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Why do records sound better?

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[Publisher’s note: This article is presented by Dagogo Senior Reviewer David Blumenstein.]

Why do a lot of us audiophiles (and casual listener types) prefer the sound of records more than the same music released digitally? It’s something about the inferiority of digital right? Vinyl can be noisier, has side length limitations, inner groove distortion, but is inherently higher in resolution, correct? Some would say digital is clearly superior – besides what’s the point of putting digital mixes on an analog record?

Everybody hears things differently and has different tastes for what lights up that pleasure center in our brains. It’s a subject I talk about a lot with my audiophile friends, especially the record lovers. So I figured during these times of newfound interest in vinyl I might as well use my experiences to pour some more gasoline on the fire. I’m not trying to convince anyone, just some hopefully interesting food for thought aimed at the curious folks out there, digital fans included.

First off I want to dispel the notion that vinyl is somehow a higher resolution format, as alleged by some – especially in the early days of bad sounding CDs. It was sometimes stated (and still is) that a record contains more information from the source material than digital does. While I can’t scientifically prove it, the experiences from my job as a mastering engineer who also cuts lacquers for vinyl production, tell me this is not so. But if we listen on a great vinyl playback system it almost seems like things are more real and substantive. Some kind of hard to describe lifelike quality that is subtle but seems to make for a more compelling listening experience.  What’s going on here?

Digital got a bad reputation among audiophiles from the beginning, and rightly so. My first generation Sony CD player in many ways sounded better than the budget turntable setup I was using at the time. It had a punch and tightness and lack of noise that I had only heard in the studio. And we were under the impression that the discs were indestructible with no ability to wear out like a vinyl record. It was not so. It was also brittle, congested, and dry sounding. Like it was a sponge that someone used to wring out all the more subtle yet enjoyable qualities to the music. Right down the drain.

Meanwhile, in the studio, I was using 24 track tape for most projects but started doing some jazz sessions which I recorded live, to 2 track. For those. we used a new Sony F1 system that recorded 16bit 44.1 or 48K to either VHS or Beta videotape. We were all flabbergasted with how great it sounded. I had for some years been bummed out with how even well regarded professional multitrack tape machines sounded. Clearly evident on playback immediately after having just heard the feed from the console as the musicians performed live. By the way, those 24 track decks all sound different, but that’s another discussion.

So now with the Sony F1 system, we had a way to perfectly capture the feed from the microphones, without any noise, softening of transients, change in the feel of the bottom end, or smearing of high-frequency energy like vocal sibilance and cymbals. There was a period for me and a lot of other engineers where most of my projects were recorded to analog multi-track and then mixed down through an analog console to an early stereo digital recording format. I thought it sounded better than our quarter inch, 30 inches per second, stereo mixdown deck. Going back to that all machines sound like a different thing, maybe if we had an Ampex ATR-102 half-inch at that studio, we would not have preferred the Sony F1.

That love affair proved to be short-lived for me as digital multi-track machines appeared on the scene. I used them all. Mitsubishi X-800, X-850, X-80, X-86, Sony 3324, 3348, 1610, 1630, Sony DAT machines, Panasonic DAT machines, you name it. And while some were not horribly off-putting, I had a sense something in the sound was missing. The worst was the Alesis ADAT format followed in close second by early versions of ProTools. I used to say those sounded like plastic cardboard. Strangely enough, most 2 channel DAT machines sounded fine to me.

Manufacturers in the Hi-Fi world were trying to figure out how to make those shiny discs sound good, or at least better. I credit all the developments in converter design in the Hi-Fi world for causing improvements to digital recording in the pro audio world.

Today, using good converters, I feel like professional recording systems (including ProTools) have finally matured and in fact, sound about as good as they ever need to. They are essentially colorless. Completely faithful to the source. Isn’t that what HiFi is all about? But wait, don’t a lot of digital recordings still sound “shitty?” Yes, yes they do. But some don’t. Some sound amazing. Warm, wide, clear, harmonically interesting. What’s going on here?

We are now at the point where the engineer is no longer fighting an inferior, lower resolution, recording medium. But engineers have discovered that the best way to make it sound engaging is to introduce layers of various distortions to give our brains a hit of what naturally happens from analog tape and lots of trips through an analog console. With the almost universal acceptance of digital audio workstations, most engineers I know stay completely digital once it gets into the computer. No going through an analog console.

There is a real art to making this sound great. I know one engineer who refers to his process as one of ‘sonic varnish’ where he likes to use small amounts of different distortions in layers, to arrive at the most pleasing sound. In the old days, using top-shelf pro analog gear, if you basically had decent ears and employed best practices during your recording, that analog sound that everybody talks about and many engineers now seek to emulate was simply baked in. An inherent part of the process when using those tools.

Cutting a lacquer and directly comparing it to the source mix is fascinating and illuminating in several ways. One thing I’ve learned is brands and models of lathes sound different and have a big impact on the sound of the finished record. In my particular setup, (custom Scully with Westrex cutter head and hybrid tube and solid-state electronics), the lacquer almost always sounds better overall than what I send to it to be cut. Think about it. The electronics have a sound, the head has a sound, and to some degree, the mechanical parts of the lathe have a sound. I won’t even get into the additional colorations of the playback chain – you get the idea. All of this is separate from whatever the engineer did (if anything) to manipulate the signal to get a good cut.

My system has a fair degree of sound, but I love its sound. True enough to the source but with a paradoxically slight smoothing effect in the upper mid and a great sense of dynamic contrast. A little more vivid midrange, and some added air on top. Not as wide as the source (cutter heads and cartridges might have 25db of separation on a good day), yet some kind of intangible imaging quality that just seems more palpable. Just like typical vacuum tube gear in a HiFi playback system, the tubes in the front end of my cutting rack can give the low end a largeness or bloom which I generally like but I also have a solid-state front end that I can use on stuff that needs to sound tighter down there. Other lathes I’ve heard and compared cuts with, can sound tighter, more damped, maybe more refined but also lacking the exciting dynamics and luscious midrange of my system.

Getting all these attributes to transfer to a final record after the lacquer goes to electroplating and pressing is a major ordeal but it does happen when the right folks are part of this production chain.

So it should turn out to be no surprise that for a digital mix, one more layer of analog colorations from a cutting system is just what the doctor ordered. At least for my ear. Certainly, a really well done analog recording can also sound great on vinyl. Some might consider an all-analog cut to be the pinnacle of the art form but if you want to hear that or a digitally produced recording sound as close to how it was intended to be heard, listen on good digital.

I usually prefer the additional coloration of the vinyl process even if the source was analog, but that’s just my preference. I think part of it is also simply the added noise. Even on a record with a very minimal amount of surface noise, there is noise. It’s uncorrelated stereo noise primarily from the heated cutter head stylus dragging through virgin nitro-cellulose. A little of that gives our brain the psychoacoustic cues we interpret as things sounding wider and deeper. I know that, cause I’ve added stereo tape hiss in very low levels to digital mixes and you wouldn’t believe what good things it does to the sound!

There is another element to my argument that involves what source the lacquers were cut from. It’s not a universal thing but is becoming increasingly more common for the lacquers to be cut from less limited or non-limited files. This is another reason why records can seem more dynamic and alive sounding than the same release heard on CD or streamed. However, I have heard records that I perceived as more engaging than the CD even though I know it was cut from the loud, limited 16bit 44.1K digital release. This is most often the case with major label releases for obvious reasons.

Yes, poor digital can suck the life out of a signal. And poor analog, especially tape, can rob the signal of a lot of great things as well. But I think the marriage of well done current digital music production when transferred to a record, especially if all things are done right including a good vinyl front end for playback, sounds really great. I will, however, admit that there are a lot of bad sounding records out there to the extent that the digital release can easily sound better. But with more and more older titles reissued with care by sound-oriented labels or by independent artists who are in control of the process – and not initially in huge quantities like a typical 70’s major label release, it’s not as likely the buyer will get something stamped on cheap or recycled PVC and from worn-out stampers. I consider the vinyl resurgence to be almost a second golden age for record and music lovers.


Author’s Bio

Dave has been a professional recording engineer, mixer, producer, audiophile and for the last 20 years, a mastering engineer.

Since his earliest days, music has been a constant. Starting with classical guitar at age 11, then later a series of rock bands, his love of music and tech, lead to a career in music recording. Concurrent to beginning his engineering career, he sold high-end home audio in several locations including Innovative Audio and Sound By Singer in NYC.

After years of residence on NYC, Los Angeles, and Austin, he now resides in Winston Salem, NC where he operates Dave McNair Mastering and spends his time listening to records, reading, meditating, cooking vegan food, hiking, riding road bikes and swapping out Hi-Fi gear in search of a better sound.


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6 Responses to Why do records sound better?

  1. john Phelan says:

    I find it a rare person who prefers LP to digital (in 2020).

    But, if the recycled PVC-lover can put up with a compressed-format (highs & lows) that has belt slippage/speed instability, pre-echo, sampling-slowdown (inner vs. outer grooves), bearing noise, rumble & low-frequency feedback (that runs through the amp), cartridge mis-alignment, warped-discs and noise, then more power to them.

    It’s their music and their money, after all…

  2. Max Rockbin says:

    Really nice article. I think this one line could be the title “My system has a fair degree of sound, but I love its sound. ” Most audio engineers (how about you?) don’t like listening to studio monitors at home, no matter how great. Sometimes accuracy just doesn’t sound better. Part of me feels guilty – like perfect accuracy is the CORRECT goal. But the real goal is enjoying listening to recorded music.

  3. Jay Garrett says:

    Kinda makes sense to me. I don’t think we’re programmed to hear things from a perfectly silent background – well, those that have lived in large towns and cities. So it may well be unnerving to hear music from an inky-black setting. However, there will be those of us that prefer to hear every nuance. I also like the point that lathes, etc will affect the sound too. I guess that’s why different pressings and reissues can sound different even if they used the same master.

  4. Smartroad says:

    I enjoy vinyl, in concert with digital. When playing a record there is an enjoyable physical process, looking through the collection, selecting what to listen to, extracting the disc, setting it up to play and then getting the needle in place. While listening I can enjoy the artwork of many album covers without the use of a small backlit screen, but in 12″ sized cardboard sleeves.

    For me it isnt about which is better sounding, it is about the ritual that also makes me listen to the whole side and not just jump around.

    That said digital is so convenient so my hifi setup consists of vinyl, tape, dat, minidisc and a digital player as well.

    • Dallas says:

      Wow! Dat and minidisc as well, I’m impressed! I was interested in DAT when it first came out but didn’t go that route. Sounds like you really enjoy music AND your system!

  5. Daniel says:

    I don’t think vinyl sounds better; nor do I think tubes sound better than solid state. I pretty much always prefer good digital. I like vinyl but it sounds “dirty” compared to digital playback.

    I question those who say vinyl sounds more natural and real than digital – when their LPs are sourced from a digital master. Sorry, that can only mean you like euphonic distortion added to your playback. I don’t.

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