There is an ongoing debate on whether digital audio or analog records are better. At its best, the discussions delve into the sound quality and the music listening experience. At its worst, the debate turns into name-calling, with snobs, purists, and lazy-pokes, being thrown around.
Records are better than digital audio due to their richer, warmer, and more natural qualities. However, digital audio is better for listening to clean and noise-free music, which is why many record producers prefer it over analog.
In short, it’s a matter of personal preference, but should you choose one over the other? Perhaps, you don’t have to, but then again, you will want to know why. Let’s look into the pros and cons of both records and digital audio.
Records: A Basic Overview
A record in music refers to the phonograph disc or vinyl record. These flat, grooved discs replicate sound waves and store music.
When it’s played back, the record spins around the turntable while a stylus responds to the undulations, with the motion being processed and converted into sound.
Pros of Vinyl Records
Vinyl records started to go out of style in the late 1980s, slowly becoming replaced by CDs, a more expensive digital format at that time. But vinyl records have been steadily making a comeback in recent years. Sales were estimated to be at $395 million just a few years ago, which translates to 16 million units.
Records have some areas that make them more attractive to hobbyists and audiophiles, especially when comparing it to streaming music.
They Are Tangible
Unlike music streaming and digital formats, vinyl records are physical: you can touch it, you can see it, and it takes up space. It’s basic human nature to want to own things, and children as young as two years old place more value on things that they own. Things that you own can sometimes be an extension of yourself, even helping us signal something about who we are to other people.
For others, they love collecting vinyl records. A lot of people collect these records for fun and pleasure; others use them to improve their social lives. They meet people as they learn how to take care of vinyl records, where to buy the rare ones, or even when they go on a swap meet.
You can’t do this with MP3s and streaming music. That’s because you can easily search for the kind of music you want, and you can probably join fan discussions and be part of some K-pop stan groups. Interactions are primarily limited online as digital music can easily be shared and bought online.
They Are Pretty
Cover art is meant to catch the attention of buyers. In the old days, album art was meant to convince the buyer to choose that particular record over others. It’s the first interaction that a buyer would have with the artist, calling on them to give their music a chance.
Today, you have album art as thumbnails to streaming music. Some of them displayed too small to be adequately appreciated. Some don’t even bother to make it artsy, like Kanye West’s Yeezus, where you have a CD case with a red tape.
Even when they try, digital music relegates album art as a way to horn in on social media. It’s meant to go viral online or compete with memes, cat pictures, and family photos shared on Facebook.
They Can Be Framed and Displayed
Part of the draw of being tangible is that you can display your vinyl records for the work of art that it is. Collectors often have album sleeves framed, using products such as:
- Before you do anything, make sure that you buy this Tavool Store Stud Finder Sensor Wall Scanner, as it can help you find the best area on your wall to put up mounting products for your vinyl.
- You can consider buying the MÖNKE Vinyl Record Wall Mount. It’s made with solid wood, and it’s effortless to install. You can use this to display your albums or as a place to rest the album sleeve while you put the vinyl on the turntable.
- The Creative Picture Frames Music Frame is perfect for those vinyl records that you won’t play anymore or those that hold sentimental meaning to you. Perhaps you’d like to keep an autographed record on your wall. The frame measures 30 by 16 inches (76 by 41 cm), which can accommodate the vinyl record and its sleeves.
- If you like something a little more three-dimensional, check out the Collector Mount’s Vinyl Record Frame. It has two plastic parts that you can adjust to fit the size of the album sleeves you’re putting up. This product is also perfect if you don’t want the hassle of mounting it into your wall. You can set it up like a stand so that you can display your records on your shelf.
- If you can’t decide whether to permanently frame and protect a vinyl record or make it more accessible for playback, choose the KAIU Record Frame. It has a wood frame with clear acrylic. You can just open the frame, put your vinyl record in and close it.
Even storage solutions for your vinyl records can be a work of art. If you have quite the collection of vinyl records, you will need a way to store them or put them on display. Not everybody will want to fill up their walls with album covers, after all.
- If you don’t have that much space, you can get this KAIU Wood Stand. This compact and cleverly designed will not take up too much space, but it can hold up to 50 LPs. Its clear acrylic ends are slanted outwards to give you room to quickly flip through your records until you find the one you’d want to play.
- If you are looking for something that looks more like the bins you see on flea markets, the wire shelf with more dividers that help organize your records, you can get a Record-Happy Vinyl Record Storage Holder. This metal wire shelf holds 50 LPs and keeps them upright. It also comes with a 12-inch (30.5-cm) microfiber cloth that you can use to clean your records.
- You have the Umbra Zina Magazine Rack & Record Holder. With its metal wire material and geometric design, as well as its elegant titanium finish, this magazine rack measures 13 by 13 by 3.75 inches (33 by 33 by 9.2 cm). You have the option to display your records on the shelf, or you can mount this rack on the wall.
- Apart from products specifically designed to store LPs and vinyl, you can get creative and use appropriately sized magazine racks like this Honey-Can-Do Magazine Water Hyacinth Basket or this Simmer Stone Rose Gold Magazine Holder Rack. You can even use a pair of Acrimet Premium Metal Bookends to do the job.
You Can Sell Them
One of the things that you can freely do with records is selling them and perhaps making a profit off them. Physical items like records are covered by the first sale doctrine, which states that you can buy a physical item and resell it to another person.
The legalities behind the resale of digital music are murky at best, and at its worst, it might be even patently illegal as it can be seen as copyright infringement.
You Can Support the Artist
Making good music is never easy or cheap. An artist would make considerable expenditures composing a song, recording it, and having it released. All these, plus their living expenses, are recouped with royalties. But what happens when streaming services shortchange artists out of their royalties?
This report from the NY Post shows that royalties from LPs and records reached a little bit more than $416 million in 2015. That’s eight percent more from royalties paid by streaming music services, which reached $385 million.
There’s been quite a smattering of discussion about how streaming services have been shortchanging artists. This Adweek article delves into how Pharell’s Happy got 43 million streams on Pandora and earned only $2,700 from the streaming service. The artist would share that with their music publisher, cutting their earnings even more!
In another report, the Economist reveals that one billion streams on Spotify and other subscription services can bring in around $7 million in royalties, which the artists and the label will share. The artists are speaking out against how unfair the distribution was to the artists, most notable of which include the likes of Taylor Swift, Pink Floyd, The Black Keys, and Beck Hansen.
While $7 million might sound like a big deal, an artist will need at least a billion streams to get part of that. Most artists rake in an average of $35 for every payout. More than six out of 10 artists say that this is not enough to cover living expenses.
They Sound Great
Did you know that Neil Young pulled his music from streaming services because the quality wasn’t up to par? Some of us might be a bit surprised. After all, we expect music produced by a newer technology would be better than those produced by older methods.
For the most part, it’s subjective. Enthusiasts of records swear by the richer and fuller sound that you can get from vinyl. For one, analog recordings tend to have a warmer sound than digital audio, and this cannot be replicated via digital means.
Warmth is an analog thing. A lot of factors produce this quality, but mainly it’s because of the way sound is recorded on vinyl and the lack of compression being done. When you say you have a warmer sound, it means that your music listening is more immersive. It also has a richer quality.
Because CDs, MP3s, and other digital formats are compressed, they don’t have the same depth as analog records. We’ll talk about compression later on, but think of it this way: to fit in our computers, digital music needs to cut away some of the sounds that should have been there. What happens is that the music you get from digital formats will not have the same warmth and depth as from a vinyl record.
Warmth is a direct offshoot of not being compressed, meaning you get all the frequencies and all of the song as it was recorded. Analog recordings have all the notes and frequencies, from the deepest lows to the soaring highs.
In short, vinyl records can give you all the subtle details in the music because it was never cut away in the first place, unlike in digital audio, which tends to remove or change these details.
Records also play continuously, in that it doesn’t interrupt the signal at all. While the differences in output might not be detectable to most people, the unbroken sound waves in records are still a good thing if you’re listening up close.
Warmth is an audio quality that most people prefer. It gives off a deeper base, with a lot of thumping and pounding sound, and it is what makes headphones made by Bose and Beats by Dr. Dre very popular.
The thing with the whole humans preferring bass frequencies is that it’s not just subjective. A study has found that the base plays a crucial role in rhythm perception. We “hear” with our bodies, as well as our ears. Our bones act as a giant eardrum; it has cartilages that resonate at bass frequencies.
The vibrations picked up by our bodies are transmitted to the auditory cortex, that part of our brains that processes sound. It’s transported there faster than the sounds picked up by our ears.
The deeper and louder the bass notes in music are, the more resonance our bodies feel. This is what helps us maintain the rhythm. So, if you’re listening to vinyl records, the analog warmth enables you to groove to the beat and makes for a more enjoyable experience.
Consider this, as well: fetuses first hear their mother’s heartbeat, and that sound ranges from 20 to 500 Hertz. To comfort a crying baby, rhythmic patting or tapping on the back can help stop the crying.
The bottom line is that analog records do not cut the sound waves, capturing the subtle details. From picking up all the sounds of instruments to the subtle details in the music, vinyl records give you the whole auditory experience.
It has a richness that digital formats do not have because of the diverse aspects being captured and coming together. The grooves on a vinyl record make the sound fuller and more open. You can hear how every instrument contributes to the music you’re listening to.
Richness relates to the greater diversity of sounds that you can hear from records. On the other hand, depth pertains to the greater quality of sounds you hear. The groves you see on a vinyl record allow it to give you more resonant sounds. You simply hear more of every instrument and sound.
The Math Is Not Subjective
Record fans and digital music apologists can debate all day long as to whether records give you a fuller, richer, deeper, and warmer sound. After all, enjoying music is a purely personal experience and is very subjective. The debate is partly because analog and digital usually pertain to the recording technologies used for each and not the listening aspects.
While analog records can naturally sound richer, warmer, and deeper, digital format fans say that you can have the same things if you listen to a CD or an MP3 using the right equipment.
Still, the fact remains that science and math behind digital formats preclude it from having the same richness, warmth, and depth as a vinyl record. This Scientific American article explains that an analog recording will capture everything. Without going into the very technical details, the groves on a vinyl record give you pure sounds of every instrument used in the recording.
Technically, it is possible to have the same depth and richness when the same piece of music is recorded using digital technologies. However, most computers will not have the processing power and storage to handle these files.
These files will be huge both for your computer to store and playback. To remedy that, digital formats rely on samples, where the sound waves’ snippets are cut away to reduce file size. Because humans can hear sounds that fall between 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz, most digital technologies cut any sound that goes beyond these frequencies.
When you play it back, it’s very likely that a digital audio file will not produce the same sound waves as the original recording did.
Cons of Vinyl Records
Where vinyl records produce sounds that are inherently richer, fuller, warmer, and deeper, they may not be as accurate as you’d like because of their movement, the scratches and dust that collects in its grooves, the sound changes. If you play a vinyl record on different turntables, chances are you’d get slightly different sounds from each one.
Because vinyl records are physical objects, it needs to be maintained in ideal conditions. You must ensure that you keep in an area where temperature and humidity are controlled, or else mold can damage it.
It’s very easy to damage vinyl records when you’re playing it back, and even a slight scrape can affect the sound quality. Vinyl records and the phonographs that play them also produce mechanical and surface noise. Unfortunately, this noise is unavoidable. Even the newest records can have an audible level of surface noise, while the most expensive turntables can produce mechanical rumbles.
Speaking of turntables, some specifications were never standardized. The lack of standardization means that different turntables will have different vertical tracking angles, stylus rake angles, and other parameters. The differences in setups mean that various turntables will play the same record differently.
Turntables will also require periodic maintenance and tuning. You will also need to replace the cartridge over time. Probably the biggest complaint that you will hear about LPs and other records is that they are not as portable as CDs and other digital music formats. You certainly cannot play it without your turntable.
Digital Audio: A Basic Overview
MP3s, CDs, and other forms of digital audio comprise a range of technologies that are used to capture, store, generate, reproduce, or manipulate sound. The audio signals are encoded digitally.
As we have explained above, digital audio consists of samples of sound waves. Instead of a continuous wave of sound, you get snippets of that same wave to approximate the original waveform.
In short, it takes analog audio waves and then converts them to a series of 0s and 1s, which your computer can understand.
Pros of Digital Audio
When you talk about digital music, it does seem like we should first take a look at CDs and then the formats that you can store on your computer, like AAC and MP3.
CDs are also physical objects that share the same benefits as vinyl records. You can touch it, feel it, and have more interaction when listening to music with a CD. Arguably, you can put CDs up on display, have them framed, and collect it, much like LPs.
In a Vox article comparing vinyl records and CDs, senior correspondent Dylan Matthews writes that the difference in sound produced by a CD and analog recording doesn’t differ too much. On paper, digital audio like CDs only present you with samples and not the entire sound wave, but that doesn’t really matter.
Most of the frequencies getting excluded are outside the normal hearing range. Some CDs can even reproduce frequencies as high as 20 kilohertz. So, in effect, there should really be no difference between digital and analog recording.
What’s more, a CD is more durable than a vinyl record. Vinyl can degrade over time, especially for frequent use. This difference becomes very apparent when you playback old vinyl records that have been played a lot of times.
It’s said that the songs on a vinyl record sound best the first time you play them. Meanwhile, CDs can be degraded over time, but it is much easier to prevent damage to a CD than it is to protect a vinyl record.
Benefits of Digital Audio
For digital audio stored on a hard drive or a web server, you will love just how portable these files are. You can put them on your phone or media players and take them anywhere you want, even allowing you to enjoy the music on the go.
You can also copy them any way you want, and it’s easier to transmit digital audio over the internet to somebody half the world away. You cannot do that with vinyl records. What’s more, you can tweak digital audio to get rid of the noise that comes inherent in vinyl records.
Creating With Digital Audio
For music creators and composers, digital audio is a godsend. Unlike analog recordings, you don’t need bulky and expensive equipment and consumables with digital audio. What’s more, most analog recording equipment is more or less permanent and may be a bit difficult to store when not in use.
The thing with digital audio that makes it the go-to choice of musicians and composers is how effortless it is to edit the recordings. You can change the sound by sight and manipulate sound waves quickly. You can take a raw recording and then have it polished in no time.
Cons of Digital Audio
Natural sounding recordings are almost in the realm of analog records. The noise that comes naturally to vinyl records mimics real-world sounds. Plus, it captures the changes in air pressure that comes with music and sound. In short, digital audio sounds too clean to be natural.
Digital Audio vs. Records: Which One Is Better?
There is a reason why the raging debate about whether phonograph records are better than digital audio or not continues to this day. Listening to music is highly subjective.
Some like the ritual of getting the records out of its sleeves and then putting the phonograph’s arm on the spinning vinyl. Others like the convenience of playing their music with just a few mouse button clicks.
When it comes to sound quality, you choose between the richer, warmer, and more natural qualities that vinyl records can give you, or go for the clean and noise-free sound of CDs, MP3s, and streaming. For music creators and composers, there is that ease that attracts them to digital audio recording, but some do stay analog.
Maybe, we are framing the question wrong. Asking which one is better means that we have to live with these trade-offs. What most people are overlooking is that you can enjoy both.
If you want to have quick background music while working, you can call on the audio files that you have on your computer or open Spotify. If you’re looking for new music recommendations, there are streaming services that offer such a feature.
Then, when you like to be more involved with your music listening experience, you can go vinyl. You can put the record on the turntable, dim the lights, and pop open some champagne. If ever you like the song recommendations on Spotify, you can always buy it on vinyl if it’s available.
Fans of both digital audio and records each have their own points. That, plus the subjective nature of creating and listening to music, will ensure that we’d probably hear about the “which is better” question for years to come. The appropriate answer to this question is: which one is better for you.