Thursday, October 09, 2008

Wax Ecstatic

I'm not sure if you've heard... vinyl is back.

CD shoved past vinyl in the late 80's, relegating the survival of the format to audiophiles and DJ's; now, in what might be a "Rocky"-type comeback, vinyl may now be spelling the end of CD's.

Yes, that's right. Those same large black coasters that have existed in your domicile primarily as nostalgic references to a time gone by... are now potentially pushing their commercial successors out of business. For the first time in the last 20 years, sales of vinyl are going up significantly.

How is this possible?

This is how we got here: in the past ten years, people who wanted the flexibility of music in an electronic format have turned to mp3's, which has (for quite some time) been driving CD sales downward. As the convenience that CD's has offered has been supplanted by mp3's, the audiophile vinyl-only purists (living amongst us like recessive genes) have kept the format on life support, evangelizing that a CD could never match the richer sound quality of an album.

So now we've come to the tipping point, where audio purists are becoming a larger segment of the record/CD-buying public. Don't believe me? The next time you go into Newbury Comics, look at the vinyl section. It's growing.

But the proof is in the pudding.
Having owned it for six months, it seemed like the right time to finally open the wrapper on the LP version of Bob Mould's Body of Song. I was shocked at how much fuller the sound was than on CD (the song "Paralyzed" in particular). So, a few weekends back, Scott, Bubba, and I got together to take a larger listen for ourselves. Cranking the stereo (with Mrs. Snilch Report wisely taking cover at the Jersey shore), we ended up finding that the music did sound at least as good, and often better, on LP than on CD. A few notables:
  • Hüsker Dü - Warehouse: Songs and Stories. (1987) I always wondered how this band went from a small label to a major, yet saw the quality of its mastering plummet. Well, here is the answer: the CD mixes were crap, the vinyl mixes were great. I've been listening to "Could You Be the One?" for 20 years now, and swear it never sounded as good as when I heard it on record. The drums sound much less tinny, the guitar much more rounded and full -- it's almost as if the album was originally "digitally sanitized" for CD. The other Hüsker albums we sampled (Metal Circus, New Day Rising) were also better than their CD counterparts, but not as strikingly better as Warehouse was.
  • The Dandy Warhols - The Dandy Warhols Come Down.(1997) This was a complete shock. I've always preferred their self-titled 1995 debut as an album front-to-back, and (confession time) I even made this CD a Sell-back Pile 1 victim. On vinyl, I was finally hearing the album as it should have been presented. It has a much fuller sound and a much better bass response than its CD counterpart, which is key to the their sound. My impression now? It's a totally dynamic album, probably CD (LP?) Car Changer worthy. I'm still in shock. I'm glad Scott brought this along, as it may have been the highlight of the day for me.
  • Sleater-Kinney - Dig Me Out. (1997) This is, IMHO, S-K's tour de force in a great catalog of albums, and yet I felt like I was listening to it again for the first time on vinyl. There was great sound separation and a clear bass sound (despite the fact that they don't use a bass, but a guitar with bass pickups). You could really hear the Rubber Soul guitar sound come through very clearly on "Turn It On." A very enjoyable listen.
And I could go on and on.... In the end, our small sample size revealed the ultimate advantages of vinyl to the ear: a richer, more rounded guitar sound; better bass separation and response; and a more "forgiving" and warmer overall sound. I think it's like watching film versus video: there is something inherent in the medium that adds to the viewing/listening experience and the overall enjoyment. I've always maintained that film "emotes" to some extent; I think vinyl does the same from a sound perspective.

So I'm sold. Dig out your turntable, hook it up to your stereo, and listen for yourself. Of course, there is one drawback: great turntables haven't been in production for a number of years... I actually only have mine as a result of Sean's leaving for Portland back in the day. And even that is having some issues; I am hoping it's simply a result of not properly grounding it and thus causing my left channel to freak out. (As opposed to being an issue with my receiver, but I'm not sure how to test that precisely.) But when I get that fixed -- it's back to the vinyl. Again.

- Snilch


Seano said...

Ok, Sniltch here knows that I have been one of the "recessive genes" that has continued his love of vinyl throughout the years, both for my personal collection and as, for a short period of time, a hip hop DJ. I feel like I should jump up and say "hey" here simply to both counter and underline some of what he's mentioning here. I also have, with the joy of being the devil's advocate, a small list of things that sound better on CD.

So firstly - there is a reason albums such as "Warehouse Songs and Stories" sound like shit on CD - they weren't even mastered for the format. When CDs first hit and began to turn the industry inside out *everyone* was trying to get *everything* out on CDs so as to capitalize on the rounds of people re-purchasing their entire collection. As anyone knows, when it comes down to money, quality is the first thing ditched in order to get straight to quantity. Essentially, they used the vinyl masters of these albums to create the CDs. This had a wonderful side effect - not only did they sell all these "better sounding things" but, since they actually sounded like crap, they had the luxury of slowly, at their leisure, remastering the albums directly for CD, and the re-releasing them again (and again - in box sets, collections, as "gold disks", etc) for even more scratch.

Essentially, they just proved that the RIAA is just George Lucas on a far grander scale.

But you can't entirely blame them. The art of mastering for vinyl, which really was an art, had years to be studied and no one really knew what a CD could handle. Therefore, the range they could push vinyl was understood but CDs, which already suffered from iffy bass response and overall timbre problems (digital snapshots miss a lot of overtones), were an unknown. Something that becomes very clear when you listen to a CD mixed and mastered today than a CD mixed and mastered twenty years ago (and, dear god, I'm old).

All of this should underline a lot of what Snilch says, and I agree with him wholeheartedly (and am glad to welcome him back into the fold of vinyl abusers). I also never really thought about how MP3s were helping the return of vinyl but, even better than Newbury Comics stocking more and more, the huge Northwest chain shopping center, Fred Meyer (aka Krogers) is stocking it as well. Super scary.

So, here's where I disagree - I've had Warehouse on vinyl (twice), CD (once), and MP3 (from the CD, so ignore that), and all I can say is that it sounds like crap no matter how you listen to it... The songs, great; the recording, not so great; the drums, cardboard... Just my two cents. That album also suffered under the weight of being mastered for both CD and vinyl *right at the start* of the CD era (sort of, Snilch'll probably correct me on this), which probably made it worse.

Also - The Dandy Warhols' Come Down is their masterpiece so nyah. :)

A list of albums that sound better on CD:

1) The Who Sell Out - Who knew there was a tambourine on that thing? It was horribly mastered for vinyl, disgustingly transferred to CD, then miraculously remastered for CD and all of a sudden an ok catalog album by the Who becomes their best.

2) Errr... I can't think of anything else...

3) Yeah, I give up. It's probably a remaster anyway. While most of them are for "serious fanatics only" (unless it's your first time purchasing the thing) there are some amazing things that have been done with remastering, but also on vinyl.

I finally want to leave off with a tip of the hat to CDs. They were the first medium to really make indie-level music release accessible to the masses. As they became the standard and became cheaper and cheaper to mass produce, the number of bands and labels that could reasonably distribute their work grew exponentially, setting the stage for the MP3 revolution that is really, finally, remapping the paradigm of the music industry.

- Captkeano

Anonymous said...

Great post. I agree, nothing beats vinyl. But I've always wanted to know...was Sponge's "Wax Ecstatic" album ever released on vinyl? Or was it just a CD/cassette release? I think the album would be amazing on vinyl and I'd love to hear it, but I've never found a copy or any info on whether copies were ever pressed. However, I know their first album "Rotting Pinata" and the "Plowed" and "Molly" singles came out on vinyl.

Snilch said...

As far as I know, nothing after "Rotting Pinata" album ever was put out on vinyl; the single for "Wax Ecstatic" was pressed on 7" vinyl, but it's tough to find. It would be great to get that album on vinyl, I agree!