Before the dawn of the iPod and smartphones, a Sony Walkman was probably the most complete modern personal music system we had available for portable use. When did the Walkman come out — 1979? Not many players in that game before the iPod.
I define the Walkman as a music system because it had more than one source of music that could play to your headphones. As a “receiver” in your pocket, most of these could play both cassettes and radio stations.
Music played with a phone or iPod is all digital, but that doesn’t mean these modern “walkmen” have only one source. They have as many inputs for sound as you can find online or in the app store. You can listen to YouTube videos, satellite radio, podcasts, Google Play or your own stored music.
So why, in the midst of this steady progression toward portability and unlimited music inputs, are folks buying records and setting up a decidedly nonportable record player?
It’s not because a record player is analog and doesn’t need to be converted from digital, which makes it sounds better. It’s not even that records force you to get up and be involved in the music. It’s not because of the big artwork and extensive liner notes.
Many well-informed music lovers have preferred vinyl for so many years simply because music on vinyl often sounds punchier and more exciting than the same music over digital.
Why? Well, it has a lot to do with what I’ve been talking about in recent weeks, which is the dynamics of the recordings, i.e. the difference between quiet and loud. Mostly it has to do with keeping that needle in the groove.
Music for vinyl release is actually different from what you hear in the digital iTunes store. First of all, the bass is greatly lowered and rolled off. Don’t worry, it’ll come back — all record player preamplifiers re-establish the bass during playback.
Secondly, music cut to wax is naturally more dynamic than other digital releases of the same music.
The reason for both is easy to grasp. Picture what’s happening when the record is spinning and you drop a needle into a groove. The groove has tons of little bumps and ridges that cause the needle to move, creating an electrical signal.
If the bass of the music on vinyl was not reduced and instead was represented at the same volume as the rest of the music, the needle would jump out of the groove in a split second.
And if the music was compressed and had its dynamics limited, as is done with many digital releases nowadays, the average loudness of the song being much higher will cause the needle to average a higher level inside the groove, and any quick, loud sounds will then cause the needle to jump out.
The reason records can sound better literally comes down to engineers not being able to squash the music because they need to keep the needle in the groove. It’s a natural disincentive that plays in our favor and makes music on vinyl more dynamic, open and exciting.