I’m sure you’ve heard things like this before; it’s a point of view heralded by young hipsters and aging hippies alike — you may have even said it from time to time. “Nothing beats the sound of vinyl.” “Vinyl just sounds warmer.” “CDs don’t get the sound quality of an old-school record.”
If you haven’t said this before, you might be quick to dismiss it: they’re either pining for a past that never was or hating something just because it’s popular (much like your humble author and her aversion for all things Harry Potter). Is this true? Is it false? I WISH THERE WAS SOME PROCESS WE COULD USE FIND OUT THE QUALITIES INHERENT TO VINYL AND DIGITAL RECORDING THAT MAKE THEM DIFFERENT!
Oh wait. Science.
The main difference between CDs (and MP3, and AAC, and WAV, and silly, silly WMA) and vinyl is that the former is digital and the latter is analog. It’s very similar to the difference between a digital photograph and an analog photograph: the digital version takes a million different tinier snapshots of the sound or of the image, then recreates them in an entirely different format to the best of its ability. A crappy camera shows that it’s crappy by pixelating the image; a crappy recording shows that it’s crappy by cutting out or sounding distorted. In audio, this is a sign of the particular devices’ sampling rate.
Analog, on the other hand, makes an almost true-to-life recreation of the sound or the image. Analog cameras essentially blast the light coming from the lens onto a bit of film. There’s the image. Similarly, the grooves in a record are the waveforms that were recorded — not a series of snapshots or samples, but a true recreation of the sound the recorder heard (think about the tickertape on a seismograph. The needle messes with the line on the paper as the vibrations affect its position. Same deal).
Therefore, the difference between digital and analog recording is the simplest and perhaps the biggest difference between the sound of a CD and the sound of a record. No matter how high a digital track’s sampling rate, it cannot get the true-to-life recreation of sound that vinyl does. This isn’t the end of the matter, though: there’s the tendency for a record’s dust to add scratchiness to the sound, the fact that the physical act of a something scratching a material year after year begins to degrade that material, a fluctuating temperature’s effect on vinyl, and the fact that the heavy-handed nature of a phonograph needle often leads to a “roll off” of the high frequencies (leading to that “warm sound” people talk about). In these aspects, digital wins.
But wait, there’s more!
It’s called the loudness war. You know how what TV considered scandalous in the 60s was a bit of midriff, and for something to be considered scandalous on TV now, it needs to be a full-fledged mammary gland? Whether it’s the audiences who demand it or the content creators who shove it down their throats, time has made the stakes higher for everything. Music is no exception, of course.
When a series of songs play on the radio, record executives want their own songs to stand out. Loudness is a great way to do just that. Make no mistake about it: early on, they were doing this to records as much as they could, but there were limitations. As a result of vinyl’s innocent analog disposition, it has a variable limit for how loud it can get, one which depends on a variety of finicky factors. Digital, on the other hand, has all sorts of tricks up its sleeve in order to turn up the volume. Once the loudest parts of a digital track have reached the file’s loudest possible level, audio engineers can still do more to make the whole track louder. Often, this involves dynamic range compression: bringing up the quiet parts to sound louder. Sometimes, nearly as loud as the loud parts. Sometimes, just as loud.
As CDs became the format of choice, more and more songs started using compression to sound louder. As the technology got more advanced, the dynamic range (the quiet quiets and the loud louds) got blurrier. Until now, when you can hardly hear quiet sections in any of your music. This is why we can wear earbuds and never adjust the volume, sure, but this is also why we can listen in our living rooms and never be blown away by a glorious, climactic musical passage.
This video demonstrates the difference perfectly:
Though there are many facts that objectively determine each format’s strengths and weaknesses, this is by no means the end of the debate. Which do you think is better?