Vinyl versus Digital

The Dutch online magazine Alpha Audio did an unusual live stream on Sunday Feb 27th. In collaboration with Artone Studio in Haarlem, a live recording was made of singer songwriter Tim Knol, running both a completely analog (vinyl!) recording chain and a completely digital recording chain in parallel. For the analog part, a direct-to-disc lacquer was cut in the mastering studio. Digitally, the studio’s DAD AD converter was on service, running at 96/24. When reproducing, a Grimm Audio MU1 with Mola Mola DA converter took care of the digital file. And for playback of the lacquer there was a high quality REED Muse 3c turntable, Ikeda MC element and a Mola Mola phono pre.

The online audience could witness the playbacks live. The question then was, of course, which of the two chains sounded more faithful to the original. Now it would be weird if the live audience could make that judgment at home, because by definition they were listening via a digital path. If the analog chain were to sound ‘better’ to the audience, that chain apparently added a “pleasant distortion”, but was not transparent. At best it should sound the same. It was therefore mainly interesting to monitor the comment and body language of the people who were present in the studio listening to the playbacks. Their verdict was that the analog chain sounded more similar to the original sound (the direct microphone lines) than the digital chain.

I can imagine that this was true, so the conclusion can be that this digital chain was not as transparent as the analog chain. That means there is still room for improvement in the digital path – work to do for us. But at the same time there is a need for some nuances.

First of all, no one outside a mastering studio will ever hear the quality of the lacquer. In the process of vinyl production (when pressing >10000 copies of an album), the lacquer is first converted to an intermediate negative copy, from which a ‘father’ is copied, from which various ‘mothers’ are copied, from which stampers are then made that are used in the actual pressing of the vinyl (which is also a copying process). This means there are four mechanical copies between the lacquer and the vinyl record you have at home, and with every copy some details get lost and noise is added.

Second, it is extremely rare for a vinyl record to be cut directly from the microphone feed. Slightly more often it happens that an analog master tape of a fully analog production is used as a source. At Artone Studio, analog tapes are cut to the lacquer in the superior ‘old-fashioned’ way, with a fully analog path (at other studios there is often a digital delay line in the signal chain). This workflow can indeed be called truly analog.

Figure 1. Waveform of a CD and LP version of Amy Winehouse’s “Our Day Will Come”.

But the vast majority of music cut to vinyl these days is produced digitally and cut from a file. And in that case, the digital signature of course has already been imprinted and it can no longer be removed. So in general, vinyl will by definition not sound as good as the best digital, since you have that digital sound, plus all the distortion of the analog pathway. 

Why vinyl often sounds better

Still, there are many stories that vinyl sounds better than digital, even though the record rumbles and crackles. So what’s going on there? Sometimes of course the digital playback equipment used in such a comparison was the limiting factor. In my experience it costs more money to make digital playback sound pleasing to the ear than analog playback. So with budget systems, the vinyl option has an advantage.

Another aspect that should not be underestimated is that the added noise of the LP in some way gives a pleasant effect. It adds an artificial spatiality in the low end, masks imperfections, and the brain is stimulated by the noise to fill in the missing details – a task it’s quite good at. I would not recommend to add noise to all recordings since true detail always wins, but one should be aware of this effect.

But in most cases something else is the matter: the vinyl master is simply not the same as the CD master. As a result of the loudness war, digital masters have been severely limited in terms of dynamics for decades. These highly compressed masters however do not cut well on vinyl. Therefore, when mastering LPs, usually a new ‘vinyl master’ is made, often with less dynamic compression.

Martin Zvelc of RTV Slovenia once compared an LP and CD of Amy Winehouse’s song “Our day will come” and sent it to me. From his waveforms in figure 1 you can immediately see that the CD master has been limited strongly, but the peaks in the LP master were left unaltered. The “Peak to Loudness Ratio” PLR of this track is 9.5 dB for the CD version and 15 dB for the vinyl version: a dramatic difference. It will come as no surprise that the LP version sounds a lot better.

The solution seems simple: please offer us the digital vinyl master on the streaming services and download shops. Or make the master for digital media sound at least as dynamic as the LP master. In another blog I mentioned that an important step has been taken last year to achieve that goal. Let’s hope the message is heard and digital will start to sound great again.

And can we then say goodbye to vinyl? Personally I don’t think so. First of all, there are still plenty of vintage records (and some new productions) that are produced completely analog, and they are a pleasure to listen to. Secondly, an LP is a nice ‘tactile’ object to possess, with beautiful large artwork. No stream can compete with that. And the ritual of playing a record in my opinion invites one to pay more attention to the music, which of course is what it’s all about. So at Grimm Audio we love vinyl and you will hear about that sooner or later.

All in all, I find this a fascinating subject and it was great to see how Alpha Audio tackled it.

Eelco Grimm

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