Friday, December 15, 2006

Say "No" to DDD

I'm not an audiophile, but I am blessed with a good ear for music. I was a conductor in my previous life.

Recently someone gave us a turntable and an outstanding collection of classical vinyl LP's. I was hesitant to accept the gift: monks don't spend a lot of time listening to music and besides, who listens to vinyl anymore? On the other hand, the options were to have the music discarded or to spend time looking for another taker. In the back of my head, there was also a little voice.

This little voice has been pestering me for years. It keeps suggesting the outrageous idea that vinyl sounds better than digital, whether CD's or mp3's. I have hardly had the chance to listen to vinyl in the past ten years, but when I have, the little voice's message has struck me as plausible. I know this risks having my sanity questioned, and so I usually play down my experience in this regard.

Well, I needed to stay up and do some work on the office computers here last night. So I hooked up the turntable to a boombox and put on Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto. I listened with an open mind, expecting that what I had heard with vinyl before was just romantic dreaming.

After the conclusion of the opening chord and about five notes into the piano 'cadenza' that opens the piece, I was absolutely convinced: vinyl sounds better, even on boombox speakers.

Mind you, when I say it sounds 'better', I don't mean 'clearer'. But for me, clearer is not better (if you stand with the monks in choir, our singing would sound clearer, but it sounds better from the back of the chapel). In fact, as I listened carefully, trying to determine what was different, what I heard was the ineffable ambience of 'imperfect' sound reproduction. There is a depth to analog recording that digital, to my ear, has never captured, and I suspect never will, unless we can reduce computer bits to molecular size. With analog, I feel as if I am at the performance; with digital, it always sounds like a reproduction, a shiny and clear reproduction, but a reproduction, even a repackaging.

CD's, of course, have other advantages: ease of copying digital information, lack of friction when played, size. Personally, however, I suspect that what has driven the media revolution to digital is two-fold. The first is that a change of media has meant more sales for record companies.

The second is the fad for clarity that everywhere infects our positivist culture. The liturgical parallel to digital would be square churches with white-hot lights leaving no nook un-illuminated. Or it would be 'dynamic equivalence' that is bound and determined to leave no turns of phrases in a state of ambiguity or mere suggestiveness. We worship a God who is mysterious: a Church with a few shadows and language with a few impenetrable phrases here and there communicate this. Digital liturgy is shiny and clear; does it keep us farther from the reality of God? Can we train our ears to prefer the full body of mystery?

1 comment:

The Archer of the Forest said...

Actually, believe it or not, vinyl has become trendy again. I am not sure if its just another retro fad or people are finally appreciating what analog recordings bring to the table. My father will absolutely refuse to listen to any Beatles or Simon and Garfunkel album if it is on CD, it has to be on vinyl. When I was a teenager, I thought he was crazy, but in my more mature years, I have come to agree with him.

There are types of music that just sound better on record, but I don't know if I would agree with you across the board on vinyl though. I collect old radio shows from the 40s and 50s and digital has absolutely done wonders for that genre, both in listening quality and for purposes of preservation. That could be because most of those shows were originally recorded on reel to reel tape, and then some were put on vinyl. Vinyl just doesn't sound right in that format because it wasn't intended to be a record recording.


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