Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Vinyl vs. CD: An Analog Revival in a Digital World (Part 2 of 3)

(This is the second part of a three part article discussing the format wars between CD and Vinyl.)

In Part 1, I briefly introduced vinyl as a medium that appears to be on an upswing in a world dominated by the compact disc. In this section, I will further enumerate the vast differences between the two formats.

This is probably the one category where the two camps of format fanatics can agree. The compact disc wins the portability argument in one fell swoop if only because of its smaller, sleeker size. The vinyl LP is physically wider, and it is considerably heavier. This means that transporting numerous amounts of CDs can be accomplished much easier than transporting even just a few LPs. Furthermore, most car stereos can play CDs, and many folks own portable boomboxes to where they can easily bring their silicon tunes with them. Imagine trying to install a vinyl player in a car dash!

In the past, my only experience with vinyl was the faded, crackling sound of warped records stored in my parents' basement. Obviously, if a vinyl has been taken proper care of, the LP can live a long, fruitful life, and the crackles and pops of vinyl urban lore can be avoided. But in any case, my not-so-unique experience serves as an effective example of another benefit the CD holds over vinyl: turntables make contact with the medium every time the music is played, whereas no physical contact is made with a CD. It is a laser beam that decodes music encoded digitally, meaning virtually no wear or tear occurs when a CD is played. Vinyl LPs, on the other hand, are worn down slightly (albeit minutely) every time the stylus runs itself through the groove. On top of that, vinyls are much more easily scratched and the dust they can collect can significantly alter the intended sound. However, there is one caveat to the durability debate: Silicon, over time, begins to deteriorate just by sitting in storage on its own. In fact, CDs apparently have a life span of only 15 good years. Vinyl, on the other hand, can endure for over a century. Depending on how permanent your collection is, vinyl may actually win out in this category.

Listener Experience
CDs have tried to employ gimmicks in the past to force its listeners to be more emotionally involved. Some music companies have snuck computer programs that can be played off of the disc, and some have even implemented "secret tracks." But for the most part, many CDs are relatively boring, containing little incentive for the listener to sit back and just admire the disc. Vinyl obviously does a better job of generating involvement. The division of a long player into two separate sides means that the listener better be paying attention so she can flip the record over at the necessary time. The heavier, thicker tactile effect of vinyl also leaves greater imprint on the imagination from simply just touching and handling the waxy record. Larger artwork and linear notes are usually packaged with the vinyl LP. Conversely, CDs are flimsy and brittle, invoking little romantic feeling from its look and touch.

From a convenience perspective, there is no way to remotely navigate from track to track on vinyl when a listener is bored, wanting to hear something else. No, the vinyl is more album oriented, meaning the listener must usually be committed for as long as each side is. If the listener wants to change track mid-rotation, she risks scratching the record and disturbing continuity by improperly lifting the stylus and matching it with an incorrect section of groove. On the other hand, because of the instant gratification the CD provides (just click a button on a remote from the comfort of your sofa) there really is very little involvement required by the CD. This may be highly convenient, but is it a memorable experience?

For many, the rapid accessibility to music a CD provides is what makes the medium great. After all, who wants to mess around with keeping an eye on a turntable when the kids need to be fed and supper is on the stove? But for those who play records to experience a sonic odyssey, all of the otherwise cumbersome features of the LP are actually enjoyable moments of the experience. Carefully placing the vinyl on the turntable and meticulously descending the stylus require diligence and focus. In contrast, simply loading a silicon disc into an electronic tray happens so effortlessly we often take it for granted. Depending on one's motivation, the interactivity required of vinyl can be a saving grace, or instead, a despicable curse.

Technological Differences
The technological distinctions between vinyl and the compact disc are starkly evident. The former is analog, and the latter is digital. Vinyl contains the physical manifestations of the sound waves in its grooves, while the CD contains binary snapshots and representations of the sound in the form of ones and zeroes. Vinyl can hold maybe half-an-hour's worth of audible data on each side, whereas the CD is single-sided and can hold up to 80 minutes of sound in a much smaller space. CD players allow the listener to pause, skip, rewind, and shuffle all from the convenience of a remote. Turntables require the listener to hover over the unit to run its functions, and they are incapable of skipping or pausing in the way a CD player can. Shuffling is also an impossibility with vinyl (unless, maybe, you have some crazy, custom-engineered system).

Perhaps the most important technological difference has to do with the fact that an album is the music, and a CD is merely a place where the music resides. At first this is sort of a murky distinction, but think of it like this: An album, because of its analog nature, has a unique physical "fingerprint" for each album imprinted onto it. The actual sound waves are imposed into the vinyl, essentially creating a different "sculpture" for each album recorded. With a CD, its digital encoding is manifested as microscopic differences in dye burned by the original laser. However, unlike vinyl, with the right kind of laser (and arguably the right kind of CD) that original image can be erased and re-recorded with something else on the very same piece of silicon. So while the digital image can change, the physical characteristics of the CD remain the same. Such a function is impossible with vinyl.

Furthermore, the CD is multifunctional, whereas vinyl is not. With vinyl, it has one purpose: the playback of audio. CDs, as we are all aware, can contain so much more than music. Photos, computer software, video, classified documents, and PowerPoint presentations can all be stored and accessed on a compact disc. And because the music on CD can be easily "ripped" to a hard drive as an MP3, M4A, or OGG, exact digital copies of the original audio can be created for archival on a completely different digital medium.

For many, CDs are merely a temporary storage place for their music. With the advent of iPods and home music servers, many CDs may be sitting on the shelf collecting dust, while the music originally contained on those very discs are still in viable rotation on some of these other digital mediums. For instance, I may play Alice in Chains' Dirt on my iTunes once a week, but I haven't actually lifted the original compact disc out of its jewel case in over two years. Conversely, because vinyl is very difficult to replicate to other formats without sacrifice in sound quality, pretty much the only effective way to access the original music is to play the original vinyl LP.

Prelude to Part Three
You have probably noticed that I have failed to detail the most important aspect of the CD/Vinyl Debate: sound quality. Don't worry, I will be sure to discuss this and share with you my personal thoughts on the subject in the near future. For now, this post has grown long enough, and I will end it here.

Be sure to read the forthcoming conclusion to this formatting exploration in Part 3.

1 comment:

SergeAMH said...

Hello, Steve.

I've been looking for blogs that talk about music and am glad I ran into The Lonely Note. BTW, loved the fact that on vinyl you must be "commited to the whole side". Great stuff.
I like the blog and, after going to a bunch of others which turned out to be nothing more than just advertising, or blogs that haven't been updated in a year, yours was a breath of fresh air.