Is Vinyl Better than Digital?

A recent NY Times article, Digital Culture, Meet Analog Fever discusses the recent fascination with more retro analog devices and media, in particular vinyl records. There is an ongoing dialog on the gear forums about the superior of one format or the other, which is really not the point. Vinyl, as an example, is a trend that is the result of a new generation discovering the sound and superior physicality of a record album. For us boomers that is not news, but one may ask what is behind this resurgence? Vinyl manufacturing plants, like United Record Pressing in Nashville, which I have visited twice, are running 24 x 7 these days.
United Record Pressing

United Record Pressing

So is analog vinyl really superior to digital music files?  In the case of mp3’s the compressed audio format degrades audio fidelity to a degree, although not many users can tell the difference between a compressed and lossless file format. Vinyl requires some roll-off  of the low end frequencies to avoid the needle jumping out of the groove on loud passages. What remains is somewhat band limited but faithful to the frequencies in a way that digital can come very close to and in many ways exceeds.  So why do some people prefer vinyl?
  1. To many it sounds better. If you grew up with it you know THAT sound, and prefer it over the exacting and sometimes overly clinical digital recordings.
  2. If you did not grow up with it, its a new thing that offers a tangible product, something you can show off if you are in a band. And it sounds better than MP3’s played through ear-buds.
  3. There is more room for liner notes and info about the band or recording that you can typically get onto a CD jacket.
  4. It’s cool, trendy.
The downsides:
  1. More expensive to manufacture, typically, 3-4X more costly than doing CD’s
  2. Somewhat limited frequency response, especially in the bass region
  3. Tendency for pops, ticks, hiss, and of course the dreaded skip when a groove is damaged. Some people like this so much that plugins have been devised that simulate bad vinyl!  Really, and I have one…
  4. LP’s in particular store fewer tracks than CD’s, typically no more than about 40 minutes total. CD’s can get up to 70+ minutes.
  5. Difficult to get into digital form unless a download card is included in the packaging (you see this more often now)
  6. Requires an old school stereo system and turntable with a RIAA balanced input, or a turntable with RIAA built in.


Disc Cutter at Welcome to 1979 studio in Nashville.

RIAA equalization is a little known aspect of vinyl, explained here in a Wikipedia article:

RIAA equalization is a form of pre-emphasis on recording and de-emphasis on playback. A recording is made with the low frequencies reduced and the high frequencies boosted, and on playback the opposite occurs. The net result is a flat frequency response, but with attenuation of high frequency noise such as hiss and clicks that arise from the recording medium. Reducing the low frequencies also limits the excursions the cutter needs to make when cutting a groove. Groove width is thus reduced, allowing more grooves to fit into a given surface area, permitting longer recording times. This also reduces physical stresses on the stylus which might otherwise cause distortion or groove damage during playback.

A potential drawback of the system is that rumble from the playback turntable‘s drive mechanism is amplified by the low frequency boost that occurs on playback. Players must therefore be designed to limit rumble, more so than if RIAA equalization did not occur.”

There is an even more “trendy” approach of doing studio recording direct to vinyl, without any digital intervention. That requires taking the stereo mix from the mixer or console, directly to a vinyl cutting machine, in real time.  Each master disc costs around $150.00, versus $< $1.00 for a CD. The band has to play perfectly, and there are no re-takes or editing. I would call this “extreme recording”, not for the faint of heart or the lesser of chops.

So really the issue comes down not vinyl versus CD, as each has their pros and cons.  Unless you really want to spend the extra money, you will stop at the CD level, maybe with some MP3’s thrown in for your web site.

Instead, how can we best integrate analog sound into digital recordings to get the best sound out of digital, regardless if the final product is vinyl or CD?  The answer for many audio engineers today is a “hybrid” studio setup, which I have discussed before in an earlier blog post. A professional hybrid setup offers the following:
  1. Really high quality microphones recording into high quality preamps and other outboard gear such as compressors and EQ’s.  Tube preamps are often preferred here, depending on the sound source, voice timbre, etc. The idea here is to capture it in the best analog sound up front.
  2. High quality analog to digital conversion going into the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, AKA the computer), so that the sound is not degraded. This is not hard to do these days as the cost of A-D conversion has come down significantly. Some would argue that typical computer sound cards such as the Sound Blaster are sufficient, but I disagree mostly because they are very limited in what they offer for inputs, in addition to having inferior clocking which can influence the sound to a degree.
  3. Mixing tracks via an outboard analog “mix bus” or chain of, again, high quality tube or solid state EQ’s and compressors before doing one more D-A back into the master stereo track. This involves both analog “summing” of the individual digital tracks using a console or some other outboard device that takes however many tracks are in the recording and sums them down electrically to a stereo master track. Some engineers would say that staying ITB (In the Box, i.e. no round trip to the analog domain during mixing) is better.  It really depends on how you work, but I prefer the outboard mixing approach before applying any plugins ITB, if at all. I just prefer what my analog outboard gear brings to the mixing process, and it’s often easier and more consistent than using plugins (albeit more expensive initially).
If the final product will be produced on CD we will master using 24 bit files for headroom. For CD we will need the master to be at the Red Book standard 44.1 KHz sample rate, dithered down to 16 bits as the last step. Often engineers will mix and make the analog round trip at high sample rates such as 96.1 KHz and then down-sample for CD. This requires a very fast computer and lots of disk space, but fortunately that is much easier to obtain these days.

If the final product will be on vinyl, an extra mastering step is required to attenuate the extreme highs and lows, as needed, before sending the master disk to the cutting engineer. This takes much skill, and there is a small but growing cadre of young, professional vinyl mastering engineers that are servicing the trendy LP market.

So the take away is, not all digital is created equal! Adding a bit of analog spice makes the final dish taste better, to mix my metaphors (pun intended).

When is enough “enough”?


I took a long morning walk with Willie (Little Red Dog, avid watcher of TV commercials with animals) listening again to my latest creation, Rivers of the Sky, through my BOSE noise cancelling headphones. I know you have to be careful when walking near streets with these kinds of headphones, so I headed for the High Line Canal that borders our subdivision. While technically off limits, everyone walks and rides their bikes along this stretch of water, one that strives to make Grand Junction the Venice of Colorado. So other than the occasional “other dog on leash” to deal with, I could focus on the details of these recordings.

And of course I notice the little flaws, the low frequency imbalance here, the slight off beat keyboard hit there. When I mix I try to catch every little thing, and I think I get most of it the way I want, but there is always more to do. When is enough enough? I guess that depends on what you think too. If you have a copy of the CD Rivers of the Sky, drop me a line via my contact form and let me know what you think.

I am already at work on my next collection, Hi Fiddility, so enough about the past, let’s get on with making more music!


Notes on Original Barn Jazz CD

I get asked a lot about the term “barn jazz”. Just ran across these notes from 7/16/2003, about the time of my first concert at Oracle State Park in Oracle, AZ for the Barn Jazz Vol. I CD release.


Garden Dreams

A dream state experiencing altered realities or visions

What is it about Oracle and the High Desert that leads us there?

The cat is metaphor for our letting go and experiencing something beyond the mundane, so Barn Jazz is a way of interpreting music that is seen from the perspective of a cat dreaming about insects playing a different kind of music

With the participation of the Yuccas and animals and other critters of the high desert, Annie the cat spins a tale of fantasy. It starts in one of the gardens of Oracle.  The cat wanders in the summer heat through the garden looking for a place to nap

Barn Jazz – The theme song arising out of the idea music in the transition zone, blending elements of blue grass, folk, fiddle jazz, and classical-new age styles, a messy kind of melding, but then cats are not that picky about these things.

Fire on the Ridge – (Oracle Hill Fire) – the cat dreams of a vast holocaust of fire causing animals and insects to evacuate their habitat, much coming and going, disturbance, but ultimately a once familiar part of nature and so not a nightmare.

Oracle Wildfire

Fire on the Ridge

So the animals are seeking safe havens.

Don’t Tread on Me – imagine a caterpillar undulating along in the garden, underfoot, trying his best to get to the Barnagle, along with other bugs and critters, a great movement is afoot, also snakes undulating, but the other implication is the flag of Vermont during the American Rev, and the motto.

March of the Yuccas – actually has some words, unspoken: “I’m a Yucca, I’m a Yucca, I’m a Yucca, not a tree. I stand upon the mighty desert, king of all that I foresee.”  (but cannot foresee man – the bulldozer). Also marching to get to the Barnagle.

March of the Yuccas

March of the Yuccas

The Barnagle – this is focal point, insect hoe down. I had the image of a spider with 8 batons conducting a rag-tag group of insects and arachnids playing on their web-strings, grass-hoppers blowing on blades of grass making horn sounds, small mammals blowing thru flower-bell trumpets, etc.  The deal is that these musicians are somewhat unruly and competing at first, but eventually falls together at the end. This all takes place after midnight of the summer solstice full moon shining in the broken window glass of the barn/shed.  Here is the image as captured beautifully and faithfully by Oracle artist, Kate Horton.

The Barnagle

The Barnagle


Contours – this is a long, new agey piece that represents the time just before dawn as the outlines of the mountains and hills become apparent, the barnagle is over and everyone is dispersing, the cat is stirring, but not yet awake.

Sweet Annie – The cat dreams of romping after the field mice, pocket gophers, lizards etc who are leaving the Barnagle, basically just running and leaping and having fun but still asleep.

Sweet Annie’s Dream – the awakening and realization that all of this was just her dream, or was it?

NB: “Sweet Annie” was Linda Leigh’s cat. Linda was one of the original Biospherians. Annie was indeed a sweet, gentle, if not somewhat finicky creature.

Also the original Barn Jazz Vol. 1 is out-of-print. I have a few copies remaining in my archive available for an exorbitant price. Contact me if interested.

Mastering Audio Through Adult Education

Yes you can teach an old dog new “tracks”. These days many if not most independent engineers and producers are self taught. We learn to mix by accident, mostly. We buy exotic gear, trendy plugins for our DAW’s (“Digital Audio Workstations”), haunt the music and gear forums looking for tips and tricks.

20 or 30 years ago an aspiring audio engineer interned for a local music studio, making coffee, cleaning toilets, and maybe after a few months got to mount tape, set up mics, or push a few faders on the console. Eventually that (young) person was asked to record an entire session, often with a critical senior engineer watching and listening. If you did a good job you got to work with major talent, maybe even get some credits on an album.

Well those days are mostly gone. Yes it still happens but you need to be willing to put in the time for free or low pay and earn your bones. Woof! Not my style.

So how does an old dog continue to hone his chops? One way is through on-line audio education. Another is through workshops and recording “boot camps”. I have done both. So far the most rigorous and rewarding school has been the Audio Master Class courses offered by David Mellor (Oxford School of Audio) out of Thame, England. I have completed the professional courses in Mixing and Equalization, and am currently working through the course on Compression.

These are certificate-track courses that take a minimum of 6 months to complete. You download professionally recorded tracks with the assignment to make them sound a certain way. One recent assignment in the EQ class was to remove hum, buzz, and broadband noise using just EQ filters (no fancy noise removal plugins allowed). This is the hard way, but it is a great learning experience.

So far I am doing quite well, and will continue taking these “adult education” courses because I am serious about improving my skills. Next up will be courses in reverb and mastering. Of course, I already “knew” how to apply EQ, compression, and reverb, but there is always more to learn, often those unexpected things you did not know you did not know.

The feedback I get from Mr. Mellor is the next best thing to “being there” in the role of intern. Highly recommended, if you are interested check out

The Next Wave

There was an interesting post on, my favorite hangout for pro audio information (and misinformation, you have to be very selective). Lately there has been much analysis (and complaining) about the state of the music industry. Lack of recording opportunities, the shift from physical media to streaming music aggregators like Pandora, Spotify, Google Play, etc.

If you look at the trends in music sales for the past 40 years, there is an interesting pattern.

trends in music sales

Trends in music sales

8-Tracks cassettes, vinyl, 2-track cassette tapes, CD’s, all seem to follow a pattern similar to ocean waves. Initial acceptance, peak, and slow decline. Unfortunately this graph, by Michael DeGusta with data from the RIAA, does not show the data up to present. However we can speculate with some confidence. Digital media started out with a rapid acceptance during the Napster and file “sharing” (re: stealing) years, then declined somewhat as the majors cracked down. However the shift from downloads to streaming services has started in earnest.

I expect that wave to continue peaking for the foreseeable future, especially as bandwidth increases and higher quality audio is made available (e.g. The question is how high and how long will the wave be?

What does this mean for the independent musician? Are physical media dead entirely? I don’t think so. Vinyl is making a come back in a small way (more like a secondary wave) as people are demanding more physical contact and ownership of their music. Streaming services are convenient and will be around for a long time, but there will always be a demand for something you can put in your hand. The real question is this: who is in control of your music selection, and can you count on having your favorites around in 20 years? I personally do not trust iTunes to be my only music source for retaining control of my digital tracks.

We no longer consume music just for listening sessions like my generation did back in the 60’s and 70’s. It is more likely background for work, parties, or used for TV and film cues and sound tracks. Touring bands still sell CD’s but just as likely will have download cards for mp3’s.

Will we see a big resurgence of the music album as art for its own sake? Not until we can package digital media and associate images and liner notes with it. In the meantime independent small-time producers like Barn Jazz will continue to labor in the eddies of the ocean doing work the way we want to do it.

So what is the next wave? Maybe 3-D holographic surround sound with direct implants to our neurons? While we are waiting for the musical industrial complex to shake out, I think I will just go put an album onto my high quality turntable, flip on my 1973 Marantz receiver, and chill.

Fungus Amongus

So I read this article from The Economist 9/22/12:

MELODIOUS SOUND FROM FUNGUS? The sound of a Stradivarius violin is the time-tested standard of excellence. The warm, mellow tones of the violins made during the late 17th and early 18th centuries by Antonio Stradivari were a combination of extraordinary craftsmanship and created in his workshop in Cremona from different types of wood and, possibly, different chemical treatments. Today, Dr. Francis Schwarze of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology is seeking to equal the sound of the Stradivarius by using a fungal treatment in order to make what he calls “mycowood.” Knowing that sound travels faster through healthy wood, which is stiff and dense, than it does through soft wood that results from a fungal attack, Dr. Schwarze began applying two types of fungus to Norway spruce, used for the instrument’s body, and to sycamore, for the back, ribs and neck, to make his violins. The unusual thing about the fungi that Dr. Schwarze used is they thin the cell walls of wood without destroying them. After the fungi has done their job, he treats the planks with a gas that kills the infection. The result is a mycowood instrument that a panel of experts thought was a Stradivarius.

Does that mean if I take my old fiddle and give it a fungal treatment, will it sound like a Strad? Somehow I doubt it. Besides, its a FIDDLE!

Hippocratic Oath for Recording Engineers

I had nothing else better to do the other day so I decided that we need a version of the MD’s Hippocratic Oath for recording engineers. Why not? So I borrowed the language from a modern version of the MD’s oath from here.

The Hippocratic Oath For The Recording Engineer

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant: I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those audio engineers in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those newbies who are to follow.I will apply, for the benefit of the often crappy mixes I receive, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of over-compression and therapeutic auto-tunism.I will remember that there is art to recording as well as science, and that warmth, tape saturation, and understanding of the groove may outweigh Protool’s knife or the latest plugin.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed in fixing it in mix.

I will respect the privacy of my clients, for their often crappy mixes are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of editing and overdubs. If it is given me to re-record a part, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to delete a track; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own musical biases. Above all, I must not play at God [substitute one of the following: Bruce Swedien, Bob Katz, George Massenburg, Bob Ludwig, (fill in blank)].

I will remember that I do not mix wave forms, but a song in need of my help, whose suckiness may affect the musician’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the music industry.

I will prevent over-compression whenever I can, for dynamic range is preferable to loudness.

I will remember that I remain a member of the Audio Engineering Society [or substitute your own favorite here], with special obligations to all my fellow engineers, those of sound of mind and body as well as the hearing impaired.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of listening to the records of those who seek my help.

So what’s this new age studio business anyway?

Without trying to sound too pompous or airy-fairy about it, we have entered a new age in many different ways, but not the least in how music is produced and consumed. Since the advent of and widespread use of microcomputer technology, the first decade of the 21st century has seen a phenomenal growth in amateur and professional music-making. It seems like everyone who is a musician of any stripe has a “studio”, or knows someone who does. I am no exception here.

I got started recording in 2002 with a (not too inexpensive) M-Audio Delta 66 audio interface and a small Behringer (no comments please!) mixer, and SONAR 2.0, a full featured DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software product. This was soon followed by a few cheap Chinese-made mics, and a keyboard for generating synthesized sounds (Alesis QA 6.2, still a favorite), and additional software for “mastering” my own mixes.

Let me add that my only recording experience prior to that was in several Tucson studios as a performer on local band CD projects, in the 1990’s. That, and a compilation tape made for an art project at Stanford in 1968, using an old Ampex reel-to-reel with sound-on-sound capabilities (how i wish I had kept it!). And I remember a tiny, old reel voice recorder that my folks got me when I was a child, and wondering why my voice sounded so strange (we all feel that way the first time).

So recording my own musical ideas was like stepping off a chasm, not knowing where I would end up. The result was my first solo CD, Barn Jazz, Vol. I, released in August 2003. I sold several hundred copies and that was it. I was hooked.

So back to that bedroom studio, if you are trying to record your own music or your band, what do you look for in a studio, and how can you tell if you are wasting your time with your friend’s rig? That is one subject I will return too often, but leave you with the following critical success factors, not necessarily in order:

  1. The Engineer (technique)
  2. The Producer (musicality)
  3. The Room (acoustics)
  4. The Gear (quality)
  5. The Players (groove)
  6. The Tune (listenability)


I actually started a blog at the insistence of my good wife and partner in music, Lynn. I plan to use this to write about my experiences in performing and recording music, and to hopefully provide some interesting insights into the making of recorded music in this new age of the recording industry. This new age has been made possible by access to recording technology by the masses, for better or for worse.