More money was spent on vinyl than album downloads last week for the first time ever, new figures have revealed.
The Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) said vinyl sales earned the record industry £2.4m in week 48 of 2016, while downloads took in £2.1m.
It is a significant shift in how people are consuming music. In November last year it was reported that vinyl albums made £1.2m in sales while digital records made £4.4m.
The Official Charts data, suggested that this surge in vinyl sales could be due to customers giving friends and family vinyl as Christmas presents, along with the growing number of retailers, such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and HMV, which now stock vinyl.
All this made me think, why? Is it nostalgia? Is it the whole tactile experience of using vinyl? Is it the quality that vinyl supposedly recreates? Or is it an easy Xmas pressie you can give to your friends or parents?
‘Digital can never sound as good as analogue’
Now this is a message that has always been pushed around, especially at the radio station I work for, and around so many musicians who are 40 plus, but the fact is there’s no theoretical reason to believe it’s true – correctly implemented digital audio can exactly reproduce any analogue audio signal with complete accuracy.
But when I say that, there’s always someone who says something like, “people who listen to CD are missing out on the emotional experience. I don’t expect you to understand, but I know it’s true”. I grew up with vinyl, I know all about the feel of taking a record out of the sleeve, dropping the needle into the groove, that physical connection – but none of those factors influence the actual sound that comes out of the speakers – only the way we feel when we’re using the format. Yes, it’s a factor in the whole experience, but it has nothing to do with the actual recording of the music.
Below are some sensible words by Ian Shepherd from Production Advice, which in my mind says it all:
“Recorded music is often nothing like the original sound in the room. I know, I record it! I’ve heard the musicians playing in the studio or venue; I go to live, 100% acoustic events several times a year. Not as often as I like, but regularly. I also have plenty of friends who are musicians and I get to hear them play, my kids make music— I get it, I love real live music, and I’ve said so, often. But that’s not what recorded music is. Microphones are not ears, the electrical signals they induce to run down cables are not sound waves, and speakers are nothing like the physical objects that made the original sound. It’s all just an illusion, our best attempt to recreate what we experience when the thing making a noise is right in front of us, by somehow storing the pressure variations in the air around us. The truth is it’s a minor miracle that it works at all!
At the end of the day, the signal that gets stored on the format we’re using (tape, vinyl, CD, mp3, whatever) is only a recording of the movement of electrical current in a metal wire. That’s all it is, after all the mics and pre-amps and mixers and compressors and EQs and delays and tapes and converters and clocks and bit-depths and samples rates – it’s just a recording of the changes in electrical currents in a wire. Well, several bits of wire, anyway.
And the accuracy of that reproduction is easy to quantify – an electrical wave in a wire isn’t magic, it’s the one the best-understood physical effects in the world around us. The “best” recreation of the original master is the one that reproduces that original signal most accurately – what the original artists and engineers originally intended us to hear. And great digital and great analogue are both capable of storing this signal well enough to reproduce it with superb accuracy – and emotional impact.”
Ian Shepherd goes on to say, “The clearest demonstration of this in my career so far was working on the remastering of a box set of singles from Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate record label – including classic tracks like PP Arnold’s “First Cut Is The Deepest”, Rod Stewart’s “Little Miss Understood” and many less well-known tracks by acts like the Small Faces, Fleetwood Mac and The Nice.
The great thing about this project was that as well as earlier CD releases and as many original master tapes as could be found, we also had a complete mint condition collection of the original releases on 45″ singles.
This was fantastic, because we were able to compare all the available sources of every single song, including how the actual original release sounded, and use that information as part of the mastering process. What was surprising was discovering which formats sounded best. You might think the original master tapes would win every time. They didn’t. You might think the actual original vinyl would always sound the best – it didn’t.
And you might assume that the original early CD transfers would always sound cold, hard and clinical – but they didn’t. Not by a long shot. Sometimes the analogue reels did! There was no pattern.
For some songs, the original master tapes sounded incredible. For others, the vinyl just had a certain quality in the sound that the others didn’t. And for some tracks, the earlier CD releases actually sounded best. (And by best, I mean you connected with the music the most, felt the need to dance more, felt the emotion of the lyrics more clearly.) Sometimes we could apply processing to match different versions much more closely – sometimes not. But in every case, it was to do with the mastering decisions and quality of the transfer that determined what sounded best – NOT the type of format.
The single most amazing discovery we made had nothing to do with the sound at all! It was to do with the music. It turned out that the version of “First Cut Is The Deepest” that was on every single CD release we could find— was the wrong take.
The vocal take on the original vinyl was softer, sweeter, lighter and sadder than the one we already knew, and it wasn’t on any modern release we had access to. We’d never heard this version, and the vinyl was the only copy we had – so that’s what went into the box set. Prior to that release, no-one was hearing the very best (and original) version of that song. The music is the most important thing.
So what IS so special about analogue and vinyl, then? All the other “flavours” of analogue tape or vinyl or tubes that we like, are just a matter of taste, in my opinion. If we grew up with record crackle and end-of-side distortion, there’s a good chance we’ll associate that quality of sound with some of our most intense musical experiences.
If the first time you heard The Beatles, or Pink Floyd, or Elvis, or Nirvana was connected in your brain with the physical act of dropping a needle onto record, then pressing “play” on a CD player or computer screen is unlikely to ever match it. Just like I love watching the amazing engineering of an old Studer tape machine as it switches from rewind to play, or the feel of resistance as you thread a tape across the heads.
But these are “added value” factors in our listening experience – they don’t affect the sound waves in the room. Those are determined by the movements of the speaker cones, which are made to move by the amplified signal of… the changes in electrical current in a wire.
If we get pleasurable endorphins released into our bloodstream because of the pleasant smell of old record sleeves, or seeing the large format artwork and reading the lyrics, that will change our experience of the sound – but not the sound itself.”
So enjoy the vinyl you get at Xmas, but if you are playing it on your £49.00 Lidl record deck please don’t delude yourself you are getting that all-encompassing musical experience unless you are of course very wealthy and using a £3000 + system.
The best music is always live! The best recorded music is just that! It’s the music that counts not the format.