Feature

Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl

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Even purely digital music is now marketed using the trappings of vinyl. When U2 distributed 500 million digital copies of its new album to iTunes users -- a reach unimaginable when the band released its debut in 1980 -- the artwork depicted a vinyl record inside a sleeve with the initials "LP" scribbled on the exterior. And when Neil Young launched a Kickstarter campaign for PonoMusic, a digital music player and online store, his company's stated mission was to "re-create the vinyl experience in the digital realm."

Baked into the vinyl resurgence is the suggestion -- fed by analog apostles such as Young and White -- that an LP's analog playback produces honest, authentic sound, while digital formats like the CD compromise quality for the sake of portability and convenience. Young articulated this sentiment earlier this month at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where he told Rolling Stone's Nathan Brackett that the vinyl resurgence is due to the fact that "[vinyl is] the only place people can go where they can really hear."

Fathers of the compact disc -- and many audio engineers who make a living reproducing what transpires in the recording studio -- bristle at this notion.

"As long as you can measure the difference, the CD will be better than the vinyl, absolutely," says Kees A. Schouhamer Immink, a former Philips engineer in the Netherlands, who was a member of the Sony/Philips task force that created the compact disc standards. "But if you say the whole experience -- just like smoking cigars with friends -- [is better], well, do it. Enjoy smoking cigars with friends, and drink beer and brandy and enjoy listening to an old-fashioned record player. But don't say the sound is better.

"You may say it sounds better to you. That's OK. That's a subjective matter."

In 1968, a 23-year-old audio engineer named Bob Ludwig at New York's A&R Recording was asked to create a test pressing of The Band's debut, Music From Big Pink, so that the producers could hear what it would sound like on LP. During the process, he especially tried to preserve as much as possible of the deep low end of the band's sound, which he believed was critical to its music.

But when he heard the final LP that was released, he was stunned. "All the low, extreme low bass that I knew was there, was chopped right off."

Years later, when Ludwig was hired to provide the final edit (known as mastering) for a greatest-hits package for The Band, he got the album's master tapes back from Capitol Records. On the box was a note from the cutting engineer who'd made the original vinyl master, saying the album's extreme low end had to be cut out.

Of vinyl's inherent deficiencies, reproducing bass is one of its most glaring. The other is that the last track on each side of a record sounds worse than the first, due to the fact that the player's stylus covers fewer inches of grooves per second as it gets closer to the center.

"The vinyl disc is a steadily collapsing medium," says Ludwig, who went on to become a Grammy-winning mastering engineer, with credits on Patti Smith's Horses, Steely Dan's Gaucho and White's Lazaretto, among many others. "The closer it gets to the label, the more the information is getting compromised, the high frequencies getting lost."

Ludwig's colleague Bob Clearmountain is one of the industry's most respected mixing engineers, responsible for setting the levels of a band's performance before it's sent to the mastering engineer. He has worked with everyone from The Rolling Stones and David Bowie to Ricky Martin and Lenny Kravitz.

When Clearmountain mixed vinyl albums for Columbia Records, he says the label required the test pressing of each LP to play on an old, cheap turntable without skipping, or it would have to be mixed again. Too much bass in one speaker could make the needle skip out of the groove, as would too much sibilance -- a harsh "s" -- in a singer's voice.

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Chris Kornelis