There was a time in my life when I was occupied with vinyl records and DJing, time when I used strictly vinyls to play music in the clubs, many times six hours per night, four nights per week. I remember ending up sets having black vinyl dirt under my nails, yes, I was spinning a lot of records when I played at clubs. My only goal was to give the crowd great moments in their lives with best music and superb sound quality on the dance floor. I never thought about vinyl records too much. Even when I was using them every day, for me it was just a music format like any other. I was always more interesting what's on the record, what kind of music, is it good or should I skip it. I wrote this text to explain my reasons for giving up on vinyl records long time ago, but I'm sure that many of you older readers have had similar reasons to switch on digital music formats. After all, it's all about good music, and if you care only for the music format, you're at the wrong place.
My first regular turntable
I have to admit that before I first time used turntables with pitch control and mixed one record with another, I didn't have any special interest in vinyl records. As a youngster I used them not so much and often as cassette tapes simply because I couldn't buy music that I wanted to enjoy on vinyl. I got much more involved in vinyls later after I started working as a DJ, but before professional use of vinyl records, I was just a regular music listener. It all started after I bought my first PC 286 computer, then I got a little bit bored of it, so I sold it and used that money to buy my first HiFi component system. I was smart enough to skip those plastic stereo systems, boom boxes and ghetto blasters, and I begged my parents to spend a little bit more on affordable four component system: amplifier, tuner, deck and turntable.
My new stereo system was beautiful and sounded great, it was well built, all brushed dark metal, heavy, no plastic here except for the buttons and knobs. I was very happy with it, I got it right when music was becoming more and more important in my life. But, because I was already using cassette tapes, I wasn't really occupied with the vinyl records at the time, and I hardly even used turntable. As I mentioned before, I simply couldn't find to buy music that I liked, I had to buy music recorded on tapes or to order expensive imports. Later, I was able to find some good music in my local record stores and vinyl became more interesting to me. For short period of time it was easier to get new music on vinyls until my country was involved in Balkan war. Everything related to art became not important and discovering and buying new imported music was very hard in dying Yugoslavia, and later Serbia. These are the times when I gave up on records for the first time.
Cassette tapes rules
I was using cassette tapes back in eighties because it was practical and cheap. When you're listening to and collecting maxi singles released on vinyls, you're not just a regular album listener, you like to make your own selection of tracks, compilations, mixes. That's why tapes were good because you could make your personal selection, you could record your own music on it and duplicate them later easily. And, since everyone had cassette players in their homes, cars, you could put it in your pocket and have your music played everywhere all the time. I still have nostalgia for those great looking monster cassette decks with those long peak displays or VU meters. However, I wasn't totally satisfied with cassette tapes, no matter how careful you are with tapes, it's still a mechanical format and every time you record or play tapes, you're practically destroying it. Even when you're using high quality tape, after some time of use you will have some problems with it. And, what is more important, there are some common issues with cassette decks heads compatibility.
Cassette tape sucks
The biggest problem that I experienced with tapes was head azimuth, if the tape is not perfectly aligned with the head for playback, you'll hear muffled sound. This usually happens when you recorded it at home on your deck, and played it back on your friends deck. Btw, this was also the biggest problem in the video computer games industry in early days when they used cassette tapes for games and software. Skilled people would easily correct this issue with tiny screwdriver that can be used to adjust head azimuth and bring the highs back and class muffled sound, but it wasn't that convenient solution for regular customer. Some decks such as Nakamichi Dragon could automatically adjust azimuth and there you go, problem was solved with $4000. One more thing was also very inconvenient with the tapes, heads and mechanisms gets dirty from everyday use and tape would be sometimes damaged or destroyed. I also hated fast forwarding and rewinding, when I wanted to hear first opening song and then last song from the same side, fast forward was never fast enough for me.
Comfort vs Sound Quality
On the other hand, with vinyls you could easily skip or repeat songs, parts, and you could scratch if that's your forte. I liked all that on the records, however, playing time per side was not that gracious. One side of the vinyl didn't last long as one side of the tape so listener would have to stand up more often and flip the side. Cassette Decks didn't have that problem, with features like auto reverse you could easily relax for a 90 mins, and if the deck is double auto reverse, you would enjoy in 3 hours of continuous music. Compare that to vinyl and you'll get why it was more convenient to have cassette deck than turntable, unless you're sitting next to turntable all the time. And, cassette decks were installed in almost every car in the world, and people spend a lot of time in the cars, driving, waiting, you got my point. But, that's just the mechanics of it, the most important thing here is still the sound quality. When you play music from vinyl you can hear great sound quality all the time, tapes were somehow much more unpredictable.
If I have to pick one sold good reason why I preferred vinyl at the time, it would be the noise. Noise is killing the feeling in the music, especially when you hear it on tapes. Without Dolby B, C, (later S) and top quality cassette tape, you would hear a lot of noise from your speakers especially on "quiet parts"of the song. Now, if the music was energetic, loud, without quiet parts or breaks, tape would sound pretty much good even without Dolby noise reduction. When you play vinyl, noise is very moderate, not annoying, natural in some way, you expect it and it doesn't kill the vibe. It is true that vinyl sound quality also gets a bit worse after years of use. However, if you keep your records clean and in good condition, that "best sound" will be preserved for a long time, we're talking about decades here. Now, not every vinyl sounds great all the same, mastering and mixing records is tricky business and if you are lucky to have one of the first prints from the series, you would have best possible sound on the planet at the time.
Inner groove distortion? What's that?
One day I was listening to one album that I also purchased year before on cassette tape. One of my favorite songs was last one on A side and every time I played that specific record, that last song would sound awful compared to the sound of cassette tape. I realized that it has to be something related to fact that circles on record are getting smaller and smaller at the end, sounds progressively degrades as the record's side is ending up. How come? There's an article from RokEdition.com: Another physical limitation of the medium is "inner diameter distortion." As the record needle travels toward the center of the disk it becomes more difficult to reproduce high frequencies. The frequency response of a vinyl disk is drastically different at the outer section than the inner section. Sometimes this "defect" is ok, you don't even notice it, but usually it's annoying, especially if the last song is one that you love the most. This is much more noticeable on albums were we have four to five tracks on one side, last track will be the the worst, first one the best. That's why mixing and mastering had effect on song order of some of the records, sometimes great songs would end up last on the side just because they were "suitable", didn't have so much higher frequencies in production.
It's better on maxis
Inner groove can be an obstacle for a passionate music listener, but, when I ordered and got my first imports of maxi singles, I changed my mind about vinyl records again! I noticed right away that sound that is coming from 12" maxi singles was better. When you cut one or two tracks on one side of the record, you have the winner. The longer the record is, more chances that you will hear some loss in quality at the end. But maxis are 20 mins per side, two time more space for song = better sound quality. Maxi singles are directly responsible for keeping the vinyls alive in DJ culture, that's why you're still seeing records on some sets. When engineers put some special attention into mastering and cutting vinyl maxi singles, they really sound better than other records, and they're still standing arm to arm with CD and wav.
Finding and buying new (regular commercial) CDs was a nightmare at the time in Yugoslavia, offer was very slim and you couldn't find imports or they were overpriced. As a electronic music listener your chances to buy anything at ask were zero. But, I did purchased some albums and compilations from time to time, just to have something on the shelves. Sound of the CD was very clean and somehow superior compared to my turntable and cassette deck, I would really enjoy listening to it even if I didn't have many CDs to shuffle. But, as I explained here, I realized right away that if you are looking for top notch sound, it all depends on your CD player D/A converter. Better digital to analog conversion means better, nite natural sound. It was the time before CD burners, and since I couldn't find new music to buy (or it was very expensive), I had to wait for better times and wider offer of CDs before I would completely switch on digital sound.
Years later, after I moved to a bigger city and I met some other vinyl & HiFi audio enthusiasts, I quickly expanded my theoretical and practical knowledge of this always debatable music corner. I worked with some great people in audio & video studio "Magic Box", place that was always equipped with latest technology, gadgets and best powerful computers. Now, the best thing was that Magic Box was also connected with the biggest discotheque in the city called Paradiso. Vinyls were very expensive and it was not unusual for club managers and owners to select and order vinyls for their clubs. Taste and selection was questionable, but you could find real gems there. Paradiso had huge and selected vinyl collection at that time, and more was coming every week! We would always get those records first in Magic Box on test listening, and have them taped on DAT. Digital Audio Tape was expensive format used for professional recording, but it was also available for people with deep pockets, HiFi crowd.
Sound on DAT was excellent thanks to great D/A and A/D converters, you could find $300 CD player with solid D/A conversion, but DAT was very expensive and sound was always great thanks to better D/A converter. I was very surprised with the quality that I wanted to demonstrate to my buddies how good it was so we took blind listening test. We compared songs on the same speakers and amplifier, but one source was vinyl (original) and the other was copy recorded on DAT. Results were mismatch, none of us could tell for sure what was vinyl and what was DAT, recorded copy sounded the same as original. What was also great with DAT is that you could make 100% digital copy using digital connection between CD player and DAT, or between DAT and DAT. Then you can make identical copy from the copy that you just made with no quality compromised, sound quality would stay the same. DAT was the best digital format for some time until affordable CD burners/recorders arrived to the HiFi scene. It was replaced not because of the quality of the sound, but because it was expensive mechanical piece of electronics.
DAT was not reliable for a long period of time, there are hundreds of mechanical parts inside and a lot of electronics. If tape is jammed, your recording would be probably damaged and that's it. Some of you older folks who used VCRs probably seen video cassette recorder or player with top cover removed for head cleaning, it was spectacular and complicated engineering at the time. DAT uses similar transport for tape, but parts are much smaller and even more precise. If you used it a lot, it takes a lot of maintenance to keep the things go smoothly, otherwise something must go wrong after days of use, and it usually did. DAT was a great, but not that much reliable product for the price you would pay. Consumers wanted something better, or something cheaper, or both. Then it came Mini Disc.
This thing was using compression to store data on small spinning disc, and you could hear it right away from the box that sound was not HiFi. I didn't like it for music, but I did found fantastic use for it for some other stuff. I started to work on radio station where they used Mini Disc to play advertising and jingles. Soon, we started to use it to play music, but as I said, sound was not the best so I kept using DAT and CD for my music. And, as a spinning magnetic disc inside the plastic case, this format was also a bit unreliable. Skipping, stopping, digital artificial noises, you named it, I heard it all on many mini discs that were in heavy use. But, even after we started to use computer programs to play jingles and ads, we continued to use MD. Why? Not everyone was familiar with new computer, and the speed of finding, programming and playing commercial sets from MD was unbeatable for many folks. I would say when it worked as it should, Minidisc was a "player" in radio industry and it worked for some consumers with deeper pockets. Compare it to vinyl or CD sound quality, sound was worse, not worth it, but, comfort of use was unbeatable. As you can see, vinyl survived many digital formats, even CD, but can it survive new, downloadable music formats?
Computer & music
As I mentioned before, at my early age I was deeply involved with computers. However, my first PC 286 could produce only beeps on small speaker that was installed in the case. Music on first computers was poor. Only after first audio cards arrived on the market, computer music term started to be more interesting. It didn't took long time before every average computer user did have one in their system. It was a small revolution in computer audio technology because those audio cards were mostly used before in professional audio editing studios and they were very expensive. With $20 audio card, everyone could "grab" CD on their computer and listen to it from the computer as audio files, waves, wav. Winamp? Anyone? I'm still using it. But not only that you could transfer your CDs to computer, you could also edit, fix, or make it louder in your audio editing software such as Sound Forge. HiFi audio crowd didn't welcomed computers and wav files as a serious music format at the beginning, but many of us who are using computers for audio production or music editing did.
I remember when I first time mentioned and explained MP3 files to my HiFi friends, their first reaction was laugh. Some of them were already familiar with MP3 terminology, but they were already skeptical about it because they cared only for sound quality of MP3s which wasn't good as original. They didn't see it as a valid product that could be sold online and easily shared at the time. I realized again that for real audiophiles and HiFi crowd only sound matters, for other folks like me (hungry for new music), it was also very important that I can get it fast online. That's why Fraunhofer company introduced MP3 compressed music format so you can compress and send that great song to your friend in email message. Twenty years later internet is ten time faster and we can see that world accepted MP3 and other compressed digital formats for everyday use. I knew it from the beginning that sound quality wasn't the best, but it was acceptable and I used MP3 anyway. It was just another music format for me until biggest revolution in DJ mixing happened, we call that now computer DJ mixing.
Traktor? Agriculture, right?
When I first saw Traktor by Native Instruments, I was not surprised, I was stunned. What was my wish as a computer geek and DJ for a many years, finally became piece of software! Someone put two WinAmps together with pitch controls so we can play DJs. This was the point where I dropped vinyls for good. I know, many of you will tell noooooooo, but it was just a logical progression for me. I didn't quit buying records, but I knew it that future is in digital computer DJ mixing. It was a first version of Traktor, but somehow it looked very polished and worked as it should. I was surprised how well Native Instruments engineers did the job, mix output sounded just like from standard analog mixer. I was so amazed that I even made small demonstration in our city downtown book store, many young DJs came to see what future brings.
Now, what is most important thing to me with digital mixing is the quality of algorithms used in this process of digital sound mixing, how does mixed signal sound at the end on your master channel output? It was good, not good as it is today, but very solid for a first version of software. All of you who would say that mixing MP3 files cannot produce the best sound, you're right, but you don't have to mix mp3 files, you can use uncompressed wav files, traxsource store offers wav files too. What was also important with Traktor is that it didn't required expensive computer, it was working just fine on your existing, regular computer. It didn't took long for it to became popular amongst many computer DJ users. However, to be included in professional DJ setup, Traktor needed hardware support, USB controllers. Luckily, we didn't have to wait long time before first mixing consoles arrived on the markets, and now it's all history behind us. Traktor is here to stay.
As you already know, quality of CD sound was good enough to stay for a long time as a standard, it was good enough for me all these years, and truth is that we practically don't need better sound quality than 44.1 KHz and 16 bit. You can have it, but you don't need it simply because majority cannot tell or hear the difference between 44.1 or 192 KHz. You can measure it, it's better on the numbers, but we don't hear the difference in simple everyday use, especially on cheap headphones and speakers. Just because some companies want to make more money, you don't have to follow the trend. There is a great explanation why you shouldn't care about 192 KHz here, read it when you have time. Now,
So, for many people on this planet (me too) MP3 or other compressed formats are just fine, we love them and use them every day. We know if we rip CD to WAV files, it'll sound exactly the same, just like on CD. But, making good MP3 files are not that simple, there's a bit of tweaking if you want your mp3 file to sound closest to CD. I tried many different mp3 encoders, experimented with various bit rates, and compared their sound quality with CD. Results are not surprising, mp3 files cannot match CD quality, we all know that. What I noticed is that even some rock music compressed to 128kbps from great source sounded excellent, but that bit rate was not good enough for electronic music with deep bass and loud high frequencies. Luckily there are few options here, if you go two times higher on bit rate and even compress files to 320kbps, you'll get much better sound but also larger files sizes. I never used 128kbps anyway, I heard lack of details right from the beginning when I compressed my first mp3s, I started with 192kbps, and later when internet became faster and online storage/hosting cheaper, I switched to 320kbps files.
Now, there are some other music compression formats that are lossless such as Apple's ALAC, and many others not so known (Ogg Vorbis), but also very good. It's up to you to choose your favorite, mine is still MP3 and I have many reasons for that. I'm not trying to convince you that sound of mp3 is better than sound of vinyls or CD, we all know that is not, I'm just saying that is good enough and very practical for everyday use. And, with faster internet, waves could become new old standard like MP3 it's today.
No coming back
Enjoying music is a big part of my life, I'm consuming it 3 to 4 hours daily, sometimes even more. I think that's a lot, unless listening to music is your main job and mine is still not. Since I'm also walking a lot, there Is no other way for me to enjoy all that great music on my headphones unless I use mp3 files. And, I don't need a ton of music on my phone like whole collection, but I have huge storage on the phone so I may consider soon to start buying uncompressed WAV files. Vinyl is dead to me, I can only find 1% of music that I like on vinyl, it needs a lot of maintenance and it's expensive. You will hear that vinyl is coming back on some media, I wrote an article on that topic, but that is BS. Vinyl is not coming back, it's already a vintage thing and I'll keep it like that.