Vinyl vs Digital – The Truth About Vinyl

The Truth About Vinyl - Vinyl vs Digital

The humble desk record is not often properly recognized for the impact its development had on the modern world.

On the face of it, these records are just consumer products that allow music to be sold to the masses a concept that itself only reached the mass market about 100 years ago. The truth is the impact of this technology goes way beyond the consumption of pop music.

The records closest comparison is the printing press is often considered to be one of the most important inventions in history due to its ability to quickly and accurately reproduce ideas in written word which in turn greatly accelerated the transfer and exchange of knowledge.

The ability to press audio to record so that it can be reproduced in scale did the exact same thing for audio.

It functioned as a vector for cultural exchange and the revolution in recording technology ushered in by electronic and audio engineers that developed the technology is the foundation upon which modern communication systems stand apart.

hi-fidelity music streaming

Of course these days most of the music we consume is digital. The Internet has changed not only the way we consume music but also the amount of music and the music itself. Curiously while this is happening vinyl is seen a year on year increase in sales.

Even more curious is the fact that half of the people who buy an album on vinyl stream it first. It remains a point of contention whether analog formats such as vinyl are actually superior to their modern-day digital counterparts.

hi-fidelity music streaming

Is vinyl as resurgence just consumers seen yesteryears technology through rose-tinted glasses a yearning for a physical connection to their music.

Does the music really sound better on vinyl?

To understand the differences between these two we first need to understand the commonalities. No matter which format is used analog or digital both require audio data to be created by a recording device.

The simplest of these would be the microphone which turns air pressure into either a digital or analog signal which can be replayed as an electrical analog signal.


This process was first put into use in 1877 by Thomas Edison while working on the telephone. Edison decided that it would be worth investigating if sound could be recorded for later reproduction.

Thomas Edison while working on the telephone

Edison designed a rotating cylinder disc wrapped in tin foil which was turned by a hand crank attached to the disc was a needle which in turn attached to the mouthpiece which adjusted the pressure of the needle on the desk.

Edison designed a rotating cylinder

Edison talked into the mouthpiece while turning the hand crank at a constant rate and as predicted the pressure of the sound was imprinted a proportional indentation which was analogous to the sound his voice created.

When he finished recording he returned the needle to the start. The indentations which were caused by his voice could now be played back by rotating the cylinder.

Once again this invention the phonograph was the first example of playable recorded sound. And for all intents and purposes, the vinyl record is essentially an iteration of this technology.

The first vinyl record was pressed in 1948 by Columbia. Specifically, it was this recording on 12 inches.

first vinyl record was pressed in 1948

Vinyl records work on the same principle as Edison’s phonograph. A 3-D representation of a sound wave is physically pressed onto a vinyl record. An impression is first created by cutting head the cutting head creates an impression that is a direct analog of the sound wave.

This process creates a master that will go on to create a stumper that molds each record when a record is played. The frequency of the wave that you will hear will depend on how stretched out the wave is on the media and the volume will depend on the size or amplitude of the wave.

frequency of the wave

This audio information will be pressed onto the vinyl in one of three fashions via horizontal modulation vertical modulation or via a compromise modulation of 45 degrees horizontal modulation is always preferable over vertical modulation.

Vertical modulation on vinyl

This is because the vertical modulation leads to more distortion and allows for less amplitude due to the inability for the stylus to track the groove and also a propensity for the needle to bounce off the wave.

If the amplitude is too high. But if we run with only horizontal modulation we can only play audio in mono and we don’t have stereo separation of sound.

Accordingly, we use a compromised modulation of 45 degrees in order to allow separation of audio from mono to stereo as the stylus follows the groove that moves the magnet wrapped in a small coil of copper wire.

This causes and an electric current that corresponds to the groove on the vinyl which in turn corresponds to the physical sound waves that were originally recorded and the electric current can now cause a physical movement of the speakers which will reproduce that sound pretty faithfully.

Some final enthusiasts argue that this smooth continuous reproduction of sound from analog to analog is more fateful than digital music.

Part of this argument stems from the difference in how digital music is read produced high-quality digital audio data is typically sampled forty-four thousand one hundred times per second.

Close inspection of the way function produced from binary code shows that rather than the audio data being smooth and constant like real life the audio data is jagged and technically non-continuous because there is an infinite amount of data between each second of audio.

Analog vs Digital Signal

We have to sample the audio at regular intervals to minimize the size of our digital file. Comparing this to the smooth continuous way form that is imprinted in vinyl you would think this might cause some loss in information whether there is a loss of information or not depends on whether the 44.1 kHz sample rate is high enough to be functionally the same.

An answer to this was proposed in 1928 and a pivotal paper published by Swedish American electronic engineer Harry Norquist and was subsequently proven by Claude Shannon in 1949.

They simply found that to recreate a frequency we only need to sample each individual wave at least twice if not the frequency will be digitized with a lower frequency.

human frequency hearing range

What is the highest frequency a human can hear?

The maximum perceivable frequency a human ear can detect is 20 kHz. So digital recordings with a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz can capture even the highest frequency possible.

The sound produced by a speaker using digital audio is effectively the same sound as analog recordings. In this case, the argument that analog recordings are more fateful does not meet the scrutiny of science and in theory digital and analog music recordings should sound functionally the same if played on the same equipment.

The argument does not end here though there are some constraints to how sound can be recorded on vinyl. Interestingly these constraints largely explain both vinyl enthusiast preference for the media and also why some might argue that digital recordings are a superior format for storing audio.

How much data can a 12-inch vinyl record hold?

A 33 RPM 12-inch record can hold 22 min per side.

The major constraint that impacts vinyl is simply it’s limited in data storage. This is simple to understand a 12-inch record can only hold so much information in the format we’ve described. Each rotation of the record takes one point eight seconds.

How many times each 12-inch record can rotate?

12-inch record

Two things affect this. The frequencies found in bass notes require the groove of the record to swing out wider. Just as the speaker also thumps out wider when it plays bass waves of higher amplitude that produce louder sounds also require wider grooves.

This means that both low-frequency sounds and loud sounds both eat up valuable vinyl real estate and this, in turn, means that if your record has bass or is loud like most contemporary music there’s not going to be a whole lot of space on the record for your songs.

The net impact of this is that there are a volume and time constraint on a vinyl record that does not apply to digital music which has huge ramifications for how we listen to music and how music is created and mastered vinyl as limitations do not end here.

If the frequency is low and the amplitude too high the stylus can become prone to bounding off the wave due to the part the stylus has to take up the wave at speed.

This can cause the record to bounce around and skip if not accounted for accordingly bass needs to be center pant in the mix and a specific mix has to be applied to the music recorded to vinyl to stop this from happening.
High frequency sounds also need to be taken into consideration while cutting a vinyl record.

High-frequency sounds mean the waves are very tight together the stylus has to surf these waves and turn extremely tight corners when the curvature of the Groove becomes tighter than the tip of the radius of the stylus.

The stylus will begin to flow through the groove and you will end up with distortion on top of this extremely high-frequency waves can lead to the cutting head that cuts the record to overheat.

radius of the stylus

This is simply a matter of cutting head having to take a longer path and having to do more work to cut these waves. The overheating can lead to inaccuracy in the cutting process and in turn to noise and distortion.

On the final record to counteract the negative effects that extreme low end and high-end frequencies have on vinyl. A group of American engineers developed what became known as the Recording Industry Association of America curve in the 40s and 50s.

What is RIAA?

The RIAA is an equalization scheme that is applied to the sound before the master lacquer is cut. In essence, this curve reduces bass content and boosts traveled in the record.

RIAA Curve Graph

Without this curve low frequencies take up so much space that each 12 inch LP would only allow for 5 minutes of music. In addition, boosting the travel hugely lowers the surface noise that vinyl can produce due to the path the stylus takes.

Does a turntable need a preamp?

This is also why a turntable requires a special phone or preamp. In addition to amplifying the tiny voltage created by the turntable’s cartridge, the preamp applies the inverse of the RIAA curve, perfectly restoring the music’s natural balance and minimizing the size constraints that are intrinsically linked to the nature of the media.

So we’ve painted a complicated and grim picture for vinyl as a storage media. The actual truth here is that there is no functional difference in the audio quality between digital and analog formats.

Can a human distinguish analog and digital sound signal?

And studies show that the human ear and brain is not sufficiently equipped to distinguish the difference between sound produced from Analog signals when compared to a digital counterpart at the very least. This is enough to debunk the notion that digital music formats are a lesser quality format than analog formats. An important question to ask here is why are people that understand these concepts still drawn to vinyl.

Why people like vinyl records?

There’s a number of simple answers to this question. Part of it is the nostalgia factor.

People have positive personal associations with the vinyl format from their youth and these associations invoke an emotional state that induces a sense of comfort.

And although there are no discernible differences in theoretical audio quality vinyl does have a specific sound that is imperative due to the mastering process.

Mastering is the process by which the final song is mixed for the final device. It will be stored on over the past 36 years due to the removal of the physical limitations and final media and the spread of digitized music.

Songs have become increasingly louder and increasingly more compressed. In essence, this means that the soundwave becomes compressed forcing the quieter parts of the song to become relatively louder and the louder parts relatively quieter.


The net effect being a louder noisier song as a result of this trend. A vast majority of commercial music releases have been subject to a somewhat arbitrary loudness war that has forced them to increase loudness to keep pace.

It has also resulted in increased use of compression of the music which some would argue has resulted in a loss of detail and nuance in the final sound. This development has been criticized by a number of prominent audio engineers and as part of the attraction towards vinyl.

Some people prefer vinyl for this reason music properly mastered for the medium is to a certain degree immune to the effects of the music loudness wars and in some cases, this can mean that the more nuanced parts of the songs are easier to pick out for a trained ear.

Given that this same information can be recorded on a digital format and replayed exactly the same way the answer to this question is that digital and analog formats are functionally the same in the quality of sound produced and any preference for one media or the other is really just that a preference.

The longevity and iconic status of the vinyl record as a music format cannot be ignored though despite the shortcomings we’ve described it is an incredibly durable and elegantly simple medium.

golden-plated-record-Voyager 1-September-1977

This is probably best exemplified in the golden plated records sent on Voyager 1 in September of 1977. It’s hard to believe but 12 million miles away from here this record is floating through space.

Its cover contains simple instructions for playback based on certain universal constants and the record itself contains a high-resolution snapshot of two hundred thousand years of human culture.

Unless the Voyager 1 suffers a direct impact or encounter heat that may melt the record. This record, in theory, should out survive even our species. Just as the technology for storing music has advanced the technology for mixing and mastering music has to.

It has never been easier to get into music production thanks to programs like FL Studio and Ableton which give you a virtual production room with all the tools you need to create a song of your own.


  1. oprol evorter September 22, 2019

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