So why vinyl, anyway?
Music is good for you. Listening to music releases endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, the “feel good” hormones in our brains. People who listen to music regularly are generally happier, more relaxed, able to handle cognitive tasks better, and usually more successful in their jobs and relationships. Music is the oldest art form created by man and has been with us as far back as recorded history goes. It is a part of what we are and one of the most powerful communicative forces known to us as a species. It appears to be a part of our very nature to appreciate tones and harmony and rhythm strung together to create music. Today, we are in the enviable position of not only being able to listen to music “live”, but also reproduced in our homes via electronic means. With all of that in mind, why would we not want to have the best means available to listen to our favorite music in our homes?
OK, so we’re a little biased around here about vinyl. Yes, we sell vinyl and the means to play it, but what’s really behind all of that? Is there something about music reproduced via vinyl records that makes them “better”, or is it just a trendy fad that people are buying in huge numbers because it’s fun and kitschy? Vinyl sales continue to surge, vinyl pressing plants continue to open and expand, and almost every major audio electronics company has released or is planning to release new turntable products as the demand for them continues to rise. Why is that? Well, let’s have a look at all of this vinyl hoopla and see what we find out. Fair warning, this may be one of the longest articles I write because the subject is complex with lots of twists and turns. I’ll do my best to abridge the story, but you may want to go grab your favorite beverage, get comfy in your favorite chair, then settle in for the ride – go ahead, I’ll wait….
Welcome back! OK, first, a little history. Back in 1857, a fellow by the name of Leon Scott invented a method for recording sounds he called the “phonautograph” which used a needle attached to a vibrating diaphragm to record the waveform of sounds on paper. Interestingly, this device was never intended to play sounds back, only record their waveforms visually so that they could be analyzed by scientists and engineers. The first time these graphs were ever played back was actually in 2008, when some of the remaining prints were analyzed and reproduced via modern means, allowing us to hear sounds for the first time ever that came from the 1850’s… how cool is that! Twenty years later, in 1877, Thomas Edison introduced his “phonograph” that could both record and play back sound by the use of wax cylinders that were cut by a steel needle, again with a vibrating diaphragm, but this time with the ability to be played back via the same means. To make a long story short, Edison’s device allowed music to be recorded onto a relatively stable platform and preserved. The wax cylinders gave way to shellac and in 1894, Emile Berliner invented a method for laterally cutting a disc and called it the “gramophone”. Berliner’s invention was improved on by Eldridge Johnson and in 1901 Berliner and Johnson organized the “Victor Talking Machine Company”, which ultimately became RCA Victor and sold millions of discs that spun at 78 rpm and were played back via a purely mechanical process utilizing a steel needle that vibrated a diaphragm, usually augmented by a horn of some sort, to create sound. With each of these inventions and subsequent improvements, sound quality improved and more and more people were able to listen to music at home.
But, with the 78 rpm shellac disc, there was a problem. You could only get about 6 minutes of material on a side. If you wanted to listen to say, Mahler’s 8th symphony, it took a huge stack of discs to get it done. Then, in 1931, RCA Victor introduced the first commercially available vinyl record that they marketed as “Program Transcription Discs”. These were just under 12 inches in diameter, could play up to ten minutes per side, and ran at 33 1/3 rpm versus the more commercially available 78 rpm shellacs that had become prevalent in the market. Unfortunately, it was the Great Depression era and due to a lack of readily available playback equipment, and a lack of enthusiasm by buyers to purchase much of anything, these early vinyl LP’s failed and were pulled from the market by 1933. There were some important lessons learned from that early format, however; they were quieter, and they were not as prone to breakage when shipped to radio stations in the mail. Consequently, during WWII, when shellac was in short supply, many discs that were sent to radio stations were pressed on vinyl, although these never became a commercially viable product.
In 1939 Dr. Peter Goldmark and his staff at Columbia Records, and in partnership with CBS Laboratories, started to dig into the problems of developing a playback system that utilized narrower grooves to extend playing time. Up until this time, most commercially available 78’s had much wider grooves than we are used to today primarily because of the fact that they were reproduced by the purely mechanical means of of a big steel needle tracing the groove. It took about eight years of study and experimentation, with breaks due to the war, but in 1948 Columbia introduced the 12 inch, 33 1/3 rpm, Microgroove, long playing (or LP) record. This new format was reproduced with a much finer geometry stylus which vibrated coils to create an electrical signal and could hold as much as 22 minutes of music per side. Not to be outdone, the following year RCA introduced a 7 inch vinyl record that copied the basic premise, but with a larger center hole that ran at 45 rpm; the “single”. These are essentially the two vinyl records that we know and love today. LP’s and 45’s also required “equalization curves” to enable the smaller groove size, but that is another story (and this one will be long enough!). Suffice it to say that the recording industry standardized on the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) equalization curve in the mid 50’s and that standard is still in use to this day. Ultimately, the vinyl LP became the de facto standard for recorded music, selling millions and millions of copies all the way into the 1980’s.
OK, so now we know where the LP came from, but what happened to it in the mid 1980’s is significant. First, in 1961, Philips of Holland invented the Compact Audio Cassette tape. Cassettes were small and convenient, but didn’t really start to catch on until later in the decade when pre-recorded cassettes began to hit the market, displacing 8-track tapes, and cassette players became available for and in automobiles. Music had become portable. In 1979 Sony introduced the Walkman. You no longer had to even be in your car, you could be 100% portable with your music! Then, in 1982, with the intent of offering a portable, high resolution, high density format, Philips and Sony introduced the Compact Disc (CD), capable of holding about 700 Mega Bytes of data (keep in mind that most computer hard drives of the day could only hold 10 MB or so), and up to 80 minuets of music. Marketed as “Perfect Sound Forever”, CD’s hit the U.S. the following year in 1983. At that time, the vinyl LP and its little sister, the 45 single dominated the music market with over 55% of sales (the other 45% was cassette’s and – heaven forbid – 8 track tapes). However, due to the fact that the CD offered lots of playing time, a convenient size, and exceptional portability, it slowly overtook all other formats and by 2002, dominated 95.5% of all music sales displacing every other format and relegating vinyl, both LP’s and singles, to about .4% of the entire market. Vinyl, for all intents and purposes was considered a dead format.
But, there was a problem.
There was a very small cadre of die hard vinyl fans, keeping that .4% of the industry pressing their beloved discs. They tended to be audiophiles that had spent years perfecting their analog playback set ups that pushed the technology to a high art. Companies like Linn, Sota, and VPI were building super high quality turntables for a niche audience that continued to demand the best in analog playback systems. Why was that? Essentially, from the get go, those concerned with the best possible sonics discerned problems with the CD format and most other digital formats as well. While it had great dynamics and incredible frequency extension, especially in the bass, it was strident, glassy, sometimes harsh, flat and without dimensional depth, had imaging anomalies, and didn’t present the sense of space in a recording venue that one should have expected. Digital recording techniques had become ubiquitous as well, and this seemed to add to the problems. Vinyl on the other hand, played back via a decent quality system sounded lush, rich, dynamic, detailed and with a sense of space and location that CD’s just couldn’t seem to get right.
Fast forward to 2008 and a funny thing happened. Vinyl LP’s had a sudden upswing in unit sales. For reasons that many in the music industry couldn’t quite understand, that trend continued and in the next few years the demand for vinyl LP’s continued to dramatically increase. A recent article in Forbes showed that vinyl album sales increased again in 2018 by double digits, up 12% over 2017 with over 9.7 million units sold. More and more new releases from artists are coming out on vinyl and some are embracing analog rather than digital recording technologies as well. Old vinyl pressing facilities and machinery is being refreshed and turned on around the world to keep up with demand, and there does not seem to be any slow down in the foreseeable future. Interestingly, the formats with the biggest drop in unit sales in the past few years? CD’s and downloads, the latter of which was supposed to displace the former. The biggest conveyance for music today is via streaming and subscription services. These have become the eight hundred pound gorilla in music sales displacing all other digital sources, and due to technology, some sound really good. However, vinyl keeps surging on, even though it is still a small percentage of the entire industry, demand continues to grow and vinyl releases keep increasing. “But why? Why!?”, you ask.
There are a number of reasons, but some factors are greater than others in the the rediscovery of vinyl, driving their sales gains and being embraced once again by the public. Yes, it’s trendy. There are some who are buying vinyl because it’s the cool new thing; it’s retro and kitschy to some. But that’s actually a small piece of the desire for vinyl. The bigger draws are actually relatively simple; the size, the durability, and the sound of the medium. To the first point, people love the size of LP’s versus the Compact Disc. One of the comments we hear from people is that they love the fact that with an LP they get a big piece of art. The covers are cool, you can read things on them that aren’t microscopic, and if it’s a gate-fold album with more pictures or lyrics inside, so much the better. CD’s could never capture that emotional jolt you get with buying that big, cool looking album that you get to take home! Plus, you own the music. Not only do you get the cover and the art but you own the music on the LP; with streaming and subscriptions, you’re just renting the music. Oh, and you don’t have to worry about backing it up, either. Which leads to my second point; the vinyl LP is actually one of the most durable and long lasting carriers for music ever devised. When properly cared for, a vinyl LP can potentially last forever. Even the Library of Congress keeps historical recordings on vinyl LP’s because as long as they are kept clean, away from excessive moisture and/or heat, and played back on a good quality turntable, they can last longer than I’ll be alive. These are heirloom products that can be passed along to future generations. Oh, and CD’s can suffer from a phenomenon called “CD Rot” where the substrate that carries the data under the layer of clear plastic can rot away over time from the slightest contamination or if it’s exposed to moisture or harsh light for too long. Scratch or crack a CD and it’s done. So much for “Perfect Sound Forever” – and don’t even get me started on some of the absolutely deplorable compression techniques like MP3’s… yecch! Third, and most importantly, vinyl simply sounds better. A clean record, properly played back, always outperforms the best digital. Now, I can already hear the techno geeks and engineers and digital music fans… “Heresy! Get out the torches and the pitchforks! PERFECT SOUND FOREVER!!!” But, I have to say that in my own (and many other people’s) experience, when I sit and really listen, vinyl always wins the sweepstakes.
Why does music on old fashioned, analog, vinyl LP’s sound better? Well, let’s stop and think about a couple of things. Without getting too deeply down into the weeds with techno-babble, it is important to understand that with any digital music format –ANY digital format- musical signals are essentially broken apart into small pieces, or “sampled”. Sampling rates can vary, and higher sampling rates have been shown to give better results, but the principal is still the same; an analog waveform is sampled and turned into a digital (1’s and 0’s) data stream. That data stream then must go through a complex system of output buffering, output clocking, input clocking, input filtering, digital to analog converters (DAC), output filtering and finally to an analog output stage that can drive a music system. Vinyl on the other hand is an analog process from end to end. Even if a recording is originally done digitally, once it is mastered for vinyl, it is an analog form all the way to your turntable, through your system and your loudspeakers or headphones, and to your ears – oh, and your ears “hear” in analog, not digital. That LP holds an ANALOG signal that has NOT been subjected to sampling or any kind of conversions. Interestingly, there have been lots of studies done examining the effects of sampling, even high rates of sampling, on human hearing and they have shown that there is a difference in how we perceive the sounds of a digitally sampled and processed sound versus one that is purely analog. The timing, or “clocking” of the data streams from device to device has been shown to be a critical factor in the quality of digital reproduction because your human hearing seems to be able to perceive minute variances in timing and spatial cues that we are just now beginning to understand. When CD ’s first came along, audiophiles complained about their sound as I mentioned previously, and the companies that pushed the format dismissed the concerns as coming from a fringe group of luddites, but over time, those complaints about digital sound were born out to be true. The high end audio industry responded by trying to improve the DAC, and that work continues to this day with DAC technology constantly moving forward and improving. But, stop and realize a fundamental truth; a DAC, one of the key pieces in any digital chain, is a digital to ANALOG converter. The irony is that in the end, even digital formats must be converted back to an analog signal that we can listen to. Vinyl doesn’t do that. Don’t get me wrong, I do think digital has some great attributes, and I do listen to digital. I have hundreds and hundreds of CD’s, streaming accounts, and a complete music server rig in my personal system. I love the convenience and the ability to explore lots of new music via on-line services, but at the end of the day, I’ll listen to vinyl when I really want to connect with the music in a personal and visceral way.
When you drop the stylus onto an LP, you are listening to an analog signal through and through. The result is a sound that is consistently more realistic and organic sounding, that has more body and life to it, and that has spatial cues that the human ear can discern more readily. Vinyl LP’s give a greater sense of realism compared to digital and do not create the “listener fatigue” that some people complain about with digital. In my own experience, I have found that digital these days can actually sound really good, especially through a great system and using hi-res formats, much better than early CD playback, but after a while, I just don’t get as engaged. With vinyl, it’s a different story. Once I get started, I listen to entire albums, and then another, and then another, and I don’t want to stop listening. Vinyl pulls me into the music with a greater sense of ease and realism. You can certainly disagree with me, but I have found that vinyl consistently beats digital, and every person I’ve put in front of my own system or one at Rich’s Records, and compared vinyl to any other format has concluded the same. Vinyl simply does not suffer from the problems inherent in the digital sampling of a waveform and its ultimate rebuilding. It’s bigger, fuller, richer, and draws you in closer to the original performance. Vinyl is more three dimensional with a greater sense of what the recording venue actually sounds like, be it a concert hall or a studio. Digital and vinyl are both perfectly viableI but vinyl seems to keeps the musical performance in a format as close to the real thing as you can achieve. No, it is not “perfect”, but it never claimed to be. Yes, it takes a little care and feeding and some modest investment to get a good system to play it back, but if we go full circle to my opening comment, music is good for you. Making that investment is worth it if you really care about music and how it sounds. Try it… I think you’ll agree!