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Jim Alfredson

Tonight I compared vinyl, CD, and HD audio

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Tonight my friend and I sat down and listened to some vinyl for the first time in years. I have a VPI HW-19 Jr turntable with a Rega 300 arm and a Grado Red cartridge going into a McCormick Micro Phono Preamp. Not a shabby playback setup if I do say so.

We focused on music that I had on multiple formats. We started with the classic Genesis album Wind & Wuthering. I have a vinyl re-issue as well as the 1997 Definitive Edition CD. I began playing both as close to simultaneously as I could so we could switch between them. The CD was far superior in almost every way but that's not saying much; the vinyl re-issue was cheap, very thin vinyl. The vinyl did have the edge in the smoothness of the cymbals. More about this later. The vinyl had a nice 'glue' to it but the vocals were not as present and the distortion caused by the medium itself was annoying.

genesis-windwuthering-lprecord-552827.jp

Second we tried A Trick of the Tail. This time I have an original pressing of the vinyl and the Definitive Edition CD. Again the CD sounded better but I have to admit there was something really nice about the very first track on the vinyl. As the album progressed, the sound got worse and worse (a product of the medium) and the CD in comparison sounded better and better. But the first cut on the vinyl sounded really good. Again, the cymbals were clear but not harsh. But like W&W the vocals had a fuzzy, almost distorted quality around them.

Trick76.jpg

I want to offer a caveat here: I think the Genesis catalog is long overdue for a proper digital re-release. The 1997 Definitive Editions are the best so far but they all suffer from the same slightly harsh highs. The 2007 remixes by Nick Davis are awful. He did not stay true or pay homage to the original mixes, instead opting to modernize everything. The drums are too loud, the vocals too upfront, too much dynamic compression on everything, and on some albums like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, entire parts (like background vocals) are missing. They are unbelievably bad. I would love someone like Steven Wilson to be hired to do a proper remixing and remastering job on the catalog.

Next up, we tried Blackstar, the final David Bowie album. Thanks to my friend I now have this on vinyl as well as CD and high-res audio from HD Tracks. 

First we compared the HD audio to the CD. The HD tracks are 24bit/96kHz. Neither of us could really tell a difference. I kept wanting to hear something but when I'd go back and listen to the other source, I really couldn't tell. I have no idea if these hi-res tracks are actual mixes from the original hi-res master (if there even is a high-res master) or if they are simply up-sampled versions of the CD tracks. Who knows? All I know is that I could not hear any difference at all.

Bowie-Blackstar-vinylcover.jpg

The vinyl actually sounds really good. However, I think the CD / digital audio still wins. My friend liked the vinyl more but he said he lived with the album for weeks just listening at the gym on crappy earbuds, so the lack of 'fidelity' and the 'smushiness' that vinyl imparts on everything wasn't an issue for him and he preferred it. I liked the digital better because it had way more punch, more dynamics, and less distortion. But the vinyl did have a nice vibe to it. It was certainly very carefully mastered and pressed. And the packaging is awesome.

So that's that. I understand why people love vinyl; it's really cool and fun. But the fidelity when compared to CD is obviously lacking. Even with the occasional harshness in those Genesis CDs, there are enjoyable details revealed that are completely masked by the noise floor and surface noise of the vinyl. Maybe one day we'll get high-res transfers of the original master tapes of the Genesis stuff. Until then, I'll take my Definitive Edition CDs over the vinyl.

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No surprise.

I wish you would have thrown 256 VBR AAC as well. 

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You picked my two favorite Genesis albums -- regardless of format. :) 

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Would love to hear what you thought of the Bowie, Jim (or anyone else too, for that matter).

Here, or in the Bowie RIP thread.

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I admit to total ignorance of the albums you auditioned.  I have never had any interest in pop music since perhaps the onset of the Beatles (I know, I know...but I just don't care.)

Given your setup, I'd like to hear what your reactions might be if the samples were perhaps Ellington, Bird, Miles (KOB has dozens of iterations!) or Wayne Shorter...

Edited by Ted O'Reilly
clarity - dropped in a word

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It most definitely can.

Overall I'm not telling which way the results are going to end up but there can be a definite difference. Lately I've been listening to more vinyl again, incuding long series of Ellington, including his 30s Columbia rcordings (that were issued in a row of 15 twofers on CBS in the 70s). I don't have Vol. 15 but have 12 out of the other 14 on vinyl (and the other 2 on CD) so towards the end I shifted between vinyls and CDs and was surprised to see that the vinyl just sounded "warmer" and had more "presence" whereas the CDs were not harsh but perfectly listenable they somehow just sounded "colder" and "doctored". Hard to describe neutrally (even less in a scientifically sound way) but but while the CD tracks sounded fine per se they just tend to sound more "synthetic".
I wasn't expecting that difference but it was there.

An impression I also had with quite a bit of 40s jump blues reissues I've been listening to lately, though in some cases the CD version of one and the same track (that i compared just out of curiosity) did win out.

The bottom line to me is that rock on the one hand (particularly if it is from the 70s onwards) and swing/early R&B on the other hand emphasize different types of sound that make up the overall sound (and listening) expericene.

I know this is not going to convince you but you are not going to get any scientifically proven or provable bottom line out of this anyway because people just do not listen to music with a machine-like, analytical mindset all the way. It all depends on the kind of sound you EXPECT to hear, and, anyway, depending on the medium you most often listen to your ears will adjust to the sound they are likely to get. But if you shift between those mediums you might be surprised to find there Is a difference. I was not expecting to notice that difference during my "Ellington" listening period described above but it was there.

It's a highly subjective matter and one man's meat is another man's poison so any discussion like "this cannot be, you're just romanticising" is pointless.

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Actually, I'm pretty sure Jim addressed the "warm" aspect of the vinyl.

"...and the distortion caused by the medium itself was annoying."

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I wouldn't doubt it, all I wanted to point out is that it is pretty much impossible (at least for me) to give a less subjective description of how I perceive the difference even if the CD version does NOT sound "harsh".

Edited by Big Beat Steve

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That's fine. I knew what you were getting at. I just don't think genres will make a difference in outcome. 

I guess it basically comes down to whether you feel the distortion added is a positive or a negative. Neither bothers me, but I do prefer a pristine/"cold" sound, personally. But, it's not like I'd be miserable listening to well made vinyl. 

I've built my final system (as long as it doesn't die), so I've stopped listening to my system, and have gotten back to focusing exclusively on the music. 

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My system is final too.  It may come as a surprise, but I enjoy listening to records *and* CDs on my system.  They both sound excellent.  The only records and CDs that sound bad are the ones which are mastered poorly.  It's fun to compare I guess, and I admit to comparing things like original blue note pressings to recent Music Matters reissues, but really I could care less what format people prefer.  It's their business not mine.

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To expand on the original post and perhaps simultaneously answer the question whether a change in genre would make a difference...

We listened to the first three cuts of Trick of the Tail. This is a very dynamic album. As I said, the first track, Dance on a Volcano, sounded really nice on vinyl. I will admit that it might have a slight edge over the CD version due to the cymbal harshness, though I am convinced that said harshness is the result of a poor mastering job on the CD.

The second track begins quietly, with a single 12-string guitar joined by another 12-string after a few measures and then the vocals. The drums are absent from the entire track. Here the CD sounded far superior in every way. More definition, more detail, and more life-like sound. The vocals were clear and present and the stereo separation and panning details were superb.

By the time the third track rolled around (spun around?), the vinyl was beginning to really sound poor. This is due to the physical limitations of the medium. As you get closer to the spindle, you get harsher highs, more distortion, and a general muddying of the sound. From this article: 

"While we’re on the curvature subject, it is necessary to explain one more thing. Ever wonder why outside diameter cuts on a record sound clearer and cleaner than inside ones? Unfortunately it’s a fact. Why? The answer is geometry, curvature again. One turntable revolution at 33 1/3 rpm on an LP takes 1.8 seconds. That 1.8 seconds is spread over a circumference of 36 inches on the outside of the record. At the minimum allowable inside diameter that same 1.8 second revolution would only cover 14.9 inches. You can see from this, that a gentle wiggle spread over 36 inches would get quite ‘scrunched’ over 14.9 inches. A jagged groove at 36 inches would get really scrunched at 14.9 inches (remember the rapids). Excessive treble can even cause the cutting stylus to accelerate so fast that its back edge wipes out what the front edge just cut! It’s unfortunate, but treble rolls off, and distortion goes up as you approach the center of the record. It is quite gradual, but if you compare the source recording to the disc, this actually starts to become noticeable after the second cut or so. Any attempt to compensate for this by boosting the treble, only makes the problem worse (greater curvature remember)."

So would a change in genre have made a difference? I don't think so. A different style of music cannot overcome the deficiencies of the medium itself. In fact on even more dynamic music, like classical, I would predict the deficiencies to be even more pronounced. Some of my favorite classical recordings are 24bit/48kHz downloads from HD Tracks. The dynamic range is just glorious. The frequency response is ruler flat. Achieving that on vinyl is simply impossible.

Lastly, we ended the night watching the recently released Frank Zappa - Roxy the Movie Blu-Ray in 5.1 surround. No cymbal harshness there, even with two drum kits on stage (Chester Thompson and Ralph Humphrey). The sound is absolutely brilliant and immensely enjoyable. Every note, every percussion hit, every nuance is right there. The mixing and mastering is absolutely top-notch. It is an inspiring testament to just how good digital can sound when the engineers know what they are doing.

frankroxy.jpg

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Digital done right is a blast. Anything done right is a blast. Right is its own blast!

(and there's the rub...what is "right", is it any one thing, always, or does context of intent matter?)

Are we talking "sound better" as in objectively mathematically precise or as in subjectively atmosphere-inducing?

Simple example - a James Brown King 45 blasting on a juke box (or cranked up on a home turntable) and a carefully cleaned up digital version will both "sound great", but unless one is able to be objective to the point of being an Android or something, they will not "sound great" in the same way. Even if the digital gets to the point of "sounding like you're right there", "right there" is in a recording studio, and is that necessarily where you want to be when experiencing a James Brown record? Well, sometimes, but not always. Sometimes I want to be in that bar or in that basement or in that car with that AM radio saying it loud.

And what to do about all those old records (and there seem to be an infinite number of them) where you can hear the VUs either going into the red or totally pegging out? How do you make that "sound better"...and do you really want to?

Also, a pop record "created" in a studio(s) and a performance "documented" in a studio...I have different emotional/subjective expectations. I don't really want a Stanley Turrentine BN record to "sound" like, say, Aja, and for damn sure not vice-versa.

I mean, nobody likes "crappy sound", but everybody likes "atmosphere", right? Not right?

No matter. I encourage all who work in the realm of audio creation to keep in mind the music for which the audio is being created, and to proceed accordingly. The options continue to expand on both sides of that equation, and uni-directionality of expansion is not necessarily the most open of choices for all occasions.

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27 minutes ago, JSngry said:

 

Also, a pop record "created" in a studio(s) and a performance "documented" in a studio...I have different emotional/subjective expectations. I don't really want a Stanley Turrentine BN record to "sound" like, say, Aja, and for damn sure not vice-versa.

 

Very interesting thought. And I completely agree with where you're going here. 

That said, the medium it's played back on will not be the "X factor". All it will do is convey what the recording equipment, producers, and engineers put together as a final product. 

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Yeah, but some "final products" take more "putting together" than others. Nature of the beast, number of moving parts, etc.

Our hypothetical Turrnetine BN records was played live, without a whole lot of artificial separation in the studio, and players who knew how to balance live because that's pretty much all they knew. And uber-minimal "post-production". Insert cuts, reverb added, mastering, not a whole lot more.

Our Aja record (or our Genesis record, or our Bowie record) were made any way but that.

I'm in no way one of the "if it's not playable live it's not real music" folks, oh hell no. Just saying, different means, different ends, different appreciations of what hits the runway, so to speak. I have no "absolutes" other than do the shit get good to me or not.

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Absolutely, but again, the playback medium isn't going to change any of that. 

 

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Sure it is. Or can. Get in the time machine, go back to 1976, and play Trick of the Tail on 8-Track and then on LP.

And I wasn't there for it, but there was a time when reel-to-reel was considered a superior playback medium than LP in some circles. Theoretically, room for that to be ture, but the devil was in the details of both software and hardware...

And truth be told, when people tell me that their 78s go places that no other medium can with the material involved, I don't tell them they're wrong, becuase those grooves are bigger and deeper than some people's buttcracks, and if the information was put in there and is extracted out of there just right...I'm not argue. Don't know how fully I'll believe, but I ain't gonna argue.

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So the medium is going to change the source material? 

Sorry, but that kind of magic doesn't exist. 

Different media will sound differently (8-track/LP/cassette/CD), but the source material is the source material once the master is finalized and pressings commence. And when you say you don't want a Turpentine BN to sound like Aja, you're talking about the source. Not the playback medium. 

Now, if you say you want a Turpentine BN to sound like it did when you first heard it on LP, rather than the cleaned up version you'll get through a digital medium, fine. Perfectly valid point. 

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Oh, lest I be misconstrued, when it come to the matter of contemporary recording, yeah, inserting analog into the recording chain somewhere still has its uses, but for playback, the physics speak for themself, surely. Which is just to say that the tools are there to make a digital recording "sound" freaking awesome and have that elusive "character" - and when that doesn't happen, don't blame digital. Three's so many tricks and toys and filters and what not now...remember when Miles said that car wrecks don't sound the same now as they used to because the cars are made out of plastic instead of metal? This is the same guy who talked about being able to tell the pitch of a door squeak. Just saying, people who can tell the difference should go ahead and use that to their advantage and have all options at their physical and intellectual disposal. Anything else is just kinda cheap, I think.

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Oh, sure. You can add anything and everything to your heart's content when mixing and mastering these days. 

All I was saying is that the playback medium changes none of that. It just plays back the source it's been given. 

You wanna record Aja today and make it sound like a 50's BN? Scroll->left click->add. The filters modern recording software have is absurdly comprehensive. 

Of course, you'd only want to use a digital medium for playback...If you want to make it sound like a LP, playing it back on a LP may not end up sounding very good. 

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1 hour ago, JSngry said:

And I wasn't there for it, but there was a time when reel-to-reel was considered a superior playback medium than LP in some circles.

I would agree that reel-to-reel is better than vinyl. I'd love to hear the original master tapes of the Genesis catalog. I bet they sound amazing. Put those directly onto CD and now we're talking.

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29 minutes ago, Jim Alfredson said:

I would agree that reel-to-reel is better than vinyl. I'd love to hear the original master tapes of the Genesis catalog. I bet they sound amazing. Put those directly onto CD and now we're talking.

As consumer product though...playback machines varied in quality, you had to keep your heads clean, some companies used 3 3/4 ips as their playback speed, some 7 1/2 (I have both in my collection), tape was seldom(?) studio stock, and overall, mostly, really, it was one of those things that sounded good in theory but really fell apart in the practical commercial execution.

The few I've picked up over the years still play, and still have a certain "pop" to the sound, but there's SO much hiss, a little print-through starting to develop, some tape stretching, things like that. Devil again in the details, and if I had all my old LPs on RTR instead, I'd be, like, SO fucked right now.

But hell yeah, some of that wideass studio tape expertly recorded at 15 or 30 ips, dude, unbroken, analog waveforms with room to roam...the ears water at the thought.

And yet, I hear what people are getting out of digital these days, no hiss, no noise, no distortion, seemingly unlimited dynamic range...if it's music that really benefits from that (and I don't know that all musics do...), then that's what I want to be getting out of today's recordings.

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Never been one to engage in the "wars".  

My views are similar to those expressed by Jim A in his first post.

Here is how I generalize listening to both formats over the past 25 years:

Digital is better than vinyl.  But vinyl can sound pretty darn good.  And digital is much more convenient.

Edited by Eric

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Oh, I'd quibble with the unqualified notion that "digital is better than vinyl" (and not just because the real comparison is digital vs analog). If we're old enough, we all had experiences of buying some of those early CD reissues of classic LPs that just flat out SUCKED in comparison to their LP counterparts (no scratches, but also no body!). And then new-recordings of instruments that sounded like they had all their guts removed. Pianos that were all pingy and shit, no body at all. Real drums that sounded like halfass drum boxes. Yuck.

Things have progressed exponentially since then, thank god, but some dumbass cluelessly doing digital will always get powned by an expert doing analog/vinyl, and vice-versa.

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There is a deep thought- a dumbass will be pounded by an expert!

The mastering producer/engineer makes all the difference. Good and bad in all formats.

Edited by Chuck Nessa
expand.

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