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Why Vinyl’s Boom Is Over

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As purists complain about low quality and high prices, vinyl sales taper off; Gillian Welch and David Rawlings cut their own records.

writes: Folk music duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were frustrated by the quality of vinyl LPs being produced today. So they decided to cut their records themselves.

“What people do nowadays is take a digital file and just run vinyl off that,” says Mr. Rawlings, a lanky musician who plays a 1935 Epiphone Olympic guitar. “In my mind, if we were going to do it, I wanted to do it the way the records I love were made—from analog tapes.”

The Nashville-based singer-songwriters, who gained fame with “O Brother, Where Art Thou” in 2000, spent $100,000 to buy their own record-cutting contraption in 2013. The cutting lathe makes the master copy of a record—the one sent to a pressing plant for mass reproduction. The couple’s first LP, a re-issue of their 2011 Grammy-nominated “The Harrow & the Harvest,” arrives July 28.

Ms. Welch and Mr. Rawlings have gone to extreme lengths to solve a problem many music aficionados say is an open secret in the music industry: Behind the resurgence of vinyl records in recent years, the quality of new LPs often stinks.

Old LPs were cut from analog tapes—that’s why they sound so high quality. But the majority of today’s new and re-issued vinyl albums—around 80% or more, several experts estimate—start from digital files, even lower-quality CDs. These digital files are often loud and harsh-sounding, optimized for ear-buds, not living rooms. So the new vinyl LP is sometimes inferior to what a consumer hears on a CD.

“They’re re-issuing [old albums] and not using the original tapes” to save time and money, says Michael Fremer, editor of AnalogPlanet.com and one of America’s leading audio authorities. “They have the tapes. They could take them out and have it done right—by a good engineer. They don’t.”

As more consumers discover this disconnect, vinyl sales are starting to slow. In the first half of 2015, sales of vinyl records jumped 38% compared to the same period the prior year, to 5.6 million units, Nielsen Music data show. A year later, growth slowed to 12%. This year, sales rose a modest 2%. “It’s flattening out,” says Steve Sheldon, president of Los Angeles pressing plant Rainbo Records. While he doesn’t see a bubble bursting—plants are busy—he believes vinyl is “getting close to plateauing.”

When labels advertise a re-issued classic as mastered from the original analog tapes, the source can be more complicated. Sometimes they are a hodge-podge of digital and analog. Often “labels are kind of hiding what’s really happening,” says Russell Elevado, a veteran studio engineer and producer who has earned two Grammys working with R&B singer D’Angelo.

A cutting lathe, like this one, is a rare, arcane piece of equipment. It makes a ‘lacquer,’ or original copy of a record, which is sent to a pressing plant to be duplicated. Only a few technicians still know how to fix cutting lathes. Most of them have died. Photo: Bishop Marcussen

A cutting lathe, like this one, is a rare, arcane piece of equipment. It makes a ‘lacquer,’ or original copy of a record, which is sent to a pressing plant to be duplicated. Only a few technicians still know how to fix cutting lathes. Most of them have died. Photo: Bishop Marcussen

Mr. Rawlings says a Netherlands-based label, Music On Vinyl, used a CD to make vinyl copies of Ms. Welch’s 2003 album “Soul Journey,” getting a license from Warner Music Group. Ms. Welch and Mr. Rawlings, who didn’t have rights to release the album in the U.K., found out when fans saw the vinyl selling on the Internet. They successfully convinced Music On Vinyl to destroy the 500 copies that had been pressed, reimbursing the firm 3,300 euros for its costs. “This is commonplace,” Mr. Rawlings says. A representative of Music On Vinyl could not be reached.​

Major labels say they use original analog masters when possible. Sometimes tapes are too brittle to be used to make a vinyl master. Low-quality re-issues may be the result of less-reputable labels that can’t afford to shell out big bucks for engineering and record-pressing, says Billy Fields, a veteran vinyl expert at Warner Music Group. Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, the two other leading music companies, didn’t make anyone available to comment.

Today’s digital files can sound fantastic—especially for hip-hop and dance music. But engineers say they need to be mastered separately for vinyl in order to have the right sound. To meet deadlines for releasing new albums, labels can’t … (read more)

via WSJ

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