Down in the groove…
This year’s Record Store Day will soon be upon us, giving vinyl junkies and music lovers across the globe a chance to celebrate our hobby with like-minded folk, whilst picking up new and often limited edition releases to add to already-bulging collections.
There are a thousand and one reasons why enthusiasts love music played from record, from the pops and clicks of an old favourite long since out of print, to the process of playing the record itself; removing it from its decorative sleeve, laying the stylus into the groove and being taken to another place without ever leaving the room.
But what else are we getting from vinyl playback that for some makes it a better option than CD or downloads? What keeps die-hard audio devotees coming back to a format that is not far off 100 years old? First, let’s have a look at the process that goes into making these musical marvels…
The Science-y Bit…
Whilst early 78 rpm records (‘RPM’ stands for Revolutions Per Minute) were made from a resin called shellac, modern records (from the era of 33 rpm releases and onwards) have been made from polyvinyl chloride – which was fortunately trimmed down to just plain old ‘vinyl’ to the relief of collectors everywhere! Shellac, when pressed into record form was brittle, and proved to be difficult to maintain over long periods. Vinyl on the other hand is sturdy and easier to work with, giving relatively flimsy, thin discs more substance and longevity in comparison to its forebear.
The process behind making the records themselves remains relatively unchanged from that used in their infancy. A master copy of the music is created, usually by the engineers of the studio where the work was recorded, and this original version is used to create the many others that’ll go on general sale. Creating this requires a device known as a lacquer, which is placed on a record cutting machine . Next, a stylus is used, and is fed electric signals that allow it to move in the lacquer, creating the grooves that contain the music itself, ready for your turntable to play when the final work is complete.
After this has finished, the delicate lacquer (which uses a thinner type of material than the record that’ll eventually end up in your home) is coated with metal – often nickel – which fills in the grooves and is re-pressed to create a ‘metal master’. Almost at its final stage, the metal master is used to create the ‘stamper’ – effectively a negative copy (like an old camera film) that is then pressed into each new slab of vinyl, creating the finished version.
With the debate regarding the “Loudness Wars” reaching fever pitch a few years ago, MP3s and CDs came in for a hard time for their often poor mastering process. With a decidedly dodgy dynamic range, a lot of modern music (Metallica’s Death Magnetic was particularly slated) sounded fairly awful on a good hi-fi system, with engineers keen to boost volume for radio playback (not many turntables in radio studios these days!) but losing all of the light and shade to the sound that music should offer as a result.
Vinyl, for the most part, escaped this worrying trend. In general, the grooves of a record will hold more of the musical information than an equivalent CD release, requiring less compression in the first place. With newer, digitally recorded music, some engineers are even using different masters altogether, one for the digital release, and a less compressed version for the corresponding LP release. A quick look over at the Dynamic Range Database – a brilliant tool for showing how an album was mixed – shows that most (but not all) vinyl counterpart releases offer a superior range, and so will sound better than their digital equivalent.
Popular these days with audiophiles and collectors alike, 180g record releases are so-called due to the vinyl they are released on weighing in at 180 grammes. Most records releases have traditionally been on 120 – 140g discs, with some lighter records prone to warping over time. Most enthusiasts praise the newer heavyweight recordings for being more robust, but more importantly, sounding better. With a thicker chunk of vinyl to work with, 180g pressings are able to get further into the groove than thinner pressings, and many believe this to be one of the key reasons for their ability to offer a greater performance. Generally, these versions seem to be mixed from a proper ‘metal master’ as mentioned above, rather than the digital version that makes up the CD and downloadable copy, which is also an important part of keeping the best sound quality.
Summarising all of the above neatly, the difference between the release of The White Stripes ‘Icky Thump’ on CD to 180g vinyl is glaringly obvious both audibly and visibly when comparing the two, making it apparent that two different masters were used, and with vinyl winning the war for sound quality between the two releases by a mile.
With sales of records their highest since 1996, it’s clear that the format is still a much loved way to get our favourite songs into our living rooms. Whilst the convenience of digital cannot be overstated, the ‘magic’ of vinyl in part comes from its tangible, inconvenient nature.
So, whatever you’ll be doing on the 21st of April, spare a thought for the humble record. All those years after its first release, vinyl is still able to offer great sound, deliver a more organic approach to listening and at this rate, could outlast CD as a music-listening medium. Happy crate digging!
Author: Chris, Liverpool store