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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