A Fetish for Manmade Objects

February 4, 2013

Watching the Dave Grohl documentary “Sound City” (excellent film and music, by the way) resuscitates long dormant thoughts about digital music vs. analog music.  When you look at the concept analytically, there is little debate that digital music is not a perfect replication of live, human-made music.  After all, the process requires the transformation of organic, soft-edged sounds into numerical codes that are inherently squared-off and artificial.

But here’s the catch:  most of us can’t tell the difference between digital and analog music.  We’re not listening to masterfully produced songs in a professional mixing studio, we’re listening to pop music on our car stereo.  While stuck in traffic.  On the way to crappy jobs.

Not to mention the fact that even analog recordings are still replications of live music.  Analog purists (like Neil Young in the film) will talk about the warmth of analog sound, how organically-made music meshes together and makes a greater whole when recorded onto analog tape, but how does that compare to the quality of music heard live?  Why is the debate about analog vs. digital instead of recorded vs. live?

One answer is that in a room with poor acoustics, live music can sound much, much worse than a low-quality mp3 on your iPod.  Or, the opposite could be true.  There’s no fixed rule about recorded music, other than it’s recorded music.  By it’s very nature, it is a copy.  It’s not music, it’s a recording of music.

The simple fact is that most analog music enthusiasts are passionate about their vinyl records because they had them first.  A young music fan born in the 90’s never complained about the quality of their CD and demanded a vinyl copy instead.  They started collecting old-fashioned LP’s because they enjoyed the experience of collecting old-fashioned LP’s.  Dave Grohl himself said on the Nerdist podcast that when he gifted his daughter the Beatles box set and a record player he didn’t strive to make it sound as good as possible.  He deliberately allowed her to listen to a subpar rendition of Beatles music because that’s the way he had experienced the Beatles music as a kid.

But aside from nostalgia for their formative years, vinyl lovers also take assurance from holding a real object in their hands.  It’s not enough to put on their headphones and listen to the music, the vinyl listening experience also includes carefully pulling the record from its sleeve, placing the needle in the groove, absorbing the art of the album cover, and studying the words in the liner notes.  That experience doesn’t compare sensually to the experience of pressing ‘play’ on an mp3 player.