There’s nothing like quantum physics for getting you off to sleep. Following on from last week’s post about vinyl, I was musing on the parallel – in the twenties, until cleverclogs like Schrodinger and Dirac came along, theoretical physicists agonised over whether light was a wave or a particle. (On Monday, Wednesday and Friday it was a wave, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, a particle. On Sunday, they prayed.)
There’s never been any doubt, though, that sound is a wave. Until thirty-five or so years ago, it stayed that way. A bang on a drum, a pluck on a guitar, would be carried through the air to a microphone and thence to fluctuations on a magnetic tape, pushed through a few bits of technology and carved into a squiggly groove on a vinyl LP; then reverse-pushed though some more technology into a speaker which would turn it back into the sound wave it started out as, or as near as possible. A wave, however, all the way. The technical term for this is ‘analogue’.
Then some bright spark worked out that they could turn this analogue wave into particles, or binary digits, by snatching tiny bits of it as it entered their domain, and within a few years analogue recording was old hat, and all sound waves ended up as sampled particles. Of course, at this stage they still had to be converted back into waves so that they could be etched onto a vinyl platter; but then the compact disc came along and even this transition wasn’t necessary.
Because the CD rapidly (and in some ways rightly) commercially forced out the cumbersome old fragile LP, it then became necessary to convert old analogue records into a digital format so that they could become CDs. This was called ‘remastering’, a blatant euphemism if ever there was one. And now it’s become smart to convert them back again, so that they can be resold as fashionable vinyl LPs. (I was almost going to say ‘groovy.’)
All these transitions end up in the same place: sound waves going into your ears. As a writer to today’s Guardian rightly observed, nobody has ever listened to digital music.
So the answer to the title question is: it doesn’t, necessarily. The rule is: the fewer transitions it’s been through on its journey from its birth to your ears, the better it’s going to sound. Nearly all the vinyl LPs I own conform to this rule, having stuck to being waves throughout their gestation.
Meanwhile, I’m still working through the analogue alphabet, and have got to The Association, Insight Out (1967). Here is a sample of the care instructions from the inner sleeve, which I rather like. Care is a good, strong word.
The record sounds wonderful. Shame about the music. A bit of Chet Atkins next…