Record reflections

Taylor Burgess – Opinion Columnist |

To a particular kind of person, often of a particular race, income (or parental charity) and musical taste, vinyl records are making a “comeback.” This type of person embraces an obsolete format because, according to a recent Crimson article, “[v]inyl gives us a sense of history and give [sic] the music a sense of personality,” in implicit opposition to digital music’s sterility and lack of context. This type of person also values the “experience,” “community,” “romantic idea,” “spirit” and “nostalgia” the format fosters—e.g. when “the chaos absorbs you into a world of remembrance of what used to be.”

There is also mention of the “sound quality,” which is “totally different,” apparently due to “the analog sound and the vibrations that come from it.” Indeed, why else would one want a giant, flexible, expensive CD? Unfortunately, this assertion is patently untrue.

When vinyl is pressed, machines carve grooves that represent actual sounds waves—this is “analog.” A turntable needle glides over these grooves and generates a signal, which is amplified. Presto; “the analog sound and the vibrations that come from it.”

Digital music files do not store sound waves. Instead, they approximate an analog signal by “sampling” a wave periodically, storing necessary data in bits which, upon playback, are used to generate audible waves.

Here’s the catch: CD audio samples at 44.1 kilohertz—that’s 44,100 samples per second. With a bit depth of 16—or 16 bits per sample—there are 65,536 possible values for each sample. 24-bit audio, the standard for recording studios and DVD-Audio (which can sample at 192 kHz), is even better, with 16,777,215 possible values. Jargon aside, this means digital music is more than capable of reproducing a sound wave that, to the human ear, is functionally identical to those stored in analog mediums.

And sure—some audiophiles with well-trained ears swear by vinyl’s purity. But they also own equipment that—turntable, amplifier, speakers, cabinet, etc. accounted for—is in the 5-figure retail range. So, those who are “rediscovering” records after having “broken out their parents’ old record players” are actually unearthing the 20th century equivalent of a highly compressed MP3; the perceived warmth is all dust, flutter and wow—an illusion embraced by a trendy social movement.

Here’s the (second) catch: the position I’ve just ridiculed is also completely valid. Certainly, it ignores technical realities that, to me, are essential to grasping the importance of the object, the vinyl record. But it is just that: an object. We apply significance to objects based on context: culture, personality, perceived utility of the object to us. Audiophiles appreciate records because they store sound waves perfectly; others appreciate them because they complement a certain aesthetic; I, crank that I am, appreciate them less and less. If I were to airdrop a box of vinyl over rural Borneo, the indigenous people would likely appreciate my gift for uses unrelated to music playback—perhaps as plates or projectiles.

In sum, objects have no inherent value or function. Instead, we assign them. So please: feel free to continue buying overpriced albums from quirky boutiques (or Urban Outfitters). I’m no longer judging—promise.

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