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Vinyl vs. MP3

by S. Herpich, Dan (Yumla)

A question thats been raised a thousand times, and mostly the answer is driven by emotion. By likings and dislikings: if it's handy or not, is it cool, is it expensive? A DJ with his CD case on the back who is born before 1981 will give you the answer: "I can't carry all that stuff arround mate.", and a younger generation will look at you, blink with their eyes, pretend you're not there and continue on their way.
Who can blame them? Haven't we all had experiences like that? Holding and playing the first vynils was a feeling like "this is the future, nothing's gonna stop us". And then we did music. Funky music. And older generations usualy hadn't had much love for this. We took their ways of music and gatherings and spiced and salted it 'till it was 'tasty'.

Well, i think it's happening again.

That is not supposed to mean either way would be wrong, but neither is only one right. In a way it is even just good that it is happening like it is. Imagine a twenty year younger crowd storming your establishment of choice cause they just crave for some Pink Floyd. On first sight you'd be proud of them for their good taste, and after a week you'll curse 'em for blocking up your pub. And how would you feel if a twenty year younger fellow would show you some tricks with a tool you know longer than this chav is haunting gods earth. The answer to both is: probably not so good.
But thats just the positive sideeffects of the whole thing, there is realy more to it.

Let's start with 'outside' or 'not-dj' factors. This includes the artist and label which is producing and distributing the song, sound carrier producing industry, clubowners and crowd, media and fanbase.
The first two: artist/label and the sound carrier manufacturer, will be referred to as 'music industry' until mentioned otherwise.

With the first record and player invented in 1887, the music industry needed fifty further years until structures began to emerge how we know them today. Columbia Records may be mentioned as company which launched the 12 inch 'long play' record. After the world wars, the record material changed from shellac to the cheap synthetic polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and 1983 finaly to polycarbonate when the Compact Disc flooded the market.
Until here everything was fine. The industry had a monopoly on the shiny black or silver records we played and after a while when they were worn out or lost we had to go and repurchase them.
MP3 was a concept the music industry wasn't ready for. Detached from its conventional sound carrier and sent with near light speed around the globe via email it became quickly clear that the industry had lost control. New songs leaked out before release, other ones were not even intended to be sold, leaked and became mega hits etc. etc.
So the industry must have an interest to keep the vinyl alive, because it can't be done in my living room and i'll depend on the 'music industry' to get it.

Clubowners and their crowds cover the second group of 'outside' factors. Often former DJs themselves or otherwise attached the scene it is usually the case that thell get you the newest equipment possible, and if it's just to keep up the reputation. So when you ask if there could be some 1210's available, it shouldn't be a problem. Realy big names in the business are known to play combinations of vinyl and CD and/or even .mp3.

And as last factor we have the media and fanbase. Which possible influence these two groups have show acts like 'American idol(TM)' or similar waste of time. But lets talk about the possibilities these two groups offer you.
Both are able to create a certain hype which can do a lot of things for you if channeled right. They're able to demand a certain product, say a new tune on old vinyl, and it won't take long until a producer sees the chance. If you ever djed you know the bond you can build to your crowd, and how supportive they can be.
Furthermore you got the possibility to hand out copies of your song to broadcasting services like radio or music television channels.
So the media are technicly bad but it is possible to use them in a fortunate way.

This was the reasons around the DJ for or against vinyl and it becomes clear that the decision to use vinyls or CD's/mp3 is obviously the DJs.
Do they possess a knowledge we don't? Because there is no outside factor that would prohibit the one or the other solution. Is it then maybe the record, the tool itself, which makes the difference?
Let's have a closer look at the technical information.

Info number one is not about the record itself, more its interaction with the human ear. So have multiple studies shown that we prefer the hearable 'defects' of the vinyl over the sterile perfectness of the Audio CD. The vinyl is said to have a 'warmer' more 'lively' sound. Analog recordings do tend to have sound distortions, even more intensive if scanned mechanical. These are the 'defects': harmonic distortions, smoother 'clipping' behavior with over modulated recordings and the lesser overspeech decay of analog recordings.

Other studies, carried out to determine whether there is a measurable figure between the two recording techniques, have shown so much trouble with the whole playback system that it is not fully comparable to a Compact Disc system. Starting with the record itself, which will always have the 'furrow ground noise', over the pick-up head / arm combination and needle cut as well as the phono pre-amplifier just to name the most important ones.
Obviously, all these nuisance factors do not occur with the CD procedure and give it therefore a much cleaner sound image. Classical music is said to profit from that.

So even after looking at the science facts we don't find a reason to raise the question 'vinyl or mp3'. The facts say that there is a clearly better recording method with less disturbance factors and half the size. The CD.

Or is it realy so good? Whats on the CD? A mp3 file...

Now the difference between the vinyl and the mp3 is growing. The mp3 file is only so small and handy because it has been compressed. During this compression, MP3s remove audio (in very simple terms) by a process of selective comb filtering. MP3s still contain data between 20Hz ~ 20,000 Hz but if a particular song doesn't use very much of - say, 5000Hz - that frequency data is more heavily compressed during the MP3 encoding process. To further reduce file size, many other tricks are used; but the frequency data contained in maximum quality MP3 files pretty much the same as CD or vinyl. However, the phrase "pretty much" becomes more amplified as you move up the scale from iPod headphones, to home hifi, to car stereo to club PA system. A photo taken on your phone looks OK on your phone, maybe OK on your computer, but blow it up to the size of a huge outdoor advertising banner and will start to see all the noise, edge destruction & pixelation. Same deal with compressed music. Also comes a method to use which relys on the fact that the human ear can hardly recognize quiet sounds after a comparable loud one before.
Having said that, a 320kbps Constant Bit Rate MP3 still sounds very good on a club PA system. An iTunes format AAC file at encoded 320 sounds worse, and there are spectrograms on audiophile websites that'll prove that. But anything less than 320 CBR will sound awful compared to a 16bit CD or vinyl. In fact digital DJ shops should be banned from selling 192VBR. They sound like complete shit.

Interesting point to note: almost ALL music files sent for mastering these a days are at 24bit 44.1kHz format, therefore the data transferred onto vinyl can only be nominally better than the data present on CD (being 16 bit 44.1kHz). Where the myth "vinyl sounds better than digital" arose from, was during the 80's when CDs were first introduced and digital-to-analog convertors used to reproduce CD music on consumer audio equipment were of very poor quality. These days, even the convertors inside a humble CDJ1000 are substantially better than a top-end CD system released in the mid-1980's.

Bottom line seems to be that vinyls come with more than the original and mp3s with less. Both are far from perfect, but it's the flaws that make us likeable. And often the border between noise and minimal is flawless.
As a resume I have to say that good friend of mine, DJ by profession, said it once in a for me graspable form: 'It is like having your tool in your hand. You can touch it, feel it, and have a silent conversation between your fingers and the record. You ever tried to stick your fingers in a CDJ?'...

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