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Over the Rhine: All I Need Is Everything

Still Listening to Vinyl

I've been meaning to comment on this CNN story about the continued surprising life of the vinyl LP, though I'm not sure many people who read this blog are interested. It is an interesting phenomenon. I still have hundreds of LPs and still listen to them, though not that often, and currently not at all: my turntable is out of commission thanks to a very stupid attempt on my part to pick up the rather delicate tonearm from a spinning record while I was in a very awkward position, resulting in a broken stylus which I haven't yet replaced.

I'm not especially nostalgic for them. I don't miss the surface noise and the need to fuss over cleaning them, or the inability to skip easily to the next track (which is what I was trying to do when I broke my stylus). People who say they provided higher fidelity are, I'm pretty sure, objectively wrong. Someone in the comments on that story, for instance, claims they have greater dynamic range, which they don't--that's measurable, and I don't think there's really much contest between LP and CD on that score. 

But it is interesting that no one seems to love CDs in the way some love LPs. There is some merit to the argument that the sound is warmer. This makes sense, in a way: sometimes we develop an attachment to things that aren't perfect because they're in some way comfortable for us, like old clothes. I suspect that the "warmer" sound many people attribute to the LP is in large part the effect of noise: the characteristic crackle, hiss, and pop that's rarely completely absent, and often obtrusive. There's also an audiophile argument that the analog-to-digital conversion has an effect, though I haven't heard a convincing case for that. But I've often thought that CDs have a somehow colder sound, and I think that's either the absence of any noise whatsoever, or the effect of modern production techniques. I don't know enough to guess what the latter might be, but I know that when I listen to this clip of Moby Grape's "8:05" on YouTube, that opening guitar has a richness that one just doesn't often hear in contemporary recordings. And the LP can't be credited for that: even if the YouTube poster started with the LP, what we hear has been not only digitized but significantly reduced in fidelity.

In some cases older recordings reissued on CD seem to be missing something. Some say that's the result of poor engineering. I've never done a direct comparison of an LP in decent shape with the same recording reissued on CD.

Maybe most of all, though, I think, it's the record and its packaging as physical object. CD art work has never even approached the quality of the golden years of LP art. Even when it's a company like ECM that does its absolute best, the format is just too small. I have two LP covers on the wall in my office; you can't really do that with CD inserts.

Now that the CD is declining in popularity, replaced by intangible electronic formats that sit on computer hard drives or zip around the networks like any other data, it will be interesting to see if the CD hangs on as an object of affection the way the LP has. I wouldn't bet on it.

Yes, I have that Moby Grape album on vinyl.


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Most of my LPs, or at least the album covers, had this other characteristic that only people in Memphis would appreciate. The record store was in half of a small building and in the other half of the building, with a connecting door that was always open, was a Planter's Peanuts Shop. They were always roasting peanuts in a machine that had a handle which was turned by this big, metal Planter's Peanut Man. (If you scroll down to the second picture here:


you can see one like it.) So if you bought a record there, forever after the album cover smelled like roasting peanuts.

I think the peanut shop is still there, but there's a Baskins Robbins on the other side.


That's pretty cool. There is a similar local institution peanut shop in Mobile, but I don't think it's affiliated with Planter's, but rather with The Peanut Man, who is a real person.

Alas for the record shop...(in general, I mean, not just that one).

There was just something about going to the record store and looking through the albums. They made that nice whumpy sound as they fell on the albums in front of them, and the covers were kind of exciting and promising. And then, of course, I've mentioned before the listening rooms at the downtown record store where I used to listen to music and eat lunch.

There's something kind of gnostic about all this music just existing out in the aether somewhere--no fun.


Yes, I think all that, especially the last sentence, is mixed up with what people say they like about it, even if all they actually articulate is "it sounds better."

I think this is why I have not got to learning how to use any of these devices for downloading music off the web. I like my CDs. I like playing them on a CD player. I agree they are somewhat less amiable than records, but at least they are things, even if smaller things. I have got an MP3 player somewhere. But I don't use it. I hope it's a long time before it gets to where you can't get music at all except in entirely disembodied containers.

As I'm sure you're aware it's definitely moving that way. I was reading an interview the other day with a local band that plays a sort of jazz-rock based on acoustic guitars. They were talking about releasing a new cd and said something like "fortunately a lot of our audience is in the age group that still buys cds." I'm pretty sure he was not talking about the younger fans.

You can hear them here--they're called Roman Street and are very good. Just go to the page and the music will start, or at least it did for me.

That music is really nice. It's perfect for sitting around outside at night with some people you like and a glass of something cold and intoxicating.

LPs were already on their way out before music began to interest me, so I never owned one. I have an audiophile friend who lovingly maintains his turntable (with its diamond-tipped needle) and regularly spins records from his massive LP collection. Part of the attraction of the LP, I think, is the size, and also the smell. I also like looking at LPs: those bumps and grooves are music!

A theoretical advantage that the analog LP format has over CDs is that, being analog, the music is encoded continuously, whereas on a CD (or in any digital format) the music is quantized. But the quantization is so fine that I doubt the ear can pick it up. There may be a difference in the engineering practices. My audiophile friend maintains that LPs better captured the "space" around the music, the ambience of the hall where it was recorded, and so forth. It is quite possible that the "quality of the silence", if you wish, is flattened out by modern engineers. But that has nothing to do with the LP vs. CD format.

Some bands continue to release new records in LP format -- Arcade Fire's latest was issued on LP, for instance -- but I think this has little to do with music. There's a kind of chic attached to LPs that appeals to certain kinds of music mavens.

I have not yet unpacked my CDs since moving to our new house. I want to, but there's not really a convenient place for them, and we don't have a proper CD player or stereo in our house in any case. All of my music has been converted to mp3 format and resides on my computer. I admit that I like having an mp3 music library. It is great being able to quickly search through the entire collection with a few keystrokes.

I don't like the idea of leaving the CDs in boxes, so I must be attached to them to some degree. But the only reason to have the CDs out is to consult the liner notes, which I do occasionally, but maybe not enough to justify the space they take up.

Send them to me and I'll give them a good home.


Ditto to most everything in the last 3 comments. I really like having a searchable library, too, and have a moment of aggravation when I realize, for instance, that I can't easily determine whether I have a certain piece that may or may not be on some anthology-style lp with a lot of other stuff. This is even more true now that half of my lps (the total probably pushes 1000) are in a closet behind some clothes and getting at them requires moving the clothes and using a flashlight. On the other hand I don't play music from the computer all that often.

What you say about analog vs. digital is true, I think. Certainly digital fidelity goes down with sampling rate (as anyone can easily hear by comparing a 64kb mp3 to a 128 or higher). But there's a sort of audiophile mysticism that says the digitization does some kind of harm no matter what the sampling rate or at least until it reaches some point of near-identity with the analog curve, and I strongly suspect that's baloney. I do think there's something to that "lack of space" complaint, but agree that it's an effect of recording techniques, not analog vs. digital per se--even in the studio, much less in the final commercial medium.

Janet, I think I first heard those guys in a restaurant. It was only two guitarists, but they were really good, and I'm pretty sure it was those two brothers, maybe before they were officially a band. And it was a nice way to hear them.

When I typed "last 3 comments" I had a feeling somebody was going to insert another one before I finished. So that should be "last 4."

I did it on purpose. I'm glad to see that you agree that Craig should send me his CDs.


I didn't think you would miss that. And now you've made sure that he won't, either. So good luck...:-)

"I also like looking at LPs: those bumps and grooves are music!"

Wouldn't it be cool if you could look at them and sort of hear the music, the way some people can read a score?

Maybe if you were very tiny you could.


I remember seeing a television programme when I was a kid -- it was one of those shows with titles like "Stupendous Facts!" or "Stupid Human Tricks" -- and it once featured a fellow who claimed he could identify a piece of music by looking at the grooves on the record. It seemed impossible to me then, as it does now, but he did it on the programme and amazed everyone. Believe it or not...

Janet, I have just discovered that I am dearly attached to my CDs, boxed or not. Today I have learned something about myself.

You need to go to CDs Anonymous.


You'll need to be careful, Janet, not to make it too obvious when you start talking about the virtues of non-attachment.

I can see being able to get some general idea of the sound by looking at the record surface, but being able to identify the specific piece...that's really a stretch. Although in principle it should be possible.

This is great: "Eine neue optische Messmethode für Grammophonplatten"

He can keep the opera.


There is a sonic advantage to analog over digital -- I've heard it demonstrated. It has to do with the fact that what digital sound does is break the music up into very tiny bits when recording it, and then put them back together when it's played. The average person with an average, or even very good, stereo won't detect this. But the fact is that analog doesn't do this -- the sound is "continuous" in a way that digital music isn't. This accounts for the "warmness" of analog sound.

Friends of mine who have recording studios have stated that digital music's quality peaks at a certain level of quality of equipment. Basically, past a certain point in the quality of equipment, digital sound starts to show its defects, which are a sort of harshness and "metallic" sound that you don't get in analog. In other words, if you've got a $1,000 stereo, your CD's will sound great. If you have a $10,000 stereo, your vinyl will sound better. I've heard this demonstrated with CD and audiophile vinyl pressings of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and the first Pat Metheny Group album (on ECM records, who were known for their quality vinyl recordings.) This is probably why many audiophile classical music listeners prefer vinyl.

Yes, that's what I was referring to--no offense--as audiophile mysticism. I'm not convinced that the digitization (quantization, as Craig put it) is the explanation for the phenomenon, in part because what you hear is analog anyway, by definition. Basically that argument says that if you store a curve as a set of numbers defining points, then recreate the curve by plotting the points and connecting them, the curve is defective. Well, yes, it is, but is it detectable and meaningful to the eye? It depends completely on the number of points. The cd sample rate is 44,000 per second. That's a lot of discrete points in one second. I know there was an argument when cd audio was defined about whether that was good enough.

I'm not saying it's not true that there is a meaningful effect on the music, just that I'm not convinced. The lp-cd comparison doesn't prove it because there are too many other variables in the process before you get to the commercial medium. A better test would be to make two master tapes, one analog and one digital, at the same time of the same performance, and play them back on the same equipment (or as nearly as possible the same--same amp & speakers, anyway). I have often thought that there is something just a touch metallic about cd sound, but I'm not sure that isn't because it's just too accurate.

My stereo is somewhere between the two you describe. All the components, new, would probably cost in the $2500 or so range. When I get my stylus replaced I'm planning to compare A Love Supreme on cd & lp (one of the few things I have in both formats).

"I have often thought that there is something just a touch metallic about cd sound, but I'm not sure that isn't because it's just too accurate."

I'd be hesitant to say it's because it's too accurate -- to me it just doesn't sound "live" for some reason. It's like there's a warmth missing or something. I will say that I have a few SACD's of classical performances and they sound fantastic--not sure what the differences are, but they are noticeable. The SACD's I have sound much closer to LP's -- a lot warmer and less harsh than regular CDs.

In some ways you might make the comparison with Blu-Ray DVDs. I really dislike them because to me they look enhanced--everything is SO clear that they look fake and cartoonish. I don't think the difference between CD and vinyl is nearly as pronounced as that, but it's along the same lines.

Oh man, this is reawakening the audio obsessive in me. :-) More later...this is a fascinating topic.

Google "analog vs digital audio" if you want to get your head spinning on this subject. I would love to spend the rest of the day comparing lps and cds--maybe it's just as well my turntable is out of commission, because I have a lot of work to do.

There seems to be something close to a consensus that in general cd provides a more detailed sound, which is what I meant by "accurate." That would seem to be another way of saying "higher fidelity," which ought to end the argument.... Yet is it necessarily contradictory to suppose that a technology could gain in detail yet lose something more subtle? It could be considered a gain in quantity at the expense of quality, maybe?

All movies are "digital", or quantized, in that they use a sampling technique--some number of still images per second, which, when played back, fool the eye and brain into seeing analog motion. We don't complain of that being cold or mechanical anymore, though it's certainly true of early movies, I assume because the sample rate (frames per second) was lower.

I haven't heard any SACDs.

"is it necessarily contradictory to suppose that a technology could gain in detail yet lose something more subtle?"

That's a good way of putting it. Again, make the comparison with Blu-Ray. You definitely gain clarity and detail, but you lose a certain "realism." Like I said though, I don't think the difference between CDs and LPs is nearly as pronounced as that of DVDs and Blu-Ray -- I hate the latter, and won't watch it, while I listen to CDs all the time.

I'm quite fond of my scratched old CDs, that sometimes jump or stutter (and some of which I rescued from a children's game of shuffleboard).

Ow...I start getting a headache just thinking about that. It's one thing to have some noise along with the music, quite another for the music to be interrupted.

I haven't seen any Blu-Ray video, so I don't have that as a comparison. I'm not even getting the best from dvd, I'm sure, with our old CRT tv. I've been saying I was going to keep it till it breaks, but the temptation is strong.

I hasten to clarify that I'm attached to them despite the damage they have suffered, not because of it!

My experience of CDs and LPs is different. With LPs, they could be scratched and still work - you just had to lift the needle beyond the scratch. There are certain van Morrison and Neil Young songs which after years of owning the (untarnished) CD, I still expect a word or phrase to repeat itself, because the LP I had 30 years ago was scratched there. With my CDs, they either play flawlessly or they don't play at all - they just leap to the end. Scratches seem wholly to disable them, in my experience. This to my mind is the major disadvantage of CDs as against LPs. I am not musical enough to hear this 'space' etc of which you speak.

What is striking to me is how much better any live performance is than a CD. Last week, on Radio 3, they had a 'Bach Day' and the live (proms concert) version of the Brandenburg concertos was ineffably better than any CD of the Brandenbergs which I have owned. A few years back, a group played Biber's Rosary Sonatas in our chapel. I bought the CD of it afterwards, and it was not a patch on it.

"...how much better any live performance is than a CD."

Yes, that's a fact well-known to audiophiles, and a very vexing one. I remember reading a meditation on it in one of the audiophile magazines some years ago. The writer was describing how terrified his cat was of thunderstorms, how she would run and hide under the bed at the first clap of thunder and not come out till it was over, etc. Then one night the cat was on his lap while he played a cd that included the sounds of a thunderstorm (I think it was some kind of sound effects recording that he was using to test his system). And the cat stayed right where she was. I'm sure he had something pretty close to the best equipment money can buy.

That's funny about expecting to hear the skips. cds can have defects that don't render them unplayable--the worst is one that repeats a bit, because it tends to be a much smaller bit than when that sort of thing happens on an lp, so it's a bizarre high-speed repetition of a tiny bit of sound. I find it intolerable.

I dropped out of this conversation for the weekend, but I'd like to jump in again.

In digital sampling theory there is something called Nyquist's theorem which states that if an analog signal is sampled at a particular rate F, all of the frequencies up to F/2 can be perfectly reconstructed from the samples. In the case of CDs, the sampling rate is (as Mac said) 44 kHz, which means that all of the frequency components up to 22 kHz can be perfectly reconstructed and played through the stereo system. The range of human hearing is usually said to go up to about 20 kHz, though in practice few people over the age of 30 can hear much above 10 kHz. So in theory the CD should be able to perfectly reproduce that part of the music that the ear can hear.

In practice, the fidelity of the reconstruction depends on the quality of the electronics (especially the Digital-to-Analog Converter) and on the response of the speakers one is using. High-end speakers have a flatter response across a wider frequency range, meaning that they don't alter or "colour" the sound as they play it. For most of us, I expect, the reason CDs do not sound as good as live performances has to do with the quality -- or lack thereof -- of our stereo components.

Of course, it is not just the "playing end" that can change the sound. The "recording end" can too. But we generally hope -- in classical music, at least -- that the sound that gets recorded is faithful to the sound that the instruments produced (up to the F/2 sampling limit).

The story about the audiophile's cat is funny, but there is a simple explanation. Both dogs and cats can hear up to about 60 kHz, so a CD recording does not sound real to them.

I hate it when the Recent list shows a comment that doesn't appear when you click on it.

Yes, I was perishing for lack of being able to see Craig's comment. Thank goodness it's here now--not that I understand it very well--except the dog and cat part.


I had a hearing test at least 10 years ago, at roughly age 50, trying to see if anything could be done for the tinnitis I had developed (no), and it revealed that my high frequency hearing had dropped off significantly. So if I ever had the makings of a golden-eared audiophile, I don't anymore.

But I don't think the delivery of accurate frequencies is the whole story. Maybe that would explain the cat. But as an audiophile said once, he wouldn't expect his very expensive gear to be able to fool him into thinking he was hearing live music for anything more sonically complex than a solo mandolin. My speakers are really quite good--the very highly-regarded Spica TC-50s, plus a Velodyne sub. In today's dollars, for new stuff, that's probably $1500-2000 worth of speaker, at least (I bought the Spicas used almost 20 years ago). The TC-50s are generally considered one of the best ever made in their size/price range (though granted, mine may not be what they once were, being over 20 years old). My other components are quite respectable. BUT: I'm sure I would *never* confuse music heard on this system with live music--except maybe, as the guy says, some small solo instrument. Solo guitar, maybe.

The other factors have to do with dynamics and space--where the sound is coming from, how it's reverberating. I think the only way to fool anyone into thinking that the recorded orchestra he was hearing was a real one would be to record it as accurately as possible, then play it back at live volume, in a concert hall, from an array of speakers on the stage. It might even require recording and playing back each instrument separately, or at least each section.

Perishing? Perhaps you shouldn't take things quite so hard. :-)

It's been a hardish kind of day. :-)


Yes, I've got that 'bopbopbopbop' on some CDs - that's what I mean by unplayable.

Craig, do you mean cats literally cannot hear CD music at all?

Francesca: No, cats can hear the CD just fine, but the CD only includes frequencies up to 22 kHz. That is the upper range for human hearing, but cats can hear all the way up to 60 kHz. Without professing to have first-hand knowledge of a cat's consciousness, I would guess that a CD sounds "boomy" or bass-heavy to them, because the high frequency harmonics are missing.

You might, conjecturally, compare the cat's perception of a thunderstorm on cd to a person's perception of a thunderstorm broadcast on an old radio show. You'd recognize what it was meant to be but never mistake it for the real thing.

Presumably the cat doesn't think "nice try--that does sound something like a thunderstorm, but obviously it isn't really". But something like that might be happening on the instinctive level.

The cat is thinking, "Stupid humans!"


I think cats only have three thoughts: "Feed me," "Pet me," "Leave me alone."

Well, maybe also "Get that book out of the way so I can sit in your lap."

Pius just plonks himself on to the book.

You make a really good point, Mac, about the spatial distribution of the sound affecting our perception of its realism. There is something artificial about hearing an orchestra's music emanating from a point source (or two). That may be why SACDs sound "more real" than regular CDs.

When I hear live music I also notice that there is a visceral component that is usually missing on recordings: I feel the music in my whole body, not just in my ears. For instance, when I hear the crack of a snare drum at a concert, I almost always blink involuntarily. Sometimes I can feel my chest vibrating. That doesn't happen when I'm listening at home. I don't know if that is just due to a difference in volume or what.

That description of your stereo makes me really envious, Mac. My current stereo is this. Pathetic. I used to have good speakers and decent stereo components, but they got fried by a circuit problem in the amplifier.

Tell you what: if I send my CDs to Janet, will you send me your stereo system? (Janet, I'm sure, will send you something to complete the triangle.)

I think volume is definitely a part of it, and also the way the sound comes at you--direction, distance, reflections.

Meme attempts to plunk herself on my laptop. Several minutes of struggle ensue, until I succeed in pressing her into the space between me and the arm of the chair.

I'll send him my cat...and my dog.


Craig, I think you have grounds for wondering whether Janet is really your friend.

I trust you won't be offended if I say I actually laughed when I clicked on the link to your stereo. I was expecting a modest bookshelf-type system. You do have my sympathy. However, as you may be very well aware, for $100 or so you could get a pair of headphones that would give you a night-and-day improvement.

Once I got my sub, several years ago, I began trying to throttle the little voice that says "If you had X your system would sound a lot better." The sub was really signficant, because, as nice as the Spicas are, they're pretty much out of the picture below 50hz. So at that point I started trying to stop wishing. The little voice spoke up again when I broke the stylus, though: "you know, instead of replacing the stylus, you could just toss that cartridge altogether and upgrade......you know you always were a little disappointed in it...it might make a difference...." I finally forced myself to order the stylus last weekend.

Also, Janet, you managed to make one of the few offers that would cause my wife to think she'd be better off if I keep the stereo.

Craig, You aren't going to trust the word of somebody that hears voices, are you? Not only hears them, but heeds them?

Maclin, I'll throw in the catbox, a Trace Adkins CD, and a couple of Auburn Sweatshirts.


Oh that's right. Karen offered me a cat for my lab class last year.


Of those three items, the catbox is by far the most appealing, not to mention useful. But we already have one.

I really wish I hadn't had something in my mouth when I read that.


This three-way trade is really shaping up. I'll send the CDs as soon as I receive the stereo. Honest.

I laugh too, Mac, ruefully, when I think of my pitiful stereo. I have sunk about as low as a music lover can go. My previous system was a beauty too: I had monitor speakers manufactured for BBC live broadcasts in the 1970s. They were wonderful. My amp shorted out and blew one of the speakers. Then, as is my fashion, I went about diagnosing the problem as ineptly as possible: I plugged the other speaker into the same amp, thereby blowing it as well.

The little iPod boombox is not actually the best thing I have. My computer speakers are a little better, but of course I have to be sitting at the computer to listen to those. For my birthday this year my wife got me a great set of headphones. They sound fantastic, but I don't have many occasions to wear them of late. (When I have them on, I can't hear the baby!)

The best thing about sharing a railway carriage with young people is the way they all share the hiphop on their mp3s with the rest of us, without any selfish sense of proprietorship.

I'm amused by the way heavy metal leaking from headphones is reduced to a thin angry buzz.

Craig, those are some mighty fine-looking headphones. I have some sort of middle-of-the-road Sony ones that are plenty good enough for me, but the pads are starting to disintegrate, so maybe I'll upgrade when they have to be replaced.

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