Even Steve Jobs listened to vinyl… The late Apple CEO, whose iTunes Store revolutionized the music business for the online era, “listened to vinyl” at home, Neil Young said in 2012. Young, who’s now hawking his $399 high-definition PonoPlayer, has a stake in the mythologizing of studio-grade sound, but he’s not the only believer. As compressed MP3 files and digital streaming services from YouTube to Pandora have become the norm for music listening, vinyl sales have skyrocketed from under a million in 2007 to potentially more than 8 million this year in the U.S. alone — in part thanks to the thinking that vinyl just sounds better.
Is that true? Kind of. Sometimes. It depends. The vinyl LP is a format based on technology that hasn’t evolved much over the last six decades: in some ways, it’s the audio equivalent of driving a Ford Pilot. Sonically, vinyl has both strengths and weaknesses compared to digital files, just as movie buffs have argued over the pros and cons of 35mm film against 4K digital. To break down what vinyl can really do, I spoke with Adam Gonsalves of Portland’s Telegraph Mastering. Gonsalves has worked with artists ranging from Sufjan Stevens to Steve Aoki and proudly owns a ’60s Scully lathe, the ruby-tipped device that cuts lacquer discs for plating and vinyl reproduction.
Before weighing vinyl’s, ahem, good and bad sides, it helps to know how records are made. In brief, an engineer such as Gonsalves receives mixed recordings from the studio (or even a band’s laptop) to master and cut to a lacquer, which is mailed off to be impressed upon the sets of metal stampers which will press hundreds or thousands of PVC pellets into vinyl LPs. Not every mastering engineering cuts lacquers — lathes haven’t been made in decades and are in short supply, which keeps owners like Gonsalves busy — and Gonsalves is often sent digital files to work from rather than the all-analog tape one might expect.
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