TechnologyTell

Love Hz: Does the Sound Remain the Same? (Digital LPs vs. CDs)

Sections: Analog, Audio, Digital, Love Hz

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Mark in a Very Digitized State a la Lou Reed's TransformerI have this question about a bunch of LPs I own that I want to run by you, dear readers, to see if my hypothesis might hold some water. It is simply this: do LP records made in the early stages of the digital era (i.e., the 80s) on recording equipment that is — essentially — CD quality (16-bit, 44.1 kHz) sound any better than a CD of the same recording… because they are effectively the same?

Why, you may ask, am I even thinking about stuff like this? Well, as I’ve mentioned in earlier articles, I’m hoping to move into a smaller (read: more affordable) living situation later this year and need to pare down my considerable music collection. So I am going through it with a fine tooth comb, determining what is essential to keep on LP and what can be replaced by a CD.

The first all-digital LP I listened to (which got me going on this article idea in the first place) it turns out was a pretty significant landmark according to this AES article on the early days of digital recording: a recording of Aaron Copland and Charles Ives music done “Direct to Digital” by Sound 80 Digital Records. They even have a picture of the inner sleeve photo from the album in the article that reveals the album was recorded at 16-bit and 37.5 kHz.

Don’t get me wrong, these albums sound real good. But they sound good in a digital sort of way. Very clean. Almost sterile at times, lacking that certain something that many analog recordings (and higher resolution 24-bit/96kHz digital recordings often) possess.

Looking at the non-rock music portion of my collection, I have several other instances of overlap where I have the CD and the LP, making for easy direct comparison.

La Cage Aux Folles, Original 1983 Cast Recording, RCA DigitalMy first test is a notable entry that won many awards the year of its release: La Cage Aux Folles (the Broadway musical). And ya know what? The CD and the LP sound very similar, with the CD getting a slight nod (possibly for a little less compressed sounding — I am guessing at this but LPs often had a certain amount of compression applied to them in order to keep levels above the noise floor of the disc as well as to keep the grooves from getting too wide to reduce tracking error on the consumer side.

I switched to one of my favorite Philip Glass recordings for the first time on my (now not so new) Music Hall 7.1 turntable via the Bellari tube pre amp and — indeed — it sounds a bit boxier than I remember. Actually, it sounds like a CD. Super crisp cymbals, angular guitars, piercing violins. All stuff that sounded amazing on my old gear and now on my newer system sounds… well… wrong somehow. I still love the music on that record but I guess I’ll have to pick up a CD copy to see how it compares.

Curiously, all the Philip Glass albums being offered on HDTracks.com are 16-bit, 44.1 kHz (ie. CD quality). Which adds to my theory questioning whether some of these — probably, mostly all digital — recordings even exist in resolution above 16-bit (if they did, wouldn’t HD Track carry those? I do not know for sure — I’m asking a genuine question here, not trying to be smarmy).

Pat Metheny Still Life (Talking) Geffen Records 1987Finally, I compared CD & LP versions of Pat Metheny’s Grammy winning 1987 hit album Still Life (Talking), which was (according to the liner notes) “recorded, mixed and mastered digitally”). While the LP gets an ever-so-slight nod for better separation and possibly some more warmth from the tube preamp, the overall sound is pretty much identical. So much so, I’m now wondering if I should keep the LP version (I might simply for the pretty artwork and all)

Anyhow, there you have it. This isn’t a conclusive answer by any means, but it’s a theoretical question worth hashing out. Given identical all-digital 44.1/16 masters, which should sound better: the CD, or the LP? What do you think? Help me figure this one out!

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  1. Hi Mark,

    This has been my life's work since about 1978. We had some of the first digital multitrack recorders that 3M ever built, and a huge part of my life was supervising the cutting of analog (and later digital) tape masters into vinyl, following those lacquers through electroplating, and then the actual pressing into vinyl. We had our own pressing plant, so I got to see it all happen every day, from trombonists coming through the front door to record jacket fabrication and excess vinyl re-grinding to make audiophile records.

    The bigger point is not which sounds "better" — it's what sounds most like what the mixer heard when he was working on it in the control room. If you had the privilege, as I did for years, of sitting beside a mixer listening to control room monitors and watching as he went for a particular "sound", often worrying himself about the accuracy of the speakers and the room acoustics, you would understand that the whole goal was to try to replicate what he heard.

    Analog tape was very good at that, but always lost a bit of transients, and increased the noise floor a bit, simply because of the limitations of tape. Indeed it was often quite difficult to tell whether you were listening to the console output or the one-second-delayed playback head of the 2-track master.

    When digital mastering came on the scene, first on videotape (we used black and white U-matics, which is why the weird sample rate of 44,100 came to be — it's a multiple of the horizontal sync frequency of black and white videotape) we were all amazed at the transparency. What we heard coming back from the digital deck was an identical sonic clone to the console itself, indeed showing the limitations of the console electronics.

    Many consumers, however, had grown accustomed to the tracking and tracing errors and distortions that vinyl records inherently have. No vinyl record truly sounded like what we were hearing on the mix console; it was several layers of distortion removed, with the distortions coming from the cutting angle of the cutterhead, the "de-horning" process which cut off the bottom of the grooves so that the vinyl would release from the stamper, and the inherent noise of the vinyl medum itself.

    A CD is a much, much closer replica of what the original mixer heard on his board than an LP could ever be. Now does that mean that you would rather experience what the mixer heard or experience what an LP listener of the era heard? That's actually a very serious question. Almost no one who didn't work in recording studios heard "clean" audio, and it was a very foreign sound to consumers, resulting in a lot of reluctance to accept digital media. Consumers simply didn't understand that they were, for the first time, hearing what we had heard in the production control rooms. In many cases, the noise floor and distortion of the vinyl helped to cover up the limitations of the original master — making the CD sound "worse".

    I hope this helps, but I fear it may only add to the confusion.

    John Wheeler
  2. Good points John. For me it sort of helps to answer my question but for different reasons. That is: in those instances where i have a fully DDD recording on LP, the CD will probably serve me just as well. I will note that many early CDs sounded bad because they were made from compressed-for-lp slave copies of master tapes or (in the case of some "twofers" (2 albums on one disc) a smaller size file was used to squeeze all the info on a single disc (zappa's overnight sensation/apostrophe disc was way tinny sounding and fared much better — after complaints– breaking them out into two discs at fuller CD resolution

    Regqrding the sound of vinyl vs CD and distortion "hidden" in the LP, more times than not I was amazed to find out that distortion I heard on vinyl — and which I attributed to my less than perfect condition pressings — were actually on the original recording. I was surprised hearing certain records by Zappa, The Velvet Underground, Dylan, The Moody Blues and others on CD for the first time and discovering that my LPs didnt sound so bad after all … it was the way the recordings were made!

    I do believe that analog masters contain more sonic info than 44.1/16-bit clones would be able to capture. But I have to assume (unless someone explains otherwise) that for recordings made natively in the digital domain, then those recordings are what they are…. they'll never be anything more than what the original was recorded at.

    So there is probably no good reason to keep a digitally recorded LP if I can get it on CD these days… unless of course it contains a mix that was later changed/remixed

    Mark Smotroff