Sunday, February 21, 2010

Vinyl vs. Bits

For some reason, I've toted around about 100 pounds of vinyl and a last-generation direct drive Sony turntable for the last two decades. It hasn't been much of an effort for the last dozen years, since the whole pile has lived, boxed, and sealed in my basement. Last week a friend loaned me his new turntable-to-USB toy and I decided to convert some of my old records into a format I might listen to. The experience has been eye-opening. No, I haven't been converted to an analog fanatic. Just the opposite, in fact.

The more I listen to the magical world of vinyl the easier it is to understand why records vanished so quickly. Another friend who loves all things old and expensive is convinced that my dislike of the classic "snap, crackle, and pop" sound of records is overly picky in a world of crappy live sound systems, digital television dropouts, and grossly over-compressed CDs and other audio media. I admit that I do like the dynamic range of a 1968 LP. However, the max s/n of a record was somewhere in the 50-60dB territory and CDs easily exceed that range. The fact that modern mastering standards generate non-musical products does not condemn the technology.

There is a boatload of crazy vinyl philosophy on the web. One of my favorite nutty claims is "Vinyl was custom made for the human ear." Vinyl -- like CDs, MP3s, and tape -- was made to generate a pile of money for someone. Several someones, at best. There is absolutely nothing about the RIAA equalization curve that bears any relation to the best function of the human ear. The incapacity of records to tolerate the sorts of phase oddities that surround us every day is another example of how poorly vinyl records and reproduces acoustic activity. The lack of dynamic range and LF capacity and the phonograph records inability to store and reproduce distinctly different information on the left and right channels is even more data for the "vinyl sucks" argument. And, of course, "snap, crackle, and pop" were still everpresent. Clean them, lubricate them with expensive concoctions, put them in a vacuum chamber and records will still contribute their irritating "quality" to the listening experience.

But that's not the point of this rant.

The real surprise for me was how often my old records had been mixed by crazy people. I'm not talking about the early "stereo" mixes that were just bastardizations of mixes that were intended for mono; like the early Beatles stereo records. No, I mean "modern" mixes intended for stereo records that are just nuts. At first I thought there was something wrong with the turntable. No one would be so careless with pan controls, would they? I was wrong. They would.

A bunch of the Warner Brothers stuff I'd kept out of nostalgia is practically unlistenable because the mixer was clearly on crack. Guitars that swing from one side to the other, drums that vary their pan dimensions or are so obviously spaced mic recordings that are so radically spaced that half of the kit resides only in the left ear and the other half in the right. Of course the kick is buried in the limpid center and the bass mumbles around that same vicinity. The "obvious" advantage of records completely escapes me while listening to this mess.

All this brings back nasty memories of my own record past. At Wirebender, we never found a mastering lab that did much more than not piss us off. When we had a budget for 3 or more mastering options, we selected the one that did the least damage to our master tapes. Never once did a record even approach the dynamic range, frequency response, or stereo image of the original final mixed tape. I remember the phrase, "I hate this one the least" as the closest thing to acceptance we ever managed.

Finally, after all these years of lugging 100 pounds of vinyl around, I'm going to be able to clear out this section of the basement to make room for something useful. The next pile of junk I'm going to pare away is my collection of unstarted model motorcycle kits.

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.