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“Dust accumulates on the hands, crate after crate, like panning for gold. No stone unturned. Hooded and anonymous like a thief in the night, they sift through the shelves of history.”

To give some context, I’m currently sitting on a Sydney metro train, typing away with my ever-so-comfortable Bose QC35ii headphones on. Outside noise, cancelled. Unpleasant train-goers, removed. I’m blasting a Gill Scott-Heron album from ‘71 via my ever-so-handy Spotify app. Any one trillion songs are so easily accessed by simply typing… wait, I’m not even bloody typing. “Hey Siri, play ‘Pieces of a Man”. I haven’t even looked up from the dull glow of my laptop yet I’m hearing one of the most important works of African-American poetry unfold before me. Easy as pie. 

Before we get any further though… Yes, I am a user of streaming services. Yes I understand the hypocrisy of this article you are about to read. No, I don’t care that I’m about to make a fool of myself. “Vinyl IS better maaaan”.

I love records. The whole subculture hit me hard and fast. Prior to my discovery, I was pretty indifferent to the whole hifi/audiophile world having already owned some cool headphones for mixing and having access to some University studios (where I thought monitors were more tools than sensory pleasure devices). For my twenty-first birthday my parents were looking to get me something memorable and a turntable seemed a good fit. It looked nice next to my veganism and love of craft beer, put it that way. My attitude matched the hipster stereotype. A  person who owned a shitty Kmart turntable with built-in speakers and one of two records; Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark side of the moon’ or Tame Impala’s ‘Currents’. It’s more of an accessory – a piece that says “That’s right! I do have a personality”. It sits in the living room of their Cooks Hill share-house collecting dust and compliments such as ‘classic albums you have bro’. 
Luckily I didn’t get one like that. I did a little bit of research at the request of my folks to see what was out there. What I ended up with, I later found out, was a wonderful middle of the road turntable from the early eighties, Purchased for almost the same price as a heap of junk Kmart one. I acquired this piece from gumtree and the lovely gentleman tossed in a phono preamp with it. I I had some monitors already at home so I pretty much plugged it in and started listening. This first experience is a major, I stress, major factor in my belief that vinyl sounds better. The first record I played was Side III of ‘Are You Experienced’  – I was literally lost for words hearing the solo of ‘Hey Joe’. It was like Jimi himself was in the room in front of me. Buying the necessary paraphernalia to actually make good sound come out of that wax platter can be expensive. It’s not easy to source and definitely It isn’t convenient to buy unless you are already an enthusiast. I repeat, I got lucky here. 

Now, there has been a lot of back and forth over the years regarding sound quality of vinyl versus its digital counterparts. It’s a tricky thing to decipher. My argument pends on the idea that the quality of the stereo equals the quality of the sound (So those terrible Kmart turntables I was mentioning earlier are literally an ego vortex). However, looking at actual resolution and bit depth, vinyl really is a sore loser. Some modern-day recording sessions are running at 64bit, which is an Empire State level of dynamic range. If you like listening to classical music, some lossless formats offer playback at that bit rate so you can hear the cockroaches in the rafters of the concert hall. For the enthusiast, CD quality of 16bit is the standard. Vinyl however, falls short. Although it is a slightly unfair comparison, the best we get out of vinyl is about the equivalent of 12 bits. This can be severely decreased with the quality of the wax itself and the quality of the components you’re using for playback. The irony of this is even more present in music that was recorded digitally and then pressed to vinyl. Even if the vinyl is pressed to the highest standard you still lose a significant amount of headroom and perceived quality. In vinyl folklore, it is said that vinyl is the best representation of what the original master tapes sounded like to the artists sitting in a control room. I tend to agree with this. If the music was tracked on two inch tape or mastered similarly to the latter, there is no analog to digital conversion required and in theory no lost audio data to dots and dashes. 

Vinyl brings out the worst in the music. Due to the physical nature of a needle scraping through plastic grooves, there is an unruly amount of top end and a completely artificial representation of the lows. When mastering vinyl, there is some kind of witchcraft that happens which overcompensates for the low end loss. It is also pretty common to de-ess heavily in the mastering process to remove some of the scratchy highs that the format seems to bring out. Just to add to the atrocities, to actually make an hour long album sound good is almost impossible with a twelve inch LP. The best fidelity comes when the grooves are wide enough for the stylus to track over them properly and with long playing records, there is literally not enough room for wide grooves. The then narrow grooves give less signal and less fidelity. Now to put the icing on the cake, the further the needle tracks around the record, the more fidelity is lost. How does this work? I’m not sure. It’s pretty much physics and electrical engineering from here out so if you are interested, google it. This phenomenon however, results in the first couple of tracks of the record sounding good, but the ones cut closer to the centre are left lacking.. So in combination with some severely questionable equipment and the vices mentioned above, listening through ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ should be an utterly awful experience. I’m just hearing some socially conscious surfer in my head right now saying “What do you mean maaann, vinyl sounds so warm and juicy broooo”. Yes I agree with him. If you don’t want to slap me now, I’ll make sure you do in the next paragraph. 

Vinyl has a sound. A very good sound. Somehow, despite the bleak outlook I have presented you, the magic is real. Whether placebo or not there is some intrinsic beauty in placing the record on the platter, dropping the needle to hear that warm, buttery pop. You can let the spinning record hypnotise you, watching the needle ride the grooves and the centre image dance. The combination of reading liner notes on a comfortable couch whilst basking in the sweet tones of your overplayed Pink Floyd LP is an experience truly unmatched. It’s multisensory. Yes, I understand that the album art has nothing to do with the sound quality but this is one angle I will argue. The sheer convenience of streaming is brilliant. Music, anywhere anytime. However, something is lost in translation there. Something a little antiseptic and removed. With vinyl, you are right in the middle. You are there with Kevin Parker as he whines about his melodramatic relationships. Or you are there with Erykah and all her power, charisma and sultriness. You also now have to have time to experience this. It makes you sit back, forget the outside world exists and lets your focus lie purely on the music. No notifications, no texts, just the occasional sobering record flip. This isn’t all a soporific, fever-dream though.
There is a bit of science to why vinyl can sound great. I think the key thing here in comparison to digital is that vinyl offers an alternative. It’s not better or worse than CDs or Spotify, it’s just different. So in the processing of the record itself, whether it be pre or post pressing, the audio signal is being processed by analog gear. What this means is that the tiny little electrical current is travelling through lots of transistors, vacuum tubes, amplifiers and cables. Along the way the signal is going to be joined by all of the wonderful harmonics created by this signal path, as well as some little idiosyncrasies and imperfections which add a ‘human-ness’ to everything. This processing happens both before the vinyl is pressed, (i.e the recording, mixing and mastering process) and once you are hearing it through your speakers. The phono signal has to be amplified by either a tube or solid state preamp and then distributed by an amplifier to the speakers. It’s a bit of a journey for old Kevin to get to your earbuds via his overpriced reissue of ‘Currents’.
This humanisation of music is something that makes me very happy. Even though there are clear issues with the whole record listening process, it’s the feeling that we get that makes it all worth it. You don’t have to spend a million dollars on a stereo to get the quality of sound either. There are some pretty respectable hifi systems for under four figures and you can definitely enjoy the shit out of. 

Continuing on with my soliloquy of ‘musical experience’, I can’t not continue without mentioning the hunt. There is a sheer adrenaline rush every time I walk into a record store. Stacks of old wax surrounding me, a certain funk in the air (again, record shops have charisma!). There is uncertainty, hope, loss and peace all in the record store experience. You never quite know what might be lurking on those shelves and it’s only monk-like patience that will see you reap the rewards of what lies beneath. This may not be for some people, but I love it. I dream of finding original pressing ‘White Albums’ and settling for a European repress of ‘What’s Going On’. It’s pure and simple organised hoarding. Some people, myself included, go deep with this stuff. The amount of detail an experienced collector can pull out of serial numbers and coding on a record is incredible. It’s fascinating. It’s history. 

So after you’ve spent all your hard earned cash on an overpriced stereo, broken a few needles, covered yourself in record store dust and taken a heroic dose of antihistamines to combat the allergens emitted from forty year old albums, you can sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour. I’m still here hypocritically telling my peers how streaming sucks. Hopefully this article spun you round, maybe even hypnotised you, or motivated you enough to dust off ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and give it a spin on your grandparents radiogram. I promise it’s worth it.