One would think that the refinement of digital audio would make the CD:s of today sound absolutely fantastic, compared to the now sort-of-dead LP. It doesn’t, which I personally realised when I reconnected the old LP-player to the stereo to listen to Behaviour (Pet Shop Boys’ fourth album, which I own in three different copies – the LP, the original CD master, and the 2001 remastered CD). I realised that the LP sounds so warm and dynamic compared to the CD. Yes, it pops and occasionally sways, but it is clearly more living than the modern CD sound. But why is this?
The dynamic range
The answer does not lie within the dynamic range of the LP. Audiophiles have proposed this conclusion, based on the assumption that the LP can deliver a frequency resolution of about 10 Hz to 100.000 Hz, while a CD only delivers up to 44.000 Hz. While this is true (probably – the LP numbers are much harder to achieve as they are not really fixed in hardware as the CD is), it should be noted that we can only hear frequencies up to about 20.000 Hz. As a matter of fact most of us don’t even have ears that good. A normal adult perceives only frequencies up to 16.000 or 18.000 Hz.
The whole thing gets even more complicated if you consider that half of the frequency space (44.000 Hz in the CD case) is consumed because the signal is divided into two channels (left and right, for stereo). Thus, only 22.000 Hz is actually available to produce the sound for the CD, and about 50.000 Hz for the LP. This has led to the audiophiles speculating in that the CD sound worse because of the lack of overtones. While this might be true for high-end hi-fi equipment, for most people with normal stereos the difference would be unnoticeable. This was a problem with early mp3-compression, which stripped away much of the higher frequencies, leaving a very “flat” sound, with little “headroom”. Lack of headroom is not something that is usually complained about on CD:s, though.
Muddiness and lack of dynamics
Instead, when people (even me) complain about the CD sound, the problem is rather related to muddiness, and lack of dynamics. Does this have to do with the media itself? I have tried recording copies of some of my LP:s and then burn them to CD:s again. And amazingly enough, they sound like the LP original. The CD is a very good medium for preserving the sound, and even feeling – the pops and humming – of the LP. So the problem does not lay within the CD media itself. But if it’s not the media, what can it be?
Modern listening experience
The answer is deeply connected to how most people listen to music today, compared to how we did in the era of the LP. Back then, until the LP sales started to decline in favour for CDs, people most of the time listened to music on their stereo at home. Occasionally we brought music to the car radio, preferably on tapes, but that’s about as mobile as we got. With the arrival of the CD and cheap walkman music players, things changed dramatically. Today, most people listen to music on the run using iPods or phones. This means a dramatic change in surrounding sound climate.
The modern music listener has to turn up the volume until no other sound can get in to get a good listening experience. This of course has impacts on hearing, but also on how music is mastered. For a very long time in record production, the last step in an audio creation has been to do a mastering of the finished mix to a version suitable for LP or CD (or another media). When people mostly listened to music at home, this process was generally concerned with preserving the dynamics of the recording. But, as it was also important to be heard on radio stations, the master versions were slowly progressing towards higher volume levels – just to get a better radio impact. As there is a limited resolution on a given media (that applies to both LP and CD), the drawback of an increased overall volume is a smaller dynamic range. This happens because the softest parts of the songs will be amplified to a higher level, while the loudest parts can’t be amplified above the “roof” of the media.
Mastering to be heard (and bought)
During the 1990:ies, and accelerating in the last decade, the volume issue has become even more important and complex in the mastering business. As people tend to listen to music in more crowded environments, often filled with other noises, the importance of being heard has increased dramatically to a song. Thus, there is no room for close-to-quiet parts of a song, such parts will just be sorted out. The CD mastering companies deal with this by amplifying these parts, so that they can be heard even in noisy environments. But as explained above, this results in a loss of dynamics. Thus, modern CD:s, adapted for a mobile audience, sound muddy and dull.
You can blame the music industry, or the MP3 player manufacturers, but it won’t really help. This is an issue of being heard or being forgotten. There are, however, some artists that go against the stream. Damien Rice‘s two albums are examples of highly dynamic CDs, which are very hard to listen to on the bus with an iPod and headphones. The upside of this is that they sound great on the home stereo – even better than most LP:s.
Comparison of sound quality
That this is the case can easily be heard if you have access to the same recording in different issues. To use an album I own in different formats as example: compare the LP issue of Pet Shop Boys‘ “Actually” album, to the original CD master, the CD I recorded from the LP and the modern 2001 remaster of the album. The LP sounds great, but bears some problems with pops and hums. It shares these problems with the CD I recorded from the LP. Then compare the original CD master to the LP. It sounds more or less the same. Maybe (and this is a big maybe) the dynamics have decreased a little, but that’s close to unhearable. Then compare to the 2001 CD remaster. The difference is striking. Suddenly, everything has become muddy, and it’s much harder to distinguish between the individual instruments. The bass isn’t that deep. The higher frequencies seems to be lacking free air. Of course the quality in itself is better than on the LP, but a lot of the musical density has been lost. This does not only apply to this album, it’s typical for the modern post-2000 CD masters.
For sure, LP:s would have suffered from the same problem, given that the CD had not come around and that people would have increasingly used walkmans to play their music on the go. But digital music has clearly outpaced its analog counterpart, leaving us with some good old nice-sounding LP:s, and a bunch of really crappy CD-remasters, that only sound good on the iPod in a noisy tram. Sometimes, life’s a bitch.