Sunday, 1 February 2015

Do Light & Soundwaves Have Emotions? Vinyl vs Digital & UR's Meteor Shower

A portly white Englishman is walking the streets holding a massive boombox on his shoulder with reference to Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing - looking faintly ridiculous - it's Neil Brand in his three-part documentary for BBC4, The Sound of Song. I watched some of this latest episode, but had to hit 'mute' when he explored the studio technique which made that Cher song even more unbearable. I still suffer the psyche scars from having to hear that several times-a-day where I used to work.

Neil's a right square so the programme's hardly cutting edge in either form or content, although he did interview Hank Shocklee. The funniest part was Steve Albini being asked to listen to an album he'd produced on MP3. The look on his face! He was disgusted with the sound, of course, the point being that old argument about vinyl vs digital. No bass, he complained. Yes, Steve, that's because you were listening through crappy Apple earbuds, so what did you expect? My Sansa ones give more bass than those and they cost about £3.50.

When my friend Gloria linked this article about CDs vs vinyl recently it reminded me of something I'd read years ago about the myth of vinyl sound. In that case an engineer made the point that most vinyl isn't heard at anywhere near it's best due to inferior equipment. An obvious aspect that's usually omitted when the vinyl-lovers get going. They drop a cheap needle belonging to a low rent turntable on a poorly pressed album and gloat about suckers who buy digital.

I love my vinyl, mainly because the few remaining examples I have tend to be things that aren't available digitally or, in the case of Sun Ra, provide a larger canvas for brilliant art work. In some cases I simply haven't bothered to get the files. That and the fact that the original albums (as opposed to repressings) naturally have an appeal - they are the objects that first entered people's homes all those years ago.

In a discussion on this subject, someone recently said they mainly buy 45s, from the 60s. On vinyl, you can see the appeal. But I replied that when Bernard Parmegiani's work get's boxed up as CDs, who can argue with that? Most of us can't afford original electronic works from the 60s and 70s. If 'everything' once got shared on blogs, since that golden age ended, even rarities can be hard to find.

I remember being tethered to the hi-fi in the 70s, cans clamped to my head to get the best out of that great new Nazareth album (ha-ha!). Compared to that experience, the MP3 player in my pocket today is a wonder of the modern age and, more to the point, delivers the sonic details created by Parmegiani straight to my brain with ease. Perhaps those old half-melon-sized cans would have done as good a job, but I doubt it. Besides, I wasn't listening to anything as advanced as electroacoustic/musique concrete back then. If I was, there would no doubt have been crackles and pops from impure vinyl. Whilst that's a popular conscious addition to some sound today, it isn't what you want where it's unintended and nostalgia crackle isn't wanted. Unless you revel in the extras time has added to your worn copy of a Pierre Henry album.

These thoughts of vinyl encouraged me to go to the shelves yesterday morning and pull out something good from the surviving examples. Acid Rain III - Meteor Shower by Underground Resistance. One thing the digital world doesn't provide are messages etched into the product. On Side B of this the question is asked: 'DO LIGHT & SOUNDWAVES HAVE EMOTIONS' (the question mark is missing). I wonder. If so, are they rubbed out by the digital process? Should that be the case, the argument for vinyl would be wholly justified.


  1. I'm in the vinyl camp...I do analogue sound but, I have to agree that actually getting to hear good analogue is almost impossible. Crap equipment is why I put away my records (for now).

    I remember buying Big Black CDs and being ridiculed and called names by the band for doing's right there in the liner notes. Ha. The Headcoats did it too.

    I'm no purist and I am permanently attached to my ear buds.

    1. My equipment's nothing special. It's more about the novelty/nostalgia of playing vinyl than the sound quality. It always sounds god enough to these 'uneducated' ears.


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