This weekend is annual Record Store Day, a day of the year where vinyl lovers come together to appreciate the true value and warmth of an analogue recording, along with all of the nostalgia and with newer albums being printed to vinyl too; the ‘new-stolgia’ that comes with it.
The last few years have seen an outstanding surge in vinyl record sales and an entirely renewed interest in the music format on the whole. As a retailer specialising in both analogue and digital music sources/players; the vinyl revival is immediately noticeable to us, with more and more people beginning to favour the experience of physically owning a tangible item that they can display on a shelf, and interactively place onto their turntable platter before lowering their needle onto it. There are those however that favour the convenience of a digital file – simply pull out your smartphone or laptop, hit play and immerse yourself.
There is, of course, an argument for both formats; the convenience of digitally stored files cannot be ignored, and as digital memory grows increasingly more accessible, so does the opportunity to fill your media player or hard-drive with lossless FLAC or WAV formats – the need for bad-quality MP3s is almost no more! That being said, a FLAC or WAV file may have a seemingly unrivalled level of detail when compared to lesser quality file formats, due to the lossless nature of the way they cling to every ounce of bit-depth, an audiophile sound that (when played through the right DAC, amplifier and speakers), will sound far ‘better’ than a vinyl recording could with all of its static and popping.
A lot of people associate these higher quality formats as having a far more detailed, cleaner, crisper, brighter sound than vinyl does – and to some, the complete removal of potential surface noise or performance-damaging environmental factors (like dust on your stylus, warped records, dirty records, etc) simply puts the digital file as a ‘better’ format than vinyl, hands-down.
That’s all very well, but many vinyl enthusiasts will tell you that these elements to vinyl are a large part of what makes it a superior format, as John Peel once put it; “life has surface noise”. Many people argue that the level of warmth and pure musicality that a well-built turntable, stylus, cartridge and phono stage can achieve from a vinyl record makes for a far more genuine, interactive, and realistic sound experience than that of digital files.
In regards to the sciencey aspect of stuff; by pure definition, analogue will always achieve the most accurate response to the original sound because the grooves of a vinyl record mirror the original waveform exactly. Digital formats essentially take thousands of little snapshots of the original waveform and copy it. The rate at which the file takes these snapshots, and the accuracy it measures them, determines how alike the sound is to the original analogue waveform. CD quality is 44,100Hz (snapshots) to 16-bit (accuracy the snapshots are measured). A digital waveform is therefore never truly capturing the complete sound wave, and certain sounds that may transition quickly could result in unwanted distortion as the sound changes too quickly for the sample rate.
The downside is though, that if any minuscule spec of dust or damage is on the surface of the vinyl – the stylus will pick this up as static, or noise. Vinyl records also degrade over time, whereas a digital recording is not a tangible object and is therefore never exposed to microscopic levels or dust, or any environmental factor. This is why a long hissing can be heard at quiet/silent moments of a vinyl record, but not in a digital file (unless intentionally created by the producer/artist of the piece of music, of course).
The real answer is simple; they’re both pretty darn good and provide a pretty darn pleasurable listening experience. There are pros and cons to both formats, and each format has a very specific, signature sound – the preference of each signature sound is up to the listener, and as is each pro/con as to which listening mode they prefer. I personally enjoy listening to both, for different reasons and at different times/moods. I find that listening to vinyl is a great way to wind down, and relax with a cup of tea at home, and simply just listen to the music, while digital is great for background music while washing up or working, or out on the move.
Enjoy both formats! But most importantly; enjoy the music.