How Not To Sound Like A Fool When Talking About Mastering, Vinyl, CDs, etc.
Today, I posted a mini-rant on Facebook around the old, current and perpetual audio medium war. It was inspired by a posting by Oliver Wang on his great blog Soul Sides. Here is that entry. I agree with the entry, but the resulting comments from it on various Facebook threads exhibited that there are certain technical issues that are still misunderstood by many. I posted most of the following off the top of my head earlier today, and I was kinda blown away by the positive response. So here it is, with some slight changes and amendments to make it a little less sloppy
- Mastering vinyl from digital sources doesn’t universally suck, nor does it suck at all. It’s the majority of people who have no clue and/or no care for what they’re doing while mastering modern vinyl that suck. The issues that make these vinyl issues suck may easily be a different issue than any digital source or the vinyl part altogether. It could be the player. It’s often cheap headphones or speakers.
- CDs and MP3s are not the same thing — especially 128kbps encoded MP3s. If you equate the two in an argument about “digital” media sucking, you’re a goddamn fool.
- Actually, any debate about the “sound quality” of a certain medium is doomed from the start. “Sound quality” is far too vague a term, yet it’s a phrase that’s all too easy to blurt out. If it’s ever brought up in an argument, either clarify the phrase, or end the argument.
- High-end open reel-to-reel tape has a better frequency range than both vinyl and CD. If you want to brag about Massive Frequency Superiority, show off your 2-inch tape machine instead of your turntable or high-end CD/DVD player.
- Vinyl does not have a wider frequency range than CD audio, for practical purposes. Vinyl can handle higher frequencies than 20kHz, but these are frequencies humans can’t hear. Vinyl does more poorly with low frequencies — circa 20Hz — than CD because of rumble. That’s not vinyl’s fault. That’s your turntable cartridge’s fault. More to the point, it’s the turntable owner who needs to get a more boomin’ cartridge. Either way, CD audio frequency ranges are pretty much the same as vinyl, but without any contact-media complications
- Vinyl’s technical advantage over CDs is its resolution. (Think of frequency range as the range of the color palette, and resolution as how detailed and life-like the painting looks.) Vinyl does not quantize its sound reproduction, which CDs and digital sources do, by definition. However, vinyl is only superior in resolution if the mastering source has equal or higher resolution, such as high-end reel-to-reel tape. That said, that same sound source as uncompressed 16-bit or preferably 24-bit digital audio is barely audibly inferior to reel-to-reel to most people. If the digital source is a low-bit-rate MP3, that MP3 will almost certainly sound better than the vinyl mastered from it.
- A vinyl release with minor flaws can easily sound inferior to a well-done CD.
- A CD release with minor flaws can easily sound inferior to a well-done vinyl release.
- In the case of the latter two, you may blame the artist, the mixer, the studio, the mastering engineer, the record label, whatever. But don’t blame the medium.
- Replace “vinyl”, “turntable”, “cartridge”, and “rumble” above with "cassette", "cassette deck", "playback head", and "tape hiss" respectively, and you have all you need to know about cassettes vs. CD as well — more or less.
- Most people like the packaging and feel of holding a vinyl release than a CD release or MP3 release, for reasons of rumination, visual art aesthetics, and ergonomics. This is a perfectly valid opinion to uphold. It is no more than an opinion. Yet, that opinion is holding major economic sway these days, whether you like it or not. And "sound quality" has zero to do with vinyl’s high media profile today — except for when you buy and complain about horribly mastered vinyl, in which case go to the first bulletpoint.
Described by Andy Zax as the worst Christmas record of all time. It also made number 2 on the charts in December 1967.
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