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.