Over the past decade, the music industry has witnessed a significant vinyl revival, with almost 3% of all music consumed being on vinyl (including streaming figures). 2017 saw a 25 year high in vinyl sales in the UK, with 4.1 million records sold and ten years of unbroken growth for the format. To reflect this, the Official Chart Company even launched their first vinyl chart in April 2015, and most major releases are available on vinyl and CD, alongside digital formats.
But why is there such a renewed interest in vinyl, and what is it about vinyl that still appeals to so many?
Does it Really Sound Better than Digital?
The answer lies in the difference between analog and digital recordings. A vinyl record is an analog recording, and CDs and DVDs and are digital recordings. Take a look at the graph above. Original sound is analog by definition. A digital recording takes snapshots of the analog signal at a certain rate (for CDs it is 44,100 times per second) and measures each snapshot with a certain accuracy (for CDs it is 16-bit, which means the value must be one of 65,536 possible values).
This means that, by definition, a digital recording is not capturing the complete sound wave. It is approximating it with a series of steps. Some sounds that have very quick transitions, such as a drum beat or a trumpet’s tone, will be distorted because they change too quickly for the sample rate.
Vinyl audio is often cited as having a better quality sound than digital, and perceived of as sounding both warmer and richer than CD or MP3. There is some scientific merit behind these claims. Firstly, vinyl records source audio from the entire sound wave of a performance, which creates a physical impression of the sound on the disc. If you magnify the groove of a record 100 times, it is varied with different textures, peaks and troughs to represent different types of wave/instrument. Compare this to digital recordings which offer an “impression” of the performance and the differences can be perceptible, especially in music with wide pitch variety such as classical music.
It is inaccurate to believe that digital music cannot offer good sound quality, however. High quality FLAC files and even the humble CD offer excellent, dynamic audio playback. The MP3 is perhaps the source for digital music’s poor reputation for sound quality. The MP3 format was designed as a quick, convenient file that was deliberately of reduced quality to enable faster streaming and downloading. This reduced quality, combined with headphone consumption means that much of today’s popular music is even mixed mid-frequency to support this reduction of dynamic range.
Vinyl playback quality is also notably influenced by accessories and care. Good quality speakers are needed to truly convert the quality of the sound, and you can enhance this further with specialist needles. Typically, record needles are made of steel, but diamond needles are available that last up to 10 times longer than normal, offering greater depth of audio quality and affecting the surface of the vinyl less.
Poor care is also an issue – scratches, dust and warped vinyl can all dramatically affect playback quality. Care for vinyl is therefore vital to truly get the most out of your collection
The History of Vinyl
The first major format for recorded sound was wax cylinders, used on phonographs. These were made out of very soft wax that would wear out after only a few plays. Mass production of wax cylinders began in 1889, but was superseded in the 1920s by disc records (similar to the ones we are familiar with today) made of shellac, a type of natural resin. Shellac records were manufactured almost exclusively until 1949, with the advent of vinyl. Within only two years, vinyl records sales completely surpassed shellac. Vinyl had many benefits over shellac, which was both noisy and brittle, but above all shellac had a much larger groove and faster rpm, meaning 12” discs would only play for a maximum of five minutes per side. Vinyl has a micro groove and slow rpm, meaning up to 20 minutes of music could be played per side.
Since the advent of vinyl, records have remained relatively unchanged, the introduction of stereo being the only notable addition. The format remained popular until the early 1990s, when both the production and cost of making and purchasing CDs reduced dramatically. Vinyl’s decline was dramatic, but a renewed interest in the format has been seen across the US and Europe since the late 2000s.
How is Vinyl Made?
Up until the 1990s, record labels and distribution companies own the vinyl manufacturing process end to end. This was almost entirely sold off by the end of the last century, however, and now the manufacturing process is handled by small independent pressing plants across the UK.
The creation of a vinyl record is a highly manual process that can be tailored greatly. Weight, size, rpm, jacket type (gatefold covers, sleeves etc.), colour and shape are all attributes that need to be determined before the production line, which typically takes 8 – 16 weeks to complete a full run.
Originally, direct audio from recordings would be mastered straight onto vinyl master lacquers. With modern vinyl however, the audio is taken from the standard digital recording and transferred onto the master lacquer. This soft, wax version of the record is then rinsed in a nickel solution and electrified in a silver bath to be used as a literal template to create metal “mother stampers”. These mothers are then used to make up to 500 vinyl pressings (more mothers are needed for larger runs). Test pressings are often audited by sound quality experts before full runs are completed (some pressing plants even employ full time staff purely for this job).
Despite this long winded and manual process, vinyl is still a surprisingly reliable format, with a typical defect rate (on newly pressed vinyl) of 0.5%.
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Not all turntables have to look old fashioned:
Daniel Fryer August 15, 2018
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