The Critical Crumudgeon
Despite The Rise Of Technology, Vinyl Records Still Reign Supreme
Published: Thursday, April 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
This week, I learned something that made me happier than Nicki Minaj that one time they let her play with the shiny bauble: there is a globally recognized ”Record Store Day” in April! It’s dedicated to celebrating special vinyl releases, particularly classics, such as unpublished Janis Joplin recordings and Quadrephenia demos. Shortly thereafter, however, I discovered news that made me almost as sad as Nicki Minaj when they told her to “put that spoon down, we’re in public”: Record Store Day happened just this last Saturday, and won’t be happening again until the third Saturday of April next year.
The missed opportunity did start me thinking, however, about vinyl and its contradictory role in current music. The industry does still manage to sell vinyls quite profitably despite the transfer to digitalized tracks. In fact, last year’s vinyl sales reported an incredible 39 percent increase, marking yet another instance of vinyl “nostalgia” trumping compact disk purchases. But why the increase? How is a vintage, non-portable, and non-transferrable medium competing so well against superior convenience?
As it turns out, vinyl actually has more to offer than just being useful bait for your backyard hipster traps (Author’s note: This publication in no way condones Matt’s “ironic” treatment of the hipsters he finds in his backyard).Vinyl’s renewed popularity is actually playing a large role in what producers and music aficionados are calling the Loudness War. Sounds pretty awesome, right? Like Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker attacking each other with sound waves at the final Cream concert. Rock and Roll! Ka-blam! The Loudness War is devolving the way music is formatted, however, which isn’t awesome at all.
Basically, the Loudness War is an engineering issue that’s reducing the overall quality of studio recordings. Since the early ’80s and the dawn of CDs, the music industry has been operating on the notion that higher volume capability equates to higher sales, which, particularly at the advent of Arena/Hair Rock, held statistically true. The digital compression capacity allowed producers to alter their dynamic range to higher extremes, effectively cranking the amp to 11.
This seems like mumbo-jumbo to most people, including myself, but the truth of the matter is that it’s drastically affecting how our music sounds. Music that hasn’t been altered or compressed for the sake of a louder volume has been retroactively termed “Dynamic” music, and its presence is starting to be missed.
Enter vinyl. Because vinyl LPs are so darn simple in design, the opportunity for sound compression they provide is nil. That’s why your granddad can’t seem to adapt to anything but his 40-year-old record player: CD and post-CD remasterings don’t sound distorted to us, but people who grew up playing music through a phonograph notice the bloated sound waves, and it bugs the heck out of them. It’s like that leaden feeling your legs get after spending a few hours on a trampoline, primarily in that it reflects a subconscious adaptation to a particular sensation most noticeable upon return. Also, if you’re like me, the undisturbed sound quality of vinyl, and the bounciness of trampolines are both things your granddad thinks are awesome.
Recently, sound engineers like Ian Sheppard and Bob Ludwig have started publicly denouncing the trend, and legitimate musical press outlets have joined them. Instances of the Loudness War phenomenon corrupting tracks as of late are being more frequently exposed. Yet the difference is fairly palpable at this point, even to newer listeners. Comparisons of volume graphs from different album re-releases have shown visible changes. As a result, watered-down tunes are gradually giving way to a more streamlined and appealing alternative in the rock scene. The Loudness War raises a supremely relevant question: Is music really good if it only appeals at a specific volume level? Isn’t music more than just loudness?
Record Store Day comes but once a year, but vinyl rocks hard all year round. Ka-blam! n