Vinyl versus digital

We put two musical formats — one old, one new — head-to-head

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comApril 17, 2014 

THINKSTOCKPHOTOS.COM

When I was in college, I would often use my leftover student loan money to purchase vinyl albums in between classes.

Unfortunately, I unloaded those albums at Goodwill a few years ago, and most of the music I listen to today is stored on my computer and an MP3 player. But I recently began buying vinyl again just because I miss the thrill of browsing at record stores.

Hipsters and audiophiles love to extol the virtues of vinyl, but I’m not ready to dump my audio files just yet. While nostalgia is nice, so is convenience. 

So, as we prepare to honor Record Store Day on Saturday, I’ve decided to weigh in on the whole digital versus vinyl debate (sorry, streaming fans — I’m just not into that), focusing on several key areas.

Sound

Some hard-core vinyl fans will tell you that analog music coming from vinyl is the bee’s knees. I could go on and on about the technical reasons why they argue that, but that’s boring. And, frankly, I don’t get it. If there’s a difference, it takes a more sophisticated ear than my own to detect it. 

Advantage: Neither.

The purchasing experience

Once you’re signed up for iTunes, purchasing digital music is ridiculously easy. I recently purchased the singles “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy and “Careless Whisper” by George Michael (did somebody just snicker?), and it took just a couple of clicks from my desktop. No gas used, no time wasted.

But visiting a record store — be it Boo Boo Records or Cheap Thrills in San Luis Obispo or Vinyl Isle in Morro Bay — is more of an event. It’s fun to touch the albums and look at the front and back covers while surrounded by people who appreciate music just like you do. Also, if you don’t know what you want, browsing iTunes can be overwhelming. At a record store, you see those tabs with the artists’ names, and you’re just drawn to something.

Advantage: Vinyl

Buying opportunities

If you want to purchase digital music, iTunes is pretty much your primary source. On the other hand, you can find vinyl in all sorts of places — Goodwill, garage sales, antique stores — meaning the thrill of the hunt is not limited to record stores. Also, there are plenty of vinyl albums that are not available in digital form.

Advantage: Vinyl

Cost

New vinyl albums (Yes, they do exist) are generally a little more expensive, but you can find pretty good deals on used albums. These days, however, I tend to buy a song at a time. While vinyl albums have made a comeback, 45s haven’t. So when I recently decided to have a copy of “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, I bought it on iTunes and was out only a buck. It’s also much easier to mix and match with iTunes.

Advantage: Digital

Convenience

The obvious downside of vinyl is that you can’t play records in your car. Or at the gym. Or in a tent at a campground. Anywhere I go I have access to hundreds of albums thanks to my MP3 player, which can fit into a pocket. But I can only listen to my vinyl copy of “Takin’ It To the Streets” at home. 

Also, the reason I had to unload those vinyl records? We were moving, and the records just took up too much space.

Advantage: Digital

Listening experience

With the advent of the MP3 player, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon: Whenever I buy new albums, no matter how many times I listen to the songs on the MP3 player, I rarely know the titles of the songs.

Because when I listen to music on an MP3 player, I’m often not as focused on the music. I might be driving or doing something else and listening to music as background noise. 

Whenever I would take my “Born to Run” record out of the sleeve, the feel of the vinyl would elicit a certain feeling as I stared at that classic photo of Bruce Springsteen and the Big Man on the cover. With vinyl, I’m more likely to read the lyrics to songs as I hear them or just think about the recording process as I view the album art. 

Advantage: Vinyl

Shuffling

While it’s nice to focus on the listening experience, it’s amazing how quickly an album side ends. And after two or three times, it can be a little annoying having to flip the record every 20 minutes.

With digital music — be it on an MP3 player or computer — the music goes on and on. And shuffling your lists keeps things fresh. 

Advantage: Digital

Maintenance

If you want your records to sound good, you have to take care of them, making sure they don’t melt in the sun, keeping dust out of the grooves and preventing scratches that’ll make Mick Jagger hiccup like Buddy Holly. You’ll want to have copies of your digital tunes in case your computer crashes, but otherwise, there’s little maintenance needed.

Advantage: Digital

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