Why the Vinyl Renaissance is (Mostly) Not for Me
By Steve Graham
Spoiler alert: If you love vinyl, what comes next might not be to your taste. The intention of this report is not to dis vinyl lovers or change anybody’s mind. My take on the vinyl resurgence, and why it leaves me (mostly) flat, is just an opinion. If that opinion does not coincide with yours, I think we can be adult enough to agree to disagree.
If you favour music as reproduced by the vinyl medium, I’m happy for you. I am not opposed to analogue reproduction per se. Some of the most magnificent recordings of all time were recorded on analogue magnetic tape. It should continuously surprise us – I know it does me – that we keep “finding” more music on these tapes. Even tapes that have been “found” many times before. It’s just the final step in this process – replaying music from a vinyl disk – that takes the fun out of it for me.
Here’s why vinyl does not do it for me:
- I’m a klutz. Delicate objects are best kept away from my hands. More on this later.
- MFSL’s dubious provenance aside, their pressing quality is suspect. More on this later too.
- Vinyl is inconvenient.
- Vinyl is fragile.
- Backups (multiple copies) of vinyl are expensive and impractical.
- Too much ancillary equipment is required to fully optimize vinyl playback.
- Vinyl is just too damn noisy. Much more on this later.
My LP Ripping System
Those who follow my reviews might have noted that I sometimes use music originating on LP records ripped to high resolution digital files.
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Audacity software (free). Same as Schiit link above.
LP’s are played and digitized at 24-bit, 192 kHz using the system above and files stored on my HP laptop using Audacity software. Once the files had been “corrected,” using Audacity, they are coded into the FLAC format for dissemination to the hard drives of my various digital players.
The following screen grabs are of the waveforms displayed by the Audacity software. The scaling of the horizontal and vertical axes can be changed without affecting the digital data. The left channel is on the top and the right the bottom. The time scale is immediately above the left channel data. I listened to file playback using $60 IEMs connected to my laptop.
Let’s start with the noise:
Shown above, in figure 1, is the background (analogue) noise, the needle drop into the groove, groove background noise, applause and the start of the music.
In figure 2 the big tick (mechanical damage to the groove) in the left channel and a small vestige of it in the right. Note also the level (volume) of that tick compared to the music about 0.037 seconds later. This noise is non-musical and extremely annoying.
The LP digitized in figure 3 is a mono recording which makes the task of finding the offending noise slightly easier. The one shown above is somewhat buried in the music signal but easily audible.
In figure 4 above a tick can be seen in the left channel at about the 10:20.460 mark. There is also a small vestige of it in the right channel.
Figure 5, same tick with the time (horizontal) scale expanded.
Figure 6, same tick as above, the time scale has been expanded again. The darker blue highlights the approximate length of the tick. Checking the time scale the tick is approximately 0.00055 seconds long. This is ½ of a millisecond or five, ten-thousandths of one second!
Now for the HERESY
As shown in Figure 7, I deleted (cut out) 0.00055 seconds to remove the tick. It’s a trade-off between removing as little as possible, leaving a slight step in the waveform (as shown above) and removing more but having a smaller step or no step at all. (Audacity “stitches” the cut “ends” together.) So, is this vestigial step audible? Yes, as a soft thump, if you know where it is and listen very closely with headphones. But it is so low in level that for all intents and purposes it’s inaudible. Heresy! Yes, if you insist. I have thrown away some music, sort of. But I would bet most, if not all, listeners would not miss any music and would be glad to say goodbye to the tick.
Figure 8. More problematic are long scratchy or buzzy flaws as shown in the right channel above. Though not typically as loud as ticks or pops, their longer duration makes them annoying. Generally, they are less audible on speakers than on headphones. I have experimented removing large chunks of the waveform to get rid of them but sometimes a too-noticeable chunk of music gets cut out.
Figure 9. Between the two arrows is another example of what I call a “fuzzy bit” in the right channel. Though not of high amplitude the duration is sufficiently long to be heard as a grating distortion.
The Klutzy Part
The ticks, pops, fuzzes, and other random nasties kills vinyl enjoyment for me. However, I am forced to admit that as a klutz, I’m my own worst enemy.
See damage above in figure 10. I’m sure there is no need to point out the horrible noise spikes. This was a self-inflicted wound on one side of the MFSL 45 RPM, Kind of Blue, double-disk remaster. The damage lasts for several revolutions.
The Sickening Part
The MFSL LP that I dropped and gouged was nearly pristine. So off I went and bought another double LP set.
The second pressing I purchased, figure 11 above, has radial scratches that show up as repetitive ticks. I’ve only marked a few of them but they are still audible even when “buried” in the music. An audiophile buddy has the same set and when I borrowed his, it had the same fault. A close inspection of the numbers revealed that his pressing had been made with the same stampers as mine. Thanks a lot, MFSL. Your quality control really impresses.
After this fiasco I purchased the 24/192 download from HD Tracks.
By now, every vinylphile from here to Mars is aware of the MFSL controversy regarding digital intermediates between session masters and cutting lathe. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the least of our problems. We should not be surprised that Columbia (Sony) won’t let irreplaceable master tapes out of their sight. In my estimation, the best copy of an analogue session master is a well-done, high sampling rate, digital file.
When demand exceeds supply, there are always unscrupulous people willing to cut corners to make quick bucks. I’m not singling out MFSL in this regard. Some of the figures presented at the beginning of this article are from the Bill Evans LP pictured at the top. There are procedures and technology available that can recover and repair music contained on historic analogue recordings. For those interested see the Plangent Process at plangentprocess.com.
For more information on the mastering process go to Stereophile.com and read the two-part interview with Bob Ludwig, one of the masters of mastering.
So, does this mean I’m in love with digital, specifically CD-rate digital? No, not exactly. Sure, there has been and continues to be nasty sounding digital recordings. There are also some very good ones. Part of the problem with early CDs (can it really be forty years ago that the CD was released in North America?) was that they were not remastered for the digital medium. Often the CD was just “cut” from LP mastering tapes a generation or more removed from the mixed down session masters. See my earlier comment regarding supply and demand. If you want to hear the difference remastering and remixing can make listen to The Beatles, Abbey Road, on a first generation CD, then listen again to the Tidal MQA stream.
Will I still acquire new vinyl? Perhaps, but I will be very, very, selective. It will only happen if a digital download or a good quality CD is not available. I am in the process of ripping my small vinyl collection to 24/192. I’ve already had one fishing expedition (strictly catch and release) through a much larger vinyl collection and digitized many of interest there. I like to think I’m a music lover first and a gear geek second. I have almost convinced myself of that.
On a personal note, I probably won’t be writing any more in-depth reviews for Wall of Sound. At least reviews where I must parse the finer points of a component’s sound quality. Time is catching up with me, or more specifically with my hearing. Tinnitus comes and goes. Some days my main system just sounds sour. The irony is, I’ve never enjoyed music, and a greater variety of music, more. If I don’t trust my ears, it would be unfair to foist their sonic shortcomings on others.
I’d like to thank my long-suffering editor Noam Bronstein, for giving me the opportunity to realize a long-held ambition. Sharing what little I know with others has been great fun. I guess in modern parlance I might be called an influencer. Though influencer has always seemed to me to have a negative connotation. I like to think of my self as an informer, or more precisely, a source of information. Interestingly, relating my observations to you has made me a better listener.
Let us all share and inspire, where we can, our love of music and Hifi gear with the next generation of audiophiles.
Goodbye and thanks,
Editor’s Note: I’ve been on both sides of the vinyl love-hate fence, and more than once. I do still enjoy it, on my own terms (I’m not obsessed). Why do people enjoy the format? Some things defy reason. More importantly, I want to thank Steve for his many (many!) outstanding contributions over the last eight years. I think I can speak for Wall Of Sound’s readers too in saying “he’ll be missed”. Hopefully we’ll still hear from him now and then.
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