Analog in a digital age

To S. Andrea Sundaram,

I am not one of those audiophiles that you generally come across. I am simply a music lover who fails to accept MP3 as a digital format. My childhood (1970s) was blessed with listening to EP/LP with tubes; time changed everything. It took a while to accept 16/44.1 and now 24/96.

Please help me with a simple question. All the artists are recording on digital platforms for a few decades now. Are we fortunate to get them on vinyl? Are new recordings on vinyl coming back for good. Technically speaking, when the master is not analog, what is the point of listening to DDA sound, or maybe DAA, no matter how great may be the pressing?

Will truly appreciate your kind reply.

Best regards,
Rajan Gera, India

Hello Rajan,

I think that many of us struggle with the questions that you're raising. The vast majority of the vinyl market is made up of reissues of older recordings in pop, rock, jazz, and classical, which were made entirely in the analog domain. The best reissue houses have a mastering process that never digitizes the signal. For those recordings, it makes sense to listen on vinyl.

Your question seems to be more about modern releases. It is not true that all artists are recording on digital formats, although most are. It depends quite a lot on the genre. Many small labels that produce folk music or indie rock are still recording on analog tape. Some highly esteemed producers such as T Bone Burnett do almost all of their projects on tape. Some of these recordings do get released as high-quality vinyl pressings.

For classical music, I'm only aware of one release within the past five years that was recorded on analog tape and released on vinyl. That is the Jung Trio's recording of Antonin Dvorák's Trio in F Minor, Opus 65, on Groove Note Records. The San Francisco Symphony has just announced a plan to release their Mahler symphony cycle in one enormous LP box set, which constitutes, as far as I'm aware, the only major symphony orchestra release on vinyl within the past decade. However, those recordings were made in DSD not analogue.

Vinyl that is sourced from high-sample-rate digital files can sound very good, and when it is sourced from DSD it can be nearly indistinguishable from a pure-analog product. That said, given no major disparity between the quality of your digital and analog playback systems, my inclination is to listen to recordings in their native formats. I've generally found that high-sample-rate PCM sounds best when played back that way, that DSD recordings sound their best when played back through an SACD player, and that analog recordings sound best on vinyl. 

Most vinyl lovers will spend a considerable amount of time, energy, and money tweaking their systems to get the sound they want. Different choices of turntables, tonearms, and cartridges can wildly change the character of any particular record. Together they act as a series of tone controls to shape the sound to what an individual likes. For that reason, he or she might think that everything sounds best on vinyl. There's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't have anything to do with fidelity. 

My suggestion is just to listen to what you like, and don't worry too much about where it came from. . . . S. Andrea Sundaram