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The pioneer of digital music only listened to vinyl at home

When I listened to Paul Simon’s latest album, So Beautiful or So What a few months ago, the recorded sound seemed harsh and compressed, at least through my tube audio system. I was surprised, because Paul Simon’s always been a stickler for sound on his albums, working with Roy Halee, Phil Ramone, and other studio pros. Then I realized:  perhaps the new album was destined for MP3s, iPods, computers and other digital devices. It was not intended for audiophiles or just people who knew and liked really good sound.

I remember early digital sounding like it was coming out of a refrigerator from another room, the sound was so cold and distant. Massed strings in classical records sounded like fingernails scratching a blackboard.

Neil Young famously said years ago that digital sounded like nails being driven into his brain. And now we find out that the late Steve Jobs only listened to vinyl at home, preferring that warm old-school sound to any digital device, including the ones he helped revolutionize and change people’s listening habits forever. He was working with Young to create a warmer, more analog sound for iPods and computers, but death cut him short. Neil Young, a die-hard vinyl fan, has been talking about it.

“Steve Jobs was a pioneer of digital music. His legacy is tremendous,” Young said recently. “But when he went home, he listened to vinyl.”

For the music consumer, convenience and portability has replaced high fidelity. Most newly-recorded music sounds fine on ipods, car stereo, and computers hooked up to decent self-powered speakers are adequate for most listeners.

Woody Allen once had a bit about his mother’s deflavorizing machine, I read in the audiophile rag Stereophile. The film maker/comedian thought his mother ran all the family food through the machine because it came out completely tasteless. Are modern recording methods damaging recorded sound? If you grew up when I did, you remember the hot sound of a 45 rpm 7″ R&B single on the crappy turntable. It sounded hot and in your face. And so I ask: “Are modern recordings tailored for digital devices deflavorizing music?”

I’m old school about all this. I learn from reading liner notes, love graphic design, and get a special thrill putting on a well-recorded piece of vinyl onto the turntable. Vinyl puts you in the first row of the club or concert hall, bringing an immediacy that most CDs can only aspire to.

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  • http://junglephysicians.com Andy

    Hear hear!
    (literally.)

  • http://twitter.com/biotwist @biotwist

    we have High definition video these days. it's only a matter of time till digital sound surpasses vinyl if it. hasn't yet

  • Jason W. Adolf

    I had a record player and hundreds of records – once I realized I had genetic hearing loss (easily fixed with an aid), I figured I really couldn't tell the difference between records and MP3's – I've never looked back, completely digital now.

  • vadim

    If you really are a staunch defender of vinyl, and not just someone giving lip service, then I applaud you.

    But you really must hate your entire generation. Because it was the baby boomers, who grew up exclusively on vinyl, who traitorously turned their backs on it as thirtysomething "yuppies" in the '80s, crowing the supposed advantages of digital discs and seeking to wipe out records. It was actually the upper half of Generation X, who only had brief encounters with vinyl as teens, who kept the format alive in genres such as indie-rock and electronica during the dark days of '90s "commercial alternative" radio. And it is now a segment of your children – Generation Y – who have brought the format back to life in record stores across the country which are phasing out their CD collections. New vinyl pressings come
    with download cards, and CDs will soon be squeezed out of the picture entirely.

    As far as music is concerned, the boomers are the worst generation: the Clinton-era deregulation of
    radio led to increasingly terrible homogenized music on the commercial airwaves. Which in turn encouraged non-commercial radio stations to homogenize in the '90s under the formatted banner of "Adult Album Alternative" (originally intended to be a commercial radio format in the late '80s but too niche-targeted for commercial success). KCRW is as guilty as anyone of spreading this bland margarine of pop-folk across the ears of aging boomer contributors, now in their 50s and 60s.

    So, revel in the return of vinyl indeed, and give Steve Jobs his due credit, but don't pat yourself on the back too hard, because it was your generation which tried to kill the format, and failed.

    • tom schnabel

      dear vadim, i am indeed a fan of vinyl. i grew up with it, kept a good many records, and treasure the analog side of things. my post "the gestalt of vinyl" goes into that. CD's, yes they had no surface noise and that helped the awful early 8 bit cd's sell–they mastered them all wrong on cd to get rid of that surface noise, ruining the higher octaves. Digitial just made everything more convenient and portable.
      and made file sharing possible….couldn't do that with vinyl. I don't hate my generation. They treated their vinyl carelessly, scratched the lps up and so on, so yes of course they bought into the cd revolution. and the record companies got to sell their catalogue all over again, at 2x the price of lp's
      Vinyl puts you in the middle of the first row–if it's recorded and mastered correctly. Beware of newly-reissued lps made from bad 4th generation digital files. …..terrible. so many master tapes were lost or thrown away, another tragedy. i could go on and on, but yes, I love vinyl see my post the gestalt of vinyl..i would never have bought a Linn turntable if i didn't love lp's……..thanks for reading….Tom

    • Chris

      What crap! Most people I know who listen to vinyl are, like me, in their 50s and, like me never did stop listening to vinyl. I still have most of the albums I bought in my teens and listen to many of them still. My kids, however, listen mostly on ipod and computer, like all of their friends. At the same time, though, I will admit that some vinyl, even from the 70s, doesn't sound good and that many new cds do, so you can't generalise; it depends on the mastering and pressing, mainly. Just don't try to turn this into some kind of generational war.

    • tom

      as the guy who devised the eclectic format of KCRW and put on shows of African, Reggae, Celtic, classic R&B, zydeco, I am proud of what I did as Music Director of KCRW 1979-91. And yes, it has changed a lot since I left that post.

      vinyl and cd mastering has often been done poorly. both formats now can sound really great if done right. vinyl from Speakers Corner and Impex is divine, but also requires a decent belt-drive turntable.
      many cd's are now mastered for ipods and computers. When you listen on a decent sound system they sometimes sound terrible. on ipods and computers the sound is okay.

    • tom

      see my reply to chris, below. also I was never into indie rock or rock for that matter…..i've always preferred acoustic music anyway. I also grew up when radio was smaller-scale with so many different stations….KFOX, KGFJ, Johnny Otis, Wolfman Jack, Roscoe….guys with real personalities playing some great music.

  • http://warp2600.tumblr.com Epsilon

    I still have my favourite music on the LP format and my turntable is still hooked up to the hi-fi system but I listen to high resolution digital audio (SACD and DVD-Audio) more often than vinyl. Some direct transfers from the original analog master tapes in the DSD format on SACD sound incredibly warm and detailed with astounding dynamics. I started out as a music fan back when there was only vinyl so I have fond memories of all those hours listening to the tracks flowing out of the spinning records. But frankly, there were vinyl records that sounded inferior due to bad masters back then, too.

    • tom

      you are so right…..lots of times the sound got ruined by bad mastering on lps….not to mention that pressings got cheaper after 1973, when OPEC increased the price of oil from $18 to $50 a barrel.

      and you are right about new cd's from companies like ECM……they don't master their music, compress it for ipods or computers….

      for vinyl, the best sound is from lp's from Speakers Corner, a German company…..sound better than the originals…..amazing and a little $$$

      • tom

        Impex is also doing incredible vinyl these days….

  • tom

    me too. let me know if you find out. but often musicians have crappy systems b/c they get to hear live music so often….my music teachers were all like that! Radio Shack Realistic all-in-one turntables/tuners.cd players…….just awful.

  • tom

    you can contact me by commenting and i'll get back to you….or email @ tom.schnabel@kcrw.org

  • tom

    i will….I think Neil Young has some sort of project going on now…big article in recent NYT magazine….

  • http://www.legionellarm.com Paul

    Digital sound will never beat the vinyls. This is because of the simple fact that it is digital and the vinyl is analog source of sound which is unbeatable in laws of physics.

  • tom

    thanks for reading it!

  • tom

    some digital sounds better than most analog–ECM does a great job of recording and mastering……Germans are good at this–but remember they record in a nice large room and use superior mikes, equipment, etc. They also do not compress the signal like many pop records do today….

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