The BBC reports on the steady rise of vinyl in recent years.
Now, there are a few reasons why some people still like vinyl. Obviously one reason is that DJs like to play around with them. Another reason we often hear is that some people think they sound better than CDs. I agree that there is something really nice about the sound of a vinyl record. But what’s often not appreciated is that a large part of them sounding good — not all of it, but a significant part — is that with vinyl you can’t apply the sort of heavy limiting and compression to the audio that you can for a CD. If you do it causes problems with the playablity of the record.
(By ‘compression’ here I don’t mean compression in the sense of mp3-style data compression, where bits of the audio are thrown away to make the digital file smaller. I’m talking about applying a ‘compressor‘ or ‘limiter’ — a bit of studio gear which stops the loud bits of the audio being so loud, thus allowing the audio signal as a whole to be turned up — at the mastering stage)
I’ve banged on before on this blog about how the modern practise of using heavy compression and limiting in mastering is generally a bad idea, as although it makes tracks sound louder, it reduces the dynamic range of music, which makes the tracks sound boring and fatiguing after a while (and we didn’t apply much limiting to our album Honey and Lava). But if you use vinyl you’re automatically prevented from overdoing the compression/limiting. This means that modern albums that are released on both CD and vinyl have to be mastered differently. And that’s one reason, possibly the main reason, why some people swear that album X sounds better on the vinyl version than on the CD version. It’s also one reason why vinyl albums from the 70’s sound so good. Okay, maybe the music was better then. But maybe it’s because — or also because — the music hasn’t been limited to death. You can listen to vinyl albums from the 70s for hours, even ones with music you don’t much care for, and played loudly, without thinking after a while ‘Please turn this off, my ears need a rest’.
This isn’t my idea, by the way. I first heard this claim made by Hugh Robjohns, Sound on Sound magazine’s resident tech guru. I think our mastering engineer Ray Staff may have also said this to me. Part of the sound of vinyl is the sound of a lighter touch with the limiter.