I like to listen to finger music.
That’s right, I’m a digital guy.
Woah, that was a bad joke. Well, as a father of a toddler, I guess it’s time I stock up on some of those.
Last week, I explained two reasons why music on vinyl can sound better than the same exact music as a digital file. This has to do with the temptation in digital for engineers to “squash” the dynamics of the music, since everything in the digital realm can be manipulated with computers to the Nth degree. As I’ve written before, this is initially pleasing to some ears but gets fatiguing quickly and is generally quite unmusical. As they say, when there is no quiet, there is no loud.
The main reason I’m such a fan of digital music over analog despite the way it’s used in pop production is that digital has a much greater potential for excellence than its analog brethren like vinyl and tape.
Last week, I went into some detail about the difficult time the record player needle has to stay inside the groove. This is all well known, and the state of the art in vinyl playback takes many steps to minimize limitations and wring the last drop of goodness out of what’s there in the grooves.
The thing is, vinyl science is an old science, and the wizards of yore long ago figured out the tapestry of interactive trade-offs that is the vinyl recording process.
The absolute dynamic range of a vinyl record, because of all of the relevant factors, is about 70 decibels. From the quietest quiet possible on vinyl to the loudest loud, records can only play back about 58 percent of what human hearing is capable of.
Yes, that’s right! The truth is vinyl is quite limited in what it can do, which is just one reason why most of the music industry moved on to digital.
Digital recording devices are now recording music in the range of 130 to 140 decibels. I’m talking about absolute dynamic range potential here; it’s not likely you’ll ever hear a 10 decibel sound, and hopefully you never come across a 140 dB one (you’d go deaf).
It’s not about needing to use all of those 140 decibels, which is especially evident if you fire up a modern pop music hit. Most of the sound in heavily compressed music will ride right near the top of what’s comfortable.
In most things related to audio, over-building and having more at your disposal than you need is a very good thing. More headroom makes recordings more natural and preserves instantaneous musical “transients,” which are quick spikes in sound, like the striking of a drum head or the pluck of a string.
Digital recording engineers can set up mics and hit go, knowing they have so much room to record that they can spend less time worrying about levels and take more time to make excellent microphone placement choices.
Digital also has another thing going for it — you can stream it. We’ll dive into digital streamers and servers next week.