Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Beck - Modern Guilt on LP (and on LP-sourced MP3)

Here's an interesting development. Beyond being offered on LP with a bonus MP3 download (which is becoming a standard practice), Beck's latest LP, Modern Guilt, comes with a coupon for an MP3 download that was sourced from a vinyl record. So rather than getting the standard (presumably CD-sourced) download with the LP, you get one that was sourced from a vinyl record.

Per the download card:

As a way for you to enjoy this album in both the traditional and digital form we have provided you a high-quality mp3 (converted at the maximum ratio of 320 kbps). This higher sound quality has been taken directly from the vinyl playback--offering a broader sound spectrum to enhance your audio experience.

Never mind the fact that is not possible to convert directly from vinyl playback (there has to be an analog to digital converter in the chain somewhere), and that the gear used to both playback and record the vinyl will have a major impact on the eventual sound quality of the files. I was unable to uncover any additional information on how these files were created, despite a rather half-hearted attempt to contact Beck's management.

No matter, sampling rates and other audio esoterica aside, sound quality is not the real issue here. Offering the download in this manner strikes me as more of an attempt to create a simulated vinyl LP experience in a portable digital format. The sound of needle drops and lifts have been conspicuously left in at the beginning and end of "sides," and so has a fair amount of vinyl surface noise. I have no idea what kind of gear was used to playback the album during recording, but I hear a lot more surface noise than I'm used to from pristine 180 gram vinyl LPs. The project seems more like a conceptual art project than a genuine attempt to deliver the best possible sound quality to the consumer.

The various sonic artifacts of LP playback have been left in (perhaps even slightly emphasized), and serve to constantly remind the listener of the digital file's original provenance. Perhaps it's an attempt to help the disaffected contemporary music consumer connect to a more authentic way of experiencing music in a digitized world. On the other hand, it might be an ironic commentary, mocking the very notion of "authenticity" itself. More likely, it's both these things at the same time. Or possibly neither. With an artist like Beck, we'll never know what the intent was, and that's probably for the best. Leaving some room for ambiguity allows the listener to think these issues through for him or herself.

Fortunately, the surface noise is not so noticeable that the music can't also simply be enjoyed as music, so if you don't want to think about issues like whether genuine pleasure is possible in a world dominated by simulacra, you really don't have to (but then why are you bothering with Beck in the first place?).

I did my normal comparisons between a downloaded vinyl-sourced MP3 of the first track "Orphans" and the same track sourced from CD and also MP3 encoded at 320kps. Looking at the tracks, it is evident that the CD-sourced version is louder than the LP-sourced one. But closer inspection reveals that the actual dynamic range of the two tracks to be very similar. If anything, the CD probably has a bit greater dynamic range.

Beck - "Orphans" LP (2008)

Beck - "Orphans" CD (2008)

As for the sound quality, both versions sound very good, but different in important ways. The most notable difference is the obvious presence of vinyl "surface noise" on the LP-sourced track. The other major difference is that the bass goes much deeper on the CD-sourced track. The bass on the CD track sounds like the deep synthetic bass typical of much current pop and hip-hop music. The fact that the bass doesn't go quite so low on the LP-sourced version makes it sound more like it could have been produced by a traditional bass guitar (although, it obviously wasn't). As a result, the LP-version sounds closer to the psychedelic-pop of Revolver and Rubber Soul, whereas the CD-version sounds more like Odelay. The difference is relatively subtle, but the LP version simply sounds distinctly less, well, modern than the CD version. I wouldn't call one better or worse than the other, they're simply different.

Whether on CD, LP, MP3 or vinyl-sourced MP3, Modern Guilt is an outstanding collection of songs. I highly recommend it.


theneedledrop said...

Also, don't forget that a lot of the surface noises and dynamic qualities on the LP version can be changed--for the better, of course--with a different stylus, cartridge, or record player. Who knows what it would sound like then.

Pete Bilderback said...

Yes, that's right. I was reluctant to go too deeply into that subject given that I have no idea what kind of equipment they used to make this transfer.

The LP sounds very good on my system, which is modest by audiophile standards, but still very nice.

Thanks for the feedback!