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Digital or Vinyl: What’s the Difference?

The best way to answer this question, is to understand the differences between the digital and vinyl mediums. And by mediums, I mean to focus on how the recording is played back, either on a turntable or on a computer. I make the specific emphasis on the final packaged product here because virtually all commercial music produced today is recorded and mixed on digital workstation software running on a computer. Digital technology is what is used to make the sausage before it is cut to a vinyl disc.

Here’s my point. It's important to understand that virtually all vinyl discs created today are produced cut from digital files that have been mastered specifically for the vinyl medium. For all intents and purposes, engineers of the past that recorded, mixed, and mastered recordings using only analog mediums such as magnetic tape are non-existent. All commercial recordings today involve analog to digital conversion at multiple stages of production, ending in a set of digital files stored on a computer hard drive.

When you listen to vinyl record, you are listening audio produced with the aid of both analog and digital technologies, which, in its final stage, is converted once again from a digital to analog format as it is cut by a lathe into a piece of vinyl. There is no such thing as a purely analog recording.

So, the question we address here only really relates to the differences in the mastering process and the playback mechanisms for vinyl and digital mediums, because the mastered audio intended for digital (streaming, CD, etc) and the mastered audio for vinyl records are made from the same digital audio files.

Here are the issues related to mastering and playback. All arguments presented below assume best of breed equipment and processes employed in the mastering of both digital and vinyl recordings.


Distortion

In the digital realm, the only real issue relating to audio degradation in the mastering process is quantization, or bitrate distortion. This can occur only if the bit depth of the digital recording is truncated during the mastering process without employing a process known as dithering, which is needed to mask the digital noise the truncation generates. No competent mastering engineer would make such a silly mistake. Therefore, there really is no distortion introduced in the mastering process for digital media.

The digital medium can represent audio almost perfectly. Its only limitation relates to the quality of the conversions that take place between the analog and digital domains.

I think anyone would admit that the first converters used in digital systems were awful, fraught with serious quantization and frequency (sample rate) fidelity problems. But that was decades ago. Today, both analog to digital (ADC) and digital to analog (DAC) conversion are stellar technologies offering little to no loss of fidelity, even across multiple back and forth conversions.

There is almost no limit to what can be stored in a digital domain. The only limitation here is the playback system of the listener and the human ability or inability to perceive vast dynamic ranges and ultrasonic frequency responses.

So, what about vinyl?

Although you may already be familiar with the workings of a digital system, it is important to know how it differs from the physical and limited medium of the vinyl record.

The vinyl record is by its very nature, limited. And it is sonically constrained in a number of ways, the first of which is its ability to record a full range of human audible audio frequencies. It's also limited in the amount of information it can store, and limited in its ability to record and reproduce complex imaging, beyond that of traditional flat 2 dimensional stereo images.

For the vinyl medium, the nearly perfect quantization and sampling implemented in a today’s digital systems is instead replaced by vertical and horizontal cuts performed by an electrically fed needle.



This begs the question, how could a digital master, designed for a digital system, characterized by an entirely different recording and storage process, translate well onto a limited physical medium?


Often times it doesn’t.

The nature of the two mediums are vastly different, and therefore the masters need to be different. A vinyl master is constrained to account for the inherent limitations of the vinyl medium.

Mastering audio for vinyl records comes with a set of limitations and considerations due to the characteristics of the vinyl medium. Here are some common limitations of mastering for vinyl:

Frequency Response: Vinyl records have limited frequency response compared to digital formats. The low-frequency response is generally limited, and high-frequency content may need to be reduced or modified to avoid cutting issues and to prevent the needle from jumping out of the groove.

The circumference of the record is larger along the outside than on the inside. In other words, when a record is being cut, and also during its playback, the greater circumference of the outside of the record allows for a greater surface area to be cut.

Since the lathe, and playback system rotate the record at an unchanging rate, and the surface area becomes smaller (more dense) the closer to the inside of the record. The velocity of the cutting needle (and playback stylus) across the surface slows down significantly.

On the outside of a record, the needle or lathe’s cutter moves at roughly 20 inches per second. But on the inside, the needle or lathe moves are roughly 8 and 1/2 inches per second. Sonically and technically, this would be very similar to reducing the tape speed of a tape machine from 15 ips to about 3 and 3/4 ips.

In a more modern example, this is similar to reducing the sampling rate of a digital recording from 96kHz to 22.05kHz. The result would be a significant decrease in the replication of the high frequencies in the recording.

This is precisely what happens to a vinyl record. As the surface area is reduced, the ability to both create and playback high frequencies is significantly reduced.


By the time the lathe needle reaches the center of a record, 15kHz (well within the limits of human hearing) has been attenuated 3dB.

Furthermore, the amount of distortion created during the cutting process, directly corresponds to the amplitude of the high frequency signal at these low surface area inner record locations.

Because the surface area is limited closer to the center of the record, the lathe must work harder to cut higher frequencies. If the needle works too hard, it will jump out of its groove, causing hissing and distortion.

Due to this physical limitation, it is imperative that the level or amplitude at which the record is cut be closely monitored, and uniform across the entirety of the record.

This is why the track list of a vinyl record needs to be carefully planned.

Typically, softer tracks with a lower integrated amplitude are placed closer to the center of the disc, while the louder more aggressive tracks are sequenced farther to the outside.

Again, the additional surface area along the outside of the record allows for more information to be cut without resulting distortion. The smaller surface area, and subsequent cutting speed of the center, lends itself to increased distortion at high frequencies.

Dynamic Range: Vinyl records have a limited dynamic range compared to digital formats. Louder sections of the music can cause the needle to jump out of the groove, so the dynamic range may need to be compressed or limited during mastering to maintain playback stability.

Sibilance and Inner Groove Distortion: Sibilant sounds (such as "s" and "sh" consonants) and high-frequency content towards the inner grooves of a vinyl record can cause distortion and playback issues. Careful attention needs to be paid to these areas during mastering to minimize the problem.

Phase Issues: Vinyl records can be sensitive to phase-related issues, such as excessive stereo widening or out-of-phase information. These issues can result in playback problems, such as loss of stereo imaging or even cancellation of certain frequencies. Mastering engineers need to be especially attentive to stereo imaging and phase coherence.

Bass Limitations: Low-frequency information requires larger groove widths, which can limit the available space for other frequencies. Excessive low-frequency content or bass-heavy mixes can cause tracking problems or require compromises in the overall sound quality of the vinyl record.

Inner Groove Distortion: The inner grooves of a vinyl record have less space available, and as a result, the track density increases. This can lead to increased distortion, reduced volume, and compromised audio quality in the inner tracks. Careful adjustments may be required during mastering to optimize the sound in these areas.

Mastering for Side Length: Vinyl records have limitations on the maximum playing time per side. Longer programs may require reducing the overall level or making adjustments to the frequency content to fit within the available space.

It's important for mastering engineers to understand these limitations and work closely with cutting engineers and pressing plants to achieve the best possible sound quality on vinyl. By taking these factors into account, mastering engineers can optimize the audio for vinyl while attempting to maintain the artistic intent and fidelity of the original material.

So, how Does this Relate to a Digital Master?

As previously stated, distortion can occur on a vinyl record when the amplitude of high frequencies is too prevalent. This of course, is not an issue when transferring information into a digital medium. The fact that a digital medium can handle a greater amplitude of high frequencies is often exploited and used in modern recordings.



The above graphic depicts the equalization curve of a mix, with an accentuated high frequency range. For example, hip-hop and rap is often characterized by its emphasis on the higher frequencies. This occurs in both the instrumentation, and the equalization of the vocal performance. It’s no coincidence that this new frequency standard was only implemented after the popularization of the digital medium.

An accentuated high frequency range is not exclusive to hip-hop. It can be found in almost any genre today. This may be because its use is often conflated with high fidelity recording.

Because these frequencies are not only acceptable, but favorable within the digital medium, a digital master is most likely to include them. All this to say, that if a digital master with an accentuated high frequency range is used during the vinyl cutting process, it will no doubt cause unwanted distortion.

Skipping Needle During Playback:

A 24 bit recording holds the potential for 144dB of dynamic range. A vinyl record on the other hand, only has about 55dB to 65dB of dynamic range.


This is clearly a significant difference, but what does this have to do with needle skipping?

In many cases, perhaps between songs, or song sections, a digital master can go from a very low level of playback, to a very loud one.

In the digital medium this is no issue. However, in a vinyl medium, such a dramatic increase in volume can cause skipping. Because a vinyl record is created by cutting grooves into a disc, a dramatic increase in volume will result in a dramatic cut.



Wax cylinders preceded the vinyl record. Lateral movements recorded sound waves similar to how the inner ear functions.

When the needle of a record player is tracked along this cut, the bump can cause the needle to kick. This causes the needle to exit its intended groove.


This problem is only exacerbated on the outside of the record. A greater needle velocity increases the likelihood of this occurrence. If an artist or mastering engineer intended for a large increase in volume, a compromise would need to be reached before transferring the song to the vinyl medium.

Of course if the only version available is the digital master, this dynamic compromise will never be made, and the vinyl will most likely skip as a result.

The other alternative, is that the vinyl cutter will recognize and adjust for this volume differential by decreasing the overall dynamics of the track using compression or loudness mormalization. This increased compression or normalization may result in a conflict with artist’s creative intention.

The needle can also skip when high energy low frequencies are out of phase. Although this is easier for the vinyl cutter to fix without causing a noticeable difference is sonic characteristics, it is still wise to fix this before the cutting process.

An Overall Less Pleasant Listening Experience:

This is essentially the combination of the prior potential issues; however, their cumulation provides one of the more interesting and rarely discussed issues in modern vinyl cutting.

As one can imagine, overtime lathes have improved, meaning they can handle more intense amplitudes without causing a cut that will universally distort. The keyword here being universally.

Although lathes can handle the creation of higher amplitude vinyl records, that does not mean that most consumer models can handle them during playback.

The playability of a record was once a huge area of concern for manufacturers and labels alike - so much so that they created regulations for vinyl cutting, designed to ensure the adequate playback of vinyl records across even the most basic of consumer devices.


An emphasis and de-emphasis equalization technique is used to ensure playability across various consumer equipment.


As vinyl records changed from being the most prominent musical medium, to more of a niche, these regulations fell by the way side.

Today, digital streaming platforms are the primary distribution method for music. When vinyl cutters use a digital master, with its increased amplitudes, low end phasing issues, and overall more demanding specifications, it may not reflect negatively on their professional systems during playback. But on consumer grade turntables, the result may be undesirable.


Most consumer turntables, even those of higher quality, aren't equipped to handle high amplitude records.

With all of this information in mind, let’s consider another question.

If a digital master is used for the vinyl cutting process, rather than a master created to account for vinyl limitations, there are several risks the mastering engineer is taking.

First, the mastering engineer is risking that the digital master will not translate well, risking that the vinyl cutter will alter the master in a way that may drastically change its sonic characteristic.

In addition, the engineer is risking the possibility the record will not be able to be played on the full range of consumer grade turntables.

So why would we do vinyl?

The preference for vinyl records over digital recordings is subjective and can vary from person to person. Here are some reasons why people might prefer vinyl records despite their technical limitations compared to digital recordings:

Sound aesthetics: Vinyl records have a unique sound character (some would say degraded) that some people find more pleasing or nostalgic. For some, the harmonic distortion inherent in the vinyl medium can add a certain charm to the listening experience, often associated with the "vinyl sound." Some argue that digital recordings can sound too clean or clinical in comparison. Of course, any well done digital recording can sound like “vinyl” if that is the objective.

Tangibility and ritual: Vinyl records offer a physical and tactile experience that digital recordings lack. The act of handling vinyl, carefully placing it on a turntable, and interacting with the album art and liner notes can create a more immersive and engaging listening ritual. Some people appreciate the larger album artwork and the experience of flipping sides.

Collectibility and nostalgia: Vinyl records have a long history and a certain cultural and nostalgic appeal. Many people enjoy collecting vinyl records as a hobby, appreciating the vintage nature and historical significance associated with them. It can be seen as a way to connect with the past and rediscover music in its original format.

Limited dynamic range and imperfections: Some listeners argue that the limitations of vinyl, such as reduced dynamic range and the presence of surface noise or pops, actually enhance the listening experience. These imperfections can be seen as part of the charm and authenticity of vinyl records, adding a certain character that digital recordings may lack.

Artistic intent: Vinyl records were the primary medium for music distribution for several decades before digital formats became dominant. Some artists and music enthusiasts believe that the sound was originally intended for vinyl, and listening to music on this format can provide a closer representation of the artist's original vision.

It's important to note that while vinyl records have their unique qualities, digital recordings offer numerous advantages in terms of convenience, portability, durability, and overall fidelity. Personal preference and the desire for a particular listening experience are the primary reasons why some individuals still gravitate towards vinyl records.

Vinyl and Digital Business

From a business perspective, it is important to understand the effect digital stream has had on the economics of the recording industry.

Digital streaming has had a significant impact on recording economics. While it has created new opportunities for artists to distribute and monetize their music, it has also transformed the traditional revenue streams and financial dynamics of the music industry. Here are some effects of digital streaming on recording economics:

Decline in physical sales: With the rise of digital streaming platforms, physical sales of music, such as CDs and vinyl records, have significantly declined. Many consumers now prefer the convenience of streaming music online over purchasing physical copies. This shift has affected the revenue generated from physical sales, forcing artists and labels to adapt their business models.

Transition to digital revenue: Streaming platforms have become the primary source of revenue for many artists and labels. Instead of relying on album sales, which were the norm in the past, artists now generate income through royalties from streaming services. This transition has led to a more fragmented revenue model, where artists earn a fraction of a cent per stream, which may be challenging to monetize for artists.

Increased accessibility and global reach: Digital streaming has made music more accessible to a global audience. Artists can now reach listeners worldwide without the need for physical distribution channels or extensive marketing campaigns. This expanded reach has created opportunities for artists to gain exposure and develop fan bases in regions where physical music distribution was previously limited.

Shift in revenue distribution: The distribution of revenue within the music industry has undergone significant changes due to digital streaming. Previously, revenue was primarily driven by album sales and physical distribution, which involved record labels and retailers. With streaming, revenue is now shared between artists, labels, publishers, and streaming platforms. The exact distribution varies based on individual contracts and licensing agreements, but streaming platforms generally retain a significant portion of the revenue.

Data-driven insights: Digital streaming platforms collect extensive data on listener behavior, preferences, and engagement. This data can provide valuable insights to artists, labels, and marketers for understanding audience demographics, targeting promotions, and making informed business decisions. This shift towards data-driven insights has influenced the way artists and labels strategize (or compromise) their releases, marketing campaigns, and touring plans.

Challenges for smaller artists: While digital streaming has created opportunities for artists to reach a wider audience, it has also posed challenges for smaller or independent artists. The immense catalog of music available on streaming platforms can make it difficult for emerging artists to stand out and gain visibility. Additionally, the low royalty rates per stream can make it challenging for artists to earn a sustainable income solely from streaming revenue.

In summary, digital streaming has transformed the recording economics of the music industry. While it offers broader reach and accessibility, it has also shifted revenue sources, reduced physical sales, and introduced new challenges for artists, particularly in terms of monetization and standing out in a crowded marketplace.

So, for revenue and profit reasons, let’s make vinyl cool again

The business marketing campaign for vinyl, in my opinion, is aimed at recovering the economic losses artists and labels face in the streaming revolution. And the marketing of vinyl is quite brilliant.

The marketing attempts to capitalize on the emotional response to nostalgic analog recordings and packaging, while ignoring the reality of the inferior fidelity of the medium. Vinyl has been positioned as the vintage, cool, and trendy way to listen to music. In addition, there is perceived prestige associated with vinyl that suggests to the average listener with low grade playback systems that they are now in the more exclusive “audiophile” club. In order to get the best out of vinyl, compared to digital playback, the investment in turntable playback systems will set a listener back 10s if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. What a racket.


Maybe the marketing of vinyl as a superior recording medium for the cool kids is the same type of hoodwinking that has convinced 1000s of people that Eric Clapton is a good guitar player. You decide.


Having said all of that, it will come to no surprise to the reader that I, as a recording engineer and studio owner, prefer the truth and fidelity of digital recordings for all of the reasons included in this tirade. However, the beauty of musical expression is that there is something for everyone, and that art is beautifully subjective. Whether you choose vinyl, digital, or both, just be informed. And most of all, enjoy the music.

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