Neil Young Criticizes the Vinyl Resurgence: and He’s Right

I’ve disagreed with a lot of what Neil Young says about digital music, but he’s made a statement that I agree with. Young discussed vinyl records on a California radio show, and his comments have been reported by the New Musical Express:

“A lot of people that buy vinyl today don’t realise that they’re listening to CD masters on vinyl and that’s because the record companies have figured out that people want vinyl. And they’re only making CD masters in digital, so all the new products that come out on vinyl are actually CDs on vinyl, which is really nothing but a fashion statement.”

He’s right. Mastering for vinyl is very different from mastering for CD. As an article in Recording magazine explains:

“There is a lot of poking and prodding that is often done to get the stereo signal to fit into place, because the LP has less information on it than the original master tape does. Often, you’ll see mastering engineers roll off a lot of the very low bass and add a false bass peak around 200 Hz or so, just to compensate for the mechanical limitations of the equipment. The other alternative is to reduce the running time per side radically.

“The one thing that saves us from bass being a big problem is the RIAA pre-emphasis curve. Most of the noise in the recording process is at higher frequencies. So on record, we pre-emphasize the signal by pumping up the highs, and then on playback the phono amplifier has a roll-off curve that is the exact inverse of the curve in the record chain, which rolls them off. This means that the music has the same frequency response, but the noise is reduced, primarily on the high end.”

Also, another thing that most people who tout the qualities of vinyl don’t realize:

“Another issue here is that the frequency response of the disc is different in the outer grooves and in the inner grooves, because the stylus is moving much faster across the outer grooves (it goes through a greater distance per revolution). This means that the mastering engineer may have to tweak the high end response up progressively during the cutting process.”

It is well known that many early CDs sounded very bad because they were made using masters for LPs. Now we’re seeing the opposite. It’s possible that some labels are doing specific masters for vinyl releases, but it’s very unlikely. I’m glad Neil Young has pointed this out.

By the way, read why vinyl doesn’t sound better than CDs.