Turn your Digital into Vinyl

A German company, vinylrecorder.com,  has come up with a home record lathe that takes any digital file and cuts it onto a vinyl disk. You can see an entertaining video about the process at the link below. The man in the video is entirely wrong about digital files and stairstepping or squarewaves–its a complete misunderstanding of how digital audio works. But it’s a common misperception

Mildly Entertaining but Erroneous Video

Although this thing will cost $4000, and requires that it be hooked to a vacuum cleaner (to clear the pieces of cut vinyl away from the cutting head), it’s being aimed at the “home” market–people with a lot of money who want to make records of their digital files. There are others machines to do this available, but they cost more than twice as much. It’s doubtful that taking a modern mp3 or wav file and cutting it to vinyl will make it sound better–it will add some forms of possibly pleasing distortion, but most likely the mp3 file will have been “loudness maximized” and will sound really lousy when it’s cut to vinyl.

But beyond that, it seems like a really odd thing to do. Lets’ say vinyl sounds better–maybe it does, I don’t think so but some people do. Turning your digital files into vinyl is like turning your ballpoint pen into a quill pen. The experience of writing with a quill pen is in some ways much better than the experience of writing with a ballpoint. But there’s the leaks, and the need for an inkwell, and blotting paper, and random blobs of ink, and a pen knife for shaping the nib, and etc etc. I don’t doubt that there are quill pen aficiandos out there, and that they see using a quill pen as a sign of aficion in the way of Hemingway characters, committed to purity. But turning your ball point into a quill pen won’t replicate the experience of the quill pen, any more than hitching a horse to your Prius will replicate the experience of driving a conestoga wagon. Maybe I could get a device that would attach an earphone on a wire to an iphone, and put a little handcrank on the side?

This seems silly to me. The MP3 file isn’t just music, anymore than a record is just music. It’s a product, a “delivery system,” embedded in a wide range of social and technological systems on which it depends–like the Prius and the horse cart.

Vinyl might sound better, but it’s not because of “stairstepping” or “square waves.” Digital audio depends on the “Nyquist-Shannon Theorem,” produced at Bell Labs in the 1930s by Harry Nyquist and Claude Shannon, one of the pioneering figures in digital computing. The Nyquist-Shannon theorem says basically that to reproduce a sound perfectly, all we need to do is sample it at twice the rate of the highest frequency present. For human listening purposes, the highest frequency present is 20,000 hertz (hz)–we can’t hear above that. Sound comes to us like waves, with peaks and troughs. Think of hz as cycles per second–the number of peaks and troughs per second. 20,000 is the maximum we can resolve–and people over 30 can’t resolve that.  CD or mp3 audio is “sampled” at a rate of 44,000 hz, or 44,000 times a second. This is often drawn as a stairstep, as in the link below

Sampling theorem

But soundwaves are physical artifacts, and how they sound to us is their frequency. If we get their frequency from sampling, we need no other information to perfectly reproduce them. Sound waves don’t suddenly change frequency in the middle of the air for no reason. If a violin emits a single note, the note does not change once it leaves the violin. It has a frequency (or a set of frequencies; a fundamental tone and overtones) and each of these can be sampled and reproduced. All you need is two points to sample a frequency perfectly. Think of it as like a circle–you only need two points to perfectly reproduce a circle. If this doesn’t make sense, here’s a video which explains it beautifully:

No stair stepping!

There are no square waves or stair stepping in what comes out of your speaker when you play an mp3 file. So there’s no such thing to remove.

If vinyl sounds better, I’d still argue it’s because it’s not overcompressed and loudness maximized.

But it might also be that digital audio is too perfect–it gets into “the uncanny valley.” This is a school of aesthetics that says we don’t want imitations to get too close to the original. A robot or a doll is cute but  if it gets too life-like it becomes creepy and “uncanny.” If it’s so good that you don’t notice it, that’s one thing, but if it’s really close but not close enough it falls into the uncanny valley. Computer animators confront this all the time–too real is creepy and off-putting.  Alternatively, movies or novels that are too much about real life, too realistic, are generally boring and unappealing

Audio on vinyl is objectively much less realistic than digital audio. It’s full of distortions and artifacts like dust and scratches and wear. It may be that preferring vinyl is like preferring CGI animation that doesn’t look too real. It may be that digital audio is either so realistic that it’s slightly uncanny and off putting, or so realistic that it lacks the interest that comes from mimesis, from imitations which aren’t the same as the things they imitate. You have to get the similar/dissimilar ratio just right.

It would be fun to have your own record cutting lathe. It used to be fairly common, before the advent of tape recording in the 1940s. Alan Lomax used one to record Leadbelly. The “presto” recorder was marketed for home use and field recording starting in the 1930s. Fidelity was low–a professional record cutting lathe like the Scully Lathe required perfect isolation from vibration, temperature control, and literally microscopic control over detail


Notice that the vinyl recording.com lathe has a microscope attached. It probably uses some form of digital compensation to reduce the effects of vibration. The larger question here is “why.” Musicians can already send their digital files to services that will press records. You can buy vinyl copies of a lot of popular music already. I think the appeal of this thing has to do with the failure of digital files as own-able objects. They can’t be displayed, they don’t take up space–they are unsatisfying as consumer goods




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One Comment to Turn your Digital into Vinyl

  1. John H says:

    For someone that dislikes vinyl so much you write a lot about it! There are many reasons people cut plates :

    When dj’ing or scratching nothing sates like vinyl – it’s more tactile than the alternatives and far easier to set-up than Serato and a turntable controller.

    If you spend all day at a computer it’s really nice to escape technology and just play a record.

    If you have audio that you don’t want online (or easy to copy), but you do want to play it to others, dubplates make life easier.

    If you like to creatively manipulate sound, vinyl has many advantages/distortions that no other format can offer.

    Taking a .wav file and transferring it to vinyl nearly always makes it sound better, for many reasons, but they’re all pleasing distortion mechanisms. That’s why people have been doing that for the past 20 years, they like it. Humans are inherently non-linear, it is unsurprising that many of us prefer a format that adds non-linearities in order to store our art. You say this is less “realistic”, but that’s a nonsense – real things tend to have non-linearities peculiar to the thing itself, it’s strange to have something that behaves in a completely linear fashion in the real world. If we applied your logic to music itself it would be nothing but a set of sine waves! The main characteristics of any ordered sound (the basis of music) are usually a series of non-linearities (harmonics, noise, distortion, etc) – that’s why instruments sound different and distinct. As such, I’d argue these non-linearities make things much more real and more human.

    Your conclusion is completely non-sensical, as dubplates/acetates have no artwork and very little in the way of aesthetic value. The reason you don’t understand is you seem to have no cultural connection to the format, so you’re guessing about why people in another culture behave the way they do. As with all cultural commentators that speak from an external perspective there is one answer – go and live in the culture you’re critiquing! Otherwise you’re just talking about “foreigners” without having left your town.

    Had you of spent a week with a sound system like Channel One, you’d have some understanding of why these things exist. Instead, this is yet another piece written from an outsider perspective with seemingly no interest in experiencing the culture being critiqued. You’ve not even mentioned the smell, which is usually the first comment people made when presented with such an object, I suspect that’s because you’re talking about something you’ve never actually encountered.

    Also, whilst we don’t hear “notes” above 20k, many people perceive frequencies above that, it just depends on the relative loudness of those frequencies. That’s why most people can spot 44.1k vs 96k and pick the latter as the preferred file. It makes little difference, but it’s perceivable. More perceivable is the sharp cutoff at Nyquist we get with 44.1k files, and the associated anti-aliasing filters, it’s likely that’s why people usually pick 96k files in ABX tests. Had you of measured some vinyl you’d see that none of this was an issue and even records from the sixties hold frequencies up to 35k quite happily, depending on lathe and reproduction system.

    Digital masters are nearly always delivered as 16/44.1k because of CD/MP3 ubiquity, but we nearly always deliver masters for vinyl at 24/96k because it’s got the dynamic range and bandwidth to take advantage of higher resolution files. This is another reason why vinyl often sounds better; the source file, which is digital in 95% of cases, is higher in quality. As such, most comparisons between formats are so prejudiced that they make no sense at all!

    You have chosen to discuss a subject you clearly know very little about and don’t seem very keen to learn. Why? It’s the lack of cultural framework that really surprises me, it’s like you’re writing about tea drinking without talking about China, India or England, and wondering why people drink tea. You would never understand the answer without having experienced the cultural aspect. It’s your failure to understand the memetic information that prevents you from comprehending the topic at hand.

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