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[English] Analog vs. Digital: Vinyl Records

Realmente: ¿Qué quiere decir que un disco de vinilo es mejor que un archivo digital? | Really: What does it mean that a vinyl record is better than a digital file?

This text belongs to a series entitled: From the intangible to the tangible of sound.

A few weeks ago I was standing in front of an old CD storage rack and I found Led Zeppelin’s In through the outdoor, I think I haven’t listened to the full album since I was 16 years old.

I immediately opened the box, but it was empty. Next I tried to take out the little book and leaf through it remembering the cover illustration. Then I searched the album on YouTube to listen to it on the phone. The last move was to send a WhatsApp sharing a photo of the empty box next to the link to the album on YouTube.

Led Zeppelin | In Through the out Door – 1979

That same week I met a friend who with all the enthusiasm in the world showed me the acquisition of a very good album on vinyl. But … the turntable hadn’t stylus, so we went to listen the album in digital format. Guess where?

Weeks later a cassette came in the mail, wrapped in beautiful hand-written, wooden paper packaging with a postage stamp. In the cover art, there is a link to download and listen to the contents of the cassette. Although the tape deck is connected, it is almost instantaneous to click the link. Something that really happened.

The discussion between analog versus digital always seemed superficial to me. That kind of confrontation is almost always based on points that are not entirely correct:

«Such a recording and playback format is better than such another format»

That is why I am interested in analyzing some of the changes that these new technologies implied, at the time, listening technologies and how those changes persist. Either they are re-semanticized or obsolete in the face of new digital audio technological advances.

We acquire a vinyl, a cassette, a CD to play the object and listen to the content. Content encapsulated in a set of printed information.

What Does Vinyl Leave Us?

To understand the value of a vinyl you need to understand how it works.

For this reason, I propose to share some details about how this technology was projected when it was put on the market.

We must bear in mind that we are talking about sound systems that have a particular operation and therefore give their own and particular sound to that system.
Neither better nor worse than other systems.

Vinyl Record Imposed the Use of Equalizers

On a vinyl record the information is given by grooves approximately 0.04 to 0.08 mm wide, depending on the signal level. Each groove has printed modulations that represent the information about the sound (left / right and middle channels, frequencies and decibels).

With the printing of the first vinyls, it became clear that the low frequencies printed wider, more zigzag grooves. To prevent the grooves from touching, they should be further apart, thus reducing the duration of the disc.

To maximize playing time, the early record companies employed a clever trick using two equalizers: one during the vinyl printing process and one on the turntable.

During the process of making the disc (the Transfer of the original master to the object that we acquire), two equalization curves similar to a bandpass filter were applied. The equalizer severely cut the low (bass) frequencies of the sound and boosted the high (treble) frequencies.

Another equalizer was integrated into the turntable, restoring the bass that had been removed during disc printing and balancing the boosted treble.

Before 1954 each record company applied its own equalization, this caused different playback results if the recording and playback system (turntables) were from different companies.

1954 is the year that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) standardized a single set of curves for use by all manufacturers of recording and reproducing equipment. Curves that are currently in force. This standard is known as: RIAA curve.

The RIAA curve applies a reduction of the low frequencies from 20HZ to -20dB and amplifies the high frequencies 20kHz to + 20dB.

La línea azul de puntos: representa la curva de grabación.
Línea roja representa la curva de reproducción.
| The blue dotted line: represents the recording curve.
Red line represents the reproduction curve.

This is how from the vinyl industry for the first time it established a clear parameter with a view to obtaining an improvement in audio quality.

Side A Conclusion in this Discussion

As we have seen, the creation and reproduction of a high-fidelity vinyl record is an undertaking that requires very particular and delicate considerations. In this article, we have only analyzed one of the variables that make a vinyl «listen well».

Popular claims that the sound of a vinyl record is better than digital sound are far from empirically verifiable, even under ideal conditions.

Currently, most of the vinyls are transduced from a digital master (generally with a quality of 16 bits at 44.1 kHz, which beyond being a convention, in itself is quite poor). Even the amount of reprints from the master has a direct impact on the quality of the disc.

That we have a new vinyl record in our hands is not synonymous with having acquired the best audio quality. The final audio quality depends on a set of factors: the quality of the master, the material with which the vinyl disc is made and the playback equipment we use (stylus,headshell , etc). That is why it is called the Sound System.

The best way to get a quality recording is to do quality research, says Craig Kallman, president and CEO of Atlantic Records, owner of one of the world’s largest vinyl collections. «To be really sure, log in and read the blogs … There are so many links in the chain that you can’t just go for the label that says ‘virgin vinyl’.»

New York Times

When we listen to a vinyl record, we are hearing an electromagnetic phenomenon. Electricity caused by the vibration of the stylus when it travels through the grooves of the disc and moves the magnets that are inside the headshell.

Perhaps what fascinates us, when listening to a vinyl record, is the experience of transforming that simple vibration that runs through the air (the physical phenomenon of sound) into something as complex as the generation of electricity. Or maybe it’s being able to touch that transformation, make it palpable somehow through a black paste and a diamond. It is the postulate itself: making the Intangible of the Sound phenomenon Tangible.

Starting to get rid of the phrases made «this is better than that», of the prejudices such as «it is made by computer» without the corresponding analysis, would be of great help within the audio world to understand more clearly the impact on our forms of consumption that have new technologies related to sound.

Each technology brings a story that is restructured and takes on another useful meaning in the technology that precedes it.

The RIAA curve completely changed the understanding of the equalization processes at each stage of recording, mixing, and mastering an audio product.

Un programa del audiófilo Michael Fremer, a quien respeto mucho, acerca de los 100 discos vinilos reeditados que todo coleccionista debería tener. | A program by audiophile Michael Fremer, whom I respect a lot, about the 100 reissued vinyl records that every collector should have.

Resources and bibliography:

Author: Sol Rezza
Editor : Franco Falistoco

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