Back To Vinyl?
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 4, 2008

Better to admit it right from the start: I (still) love vinyl. I really do. Though I still recall those magic moments when I precariously held those colourful, heavy 78rpm 12" in my tiny hands (we're talking about early childhood here), it was only in the mid-60s that my life really started to be defined by music - meaning, radio and 7" 45rpm singles. As a pre-pre teen, I obviously listened to music as a whole, didn't really pay that much attention to specific parts, with the main exception of those fabulous song intros, à la Satisfaction, that really defined a dynamite track. As the decade progressed, though, I started paying attention to those new, strange sounds that both groups and solo artists, with (more than) a little help from their friends (producers and engineers whose names were for the most part unknown to the general public, and whose role in the whole matter would have been impossible for us to comprehend, had we known about them), were putting on record.

To make a (very) long story short, my understanding of music (which obviously included sound, and also the physical objects that carried those sounds in their grooves) ran parallel to the progress in consumer audio reproduction. Just paying attention as a listener made me (and quite a lot of other people) aware of the differences existing between Italian vinyl copies (more often than not, lousy), UK pressings (quiet, but sometimes lacking in sparkle), and USA albums (alive, but often quite noisy - those who've heard King Crimson on Atlantic will know what I mean). There was nothing "Hi-Fi" or "esoteric" about this: It was just a natural progression made possible by paying careful attention to something that those who cared about music held as important. Which is the same, really, as trying to understand what the lyrics to a song mean, or how one got those strange sounds ("harmonics") on a guitar.

This is just a brief intermezzo. The guy being interviewed - Bob Olhsson - was an engineer at Motown starting from the 60s. The quote comes from Tape Op magazine. The interview is by Philip Stevenson, and it ran as Nowhere To Run - Bob Olhsson, Magic And The Motown Sound. (I suspect the guy mentioned below to be Bruce, not Doug, Botnick.)

Well here’s a classic tape op interview question for you: how do you feel about digital?

Frustrated. (laughs) There's so many great things about it and yet - there was a thing at the AES called "When Vinyl Ruled" - this was incredible. I hope to heaven that they let them do it again but I can see how a lot of manufacturers would not let them do it again.

They set up a state of the art 1962 control room and played back a bunch of old three-track safety masters from that era. The sound destroyed everything at the show. I mean, it was a no-brainer better than anything we're doing now, it's sickening. And at one point, Doug Botnik, who used to be at Sunset Sound turned to me and said, "Man I remember the first time I tried to do a session on a transistor board I wanted to slit my wrists." (laughs).

Skipping the part about how we could tell a USA LP from a UK LP just from their smell, I'll have to immediately clarify that I'm not - nor have I ever been, by any stretch of the imagination - what one could call a collector. I've never paid any real money for an original pressing, I don't care about "collectors' items" - hey, I'm not even on eBay!

However, as soon as I started listening to CDs - in the late 80s - it became apparent to me that, though I had assumed this to be a given, the new versions didn't necessarily resemble the (vinyl) originals. A fact that, with few just a exceptions - special mention here going to (USA) Musician magazine - went totally unmentioned (also unnoticed?) in the pages of the "non-technical" press. Practicality and portability being obviously prized above any issues of sound quality. (It won't be the last time.)

So - in order to clarify matters to myself in the first place - I wrote a piece which run on Musiche magazine (Italy) and the ReR Quarterly (UK) under the title Remixes: Cosmetics Or Fraud? (Though it also talked about modifications taking place at the mastering stage.)

I reserve some of my "special, quality time" for vinyl listening sessions. Of course I'm perfectly aware that nostalgia has a part in this. However, the point here is being aware of the "nostalgia factor" - that is, making it hard for it to influence one's perception and judgment of the music one is listening to. Which can sometimes be difficult, but it's not by any means an impossibility.

So, while I was more than happy to know that turntables and related accessories were still being produced, I was quite surprised to learn that a resurgence in the manufacturing of vinyl LPs was taking place. Why? Well, though here I have to admit I haven't listened to many specimens (this being after all a niche market, copies not really going on sale all over the world), and even discounting those so-so editions printed on bad, noisy vinyl, all new vinyl editions I heard were obviously in what I call "digital vinyl" - i.e., copies deriving from new, digital, and not the original, analog, masters. So, what's the point? (The fact that "superior sound quality" - noisy vinyl, bad pressing, and all - is taken for granted in most LP reviews I've read, and seldom discussed, makes it apparent that it's their rarity that's the point here, not sound quality.)

I have to admit I was quite surprised to read a few articles - recently published in Italy, also elsewhere - which sketched this Music Industry Scenario: low-quality MP3 files will be sold to most, to be consumed on cheap, portable items; while high-quality files - and real LPs, big covers and all - will be sold to the cognoscenti, hence: Premium Money for Premium Content. Does this scenario actually hold water? Here we have to backtrack a bit.

There is one thing I have to make clear right now: From a technical point of view, I'm not a cultivated person at all. I just listen to music. I have to admit that I listen to music as an exclusive activity, which I suppose qualifies me as a social misfit. However, I suppose that listening to a CD as an exclusive activity that occurs while sitting still in front of a (reasonably good) Hi-Fi system (as opposed to, say, listening to a CD, or to "audio files", on a computer through tiny speakers - maybe while writing the review already? - while at the same time being busy in all manners of staff) should be highly prized by anybody who releases an album, or readers looking for a "sound opinion" (pun intended).

It was at the end of the 90s that I started noticing that CDs started sounding worse and worse. Flat, too compressed, unmusical, two-dimensional, shrill, tiring... you name it. A fact that made it increasingly difficult for me to really enjoy even music released by artists whose work I liked a whole lot.

It was about seven years ago that I was sent a link to an article by George Graham titled Whatever Happened To Dynamic Range On Compact Discs?, which immediately made it all clear to me.

Then there was the long thread bearing the title Are DAWs And Squashed Masters The Only Things That Define This Era's Sound?, posted 12-04-2003 11:18 AM on a Forum moderated by George Massenburg.

Soon the topic assumed gigantic proportions. An article titled The Big Squeeze - Mastering Engineers Debate Music's Loudness Wars, by Sarah Jones, appeared on Dec 1, 2005 12:00 PM, on Mixonline.

Mainstream newspapers entered the discussion - for instance, see Why Music Really Is Getting Louder, by Adam Sherwin, Media Correspondent, which appeared on The Times, June 4, 2007.

But it was a couple of weeks ago, when Rolling Stone ran a piece by Robert Levine called The Death Of High Fidelity - In The Age Of MP3s, Sound Quality Is Worse Than Ever, Posted Dec 26, 2007 1:27 PM, that all hell broke loose.

What, now?

Well, it's not easy to say. The fact of CDs sounding louder and louder - and, as its consequence, a lot worse - has been linked to the fact of music being listened to in increasingly noisy environments like cars and university rooms - and not at all, obviously, as an "exclusive activity". (LPs could not be listened to in cars.) And nobody wants his/her album to sound wimpy: even artists who should know better - Joni Mitchell and Lyle Lovett have been mentioned here - have recently released albums that have been said to sound "louder" - and so, "duller" - than what was expected from them. It appears that even the recent Best Of by Led Zeppelin has been made fit to compete in a Foo Fighters world. And when it comes to files, practicality and portability are the name of the game, right? Hence, we live in the age of "good enough". Plus, listening to an album as a whole - even conceiving an album as a meaningful "whole" - is a thing of the past in the age of single tracks.

Those with time on their hands are invited to listen to the many digital editions "classic albums" have been subjected to since the introduction of the (then) new format, and draw their own conclusions.

Artists and engineers have been called to rectify matters. Perspectives are bleak.

I think nothing speaks about the present conditions better than this quote from Bob Olhsson, appearing in the aforementioned Mixonline piece:

"Going back to the 60s, a record was a luxury; the idea of it being a commodity was absurd to me. You didn't buy a lot of recordings, you bought recordings that were special to you, and you listened to them over and over. And certainly you are less inclined to listen to a distorted record over and over and over than you are to one that just sounds amazing. And I don't think that's a matter of being an audiophile, or a specialist, or anything else. I really believe the average person can tell the difference. They're not going to identify what technically they're hearing, but I definitely think that people are affected by sound and sound quality. I don't buy the idea that it doesn't matter and you should work to the lowest common denominator."

© Beppe Colli 2008 | Jan. 4, 2008