Popular Memory of Vinyl Records Probably a Shifting Memory

One phenomenon known in Psychology is, that as the years pass, memories which we have of a same thing that once happened, will change, so that, 10 or 20 years later, it becomes hard to trust those memories.

A modern phenomenon exists, by which many Baby-Boomers tend to recall their old vinyl records as having had better sound, than so-called modern, digital sound. And in total I’d say this recollection is partially true and partially false.

When “digital sound” first became popular (in the early to mid- 1980s), it did so in the form of Audio CDs, the sound of which was uncompressed, 16-bit PCM sound, at a sample-rate of 44.1kHz. Depending on how expensive a person’s CD player actually was, I felt that the sound was quite good. But soon after that, PCs became popular, and many eager people were advised to transfer their recordings, which they still had on LPs, to their PCs, by way of the PCs’ built-in sound devices, and then to compress the recordings to MP3 Format for Archiving. And, a bit-rate which people might have used for the MP3 Files could have been, 128kbps. People had to compress the audio in some way, because early hard drives would not have had the capacity, to store a person’s collection of music, as uncompressed WAV or AIFF Files. Further, if the exercise had been, to burn uncompressed audio onto CD-Rs (from LPs), this would also have missed the point in some way. (:2)

What some people might be forgetting is the fact that many LPs which were re-recorded in this way, had strong sound defects before being transcribed, the most important of which was, frequent scratches. I think, the second-most-common sound defect in the LPs was, that unless the listener had a high-end turntable, with a neutrally counterweighted tonearm, and a calibrated spring that defined stylus force, if an LP was listened to many, many times, its higher-frequency sound content would actually become distorted, due to wear of the groove.

(Updated 3/02/2021, 18h05… )

(As of 11h00… )

And so, when many recordings were transferred to this specific digital format, software was available early, which would remove the clicks and pops from the sound, and which added its own distortion. My memory of this software was just recently revived, because I downloaded some older software, that still had these capabilities. Mind you, the software which I downloaded was not so old, as to be from the 1990s, and because this software was just that – more recent – it embodied ways of removing ‘clicks’ from the audio, that will actually distort sound less, while it’s doing so.

But I think that one other perceptual phenomenon that has largely taken place is, that a newer set of faults replaced an older set of faults. When the scratchy sound was gone, and gone constantly, from music that people listen to, people began to listen to the sound more carefully. At that point, people began to recognize that the modern music seems to have a ‘uniformly smooth’ quality to it, which not all songs would have for any particular reason in their production. And in addition, many forms of compressed sound simply have too few frequency components.

I think that true audiophiles always knew what to listen for in music, always appreciated spectrally rich, polyphonic sounds, and always had the expensive turntables, from which the sound reproduction was truly clear and sharp. But in the era where common people were transcribing their old recordings to digital formats (the 1990s), there was a category of turntable being sold for that purpose, which, due to its very design, could never have reproduced the sound with the same level of quality in the first place, that expensive turntables from the 1980s could. Those expensive turntables had direct-drive motors, because the wobble of a rubber wheel, or even that of a belt around the platter, was enough to drive true audiophiles up the wall. I think that many later turntables meant for transcription had belts, etc. They seldom had direct drive. And I seem to recall that, back in the days of expensive turntables, some of those even had features such as special bearings for the platter, to reduce rumble, and tonearms made of ‘space-age materials’, as the materials were called back then, such as carbon composites, because resonance of the tonearm could interfere with an audiophile’s experience. They had an anti-skating adjustment…

So, if a person is listening to any recordings, that consistently seem to have the same deficiencies, one becomes quite annoyed with those. And then, if a person makes a switch to another type of recording, where those deficiencies are just magically gone, there is an initial sense of relief and pleasure. But then, a new set of deficiencies becomes apparent, maybe after a few years of listening.

Also, I’d say that if modern listeners do buy LPs today, those won’t come from the store with scratches already in them. But I could be wrong.

But the existence of those scratches confirms to the listener, that he or she is hearing sound from an LP, because they generate pulses of high-frequency sound, that have almost-perfect immediacy. It’s a pet theory of mine that, even if no compression or lossless compression is being used, the amount of time it takes pulses of sound to reach full amplitude, can physiologically reduce the quality of the experience, of listening to that sound. One way in which the early sound of Audio CDs, even, was just too smooth, was in the fact that the brick-wall low-pass filters that were used, spread out high-frequency pulses over time, so that they were no longer instantaneous. Well, when a scratch passes underneath a phonograph stylus, its reproduction of that pulse is virtually instant.

So, listeners can pick their poison. Do they prefer sound which has ‘rectangular frequency response’ all the way to 20kHz, but poor temporal resolution, or do they prefer sound that has non-uniform frequency response, near-perfect temporal resolution, but frequent sound-pulses, that were never part of the original recording? (:1)


 

 

I also remember that any stereo receiver from before the 1980s, which had a phonograph input, had a preamplifier built-in, which was fed the raw voltage-swings of the phonograph’s cartridge, and which had a standard (frequency) equalization curve that was decided, before the records were in fact recorded. This preamp did not have today’s standard 3.5mm stereo jack as input terminal, and was very sensitive.

The turntables which were sold in the 1990s for transcribing records to digital format, had an amplified output similar to a line output, with a 3.5mm jack as terminal-type. They needed to have this, because consumer sound cards did not have the sensitivity required, to accept input from the cartridge directly.

I would rather not try to guess, whether these internal amplifiers were as good, as the preamps were, that were once built-in to stereo receivers. What I can conclude is, that if a person still had a genuine turntable from before 1980 (by itself), he was in no position to use it to transcribe his LPs, simply because the genuine turntables lacked an internal amp, and, as I just wrote, did not output the voltages required, for a sound card to recognize a signal.


 

(Update 3/02/2021, 17h50: )

1:)

The slap-dash way in which I described the choices available to ‘consumers’ today was a bit over-simplified. For example, ‘Super Audio CDs’ (invented in the 1990s) are still being mastered and sold, which have approximately uniform frequency response all the way up to ~40kHz, above which the frequency response starts to roll off more gently, at -12 dB /Octave, aka at -40 dB /Decade, just so that those high-frequency sound pulses will have preserved temporal resolution.

But, the equipment today which plays Super Audio CDs has strong DRM, to prevent listeners from ripping the disks at their full resolution – meaning that the only way to listen to them today is, with a player, a receiver and either speakers or headphones – and often The price-tags are close to US$ 400 just for the player, to which the price of the other Home Theatre components would need to be added… Hardly, a price that average consumers would be prepared to pay, for causal listening.


 

(Update 3/02/2021, 18h05: )

2:)

Some of my readers might not immediately understand the logical meaning of my statement, that in the 1990s, people may have compressed their music collections to 128kbps MP3 Files. This would be because, according to today’s standards, that would be a bad thing to do.

If people subscribe to a music streaming service that still uses MP3 sound compression – and I think, there has been a revival in MP3… – the service may stream the stereo at 256kbps or at even higher resolution. But, in my own experience I’ve found, that increasing the bit-rate of MP3s beyond 192kbps fails to overcome their inherent weaknesses. These days, this would be my list of recommended bit-rates for several encodings:

 


MP3 -> 192 kbps
OOG Vorbis -> 192-256 kbps
AAC -> 128 kbps
OOG OPUS -> 96kbps

 

But, simply having provided such a list, still doesn’t mean, that I’d just apply lossy compression to any sort of music. In cases where I’ve compressed so-called Classical Music, I’ve used FLAC.

Dirk

 

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