Tag Archives: vinyl recordings

Save Those Compact Discs!

-Add in the degraded audio quality of most streaming, MP3 compression, or home-based Bluetooth equipment, and you are suddenly in the cheap seats behind the restrooms–some distance away from what can be heard from a studio master released as a CD

A few years back I wrote a piece about whether we were done collecting books and music.  Many people are, but it can be a mistake to abandon those once-loved CDs. What is interesting now is how streaming has come to dominate the music industry. Streaming means you pay a fee to access a vast library service with the music you want to hear.  In most cases its incredibly small royalties are a thumb in the eye to musicians, but it is ever so convenient for people who want wall to wall music without having to lift a finger. No collecting required. In 2019 Spotify had become the dominant form of music delivery, with other services like Pandora, radio and YouTube not far behind.

What a different world the music industry was in 1999, when 900 million compact discs were sold.  But in the years that followed, the CD lost favor and went into a near total collapse of sales.  Suddenly perfect digital copies could be made without additional purchases. By 2007, most of the huge brick and mortar stores like Tower Records and HMV were shuttered, and favorite form of retail therapy died with them. CDs now sell at the modest rate of 31 million copies a year, with Japan the only remaining major consumer. In fact some who study music industry trends in the United States barely notice this superior older format.

As for streaming, what benefits consumers is often a nightmare for performers. Fee-based streaming services put performers at the end of a meager financial food chain that was mostly tapped-out before they were paid. In 2019 the Canadian cellist Zoe Keating reported that her royalty for each stream of her music played by Spotify was $0.0054.

This short essay came to mind after reading a recent article from the Guardian’s Matt Charlton, who wondered if there was any point in holding on to the silver discs that solved many of the problems inherent in vinyl records. Some audiophiles will disagree, but modern CDs can offer stunning sound.  They also eliminated the problems created by physically trying to race a stylus through a narrow trough of vinyl. Clicks, pops, inner groove distortion, warping, and washed-out sound from worn down grooves are problems listeners no longer have to contend with. But as Charlton still sees it, CDs “are inherently unlovable, with none of the richness or tactile nature of vinyl, or the kooky, Urban Outfitters irony of tapes.”

His reasons don’t add up to much of an argument. Is he serious about the sonically handicapped cassette tapes that were originally designed for dictation? And what about “tactile vinyl” with grooves everywhere that you are not supposed to touch?  I also must have missed the concerts at Urban Outfitters.  Overall, I’m not feeling the vibe.

 

A CD has the capacity for sound accuracy higher than what Apple, Amazon and other music services are routinely streaming.

In fact, CDs are amazing as carriers of music and its supporting images and texts. The standard sampling rate of 44,000 Hz a second is a phenomenal rate for accurately rendering what microphones have heard (assuming your playback device has a decent digital-to-analogue converter.)  This is the big remaining asset of the CD; it has emerged as an easy way to hold on to what avid music listeners call “lossless” sound. That is, a CD has the capacity for sound accuracy far above what Apple, Amazon and other music services are routinely streaming. Add in more degrading streamed audio files like MP3 compression or Bluetooth equipment, and you suddenly only qualify for the cheap seats near the restrooms.

Of course there are some caveats. Many listeners seem to have trained their ears to not care about less-than-optimal sound.  And even a well-made CD won’t help what started out as a bad recording. In addition, if smaller cards and memory chips can now hold the same accurate audio content, the CD remains the most accessible medium we have for holding the complete package of music, notes and images that a carefully thought-out album represents. For me, new music starts from a physical CD, a personal “master,” before it is stored somewhere else as a high-quality audio file. What’s not to love about these small silver marvels?

 

 

Restricted Revivals

                                 wrongfootforward

Listen to Debussy on an old vinyl record and you may detect the equivalent of someone tap dancing in the background.  For sure, this is not what the master of pianissimo envisioned.

A new book that has created ripples this year is David Sax’ The Revenge of Analog (2016).  He discusses the revival of older media forms that have been eclipsed by all things digital.  Your old Pentax 35-millimeter camera is an analog device, as are the once-cherished vinyl records albums taking up space in your basement. In the case of these two forms, you can actually see what the medium was capturing in its mechanical ‘software;’ each frame of film carries a miniature impression of its content, as do the microscopic groves of a record.  A high sheen visible  on its surface means it carries lots of ‘close together’ grove wiggles representing higher sound frequencies.  A Mozart recording will have a brighter sheen than one that gives us a more bass-heavy Brahms.

By contrast, digital forms give us files made up of electronic imprints that are mostly invisible. We now take pictures with our cameras, never giving much thought to the storage media. And many of us get our music from a “cloud,” wherever that is.

Sax wants to make the point that there is a resurgence of analog forms. In the first three chapters of his book he points out the return of what we thought was gone: the modest rise in the number of bands that release their music on vinyl, and the rebirth of film manufacturing for a steadfast group of artists and filmmakers who like the look of images on celluloid.  He also notes that we still depend on the printed page. And for good reason. The book remains a supremely portable medium, though his argument that bookstores are popping up everywhere seems like a stretch.

Older Luddites are clearly not a sign of the rebirth he describes. The “revenge” of analog is happening because of the young and the cool.

I should be the kind of person most receptive to his argument. After all, I’m among those who have lamented the capture of persons by their digital screens. But I’m also in the class of “geezers” he mentions who still prowl the bins of used record stores.  He makes it clear that media-use habits of older adults do not represent the rebirth he sees. Sax wants us to know that the “revenge” of analog is happening because of the young and the cool.

Fun as it is, the book leaves me mostly unconvinced. In the case of film, he misses the best argument for its preservation: that it often looks better. Watch a movie in 4K-digital and it can create a one-dimensional look that others have described as the “soap opera effect.” Colors are bright but not rich. Sets and images often look flat. There’s something about the residual blur of passing light through a celluloid image that makes a projected film so watchable. No wonder directors like Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson still use film technologies that blossomed in 1950s.

Alas, vinyl records have not aged as well.  Many are fine, but among its residual problems, vinyl is a natural collector of dust, with individual particles played back as a small click. Listen to Debussy on an old vinyl record and you may detect the equivalent of someone tap dancing in the background.  For sure, this is not what the master of pianissimo envisioned.

Sax gets some things right, and never more so than in an opening quote from the Toronto theorist, Marshall McLuhan.  Some of the media insights from the media sage have not aged well.  But McLuhan was spot-on noting that “a new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old in peace.  It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.”  Those of us who are interesting in such things avidly teach this lesson. Newer media don’t necessarily eclipse the old; most co-exist, evolve, and sometimes fade.