Dr. AIX's POSTS — 15 March 2015

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Today is the 30th running of the Los Angeles Marathon. It would have been my 6th consecutive running of the “Stadium to the Sea” course from Dodger Stadium near downtown to the Santa Monica Pier…but I can’t get my lungs back to normal after my bout with pneumonia back in January. No kidding, apparently I’m clear of the infection but still hacking pretty regularly. As I walked into my audio recording class last week a few minutes late, the students were chuckling. When I asked them why, I was told they could tell I was close because of the telltale coughing. How pleasant. I’m back on some new medications and trying to make an appointment with a pulmonary specialist. Missing the race was pretty disappointing…but it was incredibly hot and humid today (upper 80s) so maybe it was for the best.

I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the new AIX Records 2015 sampler, which I hope to have completed and manufactured in time for the AXPONA Show in late April. It’s going to be the best one yet with 70 individual tracks each with three different mixes. The best part is that it reflects the entire AIX Records catalog…not just productions from recent years since I’ve been shooting in HD-Video. The disc is complicated and the production has been a challenge. I think I’m getting close but maybe that just wishful thinking.

There is an article at the Oregonlive.com website titled, “Does vinyl really sound better? An engineer explains“. With all of the claims that vinyl LPs are gaining in popularity and is making a rapid comeback, the fact remains that only 2% of music industry revenue is generated by vinyl LPs. The writer of the article stated, “As compressed MP3 files and digital streaming services from YouTube to Pandora have become the norm for music listening, vinyl sales have skyrocketed from under a million in 2007 to potentially more than 8 million this year in the U.S. alone — in part thanks to the thinking that vinyl just sounds better.” The hyperbole over this highly compromised format is yet another try by artists and labels to extract more money from music lovers. So I read the piece guessing that an engineer would be able to get the basics right. But I was wrong.

David Greenwald interviewed mastering engineer Adam Gonsalves of Portland’s Telegraph Mastering about the realities of vinyl LPs. Here’s what he said under the heading The Good, “Vinyl is the only consumer playback format we have that’s fully analog and fully lossless. You just need a decent turntable with a decent needle on it and you’re going to enjoy a full-fidelity listening experience. It’s a little bit more idiot-proof and a little bit less technical.”

I’m sure that Adam has heard of analog tape. I know it’s not nearly as widespread as vinyl but it is a consumer format for many and it does a much better job of delivery music fidelity than vinyl LPs. And the comment about vinyl LPs being “lossless”? The term applies only to digital formats that must convert from one representation of audio to another…and then back again.

He continues, “The analog format allows for artists to transport their music from magnetic tape to LP to your speakers or headphones without the complications of digital conversion. This, ideally, is the closest one can get to what the artist intended — if the artist recorded on tape and sent the reels over to an engineer like Gonsalves to cut a lacquer master from.” Should we compare the complications of “digital conversion” to the “complications of vinyl mastering and production”? I’ll give you one guess which format is easier to work with and delivers better fidelity.

Any discussion of vinyl wouldn’t be complete without the requisite mention of “that warm vinyl sound”. And yes, the Oregonlive piece didn’t miss that claim. “I think this is what people like about it: it pins very closely to the way that human beings hear music organically,” Gonsalves said. “It’s very mid-range-y and very warm,” a sound that flatters the fuzzy guitars of rock ‘n’ roll.” No argument from me, if that’s what you like.

The author finishes the article with numerous bad things about vinyl LPs…chocks them up this way, “these sounds are just part of the vinyl experience, adding to the charm of a format that takes some extra effort — and often rewards it.”

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(17) Readers Comments

  1. The love and advocacy for vinyl has nothing to do with HRA. The labels have rediscovered their golden goose and that goose lays 12″ golden nuggets at $20-25 a piece. “Hallelujah! they say, let’s ride the wave for as long as we can. We’re making some money again. It’s a wave, maybe a fad, but let nothing stand in our way!”

  2. Vinyl is a fad that will soon wear off so why worry about the BS that’s being spread. It started with the rich consumers not having the toys to one-up their friends with. We now have a new product category called the “Super High End” that the true believers of Stereophile and The Absolute Sound can compete with each other to have spent more money than the next guy. Now the lesser well financially established want to try and play in that yard too.
    But the cost and hassle of running a LP system will soon wake up Joe Average that the LPs really aren’t the future..
    Mr Super Deep Pockets might hang in there for a while, after all what piece of digital equipment has the eye appeal and screams “IM RICH” like a $200,000 Continuum Labs or Onedof turntable.

  3. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The “warm” sound of vinyl is the sound of rolled-off treble as part of the RIAA playback equalization. It’s also the sound of boosted low midrange and louder bass signals, since quieter bass signals got rolled out – not just down – in the RIAA record-equalization phase.

    Since the mass of mechanical cutting heads and stylii also inherently favor lower frequencies over higher ones – and the coils in the mechanisms of each electrically also have an easier time with lower frequencies than higher ones – it’s no wonder that vinyl sounds predominantly “mid-range-y.”

    First time I’ve heard of any vinyl enthusiast actually admitting and boasting of that characteristic of vinyl, however! Good thing for them that they get to hear some high frequencies from dust and scratches.

    To those folks, the real world must sound too harsh. Good thing for them that the PA equipment in widest use is also “mid-range-y.”

  4. Hey Doc

    Take care of yourself, will ya. I just started reading your blog.
    Another thing: get crackin on that decent downloader. Damned if I am going to download onesy and twosie.

    Best to you!

    • I’m so sorry about the downloader…I’ll push on the developer. They are in India and I’ve had a tough time connecting.

  5. I’ve just got to say something…

    I’ve been reading your daily posts for a couple years, and have gone back and read all the archived ones too. I agree fully with your take on hi-res and admire you for fighting the good fight. You are the one sensible source for info on hi-res audio. You have taught me a lot and have even saved me money**.

    But the truth is, for most people, most of the time, vinyl does sound better.

    Think about it, when the generation that has only experienced low-quality digital gets into vinyl they are generally forced to get an actual sound system – a real amp or receiver, real speakers – and set it up in a real room. No more cheap headphones or bluetooth speakers fed by cheap pocketable electronics. No more listening on “computer speakers” fed by highly compromised computer software and hardware. Compared to what these listeners are used to, vinyl sounds glorious. Of course it does. I know from personal experience, two of my 30ish sons have gone through this transformation. I can attest that vinyl indeed sounds much better than what I was accustomed to hearing at their homes.

    And it’s not just the receiver/speakers making the difference. Even when you feed the headphone-jack output of a typical digital player or home computer into a traditional living-room audio system, music still sounds pretty darn lousy no matter what resolution files you play. Even a computer with an external high-quality DAC must be configured properly (install drivers, experiment with proper settings) to produce good sound. Many (most?) listeners are not up to that kind of “tech-wizardry”.

    Then there’s the dreaded CD player. Despite the current trends, many (most?) pre-MP3 generation listener’s only digital experience is with CDs – and almost every CD player ever built is atrocious sounding, even when playing through an excellent home system. (The Oppo players you use are IMHO the only “reasonably-priced” option that delivers excellent performance, but they start at $500 which is unreasonable for most people.) In a typical system, with a typical CD player, vinyl can easily sound better.

    Now, we (by that I mean us “audiophiles”) know that when using an excellent player, or a hi-quality streaming setup, digital music sounds wonderful. You yourself have gone on record saying that even well-produced MP3s can sound great. But until most people have digital sources that easily and conveniently play files like they are supposed to be played (“as the artist intended”?), vinyl will vie for the lead in quality.

    So, cut people some slack. I believe that most of them (even those that write “technical” columns for popular consumption) can tell what’s “better”. They are fully in tune with what rocks them – that emotional response that makes music special. If they say that they get more of what music is all about from vinyl, then I’m inclined to believe them. And when they say vinyl is hi-res, I believe they are really saying it “resolves” the music better, meaning they get a heightened musical experience. It’s emotional resolution, not technical.

    ** I used to think I’d need to “upgrade” to DSD capabilities until you showed how PCM is better. Potentially saved big $$$ there. I used to buy “hi-res” downloads but now know that for me, on my system, most material is just as good at 44/16. I am now much more careful about hi-res provenance. Actually no money is saved there because it just goes to acquiring more music. Still a win-win. Thank you.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Excellent comment, Mark. Well presented…and I agree, if vinyl LPs bring a fidelity starved generation to better audio then it’s all good. I just hope they keep exploring and work their way to the nirvana of well made, real HD-Audio files.

    • Hi Mark, The slagging of CD is way overdone. Both LP and CD are limited signal capacity mediums with differing families of sonic characteristics.In both cases, it the signal capacity is used to the fullest degree, and the sonic characteristics of the chosen medium are factored in, either format CAN make for a very enjoyable listen.

      None of my colleagues buy the OPPO hype.They sound clean but cold and a bit hard. But to write off the many excellent CD players that have come along over the years is also a bit much, thank you. It’s more relevant to note that just as CD matured from one end to the other,(circa 2000,) two things happenned. First, as folks’ first and second gen CDplayers died, some idiot told them that a 399.00 dvd player would play CD’s well; now CD’s sound more like MP-3’s; CD interest declines. And what stuck it’s head up right then? I-Pod too stole the light.
      Today, the 3000 songs on the head of a pin idea seems stupid!

      In simple terms, the innocuous distortions of vinyl are much easier to tolerate than the abrasive sound of MP-3s. Having been painted continually with the distortions inherent in lo-fi digital, when those distortions are not present folks seem to relax and enjoy. Distortion is at the bottom of so many hi-fi perceptions.

      • “Slagging of CDs”? I’m an advocate for well done compact discs. And the statement that “none of my colleagues but the Oppo hype”? There’s a reason that Oppo has sold so many truly remarkable optical disc players AND why I have used their modestly priced units in my demonstration rooms over the years. Your colleagues may have an “attitude” about their products but there’s no hype going on. The “buzz” about Oppo machines exists because their designs, sound quality, value, reliability, service and support are fabulous. If you or or colleagues don’t recognize a really revolutionary line of products, then go ahead and waste your money on overpriced players from high-end brands. I’ll stick with ESS Sabre DACs and solid craftsmanship. “Cold and a bit hard”…you’re starting to sound like a professional audio writer.

        • My response was to the long note from the other “Mark.”, not to M.W.

  6. I’m over people trying to justify vinyl and worst off all, studio people doctoring old master tapes using vinyl comparisons to new digital masters. Are they MAD?

    No live band(Classical to pop) to my knowledge ever compares their sound to vinyl onstage. They play to the live sound of amplified/non amplified instruments in free space interacting with each other.

    In fact most musicians I know, don’t bother much with Hi-Fi preferring the real live sound and recognise its almost impossible to reproduce from a recorded source accurately. We are getting closer slowly but its a somewhat rocky road so far as Mark points out.

    Robert

    • Robert, I love live music as well but there is an artistry and creative craft to assembling a tune in a studio. A different process for sure, but I marvel at a well-produced studio record. And they rarely happen that way live.

  7. The only true hi fi way to get that warm sound of vinyl is to tape a 1972 nickel to the top of the cartridge. I thought everyone knew this.

    Sorry, sometimes I can help myself.

    • I used to use a quarter…it made everything louder.

  8. This is for Mark W. I daily watch folks react to playback of everything from Airplay to CD, to vinyl.The reactions to vinyl sound are amazing to observe. Now…I sweated blood years ago to make excellent recordings and ultra-high quality vinyl, so I have a more informed and slightly jaundiced point of view, but it is the subtraction of data-reduction based distortions, a family that combines transient smearing, noise welded-in, edgy , unpleasant high frequencies and time domain distortions, that causes the smile to manifest when spinning vinyl. The listener is all at once being feed from “digital distortion jail”. As for the sound itself, it’s not new, it’s a return to something that was summarily replaced by something”perfect.”

    I’ve helped many a person w/ a hearing anomaly of one sort of the other that all figured they could’nt hear much. Well…100% of the time, when guided down the path from evident distortion to vanishingly low distortion, everyone hears that . As a brilliant engineer friend of mine likes to say, “Craig, there is no GOOD distortion.” Yes, but some are much easier to tolerate than others. That’s “the vinyl thing,” in a nutshell.

    • I’m not sure what you’re claiming here…that CD or digital systems have more distortion or just bad distortion compared to vinyl LPs? Check the specs Craig…the distortion of high-fidelity digital PCM is much, much less on every measure than analog vinyl. Keep guiding people to the analog light and they’ll never know what the highest fidelity actually sounds like.

      • Different types of distortion-it’s not the measured amount, it’s the audible presence. Unfortunately, low quality digital’s distortions stick out like a sore thumb compared to higher amplitude but less irritating factors found on LP playback. I personally enjoy both vinyl and CD when they are done well.

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