Monday, November 24, 2008

Old-style music

A few weeks ago I picked up a cheap, portable turntable (a Numark PT01, meant for DJs) on a trip to the US, and a pile of ancient LP records from my parents. So now I'm listening to them and transferring them to my hard disk, and plan to clean up the transfers a little and burn them to CDs. The kid has been listening to some of the same LPs that I heard when I was his age.

There is no doubt that LPs have an immediacy that CDs lack. You hold the LP in your hand and can actually see where the music goes on the grooves. Place the needle on the groove; needle goes up and down, tracing the waveform of the sound; that movement gets converted into an electrical signal, which gets equalised, amplified and sent to the speakers. Compare that with an explanation of the digital signal processing in CD playback. And you can see the thing spinning around, and if you stand close, you can hear the "direct" sound emitted by the moving needle. I placed the machine high, out of the kid's reach, but now every time I play it he wants to be lifted up so that he can see it.

And they sound good -- even the badly worn ones that sound as if there's a rainstorm in the background. (What's wrong with imagining a rainstorm in the background while the music's playing?) But I suspect I say that because I grew up with LPs and have a nostalgic fondness for that sound. What does one make of those audiophiles who claim the best-made LPs sound better than the best-mastered CDs? CDs have no background noise, vastly better dynamic range, and can accurately reproduce every sound audible to the human ear: those who argue that a few samples per period at high frequencies is inadequate merely expose their ignorance of the Nyqvist theorem. And though the amplitudes are discrete (with 65,536 possible values), that is capable of better accuracy than what LPs can achieve. As a clincher -- my subjective impression of a "nice sound" was achieved by piping the audio through my computer, where it was digitised, and out again: so the audio that went out to the speakers could not have been better than what CDs can achieve.

(However, it is true that many CDs are mastered these days with a deliberately compressed dynamic range, which makes them sound dreadful. I talked about this some time ago, in the context of Bob Dylan's complaints about the "CD sound". The fault is with the industry, not the medium.)

So nostalgia takes me only so far: all the LPs are being digitised. For those who have a turntable and a computer and would like to convert their vinyl disks to zeroes and ones, here's what I do:

  • Use an external USB audio device: I find results noisy when I use the internal soundcard of the computer. I use a Griffin iMic that I picked up some years ago when the sound card of the laptop I had then stopped working.
  • Connect the output of the LP to the input of the computer (ie the input of the USB device), and the output of the computer (USB device, though this is optional) to the amplifier. Note: my turntable comes with a pre-amp (with equalisation) as well as a volume control. Most internal soundcards have mic-level inputs, which are very sensitive and will saturate with pre-amplified signals; raw "phono" (magnetic cartridge) signals will be OK but will need equalisation. The Griffin iMic has a setting for line-level input, which I use. Also, many turntables these days come with USB output, which I assume will work will.
  • Start the recording program; I use audacity. I set the input and output sources to the USB device and ask it to duplicate input to output.
  • Start recording, play the LP, stop recording.
  • Save the resulting sound (in WAV format).

And what I haven't yet started doing: clean up the results (scratch removal, etc), though not too aggressively; split into individual tracks; save; burn to CDs. For all this too (except the burning part) I plan to use audacity, but I haven't got there yet.


Sunil said...

For a second I thought you were going to say things like "a bright spacious a sound with a fine balance of subtlety and poise". Then I remembered who I'm dealing with...

I sometimes buy and read What Hi-Fi, just for fun. One day I'm going to write out all the adjectives I come across in there, and put them in into a bullshit-generator program. Instant audiophile reviews!

Tabula Rasa said...

great that you're doing this. hats off.

wv: encoller. don't know what it means but it sounds quite appropriate.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Apparently it means "to paste". Quite appropriate: I'll be doing some cutting-and-pasting (to splice out skips, etc).

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Sunil - it's a lot like wine reviews.

km said...

There's a Ask Metafilter question on this very topic today.

While your technical argument about the sound is indeed correct, I am still not sure why "Sticky Fingers" or "White Album" sound so much better on vinyl.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km - perhaps the remastering wasn't great -- that was a true of a lot of 1980s remasters. Have you tried digitising the vinyl, burning it to a CD, and playing back?

I haven't heard either on LP, so can't say...

Jay said...

Interesting.. I read this piece on the NPR blog only a couple of minutes back..
"Vinyl, the new CD?"