The Top 5 Reasons Why Vinyl Is Better than Digital

The film Boogie Nights documents the changes that took place in the porn industry with the advent of VHS - this new media completely changed the way the public watched porn. No longer restricted to dingy theaters with sticky floors, porn could now be watched in the privacy of your own home... and pornographers either adapted or went belly up.

The same sort of revolution has happened in the music industry, but they don't seem quite as adaptable. Music stores are closing all around the world - even the Tower Records across the street from Rolling Stone Magazine has closed its doors. It seems the industry simply hasn't been able to keep up with the technology - thinking a law suit against Napster would solver their problem was sheer folly.

When you think about it, the LP lifespan wasn't really that long. Most vinyl from the fifties may make great collector's items, but it wasn't until the Beatles took over the world that the album hit its stride. From this point, through the seventies and early eighties vinyl reigned supreme.

The cassette tape was the first sign that the album was about to jump the shark. Sure, there had been reel to reel and the infamous eight track, but cassettes eventually took the place of records in most people's collections. The covers were barely the size of a post-it note and they had a tendency to spew yards of tape (requiring a pencil to spool it back).... but who cares when you can put it in your boom box or Walkman and be on the go! Plus, you could record from the radio or transfer your lame old LPs! What's not to love? Turns out, quite a lot, and the compact disc was quick to replace the tape by the early nineties.

The CD started out strong enough. It looked so much more technological and space-age than the crummy tape (vinyl was a distant memory at this point). The sound of a cassette tape was nothing less than horrible, and digital sound was touted as pure audio ecstasy. Plus, with the slightly larger cover, they seemed like something you might be inclined to collect. But, alas, even the CD would fall prey to the next technology - the digital download.

So far, the music industry had enjoyed, dare I say encouraged, the advent of each new technology. Think about it - with the dawn of each new format, people would repurchase the same albums! Exactly how many suckers bought the Eagles Greatest Hits on vinyl, then bought it on cassette tape, then repurchased it on CD is inestimable. The music industry had it easy with those formats - the digital download, however, was a kick in the nuts that they still have not recovered from.

Currently, the download has a lot, and I mean A LOT of positive qualities for a music lover. It has allowed a massive amount of music to become available to everyone with a computer. Even better, except for those that pay almost a buck a track at iTunes, the music is absolutely free! If I want, I can stick a song right now in this post, and it can be the most obscure impossible to find oddity that you would NEVER find in your local record store or hear on the radio.

So what's the problem? Why am I still bitching about the death of vinyl? Shouldn't I stop whining and just enjoy the digital revolution? Hell no. Here's why.

1. Analog Sounds Better than Digital

Digital is nothing more than a simulation. The theory is that digital can add enough detail that the human ear will not be able to distinguish "fake" audio from real audio. The problem is that the human ear can distinguish the content differences between the original sound and the synthesized sound of typical digital playbacks. The wave shape is simply different, and your ear is not fooled.

Listen to Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Peppers on a good stereo with a vinyl record and listen to on CD. The difference is undeniable.... you may not be able to explain exactly why, but it just sounds BETTER. Why does a symphony sound better live than through a speaker? The answer lies in the shape and form of the sound waves - the live symphony bombards you with a wonderful variety of complex and rich waves, whereas the digital wave is missing all those nuances.

Problem is, most people are satisfied with it being "close enough". After all, do we really need to hear Fergie in such rich detail? I won't argue with that - I don't expect everyone to be music connoisseurs or rock snobs. If you want to listen to Hannah Montana on the iPod, that's just fine, but don't tell me it sounds better. The sound is worse. Period.

2. LP Album Art Is Superior

Part of the music experience was the album art. This may be impossible to comprehend to a younger generation, but the artwork was just about as integral to the listening experience as the music itself. And think of all those great covers! The dark and mysterious figure on the Black Sabbath debut album, the complex psychedelic majesty of Sgt. Peppers, the sexy woman in whip cream on the Herb Alpert cover, the list goes on... and the bad ones are just as fun to look at.

Additionally, many albums had extras for the fans: the liner notes, the fold out pictures (like the Runaways album to the right), the zipper on the Rolling Stones cover, the White Album had color photos included, etc.

The CD cover is microscopic by comparison - there's simply no way to have the lush detail of an LP cover. And downloaded file's artwork is, well, nonexistent. The crummy little image that pops up on your iPod doesn't count. And talk about no-frills! - you're lucky to get liner notes with a CD (with which you may need an electron microscope to read the puny lettering).

3. LP's Are Unique and Digital is Worthless

The record companies can't seem to comprehend why they are dropping like flies, yet the answer is very simple: You can't expect people to buy something that is worth nothing. An LP is tangible, it can't be recreated (unless you happen to own a recording studio, a record manufacturing plant, and a printing press). Whereas, digital files are copied with two clicks of a mouse, and thus rendered completely, utterly, one hundred percent worthless.

If you own a vintage Japanese import KISS LP, you really have something special to brag to your friends about. If you have a digital copy of this album, you're just another dork with a KISS album.

Sure, there's a lot of people paying iTunes these days, but something tells me it will change very soon. Already, the people paying money for worthless digital tracks are declining - and sales are nowhere even close to the glory days of the LP.

4. Vinyl Is More Durable than the CD and Download

Okay, you were with me so far, but you're not going to agree to this one, right? Well, think about it. Records that are upwards of forty years old are still in circulation. My childhood record collection can still be played (although, I don't know if I particularly want to hear Stars on 45 again) - you think the same will be said of CDs or downloads? Hell no, they're destroyed by a thumbprint. In contrast, how many of your old LP's have withstood their share of party accidents and still have the distinct odor of spilt beer and bongwater? I've had one too many CDs ruined by an infinitesimal scratch to buy into the myth that they're more durable. Downloaded files may be secured and backed-up, but we both know they're not going to have the longevity of 40 - 50 years simply because they are by their very nature worthless and disposable. Who would ever even want to hold onto something that can just be ripped for free later?

5. Digital Music Is Without Theme or Purpose

We've already established that it sounds better, looks better, and has a tangible value. The last point I'd like to make is a bit complicated to explain in that it relates to the very essence of the LP, but let me give it a whirl. The LP was sort of like a book: it often had an introduction and ending, and a theme running throughout. Dark Side of the Moon had a point to make. David Bowie's Low had a overwhelming "feel" and theme. Albums like Heart's Dreamboat Annie and Zeppelin's fourth album had a pervading tone and purpose.

In contrast, the majority of music is downloaded by individual tracks. Who gives a crap about artsy fartsy concept albums when an album is really nothing more than a conglomeration of tracks. Soon, artists will make the next logical step and stop bothering to combine tracks on albums altogether.

So, all this whining and moaning begs the question - will the album make a comeback and save the music industry? No way in hell. It's too late. The genie is out of the bottle and you can't put him back. Vinyl collecting will continue to be a cooler version of stamp collecting, and the technology will continue to put a beating on the music industry..... that is until something unexpected happens. One day there will be a music format that brings things back again, and people will once again have a product that's worth something. What that will be is anybody's guess.
Take home message: 0101001010001110101101001 = crap


  1. I vastly behooved the long period where I made the transition from analog to digital. As i said in a reply to you from the Cafe I had to let go of maybe 800 slices of vinyl at a point in life and it was heartbreaking.

    Had I the resources then or do now I would have hung on them and would still collect them, but that, like old comic books, was something that was not to be and I had to let go.

    I can agree with 95% of what you said and the point I will diverge on is your very first point, that vinyl (I do not mean here analog as a recording mode) sounds better than digital. While it is true that analog produces a warm and thicker sound than digital, I can hear it, there are some drawbacks that with the vinyl surface that used to annoy me, primarily surface noise itself. Even on a first playing the album began to develop clicks and pops. I was careful with my records but there was always the inevitable scratch or skip to be incurred. I have to disagree with you that a thumb print will permanently destroy a CD or DVD. Again I take care of my CDs and usually have no issues but if there is a clean, moist cloth has always fixed the problem. A deep scratch or nick on a CD is another story. It gets tossed, but I have only damaged a couple that badly out of over a 1000 CDs I had owned.

    Back to surface noise.This was not an issue with me as far as hard rock went, since the music itself drowned out the pops, but I also have a taste for ambient music and classical. When I fist heard some piano music by Chopin and Beethoven for the 1st time without the surface noise I was wowed. I really did not care if there was some high registry sound waves I was was being ripped of for, because the music sounded so clear and clean. Music by people like Brian Eno took on a whole new meaning for me.

    And there is the matter of me recording my own music for fun. Usually I am the only one (and 2 or 3 friends) who ever hears it, but it is recorded now on my PC and sent to them via email. There are some issues with the sound and mastering the software I am not happy with ( I am never happy 100% with things I create) but I am adjusting. I would prefer a 4-track recorder really, but I am in China and those things are not available here. I had to bend or break and little by little accepted the digital platform and like it the even the sound now. To be honest to really hear a record one had to have a really good (i.e. expensive)turntable. The low end BSR models did not sound that great (to me) and then you had to constantly replace your cartridge.

    I read some articles once by people who saw "stereo" as a gimmick and a illusion when it first came out, as if mono was the only true sound for them. Some people see video replacing film for movies in a decade or two as the technology increases. Davis Lynch I believe just shot a film on all video (a new technology) and said he loves film but would not go back to it.The same for me and recording. The editing possibilities with digital as limitless.

    I once thought vinyl would never leave the record stores. (I still call them record stores and I call CDs albums) I miss the art work and books. I mean, for one example, look at George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, a 3 album boxed set with cool little Apple record labels and a poster. The CD box just sucks. Boring.

    I do miss albums but I actually prefer the listening experience of CDs now and if there are frequencies I am missing I have to accept it along with the less warm and full sound, but I also do not miss the pops and nicks on the Moonlight Sonata.

    Good and impassioned post.

  2. willy - thanks for taking the time for the insightful comment.

    I think we may be using the term "better" differently. Sure, Dark Side of the Moon sounds "better" if you mean cleaner, sharper, and clearer (more "airbrushed"). Like I am sure a digital remastering of a symphony sounds "better" than a live version by this definition.

    I guess I'm referring to the overall auditory experience -snap, crackle and pops included. I've listened to both formats side by side, and a lot depends I guess on what it is your listening to. For Dark Side of the Moon - there's simply no comparison in my mind. But I can see how ambient music may be preferable on CD.

    At any rate, I appreciate the comment. I realize I'm set in my ways (like grandpa who still clings to his Victrola), and overly biased toward things of the past.... so bear with me and my rose colored 1970's glasses.

  3. Well quickly, not to be a post hog but this topic got me thinking in bed last night, there is a certain "magic" and ritual involved with possessing and caring for vinyl that is missing with CDs. Somethings I thought of:

    1)The world of the gatefold, the inside image. What better surface for seeding your dime bag.

    2) Alphabetizing your collection. My CDs are all over, here and there, but my albums always had a special book shelf and the were A to Z.

    3) preserving the vinyl to make it last and saving the album as a whole. The album was the thing, not just the tracks on it. How many people buy CDs and discard the entire cover art and jewel case to just put the CDs in a carry case with a zipper. In fact many of mine are liek that, though I kept the cover art.

    4) The label. There was something magic about the label and try to hear the album on the original label, whether it was Reprise, Verve, Bluenote or Apple.

    There is not much magic left in the world. I have a lot of stuff now in digital format... art, comics, books and music. I just got a big bundle of Marvel comics fr the 70's in CBR format, but it is not the same as smelling the pages and turning the pages with care as to not rip a corner.

    Sorry to hog the comments, but it was thought provoking. Thanks.


  4. Gilligan

    Like Bill I got rid of my (700 piece) vinyl collection - myson was due and I was broke.

    I can see both sides of the debate as to whether vinyl or digital was better musically and I think it depends entirely on the music.

    Get a blues album and the surface noise, the cracks and whistles, the thickness all add to the experience. Now take Marillion (Fish era) and what they were doing and (having had all the LPS on vinyl and CD) CD worked better, it captured the srisp, technicallity of their music.

    What the CD couldn't do was make any fist of the cover art. The Mark Wilkinson covers were designed for vinyl gatefold and were part of the whole experience.

    I also agree that, generally, bands have lost sight of concept in music. But not all of them. Outside, by Bowie, was modern, CD orientated and yet a concept piece. The recent Sieben CD, High Broad Field, is a medieval mystery tale on CD (with a nifty/arty DVD movie also).

    Two-peneth worth that added nothing to the debate I'm afraid!

  5. Back with a thought that Taliesin sparked... I wrote about three albums by Yes on the Cafe (Close to the Edge, Taled From Topographic Oceans, Relayer)that are, as they were once termed, concept albums. I do not know that even bands like Yes do such things anymore because the single side format of Cds sort of mucks that up. Topegraphic was a double album with 4 songs. Freaky. One long song per side, and hardly everyone's cup of tea, but the idea of it is what I am thinking of. Again too, the cover art by Roger Dean (and gatefold lyrics) cannot be replicated on Cds.

    yet another issue is that an album tended to 40 minutes in length, 20 minutes per side. It was the restrictions of the technology. But a CD can be really long, 90 0r 120 miutes for one disc. Even at 60 minutes of music you ae going to get a sh*t load of filler that you often did not get on vinyl. Look at Led Zeppelin IV (ZOSO) and Houses of the Holy... both albums had great cover and 8 songs each, 4 songs per side... and all of them gems. That cannot be done on modern CDs with 60+ minutes of foo foo music.

  6. As musician I'm more interested in the Analog vs Digital production methods argument which has too much detail to go into and a lot to learn (I also do programming and learning circuit design as hobby). I haven't reached definite answers (there are so many variables that you don't bring up) but would make a point to observe that CD and vinyl are mastered very differently and the cartridge alone has a big impact as do the implementation of the conversions of sound to and from bits.

    After these obvious points, my question is to you, if you buy a HQ ($2K+) studio ADC/DAC and record your vinyl to A) CD format (44.1) and say B) 96 khz, can you tell the difference in a double blind test between vinyl and A or B. The record player would have to be situatuted such that the audio from the cartridge isn't present.

    I doubt you can. Now it becomes a question of what is happening at the mastering and mixing stage that makes the music suck these days. The answer to me is that this digital revolution is still in its infancy and many are still learning what are the weak pieces in the digital music production chain that need the most investment. Currently I believe that various digital audio processing plugins used in home production are very inferior to the ones used in era of producing mostly in studio with high end analog hardware and this has the greatest effect. There are some comparisons which seem to support this but I believe it's just a matter of time till digital catches up, the best are very close already.

  7. Vinyl is not dead. Indie labels love vinyl.


    Also, there's Secret Stash Records and such like webbie sites. http://secretstashrecords.com/

  8. "Click" (as the turntable is powered on, motor begins to spin. Some of this sound vibrates the cartridge and comes thru the speakers" We begin to anticipate...

    "slap" the automatic changer drops the first "A Side" on to the spinning platter and the sound is heard throughout the small living room. We hold our breaths.

    "clunk" as the needle baring arm moves over the spinning vinyl and stops just above the first "landing" area on the LP. Again, the mechanical needle vibrates a bit and this sound is heard from the speakers. A slight feel of hair standing on end on the back of our necks as we imagine how good this is going to be.

    "Loud Thump" - "Hiss begins" as the needle is Dropped on to the album. (Hiss comes from the needle dragging across the plastic medium which can NOT be perfectly smooth.)

    A unique guitar "rubbing strumming sound" begins, then fades to nothing and Robert Plants Voice sings "Hey hey mama said the way you move"

    We often say "The Messenger affects the Message" and this is certainly true of the LP Vinyl and the "record player". This "affect" and our gradual acceptance of it probably explains why we, who grew up with Vinyl, find something missing from Digitally "perfect" reproductions.

    One of the more technical sets of "affects" (not effects) the vinyl added is described by the RIAA (and numerous companies who tried on their own) to keep the cutting needle from jumping out of the groove on a bass note and to reduce the hiss in our play back thru something called "pre-emphasis/de-emphasis" where during the cutting process the low freqs are cut down and the high freqs are turned UP. Then, on our play back, the highs are reduced and the bass is pumped up. Theoretically, the result is "flat" with less hiss, however it meant much more "rumble" from our turntables. Even when it did work well, all that filtering left it's analog thumbprint on the sound. Some notes were shifted in phase, some came not quite as loud, some a little louder.

    All these things are how John Lennon and Paul McCartney HEARD Elvis Presley. All these are how Peter Green and John McVie HEARD Howlin' Wolf. All these are HOW Bob Dylan HEARD Woody Guthrie. They may well be why so many "musical details were Mis-Heard as well, but that's another story.

    The "Affects" of the Vinyl process played a major roll in our Music History. .... Lest we forget.

    Bill Johnson [email protected]