Vinyl vs Digital – a new perspective

Vinyl vs Digital – a new perspective

Words by John “Dr John” Lamp

Is the detail starting to overshadow what we are trying to hear?

I had the somewhat dubious pleasure of growing up through the audio revolution, vinyl, reel to reel, cassettes, CDs, mp3s. I even was lucky enough with some of the more esoteric forms, I used magneto-optical discs, and even luckier, I missed out on 8-track!

I’ve always had a thing for live music. Mind you, building the first mixer I used (ETI414) was fun. Carting a Philips N4407 reel to reel recorder (weight 11kg) around and trying to find a powerpoint made live recording even more of a pain – pun intended!

You can probably see how elated I was when CDs came along, but I still have two English pressings of Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” album. CDs were light, the sound was clear and crisp, and they were much more forgiving than vinyl discs. My little Zoom H2 digital recorder fits in the palm of my hand, and uses two AA batteries.

With all that behind me, I found it rather odd that people, including musicians, were going back to vinyl because it “sounded better.” At this stage of the debate I usually retort that music was better back then, that’s why vinyl sounds better.

But seriously, why this revived interest in vinyl?

Arguing over which is the best technology is pointless, that’s how we ended up with our third-world NBN. So, never mind how we do it, what are we trying to do?

At its most simplistic, we want to listen to music as it is performed. For that we need the best, most accurate recording and playback systems – or do we?

My son gave me a copy of Carl Milner’s book “Perfecting Sound Forever: The story of recorded music.” Actually, it didn’t arrive in time for Xmas, so I got a photocopy of the front cover, but the book eventually turned up.

In the book, Milner describes listening to music played on a Caliburn turntable. This machine is made in Australia and sold for $90,000. Close to the price of the latest Jaguar!

The amp and speakers ramped that up a total investment of $200,000, and yet it was dissatisfying.

The fidelity of the sound reproduced was awe-inspiring and impeccably detailed – too detailed.

“If Elvis Presley had actually been singing Fever in front of me, I would not have been able to hear the jangle of the jewellery on his wrists. If I had seen the Clash at the Palladium in 1980, I wouldn’t have been able to hear so clearly both the sound of Paul Simonon’s fingers sliding on the bass strings and the growl of Joe Strummer’s ragged throat.”

But this was vinyl, supposedly the new holy grail!

All this leads me to wonder whether our recording and playback technologies have overshot the mark. Is the detail starting to overshadow what we are trying to hear?

It’s an interesting question. I used to think that getting a desk feed to record a live concert was the way to go, but later realised that all of the ambiences of the live performance was missing. Sometimes it sounded like a poorly mixed studio session.

I’ll never retreat from making live recordings with my Zoom H2, and now I have a clearer understanding of why.

But it’s an interesting question. I think I’ll have to dig out my vinyl for another listen.

Find more about the Caliburn turntable at Continuum Audio Labs.