Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What's the deal with records?

I am no technophile- recently, my father visited us, and somewhere in between reminiscing, drinking, and ice racing, he taught me how to connect the wires on my record player. I've had the thing for the last decade [I got it second-hand], and used to play records all the time, but for some reason, I forgot how to connect the wires to the speakers. It's one of those old record players where connecting the wires the right way is akin to jump-starting a car battery or unwiring a bomb. Anyway, now I can listen to all my old records again.

I'm also not an audiophile, so I can't really explain or even understand why my records sound better to me than their CD counterparts. I've tried to update and buy copies of them on compact disk; but for some reason, rock'n'roll bands sound 100 percent more raw, powerful, and human on vinyl. People who are into record collecting can be fairly annoying about this, claiming that the switch to digital music ''robbed the soul of rock'' and so forth. However, I spent quite a bit of time recently listening to a song I like- I've Got Levitation by the 13th Floor Elevators; both on the 180 gram vinyl repress of the original 'Easter Everyday' record, and then on CD. There was no comparison; the digital version sounds weak and flat; the vinyl version sounds warm and powerful, like the band is playing all around you. I don't think it's just the speakers.

I've tried to figure out why music sounds better to me on vinyl, and I have two theories. The first is that the analog sound wave is more complete than digital layers- or basically steps- can replicate. Sound waves are better suited to the human ear, even if the digital version is infinitely layered. Compare a drawing of a curve to a pixelated drawing of a curve- I think this is what happens to a sound wave when it's digitized.

The second theory I have is that, when music is remastered, the computer removes a lot of the 'noise' that is actually produced by people playing music. Not just dust and scratches, but the ambient sounds of human beings playing the instruments. One way of describing CD versions of albums is to say that they seem 'flat' by comparison. It's as if you're listening to a computer imitating the original recording, which really isn't that far from the truth.

Now compact disks have their advantages too, especially the fact that they take up less space. And there are certainly some albums that sound better in the ''digitally mastered'' version, cleaner and easier to hear the individual musicians. But it was kind of obnoxious how we were all expected to throw out our records and get with the times when the industry started pushing CDs. People whose tastes are basically undefined tend to believe that whatever is newer is better. This is the mantra of consumer capitalism. But, in the case of CDs, we're not talking about the difference between a horse and an automobile; prefering the sound of vinyl doesn't make you a ''luddite'' or ''old-fashioned''. And people who believe that it does need to put less stock in music industry hype.

Besides, it's a good time to be a record collector. As the music industry sinks under the weight of its own greed and stupidity, the only sector to see increased sales is vinyl; people are buying more records than they have in recent years, and less of everything else. The explanation has been that people get all of their music on MP3s now, and want to have tangible things to go with the music. This sounds like industry-think to me. MP3s are fine, aside from sounding lousy because of the high compression. But, music played on a good stereo from vinyl records is about as good as it gets.

Ive Got Levitation - 13th Floor Elevators


The Pagan Temple said...

I never really gave this a lot of thought, but I did always kind of think some bands just sounded better on vinyl, but I always assumed that had to do with the simplicity of the older bands, basically four or five guys banhing on guitars, bass and drums. There just isn't enough depth in a lot of the older recordings to enable it to translate well onto CD, therefore on first listen it seems to have a hollow sound to it.

Rufus said...

There's also the question of mon versus stereo. A lot of those old bands sounded stronger when they recorded in mono- god knows why.