Ever wonder why a fast growing number of people prefer vinyl records over digital formats? Are they just snobs who fetishize vintage culture or elitists overly concerned with being hip? Are vinyl enthusiasts backward-looking in resisting contemporary technology? Maybe. But there are other substantial reasons to prefer vinyl to digital formats that may account for recent rebounds in vinyl sales.
The two central categories of recorded musical technology are analog and digital. Digital listening formats are immaterial, and so offer conveniences of portability, efficiency, and expediency. Vinyl records are material, occupy space, need to be properly stored, and require more engagement to operate. The fact that vinyl records are material allows distinctive features to be appreciated and evaluated, which are unavailable in digital formats. Let’s call this “the vinyl condition”. I think the vinyl condition offers beneficial differences in listening to recorded music. The sound is warmer, richer, and deeper. Beyond sound, the vinyl condition offers a larger number of features to be appreciated and evaluated. These include tactile, visual, and epistemic features. While a range of benefits and drawbacks exist in both analog and digital formats, I think vinyl records are preferable to digital formats because the sound is better and the overall aesthetic experience is wider and richer.
Not only did recording technology change how music was consumed, it also changed how music was produced. Music would now be written with the studio in mind, anticipating various differences arising between performing and recording. This changed, for example, the lengths of songs, often rendering them shorter, as well as offering opportunities for overdubbing, editing, and mixing so that certain sounds were foregrounded and others backgrounded.
Because of their materiality, records offer sound qualities that digital formats do not. These include warmth, richness, and depth. Many people value those qualities and so hold vinyl records to sound better than digital formats. Much needs to be said to support this claim.
Warmth arises in records precisely because they are analog, and it refers to a material quality of sound occurring when physical instruments are played. It occurs because the record is an empirical object being played by a turntable and channelled through surrounding equipment. That turntables are instruments in themselves is seen in the movement of turntabilism, which is essentially the art of scratching and mixing records. There is general warmth to virtually all analog instruments. Just as analog photography and film each carry distinctive visual warmth, seen most pointedly when compared to digital counterparts, so to do vinyl records, which is also most recognizable when compared to digital formats. Because digital formats are compressed lossy files and are not played by a physical instrument upon a physical format in the same sense that a record is by the needle on the stylus, on the arm of the turntable, through a receiver and speaker set, then this quality of warmth is absent in digital formats. To be sure, the sound of vinyl carries additional warmth when recorded through analog rather than digital technology.
Richness refers to the diversity of auditory aspects heard in vinyl records. Because of record grooves, the sound of vinyl is more open, allowing a greater quantity of features to be heard. The space afforded by the grooves allows one to locate and individuate particular instruments and sounds and observe how they contribute to the music as a whole. This way, diversity can be heard.
Whereas richness refers to the greater quantity of sound, depth refers to the greater quality of sound. Depth is afforded by the resonant quality of records arising from grooves on its physical format. Depth refers to how much of a sound or instrument can be heard. Depth can be recognized in records when comparing its sound to that of digital formats, which, because they are compressed files, preclude a certain depth from being heard. It’s key to note that the sound limitations in digital formats almost always concern the compression at their nature.
While analog defenders attest to the warmth, richness, and depth of the sound of records, many digital apologists contest this. One reason is that the debate between analog and digital technology is typically focused on recording technologies, not listening technologies. Sound differences arising from recording technologies are essential to the analog-digital debate, but those arising from listening technologies must also be included. Additionally, the sound quality of the format must be treated as one among a variety of distinctive features arising from the materiality of the vinyl condition and its associated equipment. Furthermore, digital apologists think that digital formats can have warmth, richness, and depth if heard through the right equipment.
There are paradigmatic differences between the sound quality of vinyl records and digital formats. The former tends to be deeper, richer, warmer, and of a more rounded quality. The latter tends to be more clean, polished, and slick, of a more trebly, high-end quality. The sound of vinyl records arises because the grooves on the record allow for an open, resonant quality. Conversely, digital formats by their nature compress sound, disallowing the open space that allows the warmth, richness, and depth to arise. Often this debate becomes paralyzed when cast in terms of “accuracy”. Digital apologists argue that because digitization utilizes binary code, numerical precision provides a more accurate sound of the master recording onto the format. For now, I avoid this framework of numerical accuracy because it is solely focused on auditory qualities. Instead, I highlight how the vinyl condition allows a wider artistic platform and richer aesthetic experience that includes auditory, tactile, visual, and epistemic features.
The equipment of vinyl includes the record and its condition, the quality of the turntable and stylus, the power and watts per channel of the receiver, and the size and strength of the speakers. Even speaker placement and size of speaker wire can produce differences in sound. While there are high quality headphones, most people listen to digital formats through earbuds, car stereos, computer speakers, or desktop speakers. Because earbuds are small and aim to bring music to one’s head, there is no space for sound to resonate and gain warmth, richness, and depth arising from the acoustics of the speaker box (along with the record grooves). Nor is there the extra power and style that arises from particular collaborations of receiver, speakers, and turntable. The equipment as a whole enables the warm, rich, deep sound to arise. Let’s call this triad “fecundity”.
The tactility of the vinyl condition is the most obvious feature arising from its materiality. Records are physical and so occupy particular place and time. They are stored on shelves, removed from sleeves, and placed on turntables. Aside from the actual vinyl disc, there are various other physical parts to a record’s packaging. Let’s distinguish these parts from outer to inner. Polybags are the plastic sleeves that house records. Jackets are the outer sleeves typically made of cardstock and on which the front and back album artwork resides. The spine is the jacket’s side opposite its opening, where names of musicians or groups are printed. The inner sleeve, or dust sleeve, is the paper or plastic in which the record disc resides. Inserts are anything included in the jacket, such as lyric sheets, booklets, stickers, patches, zines, stencils, post cards, CDs, DVDs, or 7-inch records. Labels are the paper circles at the center of the record. Finally, inscriptions are etched into the vinyl disc at the record’s center as a unique alphanumeric code. Each of these physical aspects is part of the tactility of the aesthetic experience. Crucially, they are additional spaces of opportunity for artwork.
The tactility offers physical engagement as part of the aesthetic experience. Collectors store and handle vinyl with care, for example by avoiding dust and fingerprints. Jackets are removed from polybags, inner sleeves from jackets, and vinyl from inner sleeves. The inserts invite the collector to engage them—to read the lyric sheet, to apply the sticker, to gaze at the artwork. A collector touches, removes, places, flips, inserts, and peruses various material aspects of the packaging. In this way, records aren’t merely owned and heard, they are felt and engaged.
There are also many visual aspects to the vinyl condition. Typically, there is artwork on the front and back of the jacket. Some covers become timeless, pervasive cultural images, such as Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, designed by Peter Saville. The jackets may be gatefold, i.e. they may unfold or open like a book, and may reveal a large image across the entire unfolded jacket, such as the inner image of lightning-faced David Bowie in Aladdin Sane. There is also artwork on inner sleeves, as well as anything inserted in the jacket. Additionally, the polybag may also be used as a canvas. The Allah-Las place signature logo sticker artwork on theirs, for example. Sometimes the inner sleeves are also the lyric sheets or where inner artwork is placed. The label offers yet another opportunity for artwork. In soul 45s of the 1960s and ’70s, often there were no jackets or inserts, but only inner sleeves and labels. This allowed Motown, for example, to develop specially printed inner sleeves with their logo, although this was an exception rather than the rule. Typically, the label itself was the place for visual features, which gave rise to distinct graphic design of text and logos for labels. It could also be used to host images, such as a picture of James Brown’s head on many of his 45s.
There is copious opportunity for artwork as inserts. There are whole sheets that may contain lyrics and photographs. Faust included a series of 10×10-inch photographs as inserts in their second record, Faust So Far. The vinyl itself can even be a work of art. There is the standard black vinyl, but also a variety of colored vinyl records. There are solid colors, as well as marbled, two-toned, or multi-colored records. Importantly, there are also picture discs, such as CAN’s “I Want More” EP. The shape of vinyl can also be manipulated from the standard circle, such as Lovelife’s 2002 heart-shaped vinyl EP. Clinic’s 2010 album Bubblegum included a gatefold jacket housing a black LP, a second pink 12-inch with acoustic versions, a lyric sheet, and also a stencil. The gatefold calls the listener to open it, the colored vinyl motivates an aesthetic gaze, and the stencil encourages one to make a print or spray a shirt.
Epistemic features concern knowledge and what is needed for it. There is typically a bevy of information inscribed on discs and sleeves. This includes information about the artist, musicians, producer, recording studio, date recorded, label, lyrics, shout-outs, number of pressings, and so on. While this information is often available digitally, it arises not from the format as such, but from internet access generally. Consequently, the information often does not call to listeners, since they have to take extra measures to see it. When present on the record and sleeve, the information announces itself more loudly and transparently. As many philosophers have argued, more information often leads to an enhanced understanding of artworks, and some knowledge is even necessary to understand an artwork’s meaning. Listeners’ aesthetic experiences are benefited by the transparency of information.
Vinyl records often contain obscure information that is either not obvious or simply unavailable with digital formats. Musicians may add to the alphanumeric inscriptions at the record’s center by etching messages, slogans, and even inside jokes. Knowing the information above—about, say, an album’s producer, production studio, or musicians—can add value to one’s appreciation and evaluation. For example, there are producers who make considerable impacts on albums, such as Brian Eno, Martin Hannet, and Lee Perry. Knowing that allows listeners to appreciate what producers contribute and to recognize their particular style.