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Here’s why the LP is making a comeback

In an essay in the May issue of Standpoint magazine, out today, I look behind the causes of the unexpected revival of a dead parrot – the old-fashioned, 33 rpm long-playing record. More and more serious musicians and listeners are returning to analogue, but why?

I advance a couple of theories in the article. Read it here. You may have more to add.

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  1. I do indeed claim that at least regarding 19th century opera old recordings are better than new. So far, there has been no second Lauritz Melchior, George London, Astrid Varnay or Jussi Björling – just to name a few of my personal favourites. But still, they sound better on CD, at least those editions with decent sound engineering.

  2. It is very important to compare like with like. Comparing oranges with apples, or Twitter with the Guardian, is troublesome. The differences between the making of a recording of Jascha Heifetz in 1955 in comparison with one of Nigel Kennedy in 1990 or compared with a performer in a studio last week are down to so much more than whether the end result gets delivered on a flat vinyl analogue LP or on a CD or as a download. The changes in attitudes of how recordings are made then subsequently put together are dramatic and far greater than the changes in technology impacting on the sound of instruments. The difference between a fine Pomerol in a bottle with a nice label and a bladder-pack of Shiraz is more than packaging and presentation.

    Today I am wrestling with a complex editing plan from a composer. This editing plan would not have been possible with a razor blade and analogue tape. This editing plan is doing serious damage to the musical flow in pursuit of some mysterious arbitrary ‘perfection’ unrealisable in a concert hall, but that is where we are. It ends up sounding like “Speak My Weight” and musically dumbfounding because of the Dettol smell of super-cleanliness.

    I think the LP is making a comeback because the end result feels more human, especially if the participants in the recording accepted that recording hundreds of short takes followed by massive intervention in post-production must be set aside as part of the deal. If we are just going to press LPs of the same over-edited, over-mixed, over-produced and over-tweaked recordings covered in digital reverb, then I see little point from a music-lover’s point of view.

    We still have appropriate technology here for audiophile recording, but it requires an attitude from the production team and especially performers to make it work. Two weeks ago we made a 192k/24 recording of Beethoven string 4tets with the Allegri using old valve mics, valve mic preamps and few takes. The results are refreshingly honest and I have every confidence they will stay that way. I don’t believe it is de rigeur that pressing on to LP will guarantee performance integrity any more than a high-res digital download.

    One last thought – LPs make much nicer gifts than a weblink to a download. The sleeves look can look fabulous.

    • Let’s not continue the myth that editing, even painstaking, detailed editing, always leads to loss of “flow” It may be the case in your project, of course. As in a film, sound recordings will utilize the capabilities of today’s technology in post-production. If the ears guiding the result are capable, the result will be a realization of music that synthesizes the best of what was performed live into something well beyond it.

      • I don’t remember writing that “editing, even painstaking, detailed editing, always leads to a loss of “flow”” – I wonder who did. It all depends upon what one is setting out to achieve and on the quality of the source material. Sorting out major blemishes which irk on repeated listening has always been acceptable to most listeners, so has choosing between various competing interpretations in takes. This was true for Heifetz in 1955 not just today and is a given.

        It is no myth that many, some would say very many modern classical recordings simply lack the integrity and inspiration of past times. Hardly a note out of place but dull, dull, dull, and worst of all pretty anonymous. Having been around a long time I have witnessed at first-hand the degradation of integrity in recording. I have also witnessed at first-hand the virtual collapse of several major labels and an even more significant reduction in sales of new recordings. This is for me no coincidence. Managements can blame downloading or budget labels, but the problem all along has been we are not making enough believable new recordings worth anyone paying hard earned money for. The post-production and tweaking have now reached absurd proportions where two or three days of recording end up as fifteen days or more in a workstation to create squeakfree anonymity of musicians sounding accurate but tired and extremely bored.

        Parallels with film and video are risky for one very good reason. When we record a film or video we are combining material shot with multiple cameras, often in multiple venues, often out of sequence. This has to be stuck together expertly to create flow out of what never flowed continuously in the first place. With classical music recording we are stuck with a direct comparison with how music gets performed live and are striving to emulate the flow of a known continuous entity – the score and how it gets performed in a venue in front of an audience non-stop. Hacking it up into hundreds of short takes then spending weeks pasting it together later in a thousand or more edits is an unnecessary and unmusical practice.

        • At least some of us are NOT “striving to emulate the flow of a known continuous entity – the score and how it gets performed in a venue in front of an audience non-stop.” That would perhaps explain the relatively wan standards of classical recordings in comparison to pop. The word “music” now primarily signifies recorded music. The power, intensity, immediacy, and vivid communication of fine recording cannot be compared to what happens in a big, concert hall where the sound source is 50 feet or 50 yards away.

  3. Frank-Michael Fischer says:

    Simply because there is more space for background information and artwork on the envelope of LPs. Plus the shift from CD to mp3 has reduced such space even further, close to zero.

    • MP3s & their type can be accompanied by PDF files containing hundreds or thousands of pages of documentation, including full scores. Searchable too. An LP can’t hold a candle to that.

      • richard carlisle says:

        New marketing principle? Product A is inferior to product B…. therefore supply ample amounts of B so the consumer pool will forget A ever existed!

        Could be a first– might work out.

  4. Imperfection has something fascinating. See also the current craze for “low-fi” photography. It rounds off the edges, creates something blurry, leaves something to the imagination. It’s for the same reason that we prefer music being played in halls with a little reverb, which does exactly the same.

  5. One of the reasons for the huge % increase in vinyl sales is the relatively low numbers involved.

    A quick search suggests that there were over 330M album sales in the US in 2011. Of these, 103M (31%) were as digital downloads while 224M (68%) were CD sales.

    Vinyl sales increased from 2M to 3M, a huge percentage increase when considered in isolation, but they still represent less than 2% of the overall market.

    Any suggestion that the return of vinyl threatens sales of CDs or MP3s is clearly ridiculous. Vinyl is and will remain very much a niche market for a very small minority of HiFi buffs and trendy hipsters.

  6. Istvan Horthy says:

    What, go back to the days of snap, crackle, pop? To dished records that caused the pick-up to toss about like a small boat on a stormy sea? To changing sides every twenty minutes or less? To struggling endlessly to keep one’s treasures dust-free? To returning to a shop and facing a hostile assistant with a faulty disc (and often getting another faulty one as a replacement)? No, thank you very much!

  7. Petros Linardos says:

    I am wiling to believe all those hi-fi aficionados (I am not one of them) who claim that the vinyl sounds best. But do we really get those supreme results without investing thousands of dollars on a high end stylus?

    Back in 1999 I had purchased new equipment, spent the same amount on both a vinyl turntable and a cd player (the equivalent of roughly 600 EU back then for each), and heard a better sound on my cd’s. I even compared same recordings on vinyl and cd, e.g. Strauss’ Aus Italien under Rudolph Kempe.

  8. Randolph Magri-Overend says:

    What a load of coybosh! LPs making a comeback! Huh!!! The CD is so much more user- friendly, more compact(believe it or not), less fragile and doesn’t need a complete haulage company to transport. Plus how can an LP compare when you’re presenting a programme on radio? The CD gives you the amount of time you’ve played, how long you’ve got left and what track you’re on….all valuable tools when you’re presenting. All the LP can do is hiss and crackle, forces you to change needles oodles of times and limit your playing time before being forced to change sides. Next you’re going to tell us 78s are making a comeback. Who are we kidding?

  9. richard carlisle says:

    Vinyl is a blessing for those who can tell the difference, not close to the convenience of the CD but more convenient than hiring an orchestra for those seeking and able to relate to an ultimate sound session.

    Further, in my experience they don’t develop snap or crackle or any other background noise if kept clean (wiping with a slightly damp paper towel when removed from their large jacket– containing artwork to be appreciated way beyond that on a CD package).

    The difference in sound is apparently a matter of complex resonance, likely no way to measure or analyze– more a magical quality than technical and possibly something as few as one in a hundred ears can detect.

    A niche– absolutely– now and from now on.

    • From my experience all LPs develop snap & crackle. All. And they’re a generation (at least) away from the master. End of side groove distortion. Good riddance! Enough articles on vinyl resurgence. It’s all just sentimentality.

      • richard carlisle says:

        With a good needle and proper cleaning LPs are long lasting even if they are not long playing by today’s techno standards.

        A distinct difference in sound that most people CAN discern is much greater clarity in the highest frequency range, including violins of course, along with high notes on the piano as well as the upper reaches of most other instruments… not necessarily a good thing for those with a preference for bass and drums.

        LPs should be sampled briefly by everyone, for it’s love at first sound or not at all– ever– and definitely not worth the trouble if the reward is not there for your particular pair of ears (or one good ear that may still be fully functional).

        Another thing is you DON’T need a multi-thousand dollar unit to enjoy vinyl; my favorite is a compact changer/dropper Panasonic from thirty years ago… ones that cost more than an auto are for show-and-tell and to magnify the snap and crackle.

  10. richard carlisle says:

    Right now playing a Musical Heritage Society LP (it’s been a while since last time I took time to provide myself a treat) of Vivaldi violin concerti along with some mandolin concerti.

    I had partly forgotten how profound vinyl can be … anyone in this room and blindfolded would have no argument with the assertion Hillary Hahn stopped in for a personal performance… ah, you with the right ears– give it a try, you may never stop thanking me.

    When I switch back and forth to the Boston Acoustics radio playing classical music from a near station using CDs I get the impression there is a blanket over the radio muffling some of the high range– not necessarily a bad thing, not unpleasant… after all, look how indebted we are to car mufflers for their role in noise reduction; some music genres need all the reduction they can get.

    Certainly vinyl is a whole lot of trouble but thankfully not as challenging as talking Hillary into a visit.

  11. Randolph Magri-Overend says:

    Obviously some people have better ears than others. Mr Carlisle has one (two?). For us mere mortals the quality and convenience of playing a CD is heaven-sent. I am sure record/CD store owners feel the same way, if anything in terms of the space vinyl occupies compared to CDs. Anyways, I’d like to see the technology required in installing vinyl-playing equipment in our cars, or even in our Walkmans!!

    • richard carlisle says:

      Thanks for caring how many ears I have, but I don’t usually give out personal info… seriously, just try vinyl for yourself, and it you do and love it don’t give up CDs and the MP 3– I still use them: a convenient way of enjoying music away from home (nothing wrong with it– just not as much of a good thing)… this way you get a contrast making vinyl even easier to appreciate and something to look forward to when you get home and have time to implement the good stuff with a relaxing drink after work.

      Use of techno music will not be affected by the mini-revolution going on — not even slightly; a few, perhaps many more people will get introduced to something vibrant and inconvenient but not as inconvenient as going to a concert; let’s get a meaningful perspective on the inconvenience factor and stop comparing techno convenience to vinyl convenience but rather attending concerts convenience.

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