Form, Function & Friction: A Vinyl Man in a Digital World
Arguing about music is, more often than not, like arguing about religion, there’s bound to be hurt feelings and raised voices but rarely is an agreement reached. So when the discussion arises about what’s a better for music, analog or digital, aren’t we just rehashing Tastes Great vs Less Filling? Be you record collector, DJ, or just the kid on his laptop downloading from iTunes, everyone seems to have a strong opinions on the subject rooted in their own history and culture. The real issue however is all too often clouded behind a sort of John Henry & the Machine, Old School/New School mentality that splits music fans into two separate, but equal, teams: The Analog Animals and The Digital Demons. Buried beneath the constant trappings of an argument over analog’s worth in a digital world and the fleeting physicality of digital, are deeper questions about more than just how a person prefers the sound of their music, as well as it’s format.
The technical difference between analog and digital audio lies in the transfer of sound. Analog is what’s known as a continuously variable signal, meaning that the recording picks up all the differences in sound and changes in frequency without prejudice. There’s no taking anything out or trying to increase volume, what’s on the tape is what’s on the tape. When music is recorded digitally, the computer is translating real life sounds into data, plotting the frequencies using variables such as Sample(how many times, per second, the frequencies are captured) and Bit Rate (how much information is captured with each sample). It helps to picture a recoded sound as a wavy line running across the sound spectrum. Now imagine tracing that line with an etch-a-sketch. You could get close to what the wave would look like but in some spots you’d have jumps instead of dips as you twisted the controls. In these spots, certain background noises, tones and vocal inflections can become muffled or lost. The higher the sample rate, the closer that line gets to the curve.
(images taken from http://www.wikirecording.org/DAW)
So this warm, fuzzy tone people use when describing the sound of vinyl is the completeness of that curved wave, the reflection of sound as the recording was made, but also one easily distorted by dust, cheap speakers, or years of play that deteriorates the vinyl it was recorded onto. Perhaps not as verbatim a sample, digital offers an adjustable aspect to recording, the ability to move the highs and lows of a sampled wave to try and achieve a more customizable sound. Alongside this, digital recordings have allowed vinyl heads the ability to preserve and share their sought after treasures, as well as methods for reducing the hissing, popping and scratching sounds that are unavoidable, if you actually play your records.
Being in the business of selling LPs, I often hear the argument about what’s better, digital recordings or analog and though I consider myself biased by profession, please don’t think I have no value for the digital world. I’m the proud owner of 55 gigabytes of digitally recorded music, listen to music on an ipod and have files I treasure almost as much as their analog counterparts. I believe there exists a sort of new-found symbiosis between digital and analog formats, each helping to spur on the other. The online music blog you read introduces you to some out of print song that becomes your new obsession to find on wax. Or perhaps the new record you purchase comes with a digital download for when you’re on the go, thus infinitely increasing the likelihood of its exposure.
In the end, regardless of format the goal is to get music out there and into people’s hands. Analog recordings offer us a fly-on-the-wall sampling of sound while digital gives us adjustable and compact formats that aid in the spreading of music, each has a whole list of pros and cons and each have their places. Given the amount of money being made off of the battle between analog and digital, its safe money betting that there’s more at work here than just sound quality. It’s the Great Butter Battle all over again, whose is bigger, whose is better and, most of all, whose is more prestigious. Meanwhile, someone’s making a ton of money off of the fight. Despite the resurgence of vinyl, this symbiosis I spoke of earlier is out of balance from what I believe to be a simple combination of economic factors imposed by an industry who’d rather we all argue over whose is bigger instead of how to make everyone’s better.
Speaking as an independent record vendor, the amount of promotional material you receive to help sell albums is staggeringly small. The days of promotional posters and clever displays has all but gone and despite constant complaints the cost of new CDs hasn’t dropped to what we’d hoped after Napster first rocked the corporate music world. People today have less money and they seem less likely to make a musical purchase unless it’s one they really want. In order to turn people on to new bands, there’s a need for these digital avenues so a customer can hear samples and decide if they want to give the whole record a shot. Sites like LaLa offered this opportunity but were shut down in favor of simply buying the MP3 outright. What has happened is that now instead of buying the album by Edward Sharp and the Magnetics, for example, you can just download the song “Home” and never need to know if the rest of the album is any good, (its not by the way, in case you were wondering, but you still wouldn’t know). This, in turn, increases companies need for a hit song on every record they’re putting out and enforces the belief that as long as there’s a hit single, it pays for the rest of the album. Again, there exists a clear symbiosis but this one marching towards mediocrity and nickel-and-diming its way to the grave.
Let’s face it, CDs are cheaper to make than LPs. Many artists can’t afford to print and distribute as many vinyl records as they can CDs or other digital formats. Although this has been reflected in the pricing of records, when considering that artists are increasingly desiring to put their music on vinyl it seems record companies are taking advantage of consumers. A good example is a collection of Northern Soul called “Wigan Casino.” Distributed nationally by Sony BMG Records Europe through their extensive means, the double LP will run you a whopping fifty dollars but the CD only costs eleven. Both are shipped in by the same company and although there is an obvious weight difference, by keeping these kinds of skewed prices, larger companies feed off of the collector fetish, setting prices high enough to separate collectors from the average consumer who might just buy the album on seeing the cover.
Today’s world has opened up avenues we never thought possible, entire discographies in the palm of our hands, libraries of information at our touchpad beck and call but one thing it hasn’t manage to capture in a handheld bottle is our attraction to how something is packaged. No high resolution JPG in the world can compare to picking up a copy of Houses of the Holy, unfolding the cover and marveling at the art within. For the 62 odd years that vinyl records reigned supreme in the recording world one of the key elements was the jacket. Entire art departments and artist’s careers were spawned through that very medium. This new frontier of music hasn’t dumped packaging, but rather major labels have. Companies like Academy Lps, Infinity Cat and the Numero Group, among many others, are continuing to issue new and creative releases with hand screened covers, library cards and even new 78s. I’ve seen homemade CDs from bands whose packaging has put major releases to shame but too many companies have seemed to latch onto this new electronic format in an attempt to decrease costs and increase profits; tossing out album art and handing us download codes, the same way they threw away our LPs and told us MP3s were the space age miracle of the future.
The Mp3 is our modern take on what something sounds like. ipods, walkmen, computers, all of them containing audio files encoded in an MP3 or like format, a sampling rate commonly referred to as “lossy audio.” When we spoke of sound waves earlier, in regards to what gets left behind in the digitizing of music, you could see that the higher rates were as close as it seemed to get to the original curve, being recorded at around 196 samples per second. The top part of the graph however is more reflective of audio turned into MP3s, a number that drops to a jaw dropping 44.1kHz (or 16 bit). Now consider how often you listen to something on YouTube. Now you begin to see how the sampling rate seems to deteriorate in direct correlation to how sharable the media is. With digital music being so interchangeable, so able to move from CD to your laptop, from your laptop to your phone and from your phone to your ringtones, the value seems to have shifted from quality to adaptability. The higher rate digital encodings are often seen as overly large or unrealistically advanced for your average human’s hearing to really discern but I ask you, would you be willing to sacrifice some of the space on your ipod to know that they were encoded well enough to shine on a nice system?
Changing something from analog to digital to MP3 or MP4 has an effect on the file as it’s shrunk and blown up, and while lossless audio formats such as .ogg and .ape are said to encode at rates better than the human range of hearing, run through your ipod and see what kind of files you have. My mind always goes back to the analogy of making a photocopy of an image and stretching and shrinking it over and over again, and then putting that end result next to the original to see what the difference has become. Even the word MP3 has become synonymous with digital music files, the same way we say Band-Aid instead of adhesive strip or Kleenex instead of tissue. It’s a genericization, one selling us the Western Family brand of audio as if it were the best they have to offer. Even trying to input something to your itunes in loseless format is trying to make a 196 sample rate recording from a 44 sample rate master, the math just won’t come out right. This is, I believe, is part of where the hubris of analog aficionados is borne, from the fact that their industry standard is set a bit higher than that of their digital counterparts. That is, if they have the equipment to prove it.
There’s no point praising the purity of your vinyl or the bit rate your audio’s encoded if your blasting it out of a cheap equipment. A common misnomer from younger folks just getting into vinyl is that they can just grab a turntable, plug it in and listen to records. Getting your albums to really shine means tacking on the price of receiver, speakers, high quality needle. if I’m at home on my suitcase turntable it sounds like exactly that, a nice recording played through small speakers, acceptable for the situation. When I throw something on the $700 turntable at work, it can make even Chuck Mangione sound like 700 bucks. The logic is simple enough, play music through a cheap system and it will sound just like that. Play music through an expensive system and hear the highest quality that recording had to offer. The question is, what happens when the media itself is devoid of the capability to perform at its peak?
Marching boldly into the future, we’re bound to lose percentages of musical recordings in the decision of what will be transferred and what will go out of print. Regardless of the question of what is better, it is undeniable that digital recording options have allowed the preservation and wide spread distribution of music that might have otherwise been lost. Speaking as someone who spent the better part of their teens with no other music store than K-Mart, I would have cleaned the men’s room of a bar with my tongue in exchange for the kind of resources we have today for accessing music. Digital transfers of 78s and the digital cleaning of damaged recordings have brought the past back to life as USB turntables and modern recorders become closer and closer to sampling a more exact replica of live recorded sound. There exists a balance between LP and MP3, between the traditional and the technological; but this balance requires us to develop a whole new set of beliefs to establish how much you want to give and how much is acceptable to take. If you download that leaked copy of a new album what, if anything, do you give to balance out those scales? Beyond all the debates about taking money away from an artist or pirating a company lies the question whether to make an investment in music by using your dollars like a modern day Medici, or sit idly by complaining that the flames of Rome are slowing down your torrent?
Record companies are going to continue to vie for your dollars but we’ve seemingly forgotten that the how is still fundamentally controlled by us. The reason these companies have started making records again is because people have never stopped buying records. For the digital side it means using your purchasing dollars to command a higher standard for what is produced, demanding that it to live up to its potential as it were. For analog users, the fight is to re-kindle the love of packaging that inspired gatefold covers and colored wax by continuing to buy new albums to prove their demand to major labels, not to simply confine ourselves to searching through dusty back bins in search of that one record no one else has. Remember it’s not a fight, it’s an arms race, one neither side can ever really win and, as with any good arms race, there’s someone right behind both sides getting fat off of the conflict.