Ben Watt interviews long-time Buzzin' Fly mastering engineer Miles Showell at leading mastering room, Metropolis Studios in London. With an apparent resurgence in the popularity of vinyl and many people claiming that vinyl sounds better than CDs, Ben digs deep with Miles to get his expertise on the technical differences and what sounds best and why…
There is a revival of a belief among home-listening record buyers that vinyl sounds better than CD. CDs seemed to have been contaminated by a dislike for MP3s. They're 'harsh', they're 'digital', people cry. It is causing people to reject their CD collections, and buy music on vinyl again often at very high prices. A love of 12" packaging and the rituals aside, it is baffling: surely for most people in domestic environments they are imagining things.
I completely understand your frustration. While vinyl records are truly capable of extremely high digital-beating fidelity, this can only be the case if the record was (i) cut well at the mastering stage, (ii) processed and pressed well at the factory, which is the really hard part, (iii) then kept clean and stored in ideal conditions and (iv) finally played on a decent turntable with a very well-engineered tone arm fitted with a good and correctly aligned cartridge that in turn has a clean and undamaged stylus all of which needs to feed a high quality RIAA vinyl disc pre-amplifier.
Exactly. Who is going to be able to afford or set all that up?
Yes, as you can see there are a hell of a lot of 'ifs' in there. Obviously all of the above is very possible but it is difficult and more expensive to really do vinyl records justice. It is just not feasible that all the people who feel records "sound so much better than CD" have been able to achieve all of the above.
I am sure part of it is that people tell themselves it sounds better because it is 'analogue' - a word that now has near mythical proportions enriched as it is with popular modern connotations of authenticity and organic content. People say vinyl sounds 'warmer' but surely this is invariably down to low-frequency boosts and compression put into cartridges to maximise volume out of a turntable - a bit like that old 'Loudness' button on old-fashioned amplifiers. It is not really anything to do with what is on the vinyl itself. Do you think there are also other reasons that have caused this perception?
It could be that they have very poor CD players (not impossible, as the CD player has been de-engineered of late as domestic audio equipment is being made cheaper and cheaper). Or maybe they are not playing manufactured CDs but home made burns made in computers. The CD burning drives bundled with most home computers leave quite a lot to be desired (poor jitter rates when burning audio CDs especially if they are burn very quickly ie x64 which people tend to do also).
And the blank CDs used?
Yes, the variability of blank media which can also have a very negative effect on the audio. This is especially apparent at the budget end of the blank CD market. Here at Metropolis we like to use Taiyo Yuden Gold blanks for audio CDs but these cost us something in the region of 70 pence per disc. Very few people in the real word would spend that much on blank CDs when they believe the hype (well, theory really) that "digital so makes no difference as long as the 1s and 0s can be read".
And the source material?
Yes, a lot of people burn CDs from their iTunes library so obviously they are starting with lossy compressed sources (MP3 and AAC) and not full bandwidth audio. Sometimes there is also the problem of compound compression: a manufactured CD is ripped at high speed using a lossy 'codec' to the computer, then a "copy" audio CD is burnt for a friend who, in turn rips it into his computer via a lossy codec and so on and so on.
So the chances are in most environments a CD player is still a good choice?
Yes, a decent mid-priced CD player will probably sound better than a decent mid-priced record player set up in most cases just because a decent turntable, arm, cartridge and RIAA pre-amplifier combinations are more expensive that their CD counterpart as well as difficult to set up correctly and maintain. But, I should also add, a decent turntable could quite easily beat any CD player (regardless of budget) fed with poor quality CDs.
It seems the playing field for comparisons is not exactly level...
As someone who also loves the vinyl format I am chuffed at its recent revival, however I am not sure all of the people who profess to hear a difference are really doing fair comparisons.
What do you choose?
Here in the studio, if potential or new clients want to hear how the room sounds, I will often play vinyl records and a lot of people are staggered at the potential fidelity of this pretty crude music carrying format. So it is a hard one to call. At home I will happily play vinyl or CDs (with a slight preference for vinyl probably because the RIAA equaliser in my amplifier is so sweet sounding) but as you might expect I have pretty good gear that I have acquired over time as well as access to an excellent engineering team who can help me tinker with it!
And for the average home listener?
For most people a good CD is as good as it ever needs to be. The problem is that CDs in the domestic environment - for the reasons outlined above - are often not quite what they used to be.
“For what it's worth, readers, I listen to my iTunes on shuffle all day long with tunes at varying levels of compression and quality. For me the tune rather than the obsession over its pristine sound quality is what matters on a day-to-day level. I agree with Miles that well-made vinyl can sound startlingly good on amazing gear, but surely one of the chief reasons the professionally made CD arrived in the first place was we were sick of the scratches and crackles and crappy tone-arms of the early-80s, especially when listening at home. CDs have their drawbacks but let's not imagine ones that aren't there. And then let's all bundle round to Miles' house to check out his vinyl setup when he has a moment!”