The most common “Flame war” to date has to be the vinyl vs digital debate, I have seen countless articles, forums, comments on Facebook by people claiming vinyl is better than digital. Well in my eyes this just isn’t true; I believe it’s a preferred choice and sometimes a poorly informed choice at that. Let’s dive into the technical side of vinyl and digital.
The human hearing range is from 20Hz to 20 KHz (20 Hz to 20,000 Hz) as we all get older our hearing naturally degrades over time. Having studio equipment that covers the entire range on every piece from file/vinyl to speakers is just as important as turning up the volume from zero before playing a track.
Now this is a tricky subject as it’s not just one thing that creates analogue warmth. Oldskool and cheaply pressed vinyl from artists who wanted as many copies as they could get, unfortunately 90% of the time contain a “vinyl distortion” and many dj’s don’t know about this hum. This hum can be monitored at 60Hz and sometimes has a harmonic tone sitting at around 120Hz as well. Now let’s not get confused here with a grounding hum because you’ve forgot to clamp down the earth cable to the turntables, no this is an audible sound which is caused by poor mastering and/or cheap vinyl. Google “vinyl distortion” and “vinyl surface noise”
Secondly “vinyl warmth” is a feeling of how the track sounds to you. A warm track may sound warm to you but to someone else they may not perceive the same thing. This brings us nicely to why vinyl sounds better than a 128kbps file.
A 128kbps at 44.1 KHz (stereo) file contains a snapshot of the audio signal 44,100 times per second and 128 kilobits of data is stored in every second of song. So what would happen if we used 320kbps @ 44.1 KHz? Well then you’d be capturing more of the sound with 320 Kilobits of data per second and 44,100 snapshots per second, which result in a better image to play from at the cost of higher storage space.
Now what’s this 44.1 KHz snapshot, well in simple terms it’s the amount of samples used in the file per second. Imagine a graphic equalizer, if you had an 8 bar EQ you could control 8 frequencies but if you had a 44 bar eq this would give you better control over the volumes for those frequencies. 44.1 is cd quality, 48 KHz is DAT quality (most professional gear will do 48 KHz), 96 KHz is DVD quality, 192 KHz is HD DVD/Blu-ray Quality.
Lossy vs Lossless
So keeping all that in mind we now have to consider “lossy” and “lossless”, I don’t really want to dive too much into the technical side of lossless and all the different quality variations of lossy formats. Lossy loses audio quality and lossless formats will keep all of the original sound. Flac is a commonly used lossless format which uses compression to bring the file size down to 50-60% of the original size. So if we were really going to compare Vinyl to Digital surely we would use the better format of lossless which is Wav (uncompressed) or Flac (compressed).
Comparing vinyl alongside Wav or Flac using the best available equipment to you and I can promise you will struggle to find any difference. Sure if you want to compare 128 mp3 files to vinyl then vinyl will always win hands down due to its ability to reproduce more sounds. But take away 128 and step up to wav/flac and you’ll be hard pressed to notice the difference.
Digital also suffers from idiot executives and audio engineers who just don’t care. Yes I’m talking about the “loudness war”, oh crap another war I hear you say. No no nothing like that, compare a cd from when they were first bought into production throughout the years to current day cd’s and you’ll hear a progressive louder and louder pattern. This was due to competing bands trying to get their cd heard better than a rivals. It’s got to such a point where the music suffers a continued loud stream and the song loses all audio dynamics. This is bad on so many levels I don’t want to get into it within this article, but there are plenty of articles covering the great “audio loudness war” and also check out “dynamic range” and “dynamic range compression”.
Vinyl can be fully recorded in a lossless format and sound no different from the vinyl it was recorded from. If you then enhance that recording by removing pops, hiss, and balancing the EQ would this not be an improvement on the original ?
At the end of the day these are my general rules I try to live by when it comes to music which I’m passionate about.
- Use good equipment / headphones
- If you have the space use higher quality tracks
- Wav or Flac for studio stuff
- 320 or Wav for clubs
- 128-320 for mobiles/i-pods (depending on space)
- 320 for radio (even if you broadcast at 128kbp/s your pc will transcode the 320 to 128 for broadcasting)
Oh last thing I promise lol. File space, the reason people use 128 files is due to space on mobiles, tablets or devices which don’t have huge 2,000Gb drives or people without high internet speeds.
A 4:00 minute audio file in different formats
Wav – 40.5MB (uncompressed) lossless, bitrate – 1411kbps
Flac – Quality 5 (default) – 26.09MB (36% compressed) lossless, bitrate – 1411kbps
Flac – Quality 8 (best) – 25.47MB (38% compressed) lossless, bitrate – 1411kbps
MP3 320 – 9.19MB (78% compressed) lossy, bitrate – 320kbps
Mp3 128 – 3.67MB (91% compressed) lossy, bitrate – 128kbps
Hard drives are becoming cheaper and larger every year, is it not time to improve our music collections and move away from poor quality songs and improve ??