What happens when digital audio is pressed to vinyl?
July 22, 2010 4:25 PM   Subscribe

More and more bands these days are releasing their albums on vinyl, which I think is really cool. However, isn't most recording these days digital? In that case, does the vinyl copy provide any auditory advantage?

I don't know a lot about vinyl, or sound recording in general. However, from what I've read on the internet, the main reason some people claim vinyl sounds better is because it captures the full sound wave, while CDs and digital audio merely approximate it through very rapid samples.

The best illustration I have found to explain this is here.

However (correct me if I'm wrong), virtually all modern recording is done digitally. Therefore, the original recording is already an approximation and pressing it to vinyl does nothing for the sound quality.

Is my understanding of this correct?
posted by mekily to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, but CD is using 16-bit samples at 44.1 KHz, whereas the digital recording might be 24-bit samples at 96 KHz. So, vinyl could more faithfully reproduce the master than could CD, assuming you had great hearing to tell the difference. I'm not into vinyl, but that would be how it could work.
posted by adipocere at 4:28 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have found that, in my experience, the "sound" of vinyl comes more from the imperfections of the medium - yes, technically it captures more of the sound wave, but a huge part of the vinyl experience, for me, is the "warmth" - the pops and skips that come with it.

Vinyl, for me, isn't so much about the sound, it's more about the experience, as pretentious as that sounds. 99% of the time I listen to an album I own on vinyl, I listen to the MP3s that I've downloaded - but for that 1% of the time I want to listen to it on my stereo, it's more of an experience, you know? Maybe I'm crazy, but it's just more fun to listen to music on vinyl sometimes.

Also, as a music fetishist, I just like vinyl for the physical experience of it - the huge disc, the large art. It's almost like a special keepsake when compared to my CDs - it's just more unique and interesting (though an exceedingly well packaged CD can create the same feeling for me.)
posted by JimBennett at 4:34 PM on July 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

Just because vinyl is an analog medium doesn't mean that is going to reproduce the original sound more accurately than a digital approximation. The analog signal on a vinyl is only an approximation of the original sound, not a totally accurate one. And this doesn't even take into account what a consumer grade turntable will do in turning that signal into sound.
posted by DarkForest at 4:46 PM on July 22, 2010

I agree with JimBennett... Sitting down and listening to a vinyl record is more of an experience than switching on iTunes.

Sometimes, having all the choices of my MP3 library gets a bit overwhelming. On the other hand, vinyl shows you how to listen to it. There's the tactile experience of choosing the record, sliding it out of its sleeve, putting it on the turntable and dropping the needle. Then, as you examine the album art, one side plays for about 20-25 minutes. Then you switch it over and listen to the other side. It feels like a more interactive process. It's just more fun to me to listen to a favorite new album on vinyl, that is if the cost of the record justifies it. If not, there's always MP3.
posted by malapropist at 4:47 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

you are right and wrong. quite a bit of new vinyl is indeed digitally recorded, however, there are still a large set of bands/artists who record in analog and then do two separate mixes, one for CDs, mp3s, etc and one for vinyl.
posted by nadawi at 4:50 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You're link is kind of misinformed.
It suggests that because vinyl is analogue, it correctly reflects the analogue soundwave. This is false - vinyl is just an analogue approximation, digital is a digital approximation.

It then follows from this misconception (that vinyl is not an approximation but digital is), that digital is worse. When in fact, it doesn't take many bits before the resolution of digital is beyond that of a single molecule of air striking the microphone diaphragm. ie, the digital resolution is so far beyond the sensitivity of any recording studio that much of the bandwidth is, in a sense, idle, and way way beyond the resolution of vinyl.

JimBennett nails why people prefer Vinyl. Sometimes, grit beats purity.

That said, a good digital master properly pressed at the highest quality to both vinyl and CD, will for the first few times you play the vinyl (ie before dust and the needle from previous plays degrades the surface) there will be a period where you get a bit more out of it than the CD. After that, the preference for the vinyl sound is what JimBennett describes.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:08 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

(I should probably clarify that the high bitrates I was referring to are beyond CD quality. I was talking about using higher bitrates at the recording end than the distribution and playback end)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:12 PM on July 22, 2010

I have 100s of vinyl albums and still buy new ones when I can. I like it simply because, to me, it sounds more like it does live. I am not a musician, I have bad hearing and I know nothing of the technical aspects. It. Just. Sounds. Better. I also like the experience of putting the album on the turntable, placing the needle, flipping it for side 2 and I especially like reading the liner notes, looking at the photos and the artwork as well as the cardboard smell. YMMV.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:13 PM on July 22, 2010

One other thing worth mentioning is that the vinyl version is usually mastered differently than the cd version. I don't know why, but I just prefer these mastering jobs more than the digital version. In fact I often prefer the digital rips of vinyl as opposed to the cd.
posted by yeoldefortran at 5:29 PM on July 22, 2010

A variation on nadawi's answer: it's not uncommon for bands to record on a digital rig and then have the final mix mastered on analog gear. The CD mix would have to be converted back to digital, and D/A converters can impart their own character on a signal. In that case, the analog copy might be a better representation of the band's intent.

And yeah, playing records is just more fun, though getting up after two minutes to flip over a 78 sure makes you appreciate iTunes the next time you use it.
posted by substars at 5:34 PM on July 22, 2010

Best answer: That howstuffworks link is extremely misleading because it doesn't show the true output after the aliasing filter. It's a popular misconception that because something is sampled it looks like a stairstep, but that is simply not true in the slightest. The truth is that the digitally sampled 10 kHz wave will be an EXACT PERFECT SINE WAVE exactly like the input after the aliasing filter, not some stairstep nonsense. Mathematics tells us that you can PRECISELY represent any signal <= N kHz by sampling it at >= 2N kHz. This is not an approximation, it is exact. The only reason that a digital signal would not convey the true waveform is if it contained frequencies greater than N.

(Technically speaking this N -> 2N relationship is the limit of what's possible mathematically, but to do that requires a perfectly square aliasing filter which is not achievable in real life, but we can come pretty darn close these days which is why a 10kHz signal sampled at 44.1kHz is completely within the bounds of reality.)
posted by Rhomboid at 5:47 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I have recorded songs digitally, and then sent a DAT or CD to the pressing plant to be turned into records. I know of no pressing plant in North America that still accepts any analog format, you have to send it to them on a DAT or CD (digital format).

However, the machines they use to make the acetate (the actual first physical record, from which the rest shall be duplicated from), those machines are Analog, so in essence, they are taking a sound source and flipping it back into analog as it gets "burned" onto the acetate.

Also, a lot of it is to do with the mastering aspect of recording. True mastering studios have A LOT of audio gear that is analog, which helps remove coldness/add warmth to recordings.

I have recorded many bands/much music, and capturing sound is a definite art form unto itself.

Also, google the term "Loudness Wars" for many articles regarding today's production standards.

This is as about as simple as I can explain it.

It still blows my mind that records like "Beggar's Banquet" by The Stones were recorded on two 4-track reel-to-reel tape machines, when compared to today's zillion-track cyber-studios.....
posted by peewinkle at 7:00 PM on July 22, 2010

Keep in mind, too, that not all CDs and not all Vinyl records are equal - there are plenty of shitty sounding CDs (especially from the early days of CDs) and plenty of shitty vinyl (esp, in my experience, stuff pressed in the 90s. I'm told this is partly due to poor mastering). Another factor is the equipment they're played on, the condition of the record (for example, a clean record in excellent condition shouldn't be popping and skipping), the quality and cleanliness of the needle, etc. I guarantee that an MP3 played through a good stereo will sound far better than a record played on a 100 dollar turntable, and that a record on a good stereo will sound better than an MP3 played on your ipod through earbuds or through most computer speakers. I agree that to me, vinyl often sounds 'warmer' on my stereo, and have A/B tested vinyl with CDs and MP3s and have found much of the time that vinyl sounds fuller, but only by a margin, but my stereo is set up for vinyl - I have an extremely crummy CD player, but a very good turntable and a very good amp, so I'm already not doing a fair test.
posted by drobot at 7:08 PM on July 22, 2010

This guy listened to recent Dylan albums on CD and vinyl and found the difference to be a "scandal."
It has become undeniable to me, based on research and ultimately through direct personal comparison, that the CD editions I purchased of both of Bob Dylan’s albums Modern Times and Together Through Life contain significantly damaged versions of Bob Dylan’s original recordings.
posted by Knappster at 8:29 PM on July 22, 2010

peewinkle - united record pressing seems to allow analog, but also accepts CD (or lacquer for that matter). this is the place that jack white has been going for his last few projects.
posted by nadawi at 9:02 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

It suggests that because vinyl is analogue, it correctly reflects the analogue soundwave. This is false - vinyl is just an analogue approximation, digital is a digital approximation.

The digital version always craps out in the same way at the same place; Analog -- first of all doesn't just glitch out when it is out of range -- it gracefully rolls off, but how accurate it really is, is dependent on many factors, so it could be worse or it could be better, than the fixed quality of the digital; depending on the temperature of the die-cast molten vinyl, the humidity, the needle, many factors. So you can hope that the best vinyl will be better than the best CD, but you can't expect the best CD to be better than the best vinyl.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:53 PM on July 22, 2010

The belief that vinyl is in any way superior to cd quality or better digital sound is folklore. You just like the sound of linear distortion.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:47 PM on July 22, 2010

there are plenty of shitty sounding CDs (especially from the early days of CDs)

It's a huge generalization, but I'm finding that it's the recent CDs that are more often the "shitty sounding" ones, especially when comparing different versions of the same release. Early discs are definitely quieter, sometimes ridiculously so, but you can always turn up the volume—you can't undo compressed dynamics or clipped samples.

It complicates things that there are a lot more distinct masterings of common CD releases out there than most people realize.
posted by Lazlo at 11:25 PM on July 22, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies.

I understand now how the diagram I linked to is misleading -- digital audio still produces a sound wave, so of course it's going to be shaped like a sine wave, not a stair-step.

After reading the comments in this thread, I guess it makes sense (at least for me) to think of it in terms of film vs. digital photos. A film picture isn't pixelated like a digital photo, but if you enlarge a film picture enough it will still be blurry because there is a physical limit to the detail that can be captured by the silver molecules, plus refraction due to imperfections in the lens; dust; etc.

A low-resolution digital photograph is of much worse quality than a film picture, but a digital photo of sufficient resolution can capture just as much detail as 35mm film.

So (if I understand correctly) as long as the original recording is of a sufficiently high sample rate, a vinyl pressing still preserves more of the sound than a CD. I'm not saying that this difference is audible or significant, because I don't know. I'm not trying to split hairs. Reading about this debate just got me wondering about how it's affected by modern digital recordings.

And there are certainly aesthetic advantages to listening to a favorite album on vinyl rather than as mp3s. But that is a separate issue from my question.
posted by mekily at 12:02 AM on July 23, 2010

Best answer: RTI (which presses records for various audiophile labels such as Classic Records) has a great writeup on the pressing process.
posted by domographer at 12:09 AM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

As far as the loudness issues goes, modern 'loud' mastering is aimed at music played on the radio.

Radio stations are all using CD's or digital recordings now.

It is always neccecary to master separately for vinyl and CD, because a track with a high dynamic bass note can actually make the needle jump out of the groove, particularly if its panned hard right or left (this is why bass guitar & bass drums are usually centered on Vinyl masters)

Putting these things together, theres no benefit in cranking up the loudness when mastering for Vinyl.

The inherent differences between Vinyl and Digital technology are fairly small (a personal preference for clicks/rumble over digital artefacts) but the differences in loudness between CD masters and Vinyl masters can be huge and mean you can often pick out instruments that are completely lost in the CD mix. The music industrys decision to master CD's so they will sound good on a $2.99 radio is the main reason that vinyl is still around.

There is a small trend of people ripping Vinyl to FLAC/Torrents (search for 'Needle Drops') , that gives you the vinyl mastering in a digital format.
posted by Lanark at 3:21 AM on July 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I listen to a record I hear the sound of the space the players are playing in. When I listen to a CD, it's as it all the sound that isn't instrumentation has been snipped. I didn't recognize this until years of listening to CDs and then going back and listening to my old records. The difference could be in my head, but I don't think so.
posted by xammerboy at 7:54 AM on July 23, 2010

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