An older, well-established jazz pianist who shall remain nameless recorded his last album shortly before his death this year. And now it’s been issued—but only on vinyl.
Important recordings of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and other works are now also being issued on vinyl only, or vinyl and CD not available for download.
What on earth is going on?? I’m happy you asked, because I have answers!
The LP revival is strictly, wholly and exclusively based on a myth, that LPs sound “warmer” than CDs. Now, in the beginning, when many CDs were using 16-bit information, there was a modicum of truth to this. 16-bit sound is analogous to looking at an original Van Gogh painting through a screen door with crosshatched wires that slightly distort the image. In audio terms, it translated to a colder sound because some of the overtones were filtered out. But then audio CDs moved to 24-bit sound, and suddenly all the warmth that was missing from those earlier CDs was there.
Fast-forward 30 years, and now we’re in the era of digital downloads, and many such downloads are in the form of small mp3 files at 128K. Anyone who has heard these low-level mp3s will know that distortion can be heard on them, particularly in the sound of cymbals and strings, but also in certain reed instruments. None of these problems are heard on high-level 320K mp3s, and certainly not on higher-level CDs. I once played a CD, way back around 1992, for a friend of mine who was skeptical of their aural superiority. He had me crank the treble on my amplifier all the way up while strings were playing in the opening movement of the Mahler First (the Riccardo Muti recording). He was astonished that there was no distortion, despite the fact that the sound was clearly unnatural.
If you tried this with an LP, even these new digitally-recorded LPs, you would not hear the same lack of distortion. The sound would be distorted well out of proportion, and this is even truer of any low-level bass response. Mark Richardson, executive editor of the online blog Pitchfork, made the following completely true observations:
One of the often overlooked facts about LP reproduction is that some people prefer it because it introduces distortion. The “warmth” that many people associate with LPs can generally be described as a bass sound that is less accurate. Reproducing bass on vinyl is a serious engineering challenge, but the upshot is that there’s a lot of filtering and signal processing happening to make the bass on vinyl work. You take some of this signal processing, add additional vibrations and distortions generated by a poorly manufactured turntable, and you end up with bass that sounds “warmer” than a CD, maybe– but also very different than what the artists were hearing in the control room.
Of course, Richardson is probably involved solely in pop music, in which bass response is the primary factor in determining good sound…just think of how many headphones you see being sold nowadays whose biggest selling point is “awesome bass.” But that still doesn’t make him wrong! And I would go even further. Very often, particularly in classical music—and specifically quiet classical music—what listeners hear as warmth is simply the subtle hum or “swoosh” of the vinyl record as your cartridge is playing it.
In addition, Richardson exposes an ironic glitch in modern LP reissues of older recordings:
There is a strong suspicion in the audiophile community that LP reissues are commonly mastered from a CD source. What this means is that, instead of traveling to a record label’s tape vault, finding the original master tapes and a machine that can play them, and going through the painstaking and expensive process of transferring that tape to a mastering disc in order to press LPs, the starting point is actually a CD. And the LP pressing is essentially an inferior copy of that CD. In these cases, the “warmth” you associate with the vinyl record is completely up to the distortions added by the playback process.
But if you dig further—indeed, much further—you’ll find that no LP ever produced in the history of mankind can come close to the frequency range of a CD. I still remember those early digital LPs, particularly on EMI, that sounded awfully good…for records. But they still didn’t have the phenomenal range of a CD. And let us not forget all the other negatives. LP grooves wear out after a particular number of plays…this was why we serious collectors often bought two copies of records we really loved, knowing that the first copy wouldn’t even last five years of repeated playing. LPs also pick up pops, ticks and swishes, if you pick up the cartridge a wee bit carelessly you’ll get scratches, and not all of them can be eliminated by cleaning; in fact, most can’t. So what you have for your investment—and modern-day LPs cost about four times as much as the $6 discs of the late 1970s (most I’ve seen run between $21 and $28 per disc)—is a record that will give you a few months of artificial “warmth,” then start having problems you can’t correct if you play it too often.
So why do people have a fetish for vinyl? I say it’s connected to the psychology of being “retro” that has caught hold of so much of our population. These are the same people who’d probably buy a 1959 Cadillac or Frigidaire because they think it “better” than modern-day cars or coolers. I once worked with a woman who, at a staff meeting, was proud to announce that she was “a vinyl collector, and I don’t mean sheets of vinyl. I mean LPs.” I would say that this woman was no older than 35, which meant that her actual memories of the real LP era were probably in her childhood, and thus associated with good times and warm feelings of home, hearth and happiness. (Hey, who says I can’t be alliterative?)
I do still own my turntable. It’s in the hall closet, way back on the top shelf, along with the ancient Radio Shack amplifier that plays it. I haven’t used it in 16 years, when I spent a full year transferring all the LPs I still had left but couldn’t replace on silver disc to wav files on my computer, and then burning them to CDs. It was quite a project and I’m in no mood to repeat it, not even for a major classical violinist or a late, great jazz pianist who thought it would be a great exit to put his last will and testament on a piece of plastic crap.
Thank you for your kind attention!
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley