Vinyl and A Plea for Proper Lossless Audio
by Stephan Mathieu, September 2015While everybody agrees that vinyl is back, some have never had the feeling it was actually gone. To them a record remains the queen of formats: its up- and downsides make vinyl an extremely charming object that, when done right, will deliver fantastic sound quality. I sold my first vinyl collection together with my stereo before moving to Berlin in 1990. There was no way to drag around nearly one ton of material, and since I wanted to focus on the actual making of music I felt lighter after letting my treasure go. Back in my hometown some 10 years later, I started over with collecting records and I will not forget the reaction of our cat (who was already well accustomed to sound) once the fresh needle touched its first groove and set the speaker‘s membranes into motion: He pricked up his ears and looked at me as if a huge invisible entity had all of a sudden taken over the room. There simply is something special about this analog format, something that can’t be reduced to a mere nostalgia of soft crackle or the nicer tangibility of an LP sleeve.
After the major labels discovered Record Store Day as a suitable platform to stoke the sales for their back catalog, and even the very big online players like Amazon finally jumped on the hype surrounding vinyl, small labels who want to have a small edition of new music manufactured properly find themselves confronted with serious difficulties in booking a slot at one of the few remaining pressing plants. Production prices followed the market’s rule by rising according to the new demands, turning small runs of quality vinyl into luxury items during the last two years. This becomes especially evident when a collector has to pay a premium for international shipping on top of the item itself, sometimes turning a single LP into a 50 €/$ purchase.
At the same time, yet seemingly more quietly, digital downloads became much more attractive and easier to buy than ever. Connection speed is constantly increasing, storage space has grown massively while becoming really affordable, platforms like Bandcamp are offering lossless options per default and at the same price as the mp3 version of the music. The dial-up modems of 1995 are long gone; even your last cellphone had more number crunching power than a Cray-2 supercomputer in 1985. Lossy formats like mp3 were developed during the internet’s early period simply in order to make a relatively quick and light audio snack available for download at all. While this was a revolution back in the day, in 2015 they are just that – very 1995. Along the way, lossy downloads have turned the act of listening to music itself into a snack, too much of too little, based on a mix of misinformation (“sounds just as good!’) and convenience (“10.000 Songs in Your Pocket!”). In the meantime, a whole generation has grown up without having listened to uncompressed music at all, while their kids are ripping their music from YouTube clips.
To avoid going into more details: Lossy audio today has to disappear. There is more to digital than this, and vinyl by default isn’t the last word in great sound, especially not when “making a vinyl” is foregrounded just because one has to and not for the art of making vinyl a pristine product. In order to achieve this, a couple of extra steps between the music and the final product, executed by specialists like a mastering and cutting engineer plus a competent pressing plant, are crucial. Skip those steps and the product will be subpar, sometimes a mere ghost of what good vinyl can be. Too many records are made like this, and they seem to exist mainly in order to benefit from the hype. So let’s have a look at digital as well.
In 1997 I conducted an interview with a collaborator of the Fraunhofer-Institut in Munich who told me that the near future will bring a new digital format that would cover a frequency range up to 96kHz and a dynamic range of 144dB and outstrip CD quality but also the best of analog mediums by several miles. As a percussionist who knows about the unique characteristics of every square inch of his instruments, I was floored by that idea – and three years later, SACD and DVD-A, operating with a bit depth of 24Bit and sampling rates up to 192kHz, became available. Both formats were soon doomed to fail for a couple of reasons: Firstly, most consumers had switched and invested in CD players for what felt like only a little while ago and the brand new generation of players – just like the first generation of normal CD-players – came with a hefty price tag and were mainly promoted under the audiophile banner. Secondly, the CD lobby, which already smelled a certain decline in sales based on Napster and similar services during this time, kept insisting on their 1980 standard of 16Bit/44.1kHz being the one and only real McCoy, and all that great audio reproduction needs, since it covers even more frequency range than humans can actually hear.
The masters made to the highest standards for SACDs or DVD-As from the late 90s on are available today as full resolution downloads; the classic reel-to-reel recordings from the 1940s-80s are transferred to ultra high DSD resolution for conservation. More and more artists and labels are releasing their work in 24Bit, often with sample rates surpassing 44.1kHz. Is this just marketing tactics or does this decision speak of conviction?
As a matter of fact, neither you or I can hear beyond 20kHz. Make that 15 or even 18k and you will have exceptional hearing abilities for an adult. Also, many loudspeakers are not capable of reproducing anything above 20k. However, we A) do not hear with our ears alone and, probably more relevant in this context, B) whenever a recording does cover a wider frequency spectrum, only to have it cropped at 22.5kHz, this content – or rather its impact on the fully audible range of the recording – will be missing. Even if this impact may be subtle, it can make a difference while reproducing a great production. Subtleness is nothing that jumps on your table to stun you with obviousness; that’s why the often quoted ABX listening tests are a moot argument against high-resolution audio to me. Instead of taking the fast way out, I’d recommend the following:
Live for one week with a small selection of full-resolution versions of albums that have been carefully produced. Listen to them repeatedly, absorb them in detail. After this week is done, convert them down to the CD standard of 16_44.1 and spend another day of listening to these versions.
There is no excuse left for heavily shrunken audio files unless you want to carry a whole archive worth of albums on your cellphone while you’re out for a long, long run. When traveling, a 1TB external drive is capable of holding the same content as lossless files: even at a resolution of 24_96, you’d have 50 days’ worth of music playing around the clock without repetition. The only other raison d’être for lossy soundfiles I can think of today is providing a quick preview for an album to purchase online, to have a snack of it. But please don’t buy the mutilated stuff. Get lossless music instead, and make your own mp3s from these files in case you want them as an option. As a label, please don’t sell lossy music, at least not as the sole option. Your artists and their audience deserve better. Data storage space and bandwidth shouldn’t be that much of a problem for your clients or yourself. In case you won’t hear a difference, others probably will. Files don’t need shelves, boxes or warehouses to be stored in, and if you think downloads are boring and lack sexiness, stop using a thumbnail of the CD cover as the sole additional content for your digital release. Invent what a digital release can be, what you wish it was. In the event that you reissue highlights from your back catalog as remastered downloads, scrap the CD standard altogether for the digital version and make the music available in the new master’s original resolution. Don’t add a free mp3 download to your vinyl release; add a lossless version of the master instead. Your product will represent the best of both worlds.
When done properly, digital files offer just as much fidelity and joy as an analog medium. As a long-time collector of records, I actually have to admit now that the fidelity of full-resolution files will often surpass my favorite medium. CD rarely did that trick for me.
If music and its reproduction is an art form, why sacrifice for the final digital product? If size doesn’t matter, why would smallness? What matters, though – and this fact hasn’t changed over the decades, neither for producers nor consumers of music – is a certain quality of your playback equipment. Just as you wouldn’t want to watch a Blu-ray on a dim tube monitor from 1997, you won’t be able to fully appreciate a great audio production on a subpar stereo kit. No question, a great piece of music can touch you even when it’s played from YouTube through laptop speakers. But in order to experience the full impact music can have, it requires quality source material, as much as quality playback equipment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from talking audiophile to you. Recent years have seen the rise of a lot of fine, yet affordable equipment for proper computer audio playback, be it only to avoid the on-board mini-jack output, or to make a serious upgrade in quality. In case you’re happy with your music, then who am I to tell you how it’s done? However, you probably wouldn’t read an extensive rant on a mastering website if you weren’t at least slightly interested in your music sounding better.
Apart from celebrating the lasting powers of vinyl, it’s about time to get rid of the clichés of a download being just a cheap substitute for the real thing. Digital audio can be very real. It’s exciting times for music.
With thanks to Philip Sherburne