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Why is there a vinyl revival?

In my youth, for better or worse, I never really owned vinyl records. My parents did -- they had a small selection of country and "easy listening" LPs, and a stack of 45-RPM pop singles that were carefully labeled with the kind of dance they might be suitable for -- foxtrot, quickstep, waltz, tango, and so on.

The only vinyl record I owned was a single of Meco's Star Wars, which I played on a Dansette suitcase record player until it had been worn smooth. The record, that is, not the record player; nothing about the Dansette could be described as "smooth".

So far as I know, these objects all ended up in landfill, and were not much lamented. My medium of choice, from the early 70s until the invention of the audio CD, was the cassette tape. In most respects, the cassette tape was an inferior medium to the LP record, but cassettes were convenient, rugged, and portable. At one point I owned thousands of cassette tapes; in fact, I still have a stack gathering cobwebs in my attic.

For people of my generation, the audio CD revolutionized how we listened to music. A CD offered (in principle, at least) better sound quality than a vinyl record and, if treated carefully, would last forever. At the same time, CDs were as convenient and portable as a cassette. I owned one of the first Sony "Discman" portable CD players, and it never left my side until broadband Internet access changed the landscape again in the 90s.

So, in short, I have no personal history with vinyl records. I feel no nostalgia for them, nor am I a particular admirer of their characteristic sound signature. However, increasingly I feel alone in this view. The reality -- and a strange reality it seems to me -- is that for the last ten years or so, vinyl record sales have surged. Although most of the big names in the turntable industry, like Dansette and Garrard, have long ceased trading, there is a brisk second-hand market in their products. But you don't have to buy used -- a number of companies are now using modern manufacturing methods to produce good-quality equipment at modest cost. It's no longer necessary to sell a kidney, to own a real hi-fi turntable.

But why would you? What possible reasons can there be for the renewed interest in this archaic media format?

I think there's one potential explanation that we can put to bed pretty quickly, although I approach this with some trepidation. There are no objective grounds for thinking that vinyl records offer superior sound quality to modern, digital media -- all other things being equal (not that they ever really are -- more on this later). I accept that there might have been a valid argument of this kind in the early days of the CD. In the rush to get CDs to market, many music publishers pushed recordings that had been mastered for vinyl directly to CD, without any consideration of the advantages offered by the new medium. For example, vinyl records had to be mixed so that high-intensity (especially bass) sounds were in the middle of the stereo field; if this wasn't done, there was a risk that the turntable's stylus would jump right out of the groove. CDs had no such limitation. CDs had (in principle) a hundred-fold increase in dynamic range over vinyl, and yet no use was made of that fact (sadly, it often still isn't). The low noise levels of CD recordings offered no benefit when the source material was a 30-year old master tape. The peculiarities of vinyl mastering and the undeniable limitations of early CD players did not make for a sonically rewarding result.

Those days are (mostly) gone, however. While there are still a number of poor-quality CD recordings in publisher's catalogues, most CDs, and other digital content, is now mastered specifically for digital media. There's no doubt that digital music delivery is subject to inaccuracies -- primarily quantization artefacts and jitter -- but these are utterly insignificant in quality equipment, set against the limitations of vinyl.

The fact is that digital audio offers better accuracy, higher dynamic range, lower noise, and hugely better channel separation than a vinyl record. Any characteristic of audio reproduction that can be measured, measures better with digital technology. The limitations of digital audio -- which nobody denies -- can be mitigated to whatever extent is desired, by technological means. Top-quality sound reproduction comes at a price, of course, whether it's analog or digital; but it's a price that many have been willing to pay. The complication is that whether one recording "sounds better" than another is not entirely an objective matter; it's a value judgement, based on a number of musical and non-musical factors.

Be that as it may, whatever is driving the "vinyl revival", it isn't sound quality, objectively assessed. To some extent, it could be simple nostalgia. However, there's probably more than just nostalgia at work here.

"Sound quality" is a hard thing to define, even in a laboratory context. Some people are highly attuned to the microscopic quantisation artefacts that affect digital recordings, but are not particularly concerned about, say, errors in pitch stability, or poor frequency response. Some people find the tiniest intrusion of third-harmonic distortion absolutely unbearable, but will tolerate large amounts of second-harmonic distortion. Getting a single figure for "quality" that everybody agrees on is difficult, even when comparing the same content on different media; when comparing different content on different media, it's probably impossible.

Moreover, I think it's important to understand that quality of audio reproduction -- however that term is understood -- has only ever been a niche concern. Most people listen to music using poor-quality equipment in acoustically-hostile environments (trains, gyms, cars) and are perfectly happy with it. In the days when I was designing and building my own wardrobe-sized loudspeakers, most of my peers were listening to cheap, plastic "solid state radios", as they were then called, with no obvious signs of distress. Even now, my kids walk around the house with music squawking out of their cellphone speakers -- a sound that is like fingernails on a blackboard to me.

No -- for most people, music is part of a social backdrop, and the fine details of reproduction are unimportant. It's possible to make too much of "high fidelity".

It seems to me that some of the factors that lead people to develop a new interest in vinyl records are similar to those that create the continued interest in 1980s computing; one of these is comprehensibility. Vinyl records are an entirely understandable technology. A little needle wiggles in a groove, and a magnet-and-coil arrangement translates that wiggling into an electrical signal, which is amplified and sent to speakers. Fundamentally, the principle hasn't changed since Edison's waxed cylinders in the Victorian era. CD technology is much more obscure, and modern music-streaming technologies are totally bewildering. The vinyl turntable has a bunch of tweaks that may, or may not, improve sound quality. Whether they do or not, their operation is not hard to understand. You can increase drive belt tension, or the weight on the stylus; you can change the lateral force on the tone-arm, and so on. People who really care about their turntables spend hours fiddling with these things. What can you adjust in the behaviour of a streaming audio service? Very little, it turns out.

And then there's the undeniable physicality of a vinyl record. A record is a tangible object that has to be handled in a particular way. It has to be cleaned, cared for, and stored properly. There's even a particular smell associated with vinyl. A record is something you can have a relationship with.

Audio CDs have nothing to offer (musically) over digital streaming services. You can fiddle with your CDs if you want but, in the end, you'll get essentially the same sound from them as you get from the streaming service. Most such services now offer CD-quality delivery, and some offer better-than-CD delivery. The poor old CD simply has no place in the modern audio world. It's not that it's obsolete in a technical sense; rather, the same technical characteristics are available more cheaply and conveniently by streaming. This is why you can buy CDs for pennies these days.

A vinyl record, though -- that's altogether different. The physicality is part of the appeal, and that can't be superseded by on-line music services. It doesn't matter how good the sound quality of your streaming service is, because objective sound quality isn't really a key feature of vinyl, when compared to the competition. Streaming has killed the audio CD, but there's something about vinyl that can't be replicated in any other format.

The popularity of vinyl records seems to me to be entirely explicable on non-technical grounds. Consequently, it surprises me when enthusiasts continue to promote the "better sound quality" of records over digital technologies. I'm quite prepared to accept that some people prefer the sound of records, but there's no objective grounds to think it's superior. I've heard people say that records sound "warmer" or "more human" than digital recordings, but that's a euphemism for "inaccurate". It would be easy enough to simulate these inaccuracies in a digital recording if that's what listeners want.

To be fair, though, there is potentially a reason to favour good-quality vinyl recordings from the past, over modern digital recordings -- but that's more about market forces than technology. Back in the 70s we had the technology to make really good studio recordings for vinyl -- not as high-fidelity as modern digital techniques, but plenty good enough for most people. In those days, recordings of "serious" music, and of a lot of popular music, were mastered to sound good on top-notch playback equipment. In particular, the amount of dynamic level compression was significantly less than is the current practice.

Despite what some people claim, level compression is a necessary part of studio production -- many musical instruments are almost impossible to record well without it. However, the amount of level compression that is applied during mastering has increased steadily over the last twenty years, for two reasons. First, many listeners just appear to preter a musical presentation that sounds "louder". Second, most studios are producing music for poor-quality equipment in poor acoustic environments. These environments more-or-less demand a high level of compression, to compensate for the ambient noise.

Vinyl recordings from the 70s were usually mastered with much less compression than is now the norm. Orchestral music, in particular, can sound more "theatrical" than modern recordings, just because it was mastered to suit a different audience. There was no need, in the 1970s, to master recordings for portable players on the train, because there weren't really any portable players at that time.

Portable music players are wonderful devices -- I never go far without mine -- but, to some extent, they are victims of their own success. Their very ubiquity means that it's difficult for studios to produce music that is intended for critical listening in quiet environments. Arguably, art music has suffered less from this effect than popular music, but all music has been affected to some extent.

So, in the end, why are we buying vinyl again? As I've tried to argue, the objective comparison with digital music is irrelevant. Most people don't care and, even for those that do, the technical quality of vinyl is quite good enough. Most of us don't listen in silent, acoustically-neutral rooms with sell-a-kidney equipment. We may even prefer the sonic imperfections of vinyl. In that case, non-musical factors become more important than musical ones.

At the same time, vinyl records give us a feeling of nostalgia, and a physicality that digital recordings can't match. Playing a record isn't just an action, it's an event.

[ Last updated Tue 22 Feb 19:28:25 GMT 2022 ]