While visiting my father over the holidays, I came across his growing vinyl collection. As I rummaged through his records and awed at the covers, we began talking about music then and now.
He was obsessed with the idea that the sound of vinyl cannot be duplicated or replaced. His obsession left me thinking about the differences between analog and digital sound.
Does really vinyl sound better, or is that a myth of a different generation?
Understanding Audio Formats
Before we get into the evidence, it’s important to understand how music is recorded.
The music industry, and the tech world as a whole, have gone through some major changes in the last several decades. For the most part, digital technology is at the forefront of everything we do. But, it wasn’t always that way.
Before the days of streaming and CDs, analog technology was the only way to replicate sound waves. Technology has been around for nearly two centuries. While the methods for picking up sound waves have evolved throughout history, the basic concepts remain unchanged.
Essentially, the vibrations from a voice or instrument were picked up by a microphone’s diaphragm. This tiny membrane reacts to external sound pressure created by the sound, resulting in vibrations that perfectly replicate sound waves. These vibrations aren’t visible to the naked eye. Most diaphragms vibrate more than 1,000 times a second.
Those sound waves are then picked up and replicated onto a recording medium. In the early days, this could have been a wax or vinyl cylinder. However, recording studios typically used magnetic tape.
To make music commercially available to listeners, those sound waves are etched as a continuous groove onto metal stampers. Then, they are pressed into PVC discs. The final results were the iconic vinyl record. The name “vinyl” actually comes from the material it is made of PVC, Polyvinylchloride.
As your favorite vinyl spins on a record player, the stylus glides through the continuous groove to recreate those initial vibrations that were recorded.
The beauty of vinyl is that it provides a more accurate reproduction of the music you’re listening to. The recording and manufacturing process creates a real-world physical representation of sound waves. For this reason alone, many dedicated audiophiles believe that vinyl has the upper hand.
A good way to look at analog technology is to think about real-world applications. Recording methods involved physical media that you could see with your own eyes.
Since the dawn of the modern recording industry, analog technology was the norm. After vinyl records became out of fashion, the industry moved towards magnetic cassette tapes. While the playback method was different, music was recorded in the same way as vinyl.
Everything changed in 1982 with the release of the compact disc, lovingly referred to as the CD. The CD completely changed the game and revolutionized the way we record and enjoy music. It’s often regarded as the true start of the digital age.
With CDs came the Red Book standard for audio. Basically, this standard outlined how sound waves were to be converted to digital format. The standard is still used today. It’s based on the Nyquist theory, which details the sample rate needed to cover frequencies that humans can hear.
With the new Red Book standard, analog recording quickly went out of fashion. The new digital format provided more versatility. This didn’t just apply to consumers, but also to engineers.
Music engineers, as well as mixers and masters, had more room to work with. Plus, the growing PC market allowed creators to have more control than ever before.
Digital recording involves two basic technologies. The first is an analog-to-digital converter, also known as an ADC (or A/D or A-to-D). An ADC is a critical component in the recording process because it turns those analog vibrations into digital information. We’ll get into how these devices do that in a bit.
Once the ADC has processed the information, the sound waves are replicated. They can then be manipulated during the mixing process.
Engineers could adjust dynamics, pan information to one side of the stereo spectrum, and much more. For the most part, this process wasn’t possible with analog recording.
Rather than using physical grooves to play the information back, CDs use pits and grooves. These pits and grooves represent bits of data.
When the laser diodes of a CD player read that information, it’s sent to a digital-to-analog converter. The digital-to-analog converter, or DAC, then turns that digital information into sound waves that you can hear.
Audio Quality and Accuracy of Sound
So, does vinyl sound better than digital formats? Well, let’s dig a bit deeper into how audio is recorded and replicated.
Earlier, we mentioned that analog recording involved creating a physical representation of the sound wave that could then be used by a record player to recreate the music. While this did limit what engineers could do in the studio, it had one major advantage.
Analog recording creates more or less lossless audio, meaning that it’s in its purest form without crazy levels of compression.
Back then compression was typically used on released recordings to overcome the shortcomings of the medium. Vinyl is not perfect and still has many limitations. Engineers used compression to make up for those limitations and ensure that the track actually fit on the pressing.
Once digital recording came on the scene, those limitations were lifted and compression became much more widespread. More on that later.
There are exceptions, but compression was used a lot differently back then than it is today. Engineers didn’t rely on it to “fix” loudness levels. They simply addressed the problem in the recording booth!
A top-notch record player is capable of recreating all of that hard work and those fine details. That alone is enough to make audiophiles feel more connected to their favorite songs!
Beyond compression, the way analog recording picks up a signal is different, too. Analog signal is sampled at a fixed interval. The same goes for digital, but the process of pulse code modulation sampling can leave some information out.
With a high-quality record player, you can pretty much recreate every detail that was picked up in the studio. Obviously physical defects can create artifacts and distortion, but a pristine vinyl offers superb sound quality CDs and digital formats just can’t replicate.
Let me explain…
Digital recording relies on equipment to record sound waves. The aforementioned DAC is one of the most important. No matter how expensive or high-tech a DAC is, there’s no way to record every part of a soundwave. Soundwaves have infinite spots to sample. Digital technology can only record a finite number of samples. Typically, this leads to some lost information.
Remember the Red Book standard we talked about earlier? It states that audio must have a sample rate of 44.1 kHz at 16 bits. While the fine details of digital recording can get very complicated, these parameters don’t require a ton of knowledge to fully understand.
The sample rate of 44.1 kHz refers to how many times the DAC can sample the sound waves each second. That’s 44,100 times a second! While that might seem like a lot, you have to understand that sound waves are not linear. They’re continuous waves with an infinite number of possible values to record.
Take a close-up look at any sound wave diagram. Now, imagine slicing that wave up into several smaller chunks. Remove all of the space in between the chunks and put everything together. What are you left with? Chances are, the altered wave is not going to look the same as the original.
The same thing happens in digital recording. Even with a bit-depth of 16, you’re not getting enough samples to fully replicate the original soundwave. 16-bit audio means that there are over 65 thousand possible values that can be recorded on the sound wave with each sample. Again, that may seem like a lot, but it’s still not infinite.
Now, there are methods to overcome this. Supersampling does a lot to prevent aliasing and improve the signal. But that’s a far more complicated discussion for another day!
Ultimately, digital recordings are more accurate than vinyl because of how many samples are taken. But, many audiophiles would argue that digital recording with pulse code modulation loses some of those finer details.
The Issue With Dynamic Range
Another reason why many people prefer vinyl is a more dynamic range. Back in the early days of analog recording, engineers were pretty limited in what they could do after a performance. There were ways to make edits and adjust gain levels through external equipment. But for the most part, adjustments needed to be done by the performers.
Analog recordings have a tendency to pick up a more dynamic range that you can actually hear. Technically speaking, CDs have a more usable dynamic range thanks to more storage. But, the method of recording on vinyl forced musicians and engineers to take advantage of the limited dynamic range that vinyl has to offer.
Of course, there are always exceptions. But audiophiles argue that the perceived louds and softs of the music are more noticeable than they are on digital recordings. The tracks have more movement because everything was done in the booth, not manipulated with compression. Not only does this make things more exciting, but it adds depth to the track.
For these reasons, vinyl comes to life when you turn up the volume. Obviously, mastering techniques can help to create that sonic balance with digital tracks.
But there’s nothing like hearing the original dynamics as it was recorded. While they may sound softer than your CD collection, all of those finer details start to come out when you crank up the volume with the appropriate gear.
Interestingly enough, analog recording has a lower dynamic peak than digital recording. Vinyl records can usually have a maximum of around 70 dB. Meanwhile, CDs can reach up to 95 dB.
This increase in potential dynamic range led to the Loudness Wars. Record executives during the 80s, 90s, and 2000s believed that loud music would lead to more sales. It sounds far-fetched, but there was some evidence behind that way of thinking.
Loud music is typically seen as more pleasing for the ears. Sensitivity is not even across the entire frequency range. Instead, it’s more of a curve. Humans can hear mid-ranged tones a bit better. Plus, bass notes tend to be more prominent. As the volume increases, the way you hear the music can change quite a bit.
To create louder music for audiences, engineers started to utilize compression techniques to bump up the overall volume of songs. This did provide the desired effect. But, it sacrificed the dynamic range.
Those nuances soft sections instantly became louder. Meanwhile, the existing peaks just end up getting cut off. In an effort to make shallower peaks in the waveform higher, the existing high peaks are pushed past the limits of the system and clip. This creates a squared-off wave and can cause audible distortion.
Too much compression removed the dynamic range that made those tracks special. When you take a look at the waveforms of a song made during the Loudness Wars, the lack of dynamic range is obvious. If you have the astute ear of an audiophile, you can hear it, too.
When the music doesn’t have soft parts, there isn’t any reference to help you appreciate the changes in dynamics. Thus, everything just sounded loud, muddy, and overbearing. Other things can cause muddiness, such as piling on too many sources in the low end and mid-range.
But, over-compression is a huge offender! When you pile on sources that are already compressed, it just makes the issue even worse because you can’t carve out those individual frequency bands.
Fans of analog recording quickly picked up on this sudden change within the industry. Needless to say, it did not go well. There are tons of examples of the Loudness Wars. Even big-name acts like Metallica fell victim to it.
Luckily, things have started to change for the better. Thanks to the advent of streaming, the need for heavy compression is no longer there. While things aren’t back to the way they were, many believe that the Loudness Wars are finally coming to an end.
The Future of Vinyl and Digital Music
For a while there, vinyl was all but dead. However, vinyl records are coming back into style! In 2018, more than 18 million records were sold. The market is set to get even bigger in the coming years. Many even believe that vinyl will outsell CDs in the coming years.
That’s not to say that digital music isn’t thriving, too. The industry has moved past CDs. Most of the focus today is on streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music and so on aren’t confined to a set of standards like CDs are. As a result, digital music has improved significantly in the last few years.
Engineers are now able to record at significantly higher sample rates and great bit depths. High-resolution audio is typically recorded at up to 192 kHz!
Plus, new compression techniques are being used. Free Lossless Audio Codec, or FLAC, is able to preserve details while still limiting the file size of songs. Many streaming services, such as Tidal and Amazon, are starting to offer high-fidelity options for you to enjoy.
The music industry is constantly changing. Despite vinyl’s resurgence, there’s a lot to look forward to in the world of digital audio.
Does Vinyl Sound Better?
Ultimately, it all comes down to personal preference! and how much of an audiophile lover you are or not. Vinyl and analog recordings were considered to be better for a long period after CDs hit the market. They weren’t part of the Loudness Wars and did a better job of replicating soundwaves.
However, a lot of things have changed since then. Modern songs are getting mixed better and streaming services have made high-fidelity audio accessible to the masses.
Vinyl records offer a sense of nostalgia and unique experience that digital files just can’t provide. I can see why Dad has such an affinity for his vinyl collection. Personally, I just like to focus on the music at hand regardless of where it’s being played from.
When you look at vinyl as a storage medium, it simply cannot compare to digital. The accuracy of a good digital recording just can’t be replicated on vinyl. If it could, we would have never transitioned to digital. But it’s about more than the hard data. It’s about how the music sounds to you and the experience it offers.