When his work schedule permits, Jann Klose, an independent musician who has been featured in movies and earned a Grammy nomination, holds vinyl listening parties with friends in his New York City home.
"I grew up with tapes and CDs and Minidisc and now MP3s. I never really owned a record player, but I own one now. A friend gave it to me,” Klose says. “There's a huge difference in sound quality. There's a warmness to the sound that you don't find in digital music. It's more inviting, and realizing you are no more than one generation from the actual take makes it more real.”
Klose is not alone. While CD sales continue to plummet, mostly due to rampant and unstemmed online piracy, vinyl sales have clawed back from the edge of extinction. According to Nielsen Soundscan, U.S. vinyl sales topped 3.9 million units in 2011, a 39% gain over 2010.
Okay, 3.9 million units total is peanuts compared to the 330.6 million CD units sold in 2011 (according to Billboard magazine). But vinyl is back from the grave. Just 18 years ago, vinyl accounted for only 250,000 units, and a lot of that was to dance DJs who used the records to scratch for effects.
So why is an antediluvian technology making such a comeback? There are a few reasons. Some people have rebelled against digital downloads and want something tangible they can hold. Others appreciate the art of a 12-inch sleeve that a 5-inch CD case can't convey. But another reason is in Klose's statement about being one generation from the actual take.
In the era of digital music, which includes compact disc recordings, music is processed more than is luncheon meat. It's filtered, compressed, and the volume is tinkered with. The result is music that's unlistenable, and that's not just the banality of Carly Rae Jepson and Justin Beiber. Over-processed music is loud, distorted, unpleasant, and harsh. Often times, it buries instruments, such as bass, keyboards, backing vocals, strings, and horns. Not just modern music, but older records are often re-mastered and re-released; in the process, they are amped up to a blaring and unpleasant volume.
With vinyl records, an engineer can adjust the volume levels but compression and loudness are much harder to do. The result is that vinyl simply offers a more enjoyable listening experience – and audiophiles have come to realize that.
This serves as a cautionary tale for the tech industry as a whole: Newer isn't always better. Sometimes, that new technology gives you a lot more rope with which to hang yourself.
The Roots of the Matter
The compact disc was the first problem. Developed at Philips in Holland in the late 1970s, CD music is only 16-bit, which means there is only so much bandwidth for music to pass through per second.
In the move to digital music on computers and music players, the MP3 format triumphed and that required one form of compression. "Compression is why an MP3 is not 30 megabytes in size," says Klose. "Those file formats analyze the Wave file, the original digital recording, and cut the frequencies within that file that the human ear does not perceive — or so it was being sold to us."
Waveform Audio File Format (WAVE or .wav) is a Microsoft- and IBM-developed audio file format standard for storing an audio bitstream on PCs without losing any of the audio. This format is called "lossless," because it loses nothing from the original source.
When converted to MP3, the compression causes a loss of some of the audio, which is why it's called a "lossy" format. This is where music loses some of what was there. It's the equivalent of copying a color photo but removing the non-primary colors.
But the compression does not only affect the file size. It affects the quality of the overall experience of hearing it. Lossy compression removes what it considers irrelevant or hard to hear sounds to make the file smaller, but “The more you cut, the more you lose overall quality. You are taking out stuff that was there before," says Klose.
"What makes it more lo-fi is that loss of overtones and undertones,” says Hank Bordowitz, an author and former music recording engineer. “Even when they fall out of the range of human hearing, they add resonance to the music. It’s not so much that the sound is 'cleaner' as it is more resonant. Even when you don’t hear more, you hear more."
In the end, music mastered for vinyl usually uses less or no compression, so there is no shearing of the peaks. Loud and soft moments are retained as they were recorded, making the song closer to how it would sound when played live.
The Loudness War
In the early 90s began what many authors have called "The Loudness War," wherein bands began cranking the loudness of their CDs to make then natively louder. Rather than letting the listeners fiddle with their stereo settings, the labels did it for them.
CDs allow music to be encoded with a clearly-defined maximum peak amplitude. In other words, you can program how loud the CD should sound. You can't do that with vinyl, not easily, and to nowhere the same degree.
Rolling Stone dove into the problem in a 2007 article, The Death of High Fidelity, which documented how labels were all pushing to make louder records than the other guys. The result was music that was blaring and devoid of subtlety. "God is in the details. But there are no details anymore," said Steely Dan's Donald Fagen in that article.
This is where a second form of compression comes in: audio compression. Audio compression removes the volume peaks, essentially shearing off the loudest portions of the song as recorded. This allows the engineers to crank up the quiet portions. The result is a song with no highs and lows, only loud and louder with no dynamics. No spaces. Even Pink Floyd would sound like Metallica.
But the artists are also partly to blame. Billy Corgan, founder of the '90s band Smashing Pumpkins and later the band Zwan, set out to make the Zwan album Mary Star of the Sea really loud. On the now-defunct Zwan website, he wrote "So from my mouth to your ear, here's the deal: We set out to make the loudest f---ing rock and roll album that was humanly possible. No detail was too small, and by that I mean that everything, and I mean everything on the album is distorted by yours truly." So decisions were made throughout the recording process to make it very loud.
"For my tastes, I would have appreciated it less loud and more punchy, but that doesn't matter at all,” says Rip Rowan, an audio engineer in Dallas, Texas. “If Billy intended it to sound loud, and the technology enabled him to get there, than that's a good thing, period, end of story."
Rowan achieved a bit of Internet legend in 2002 when he eviscerated the Rush comeback album, Vapor Trails, for being obscenely loud and distorted. Rush was as known for its well-engineered albums as well as for the playing talents of its three members, but Rush fans reacted to Vapor Trails like a dog during the Fourth of July.
But in time, the truth came out: Rush wanted it that way. and they came to regret the decision. "[Bassist/vocalist] Geddy Lee stated as much,” says Rowan. “They just ran all the individual tracks hot, mixed them together really hot, and viola – the song is really loud and distorted.”
Guitarist Alex Lifeson owned up to the problem as well in a 2009 interview. "It kills all of the dynamics … In mastering, unfortunately that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “It was a contest, and it was mastered too high, and it crackles, and it spits, and it just crushes everything. All the dynamics get lost, especially anything that had an acoustic guitar in it.”
Then there's the problem of commoditizing recording equipment. Consider what's in the home studio of the typical home-recording enthusiast. Chances are that in some ways, it rivals or beats the capabilities found in the control rooms of multi-million dollar studios from 30 years ago, says Rowan.
"When the cost of building and maintaining a powerful recording system dropped by a factor of 1,000, the number of people using the equipment also grew exponentially," he says.
Albums used to be recorded in 48-track studios costing millions of dollars. Now people record albums on their laptop computers. While these may be fine notebook computers, they still are not a professional studio.
"Very few people use a 'real' recording studio anymore," says Bordowitz. In a true recording studio, "These rooms were designed to enhance sound in a way the average bedroom, living room, or garage never will. So, from the very source, you either have digital devices for making music going into digital devices for recording it, creating an airtight sound with absolutely no ambiance, or you have music recorded in rooms with ambient noise and strange acoustics."
Many artists don't even go into a studio with a professional engineer to mix their records, Rowan says. Klose adds engineers are still important; records often sound so bad because they didn't use a competent engineer.
A skilled engineer can make a musician sound as good as possible even with not-so-great equipment. “It always depends on who is doing the work. The technology is cheap now but you still need someone who knows what they are doing," Klose points out.
Many artists just do their mixing work in Pro Tools, a popular Mac music recording application. But, Rowan says, like anything else: Don't blame the technology, blame the people using it.
"Pro Tools in fact is capable of being extremely dynamic. However dynamic music is not the current trend. Nobody I record really wants to make a dynamic, punchy record like Steely Dan's 'Aja.' Loud music is the current trend, and if you want loud, compressed tracks, Pro Tools can definitely get the job done," said Rowan.
Which makes Pro Tools the AK47 of the Loudness Wars.
The Down Beat
The bottom line is that advances in technology have made it both easier to record music, and a lot easier to make mistakes. Even pros like Rush can screw up.
And audio is hardly the only category to suffer from new technology making things worse. Just because software has a feature doesn’t mean you have to use it.
The fine art of airbrushing and photo-retouching has been replaced with Adobe Photoshop. There are countless examples of bad Photoshop work, not the least of which are those documented at Photoshop Disasters. And it's stunning to see what actually is allowed out by advertising departments to the public.
The advent of DVD also caused huge problems. In the early days of DVD, movie quality varied greatly from studio to studio. Everything changed from VHS, when it was 240 dpi and stereo sound in 4:3 TV resolution, and no one noticed the difference because there wasn't any.
The higher fidelity of the audio and video in DVD meant studios could do the video right, with proper color and black and white levels, or they could make a mess with the contrast and brightness. It took studios years to get video mastering right. Many early DVDs were reissued years later when the studios learned how to do proper color and surround sound.
Technology enables us to do more with each generation. Even though Hollywood is abandoning 35mm film for digital, some directors deliberately add film grain effects to their movie if they feel it needs it. Rowan says something similar happens with artists, who add a "vinyl sound" to their digital music.
But technology also allows us to screw up even worse than ever. That's why audiophiles are buying 12-inch vinyl records instead of downloading MP3s from iTunes.