The Emperor’s New Vinyl

Being as we are running out of content and booze/drug money here at the City of Devils, it’s time we stuck our little toe in the pond of the vinyl / digital controversy, COD style – that is, unfocused, highly opinionated, unhelpful and likely to leave you more pissed off than when we started.  In the words of Tesco Vee: “If it don’t taste great / Make me substantiate / I’ll be the same prick I was before.”  The idiosyncratic time is nigh because we just recently received our 10 LP SLAYER Vinyl Conflict box set (all the American Records albums).  Say what you will about vinyl or digital, this is a pretty f’n cool set for around $150.  You get everything from Reign in Blood to Word Painted Blood (including the live album) in one box, each disc on heavy weight vinyl with the original artwork (except the watered down Christ Illusion art.  And these all look like they were blown up from CD’s – the Decade of Aggression cover looks like it came from a scan of a photocopy of a printout from YouTube).  

So let me hand it to SLAYER.  They didn’t dole this out one disc at a time (I’m talking to you METALLICA), and they priced it nicely.  It comes out to $15 per album, and one is a double, plus you get a nice box.  Also, even though we’ve all been playing these in various formats forever, it’s amazing to see all the LP’s in one place, in pristine condition.  On the first four, Reign through Decade of Aggression are essential listening.  We assume those are in your subconscious like the A-B-C’s.   But even after being floored by the clarity of those in this re-mastered version, there are so many other tracks to delve into that beat 90% of what is out there today.  How about “Killing Fields” or “Dittohead” off Divine Intervention?  The Minor Threat covers or “Richard Hung Himself” off Undisputed Attitude?  Or “Bitter Peace” from Diabolus In Musica?   These are all heavy, heavy tunes from what was supposedly Slayer’s weak period.   Huh?   That’s a weak period?  No – METALLICA in the 1990’s – that is a weak period.

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The big question is “how does it sound?”  Well, it sounds pretty fuckin good.  I listen to vinyl on studio monitors, so the frequency response is pretty flat and the sound punchy. Turning up “The Crooked Cross” or “War Ensemble” on this set up is good because the instruments are distinct,  and you get to hear just how tight these guys were (are?).  

But this leads to the bigger question: is it worth it to buy these if you already have them in other formats?  Or, in general, how much of this vinyl resurgence thing is just another format war scam?  It may be that vinyl “sounds” better, but we shouldn’t be taking this lying down.  Especially when we move beyond the 33 rpm 180g pressings into the “deluxe” 45 rpm pressings (well over $40 usually) spread over two or three discs.

Take a record like Paranoid.  I had a vinyl learner’s copy as a little tyke.  I bought a cassette driving across country once because “Hand of Doom” and “Electric Funeral” seemed appropriate in Nebraska.  I later bought a CD of the re-mastered Castle series.  Somewhere in there I bought another vinyl copy to replace the teen one.  Then when the super cool “re-mastered from the original tapes” version came out in the Rhino Box, I bought that too. Now it is being released by Rhino on vinyl.  At what point am I a chump (if not already)?

Further, what’s the big deal about “re-mastered from original analog tapes?”  Obvious problems with this concept include: (i) the original analog tapes from Paranoid would have been over 35 years old when the re-mastering was done; layers of magnetic tape get old, lose high end, and magnetize onto each other; grab that cassette you have of the Eagle’s Greatest Hits you got in 1976 and imagine pressing it onto vinyl; how about re-masters of NWOBHM classics like WITCHFINDER GENERAL; did notorious profiteers like Heavy Metal Records invest in high quality tape for their bands? (ii) is the mastering analog or digital?  If  analog is mastered through digital equipment, does it still maintain its “analog warmth” that we are supposedly paying  so dearly for?; (iii) if the mastering is loud and compressed (search on Google for “loudness wars” if you want info on that saga), who cares if it’s on vinyl?; and (iv) aren’t we just paying a ton more money to hear the subjective tastes of some new mastering engineer?  He could apply band compression to make some frequencies louder than others, eq or even gating.  The mastering engineer could be a huge Spyro Gyra fan for all we know.

Next, and I’m really going to be crucified for this one, but vinyl is a pain in the ass.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool and the packaging is beautiful.  I like that people care about this.  But for twenty years I’ve had access to the entire BLACK SABBATH catalog on CD’s that could be randomly shuffled in a multi disc player; for the last ten years, I’ve had access to digital players that don’t skip, can be programmed and fit in my pocket.  So now, the best thing on offer is a physical format requiring me to get off the couch and turn it over after 18 minutes?   The same thing I was doing 30 years ago? This is the apex of technology?   (But damn those SLAYER LP’s sound good.  Almost good enough for me to burn onto my computer so I can put them on CD to listen to in my car.  Because I need analog warmth in my car!)

This leads to the next question : if digital can make a perfect “picture” of anything in ones and zeroes that are sampled so fast the human mind can’t tell the difference, then why can’t it be used to make a picture of what an LP sounds like?  The answer may have something to do with the fact that digital has so much more dynamic range and potential that it has been pushed to the max by people who have mastered too loudly, so folks pine for the old days, thinking the dynamics of an un-brick walled mix had something to do with vinyl.

This digression leads to the next problem: on paper, digital is better.  It’s got more  range, so the louds are louder, the quiets are quieter.  And the channel separation on vinyl is limited to around 80%; digital goes all the way.  If PANTERA wants a guitar panned hard right, they should have the option of getting it panned all the way to hard right.  Digital does that job – not vinyl.  In fact,vinyl has always had to be very compressed.  I don’t care how “warm” a vinyl copy of Live Evil sounds, it’s not going to have the dynamic range of the actual show; only digital can approximate that.  

So it’s starting to look like, of the two options, vinyl is actually more artificial.  However, it still sounds really good to our ears.  Maybe because our ears are analog.  Maybe digital gives us a picture of reality we aren’t equipped to deal with. 

Maybe I’m just making shit up at this point and need to put down the pipe.

And there you have it, more questions than answers, just like I warned ya.  The bottom line is that all us fans have gotta do what we’ve gotta do to keep up.  But before you take out a third mortgage for a big virtual shopping spree at Back On Black / Plastichead, ask yourself if the particular vinyl you are buying is better for you because of quality, or is it just a consumer fetish, and you’re being led down the path on this, and someday the next, chapter in the format game. I got no problem if you are a completist freak. There are worse things to be.  Complete away—but maintain a healthy skepticism about whether what you are buying is really the last, definitive statement on anything.