Why Do Records Sound Better? | The Ivory Tower

Into The Groove

Why do a lot of us audiophiles (and casual listener types) prefer the sound of records over the same music released digitally? Is it something about the inferiority of digital? Are vinyl records, without those sacrilegious anti-aliasing filters and stair-step samples, somehow higher in resolution? Or is it simply the much-heralded warmth of vinyl?

Some would say digital is superior without the surface noise, side length limitations, and inner groove distortion. So what’s the point of putting digital mixes on an analog record? Records should be cut from an analog master, right? I’m not talking about the ritual of owning and playing records. Putting aside the factors of having a tangible object that requires more care and intention, along with the fun of combing bins for used treasures and everything else that goes with being a record collector, let’s explore the sonics and what’s responsible for that warm and fuzzy feeling we often get when having a platter party.

Words and Photos by Dave McNair

Everyone hears things differently. Folks have different tastes for what lights up that pleasure center in our brains. It’s a subject I talk about a lot with my audiophile friends, especially the record lovers. So I figured during these times of new-found popularity and interest in vinyl I might as well use my experiences to pour some more gasoline on the fire. I’m not trying to convince anyone, just some food for thought aimed at the curious readers out there, digital fans included.

First off I want to dispel the notion that vinyl is somehow a higher resolution format, as alleged by some—especially in the early days of bad sounding CDs. It was sometimes stated (and still is) that a record contains more information from the source material than a digital release does. Nope. While I can’t scientifically prove it, the experiences from my job as a mastering engineer who also cuts lacquers for vinyl production, tells me this is not so. Not counting poorly done, hyped eq, overly peak limited remasters that frequently are done without the artist’s approval, the digital release is a stone-cold faithful version of what the artist and production team intended the listener to hear.

This or that DAC or 44.1K vs. 192K is like asking which shape snowflake do you prefer when the artist simply wants us to see the snow on the mountain as they intended us to see it. Debating DACs or some exotic digital playback tweaks is fine, but just about any old DAC will give you what the artist wanted.

But if we listen to that same music on a good-to-great vinyl playback system it seems like things sound very different and I would argue more compelling. More real and substantive. Some kind of hard to describe lifelike quality that is subtle but somehow makes for a deeper listening experience. What’s going on here?

Sony PCM-F1, photo by Ken Rockwell of www.kenrockwell.com

Searching For My Lost Shaker Of Iron Oxide

Digital got a bad reputation among audiophiles from the beginning, and rightly so—yet this was not the experience of most music fans in those early days. My first generation Sony CD player in many ways sounded better than the budget turntable setup I was using at the time. It had a punch, tightness, clarity, and lack of noise that I had only heard in the studio. And we were under the impression that the discs were indestructible with no ability to wear out like a vinyl record. Yeah, right. It was also brittle, congested, and dry sounding. I didn’t listen at home with an audiophile sensibility in those days so it wasn’t immediately apparent to me that the early CDs and players were like a sponge that someone used to wring out all the subtle yet enjoyable qualities to the music. Right down the perfect sound forever drain.

Meanwhile, in the studio, I was using 24 track analog tape for most projects but started doing some jazz sessions which I recorded live, to 2 track digital. We proudly used a new Sony PCM-F1 system that recorded 16-bit 44.1 or 48K to either VHS or Beta videotape. All of us were flabbergasted with how great it sounded. I had for some years been a little bummed out with how even well-regarded professional multi-track tape machines sounded, which was easily audible on playback immediately after having just heard the feed from the console as the musicians performed live. By the way, those 24 track decks all sound different, but that’s another discussion.

So now with the Sony PCM-F1, we had a way to perfectly capture the feed from the microphones, without any noise, softening of transients, change in the feel of the bottom end, or smearing of high-frequency energy like vocal sibilance and cymbals. There was also a period for me, and a lot of other engineers, where most of my projects were recorded to analog multi-track and then mixed down through an analog console to an early stereo digital recording machine (ADAT or Alesis Masterlink). I thought it sounded way better than our analog tape, quarter-inch head, 30 inches per second, stereo mixdown deck. Going back to that all-machines-sound-different thing, maybe if we had had an Ampex ATR-102 half-inch at that studio, we wouldn’t have preferred the Sony digital…

That love affair proved to be short-lived for me when digital multi-track machines appeared on the scene. I used most of them. Mitsubishi X-800, X-850, X-80, X-86, Sony 3324, 3348, 1610, 1630, Sony DAT machines, Panasonic DAT machines, you name it. While some were not horrible, I couldn’t shake the feeling of something being off. The worst was the Alesis ADAT format followed in close second by early versions of ProTools. I used to say those sounded like plastic cardboard. Then there was the time my assistant during an all-digital mix session exclaimed dryly “Dave, it sounds like the cat just threw up a digital hairball.”

Dave McNair, photo by Eric Franklin Shook

Strangely enough, most 2 channel DAT machines sounded fine to me.

In the HiFi world, manufacturers were trying to figure out how to make those shiny discs sound good, or at least better. I credit most of the developments in converter design to the Objectivists of the HiFi world. It might have looked amazing on paper to the techies but the experienced listeners screamed bloody murder and the designers implemented improvements—not only to home digital playback but also a trickle-down to the pro audio, digital recording world.

Today, using good converters, I feel like professional digital recording systems (including ProTools) have finally matured and, in fact, sound about as good as they ever need to. They are essentially colorless. Completely faithful to the source. Isn’t that what HiFi is all about? But wait, don’t a lot of digital recordings still sound shitty? Why yes, yes they do. But some don’t. Some sound amazing. Warm, wide, clear, harmonically rich.

What’s happening there?

We are now at the point where the engineer is no longer fighting an inferior, lower resolution, recording medium. Recording and mixing engineers have discovered that the best way to make digitally recorded music sound engaging is to introduce layers of various distortions to give our brains a hit of what naturally happens from analog tape and lots of trips through an analog console. With the almost universal acceptance of digital audio workstations, most engineers I know stay completely digital once it gets into the computer. No tape. No going through an analog console. There is a real art to making this sound great. I know one engineer who refers to his process as one of “sonic varnish.” He likes to use digital processing to create small amounts of different distortions and in various layers to arrive at the most pleasing sound. He’s not alone.

In the old days, using top-shelf pro analog gear, and if you had decent ears and employed best practices during your recording, that analog sound that everybody loves and talks about (and many engineers now seek to emulate) was simply baked in—an inherent part of the process when using those tools. Which is missing when using digital tools, especially in the mixing phase. Hence the popularity of digital plugins that seek to emulate the sound of analog gear’s distortions and non-linearity.

Hi-Fi: Why Do Records Sound Better?, photo by Dave McNair

Can I Get That Platter With A Side Order Of Fries?

Cutting a lacquer and directly comparing it to the source master is fascinating and illuminating in several ways. One thing I’ve learned is brands and models of lathes sound different from each other. This has a direct impact on the sound of the finished record. In my particular setup, (custom Scully with Westrex cutter head and hybrid tube and solid-state electronics), the lacquer almost always sounds better overall than what I send to it to be cut. Think about it. The electronics have a sound, the head has a sound, and to some degree, the mechanical parts of the lathe have a sound. I won’t even get into the additional colorations of the playback chain—you get the idea.

All of this is separate from whatever the engineer did (if anything) to manipulate the signal to get a good cut. My cutting system has a fair degree of sonic color but I love its sound. It’s true enough to the source program material but with a paradoxically slight smoothing effect in the upper mid and a great sense of punch and dynamic contrast. Also, there’s a little more vivid mid-range with some added air on top. While not as wide sounding as the source (cutter heads and cartridges might have 25db of separation on a good day), there is some kind of intangible sonic mojo that makes imaging quality seem more palpable. Similar to the typical vacuum tube gear in a HiFi playback system, the tubes in the front end of my cutting rack give the low end a largeness or bloom which I generally like. I’m also having a solid-state front end version finalized that I can use on stuff that needs to sound tighter down there. Other lathes I’ve heard and compared can sound tighter, more damped, maybe more refined but also lacking the exciting dynamics and luscious mid-range of my system.

Getting all these attributes to transfer to a final record after the lacquer goes to electroplating and pressing is a major ordeal. Crazy making. When the right folks are part of this production chain the results can be amazing.

Hi-Fi: Why Do Records Sound Better?, photo by Dave McNair

I’ll Just Play Records Until I Need Glasses

So it should turn out to be no surprise that for a digital master mix, one more layer of analog colorations from a cutting system can be just what the doctor ordered. At least to my ear. Certainly, a well done all-analog recording can also sound great on vinyl. Some might consider an all-analog cut to be the pinnacle of the art form. I certainly do. But if you want to hear an analog final mix or a digitally produced recording sound as close to how it was intended to be heard, listen on good digital. I usually prefer the additional coloration of the vinyl process even if the source was analog, but that’s just my preference.

I think part of it is the added noise. Not pops and clicks, but something different. Even on a record with a very minimal amount of surface noise, there is noise. It’s uncorrelated stereo noise primarily from the heated cutter head stylus dragging through virgin nitro-cellulose. A little of that gives our brain the psycho-acoustic cues we interpret as things sounding wider and deeper. I know this, cause I’ve added stereo tape hiss in very low levels to digital mixes and you wouldn’t believe what good things it does to the sound!

Hi-Fi: Why Do Records Sound Better?, photo by Dave McNair

There is another element to my argument that involves what source the lacquers are cut from. It’s not a universal thing but is becoming increasingly more common for the lacquers to be cut from less limited or even non-peak limited files—bonus points if the non-limited master is native sample rate and bit depth. By native, I mean a higher resolution mix before 16-bit, 44.1K conversion for Red Book CD spec. The amount of limiting done by the mastering engineer to get the final mix up to the desired (sometimes ridiculous) level demanded by many artists has no relevance in the vinyl world and can even make it more difficult to cut. This is another reason why records can seem more dynamic and alive sounding than the same release heard on CD or streamed. However, I have heard records that I perceived as more engaging than the CD even though I knew the record was cut from the loud, limited 16-bit 44.1K digital release.

Yes, poor digital can suck the life out of a signal. And poor analog, especially tape, can rob the signal of a lot of great things as well. Can the marriage of well done current digital music production when transferred to a record sound great? You betcha! I will, however, admit that there are a lot of bad sounding records out there to the extent that the digital release can easily sound better. But when reissues of older titles (and new music) are done with care by sound-oriented labels or by independent artists who are in control of the process, and not initially in huge quantities like a typical ’70s major label release, it’s not as likely the buyer will get something stamped on cheap or recycled PVC and from worn-out stampers.

I truly consider the vinyl resurgence to be a golden age of sound for record and music lovers. Okay, give me a minute to put on my flame retardant suit then let me know what y’all think in the comment section below.

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About the author, Dave McNair

Dave McNair has been a professional recording engineer, mixer, producer, audiophile, and for the last 20 years, a multiple Grammy-winning mastering engineer. Since his earliest days, music has been a constant. Starting with seeing The Beatles live on Ed Sullivan to studying classical guitar from age 11, then later a series of rock bands, his love of music, sound, and tech, lead him to a career in music recording. Concurrent to beginning his engineering career, he sold high-end home audio in several locations including Innovative Audio and Sound By Singer in NYC. After years of residence in NYC, Los Angeles, and Austin, he now resides in Winston-Salem, NC where he operates Dave McNair Mastering and spends his free time listening to records, reading, meditating, cooking vegan food, hiking, riding road bikes and swapping out hi-fi gear in search of a better sound.

Hi-Fi: Why Do Records Sound Better?, photo by Dave McNair
Hi-Fi: Why Do Records Sound Better?, photo by Dave McNair
Hi-Fi: Why Do Records Sound Better?, photo by Dave McNair