The vinyl-or-digital debate rages on and audiophiles of all stripes have strong opinions on one side or the other. Saying anything almost feels like a reopening of old wounds. Technically speaking, sound engineers record modern music in digital, so most would say that digital playback sounds exactly like they engineered it. Since the early 1990s at the latest, oversampling of the digital stream has driven the difference between an engineered, digital recording and digital playback far beyond the range of human hearing.
If we can, let’s just concede that that’s so. Converting a digital stream to analog on vinyl sounds different because it’s vinyl, not because the recording is more accurate. In fact, vinyl playback is not just less accurate, but it has had less dynamic range than digital playback since the first days of CD. It’s not magic, even if it does involve a bit of rocket science.
Still, the two formats do sound different, even to an untrained ear. Paraphrasing Sherlock Holmes, after you eliminate the obvious, what’s left must be true. The difference between digital recording and analog playback is the loss of part of what the sound engineer or producer so proudly created. And, there’s really no question that a listener can hear the sound engineer’s hands on the dials in a digital recording. If you’ve ever worked with one, you’ll never not hear it, ever again.
There’s just something monotonous and sterile about a studio-perfect, over-engineered recording that jars the ear. Whether it’s the perfectly tuned, canned drum strikes, fattened up double or triple tracking, or waveform-adjusted, pitch-adjusted, over-echoed or flanged vocals, there’s something that’s just so, well, meh, about engineered digital sound. Then too, our ears are on opposite sides of our heads and our stereo vision tells us that it’s just not possible for the reverb and echo to have a single focal point in a live venue. On the other hand, absent the digital revolution, it would not have been possible to develop accurate baselines for audio equipment including loudspeakers; the inaccuracy of vinyl becomes a limiting factor.
With all of that in mind, below are five albums you can use to test out the difference. Before you get to that though, consider trying an experiment to get a feel for what ‘over-engineered’ means. These days, several vendors offer free sound editing software for evaluation purposes. For example, Audacity is open source and free. It’s a bit harder to use than a shareware package like GoldWave, but if you’re just interested in a quick listen, an evaluation copy of GoldWave is an easy setup. If you go with GoldWave, unless you want to be bothered by ads, don’t let the downloader automatically install the software for you. Do it yourself. When it opens, Drag and Drop a song you own as an mp3 into the editor box on the left.
Since I choose Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction as one of the five test albums and Mr. Brownstone is one of my favorites, I chose it. Listen to part of the digital recording, at least through the beginning of the vocals. Next, up on the Effect menu dropdown, choose ‘Filter’ and ‘Bandpass/stop.’ Under Settings, choose ‘Bandstop’ and in the Presets dropdown, choose ‘Reduce vocals.’ Let the filter run and listen again.
Digital music is recorded in multiple tracks. Double tracking is usually on either the left or right channel, but not both. Think of running a bandstop filter as extracting the center. In this case, what remains, a lot of double tracking, is revealing. The drums, bass, and power guitar are very fat. The lead vocal is double tracked with a slight lag and about half volume. That’s not all, but it gives you some idea before moving to the main event.
On vinyl, the flabby background baggage of the digital recording is, in a sense, undersampled. You get the strong base and the sharp drums, but the overall effect is better blended and fuller because the digital trickery is harder to hear. Of course, every song on Appetite for Destruction is a bit different, but the engineer used a similar tool kit on each track.
Here’s the album list:
#5 Nirvana, Bleach (1989)
#4 Guns N’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987)
#3 The B-52’s, The B-52’s (1979)
#2 David Bowie, Lodger (1979)
#1 Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970)
Notice that they run in a progression from 1970 forward in time. Each artist expanded the tool kit. On vinyl, Black Sabbath (1970) offers up darkness even more lush than the original, while making you feel the reverb you only hear as bloated on the digital version. The sharpest line between vinyl and CD may be at Sabbath.
Speaking of not overusing the same toolkit notice that Bowie’s Lodger bridges the gap between simple reverb and a more complex tableaux of tools. But Bowie is all over the map on Lodger exploiting every tool available while retaining much of the earlier flavor. Lodger is exceptional on vinyl because it crystallizes the transition to a more modern sound without sucking up to it.
If The B-52’s nailed the modern sound’s feet to the floor, then Guns N’ Roses sealed its feet in concrete. If you can’t hear it by Nirvana, well, you’re probably not going to hear it at all. As you compare, you might think of listening to vinyl as analogous to not watching sausage being made. If you have a quick ear and you know the digital tricks the engineer is playing you’d rather not hear them. It’s as unsatisfying as knowing where the magician hid the rabbit.
Still, while some people say that listening to classic vinyl is better, the truth is that you can always hear a difference. Ironically, it’s often more pronounced on over-engineered modern albums than it is on classics like Streisand or Sinatra, whose recordings were lightly engineered in the first place. Most studio jazz was lightly engineered, too. The difference on those is mainly a sense of richness that feels somehow closer to live.