Feature

Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl

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Clearmountain, who now works out of Mix This! in Pacific Palisades, says that when he heard the vinyl test pressings of the albums he'd worked on in the studio, he always felt the same way: depressed.

"I'd just listen and go: 'Jesus, after all that work, that's all I get?' It was sort of a percentage of what we did in the studio," he says. "All that work and trying to make everything sound so good, and the vinyl just wasn't as good."

Not only did records provide only a sliver of what he'd done in the studio but they also came with plenty of sounds that hadn't been there in the first place: ticks and pops.

"If you're a musician like Bob and I," Ludwig says, "and you get to do a mix and you listen to it and you love the way it sounds, and then it's transferred to vinyl and suddenly it's got noise and ticks and pops, for me that's an extremely unmusical event."

Unlike Russell, not all of the engineers and scientists whose inventions and developments laid the groundwork for the CD were motivated by the quest for clearer sound. Richard Wilkinson was searching for a better picture.

At MCA Laboratories in Torrance, Wilkinson was charged with developing ways to record television programs and put them on master discs with a laser beam at a time when few commercially available lasers existed. It was an experimental project with slim hope of success. "The director of the lab told me there was no guarantee the job would last more than six months," Wilkinson says.

But he and his colleagues succeeded. In partnership with Immink and his colleagues at Philips, Wilkinson's team helped create the standards for what we now know as the laserdisc. Under an agreement between the two companies, Philips built the players and MCA manufactured the discs at a factory in Carson.

"If you really want to have problems between Dutch people and Americans, then you should do this kind of thing," Immink says. "If a system didn't work, who was to blame, the disc or the player? That was a huge problem."

The bigger problem was that the public was not impressed. Philips' first commercially available laserdisc player -- the Magnavox 8000 -- was introduced in 1978, but Immink estimates that after half a billion dollars in development resources, only a few hundred players were sold.

But the excursion was not a total loss. While Immink and his colleagues were developing the video disc, management asked them to pursue a sound-only disc as well.

Immink grew up saving his money to buy 45s by American artists such as Elvis Presley. But when his team started testing the digital audio disc, they used recordings of performances such as Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Classical music could demonstrate the format's superior dynamic range over the LP better than popular music, which has a comparably smaller range -- the distance between soft passages of music and loud ones.

"From a record player, it's impossible to have such a dynamic range," Immink says. "You have to suppress the dynamic range, otherwise the grooves will touch or you [have reduced] playing time."

In 1979, Immink was brought into a joint task force between Philips and Sony to develop standards for the compact disc. In 1982, the new format went on the market.

Two years later, the first CD was manufactured in the United States. Fittingly, it was Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., an album that was mixed by Bob Clearmountain and mastered by Bob Ludwig.

Hearing Born in the U.S.A. on CD didn't make either man a digital advocate. Clearmountain and Ludwig say that early analog-to-digital converters had an industrial sound, which made CDs sound brittle. But when Apogee Electronics -- a company co-founded by Clearmountain's wife, Betty Bennett -- developed the first high-quality converters in 1985, the sound came into focus.

"It wasn't until CDs actually started to sound good [that I went]: 'That's what it sounded like. That's what I remember doing in the studio,'" Clearmountain says. "The great thing for me about digital, about CDs, was that I could do things that I could never do for a vinyl record."

Scott Metcalfe, director of recording arts and sciences at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, says the move to CDs was especially beneficial for reproducing classical recordings.

"Really in every way measurable, the digital formats are going to exceed analog in dynamic range, meaning the distance between how loud and how soft," he says. "In the classical world, [that means] getting really quiet music that isn't obscured by the pops and clicks of vinyl or just the noise floor of the friction of the stylus against the [LP] itself."

That said, every audio enginee we spoke to said it's not hard to find LPs that sound better than CDs. Mastering, production and manufacturing variables can drastically tilt the scale either way.

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Chris Kornelis