Recently, Zack alerted me to a debate going around the tech-nerd podcast community about whether vinyl or CDs sound and was encouraged to share some of my thoughts on the subject. By the end of this, you may be sorry he asked.
Jesse Cannon is the author of Get More Fans: The DIY Guide To The New Music Business and the man behind Cannon Found Soundation.
Is Vinyl Really Better Than CDs?
by Jesse Cannon, edited by Erik van Rheenen
First allow me to brag and tell you why I know what I am talking about (if you already believe me, please skip ahead). I’ve been an audio dork for 20 years, producing records for nearly that long. I formerly worked in the top indie mastering house in the country for years, where a $20,000 turntable that literally floats on air resides (you can see it if you master your record with the very wise and amazing Alan Douches, and he may even let you listen to it) and listened to music in that room with a tens of thousands of dollars acoustic treatment and a $100,000 of gear in it. I have heard vinyl as it should sound and how very few people have ever heard it.
I also have a pretty serious system of my own that clocks in around $10 thousand, between all of its elements. I have produced, engineered, mixed or mastered around 1,500 records and about a quarter of them I have heard go from pre-production demos to mixes to vinyl, as well as digital. Because of my job mastering hundreds of records a year (and overseeing their vinyl pressing), I have to do a lot of critical listening. I have gotten to compare tiny nuances, and am able to compare every part of the stage easily with calibrated nerddom that is beyond boring to get into. I routinely listen back to masters, then test presses, then vinyl cuts, and compare them to our original digital masters and mixes and make sure everything is coming out great.
So now that you may be convinced I have a clue, allow me to ruin your good time.
Vinyl Is Not Always Superior To Digital. Whether you like vinyl or not can come down to personal preference of sound. None of these characteristics is better or worse. In fact, some records may sound better to you on vinyl while some don’t. The fact is, vinyl does have specific characteristics, but the constant talk as if every record’s vinyl version is superior to its digital version is a load of bullshit. I have outlined a handful of factors of why your vinyl may or may not sound as good as your digital copy of a record. Also, before we get started - when I refer to digital, I refer to formats like CD, FLAC or high-quality lossless files, not low bitrate MP3s. They’re the worst sounding format in the history of music, and by no means am I defending poorly done digital. Also I am not here to discuss the ritual, commitment of vinyl or how great cover art looks. We all know that stuff rules. I am here to tell you something you probably don’t already know about vinyl.
Vinyl Got Popular Because Of Resolution. When CDs first came out, they sounded terrible compared to the way they have sounded for the last decade. The mastering was done poorly and no one had a clue how to optimize sound for this format. Today, anyone with good ears and the right software can make a great master on a laptop. Because of this initial inadequacy, along with the terrible quality of the first generation of mp3s, the notion that vinyl always sounds better than digital was solidified as “fact,” since it was always competing with a flawed digital format However, things are different today. With 30 years of optimization, 24bit/96khz recording capabilities and advanced analog to digital conversion methods, this competition isn’t as easy to win.
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