Culture Clash: Vinyl or MP3?

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The argument has been made many times in the past, and I shall make it again; vinyl records are a better format for music than anything that has come since. Be it from the sound quality to the almost ritualistic experience of putting on a record, their superiority is evident in every way. This is seemingly a point of view which is held by many record companies and artists of the present day (not only of 30 years ago), many of whom are now releasing many albums as special edition records – just have a look at how many special releases came out on Record Store Day if you need proof.

For starters there’s ‘the Sound’. The famous record hiss really adds a unique warmth to the sound. It’s not irritating noise, it’s a quality that, when the vast majority of recorded music was “laid down” (technical term right there), was taken into account and was accepted as part of the mix, and is therefore meant to be there as part of the overall track. The squeaky clean sounds that many modern artists strive for when they record takes away a large part of the more “human” aspect of the recording process, making it sound far too robotic and synthetic.

Then there’s the best part – the ‘experience’. How do you put on a song as a digital track? You press a button and the song plays. Whereas with a record, you slide the vinyl out of its gate fold sleeve, remove it from the paper cover, lift up the needle, place the record on the turntable, gently put the needle down on the vinyl and suddenly the whole thing comes alive, the slight hiss that you get as the needle winds its way towards the recorded grooves, then that moment where the hiss turns into the music, and from chaos come the sounds that you’d been waiting for. How can merely pressing a play button compare with that? The fact that the records are so large means that you get a lot more out of them besides the music. One is able to look at the cover images that someone, somewhere put hours of work into, to take in their every nuance and detail. This also means that more information than a mere song title can be printed on the sleeve easily, lyrics can be read off, which is great for all the hairbrush divas out there.

Sure, I may need a huge amount of space to store relatively few records, and they’re not exactly portable. But when I’m at home, I’d much rather the comfort and ceremony that goes with a vinyl over compressed, tinny computer files any day.

— Nick Webb

Picture the scene. It’s the 1960s, and you fancy some new music. You go into town and head to what’s known as the ‘record shop’. It’s a dark, dingy place, and all you can see are mindless drones standing in front of shelves full of thin, square bits of coloured cardboard. They are flicking through them at a rate of thirty-three records per minute, with a hand movement that will inevitably lead to RSI. You join them, silently working your way across the shelf. After half an hour, you finally find the album you’ve been looking for. After paying for it at the counter and heading home, you sit down next to your turntable and carefully remove the pizza-sized black disc from its sleeve. After dusting down the needle and inspecting the vinyl for scratches, you lower the stylus onto the disc. After a crackle and a hiss, music begins to fill the room… but only for one minute, until a horrible clunk cuts the music short. You realise that a fatally deep scratch has rendered the rest of the record unplayable. Best take it back tomorrow…

Fortunately, we no longer live like this anymore. The age of vinyl is over, and MP3 is king. We don’t even have to leave our chairs in order to buy music, as the Internet offers millions of tracks that can be downloaded at the click of a button. If you told someone from the 1960s that this was the future of music, they wouldn’t believe you. Searching for hours – often fruitlessly – in the record shop, for discs that become unusable after a speck of dust lands on them, music being interrupted by what sounds like a boa constrictor: these were all part and parcel of the vinyl experience, and have since been obliterated by the digital revolution.

Some say that vinyl offers better audio quality than MP3, but this is surely more down to dodgy headphones or space-saving compression techniques that can easily be remedied with a bit of audio know-how. Others point to the importance of the album cover, which has since been demoted to a thumbnail on your iPod screen. It’s hard to say that a decent bit of artwork on the cover isn’t appreciated, but it’s also difficult to argue with the assertion that we don’t buy an album to look at its cover, but to listen to it.

I’ll happily concede that thanks to vinyl, we could own music for the first time, paving the way for what we enjoy today. But the question has to be raised – why do people insist on sticking with vinyl, when other media, like the tape cassette, have died a swift and uncelebrated death? It can only be because of a sense of nostalgia, which, as far as I’m concerned, should be left to the music itself as opposed to the medium on which we play it. Digital music is here to stay, so take off those rose-tinted glasses, stick your vinyl collection in the loft and embrace the portability, quality and convenience of MP3.

— Roy Alderton

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