Why Does Vinyl Sound The Best? A Chat With A Musician Who Knows

by Seth Colter Walls

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I have a confession: I don’t think I can rightfully be counted as among the new wave of vinyl fetishists. Sure, I own a turntable, like any proper trend-piece-generating/hating Brooklyn-residing arts-interested person, but I don’t listen to as many releases as possible on it. Sometimes, twirling around a piece of audiophile-approved, 180-gram, 12-inch plastic, before commencing with the nervous hovering of the tone arm whilst wondering if the needle needs replacing, I’m as apt as anyone to think: “oh for the love of Steve Jobs, let’s just press a button marked ‘play’ and get on with life already.”

But despite all that “the cloud” has promised us, not all music of interest has made it over into a digitized format just yet. For example: one of my favorite “new wave”-era bands is this group that called themselves Tirez Tirez. They opened for Talking Heads quite a bit; like R.E.M., they called the IRS label home for a part of the 80s; they sometimes used interesting/irregular metric patterns and syncopations, and even when not, had great melodies, which were written by frontman Mikel Rouse. Yet only their last album as a working group, Against All Flags, was ever put out on CD. It’s the sort of minor tragedy that sends one to eBay and Amazon Marketplace, ready to pay too much for the original vinyl pressings.

Rouse, who after the band’s demise became a producer of various pop and classical things, has a handle not just metrical complexity and the like — but also about why it is that vinyl hits our ears in a particular way that CDs can’t.

It’s something he’s been thinking about a lot lately, given that, in 2010, the New York Public Library acquired his archive. Since then, Rouse has been at work digitizing his back catalog of analog material. After Tirez Tirez, Rouse went on to have rather a successful career as a writer of multimedia modern operas (or “stage pieces,” if you get all in a swivet about the word “opera”) that have played at Lincoln Center and BAM, such as Dennis Cleveland, and Gravity Radio. (I interviewed him recently about his excellent new song-based double album, False Doors/Boost.)

Seth Colter Walls: Mikel, what are all the reasons for vinyl being a bigger deal now than it was, say, in the last two decades?

Mikel Rouse: Of course the obvious thing to many people is that analog sounds better than numbers approximating analog. And I don’t think one can dismiss the tactile nature of a record and the aspect that you can actually perceive time passing. Also, due to the time constraints of fitting sound onto a vinyl disc — a 15- to 20-minute limit per side — you actually get a pretty good time frame for human attention, as opposed to the extended time of CDs, around 70 minutes, and the perceived need to fill that space, whether one has enough good material to fill the space.

Personally, I think one of the main reasons folks think vinyl sounds better is the limited frequency range a disc requires to fit the sound on the disc. Digital doesn’t have this limitation, and while that theoretically should be a good thing, our ears have had 70 years of conditioning to the limited frequency range of vinyl discs.

Let’s listen to an example by streaming some music-on-vinyl that you own the rights to. This is your 1983 single “Under the Door,” which is one of my favorites from your catalog. I think I also like my particular vinyl “rip” of the song. Is there a good reason for that? Anyway, I like being able to listen to this song and all its zig-zagging synth ostinatos while out and about, which is why I have it on my phone.

I think your vinyl transfer might sound better to you for the reason I [just] mentioned — because the frequency range on the vinyl is rolled off a bit in the highs and lows. This can make the music seem more “rounded” toward the middle frequencies. This single was also recorded to 2-inch tape, and tape compression has a big effect on the sound quality of analog recordings.

You’re now in the process of remastering and digitizing your boxes and boxes of old analog tapes and vinyl recordings for your “living archive” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Has that process taught you anything about old analog formats like vinyl versus the digital “future” everyone’s always talking about?

Archiving the analog masters was a real eye opener. Of course, I mainly wanted to preserve some historic recordings before the analog tape degenerated too much. Most of the tapes had to be “baked” in order to be played and transferred to digital. But I was also hoping to unearth some distant gems I might have forgotten. (That didn’t happen as much as I would have hoped!)

But something else did happen. Even if there was a so-so tune or questionable mix, there was still this truly familiar sound quality to all of the recordings. And that sound was the sound of tape compression. I’ve had the good opportunity to work with a number of great recording engineers over the years, like Martin Bisi and James Mason. These engineers knew how to “hit the tape” in such a way that the tape acts as its own kind of compressor. So after hearing this, I set about to upgrade my studio with more analog/tube eq’s and compressors. I’ve also used two-track tape with a sync tone to get a tape sound that I then transfer to a digital workstation.

When we were talking about one of your two new records, Boost, you were mentioning how you ran all the electronic percussion material through some vintage tube amps, I think? Your recent records really have had an amazing “sound” to them, quite apart from the intricacy of the various parts. Can you describe a bit your learning curve on this end, in making the complex density of things on a song like “Professional Smile” (David Foster Wallace fans take note) sound like pop music? Or on a song like “Orson Elvis”?

It’s a great question because over the years I’ve really tried to mix my love for complex metric structures with my love for classic pop production techniques. The problem is, much great pop music is fairly stable metrically and much of the instrumentation is vamping or enhancing a similar structure — this is obviously an over-generalization, but you get my point.

Rouse’s two new albums are available to stream from their BandCamp page. Toggle through the embedded player to find the songs under discussion below.

So you can love that luxuriating sound that pop music can build up with layers reinforcing each other. But my work uses layers of great complexity that are crossing and contradicting each other. So common pop techniques like compression have to be used very carefully or everything just turns to mush. The idea isn’t to use complexity for complexities sake. It’s because in a track like “Professional Smile,” I’m digging the tearing-your-head-off effect that these multiple meters produce. And when those kind of unexpected metric combinations collide with very current, formulaic techno sounds, it becomes both familiar and unknown at the same time. I like hearing “Professional Smile” in a club or a bar because everyone is talking over it, and it just sounds like a lot of the typical stuff you could hear due to the production value. But then when people notice what’s actually taking place in the music, it kind of throws them a curve. And a lot of people seem to get that. It’s not a trick; it’s offering a tune on a combined number of levels. Tap into any level you like.

“Orson Elvis,” for example, has a multi-tempo rhythm going on that could be a similar effect to the two tempos one can experience in dubstep music. But because these multi-tempo rhythms in “Elvis” are also cycling around each other, rather that staying within the same 4-bar structure, the effect is quite remarkable. Also, adding the steel guitar and vocals circling around all of this controlled chaos sets the mood for the lyric content. So the metric guitar/vocals/sequencer combinations are there to set the text and kind of illustrate or orchestrate the text meaning:

Every hit on line
Takes its toll in time
Time you don’t get back
Running with the pack

Miracles agree:
What we really need
Takes us off the grid
Back to where we live.

Part of the song is about the life lost from social media. And the juxtaposition of the tempos heightens this feeling of instability.

Can you tell us what is even going on with the rhythms in this song, exactly? (We enjoy weirdly specific knowledge of things.)

After a vocal entrance of two cycles of 3 and 7, “Orson Elvis” starts with this sort of loping 7 meter phrase on percussion doubled by steel guitar. This is an accompaniment to a short vocal narration. But beginning with the sung phrase: “If Hollywood instinct is right on the money,” a faster electronic percussion pattern in 5 comes in propelling the vocal entrance.

But this isn’t simply a metric juxtaposition of 5-against-7, because the two patterns are in different tempos. So where a simple 5-against-7 phrase would mean the “5 phrase” repeats seven times and the “7 phrase” repeats five times to complete one full cycle. In this case you have the moment of periodicity after the “7 phrase” has repeated eight times. It’s basically a tempo canon, but in conjunction with the techno beats, it’s an arresting effect.

I’m pretty into it. Anyway: thanks for talking about this and vinyl and everything else!

Rouse: Sure!

Related: When Did The Remix Become A Requirement?

Seth Colter Walls is a culture critic and reporter for Slate, NewYorker.com, The Village Voice, Washington Post, Capital New York, and lots of other places. His favorite Mikel Rouse album is Recess. Top photo by Andrea Ciambra; photo of Rouse by Betty Freeman.

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