Do vinyl records really sound better than digital?


Knipsermann's photo of classic vinyl.

Over the past few years there has been a surge in musicians releasing their material on vinyl. I love this! Mostly for nostalgia and the fact that they want to try something outside of the norm – digital downloads. They want to experiment, play around, get into it. Tweaking and fussing is what musicians do naturally. Eddie Van Halen refers to himself as a tone chaser.

Whether it be tone, harmony, melody or whatever we’re all chasing some form of audio bliss. I live for this. I’m at my best while in the zone mixing.

When the track starts to come together and it resonates deep inside me I literally start to dance in my chair. There are very few similar feelings. Anyway, I digress. The subject of this article is, “Do vinyl records really sound better than digital?” So. Does it?

I’m going out on a limb here and say no. At least not as a modern music distribution method. The reason why people think vinyl sounds better than digital is most likely because they’ve listened to vinyl recordings from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s – the height of vinyl production – and thought “Wow! Why does that sound so much warmer than today’s music?”. I think I know and can tell you in one word… Analog.

Solid State Logic (SSL) recording console.
Solid State Logic (SSL) recording console.

A little recording history

When records were made in those decades the recording process was fairly straightforward compared to today. You had a mic (for vocals, guitars, piano, strings, etc.) that went into an analog mic pre-amp (either through a console’s channel strip or a piece of external outboard gear) then through the console and out into the tape machine.

The signal path rarely saw any form digital electronics. Granted, there are IC’s in some of this flow, mainly the console, but a majority of it was analog. There wasn’t any form of A-to-D conversion changing the signal from one format to another. Then from there the track was mixed to tape and sent it off to the mastering engineer who would cut the laquer from vinyl material.

A common misconception about vinyl

Studer 800 analog 24 track tape machine
Studer 800 analog 24 track tape machine

What I hear people say is “I love vinyl. It sounds so warm and full.”. But, as a medium, does it really? I feel there’s a misconception between what people think vinyl does to a record and the production tools used back when vinyl was popular.

To me, the signal chain above is the reason for the tone people relate to vinyl. Working in a modern digital environment and then cutting to vinyl at the end isn’t the same as recording with analog processing all the way through. I own many modern recording cut to vinyl and to be completely honest they sound good, but vinyl recordings from the heyday of analog to vinyl sound great!

The reason for this you ask? It’s simple. You have to get out of your bedroom and into a real studio with real equipment to capture that tone. You can’t do it with a $200 audio interface and expect the same results. You need to invest in real gear to get real results.

Not only did the circuitry of each piece of gear add it’s own color to the sound, but tape compression from each type of analog recording device also added a very unique overall characteristic.

UAD Apollo Audio Interface
UAD Apollo Digital Audio Interface

My conclusion

When added together 1 (analog mic) +1 (analog outboard) +1 (analog recorder) = 5 (a much warmer tone). In today’s world everything, at times, can appear to be too perfect. Now 1 (analog or digital mic) + 1 (digital audio interface) + 1 (digital recorder) = 3 (exactly what you expect to hear without any coloration).

Personally I’ll work on either platform because you can make a great record with each, but they are not the same and don’t deliver the same sonic results.

So I ask you again. Do vinyl records really sound better than digital? If you’d like to share your point of view please add a comment below.


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