Kids today, with their new-fangled desire to listen to music cut into grooves on big circular platters… Photo (CC-BY) Matthias Rhomberg.

At first, it seemed like it might be just a blip: amidst generally declining sales of physical music, down sharply from their 1990s boom, vinyl sales were trending up. The reversal started with a slight uptick in 2007 – already noticeable as the CD had begun its collapse. That slight uptick has turned into a small boom. From a tiny 300,000 units in US sales in 1993, the vinyl record is projected to do some 3.6 million units in sales. Source:

Vinyl Projected to Grow More Than 25 Percent In 2011…

Let’s put some of this in perspective. Even with explosive growth, vinyl remains at the margins, representing 1.6% of physical sales in the US. In fact, part of the fetish around vinyl is evidenced by the fact that people would make this headline news – fans of the vinyl record are understandably eager to hear their format of choice is doing well. As a point of comparison, in the last 30 days, just one independent band website, Bandcamp, has done US$640,513 in profit for its members. That’s profit, not revenue, and it’s often going directly to artists.

You can also, via Digital Music News, compare to vinyl’s years as the dominant format, which makes this all look very niche:
The Vinyl Comeback, In Historical Perspective…. (Thanks, JP in comments.) That graph doesn’t show per-unit cost, and anecdotally, artists seem closer to the record release process than they once were.

That said, vinyl’s significance in the new world order is arguably more about its cultural meaning than its numbers. (Getting away from numbers – cough, digital – is the point.) Cutting a vinyl record today is about making a physical artefact of a release. It carries with it prestige. Its scarcity is part of its value, with exclusive 12″ releases again returning to the days when DJs were judged by the obscure gems in their collection, not the disposable digital hits.

And I can see any number of benefits to vinyl’s reemergence:

  • Bringing tactile back. Records as objects are a pleasure; I’m the last person to argue there. There’s a ritual to putting on a record that changes how you feel about the music, versus the seemingly-infinite, ephemeral digital jukebox.
  • Keeping vinyl DJing alive. At this point, it seems more about preserving the record and mixing rather than scratching, but vinyl remains essential for people DJing with turntables. Notably, unlike faking it with digital control vinyl, using actual records is also more reliable – a slight flaw or vibration won’t bring the whole mix to a standstill. (Analog most definitely fails more gracefully than digital.) That makes the presence of vinyl releases doubly important to getting to hear traditional DJ technique.
  • Keeping the cutters, and players, in business. The demand for vinyl records, whatever may motivate it, means everything from turntable repair to disk lathe shops remain healthy.
  • The sound is unique. I’m leaving perhaps the most significant point for last. The sound of vinyl does remain unique, precisely because of some of its limitations, and I don’t think any amount of fetishization would please some of its consumers if it didn’t sound good.

When I spoke to Anika earlier this year, she brought up the economic point, too – that vinyl keeps things physical, and supports artists. Now, financially, it may be a tenuous point – look at those Bandcamp numbers – but “support” for artists is more than financials alone. And viewed in a larger effort to express the value of music in tangible form, vinyl makes sense.

Vinyl, incidentally, doesn’t have a monopoly on tangible music. Even digital has made various plays on the concept – one of the most unique being Ghostly International’s effort last year to produce “totems” for Matthew Dear, physical objects that represented the spirit of the intangible music.

Sound, above all, is cited as the primary rationalization for vinyl’s resurgence, but that’s where I feel a bit more conflicted:

  • Mastering digital for vinyl isn’t the same as a “direct-to-analog” process. Here’s where things get weird. Remember in the early days of CDs, seeing the letters “DDD” and hearing about fully digital signal flow? Now, we have an oddly inverted situation. People are making music almost entirely inside computers, with software like Ableton Live, doing a digital master, and then printing the whole thing to … vinyl. There’s nothing to say that can’t work, but it seems to me a potential mismatch of source material and recording medium. (More on that in a moment.)
  • Psuedo-science, go! Let’s face it: there’s plenty of voodoo around “digital,” and plenty of voodoo around “analog.” In the digital domain, the faux science tends to manifest itself as unsupported claims about the value of absurdly-high bit rates and sample rates, or, if you’re really unlucky, gold-plated digital interconnects. In analog, you’ll routinely hear people claim that analog captures “more” sound, because digital leaves “gaps” between samples, missing that both are constrained first and foremost by the transducers. Analog or digital, these are based on misunderstandings about fundamental characteristics of how sound is reproduced and heard from recording media. I think it’d be unfortunate if the genuine value of vinyl and the unique characteristics of its sound were obscured by claims about recording that simply aren’t true.

Vinyl itself is surely not to blame here; it should just raise some questions. Presumably, not all digitally-produced music really fits vinyl as a medium. And the right way to make that fit work is to really listen and apply some scientific understanding of the process.

Vinyl is that it is a unique medium, one with imperfect recording characteristics. That means whatever the source, you do need to mix differently, which makes a recent piece in Electronic Musician very admirable, indeed. (Disclosure: I have never mixed and mastered for vinyl, so I can only look upon this as an enthusiastic listener and interested observer. I welcome feedback from those out there who are more qualified to investigate the questions I’m asking.)

Learn Mixing | Tips for Mixing for Vinyl [Electronic Musician]

Gino Robair, one of my favorite EM writers over the years, goes through some detail about preparing mixes for vinyl as the delivery medium. Part of what you’ll find is a reminder of why engineers were excited about digital in the first place: there’s a greater ability in digital recordings to capture certain details of the high and low end that would distort in an analog recording. So long as you go into the reality of these limitations with your eyes (or make that ears) open, it can be a good experience as a producer, and for your listeners.

This raises still more scientific and perceptual questions, though. I’m not entirely convinced – I haven’t seen evidence in either direction – that it’s in any way necessary to use a 24-bit, 96kHz master for a vinyl release. (Gino points to the example of Arcade Fire using that as the master.) It certainly can’t hurt, especially in the era of cheap storage. But as in direct-digital delivery, the question is whether you really gain from the higher-resolution file. The only way to know for sure would be to do lab-style experimentation and find out, and as readers have lamented on this site before, there’s not a whole lot of that going on.

Yeah, we still love you. Photo (CC-BY) Karen Horton.

Vinyl’s good; vinyl’s unique. (So, too, are cassette tapes and other media with which music producers have been re-discovering of late.) It just means that any claims about vinyl’s resurgence should be scaled against the growth of other distribution outlets, and that we should ask honest questions about sound, not just accept either digital or analog claims of “quality” without evaluation.

So, I purposely raise the points above more as a question than a statement. I’m curious to hear from people who are producing and consuming vinyl records, in terms of what they’ve found satisfying and what they’ve found disappointing. (I mean that, in particular, in regards to certain releases – I’m sure some are better than others.)

And I also wonder whether it’s possible to begin to appreciate digital recording with foresight as much as it is vinyl with hindsight. How can we make the most of the format we have today? How can we understand it, in virtual form, as physical object?

At the end of the day, “analog” is not real. (Hence the name.) A recording is an artificial and imperfect snapshot of an event that occurred in the past, frozen in time in an impossible way. It’s what is beautiful about recording, and what terrified, or at least confused, some of those who first heard it. It is a technology conceived as a precursor to email, as a kind of business memo. It has become to many what music is, rather than the reflection of musical performance. It has had a devastating impact on many forms of live performance, emptying bandstands and causing live players their livelihood before anyone became concerned about whether the record industry that was left would lose its financial well-being.

The “record,” whether it’s a cassette tape or a FLAC download, is strange and unnatural, with the ability to bring to life dead musicians and performances that never existed in one place.

And yes, we do really love it.

  • ex-fanboy

    Great article peter!

    It brought back memories and I know I'll be placing some discs on my t-table after writing this.

    I worked for years in record stores and am still a working musician 30 years later. Even teens I meet agree for the most part about the "warmer" and fuller sound of vinyl. Maybe it is "just" compression – but it is not, for sure, imagination.

    Looking foward to the next article in this series: "Why Vinyl Album Covers Slay CD Covers" ;-)

  • Bruce

    I speak for myself: last CD I bought in my life, was Nine Inch Nails «With Teeth», when it got out, in 2005. Since then I never bought any more CDs. Why? Well, we all deal with mp3 nowadays, it doesn't make sense having CDs; it's a waste of space and we all use mp3 players or something – actually, I don't own any mp3 player, but I hear all my music in the computer / mp3 format. And I was a person who usually bought a lot of CDs. I have twenty seven years old and started buying CDs at a very, very, young age. By my 13 years old I already had 300 CDs or something. But the time changes….

    But here's the new thing… I never had interest in vinyl, but since I got more interested in electronic music, and start making it, namely, my «home records» / musical experimentations, I started buying vinyl records.

    I won't mind giving 50 euros for a vinyl, but I would give that for a CD nowadays.

  • Bruce

    correction: I won’t mind giving 50 euros for a vinyl, but I won't give that for a CD nowadays.

  • Peter Kirn

    @ex-fanboy: Actually, I'd love to see a full investigation of what we hear as "warmer" and what we don't. There's definitely a lot going on there, technically and perceptually. 

    I definitely agree about covers. :) That raises another question — one with which I've been personally dealing myself. For a digital release now, you can certainly include a PDF. But then, what should the dimensions be for something viewed on-screen? Typically, they're dictated by the dimensions of a CD jewel case even though that aspect ratio, resolution, and size don't really relate to a screen.

    Apple released their LP format, and I think a lot of people releasing music on iTunes are unaware how easy it is to author for it, though the approval process is murky.

    Anyway, that's just two examples – this question of how to do art is wide, wide open. You can, if you like, release a big album poster and art book that makes even the LP cover look cramped. But there's something about having the packaging for the object on which the sound is recorded be the cover that doesn't translate when it's a separate object.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Bruce: True, but I'm increasingly meeting enthusiasts who do still buy CDs. So, we may need, as counterpoint, a "we still love CDs" category. The numbers from the record industry suggest people somewhere are buying a *lot*, even if not at 90s-peak levels.

  • Randy

    I still have all of my records and two turntables hooked up and working (a modified Dual downstairs and a Rega Planar with Grado cartridge upstairs). I still remember amazing my kids by playing a record, and then turning it over to listen to different sounds on the other side. The music industry is the enemy of music unfortunately. Sometime ago I was making a mix tape (remember those?) on cassette, and started with the recording of a few tracks from a CD. Then, I put a record on to record a few more tracks but, despite the record sounding more quiet, had to turn down the record levels. Digital had great promise, with a decreased noise floor and increased dynamics, but idiots somewhere decided to compress the life out of the music. Now, vinyl comes back with what is perceived to be "better" sound, although I think the general resurgence of all things analog is a counter-reaction to something, not sure what 'though. The same thing is happening with musical instruments. Synths that I thought sounded like crap back in the day (Yamaha CS-50, ARP Omni, etc.) are suddenly valuable.

  • http://noisepages.com/members/ghostofjohntoad/ Keith Soper

    Makes me think about how us guitar playing types prefer the sound of tube amplifiers over Solid-State. Personally I like the fact that both can coexist. I have to wonder that if in 10 years or so photo developing and film will stage a come back. I heard a recent broadcast (http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/02/04/133188723/tools-never-die-waddaya-mean-never) where the challenge was to find "old" tools that are no longer being made. Interesting discussion. I guess the debate will continue…

  • newgreyarea

    I have a serious vinyl habit. I was good this month but that's cuz I have a serious gear habit as well. I buy more records than I have time to listen to in the hopes that on my day off I can chill with my headphones on and drift off into these spinning black (sometimes) circles.

    Go vinyl!!

  • Dylan Digits

    I've gone back and forth on this over the past five years or so, did the Serato thing and then sold it and did only vinyl, and These days all I can think of when I'm in the record store is, "I can spend $11 on a 12-inch that has one track I'd play, or I can spend $1.49 on any number of online shops for that track."

    I adore the tactile aspect of vinyl, but my pocketbook and my back are too strained by the idea of carrying crates around to gigs. As for the sound quality, I can't be bothered. I subscribe to the idea of "it sounds good enough" on this issue. 

  • http://www.synthtopia.com/ James Lewin

    For better or worse, a lot of the value of music has come from its scarcity.

    With digital music, scarcity and limitations are artificial constraints – so we resent them. With vinyl, those constraints are real – so they are part of the appeal of the format.

    The fact vinyl is 'obsolete' creates a creative challenge for artists, too. If you do a vinyl release, it's not for practical reasons, so it seems to up the artistic ante.

    I'm been using an ancient, but not really classic, Technics turntable for years. The re-emergence of vinyl is making me think that it might be time to upgrade….

  • MikeInCO

    There are so many layers to this issue, I'm just glad records have held on and are getting stronger. In 1990 I sold my 400 or so CDs and CD player and used the cash to buy as many records as I could. (About 1500 it turned out, as people were ditching entire collections for pennies or nickels to move fully into CDs.) The motivator was I thought LPs sounded dramatically better than the state of digital at the time. Now I think they sound different — LPs still better, generally — but digital has come a long way, and can be astounding if done right. (Yes, bit depth and sample rate rates make a difference).

    Neither format is accurate, and knowing the strengths and pitfalls of each helps you understand why they sound different. Better is subjective, and really a matter of how you hear, and what moves you.

    As Peter said, any recording regardless of format is a shabby attempt to capture the magic of live music. What makes recordings so addictive, perhaps, is they're like a time machine with dirty windows, through which you can maybe feel and understand a little more of how the world was at that brief moment in time for an artist or performer. Even the recordings that compile separate musical events that never happened in a room at one time can still reveal a lot.

  • http://www.nofi.org Jeffrey Melton

    As an independent composer/producer making self-released albums (ambient/downtempo/granular/electronic) for many years, I have a strong interest to release on vinyl. BUT, the up-front costs are relatively huge compared to digital and even cassette. 

    For example, 100 copies of a c-78 cassette (38 min/side) would cost me about $125 (or $1.25/ea., just for the tapes, no cases or j-card inserts), while 100 qty. 10" vinyl records (~12 min/side) would be approx $900 (or $9/ea., with 1-color printed labels in paper sleeves, no jacket). BIG difference, largely due to the cost of the lacquers and setup costs. 

    For comparison, I don't see many sales of digital releases, due in part because of my small fan base and also because most people seem disinclined to pay for music when so much can be had for fee. 

    One question I have is whether I'd see more interest if I offered a physical product on vinyl and/or tape to complement the download option? The appeal to me is in both having a unique physical artifact as well as the experience of listening to music on vinyl. Or, will it be just an expensive vanity project for me? 

  • http://www.nofi.org Jeffrey Melton

    (Meant 'lacquer masters' and '…for FREE' above.)

  • MikeInCO

    @Jeffrey, lately I'm only buying records that offer a free download also. Digital for convenience (so I don't have to digitize the LP to enjoy it on the road), and vinyl for the free time to really listen at home. Just my .02, but I don't think I'm alone. Many good small labels are offering that same combo.

  • JP

    I think the 25% raise, still needs to be seen in context, the other Digital Music News post has a great chart showing where we are today

    http://digitalmusicnews.com/stories/050511vinyl

    25% increase in a market that is 100x smaller than it used to be, could be almost written off as a fad or a temporary trend.

    I'd love vinyl to come back strong as an accompaniment to digital releases, but I suspect it's just a back to retro trend, same way people are using straight razors and smoking pipes.

  • JP

    CD's need to die fast.  They are wasteful and an anchor the big labels use for inflated digital pricing schemes.  At least vinyl added "something".

  • Brian Tuley

    I like the way some artists sell their vinyl product and offer a card inside for a free digital download of the same material.  This way you get the convenience of having the mp3 on your smart phone for more practical playback, and a physical vinyl copy on your record shelf to treasure at certain moments.  So when you trade up to a new smart phone, or your computer crashes or whatever, you always have that hard copy of something you spent a fair amount of money obtaining.

    Lastly, I just really enjoy the vinyl format.  The smell, the size, the shape, the sound, the commitment it takes to play and LP, rooting through used record bins, etc.etc.etc……

  • http://www.victoryandassociates.net Conan Neutron

    As somebody who both puts out releases on vinyl and purchases them as well, I have to agree that the vinyl comeback is real. The main difference now is the diligence put towards quality. 180 Gram vinyl isn't just for releases of bands that everybody knows and loves it's a shot across the bow at posterity for unknown and not well known bands. I love it.

    It's not for everybody, and one of the formats that sounds best on it is definitely rock music… which, has largely fallen out of favor due to the abject hackery of what people have been exposed to. 

    That said, digital media is here to stay… that will be how people continue to listen to music for the most part, but I really like the effort of putting on a record and listening to it.

    Since it is an effort it means more, and in an age where a band's entire discography can be downloaded, parsed and discarded in a couple hours, I think that's important.

  • Kim

    I have an old Marantz cassette player that makes any tape I put in it sound really good. I wonder how higher end tape machines stack up in all of this? The speakers you use also have a great deal to do with how you perceive sound. I think older speakers with paper cones sound "warmer". @Peter Kirn Brilliant article. More Please.

  • Kim

    One other thought. I wonder if most people own an ipod why we don't modify ipods as a master playback device? We would be able to better judge and hear what the majority of the consuming public might be hearing for the purpose of mastering to mp3? If you where to combine this plugin http://www.sonnoxplugins.com/ws/pub/plugins/produ… with a direct out to an ipod amp (some soldering involved) how would that change your mastering decisions?

  • JD

    P.s., can you please stop including the catchphrase "why it matters" in Tweets etc. It's over done.

  • Peter Kirn

    JD: You're the first to say "why it matters." I'm partially tongue-in-cheek in saying "what does it all mean." (Append a "…man" / prepend a "like," if it helps.) 

  • tad ghostal

    One of the (many) things I like about vinyl is that it a record never sounds the same, the act of playing is changing it as the needle runs along the groove. Also, no two vinyl sound exactly the same.

    This was made most apparent to me when I finally got to see the DJ who has been most influential on me, Mix Master Mike, and had to leave after 15 mins because I couldn't stand how bad it sounded. This was partially due to the mixer he was using (Rane TTM 57 SL- built in Serato interface), which has always sounded horrible every time I've heard it, but also because his style of turntablism involves a lot of doubling up. This sounds good when there are different vinyl on each table but when its two copies of the same digital file it sounds horrible, as if someone is hitting cue points slightly out of time.

  • http://www.jeremyabel.com Jeremy Abel

    I'm all about vinyl that also comes with digital download. I'm happy to pay an extra 5 bucks to support an artist I love, and have the bigger artwork to hang on my wall, even if I never actually play the vinyl.

  • Max and Milly

    I dont care what the format is really, Cassette, Vinyl, CD it all gets ripped to my computer to listen to it. I am lazy. On a cold morning in bed its a choice of get up grap the LP, Cassette or stay in bed and listen to it on the lappy. I know aht I would do :-)

  • http://regend.com Regend

    I would argue that the time tested craft of proper mixing and mastering came about because the only medium to play back music was either analog tape or pressing that analog signal to vinyl. it kept the whole process very very precise. everyone had a specific job and learned the specific tools and it was effective and the quality control was superior. now you've got digital everything and instead of precise numbers and frequencies you have a lot of digital noise mucking up half way decent music…and people not understand compression techniques makes it worse. i never let go of vinyl because i never made the jump from vinyl to CD…i kept buying vinyl…even today i like buying from the $1 bins things i used to own so that i have doubles of everything.

  • Zac Kyoti

    I too am extremely interested in what quantifiable aspects of vinyl make it sound the way it does. As a dj and electronic musician, I have moved to the digital medium based purely on convenience, speed, and space issues. If I could have that vinyl sound with all the benefits of digital, I'd do it in a second. I'm amazed (and disheartened) every time I drop a well mastered vinyl record directly after a digital track, hearing the space fill out and all the rough edges disappear. It IS like voodoo though – the record is playing through the same digital signal chain, getting hacked up into samples on it's way through, getting converted and output at the same rate and depth as the wav file. What is really happening here? Taking an equalization response curve that emulates a cherished bit of vinyl and applying it to a track in the digital domain does NOT give the digital track the defining characteristics of that vinyl – even listening through the same chain and playback system. I've also noticed that I do prefer the sound of an all-digital recording pressed to vinyl over that same recording as pure digital. I wish I understood. At any rate, long live the wax, if only for special listenings at home.

  • Simon

    There's just something magical about the noise the needle makes when you drop it at the begining of a new record and wait expectantly for the first sound.

  • http://www.soundcloud.com/writethesound Ben G

    Thanks for the article. I'm not so sure on quoting bandcamp or other companies profit figures given to artists  …. this can be misleading…..How many artist are on there (Band camp) for one? 50- 100,000 artist….? means not a lot to survive for each artist.

    And I'm not so sure the big issue of sales for artists have at all been addressed by the industry. Vinyl's great I love it, but I sold my collection (regrettably) because of the cost per unit. I invested around $50,000 and 10+ years work on production and Dj/records ect, yet never received a cent back…hence now I'm working in web. Will I take the industry seriously ….will I work every day on music like I use to ?…..and will I hunt carl craig and jeff mills records in the crates…..? and be prepared to spend big on the rare stockhausen record…… Maybe one day but not now. Vinyl's sex appeal only lasts so long given the cost compared to other formats. My wallet size hasn't grown as a result of my investment in EDM or the music industry, there are no studio jobs, no one seems to be getting paid much for production but rely mainly on gigs (If you can get them)…..and well is this an industry that supports its own …Not from my experience (In Aus).

  • Kim

    The engineering that went into vinyl makes them a work of art and a technical treasure Here is the technical data from the back of one of my old records.

    Stereo Spectacular Technical Data

    Program elements of this recording were made on a 3-channel stereophonic Ampex Tape Recorder, Model 300-3 with modified Ampex Model 351 electronics. Telefunken R.C.A and Electro-Voice microphones were used to achieve maximum presence and clarity. The original 3-channel master was re-recorded on a 2-channel stereophonic Ampex 300-2. A maximum signal to noise ratio has been achieved without over-saturation or distortion of the original master tape. The edited 2-track stereophonic master tape was transferred to stereo acetate masters on a scully automatic, variable, lateral and vertical pitch lathe with a Westrex stereophonic cutting head, with special feed back electronic circuitry driven by custom 200 watt amplifiers. While the total frequency range of 16 cps to 25,000 cps on this record may not be within the range of human hearing, nevertheless, inspection of the grooves with a microscope will show the etching of the upper dynamic frequencies. It is the opinion of the manufacturer that if these frequencies were omitted from this record a certain "warmth of tone" that is felt and sensed, rather than heard would be lost. For this reason and to achieve the ultimate in our "Studies In Hi-Fidelity Stereophonic Sound" we have gone to these extreme lengths.

    The other reason its a treasure is I listened to this when I was a very young boy and finding it at 40 just takes me back.

  • http://www.fernandogros.com Fernando

    Great post, thank you.  As a guitarist & occasional tube amp builder my feelings on the "warmth" issue are complex.  Would love to see a discussion of that sometime.

    I plan to release on Vinyl simply because that's the platform I coveted as a kid.  I resisted switching to CD for as long as I could.  There is something special about Vinyl (and larger album art).  What I'm going to do is offer a free download code (for both MP3 & lossless).  One thing I've been talking about with friends is the idea of releasing vinyl EPs, then having the download provide more tracks or access to back catalogue.

    And, I still buy CD, simply because that's more future proof.  For a lot of music it's still either CD or lower quality mp3 – I'll take the CD thanks.

  • http://www.tonepublications.com jeff dorgay

    Great article!

    One thing that no one in the LP world likes to talk about though, is that there are precious few critical spare parts left (cutting heads, lathe parts) and even fewer people that can repair this stuff.

    Though I love vinyl and support its resurgence, I do wonder how long it will be before the studios run out of spare parts!  

  • Andy

    "speak for myself: last CD I bought in my life, was Nine Inch Nails «With Teeth», when it got out, in 2005. Since then I never bought any more CDs. Why? Well, we all deal with mp3 nowadays, it doesn’t make sense having CDs; it’s a waste of space and we all use mp3 players or something – actually, I don’t own any mp3 player, but I hear all my music in the computer / mp3 format."

    For me it makes a lot of sense to have CDs. I have a collection of some hundred CDs, a lot of them ripped and stored on my pc. But only having mp3 files on a hard disk is no option for me. What if your HD crashes? How many people really make backups? And then those crappy mp3 players … you need over-compressed music and "loudness" algorithms to get any punch out of that plastic shit. Nothing comparable to a good stereo system with good loudspeakers. The way we compress, store, listen to and "steal" (in terms of piracy) music nowadays also reflects the attitude we have to music in generall. Most top 20 bands are marketing-powered shit, today a "star", tomorrow forgotten. There are studies about the listening habits of youth. It turned out that they often listen to the first 30 seconds or so (I can't remember the exact time) of a track and then they skip to the next one.

    So I don't wonder that many people prefer mp3. A crap format for mostly crap music.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Andy: I think that represents some misunderstandings. Over-compressing doesn't make cheap audio devices sound better; it can make it sound worse. What it does is save people the trouble of turning up their volume. And the worst brickwall limiting I hear is still for FM radio, not MP3s. The golden age of vinyl also included people listening through horrible speakers and taping pennies to the turntable arm, not to mention coinciding with the heydey of really horrible transistor radios with plastic speakers, so I'm not sure it's fair to characterize this as a bunch of iPod owners sweeping away all the audiophiles. 

    As for the "top 20" bands you're describing, *that's* where a lot of the sales have imploded. They peaked in the 90s – *before* the MP3 player, with the CD. 

  • Andy

    "Over-compressing doesn’t make cheap audio devices sound better; it can make it sound worse. "

    It's a well known fact (found out be the psychology of perception) that louder music will often be recognized as "better" music, and all those plastic mp3 players with cheap ear plugs depend on some mixing "tricks" to create "pleasant" results. This is one reason (besides of the "louder-is-better" misconception) for all that loudness war. In the end you get what you ask for.

  • Andy

    BTW: it's a completely different thing to turn up the volume and to over-compress a song. In the latter case you'll loose all the dynamics. But I'm sure you know that. :)

  • Peter Kirn

    No, I don't think you can blame cheap digital devices for the lack of dynamic range. Remember that the whole process of compression, as pointed out earlier in comments, comes from necessary limitations of broadcast and vinyl production. Those iPod earbuds sound awful, but while people may favor compressed music generally, there's nothing about them that necessarily makes you have to over-compress music.

  • Andy

    IMHO the lack of dynamic range is a result of mixing engineers who are aware of cheap sounding mp3 players or computer connected plastic cubes in the 20€ price range, so they mix their tracks accordingly. I don't talk about broadcast limiting, which is added on top of a (already [over]compressed) song when played by radio stations, of course.

    However, the most important reason for compressed-to-death music is the "louder is better" attitude.

  • Steve

    One thing missing from analysis of LP sales, it seems, are the amount of used LP's that are also being bought. I work in a record store and a good chunk of vinyl sales are from used copy in store and on ebay.  I know I buy plenty of used titles replacing LP's I gave or sold away in the past.

  • http://www.boblukomski.net Bob Lukomski

    Geez… Give it another 10-15 years at most, and the kids'll be all nostalgic for CDs.  I'm all for multiple formats for one's "pwecious" music, but the vinyl resurgence is about commodity fetishism, not quality of sound, no matter who says what.  I own LP's, 45's (oh, excuse me – 7" instant collectibles), CD's, Mp3's, Cassettes, Reel to Reels.  I don't particularly have a preference.  It's about the music, stupid. (and by music I'm talking about the actual piece, NOT the performance, NOT the production values, NOT the mastering techniques – all factors important to the realization of a piece, but not the reason why I listen.)

  • Kim

    You forgot 8tracks. :) Lol

  • Peter Kirn

    @Bob: Actually, interestingly, out of that whole list, only reel-to-reel tape provides a genuinely unique musical workflow and output. The rest amount basically to storage media – with sonic characteristics, to be sure, but not really a fundamentally different output. But tape is the one format that could be part of the process, from splicing to tape delay. That's not really true of vinyl in the production process, though it could be argued for DJing/scratch.

  • Jim Aikin

    Skimming a bit (I may have missed what I was searching for) two factors seem not to have been mentioned.

    First, vinyl degrades. I have LPs dating back to the late '60s, and the clicks and pops in some of them are obnoxious. Vinyl can also warp, resulting in pitch wow.

    Second, dynamic range. Vinyl has a much narrower dynamic range than a CD, so mixing to vinyl almost always involves compression or fader-riding. This makes vinyl nicer to listen to at home, because you can hear everything without blasting the neighbors. Especially in classical music, the fact that CDs are NOT compressed sucks; they're unlistenable. Nonetheless, it makes little sense to complain about digital being overly compressed, when it's the vinyl mixes that are compressed.

  • Peter Kirn

    Jim — Degradation, absolutely – though in fairness, CDs also degrade, and in a more catastrophic way (at least vinyl remains playable and can be more easily restored).

    Dynamic range and frequency range are both more restricted on vinyl than digital, which is why this claim that it's higher audio "quality" is beyond suspicious. I think you hit it on the head; people find the compression pleasant. 

    But are classical CDs really unlistenable at home because of the dynamic range? Maybe in a car moving at highway speeds they can be a bit tricky because of masking, etc…

  • Andy

    Some of my CDs are more than 20 years old No degradation whatsoever. It depends on how you handle them.

  • Peter Kirn

    Actually, I say that, and with proper storage and handling I don't really know the lifespan of a (non-CD-R) audio disc, as professionally duplicated. CD-Rs have notoriously-short lifespans. Plastic eventually ages, and audio CDs aren't terribly accommodating of things like warping. The only really future-proof archival format is fully digital storage transferred between media as it ages.

  • ehdyn

    I used to have a large cd collection, most of those discs will just lock up a player now.

    If im going to buy something these days, i prefer big art and heavy vinyl. 

    Friends seem to enjoy the experience more and they feel like theyre swimming in sound

  • Gino Robair

    Thanks for the insightful post, Peter. Here is a link to a longer article about the subject, which includes quotes from mastering engineers: 
    http://emusician.com/tutorials/mastering_vinyl/

    I wrote the 2008 version because I was tired of reading all the BS about the format, and I wanted to get the straight scoop from the engineers (as I was considering doing an electronic release as a 12-inch). Vinyl records have the potential of offering very high fidelity when you work within its limitations. However, some kinds of music just don't sound good on vinyl. And if you don't want to compromise aspects of your work (for example, centering your low frequencies) then it's not worth the time and expense.

    And making a record is expensive, no matter what format — 7", 10", or 12". Mastering is just the first cost. The printed sleeve is more expensive than the record itself. Then there's packaging, shipping, and storage.

    In terms of shipping and distribution, I have mixed feelings about releasing music on vinyl. A box of 10 LPs is heavy and expensive to transport. And the media is fragile with a tendency to warp under certain circumstances. From start to finish, it has a massive carbon footprint, unlike digital delivery.

    Many of the folks I work with are able to sell LPs and singles easier than CDs at gigs, but schlepping them in a suitcase is a major PITA because of their weight (especially now that the airlines are scrutinizing every ounce of luggage).

    Regarding the format you master from (CD resolution or 24-bit/96kHz): it depends on what you want out of the vinyl format. I can clearly hear more detail in a 24/96 recording over a CD, if the music is well recorded project with lots of dynamics, such as classical music recorded in a nice concert hall.  On the other hand, some kinds of music don't really benefit from the extra data. However, your analog record will reflect whatever you cut it from. For example, cut it from a file in the Mini-Disc ATRAC format and say goodbye to most of your reverb tails. But then again, for a noise project, that probably won't matter. (Personally, I prefer listening to noise from cassettes, anyway…)

  • Greg

    There's lot of snobbery about vinyl and CD's. Back in the uni when I studied music technology lot of students and teachers were horrified about iPods and looked down on anyone who listened to mp3s. It might come as a shock for many, but recently I've been listening to music on my mobile with earphones. Vinyl is for thos who have money, storage space and time to spend in record shops. As far as I'm concerned, I think the best thing that could have happened to humanity is that we have instant access to music. It's wonderful. Those who release music in vinyl only (as many electronic musician do these days) should be ashamed of themselves. Music is for everyone.

  • Human Plague

    Kids need to rediscover the eight-track cartridge.

     

    Stereo 8!

  • http://bluegreengold.net bluegreengold

    Vinyl records form a relationship with the environment and the listener in a way that CDs or digital files cannot. People mention the degradation that comes with each play, surface noise, dust or nicks and scratches detracting from the music, but taken from another perspective, these flaws add depth of history and subjective, personalized experience. My copy of Forever Changes has been around the world and I can hear that when I play it. It is suffused with memories, when It pops a few times at the beginning I feel it. I don't get that experience from a CD skip (as musical as they can be see 94diskont).

    Turntables will also pick up resonance of the room, footsteps, and wind blowing across the stylus. I feel like I receive a much richer experience when I listen to a living analog reproduction rather than a static digital duplication/translation.

  • http://bluegreengold.net bluegreengold

    Of course, vinyl is also a great luxury, and production / storage / transportation is expensive.

    I taped my most of my collection and sold whatever wasn't *really* special to me.

    But as a treat for those who care and who can, I expect records will be the format that outlasts them all.

  • ehdyn

    "Incomplete without surface noise"

    Peter, you should do an article on PCM vs. ΔΣ

    Would be nice to have a hybrid format with the footprint of a FLAC and dynamic level of detail

  • technoton

    Idiotic. PVC f***s the environment. As someone who grew up with vinyl, collected it for 20 years, and spent a fortune on analog playback technology, my view is that it sucks as a audio delivery format. i find this revival laughable. A lot of it has to do with people pedalling myths about vinyl's 

    "superior" sound and ignorance of digital audio theory.

  • Kim

    I don't think Vinyl is superior in sound quality to many mediums although the engineering that went into it may make it sound as if that was the case. It also has nostalgic memory's for many due to readable cover's, great size for art and the collect-ability of a physical object. More importantly you just cant find much of the old music in the newer formats and yes vinyl does sound better than Mp3. Another thing that may lead to the myth of Vinyl sounding better is the quality of stereo equipment and speakers that audiophiles listen to it on. The F***ing up the environment argument really could apply to almost anything including mp3's as they take a computer to be made and distributed so that argument really isn't applicable as vinyl isn't mass produced right now. I would argue that the packaging on most green products is a worse problem than vinyl ever will be again.

  • Downpressor

    As a DJ I get the format that the music is released on whether that is vinyl, CD or digital file. I'm not a turntablist and dont engage in any sort of controllerism or any of the other buzzwords so format bitch fights mean nothing to me.

    As a musician/producer/mixer of other people's music for >25 years, oddly enough I've never knowingly worked on a project destined for CD release. Even in an "all digital" environment I use one simple trick: mix to my ears not the screen. By now my ears "know" what is outside the RIAA curve so I try to mix accordingly. Also I work with decent mastering/pressing places that I can trust to give me product that wont sound like crap .

  • http://sakrecoer.com reSet Sakrecoer

    I like the sound of vinyl. but what i like the most with them is the fact i can collect them and can play them anytime. i don't need a computer with a usb port, oh wait no it was a file on a firewire port? you see, there is a certain guarantee i will be able to listen to the sound always, again and again on a vinyl, that is not as absolute with CD or memory sticks…. but i look forward to this concept of cloud to develope. maybe i will be able to buy physical objects, be toys, books, fancy shit and crapy Jewels, attached to a data source that would just not fade away?….. time will tell.., meanwhile, i still manage to enjoy good music anytime i need.

  • jessieJ

    Using Arcade Fire as an example is not really a good idea; their albums wether it's in digital or vinyl format sound terrible; so compressed. Then again most people don't care as they listen to it through crappy ipod players.

  • Mrnemo

    Hello.