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[ARSCLIST] Interesting Economist piece
I just got this from an offlist party: Synchronicity or what?
The virtues of vinyl
Jan 5th 2007
LP stands for lingering pleasure
TWENTY-five years ago, almost to the day, your correspondent was
invited to listen to an early demonstration of a new recording medium
at Sony’s laboratories in Tokyo. “I have heard the future—and it’s a
shiny, five-inch disk,” said the cryptic message faxed back to /The
Economist/ in London. Several months later the Compact Disc hit the
record stores and began to change the way we listen to music.
For anyone who had started out listening to scratchy 78-rpm shellac
records, and was thrilled in due course by the quality of 33-rpm
long-playing vinyl records, the quietness of the background and the
staggering 90-decibel dynamic range of the CD was truly shattering.
From then on it was hard to accept the recording compromises involved
in squeezing the full range of sounds on to a vinyl LP.
Some record companies did rush to put out CDs by digitising tapes
already compressed for making LP masters. They discarded sound
frequencies thought too high for the human ear to detect. For these
and other reasons some early listeners complained that CDs lacked the
“warmth” of analogue vinyl.
But still, the days of the precision-engineered turntable, with its
sapphire stylus, anti-static brush and strobe for adjusting the speed,
seemed over. Job lots of treasured collections of LPs could be had,
almost literally, for a song, as music fans embraced the pristine
digital sound of the CD.
Several such job lots reside in your correspondent’s record cabinet,
dutifully indexed and stacked on their edges (never stack LPs flat),
hidden nowadays behind row after row of their CD replacements. The
jewel of a turntable hasn’t been used in years. But recent
developments could change that.
What goes around ...
The quality of pre-recorded CDs has taken a nose dive. To make their
products stand out on air and thus attract sales, record companies
have taken to reducing the dynamic range of recordings in the belief
that loudness sells. They compress the signal by boosting the quieter
parts and reducing the sound peaks. That stops the music from
distorting horribly when the volume is cranked up; but it also means
that most popular recordings spend practically all their play time in
the top 5dB of the CD’s 90dB dynamic range. The wonderful “airiness”
of the original CDs has been lost in the process.
Another recent problem with CDs has been a decline in the quality of
materials used to make them. Anyone who has tried to make even
half-decent audio recordings on compact disc has learned to buy
medical-quality blanks instead of the dismal fare for data storage.
So what to do with cherished LP recordings, especially those that
never made it on to CD? The sensible solution is to send them off to a
professional conversion shop. The best will clean the vinyl
thoroughly, and systematically remove all the ticks, pops, crackles
and whistles of surface and background noise, before carefully
“burning” the digital version of the scrubbed-up analogue waveform on
to a high-quality compact disk. They will even reproduce the cover
artwork and sleeve material for the CD case. But expect to pay
anything up to $50 an album for a decent conversion from vinyl LP to
A more adventurous answer is to ditch the CD altogether, and store
digitised versions of LP tracks on a computer hard-drive. Once there,
a quick and dirty copy can be downloaded to a portable MP3 player (or
a CD burned for the car stereo); a higher-quality version can be
streamed to hi-fi equipment in the living room.
To be frank, that’s all easier said than done. Plugging a turntable
into the line-in port (usually the light blue one) of a computer’s
soundcard may be simple enough, but the signal is likely to get
mangled by the card’s poor analogue-to-digital converter. Better to
avoid the soundcard altogether by using an external importer box, such
as the INport from Xitel in Australia. For a mere $70, the INport
contains the cables for connecting a hi-fi system to a computer’s USB
port. Once hooked up, the conversion box will do all the donkey work
of importing the audio signal, digitising it, and storing the file on
Alternatively, you can buy a turntable specially designed for the job,
which connects direct to a computer via a USB port. Models such as the
iTTUSB from Ion Audio of Rhode Island can be had online for as little
as $130. For software to edit and polish the audio files, enthusiasts
say that you can’t beat Audacity, an open-source program that’s free
to download, and available in PC, Mac and Linux versions.
One final piece of advice: remember you do not own the copyright of
the LPs you bought, only the plastic into which the audio tracks are
pressed. In making copies of them, you are technically in breach of
the law. But every sane jurisdiction in the world accepts that you can
do so as long as it’s strictly for your own use.