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For the record: Valentina Lisitsa is releasing a Liszt album on vinyl (Credit: Jon Crwys-Williams)

There is a truth, universally held among classical musicians, that old recordings are better than new. The absurdity of this proposition is obvious. It is the same as arguing that athletes and equipment in the 1948 London Olympics were superior to those of 2012. But where sport can prick pretension with statistics, music is a matter of faith — and faith, as Richard Dawkins refuses to accept, flourishes where reason ends.

In music, the flat-earthers are winning the argument. Listen carefully, the grinding noise you hear behind this column is the sound of the musical clock being turned back. Here's the latest news: the classical LP has resumed production. 

Two influential conductors, Paavo Järvi and Gustavo Dudamel, have just made vinyl-only releases. The pianist Valentina Lisitsa— YouTube's most-watched classical artist — has a Liszt album coming out in analogue. A New York string quartet, Brooklyn Rider, issued their debut album on LP because, they say, "Vinyl creates a bridge to a past we deeply admire." Amazon has opened a Vinyl Store. And the fastest-growing area of US music sales, up 39.3 per cent, is, you guessed, the notoriously scratchy, inaccurate, superannuated, inconvenient, short-lasting, long-playing 33 rpm record. 

After a quarter of a century of obsolescence, the LP is making a comeback worthy of any religious resurrection. How it has risen from charity shop basement to wealthy living room is a parable for our times, a classic example of popular resistance to the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence and market forces. This is a turnaround equivalent to the vindication of homeopathy, the revival of newsprint and the return of the French monarchy, a romantic defiance of intellect and reality.

The Old Believers give two reasons for revering LPs. The first, misty-eyed, proclaims that there were giants in past times who were closer than we are to the source of creation and thus greater than we can ever hope to be. There is no comeback to this claim. I have tried in vain to demonstrate how Riccardo Chailly's 2011 Decca set of the Beethoven symphonies is better played, in immaculate sound and with a clearer concept of structure than Toscanini's boxy platters on RCA Red Seal, but the OBs just plug their ears and go la-la-la.

The second credo, more mystical still, maintains that recording sound on to a physical surface is a healthy, organic process, whereas its reduction to binary digits somehow deprives the music of its "humanity". Harking back to my first dose of digital 30 years ago at Decca's West Hampstead studios, I can summon a grain of sympathy for that position. Early digital was not easy on the ears. The technology was so clinical that microphone placement needed to be frugal and precise. It rarely was. I recall the noise of a carpentry workshop in a digital Tchaikovsky overture. Upon investigation it turned out to be one mike too close to the cello bridges, ruining a good record.

Ten years after those first demonstrations, I watched Nigel Kennedy record the Beethoven concerto in a small town in Germany with an EMI team who were so scornful of his Luddite adherence to analogue tape that they set up a parallel digital feed and challenged me blindfold to tell them apart. I couldn't. Such was the advance of digital ingenuity that the boffins had managed to produce a sound that had the presence (or warmth) of analogue without the disfiguring snap, crackle and pop that condemned the late LP to the knacker's yard.

Today, a teenager with a kit from Amazon can record an orchestral image cleaner than the most sterile dreams of Herbert von Karajan, a maestro who embraced digital ("all else is gaslight," he declared) in his quest for an inhuman degree of sound purity. Karajan, paradoxically, is adored by self-styled audiophiles who crave the "human" sound of needle on surface. Go figure. There is no arguing with Old Believers. "Do I contradict myself?" sang Walt Whitman. "Very well then, I contradict myself."

It is into this logical vacuum that the LP has made its improbable return. Here's why. Music in 2012 is increasingly received by download. Soon, we are told, the physical object will become unnecessary. Many of us already carry what we call "my music" on portable telephones and personal devices. "She shall have music wherever she goes" — the old nursery rhyme was prophetic.

But technology has not kept pace with portability. The sound on iTunes Plus, Apple's premium service, is compressed to 256 kilobits per second (kbps), inadequate for complex, subtle, classical music. On specialist download sites it rises to 320kbps. That is still inferior to CD sound. So disgruntlement grows with download culture. 

The formidable Lisitsa, faster with a soundbite than Obama at an oil slick, declares: "Digital did to music what Photoshop did to photography." She has a point, but you see where this is leading: to a perception that new technology is the enemy of musical truth.

The danger here is that the classical community, itself a tiny fragment of the global music market, will split into camps of mutual incomprehension. The hungriest consumers for classical music are now in East Asia, chiefly Korea and China, where most purchases are by download. While a growing minority of Westerners wistfully embrace the dead LP, Asian ears are being iTuned to an opacity of sound that music professionals consider meagre, offensive and unacceptable. 

At this point, the vinyl revival ceases to be a trivial matter. It amounts to a Tower of Babel moment when one half of the world can no longer understand the other and music cannot bridge the gap. It is all very well for aesthetes with high-end music systems to welcome the return of flat-pack LPs, but their satisfaction distracts from the chief priority. 

The winner of the 2012 orchestral Grammy was a download-only Los Angeles concert of Brahms's Fourth. It sounded terrible. Unless Apple and its rivals can be pressured to produce a credible sonic image of rich orchestral sound, our ears will be progressively impoverished and the next generation will be raised in ignorance of what real music might be. At that point, even a rational column like this might revert to 33 revolutions per minute.

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Photo utopia
April 3rd, 2014
7:04 PM
The whole article seems to be based upon 'strawman' arguments. I've never heard anyone argue that digital strips sound of its 'humanity-what I hear is people saying they prefer vinyl over the main music carrier–MP3. You also seem to want to group people thus: Vinyl lovers– established religion Digital– Scientific reason. In reality it isn't quite like that, sure there is an ephemeral reality to the vinyl format that downloads don't have; the full colour large sleeve, physical media, rarity and slow access. Vinyl often comes with a 'free' MP3 download giving the consumer his cake and allowing him to eat it, a physical package you own and an MP3 you have access to for on the go listening. The appeal of vinyl is totally missed by your dismissive and condescending article, which is a shame because the reasons for liking physical media aren't quasi religious they can also be practical and interesting for a new generation of consumer, collecting vinyl is fun, downloading free 128kb MP3? no so much.

Thorpe
September 3rd, 2013
5:09 PM
"The absurdity of this proposition is obvious. It is the same as arguing that athletes and equipment in the 1948 London Olympics were superior to those of 2012." That's a good analogy, but it misses something. If you mean that the 1948 athletes were faster, higher, stronger, then no, that is clearly not true. But it's equally trivial to point out that today's music is louder and faster than half a century ago. Neither tells me anything about whether I want to listen to it or watch it. Watching an old VHS tape of the olympics from decades ago is amazing. It's not that Bob Beamon jumped the farthest of anyone ever, because he didn't. Or that the Miracle On Ice was the best hockey team ever, because they weren't. But they accomplished something amazing. I want to listen to the 1962 Klemperer recording not because 1962 was a better year for music but specifically because Klemperer accomplished something amazing that day. "The first, misty-eyed, proclaims that there were giants in past times who were closer than we are to the source of creation and thus greater than we can ever hope to be. There is no comeback to this claim." I'm not sure which claim you reject: that the giants in the past were closer to the source (Klemperer was a friend of Mahler -- it doesn't get much closer than that!), or that this helps their interpretation of the work (has there ever been a better Mahler than Klemperer?).

Anonymous
November 13th, 2012
2:11 PM
Why vinyl?I have large collections of cd,download,rip and vinyl music.So why the vinyl.-1-to my ears the vinyl sound is closer to what I hear at lincoln center-2 the lp causes me to become more engaged with the music-3 I love the cover art.I still buy all formats and enjoy them all.Cost can also be an issue.Good lps can be had at reasonable prices and this also can drive the purchase,though I have bought new vinyl also.So why vinyl,I guess I just find it enjoyable and fun.

Felix B
July 18th, 2012
11:07 PM
Wow... for once a conservative supports progress, innovation and lives in the present and gets all, the timing, the subject and most facts wrong. Impressive.

Jebster
May 23rd, 2012
9:05 AM
This is a bit of an old, sterile debate, which ignores a capital fact. A lot of us crazy audiophiles actually like BOTH formats. For sheer convenience, CD can't be beaten. Digital has also come a long way and the best engineers are able to capture glorious sounding music using good old Redbook (aka CD) technology. Denying it would be ridiculous. Equally ridiculous is denying the stunning sound of a good analogue LP. I own a lot of CDs and a lot of LPs. All things being equal, analogue is still for some unexplainable reason (hence the rather esoteric explanations) the most faithful medium to live music. It's just brilliant. The problem is that things are rarely equal and that LP, these days, sound more readily crappy than CDs! Analogue is not plug-and-play, I can totally understand preferring to use CDs. But if we're talking about absolutes of sound reproduction, analogue is still best. It's hard to explain to somebody (like the author of this article apparently) who hasn't experienced it. It's way beyong warmth, as digital can sound very warm. It's a fluidity which has to be heard or experienced. This is a non-article, misinformed and too subjective. I think CDs and LPs can sound great, it's just that LPs sound... greater. A better subject matter would've been: do high-rez digital bring anything to the table compared to Redbook?

Eddie Willers
May 23rd, 2012
2:05 AM
ChrisZ hits the nail on the head...perhaps their was greater 'artistry' in the recorded performances of yore. However, I notice there is not one mention of the two most vital parts of the electronic-reproduction system...the amplifier and the speakers. IMHO, this is an area where there has been little or no forward movement in the last 25 years - indeed, there has been a regression, caused by amplified sub-bass, to some kind of distorted mean suited only for MP3s. Consider, vacuum tube amplification was a mature technology by the early 1950's, after DTN Williamson's designs were refined, and that speakers reached their ne plus ultra in the 1970's, with the Quad Electrostatic. The absence of negative feedback in the circuit and the introduction of third-order harmonics is what probably gives that 'warmth' to the sound we rave about.

echodelta
May 20th, 2012
2:05 AM
In 1978 I read about the Philips disc, and declared that 14 bits just wasn't enough. Counting on my fingers in binary I quickly determined that 21 to 24 bit should do it. Having just been thru the quadraphonic promise and bust, I said "here we go again". Another audio albatross on the market. And I still believed in the Nyquist theory and the cover-up at the top where a third of the audio spectrum is pixelated. All of this is moot if micing is not addressed. No one has brought this subject up. Go to Archive.org and almost all the recordings listed will not only give the gear used in the event but most importantly the spacing and location of the microphones in the hall. I want to see that on the label-listing like on some of those vintage issues. Most vintage recordings were captured with a minimum of mics though many still muddied up a made up soundstage . By the 80's, union scale, time constraints, and economy and technology in the form of 48 channel recordings turned symphonic sound into salad. Cut up small bits of each seat-with-squeaks mixed in a small room with extra hall pickup or effect sauce added. Close micing is an anathema to symphonic sound.I am particularly upset because I record with a binaural dummy head and get stunning results on a cassette and don't hear the same transparency with a direct to audacity take. I haven't done high def yet. Demonstrated in 1881 it's 2012 that's a long time, why can't-don't we hear this way. I'll tell you, no engineer needed, no post recording and production etc. Perfection on demand not twiddled in later, most of the older artists knew it this way. Like the great German baritone that just passed away Deitric Fischer-Dieskau they knew how to lay it down.

Swisslad
May 7th, 2012
6:05 PM
I got into vinyl in the last two years with enthusiasm, but over time I've come to find the downsides outweighing the advantages. Principally, I find the vinyl 'ritual' simply a PITA. I didn't grow up with vinyl so there's no nostalgia for me there. The set up is also very tricky and you never really know whether the turntable/arm/cartridge is set up right, especially if you aren't a veteran vinyl expert. I much prefer the simplicity, accuracy and lack of distortion of SACD and CD. It's far less stressful and I can ignore the equipment when I listen, unlike vinyl where I get jolted by new pops and clicks and awful inner groove distortion which ruins my Sinatra LPs even though they're brand new MFSL pressings. I agree with many LP fans who say they want to hear the original source as closely as possible, to get closer to the master tape. It's just that I find CD and particularly SACD accomplishes that in a way that is less obstructive than vinyl. Choose what feels best to you. You don't need to justify it or follow a bandwagon.

Music Lover
May 7th, 2012
1:05 PM
As a subscriber to the magazine I find the general sloppiness of this article less than amusing, as cliche upon cliche is piled in an attempt to apparently construct an argument that really will not stand up to critical examination. It may be that Norman's name is considered enough to justify this nonsense, but it really isn't good enough and is condescending in the extreme. You really ought to be ashamed.

Dylan Cox
May 7th, 2012
5:05 AM
more of the same tired twaddle from Fremer. Hey dude, I love your "review" last month, you know the one in which you said "**Although my entire system has changed in the eight years since the first version of the 101E Radialstrahler was here, I feel confident saying that the sound of the Mk.II is more refined and well behaved, and far more capable of speaking with a uniform, focused voice**." Christ Almighty. Keep hanging on to your 1920s tech. You are in good company what with all the beardo hipster douchebags in skinny jeans and ultrafidelistas of the "cable believer" sort who are allergic to change and believe that high distortion, limited FR and the comparatively crude mechanical operation of TTs is "superior" (LOL!!!). The rest of us will move forward. 14 bits FTW!! Dont ever change, Fremer. You are nothing if not entertaining. Have you considered working for MAD Magazine?

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