MEANWHILE: Does vinyl sound better?

David Leigh, I'm an opera singer at the Metropolitan Opera ...

I once met a sound engineer who told me he hates singers. He was a little too honest, considering we’d just met, and I love those people, so I asked him what about singers he hated. He told me a story about a singer he’d recorded a couple years earlier. He made a recording of her, which he thought was great, but with which she was severely displeased. She insisted it didn’t sound like her at all, and he needed to do a better job capturing her sound. So he took the recording of her, played it on his studio speakers, and recorded the speaker sound on a handheld field recorder. Then he gave it back to her like that. To the uninitiated: this is the sound engineer equivalent of taking a recording and just speaking the words “fuck you fuck you fuck you” over the whole thing. As he was telling me this story, my jaw literally dropped at how ballsy this was. He said the soprano loved it, and haughtily told him he’d done a much better job capturing the nuance of her sound. “That’s why I hate singers,” he said.

There is something in the way the sound engineer feels about singers that I feel about people who prefer vinyl. “Oh but it’s so much warmer on vinyl!” Is it, though? Studies show that if I add a (digital) hiss to a digital audio file, people think it’s a warmer sound—it isn’t, it’s just the same digital sound with a hiss on top of it.

The vinyl is just lower quality. It’s not as clean. But I think that, much as the singer was frustrated to really hear her sound cleanly and directly, and preferred hearing it filtered through a lower-quality medium, we sometimes prefer this, when we listen to music.

Put another way: I often find music heartbreakingly personal. The sound of a person, on a CD, speaking truth to me so nakedly can seem almost unfeeling, insensitive, oversensitive. The filter of vinyl gives it depth, and atmosphere, and also distances it from me just enough for me to love it with a little less danger of being hurt by it. There is a lot of music that I would rather listen to on vinyl, I think for this reason. But I cannot, in good conscience, say it sounds better.

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