This might seem an odd thing to write on a blog which is mostly about vinyl, but bear with me.
I like vinyl. Actually I really like vinyl. I like the big album art. I like the ritual of playing the record. I like the mad machinery you need to play a vinyl record. I like the crackle. But most of all I like vinyl because I have lots of it, and so it’s how I access a lot of my favourite music. Some of it isn’t available in any other format, so for me it’s essential to be able to play records. To me music is much more interesting than the technology I use to play it.
Vinyl can also sound really good. I have two turntables and they both sound superb.
So why do I think it’s rubbish? Well it’s inherent in the format. Engraving music onto fragile plastic, covering the plastic in dust and debris, and then scraping a diamond across the plastic in the hope of reproducing music is just nuts. You can have really expensive gear (like I do) and a special machine for getting all the crap of your records and you still haven’t solved the problem. There will still be debris embedded in the groove however throroughly you clean it, the pressing will be imperfect, and if you’ve played it much or been a bit clumsy, it’ll be damaged too. As the stylus gets towards the centre of the record, the sound quality will deteriorate party because the cartridge gets further out of line and because less vinyl is travelling under the stylus each second.
That vinyl can sound so good despite all these problems is a testament to how far a technology can evolve, even if it’s a bit rubbish to start with. A decent turntable is a truly remarkable thing. The problem is that a decent turntable is very expensive, can be tricky to set up and bits of it will wear out.
Compare that to digital. A decent digital source, and this includes CDs, can be a perfect reproduction of what was originally recorded, at least as perfect as the human ear is capable of discerning. It doesn’t wear out or get dirty, nor is it expensive to play. Most of my digital music is stored on a server and streamed around the house. I no longer play CDs. It’s made my music more accessible than ever – I can quickly find any of the 50,000 tracks I have and play them. No more searching around the house for a particular CD or record – it’s all at my fingertips. There’s no point pending a fortune on music if you can’t find it or have forgotten you own it. By any objective measure, all this should have consigned vinyl to the dustbin of history by now.
Lots of garbage is talked about vinyl, particularly by those who insist that it’s an inherently better format. Those same people will often listen to digital vinyl rips, apparently unaware of the irony of what they’re doing. This has nothing to do with “liking” records. I “like” records too – it’s sound quality I’m talking about here. Vinyl is also fashionable, and I don’t have a problem with that either, but again it has nothing to do with sound quality. If you think for a moment about the process the music goes through to reach your ears, it should be obvious.
But, sometimes, the vinyl version of a track really does sound better than the CD. I’ll rant about why that is another time.