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the skinny on vinyl

Could it really be true? All the banter about LPs are better than CDs. . , that digital loses low level detail, has a restricted frequency response, is less dynamic, etc. Could there actually be advantages to a crude, mechanical 19th century audio technology? The science says without reservation or qualification no, absolutely not. Then why do so many people insist LPs are better?

LPs are superior in one way. It's not by any actual superiority. It's through its own weakness. Too many contemporary recordings are being severely compressed to flatten out the dynamic range. Transients are lopped off with limiters to keep them from clipping. Softer parts are pumped up. The justification for doing this is to make what's left of the music more listenable on low grade devices or in noisy environments, and to make it seem louder—louder is better, yes? CDs can be highly compressed and still sound reasonably good—but not better. (Compression has to be applied to analog recordings, but only to keep high levels from clipping or very low levels from getting too noisy. The abuse started in the 90s with pop music, then really took off over the last decade as the infection spread into other musical styles. Still, good recordings today are not compressed.) Compare the LP version of the same recording, it may sound more dynamic. This is not because LPs are inherently more capable of greater dynamic range, but because they have been mastered with less of the heavy compression and limiting. But why? Why do recording engineers compress the life out of the CD master, but not the LP master?

One explanation is that CD playback is not subject to the same limitations of LP playback. The hard diamond stylus has to physically trace the wavy groves of very soft vinyl. If the LP were over saturated, as the CD version is, it would not track properly and there would be gross distortion. Consequently, engineers are forced by the technical limitations of vinyl playback not to completely ruin the master for the LP. Of course, the LP version is still compressed, just less so, and thus it sounds more lively. It's the master that's better, not the medium.

If only recording engineers and producers would learn to respect the music, the artists and us listeners. Although compression may not sound terribly bad, music always sounds much better, more real and more alive with the natural dynamics and transients intact—way much better. Please, oh please, please, please, STOP THE COMPRESSION!

Links to lots more info on LPs —

When Vinyl is Better than CD

An NPR piece on The Loudness Wars : Why Music Sounds Worse

Audio Myths

YouTube Video : Stop the Loudness War

History of Pop Music Compression

Highlights — links about what it takes to master and press LPs —

Cutting a Vinyl Master

Vinyl Mastering FAQs

Record Formulas : Shellac & Vinyl

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