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Do Records Really Sound Warmer Than CDs?

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We’ve all no doubt heard the countless claims about how vinyl simply sounds “better” and “warmer” than today’s digital music. And this belief is taking today’s consumers beyond the boxes in their parents' attic. According to an article by Forbes published in 2011, people are purchasing modern music on vinyl at the highest rate ever seen in the CD era.

Given those statistics, it’s safe to say that people still like the sound of vinyl despite all our advances in technology. And it’s not just your John Q Consumer who holds vinyl in such esteem—some of the most famous of rock stars are on board.

“Digital is zeroes and ones, man, any way you look at it,” Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, told Forbes. “Whether it’s a CD or a download, there’s a certain jaggedness to it. Vinyl wins every time. It’s warmer, more soothing, easier on the ears.”

Opinions aside, what we can all agree on is that there is indeed a difference in the sound that comes from vinyl versus that of digital media, both in the way it is produced and heard (although there are debates between experts and common folks about whether these differences can be audibly perceived by everyday listeners). On a basic level, a vinyl record is an analog recording and a CD is a digital recording.

“An analog signal is continuous, meaning that there are no breaks or interruptions,” writes Jonathan Strickland, Senior Editor of HowStuffWorks.com. “If you were to hum a descending note, people hearing you would be able to detect the change in pitch, but not point to specific moments when the pitch jumped from one note to the next. Digital signals are not continuous. They use specific values to represent information. In the case of sound, that means representing a sound wave as a series of values that represent pitch and volume over the length of the recording. In a primitive digital recording of that descending note you hummed, you'd hear a single long sound as a collection of shorter sounds.”

In an interesting interview with NPR, Sean Olive, Director of Acoustic Research at Harman International, and Scott Metcalfe, Director of Recording Arts and Sciences at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, suggested that the ritual of vinyl—taking the record out and placing it on the turntable, clearing the dust, setting the needle on—plays a large role in how people hear it, arguing that perception and nostalgia have a lot to do with how we feel about one piece of music over the other. They also attribute some of the disdain for CDs to an initial laziness on the part of the record companies, which they claim had a great effect on the public’s perception of the then-new musical medium.

“When the CD first came out, a lot of the CDs that were released were actually recordings made for vinyl,” Olive said. “And those master tapes, rather than remastering, they just made them into CDs. So a lot of the objectionable sounds of CD was actually because the record companies didn't bother to remaster these old recordings.”

So the question remains: Is the love really about the sound, or is it more about nostalgia? We know that they are definitely different in the way they are produced as compared to other media, but do records actually sound “better” or “warmer?” One thing that most experts, including Olive, Metcalfe, and Strickland, agree on is that, all things being equal in terms of the sound systems and disc qualities, the everyday user would have a very hard time telling the difference between analog and digital sound. However, it’s the intangibles of playing a record, such as the way the dust affects the sound or the way we can hear the needle at times, that make the experience of listening to vinyl unique. It’s true that a record can sound different today than it did yesterday if the conditions of the player and record itself are not exactly the same (dust collection and needle wear-and-tear, for example).

Aside from that, it’s hard to take the argument any further. Despite the insight into the different composition, this argument simply boils down to a matter of preference and perception. Feel free to let us know yours in the comments below.

Another silver lining to take from this whole debate is that, despite the disappearance of many forms of older technology over the years, records aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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Big Questions
If Beer and Bread Use Almost the Exact Same Ingredients, Why Isn't Bread Alcoholic?
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If beer and bread use almost the exact same ingredients (minus hops) why isn't bread alcoholic?

Josh Velson:

All yeast breads contain some amount of alcohol. Have you ever smelled a rising loaf of bread or, better yet, smelled the air underneath dough that has been covered while rising? It smells really boozy. And that sweet smell that fresh-baked bread has under the yeast and nutty Maillard reaction notes? Alcohol.

However, during the baking process, most of the alcohol in the dough evaporates into the atmosphere. This is basically the same thing that happens to much of the water in the dough as well. And it’s long been known that bread contains residual alcohol—up to 1.9 percent of it. In the 1920s, the American Chemical Society even had a set of experimenters report on it.

Anecdotally, I’ve also accidentally made really boozy bread by letting a white bread dough rise for too long. The end result was that not enough of the alcohol boiled off, and the darned thing tasted like alcohol. You can also taste alcohol in the doughy bits of underbaked white bread, which I categorically do not recommend you try making.

Putting on my industrial biochemistry hat here, many [people] claim that alcohol is only the product of a “starvation process” on yeast once they run out of oxygen. That’s wrong.

The most common brewers and bread yeasts, of the Saccharomyces genus (and some of the Brettanomyces genus, also used to produce beer), will produce alcohol in both a beer wort
and in bread dough immediately, regardless of aeration. This is actually a surprising result, as it runs counter to what is most efficient for the cell (and, incidentally, the simplistic version of yeast biology that is often taught to home brewers). The expectation would be that the cell would perform aerobic respiration (full conversion of sugar and oxygen to carbon dioxide and water) until oxygen runs out, and only then revert to alcoholic fermentation, which runs without oxygen but produces less energy.

Instead, if a Saccharomyces yeast finds itself in a high-sugar environment, regardless of the presence of air it will start producing ethanol, shunting sugar into the anaerobic respiration pathway while still running the aerobic process in parallel. This phenomenon is known as the Crabtree effect, and is speculated to be an adaptation to suppress competing organisms
in the high-sugar environment because ethanol has antiseptic properties that yeasts are tolerant to but competitors are not. It’s a quirk of Saccharomyces biology that you basically only learn about if you spent a long time doing way too much yeast cell culture … like me.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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