Vinyl versus Digital, a modern day retrospective

Thursday Sep 17 2009

Recently, my husband dug out his old Amplifier and Record Player (Turntable) and set it up once more. The Turntable is a Garrard SP25 Mk III and the amp is a NAD 3020B both apparantly were the upper end of the budget market in the 1970’s.

Don’t let the word ‘Budget’ put you off, they still beat the socks of anything we might call ‘Budget’ or ‘Value’ today, heck even the NAD 3020B still beats some of the most expensive equipment available today.

I was sceptical at first, having not myself heard a vinyl record in a very long time (hey, its old hat, right? old and not worth the time) until that was I heard a record being played.

The record itself was Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer album, it is the soundtrack to the classic film of the same name.

Naturally, being the curious cat I am, I decided a little impromptu comparison would be interesting to carry out between the digital version of some of the album tracks I had on my computer. The first thing I noted about the digital tracks, was the volume of them (both aurally and visually in the waveform) were incredibly high indicating some sort of Dynamic compression was employed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamic_range_compression) which basically means that the audio waveform has been processed to ensure that all high volume levels of the track waveform are hovering around the outer limits of the range acceptable for the audio production. This was great for loudness but not so much for the quality and ‘feel’ to the music and the compression makes it sound almost metallic. The digital version was sharp and clinically clear with little depth to the environment being portrayed in the music.

With the vinyl versions of the tracks, instantly you note the more detailed nuances of the singer and the instruments without very loud or very quiet segments. The track feels more balanced and you get a sense of exactly how the audio should have sounded in the studio. The reason for this is in fact that the records hold an exact mirror copy of the original waveform produced by the artists at the time of recording, essentially the audio is natural and unprocessed analogue signals – just like you would hear if I were actually speaking to you now. Digital was applauded for it’s bright, clear sound but it came at a cost of depth and ‘feeling’ of the track and since the audio in a Digital format such as a CD or MP3 track, the natural analogue sound has been ‘approximated’ – from that you can read ‘best guess’.

Initially intrigued by the amazing difference between the two versions of the songs, I started researching – and discovered something rather surprising in today’s digital world, Vinyl is making a big comeback in the face of falling CD sales (http://iamalaser.com/2009/05/01/vinyls-here-and-she-wants-you-back/) largely, this is due to the MP3 / Itunes download market getting rid of the need to carry a disk with you. Why? Well the simplest answer(audio quality aside) is probably two-fold, on one hand people seem to be wanting to build their home collections up again and the mediums used no longer need to be small or portable. Secondly, there is no real way to physically recreate or copy a vinyl disk that is widely available to consumers. This fact will only help the record labels regain a hold on the music market, which, in itself has been slipping due to the Itunes generation of legally and illegally downloaded music.

The discoveries I have made these last few days have really kicked my inner Audiophile back into the stream of concious thought and have me fascinated with audio once more, I used to have an interest in the audio engineering aspect of technology when I was in school and that was before I had any sort of income to make use of in pursuit of the hobby. Now though, I’m married and working I am starting to stare with wide-eyed curiosity once more at the wonderful world of Audio Tech.

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