the speed, so the sound quality of them is generally much inferior to vinyl.

To sum up, I am appalled by this back-to-vinyl fashion. It reminds me of other awkward things that have since been replaced by more convenient technological advances - like neck-ties, trousers with button-flies and/or turn-ups, and cars with manual gearboxes, all of which the fashion police try to find new perverse reasons to bring back every so often. I wonder how long it will be for them to declare that shellac and cylinders are the best way to listen to music.


Note: for a more scientific view of the deficiencies of vinyl, see here.


Some resposes to the above:


Of course I agreed with everything in the piece.
Is it worth mentioning that RVG thought CDs conveyed the content of his original recordings better than vinyl?

EVAN PARKER (2017)

Not everyone likes Rudy van Gelder's recording. Charles Mingus said it made him sound terrible. I've heard it said that some frequencies, particularly in the bass, are reduced. I find the drums too quiet in the mix - a frequent problem with jazz recordings. MD


I think there's another reason why LPs don't cut the mustard - noise at the start, mostly from the stylus frequently falling onto the LP at the start of playing, and noise at the end of the side - presumably caused by a fault in the pressing process.

I wonder who is behind the current craze for vinyl. It's most irritating when it's the only form in which the music is issued. Café Oto seem to love vinyl - though they also issue the exact same music on CD sometimes - which results in very short playing time but no reduction in cost. I've been buying a lot of old vinyl lately, since discovering Discogs - mostly records of Dutch music which is unlikely ever to be reissued. Luckily for me, no-one else wants the stuff, so that the prices are reasonable, and the pressings are OK.

I recently sold a Blue Note LP of Rollins for £150 - and it wasn't even one of the rare early pressings. I suppose it has ended up in a frame, on a wall....

RICHARD LEIGH (2017)


I greatly enjoyed your article on vinyl and have passed it along to several people.

I take a couple of minor factual issues with your article, both relating to playing time. You say the maximum playing time for an LP side is about 20 minutes, perhaps an opinion on the amount that can fit on a side without degradation. However, the very last LPs produced in the LP era, by the DMM (direct metal mastering) process, ran considerably longer with surprisingly good quality. EMI produced reissues of Klemperer conducting the 4 Brahms Symphonies on two LPs, one to a side. As I recall a couple of them ran well over 40 minutes, meaning the maximum total playing time of an LP exceeded the maximum total playing time of a CD. Also, Sansui produced a turntable which played the LP vertically with a tone arm for each side, enabling you to listen to both sides without standing up to turn the LP over. I saw one of these in use but was never able to find one I could buy.

This, however, brings up the maximum playing time for a CD. It's officially 80 minutes. My usual replicator won't handle a CD with playing time over 79:30. However, I keep seeing European CDs with playing time well in excess of 80 minutes. Philips has produced several and Bis has made many. I wrote to Robert von Bahr at Bis to get help with an 81 minute CD I wanted to produce, and at long last that CD is now at a replicator. It has the two recordings by the Bohemian String Quartet I once issued on LP along with the third one they made.

All very minor stuff.

LESLIE GERBER (2017)

All of my current CD players seem to cope with 81 or perhaps 82 minutes - I haven't come across any longer CDs.
I haven't produced anything longer than 80.
I once had to turn down a second-hand early CD player which had all the functionality I wanted, except that it couldn't handle more than 77 minutes. MD


Nice piece, which I forwarded.
I second the motion.

(Comparing the original SME/OLIV LP with your CD reissue serves as further evidence.)

MILO FINE (2017)

The SME/OLIV LP appears to have been cut at too high a volume resulting in a lot of distortion, particularly on the flugel horn. It took me a lot of time to remove that. MD


I enjoyed your article a lot. ;))
Of course we have very very different opinions about this, I would say, and it is of high interest to keep the debate open.

I have many arguments I could hit you back with.... but I have a feeling it will be a bit too much of a pie-throwing here... and we are too old for that.

Music comes first --- and we need to fight the ongoing stupidities back.
And for me it is really not about the format of the music.

Of course I prefer a vinyl to a CD, but in some cases... with a lot of low dynamic music -- CD is to prefer of course.

Music comes first, and with good equipment - or just decent equipment.... we can all enjoy our favourite music at home.
When I got my Quad 57 speakers last year.... EVERYTHING changed.... it really does not matter if I play it from a CD, reel to reel , vinyl , DAT or cassette..... it all sounds gooooooood ;))
The subjective feeling... the emotions..... are REAL!!!

MATS GUSTAFSSON (2017)


Hum
Analog recordings have an accumulation of low-level hums that far exceeds those made digitally:
Hum is added by the use of a power supply for a condenser microphone. Shared by analog and digital.
Hum is added by the use of electricity to make a tape recording. Analog only.
Hum is added by analog mixers. Shared by analog and (depending on the type of equipment, usually) on digital.
Hum is added by the use of a disc cutting head. True for analog, and pressings of digitally derived signals to make analog LPs.
Hum is added by the preamp used to amplify the signal when played back.

Wow and flutter
Any circular object will be very slightly out-of-round. The audible effect it causes is called "wow".
In the analog recording/playback chain, wow is introduced if the master is made on most tape recorders.
Once again, when the tape is played back on the same or a different machine.
When played into a disc cutter, new wow is introduced.
After the record is pressed, it is played on a turntable which has wow.
Many records are not well-centered and the slightest eccentricity introduces wow. Developing a distinctive tone is one way that makes one performer sound different from another. If the instrument is, say, an oboe, even a slight off-centeredness makes the specific player becomes a generic one.

Flutter
This is the result of irregularities greater than once-per-revolution of a disc in contact with another object.
This can be a result of wobbly disc in contact with another object, turning or stationary. It's possible at many stages throughout the analog recording and playback chain.
Flutter is a factor in the tape recording and playback chain caused by occasional incomplete contact with the recording or playback head and is a result of friction from tape scraping, badly aligned guides, etc., summed up as poor maintenance.
A vinyl disc is cut by a lathe travelling from the edge of the disc toward the center hole in a straight line across the record surface. The playback arm is usually located at a single point from which it pivots. When aligned to the edge of the disc, centrifugal force intensifies as the arm moves toward the inner portion of the disc, pushing the arm outwards from the center area. Tone arms have been designed to compensate for this problem in various ways. If not attended to, the inner portion of the record will wear before the rest of the record does. This is why, assuming equal transfer quality to a tape and a vinyl disc, the tape played back on a well-maintained machine, will always sound better.
Digital recording has no wow and flutter. Without knowing the playback medium, to me a piano always sounds crisper, more life-like, than the best analog recording of one.

Impulse noises caused by dirt, debris or groove damage are not a problem with a sound file played back through a good system, and seldom one with a CD - unless it has been damaged, of course.

Having said all this, I still love and play my direct-to-disc 10,000 78 rpm record collection. But I center each side before serious listening, and always before dubbing.

STEVE SMOLIAN (2017)


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