In the latest chapter of the resurgence of vinyl records, Tom Petty's reunion band, Mudcrutch this week released a vinyl version of their recent album. The package also includes an "Audiophile CD" that is made from the same master as the vinyl record. To quote one review:
The included Audiophile CD is made from the same uncompressed stereo masters as the vinyl pressing. It reproduces the music’s full dynamic range, so the quiet parts are quieter and the loud parts are louder-- just as they were performed. To achieve full dynamic range it’s necessary to master with less overall level, so the Audiophile CD may not sound as “loud” as the standard CD or download. To compensate for this, put it on a high quality system and turn it up!
Judging from the coverage this release has garnered in the mainstream press (NY Times, USA Today), the public is gradually becoming aware of the loudness wars which have raged behind the scenes in the music industry. While all recordings undergo some amount of dynamic compression in order to avoid distortion, the situation got out of hand when songs were competing for attention on the radio, especially in autmobiles where the quiet passages could be drowned out by road noise and the listner was apt to change stations if the music wasn't immediately engaging. Just as chefs have learned that tossing in a handful of salt can make a drab dish more appealing, music engineers learned that turning up the volume can make people pay attention. And in both cases consumers eventually tire of the excess even if they can't quite pinpoint the cause. Now that the influence of radio has declined, the stage is set for a return to quality, even if that trend is currently confined to a niche audience of serious listeners.
The loudness issue illustrated that the perceived superiority of vinyl may not be inherent to the format itself but lies more in how it is used. Indeed, the signal that gets pressed into a vinyl record was most likely in digital form during part or all of its recording, mixing, and mastering. Many labels even cut the vinyl directly from the CD.
So why does vinyl sound better? There can be several reasons. The most important is that an artist who makes a vinyl version of an album is making a record for a more serious listener, and may make different decisions about dynamic compression as described above. There is also the matter of digital-to-analog conversion. Making good, linear D/A converters is expensive, and a vinyl listener can benefit from D/A conversion that is done with studio-grade equipment rather than what can be provided in the typical consumer gear. Also, some engineers theorize that although the RIAA curve that is applied in recording is theoretically balanced out by the inverse curve in playback, that in reality the result is some extra boost in the low frequencies which produces a more pleasing sound. Finally, one must not discount the listening environment itself. Just as it is more pleasant to consume a fine meal in a nice restaurant, the experience of opening a large album with artwork large enough to see creates a setting where the music may really sound better.
In any case, it is encouraging to see that artists and their record companies are taking note of the increased interest in quality - something that will benefit the fans and artists alike.