Why vinyl sounds different: Pete Weiss Q&A, pt. 1

Pete Weiss is a guitarist, bandleader and label owner as well as a veteran New England studio engineer and producer. His Weisstronauts have toured the U.S. on and off the last two decades, and his Verdant Studios in Vermont hosted many artists’ recordings. Weiss also prepares vinyl masters for Run Out Groove, a fascinating low-run vinyl label that polls subscribers on which out-of-print, new-to-vinyl and previously unreleased records to release. Titles range from rare soul reissues to new creations such as an MC5 compilation.

This is the first of three Q&As, talking about vinyl aesthetics and the reasons this old, formerly dead format continues to attract new listeners — many of which were born after the 1980s, when CDs replaced vinyl as the dominant music format. Part 2 talks about the Weisstronauts’ recent Flat Bottom Cold Greaser recording, and Part 3 digs into the Weisstronauts, Run Out Groove topics, and Weiss’s connection to Grammy magnet, Memphis producer and vinyl specialist Jeff Powell and Sam Phillips Recording Studio.

Mojo: Vinyl’s renaissance continues. Why is that, from your perch in the biz as a full-time studio guy?

Pete Weiss: I don’t think there’s one answer to that. You hear the younger generation has discovered it for the first time; I think they are reacting to cloud-based media, and are embracing and enjoying a new experience to them — holding physical media.

Not only that, but large physical media that’s analog, that can degrade slowly and has large artwork. So it’s something to behold and enjoy more as a listening ritual — you force yourself to get into an active listening state, rather than just throw something on as background music. It becomes a ritual: You take the record out of the sleeve, you clean the dust off, you make sure your turntable is tuned up. There’s more steps than turning it on and hitting a button.

What is the difference between vinyl sound and a high quality digital file — not counting the horrible scratchy streams and super compressed files?

Do you want the technical answer or the metaphysical answer?

IMG_2844small
The Weisstronauts’ 3-guitar attack. Weiss is the Mark Mothersbaugh-looking guy in the middle.

The people reading this aren’t the same people you talk to in your Tape Op interviews, they’re listeners, not studio denizens.

I’ll try to answer that with a nod to both. Technically when you listen to a record, it has a frequency range similar to the real world, in that it theoretically reproduces very low frequencies that we cannot perceive and very high frequencies we can’t perceive. But they are rounded off.

So if you think of a graph of low to high frequencies that we can hear, there’s the midrange, which we definitely can hear. To the right on the graph, into dog-listening land, it kind of rounds off. Then when you go to the left — things that whales and elephants can perceive — it tails off as well.

In digital, there’s no tail-off. When digital technology was developed in the 1970s and 80s, it was decided, “Well, the human ear can’t receive anything below 20Hz or above 20,000Hz so we’re going to do a brick wall of the frequency response.” So CDs and MP3s go up to a certain high frequency and low frequency and there’s absolutely nothing above and below that.

You would think that would be fine, because we can’t perceive something above or below those frequencies, but there’s evidence that suggests that the frequencies that we can’t hear do affect the lower frequencies we can hear — they sort of dovetail and interact.

If those super-high frequencies and super-low frequencies are missing altogether, there’s something kind of like an “uncanny valley” that we perceive. Something’s wrong, not quite real. In the real world, these frequencies exist. Even if we can’t perceive them, they affect us in ways we don’t quite know. For those to exist in vinyl — even though they’re sort of rounded off because of technical limitations — there’s the suggestion that vinyl can sound more comforting because it’s more realistic to how we perceive it in the real world. Rounded off, not truncated.

This sounds pretty subtle and subconscious, as opposed to a huge difference.

I don’t want to come off as a purist one way or another. CDs can sound awesome. I listen to CDs a lot. I think a lot of vinyl sounds kind of crappy because it’s not prepared correctly — or it’s scratched [laughs].

There’s no shortage of used vinyl out there, and that’s awfully fun when you’re on a budget. You can go into a good record store with a $20 bill and you can afford to take a chance on five or six records and give it a shot.

I embrace all of these formats and see them for their strengths. The strength of a good quality digital recording such as a CD is portability, durability, consistency. There’s a technical limitation with how much bass you can put in a vinyl record, because the needle will jump out of the groove. You’ve probably noticed that vinyl may sound warm and fuzzy, but it doesn’t have that super-low end that we sometimes hear in digital formats. So there are pluses and minuses for each.

What is the future of vinyl? Is it a fad that will go away? What’s driving it? Seems like there’s more to it than frequency response because the kids are picking it up. A lot.

Getting back to the tactile thing and the ritual that you put yourself through to play a record, I think there’s a future for it.

The cynical side of me thinks it’s a fad, and the cynical side of me is concerned about some of the high prices for new vinyl; these $35 super heavy 180-gram pressings make me wonder a little bit. But there’s no shortage of used vinyl out there, and that’s awfully fun when you’re on a budget. You can go into a good record store with a $20 bill and you can afford to take a chance on five or six records and give it a shot.

“Cautiously optimistic,” how about that?

As a bandleader (The Weisstronauts) and a collaborator with other artists (such as Hayley Thompson-King), I see you are putting out your own vinyl. Is that a vanity project, then, or breaking even at least on those investments?

Hayley is, uh, more professionally serious than my band [laughs]. I don’t think hers is a vanity project. It is a calculated business move. Her fans are saying, “When’s the vinyl coming out?” She’s running her own label, it’s difficult because it’s pretty expensive to produce vinyl nowadays. Shipping alone is quite prohibitive. For a Scandinavian tour earlier this year, she wisely had vinyl manufactured in the Czech Republic and shipped within the E.U. — so she didn’t have to ship it from the U.S.

The Weisstronauts LP [Control is in Your Command, a 2012 compilation] — that was closer to a vanity project. We’re a niche group, but the thought was that, at shows….we have seven or eight albums and we’d always get new fans coming up at the merch table and they’d be baffled by all these CDs. “Which one’s the best? Which one should we buy? We just saw you guys for the first time, we loved you, but which one is the best album?” Of course I’m like, “They’re like my children, they’re all great, I love ’em all!” So we put out a best-of. You can’t really call it greatest hits because we haven’t had that elusive first hit yet [laughs], but it gives us an easy answer to that question — the best-of CD.

We’d been together 15 years at that point so we thought we’d splurge and do a limited run of vinyl and maybe a few people will buy it. Luckily, they have. It started with a limited run of vinyl, a vanity thing, but I think we’ve just about broken even six years later. It was a fun experience. Lots of cash outlay, I don’t think we’ll be doing it again unless the demand is there.

Is it hard to get run at a pressing plant when dumb stuff like Lord Of the Rings soundtracks and Taylor Swift is clogging all the bandwidth despite, in my opinion, their not deserving a spot in line ahead of cool indie bands like yours?

I think that’s not as big of a problem as it used to be. Five years ago, there just weren’t as many plants but since then, more cutting lathes have been put back into commission. A few more plants have opened up, and existing plants have expanded.

I think that has eased the pressure. But I remember hearing how Record Store Day would screw everything up. All the major labels would push the indies out of the way and would mess up everyone’s schedules. It seems to me that the waiting time is not what it used to be.

Written by Mojo Flucke, Ph.D.

Music freak first, rock/jazz/blues critic second, vinyl fetishist third. Also a little worried about this trail of digital breadcrumbs we're constantly leaving for scavengers to pick up and sell.

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