Back in Black

Vinyl’s su­pe­rior sonic qual­i­ties en­dear it to au­dio­philes, while younger peo­ple are be­guiled by its aes­thet­ics — not least of all the al­bum cov­ers

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

The march of progress of­ten tram­ples vi­able older tech un­der­foot, only for it to make a come­back later. The boom in ar­ti­fi­cial fab­rics such as ny­lon, polyester and neo­prene last cen­tury was fol­lowed by a re­turn to cot­ton, wool and silk, elic­it­ing in many a sigh of re­lief and com­fort. Could vinyl records be set to do the same?

As stream­ing and dig­i­tal down­loads have be­come dom­i­nant in our “con­nected world”, the com­pact disc has gone the way of the dodo. This is partly be­cause new com­put­ers rarely come with CD play­ers built in, but also be­cause the tan­gi­ble as­pects of CDs, such as the flimsy plas­tic and pa­per pack­ag­ing, hardly in­spire de­vo­tion. For those who want to hold and feel their mu­sic, old-style records are rapidly re­plac­ing CDs.

Vinyl sales are at a 25-year high, with press­ing plants cur­rently un­able

A Brief His­tory of Vinyl

to keep up. Stores such as HMV are well-stocked with the black gold. Bands are ex­cited about it, too — for one, 1980s le­gends Eury­th­mics are reis­su­ing all their al­bums on vinyl this year.

For most of the 20th cen­tury, the vinyl al­bum was em­bed­ded in the world’s imag­i­na­tion and on its record shelves. But in the mid-’80s, the rug was pulled out from un­der mu­sic con­sumers when the CD was foisted on an un­sus­pect­ing pub­lic. It was dig­i­tal, we were told, and there­fore its re­pro­duc­tion must be per­fect.

In fact, how­ever, it was a step back­ward for au­dio qual­ity. To make a dig­i­tal record­ing, ana­logue sig­nals have to be “sam­pled”. The CD in­tro­duced the 44.1 kHz au­dio sam­pling rate, which takes “snap­shots” of the ana­logue sig­nal 44,100 times per sec­ond. Each snap­shot is then mea­sured with 16-bit ac­cu­racy, giv­ing only 65,536 pos­si­ble sonic val­ues.

Thus, CDs don’t cap­ture the com­plete sound wave. Com­plex tones, such as trum­pets or drum tran­sients, may be dis­torted be­cause they oc­cur too fast to be con­verted ad­e­quately. On the other hand, the groove cut into a qual­ity vinyl record mir­rors the orig­i­nal sound’s wave­form with a much greater fre­quency range. And while the ana­logue out­put of a record player can be fed di­rectly to your am­pli­fier, dig­i­tal play­ers need to con­vert the sig­nal back to ana­logue.

Bar­ring dust, static or scratches, a qual­ity vinyl record played on good equip­ment should be more ac­cu­rate and richer than any CD — and even so-called “loss­less” dig­i­tal for­mats with much higher sam­pling and bit rates. While sub­tle sur­face noise is a facet of vinyl records, most peo­ple grow to ap­pre­ci­ate the “at­mos­phere” it gives. Records do get worn over time, but if looked af­ter prop­erly, they’re still far more durable than CDs (and pos­si­bly even the in­ter­net).

They’re less likely to mal­func­tion than CDs or dig­i­tal files be­cause, well, there’s no such thing as a “vinyl virus”.

Records also have a wow fac­tor and were one of the most in­ter­est­ing cul­tural arte­facts of the last cen­tury. A rite of pas­sage for many mu­sic-ad­dicted teens was to raid their par­ents’ dusty record col­lec­tions (and wardrobes) to dis­cover older mu­sic and broaden their hori­zons. It could be ar­gued that the widely be­moaned qual­ity level of mod­ern pop­u­lar mu­sic (US mu­si­cian Moby re­cently shamed it as “ter­ri­ble — shal­low and trite and unre­deemable”) is one con­se­quence of this heir­loom vac­uum.

Vinyl’s demise also killed the art of vis­ual de­sign. From the Amer­i­can jazz al­bum cov­ers of the ’40s and ’50s to those of rock and pop a few decades later, cover art be­came an in­deli­ble vis­ual coun­ter­point to the mu­sic of these golden eras. Many bands were in­ti­mately in­volved in the creation of the cov­ers — no sur­prise, given the art-school back­ground of many.

Af­ter the CD for­mat took over the mar­ket, vinyl clung to life as a mi­nor­ity in­ter­est and due to some DJs’ pref­er­ence for it. It only started to make a come­back in the late 2000s. From less than a mil­lion units sold in 2006, Deloitte projects global vinyl sales for this year at 40 mil­lion units, mostly in the US, UK and Ja­pan, with a value of $1 bil­lion — about 6 per­cent of broader mu­sic in­dus­try rev­enues. Looks like it’s time to start build­ing (or re­build­ing) that record col­lec­tion!


The dra­matic US cover of Whites­nake’s Trou­ble (1978).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.