Digital audio playback is better than analog, and the fact that a lot of people seem to think it isn’t is a travesty. Even cassette tapes are making a comeback, which is like somebody looking at their Blu-Ray collection and deciding that pulling out the VHS player and popping in the Star Wars Christmas Special is a good idea. It just isn’t, no matter how you slice it: the plot is stupid, the dialogue is embarrassing, and VHS looks like shit.
Audio is much the same, though there are added wrinkles. For example, the availability of low-quality MP3s and other compressed file formats give digital audio a bad name it does not deserve, and it is true that vinyl releases do sometimes sound better than their digital counterparts. This second fact is largely Rick Rubin’s fault, as we will see shortly. First, though, we need to compare some key points of digital and analog playback media and see how they differ.
Every time you play a tape or a vinyl LP, the quality will get a little worse. This is because the storage medium and the playback system have to touch each other, which causes mechanical wear. A CD is read with a laser, so playing it causes no damage. Likewise, nothing has to touch an MP3 when it’s played, so it will not degrade. Basically, friction is great for a lot of things, but stored media ain’t one of them.
There are a lot of variables, but in essence a tape cassette rolls of the high-end substantially, whereas vinyl, while capable of storing and playing back sound at extremely high frequencies (far above what humans can hear, in fact), is limited in its low-end response. In both cases, the frequency response is not particularly flat, and has noticeable bumps and dips across the range. CDs, on the other hand, can reproduce the 20Hz-20kHz spectrum with a variance of only +/- 0.5db. Basically, analog is a blunderbuss, digital is a sniper rifle.
Dynamic range is the difference, measured in decibels, between the loudest sound that can be produced and the quietest sound that can be produced. A CD has a dynamic range of around 90db, while analog systems typically have ranges between 60-80db. A CD can be both louder and quieter on a song than a vinyl record, which is a huge advantage of digital storage, but one is more commonly abused than properly used. This is a little difficult to make sound exciting, but trust me; it’s important.
There are many kinds of distortions that can affect all formats. Digital playback most commonly has problems when the source recording is of low quality and is poorly converted to CD format. Tape cassettes can be plagued by a whole host of problems, including the player eating the damn tape, and vinyl has a problem that affects every single record: due to the constant rotational speed of an LP, the resolution available to the inner grooves of a record is much lower than that available to the larger outer grooves. This is because there are fewer inches of vinyl per second to convey the same amount of information and…you know what, there’s math. The point is, as you get closer to the end of a record, the quality decreases, every single time. This is different from a CD, which reads data at a constant rate and adjusts the rotational speed, so a track located on the outside edge sounds exactly the same as a track on the inside.
Following that train of thought, digital storage is technically superior. Why, then, is it so often derided? I think its two main reasons, both which involve people making poor choices. The first, and easiest to address, is the acceptance of inferior audio formats, like MP3s. In order to fit more songs on an iPod, MP3s can be compressed to appallingly low bit rates, which has a noticeable reduction in sound quality. Download LAME, get a wave file, and try it yourself. Personally, I find a 320kbps MP3 to sound the same as a lossless file (and far better than a 128kbps MP3). Basically, high quality files matter, so use them.
The second issue is Rick Rubin, noted music producer and rejecter of shoes. His name has graced dozens of acclaimed and top-selling albums spanning the genres of rock, rap, and metal, and a lot of them sound like shit. He’s known for his role in the so-called “loudness war,” wherein CDs are made to sound louder and “more exciting.” This is done by compressing the audio and cramming it all into the loudest part of the dynamic range. Because CDs have such a large range, this can get pretty damn loud. It also completely fails to make use of the dynamic range for, well, dynamics. There are dozens of demonstrations on the internet if you’re interested (YouTube is fertile ground for these), but the gist is that letting loud sounds, like a kick and snare drums punch through the mix, sounds better and more exciting than when the rest of the mix is cranked up to be just as loud as those elements. See By The Way by the Red Hot Chili Peppers for an example of compression gone wrong: the drums sound flat instead of explosive and there’s clipping in a lot of places.
Obviously, Rick Rubin isn’t the only person responsible, but after the travesty that was Death Magnetic, he’s an easy target. Compare these flat, overly-loud records to something like Lateralus by Tool, a record that showcases the huge dynamic range of the CD with whisper-quiet passages that explode into rock fury, with every instrument coming through loud and clear. A good vinyl pressing would probably sound about as good, at least while it was new, while a cassette tape would lose the dynamic range and the crisp top end that makes the guitar cut so well. A CD is perfect for that album.
As to why people have chosen to misuse digital mediums so badly, I honestly have no idea. Perhaps laziness has something to do with it. After all, why work hard on making a dynamic mix when you can just make it loud as hell and throw it on the radio, especially if people are going to download a lousy, bad sounding MP3 anyway? Maybe for the most banal, most empty and commercial pop songs, that thinking has some merit. But people care about music, and it’s worth doing right is because it’s art, dammit. And this brings me back to vinyl.
Listening on vinyl is a ritual. You take the LP out of the sleeve, dust it off, and set it on the turntable. You have to flip it over once the first side is over. You have the big album art to look at. You have to be involved in the music, and that makes you more invested in listening to it. As an added bonus, if the CD master of the record is bad, the vinyl version has a chance of being done well because unlike digital, vinyl won’t let you crank up the bass and slam the volume; you’ll literally bounce the needle out of the groove. The limitations of vinyl force producers and mastering engineers to exercise restraint that isn’t required for a CD release, even though that same restraint could benefit the sound of the CD. This isn’t always the case, of course, and there are sounds and songs that work better on digital than they ever could on vinyl, but there’s something that is undeniably cool about the ritual and presentation of vinyl. Even cassettes have their own, lo-fi charm. Just don’t pretend that the pops and crackles are supposed to be there; they’re not.