Vinyl vs Digital





Sonic Difference

Vinyl Is An Impression Of A Musical Impulse Digital Is A Sample Of That Impulse





The resurgence of vinyl as a medium of choice  poses a number of questions about the difference between digital and analogue music reproduction.   There are issues around vinyl as a physical object, vinyl as ritual and vinyl as nostalgia – all of which are valid and worthy of discussion but the focus here is the sonic differences.




Sound Is Energy

When a singer, sings a note into a dynamic microphone, the diaphragm moves – sound becomes kinetic energy.   The movement of the diaphragm with it’s attached coil in relation to a magnet generates an electrical impulse.  That impulse can travel along a cable.   The electrical impulse in that cable is analogous to the kinetic energy that creates it, in the same way as a face mask is an impression of a face.


Analogue Is Lossy

There is always some leakage of energy in the changing from one form to another.   The electrical impulse traveling along a copper wire generates a small amount heat.  That loss of electrical energy is loss of the musical signal.  The signal is degraded with every connection or form change in the chain between the live sound production and it’s reproduction on a record.   Analogue sound  is a lossy medium.

The layering of different tracks of music became a essential part of making a record from the mid sixties when The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds) and The Beatles (Sgr. Peppers and his lonely heards band)  used recording technology to fuel musical innovation.

The Beatles recorded Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on two Studer J37 four track machine.   In order to layer more music tracks they were required to mixing down four tracks to one or two in order to free up tracks for more sounds.   This mixing down degraded the music.   With each generation of mixing down,  there was more distortion and more noise.  Managing noise and distortion was a major part of the sound engineer’s  job.


Digital Is Lossless

Digital recording solved all those problems.  Music recording was a big business in the 1970s so there was a serious creative and commercial force driving digital recording technology.   Digital is lossless.  You can copy a digital file down through an infinite number of generations with out degrading the sound – theoretically.    Digital is not analogous.  It samples the music assigning discreet numbers to the sound wave at regular intervals – 441 00 times a second or 44.1kHz.

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Analogue vs Digital Signal.

The difference between an analogue single and a digital signal is that the digital is blocky the analogue wave is smooth and continuous.   That in itself might account for the difference but science tells us that human ears can’t resolve that much detail.  It is simply not possible to tell the difference between a digital and analogue wave because the maximum perceivable frequency the human ear can hear is 20kHz.     So there should be no difference between music reproduced from digital or analogue sources.  However, there are other factors.


RIAA Curve

In mastering the final track the music going to digital and analogue travel different paths.   The process of getting music onto a record requires equalisation to reduce the physical space music information takes up on the record.  Low frequencies demand larger groves on the vinyl record.  In order to reduce the space an equalisation is applied to the music to suppress the low frequencies.  This equalisation is known as the RIAA curve.  This effectively reduces the low frequencies requiring that they are boosted on playback by the phono pre amp.   The phono pre amp is a intermediary amplifier between the cartridge and the amplifier.   The phono pre amp boosts the signal from the cartridge up to line level and reverses the RIAA curve.   Without reversing the RIAA curve, the music from a vinyl record is depleted of low frequencies and sounds shrill and without body.

This processing of the analogue sound has its own characteristics  that affect the sound coming from the speakers but, significantly the music coming from the record retains an analogous relationship with the music that was recorded and mixed in the studio.

Music might be recorded using analogue or digital equipment but it is reasonable to assume that must contemporary music goes through some digital processing in its journey from instrument to media, whether vinyl or digital.  But most music originates as analogue and and is reproduced as analogue.  The digital processing of the sound will have it’s own characteristics.  There is further processing involved in converting the digital signal back to analogue for playback.  All of these procedures have an influence on the sound.


Digital Compression

Digital compression is applied in the recording and mixing of music but also in the mastering.   It has a very distinctive effect on the sound especially on the bass response making it sound punchier and louder.   Depending on how listen to music this can be either a good or a bad thing and it is also very subjective.  If your listening to the radio in your car then, compression will give the music a bit more bite but listening at home on your hifi that bite can be unpleasant.  You may also find that when compared to a vinyl recording there is a lack of space in the sound because the dynamic range is reduced by the compression.



If you are a vinyl buff your sound system will be tuned to vinyl where  as someone who listens to primary digital sources will have tuned their system to that music.  So, when we are comparing digital to analogue in the real world it is difficult to be anything other then subjective.

In my own experience, when engaging in a focused session of listening to music, vinyl is by far the more engaging.   There is a quality to the harmonics that is far superior on vinyl.

I’ve always held that if you listen to music that was predominantly recorded before the nineteen ninety then vinyl is by far the superior medium.  There are a few reasons for this some of which are technical but other just have to do with how things are done in the real world.   Music remastered for from original analogue recordings seldom sounds anything like the vinyl original.   This might be for technical reason but it might also be because the remastering wasn’t done to a the same exacting standards as the original vinyl mix.