Vinyl sounds better than streaming. Streaming audio sounds more detailed than CDs. But then again, those have more flow in playback. Hmmm… is all that really true?
If you ask any person on the street what the real difference is between vinyl, CD and streaming, they will probably think you’ve gone mad. And most likely they won’t know the answer either, except that streaming is via the Internet and vinyl and CD require a physical medium. And frankly, that’s fine. Because the medium is secondary to what’s on it; music. In the end, it’s not about what you’re playing with. It’s about enjoying what’s being played: music.
Now this is in fact already the conclusion of this episode. But we also really want to emphasize this. Now let’s look at what is so different between these three music-carriers. And above all: what is not.
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What’s the source?
Those of us working on the recording side already know where we are aiming at. In the end, it’s all about how the recordings were made. With which microphones, amplifiers, a/d converters, in which room and with which people: both the technicians and mastering engineer and – more importantly – the musicians. In the end, the musicians have to play well. Otherwise it still sounds like crap.
But if everything is right, there must still be a better medium, right? There is a medium with the least losses? Right? Yes… definitely. Realize that 99.99 percent of recordings are made digitally. And in 24 bit / 96 kHz. Or sometimes even in 24 bit / 48 kHz. Much higher than 96 kHz is not recorded, because there are almost no plugins that natively support that. The majority of plugins for Protools – the industry standard – do not go higher than 24/96.
There are software packages that do support it by the way. Think of specialized systems made by Merging, shipped with Ravenna software. Or the software made by Weiss. They can go (well) above these sampling rates. But there are very few studios that use it. Trptk, 2L and for example Octave use it. Niche labels that go purely for quality.
But as I said, 99.99 percent of recordings are done in 24/96. So why is it that all of a sudden so much vinyl is suddenly available? That’s easy to answer: 99 percent of vinyl is made from digital masters. The digital master is used as the basis for the vinyl master. And from that, the vinyl record is then created.
The Sound Man
So is the vinyl master different from the CD master and streaming master? Yes, it is. Essentially different. This is because vinyl cannot handle the dynamics that digital can offer.
However, there is more at play here. We have also noticed that the vinyl master is sometimes better than the digital master for CD and streaming. This is because the mastering engineer who makes the vinyl master, simply does a better job. If the mastering engineer has the original master – or better: the multitrack – at his disposal, it is very likely that a better product is created. And so it may be that the record actually sounds better than the stream. Purely because it is better mastered. But not because the medium is better.
Apples with Apples
To compare vinyl, CD and streaming audio really well, you need to think about a lot of stuff. We did it a while ago with the original master, a recording on a tape, and the vinyl master (we did not compare the CD). After getting you hands on the masters, you need a similar system to test it on. So a good record player, a good streaming set-up and a nice tape deck.
It is important that you have equal masters. Otherwise you are comparing apples and oranges. Qobuz can have a different master than Tidal and Spotify. And the vinyl version may be analog. Then it’s impossible to compare.
Speaking of analog, if you happen to be the lucky owner of a record pressed from an analog master… yes; it might just sound great. Anno 2021, however, that is very exceptional. Although there are some direct to disc set-ups in the world. Including at Artone Studios. And yes: that sounds particularly nice.
OK: CD, vinyl and streaming. Often the source is the same, but the mastering is slightly different. So which is better?
That depends entirely on the device you are playing with. All three can play very well. And sometimes the record will be better mastered, sometimes the CD and sometimes the stream. It’s really mostly up to the Mastering Engineer. But technically, the 24 / 96 version should be perfect: that is the basis of the recording. And if the mastering engineer knows his stuff, that’s the closest you’ll get to the original. But hey: if life and the world were that simple…