Format Matters

Discussion pieces on the different formats from which music fans must choose almost always come to the same conclusion: if it ain’t on vinyl, it ain’t worth listening to. There has been a slew of writing in recent years on the subject, all usually inspired by the writer baulking at a new technological advance in music reproduction. The tone of these pieces is a familiar one – things were much better back in the good old days. Vinyl, with all its imperfections, (arguably the cause of the proliferation of other formats) is held up as the ideal way to listen to music while all others are lambasted as falling short of this perfection. The success and popularity of a new format is thought of as a prime example of mass delusion or a lack of a ‘true love’ of music. Some go even further, linking new listening habits to wider changes in the make-up and nature of society, heavily hinting to a truly spurious argument that listening to music on vinyl promotes family values, personal discipline, hard work or whatever else the writer believes has disappeared. For me, this is all totally missing the point.

Vinyl is the best way to listen to music. That is not the part that I disagree with. Indeed, it is well-known that vinyl records reproduce a wider frequency range than other formats, albeit with the positioning of these additional frequencies outside of audible human hearing range. This higher reproduction range is the regular reason given for the ‘warmth’ that is attributed to music on vinyl, a suspiciously wooly quality. I’m not denying this attribution either but I would put it down to something other than inaudible sound. Indeed, I think the reason is before your eyes, not before your ears.

Listening to music on vinyl is a much more visually satisfying experience than any other kind of reproduction. Before the invention of the phonograph in the late 19th century, the hearing of music was also almost always a visual experience – you would have to be with the musicians to hear the sound, implying that they could be seen. Music divorced from its visual accompaniment is in some sense like hearing a scream in the night – the fact that you do not know where it is coming from is more unsettling than the sound itself. A vinyl record, spinning while playing, the needle in the record’s groove, gives the listener much, much more to look at than the locked-room mysteries that are tape and CD players, not to mention the iPod. It is sight, not sound, that matters when it comes to formats.

Jack Luckett