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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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holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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