That’s a pretty bold statement, I know, and I can feel the collective shudder of the audio world, so I feel I should back it up by telling you a bit about myself. I’ve been a mastering engineer for 18 years. When I started, everything was on tape, digital workstations were new, and every project I worked on went to vinyl. I started at the Hit Factory, was a senior engineer for Sony Music, and now I own my own mastering lab, Zeitgeist Sound Studios in Long Island City. I’ve cut hip-hop singles for OutKast and The Wu-Tang, dance records for C&C Music Factory and Whitney Houston. I’ve cut rock records for Pearl Jam and Metallica. I’ve cut reissues for The Clash and Sly and the Family Stone. I’ve even done my share of classical records. It’s an incredible process and it amazes me every time I do it.
Now to get into my original statement: “CDs sound better than vinyl.” I say it for a couple of reasons. There are sonic limitations to vinyl that do not exist on CD. There are also degradation issues that exist on vinyl. The act of playing a record actually destroys it. The inverse is also true of CDs, but in a different way. That is what I would like to discuss.
Let’s start with a very brief overview of how records are cut. When a piece of program enters the cutting chain, it gets split to two different places. One split goes to a level attenuator, some filters, an elliptical equalizer, and ends at a very rudimentary and basic computer. The computer tells the lathe how far apart to put the grooves. The second goes to the attenuator, the filters, elliptical equalizer, a high frequency limiter, then the cutter head, which cuts the actual groove in the record. The groove, if looked at under a microscope is actually a complex sine wave. There are variations in depth, it is not straight (it’s actually quite wavy), as well as variations in the width. All of these variations are program dependent. If an experienced cutting engineer looks at a groove under a microscope, he (or she) will have a pretty good idea as to what is happening in the music at that particular spot. The groove needs more room to go back and forth the louder the program is. The longer a record is, the lower the volume will be to accommodate the longer grooves. The more bottom end a piece of music has, the deeper the groove needs to be. Filters are usually put in around 35 Hz, but can go much higher for longer sides. Finally the more stereo a track is, the wider the groove has to go. It’s actually a V shape and the left and right sides of the audio are on each side of the V, with the center being the point. The wider the stereo, the wider the V needs to be. The elliptical equalizer will take the program and mono all the signals below a certain frequency. Stereo bass can be a disaster to cut, as can any out of phase program. The Neumann electronics (the industry standard) are preset at 150Hz and 300Hz. Cutter heads also have a huge problem with high end. Most engineers will put a high frequency filter in the program as well as use a pretty aggressive de-esser to prevent any problems. Another physical limitation of the medium is “inner diameter distortion.” As the record needle travels toward the center of the disk it becomes more difficult to reproduce high frequencies. The frequency response of a vinyl disk is drastically different at the outer section than the inner section. Cutting vinyl is a constant compromise.
CDs have none of these limitations. Outside of not being able to reproduce anything above 20 kHz, anything you want to put on a CD will play. This includes all the bass you can think of, the most sibilant thing you have ever heard, and the craziest phasing effects ever created. Want to put the left hand of your synth on one side and place your vocals 180 degrees out of phase? You can do that; probably not on vinyl. It might sound crazy (or awesome, hmm…) but it can be done.
Don’t get me wrong. CDs have their problems too. Most people will tell you “digital doesn’t sound good.” It might be true, but there are plenty of albums that don’t sound great either. The ‘80s were a bad time. Personally, I think it was a dark time for vinyl, and digital was just coming into vogue. Digital still wasn’t quite right, and vinyl seemed to be missing that warmth that people love the medium for.
Do I hate vinyl? NO! I absolutely love vinyl. I listen to it all the time. The fact of the matter is this: with converters now sounding as good as they do, engineers understanding higher sample rates and bit depths with proper dithering, digital now sounds pretty good. Do I think CDs actually sound better than vinyl? Yes and no. They sound different, and that’s really all I am saying. Proper use of equipment can yield fantastic sounding results on any medium. There are plenty of albums that are still the benchmark for great sounding music. Have you heard an original press of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’? It’s amazing. Know your gear, know your medium, and make a great sounding record. Getting involved in the argument of “back in the good old days” is fun, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter.
I would love to hear your opinion. Please let me know what you think. I’d like to continue writing articles about the mastering process that interests you, so please let me know what kind of topics you would like discussed and I will do my best to address them. Until next time, keep listening.
About the Author:
James Cruz is a Grammy Award-winning mastering engineer and owner of Zeitgeist Sound Studios in Long Island City, NY. He has worked on projects for artists like OutKast, Wu-Tang Clan, Pearl Jam, Metallica, Calle 13, and more. Head over to his website for his complete discography and contact information.