Vinyl Always Sounds Best. Except When It Doesn’t.

Jun 5th, 2015 | By | Category: Back to Vinyl, Essays

Photo by Sarah https://www.flickr.com/photos/dm-set/. Used under Creative Commons License. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

As a huge fan of Baltimore band Lower Dens’ 2012 release Nootropics, I was excited to hear they would be releasing their long-awaited follow-up recording this past April. Even more exciting, I had the chance to hear them perform the new release live in the acoustically wonderful and intimate setting of WTMD’s studio just a few days after Escape From Evil was released.

But during the days before the concert, I became progressively less excited. I managed to get a pre-release lossless digital copy of the new release, and it just did not do much for me. SD/LU co-founder Mark Sullivan had the same reaction.

But when the concert began: Wow! We were both blown away by the new material (and the little bit of older material thrown in). It was strong, punchy, dynamic and thoroughly engaging. Afterward we talked about how different our reactions were to the recording and live show. I suspected that my problem was that before the show I had not had the chance to really sit down and listen to it (novel concept, eh?) but instead had just played it in the background during a very busy week. Mark had only listened to it in the car while commuting to work.

A couple of nights later, I tore open the shrink wrap on the vinyl copy of Escape from Evil that I had bought at the show and settled in to relive that great concert. Unfortunately, it was back to bleh. The music just was not doing it for me. Switching over to the digital copy had the same (non) effect. There was just no life to the recording.

Since then, I’ve thought about the situation now and again. Finally, a few days ago I decided to conduct a little experiment. I downloaded a plug-in for the free Foobar 2000 digital audio player that reports on the dynamic range of a track or album. In case you don’t know the phrase, it refers to the contrast between the quietest and loudest sections of a recording, in decibels. (If you’re of a technical bent, you can read much more about this, including why it’s probably more technically correct to refer to this as loudness range rather than dynamic range.) Escape from Evil got an overall rating of 8, with one track each clocking in at 5, 6 and 7, and none higher than 9.

So how good is that? The Dynamic Range Database compiles the results of nearly 80,000 albums. It gives the following guidelines on determining the relative sound quality of a recording: 1 through 7 is poor, 8 through 13 is transitional, and 14 and above is good. It will come as no surprise to any fan of Iggy Pop that  his own remaster of Raw Power got a 2: It’s just loud, Loud, LOUD.

Increasing loudness at the expense of dynamic contrasts is not an aberration but a major trend in recordings in recent years. “The Loudness Wars” have long been a topic of discussion, with musicians and recording engineers regularly weighing in on the negative effects of the practice of making songs “seem louder by bringing the quiet parts to the same level as the loud parts and pushing the volume level of the entire song to the highest point possible.” While the goal is to make music seem exciting by having it jump out of speakers or earbuds, the end result is not positive. Famed recording engineer Bob Ludwig told NPR: “When you’re through listening to a whole album of this highly compressed music, your ear is fatigued. You may have enjoyed the music but you don’t really feel like going back and listening to it again.”

Ludwig was hardly the first to complain. There is evidence that The Loudness Wars started as far back as the 1950s to help songs jump from little car radio speakers. More recently, at the start of the century, recording engineer Bob Speer wrote:

Much of the music we listen to today is nothing more than distortion with a beat. Great music is suffering because it lacks dynamic range. When music lacks dynamic range, it lacks punch, emotion, and clarity. … Much of the music being produced today isn’t music at all. It’s best described as anti-music. It’s anti-music because the life is being squashed out of it through over compression during the tracking, mixing, and mastering stages. It’s simply, non musical.

A few years later, Bob Dylan echoed a similar sentiment from the musician’s perspective:

You do the best you can, you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like – static. Even these songs probably sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded ’em. CDs are small. There’s no stature to it. I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like,”Everybody’s gettin’ music for free.” I was like, “Well, why not? It ain’t worth nothing anyway.”

While I would hate to say that the new Lower Dens release is “worth nothing,” exactly how much can a recording be worth if it fails to capture the power and emotion a band put into it? And why does the vinyl version of Escape from Evil sound just as bad as the digital?

The answer to the latter question is simple: The vinyl version is almost assuredly also digital. That is, the same digital master that was used to make the CD and download versions of the recording was likely used to create the vinyl one. In an ideal world, that would not happen: Vinyl would be mastered from analog (i.e., tape) recordings. That makes for a simple and clean chain in which everything captured in the original recording remains on that slab of vinyl. But not many musicians record in analog anymore. And once a recording has been made digitally, it has to undergo at least one conversion before it gets to vinyl.

Even when the original recording is analog, there’s a high probability the master was created in the digital domain. Once that’s done, it’s much quicker and cheaper to use that master for all subsequent releases rather than to go through the entire process again for the vinyl release. When a digital master is made from an analog recording and then used for a vinyl release, the signal has to undergo at least two conversions (analog to digital and back again). In the process, there are multiple opportunities to lose crucial details. And more often than not, the digital master is made at only CD quality, so any resultant LP made from the same master simply cannot sound better than the CD.*

To be fair, however, it’s pretty much impossible to say for sure just what was used on Escape from Evil — or on most other recordings. Writer Michael Fremer was ranting about just this issue this week:

Sanctuary Records has just issued four Kinks albums on 180 gram vinyl. The titles are: Kinks, Kinda Kinks, The Kinks Controversy and the sublime Face to Face. The UK-based label Sanctuary issued them.

The “full description” on one website selling the records fails to note:

1) Who cut lacquers
2) From what source
3) Where these were pressed

In other words the “full description” is not a description at all. Are you willing to spend $24 on a record for which these critical facts have not been disclosed?

The most depressing thing is that while record companies loudly trumpet when they have gone back to the original analog tapes to create remastered digital copies, they tend to hide the fact that those remasters are usually the basis of any subsequent vinyl release. Case in point is the beautiful Roxy Music Complete Studio Albums box released last month. Fremer also has something to say about that set (as he did about the 2012 Beatles stereo vinyl box set created from CD-quality digital masters).

Throw into the mix the fact that some record companies have not yet figured out where to get vinyl that does not sound like it’s 50 percent gravel or how to find a pressing plant that actually cares about their product, and in some cases not only does vinyl not sound any better than a digital file or CD, it’s often not even as pleasant to listen to.

Overall, it’s a sad state of affairs that almost makes me want to spend more time in the clubs — if it weren’t for the typically poor acoustics, loud conversations, inconvenient hours and all the rest.

____

* Just for reference, the best digital recordings are 24-bit, with a sample rate of 192,000 times per second. CD quality is 16-44 — or about 1/6th of what was actually recorded. But hey, that’s much better than the typical mp3, which contains about 1/60th as much information as a track on a CD contains.

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8 Comments to “Vinyl Always Sounds Best. Except When It Doesn’t.”

  1. Alan says:

    Interesting.

    I had never heard of Lower Dens until just recently when I caught “To Die In L.A.” on WTMD. Of course I then had to check if BCPL had the CD yet. They didn’t, but I was able to get “Nootropics” instead. I wasn’t that impressed and wondered if I should still keep checking for “Escape From Evil”. I was glad I did because I found it to be more to my liking. Even after repeated listening I still like it better than “Nootropics”. Never noticed any differences or problems with the sound quality though. Could be the “inferior” quality CD format I use when I rip CDs, or my cheap ear-buds/head-phones/car speakers, but if that’s the case then I will stick to using them so I can enjoy my music instead of forking over more money for “premium” gear that makes good music sound bad!

    • Thom Lieb says:

      Thanks for the comment, Alan. One of the unfortunate side effects to hearing music in good live settings is the realization that even the best recordings are pale imitations. And no matter how much time, energy and money one puts into audio equipment, there always comes a point at which its biggest accomplishment is exposing how flawed the recordings are. There’s something to be said for car radios, Walkmen and other “low-fi” listening!

  2. PJ says:

    I’ve been wondering why Escape From Evil sounded so utterly horrible and muffled since I first played this piece of vinyl. Nootropics however sounds crystal clear.

    An audiophile friend argues that CD is always better, that vinyl is now taken from a digital source, converted, etc. as you explained. Now I’m thinking of upgrading my CD player, buying more on CD and spending less on vinyl. Of course, I’m not going to get the Sex Pistols or some music from the 80s and earlier on CD because it’s “just not right” for that music to be on a CD, but I’ll be more selective when choosing between CD vs. vinyl purchases.

    Thanks for this!

    • Thom Lieb says:

      Thanks for the comment, PJ. It’s an interesting question of how vinyl and digital releases will stack up against each other. I realized that as long ago as the release of Alanis Morrisette’s debut, when the vinyl that was cut from the same digital master as the CD simply sounded like a different recording!

      If you ever want to go further down this rabbit hole, check out this site: http://forums.stevehoffman.tv/.

  3. If you spend any time wandering the audiophile forums of these great internets, you ll often find Dire Straits continually popping up as a band whose albums sound particularly grand on the vinyl format.  You can t always trust the internet, but in this case it s true.  Find a copy of 

  4. Benoit Laine says:

    Hey there,

    Interesting bit. I was today browsing a little on the topic of loudness, as going back to a 1995 release of Purcell’s “King Arthur” on a DDD CD I had lots of trouble listening to it, and wondered what DR rating it would have. Turns out it’s more or less ok on that aspect with scores from 10 to 18 depending on the track. Note that for classical music with choir and orchestra this is on the low side… I suspect instead that the recording process itself was bad with a lot of clipping on the voices.

    Anyway, my main point here is regarding digital vs. analog and dynamic range. These are two mostly separate issues.

    You may have a pure analog signal path, but with heavy compression, resulting in little dynamic range. Analog compression technology exists since the sixties and has been used and abused by radio broadcasters since that time. On the opposite, you can find wondefully mastered digital DDD cd’s, for example in classical or Jazz music, with lots of headroom and dynamic range. This is not to say that CD and Vinyl for example share the same properties, I’m only pointing to the fact that analog or digital has little to do with dynamic range. More than that, CD’s have a theoretical potential dynamic range much higher than Vinyl, due to the physical limitations of the Vinyl medium (a bit like you can’t record stereo in low frequency on Vinyl). But the industry has crushed music more and more since the birth of CD which associates digital with no dynamics. Not to speak about the advent of lossy formats, which induce a completely different kind of “loss” unfortunatly also called “compression”. But this is in no way a causal relationship…

    Please believe me, I’m not trying to make an argument for either digital or analog against the other. I love the sound of vinyl (because this is what it is, the vinyl itself has a sound of it’s own), and I love the real sound of music which is quite often more closely reproduced on a well engineered and mastered CD. At least that’s my perception as a musician. But I think that when understood and use properly, both technique can lead to pleasing results. The problem is not a problem of medium, it’s an engineereing and mastering problem, stemming from a commercial pressure…

    Enjoy your music,

    Benoit.

    • Thom Lieb says:

      Thanks for your comments. You make some very astute observations. Early in my music collecting hobby, I made a point of almost exclusively buying European import albums because the American issues were often lacking dynamic range as well as frequency extremes. So it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. There are always great ways to record music, and always plenty of ways to make it less involving and enjoyable.

  5. Bigsleep says:

    Good write up, haven’t time to read it completely yet, just wanted to say I found this searching for an expander for the quiet parts in my vinyl recordings.
    Just thought I’d mention that I installed the DR plugin and tried this out on a few of my albums.
    I saw Dire Straits mentioned and I’ve actually got the original DDD release of Brothers in Arms, thinking this is probably my reference CD.
    So Far Away clocks in at 20.3 on the right, and peaks at 0 (I expect that for CDs), so there’s my reference so far.
    I also have Tommy, Moving Pictures and 2112 on DVD, but oddly they are all about DR 10/11, I’m wondering if that is somehow wrong.
    So I checked the Dark Side of the Moon Ultimate DVD (quad mix), and it was close but but reached 12 on several songs, and of course Time is louder at DR 13. The RMS though is -19 and it peaks higher at -4.5.
    So the Rush DVDs also include a remaster CD, the DR is about the same, but the peak is -0.05, I’d say is the only difference.
    Unless it’s somehow measuring multichannel different? So I checked the stereo track on the DVD (which is just the omission of the front/rear difference signal), and it’s the same except the peak is -0.10, which probably makes sense if you understand just how multichannel works. So the DR value here seems to be correct.

    OK, so back to vinyl. I just recorded Permanent Waves at 24/96 via my X-Fi card, and Natural Science clocks in at DR 15, the peak is -1 and the RMS is -18.7 on the left (I swear the left is always louder). I’m hoping to improve this a bit by making the quiet parts quieter because there’s a slight jump in the low level volume as it creeps over the noise and the noise is mostly gone now. This I think is where DR is lost on records.
    I also have Boston’s first 2 on both record and CD, while on Don’t Look Back the LP has a bit more DR the CD sounds completely different than the LP. These were recorded with an 18 bit card. A significant difference in the first album though; Smokin’ is 12 on the LP and 10 on the CD.

    Yes, I wasted my money on a couple Legacy Vinyl, then I discovered they were digitally mastered, so why not sell it to me on DVD-A, and yes I can do an ABX test on Agents of Fortune and tell you the new LV is worse than a worn out LP.
    Unfortunately, the last few Rush CDs are really bad, but I’m pretty sure I can still get these on vinyl, which hopefully isn’t the same mix.
    Seems to me there’s a lot of people out there trying to prove to us that shit tastes good. Try turning up the volume and buying decent equipment.

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