The Audiophiliac

15 January 2014. Filed under category Music - General, Music - Heavy Metal.

 

My all time favourite album, one of the 8 brought back from NZ

About a month ago I returned from a holiday seeing family and friends in New Zealand where I had the brainwave of bringing back about eight or so LPs that I had in storage.  Since I was well aware I had no turntable in the UK, it was meant as the necessary kick in the arse to force me to buy one.  And straight after Christmas I did – a Rega RP3 – based solely on the fact it had a What HiFi 5-Star rating.  Although, truthfully, with record players the main consideration is deciding how much you want to spend and sticking to it.  The sky is the limit as I found out after a bit of research.

The motivation for returning to vinyl was maybe a combination of nostalgia and the perception that, well, it just sounds better doesn’t it?  I wanted to avoid a case of “the Emperor’s New Clothes” but couldn’t help myself.  Also, it is ironic that we never really had a record player when I was growing up as a kid.  I think I have a very early memory of my dad playing Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds on LP (the artwork to which scared the shit out of me), that was borrowed, but most of my childhood was based around copied cassette tapes.  When I was ten years old a friend gave me Twisted Sister Stay Hungry on LP for my birthday and was horrified to find that we did not have a turntable in the house.  I had to return it to the store for a credit much to my Mother’s joy.  [Side note: I did eventually get it on cassette tape some time later, and I did play it loud Mutha! ]

First CD ever bought…

I bought a CD player in the first week after leaving home to go to University, using money I was supposed to spend on text books.  You see I had to have the CD player because I had a boxset of Queensryche Operation: Livecrime which included a VHS and a CD that I couldn’t play otherwise.  My first actual purchase of a standalone CD was Death Human.  I was disappointed that it was only 30 minutes long and cost a bleeding fortune….but Chuck eventually won me over.

Back to the present.

In the last few weeks I have been modestly accreting “new” vinyl.  As far as visits to charity shops go to hunt for second-hand LPs, my wife is doing far better than me because she likes classical music which is in abundance thanks to all the dead old people that leave it behind in excellent condition.  So far my only “find” has been Dire Straits Brothers in Arms (which was the very first album I ever bought on cassette tape).  The local charity shops have had almost zero heavy metal of any kind.  I fight through the tears everyday.

Furthermore, how cruel it is that, after reading up on it, Brothers in Arms was in fact one of the first fully digital recordings released on CD and was the first to sell a million copies.  In other words you could say that the recording was optimised for the CD format and even the songs had to be edited down to shorter lengths for the LP version.  D’oh!!

However, I have bought (by mail-order) the most recent Opeth album, Heritage, on brand new vinyl which is probably the way Mikael Åkerfeldt would want you to play it.  Also, Opeth’s Ghost Reveries and Obituary Cause of Death.

Heritage – Double LP

There are still a number of second hand record shops in London where I did pick up Queen News of the World, Judas Priest Killing Machine and Black Sabbath Volume 4.  These cost around £10 each….which leads me to one of the motivations of this blogpiece, namely… TEN POUNDS!! for a shabby second hand LP is a rip-off when brand new ones cost, say £10 to £15 in general.

I understand that some people are into collecting vinyl as an investment, looking for rare old pressings, but that ain’t me.  Accordingly, my policy is thus: buy new and keep an eye out at the charity shops where you pay £2 max for a “very good” condition record.  I wish the specialist second hand record shops all the best, but realistically you are never going to get a bargain because there are precise lists of the values of old LPs which take all the fun out of it.  Also, you simply can’t know how good they will actually sound.  It seems to me that Killing Machine had a bit of distortion that probably comes from being played 1000 times.

This lead me to rethink what it is I really wanted out of buying the record player in the first place.  I was going along with the “it just sounds better” argument, which I have some sympathy for, because I have been very pleased with the sound quality – especially in classical music funnily enough.  But I also appreciate the larger artwork* of a 12 inch square and the theatre of putting on the needle to get that subtle crackle as it leads into the first track.  I still get a bit giddy; I am a simple man, of simple pleasures.

Yesterday I was hunting around for Opeth Watershed on vinyl.  I know it will seem like this is the only band I listen to….but that is not so at all….it is just that I am catching up on the last few releases that I never paid for because I was an MP3 downloading low life shitbastard.  It is penance.  Anyway, I came across an edition of Watershed with a 5.1 surround mix which made me suddenly remember:  I love surround sound mixes!  Getting Queen A Night at the Opera in 24 bit/96kHz surround sound was one of the musical highlights of 2013.

Favourite Obituary album

So I have come full circle again.  I forgot about the vinyl and ordered Watershed AND Still Life in the 5.1 format in no small part because I was also reading yesterday about loudness wars and came across a great website: http://www.dr.loudness-war.info/ that gives a dynamic rating to thousands of releases.  Using this you can tell if a particular album was sonically ruined or not by mastering to compress the hell out of them for release.  As it happens the 5.1 mixes, which are higher quality sound files anyway, tend to be less compressed than the CD version.  THAT, my friends, is the  primary message** for you all today.

In some cases the reason LPs sound better than digital equivalents is that they, in general, are not “brickwalled” to compress the music and make it sound louder….you have to use the volume knob on your stereo [which is what it’s for!].  The manufacturing process for vinyl generally has a limit for how loud the music can be on the physical disc itself.  By contrast, in the mainstream digital world, record companies have been competing with each other to make modern releases louder and louder (a more compressed sound wave) at the cost of dynamics in the music.  “Louder” music is perceived as better on first listen – because it grabs your attention – but it is tiring to listen to and by the end of an album your brain is exhausted.  Probably being melodramatic there…but the dynamic range thing is key; that is what provides the nuance and liveliness, even in heavy metal.

The most well-known story about “brickwalling” is Metallica’s Death Magnetic album from a few years ago.  It was compressed to the point of distortion on the general release and caused a backlash.  Hopefully that may have made the record companies start to see sense, but it is still common to have very highly compressed music being released.

Freaky Killer Robot

What did I learn from all this?  That when it comes to digital music, go for high resolution formats that have not been highly compressed.  In truth these are probably going to sound as good and are more reliable than vinyl, at least to my ears.

That said, I am going to keep my eye out for heavy metal bargains in the charity shops on vinyl but otherwise will either buy new vinyl or an alternative format like 5.1 surround mixes on DVD or uncompressed audio, both in terms of mastering and the file format.  Check back in two weeks when I have completely changed my mind again!

Music appreciation, just like music itself, is subjective.  However, recent investigations are definitely going to sway the direction of future Monsterworks releases.

So I am told by our engineer Lewis at Earth Terminal Studios, all our albums that he has been involved with carry relatively little compression during the mastering process.  Mastering should be used as a means of providing some uniformity for EQ across a set of songs and tweaking certain frequencies to improve dynamics (it can make a flat recording sound brighter and more alive).  A little compression might iron out some inconsistencies but a lot wrecks the recording overall.

We will make sure that future releases include a digital version in a better-than-CD-quality minimally tampered-with mix.  That is how I want to hear our music.  Hopefully we can afford to release on vinyl too because the overall experience of the 12 inch package is just more better, eh mans?

End ramble.

* However, it is pretty clear that some of my old records (Queen S/T and News of the World being prime examples) are really bad in the artwork department, i.e. they are very grainy.  Thankfully, modern releases will be a lot more detailed.

** It is hilarious that my original intention was to give a bit of objective explanation about analog v digital and go into some detail about bit depths and sample rates etc….but I really got sidetracked.  However, you can read about that at length in other places, so this became more of a personal preference thing.

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