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Why is this interesting? - The Vinyl Edition
On music, vinyl, and the fidelity argument
Patrick Anderson (PA) is a musician and audio engineer from Atlanta. He graduated from Belmont University in Nashville, where he studied audio engineering technology and music business before making a home in the film industry. - Noah (NRB)
Patrick here. And so is vinyl. Again. At the end of 2018, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) published its annual report on industry revenue, and while nearly all physical music sales continue to see double-digit declines year-over-year, vinyl topped $400M, its highest number in 30 years. The fascination with vinyl records is prolific. While a top digital media retailer like Best Buy committed to phasing out the sale of CDs last year, Urban Outfitters continued full-steam ahead on vinyl & cassette media in hopes of capitalizing on the trend of nostalgia among its millennial consumer base. (Seriously, as of this writing, the top row on that link puts Hillary Duff and Brittney Spears alongside Billie Eilish and the Stranger Things 3 soundtrack.)
Of course, no one really likes to attribute their purchasing habits to emotional responses toward good marketing. (“Ads don’t work on me.”) Instead, we find ways to make our interests sound highly selective and premeditated. Through one outlet or another, you’ve heard someone praise analogue music formats like vinyl for their “warmth” and “dynamic range,” maybe even going so far as to spend tens of thousands (or more) on the most precision, high-fidelity playback systems to listen to music the way it was intended to be heard. No more pesky 1’s and 0’s misrepresenting the smooth dynamics of analogue. Euphoria.
Why is that interesting?
Listening to a vinyl record is a completely different experience from that of your preferred streaming platform, but the more objective arguments behind vinyl fixation have not aged well. While early generations of consumer electronics were at once inconvenient and simplistic, the increasingly lower cost of storage space has made high-fidelity digital audio so commonplace that your digital download has likely matched, if not exceeded, the quality of your snooty friend’s record collection.
By exploring the basics of digital audio, we can both see why analogue devotees principally object to digital, and where those objections start to break down. To understand the digital audio format, we’ll draw an analogy to video quality. Digital audio fidelity is the product of two factors: sample rate and bit depth. Sample rate is functionally similar to a video’s frame rate. What you are currently seeing on your computer or phone refreshes about 60 times per second (Hz), with most video content around 24 frames per second. Audio sample rates are much higher (44,100Hz is the lowest, most common sample rate found in consumer media). In the same way a viewer wouldn’t register a detail less than 1/24th of a second long in a 24 frame-per-second video, digital audio limits the range of audible frequencies as a function of its sample rate. This is a distinct difference from analogue audio, for which there is no theoretical limit of frequencies inherent to the format. By the math, a digital audio file with a sample rate of 44,100 Hz can reproduce frequencies up to 22,050 Hz. Thankfully, the human range of hearing is generally accepted to be between 20 and 20,000 Hz. So we’ve effectively lost nothing there. (In fact, while there is no such theoretical limitation on the frequency response of analogue recordings, it should be noted that vinyl records have limitations of their own.)
The second part, bit depth, pertains to a recording’s dynamic resolution: the range of how loud or quiet it can be. Maybe think of this like the color accuracy of a black-and-white film versus HDR photography. Bit depth refers to an exponential scale, where the difference in resolution between a 16-bit recording and a 24-bit recording is 256 times greater than the difference between 16-bit and 8-bit. For reference, 24-bit is a high-resolution format, 16-bit is the industry standard for CDs, and 8-bit recordings have the dynamic range of your older brother’s NES copy of Double Dragon. Analogue die-hards will argue that every one of these bits matter (and they do, up to a point). Greater bit depths translate to more-detailed decibel values. Decibels, or dB, are what we use to refer to the human ear’s perception of sound pressure. Because vinyl doesn’t even have to abide by fixed bit values, advocates will say its dynamic range is therefore infinitely continuous. However, it should be noted that consumer analogue may only have an audible dynamic range of about 60-70dB, due to the fact that the inherent noise within tape and vinyl formats tends to mask the quietest moments of some recordings. This is far below the 96dB range of an off-the-shelf CD, or the monstrous 144dB range of 24-bit digital audio. So, mathematically, there’s absolutely no reason why digital audio (which has no inherent noise floor) cannot be as compelling a musical experience as analogue.
On top of all this is that fact that, in today’s music, the audio on that vinyl you just bought was almost certainly digitized at some point. Digital audio has revolutionized the way we record, edit, mix, master, and distribute music so dramatically that even a Grammy-winning engineer who broke-out working for the likes of U2 and Elvis Costello now gives interviews about how he mixed The Black Keys completely digitally.
Where this all comes back, though, is to the point that vinyl and digital are simply two distinctly different experiences. A listener is 100% within their right to pick a favorite. There’s no match for the convenience or cost-effectiveness of digital, and from an objectively scientific standpoint, there may not be a match for the fidelity either. But if you love nostalgia; if you love the 12”x12” piece of artwork that comes with your purchase; if you love the smell of an old record; if you like knowing you put a few extra bucks in the artist’s pocket; then vinyl listening is absolutely for you. It’s just important that you know why you really like it if you’re pretentious enough to get into an argument about it like me. (PA)
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Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Patrick (PA)