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October 13, 2004 — 5 PM

That Old Black Magic

For decades, aural purists have been saying that vinyl records sound better than their musical progeny, the compact disc.

Nevermind that CDs have mostly superior technical specifications. There is something warm and inviting about analog sound, physically etched on a surface and interpreted by a needle. And there’s something cold and distant about a laser reading engraved binary code.

In truth, early production practices did much harm to the reputation of CDs. Technicians, still unfamiliar with the emerging technology, did not know how to encode or master recordings properly to bring out the best sound from the digital medium. Older albums originally recorded for vinyl and re-released on CD were the worst offenders, and that’s why today there is an unceasing stream of re-masters and rereleases of old material, as record companies raid the vaults to please demanding listeners (and make an easy profit).

The technical fact of the matter is that today’s CDs generally sound great when played on the right equipment. There is an overall crispness and fidelity to the original performance that vinyl can rarely match. CDs also have a far superior dynamic range — a fancy way of saying that quiet sounds are more audible and the difference between loud and really loud is more, well, different. On vinyl, more soft sound gets lost in the muddy hiss.

The only area where records are demonstrably superior, technically speaking, is in their frequency range. In fact, records can, in theory, play infinitely high-pitch sounds, while CDs actually digitally cut-off sound above 22,000 Hz. Scientists say that we can’t really hear things that high anyway, especially once we’re older and our ears are damaged by the rest of real life. That doesn’t stop conspiracy theorists from saying that there is “something” in records, and although we can’t really hear it, we can feel it. If you know what I mean.

I don’t really believe that, but there is another theory to explain why many people might actually prefer the sound of records, a subjective measure which is nonetheless difficult to deny. (Go ahead: ask some people to listen. Records sound good.) The theory goes, that since real life is full of background noise, music was never meant to be heard in complete silence. In some ways, CDs, with their digital noise-reduction and lack of hiss, artificially eliminate the “aural context” of sound, and so they sound cold. When one plays a record, and hears the hissing and scratching, it sounds more lifelike because life is full of hissing and scratching anyway.

Of course real life also has turntable-destroying warps, scratches only your cat could appreciate, and needles dull enough to tickle a baby. Let us not forget that enduring sound of yesteryear: the record on permanent skip-repeat. (Although when scratched CDs skip, they invariably sound even worse.)

What if there were a way to have that great analog sound, without the hassle of actually going to Value Village and filtering through the endless copies of Nana Mouskouri’s Greatest Hits?

Enter RetroPlayer, an incredible program for OS X which inputs 21st century MP3 sound and outputs pure, hissing 1970s magic.

Unfortunately — for we English speakers anyway — it’s only in Japanese, but the controls are fairly simple to figure out. Make sure you find the preferences and play around with the settings. If you turn down the speed wobble setting and eliminate the skipping (yes, kids, it even simulates skipping), you can actually get an enjoyably warm sound that should only have come from a 331/3 RPM spinning device.

By the way, I found the link to this program at the Cult of Mac blog, written by Wired’s resident Macintosh zealot, Leander Kahney. A good read if you’re into Mac stuff, as Mac users tend to be.

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Previously: Pushing Bush

Subsequently: Now 33% More Canadian

October 2004
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