AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

SPIN ME ROUND: WHY VINYL IS BETTER THAN DIGITAL

What follows is a guest post by Tony Chackal.

Ever wonder why people prefer vinyl records over digital formats? Are they just snobs who fetishize vintage culture or elitists overly concerned with being hip? Are vinyl enthusiasts backward-looking in resisting contemporary technology? Maybe. But there are other substantial reasons to prefer vinyl to digital formats that may account for recent rebounds in vinyl sales. In this piece, I’ll highlight what I think they are.

The two central categories of recorded musical technology are analog and digital. Digital listening formats are immaterial, and so offer conveniences of portability, efficiency, and expediency. Vinyl records are material, occupy space, need to be properly stored, and require more engagement to operate. The fact that vinyl records are material allows distinctive features to be appreciated and evaluated, which are unavailable in digital formats. Let’s call this “the vinyl condition”. I think the vinyl condition offers beneficial differences in listening to recorded music. The sound is warmer, richer, and deeper. Beyond sound, the vinyl condition offers a larger number of features to be appreciated and evaluated. These include tactile, visual, and epistemic features. While a range of benefits and drawbacks exist in both analog and digital formats, I think vinyl records are preferable to digital formats because the sound is better and the overall aesthetic experience is wider and richer.

I want to underscore that by widening the framework of discussion to include other features beyond sound, I aim to avoid the overly simplistic debate about mere auditory differences between analog and digital formats. I outline four features of the vinyl condition: auditory, tactile, visual, and epistemic. My aim is (1) to highlight what is absent in the aesthetic experience of listening to music through digital formats and equipment, and (2) to refute the idea that vinyl enthusiasts are mere snobs using outdated technology just for the sake of being cool.

Two notes about technology

Let’s observe two running principles in philosophy of technology held by figures like Martin Heidegger, Albert Borgmann, and Herbert Marcuse.

1) Technology concerns means-end relationships and is social activity.
Technology involves instruments used for purposes to achieve ends or goals. For example, the turntable is designed to play records and it achieves its purpose when it does so. Technology is social activity in that the ends achieved involve needs and wants of social existence. That someone uses a turntable reflects perhaps a human need to consume music, and an individual’s particular preference for vinyl. Listening to music is social when done with others, but also in the general sense of being socially produced art communicating something between musician and listener.

2) Changes in technology produce changes in social activity.
One might think that new technologies just offer novel ways to do the same things humans have always done, and while they might make activities more efficient, convenient, and expedient, these are only peripheral aspects that do not change the nature of activity itself. But philosophers discuss how these seemingly peripheral aspects may actually change the very nature of the activity. For example, the advent of recorded music technology via Edison’s phonograph changed musical listening as a social activity. Whereas before, music would be heard during live performance, rendering it transient, place-based, and time-dependent, recording technology and formats allowed people to bring music into their homes, and to have songs “present-at-hand” (as Heidegger says) in the standing reserves of their collections. Music could now be heard in one’s home, at one’s leisure; songs could be played in the order one wished; and sound elements such as bass and treble could be adjusted at the direction of the listener.

Not only did recording technology change how music was consumed, it also changed how music was produced. Music would now be written with the studio in mind, anticipating various differences arising between performing and recording. This changed, for example, the lengths of songs, often rendering them shorter, as well as offering opportunities for overdubbing, editing, and mixing so that certain sounds were foregrounded and others backgrounded. Benjamin and Adorno bemoaned the changes that recorded music introduced by claiming that it displaced the authenticity, aura, and authority of music as a live art form. I think the contemporary comparison should not be between recorded and live music, but rather between different formats of recorded music. While there are a number of analog formats—vinyl records, cassette tapes, and even CDs although typically digitally recorded are material—I treat vinyl records as the paradigmatic example. And while there are distinctions within digital formats, I use the term to cover MP3s and other digital lossy files and streaming services. In the next four sections, I discuss the distinctive auditory, tactile, visual, and epistemic features that arise from the vinyl condition.

Auditory features

Because of their materiality, records offer sound qualities that digital formats do not. These include warmth, richness, and depth. Many people value those qualities and so hold vinyl records to sound better than digital formats. Much needs to be said to support this claim. First, I’ll define these terms.

Warmth arises in records precisely because they are analog, and it refers to a material quality of sound occurring when physical instruments are played. It occurs because the record is an empirical object being played by a turntable and channeled through surrounding equipment. That turntables are instruments in themselves is seen in the movement of turntabilism, which is essentially the art of scratching and mixing records. There is general warmth to virtually all analog instruments. Just as analog photography and film each carry distinctive visual warmth, seen most pointedly when compared to digital counterparts, so to do vinyl records, which is also most recognizable when compared to digital formats. Because digital formats are compressed lossy files and are not played by a physical instrument upon a physical format in the same sense that a record is by the needle on the stylus, on the arm of the turntable, through a receiver and speaker set, then this quality of warmth is absent in digital formats. To be sure, the sound of vinyl carries additional warmth when recorded through analog rather than digital technology.

Richness refers to the diversity of auditory aspects heard in vinyl records. Because of record grooves, the sound of vinyl is more open, allowing a greater quantity of features to be heard. The space afforded by the grooves allows one to locate and individuate particular instruments and sounds and observe how they contribute to the music as a whole. This way, diversity can be heard.

Whereas richness refers to the greater quantity of sound, depth refers to the greater quality of sound. Depth is afforded by the resonant quality of records arising from grooves on its physical format. Depth refers to how much of a sound or instrument can be heard. Depth can be recognized in records when comparing its sound to that of digital formats, which, because they are compressed files, preclude a certain depth from being heard. It’s key to note that the sound limitations in digital formats almost always concern the compression at their nature.

While analog defenders attest to the warmth, richness, and depth of the sound of records, many digital apologists contest this. One reason is that the debate between analog and digital technology is typically focused on recording technologies, not listening technologies. Sound differences arising from recording technologies are essential to the analog-digital debate, but those arising from listening technologies must also be included. Additionally, the sound quality of the format must be treated as one among a variety of distinctive features arising from the materiality of the vinyl condition and its associated equipment. Furthermore, digital apologists think that digital formats can have warmth, richness, and depth if heard through the right equipment. I’ll address these concerns by first introducing the formats and then contextualizing them within their contexts of equipment.

There are paradigmatic differences between the sound quality of vinyl records and digital formats. The former tends to be deeper, richer, warmer, and of a more rounded quality. The latter tends to be more clean, polished, and slick, of a more trebly, high-end quality. The sound of vinyl records arises because the grooves on the record allow for an open, resonant quality. Conversely, digital formats by their nature compress sound, disallowing the open space that allows the warmth, richness, and depth to arise. Often this debate becomes paralyzed when cast in terms of “accuracy”. Digital apologists argue that because digitization utilizes binary code, numerical precision provides a more accurate sound of the master recording onto the format. For now, I avoid this framework of numerical accuracy because it is solely focused on auditory qualities. Instead, I highlight how the vinyl condition allows a wider artistic platform and richer aesthetic experience that includes auditory, tactile, visual, and epistemic features.

Philosophers like Heidegger highlight that any given technological instrument must be situated within a context of equipment because contexts render instruments functional and coherent, useful and meaningful. Equipment includes other technological instruments and their collaboration to achieve ends, and also language, conventions, and procedures that are employed in using technologies. To claim that either records or MP3s alone are superior in sound quality is problematic in lacking context. The context for vinyl records is the stationary home stereo, including the turntable, receiver, and speakers. The paradigmatic equipment for digital formats is the smart device or personal computer, and earbuds. In either case, quality of sound will be determined as much by the equipment as a whole, not the format alone. Certainly, there are cheap and often portable record players with poor sound quality, and there are records that have so much content that sound quality is compromised (it’s optimal to not exceed 20 minutes on each side of a 12-inch). While some digital format listeners have high quality home stereo systems and other audiophile technologies, this is not paradigmatic.

The equipment of vinyl includes the record and its condition, the quality of the turntable and stylus, the power and watts per channel of the receiver, and the size and strength of the speakers. Even speaker placement and size of speaker wire can produce differences in sound. While there are high quality headphones, most people listen to digital formats through earbuds, car stereos, computer speakers, or desktop speakers. Because earbuds are small and aim to bring music to one’s head, there is no space for sound to resonate and gain warmth, richness, and depth arising from the acoustics of the speaker box (along with the record grooves). Nor is there the extra power and style that arises from particular collaborations of receiver, speakers, and turntable. The equipment as a whole enables the warm, rich, deep sound to arise. Let’s call this triad “fecundity”. From these considerations, I cash out two claims. First, there are differences in sound quality of vinyl records and digital formats, which arise because of the paradigmatic equipment of each. Second, because records utilize material grooves and are used with high quality equipment and digital formats are by their essence compressed and are used with lower quality equipment, the former can have fecundity while the latter cannot. If records have fecundity of sound, and if fecundity is preferable, then vinyl records are the better format.

Tactile features

The tactility of the vinyl condition is the most obvious feature arising from its materiality. Records are physical and so occupy particular place and time. They are stored on shelves, removed from sleeves, and placed on turntables. Aside from the actual vinyl disc, there are various other physical parts to a record’s packaging. Let’s distinguish these parts from outer to inner. Polybags are the plastic sleeves that house records. Jackets are the outer sleeves typically made of cardstock and on which the front and back album artwork resides. The spine is the jacket’s side opposite its opening, where names of musicians or groups are printed. The inner sleeve, or dust sleeve, is the paper or plastic in which the record disc resides. Inserts are anything included in the jacket, such as lyric sheets, booklets, stickers, patches, zines, stencils, post cards, CDs, DVDs, or 7-inch records. Labels are the paper circles at the center of the record. Finally, inscriptions are etched into the vinyl disc at the record’s center as a unique alphanumeric code. Each of these physical aspects is part of the tactility of the aesthetic experience. Crucially, they are additional spaces of opportunity for artwork.

The tactility offers physical engagement as part of the aesthetic experience. Collectors store and handle vinyl with care, for example by avoiding dust and fingerprints. Jackets are removed from polybags, inner sleeves from jackets, and vinyl from inner sleeves. The inserts invite the collector to engage them—to read the lyric sheet, to apply the sticker, to gaze at the artwork. A collector touches, removes, places, flips, inserts, and peruses various material aspects of the packaging. In this way, records aren’t merely owned and heard, they are felt and engaged.

sandpaper jacket of The Return of Durutti Column

Consider The Rolling Stones 1971 Sticky Fingers album, designed by Andy Warhol. The cover depicted the crotch of a man clad in denim replete with an actual zipper that could be moved up and down to reveal the inside picture on the inner sleeve of a similar crotch now presented in only white briefs. The zipper allows the collector to engage it physically, to pull it up and down and enjoy a material relationality that accompanies the musical listening experience. Yet most collectors likely do this only once when first procuring the record to ensure it works, after which they would be keen to keep the jacket in mint condition. Still, this artwork, engagement, and interaction are unavailable in digital formats. Or consider also the Durutti Column’s 1980 debut, The Return of the Durutti Column, which was packaged in a sandpaper jacket that would ruin the sleeve art of any records shelved next to it. This was influenced by Guy Debord’s 1959 situationist art book Mémoires, designed by Asger Jorn, which did the same. The Rolling Stones and Durutti Column cases demand that the collector take some precautionary measures. I, for one, use three extra polybags for each album to ensure that the zipper and sandpaper do not harm other records.

The jacket itself can come in distinct shapes. Consider Public Image Ltd.’s 1979 album, Metal Box, which refers to its packaging (designed by Dennis Morris): a metal, 16-millimeter film canister embossed with the band’s logo and housing three 12-inch records. It remains one of the most unique album designs of all time. Or consider Pylon’s 1981 album Chomp, which depicted a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The top of the jacket bared serrated edges to suggest the dinosaur and bitten into it. One is invited to lightly rub their finger across to feel the sharpness of the points. The tactility generally allows for the other distinctive auditory, visual, and epistemic features to arise.

Visual features

There are also many visual aspects to the vinyl condition. Typically, there is artwork on the front and back of the jacket. Some covers become timeless, pervasive cultural images, such as Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, designed by Peter Saville. The jackets may be gatefold, i.e. they may unfold or open like a book, and may reveal a large image across the entire unfolded jacket, such as the inner image of lightning-faced David Bowie in Aladdin Sane (pictured above). There is also artwork on inner sleeves, as well as anything inserted in the jacket. Additionally, the polybag may also be used as a canvas. The Allah-Las place signature logo sticker artwork on theirs, for example. Sometimes the inner sleeves are also the lyric sheets or where inner artwork is placed. The label offers yet another opportunity for artwork. In soul 45s of the 1960s and ’70s, often there were no jackets or inserts, but only inner sleeves and labels. This allowed Motown, for example, to develop specially printed inner sleeves with their logo, although this was an exception rather than the rule. Typically, the label itself was the place for visual features, which gave rise to distinct graphic design of text and logos for labels. It could also be used to host images, such as a picture of James Brown’s head on many of his 45s.

There is copious opportunity for artwork as inserts. There are whole sheets that may contain lyrics and photographs. Faust included a series of 10×10-inch photographs as inserts in their second record, Faust So Far. The vinyl itself can even be a work of art. There is the standard black vinyl, but also a variety of colored vinyl records. There are solid colors, as well as marbled, two-toned, or multi-colored records. Importantly, there are also picture discs, such as CAN’s “I Want More” EP. The shape of vinyl can also be manipulated from the standard circle, such as Lovelife’s 2002 heart-shaped vinyl EP. Clinic’s 2010 album Bubblegum included a gatefold jacket housing a black LP, a second pink 12-inch with acoustic versions, a lyric sheet, and also a stencil. The gatefold calls the listener to open it, the colored vinyl motivates an aesthetic gaze, and the stencil encourages one to make a print or spray a shirt.

Epistemic features

Epistemic features concern knowledge and what is needed for it. There is typically a bevy of information inscribed on discs and sleeves. This includes information about the artist, musicians, producer, recording studio, date recorded, label, lyrics, shout-outs, number of pressings, and so on. While this information is often available digitally, it arises not from the format as such, but from internet access generally. Consequently, the information often does not call to listeners, since they have to take extra measures to see it. When present on the record and sleeve, the information announces itself more loudly and transparently. As many philosophers have argued, more information often leads to an enhanced understanding of artworks, and some knowledge is even necessary to understand an artwork’s meaning. Listeners’ aesthetic experiences are benefited by the transparency of information.

Vinyl records often contain obscure information that is either not obvious or simply unavailable with digital formats. Musicians may add to the alphanumeric inscriptions at the record’s center by etching messages, slogans, and even inside jokes. Knowing the information above—about, say, an album’s producer, production studio, or musicians—can add value to one’s appreciation and evaluation. For example, there are producers who make considerable impacts on albums, such as Brian Eno, Martin Hannet, and Lee Perry. Knowing that allows listeners to appreciate what producers contribute and to recognize their particular style.

Conclusion

I’ve tried to show that vinyl records and associated equipment offer certain features of appreciation and evaluation that are unavailable in digital formats. Auditory features are warmer, richer, and deeper, and there are also tactile, visual, and epistemic features that expand the artistic platform and enrich the aesthetic experience. People prefer vinyl for these reasons and others, not merely to be snobby, vintage, or hip for its own sake, or to eschew contemporary technology. Rather, enthusiasts enjoy spinning and being spun by vinyl, like a record, right round, round round.

Notes on the Contributor
Tony Chackal is a philosophy instructor at Slippery Rock University. He works on issues at the intersection of environmental philosophy, political philosophy, and aesthetics, and has published on food, street art and illegality, and the nature of our relationships to our environments. He DJs regularly, of course on vinyl. You can also follow him on Instagram (@thevinylcondition).

Edited by Alex King
All photos courtesy of the author