Vinyl’s Imperfections Improve the Listening Experience

Marc HenshallCulture & Industry, Tech Talk2 Comments

It is the prerogative of each generation preceding the next to claim that their generation’s music was better. Or at least that’s how each generation typically feels…

We all get there eventually; at first you’re checking out what’s new on the block musically every day, then it’s every week – or even every month. Before you know it, you haven’t bought a new album in years. And eventually, you’re uttering that phrase pertaining to modern music that can only be filed under the category of “get off my lawn!”

I for one have long held the view that something was missing from many modern productions — not all of them — just some of them. However, music is such a subjective topic, and I’ve often dismissed my own view as simple generation bias and a product of my own experience. After all, one person’s treasure is another person’s trash, as they say.

But what if – to a degree – you were right; what if something had really changed?

The Sterilization of Music

According to a recent article published by qz.com, something has changed, and the culprit accused is production. The title, in particular, caught my attention: “This music production tool is the reason why all new music sounds the same.”

In essence, the article addresses the notion that (starting with the ubiquitous use of a click track) music has traversed a path leading to the continual pursuit of perfection to the point where even minor human error is considered unacceptable.

Over time, the standard of expected perfection has grown to a point where, they claim, human performers are expected to “sound like machines.” The click track might’ve begun life in the studio as a tool to help improve consistent timing, but over time, more and more musical elements were expected to fall in line: Bass player not quite in time with the kick? Sync it; Vocalist a fraction out of tune? Fix it with pitch correction software. Eventually, you find yourself at the bottom of a slippery slope that leads to a clinical, soulless, and formula-driven approach to music.

It’s a powerful claim, and arguably an over-simplified approach to the argument — there are, after all, so many other layers to consider: loudness war compression, for example. Another, less quantitative aspect to consider is musical style and how appropriate production techniques and the threshold of acceptable human error is often different from one style to another.

Highly subjective though the argument might be, the topic did get me thinking further about how our constant pursuit of greater perfection might have similar consequences when it comes to the listening format. In other words, could we consider the removal of vinyl’s imperfections in the move to digital yet another layer in the sterilization of music?

Vinyl as a listening format brings another layer of slight imperfection and variation that arguably contributes to a more varied, enriched listening experience. Digital can deliver very consistent results, but does this come at the expense of a more authentic experience that we connect with on a deeper level?

When I consider these kind of arguments, I’m often reminded of a well-known scene from The Matrix:

“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.”

Ok, so I’m not for one minute suggesting that you “define your reality through suffering and misery,” but the sentiment around our human tendency to reject perfection provides food for thought.

Beautiful Analog Imperfection

To make a point, let’s consider the effects of analog tape on the recording process for one moment. The imperfections in these machines imparted “tape saturation” onto the record, which in short translates to a mixture of subtle audible distortion, phase irregularities, micro pitch shifting, and harmonic transients across the entire recording. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it’s there, and it sounds great; there’s a good reason people pay a lot of money to emulate this sound using plug-ins when recording digitally.

Tape saturation creates another dimension to the listening experience that some listeners prefer. Vinyl records also impart distortions onto a recording (sometimes subtle, sometimes less so). When listeners claim they prefer the “warm sound” of vinyl to colder, more clinical digital copies, they are most likely describing the sound of many subtle distortions imparted by analog recording and playback.

I often hear readers comment that “vinyl records are pointless if the recording is digital” (or at least statements to this effect). This topic is perhaps a whole new debate in its own right, but it does bring me neatly back to the overarching sentiment behind this article: by slowly cleansing the experience of recorded music, are we missing out on the beautiful imperfections that make up a great deal of what it means to be human?

As John Peel once famously said (and I must’ve used this quote to death now): “Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, ‘Listen, mate, *life* has surface noise.”

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