The Radiohead Effect

A very interesting thing happened at the Radiohead “A Moon Shaped Pool” listening party last Thursday.  Prior to the event, Luke from Bullseye Records had delivered a white vinyl “collector’s” copy of the two LP set for us to preview.  Good thing he did, because there was a once-per-revolution noise in the right channel through all of side C.  As we sat there, both hoping that each revolution would be the last noisy one, Luke got madder and madder until I thought medical intervention might be needed.

I opined that we should really try to get a black vinyl copy anyway, as I have always found black vinyl to sound better than non-black vinyl, annoying noises aside.  I use the term “non-black” instead of “colored” for a reason.  Black vinyl contains carbon black, which is not there just for looks.  In every single instance I have had the chance to compare two pressings of the same record, one black and one not, the black has sounded noticeably better- smoother AND more detailed (a combination that Luke finds almost impossible to accept as he has spent most of his life thinking of them as virtual antonyms)- than the non-black.  And “non-black” includes clear vinyl, the natural state of the stuff, which still doesn’t sound as good to me as black.  So it isn’t the addition of “color” to the vinyl that makes it go bad sonically.  It is the lack of black.

On Wednesday, one day prior to the event, Luke delivered a black vinyl version and, as a backup precaution, I also paid $10.49 for the CD resolution digital download since the free versions that come with the vinyl weren’t activated yet.  This was, as stated, a “pre-(vinyl)-release” listening event, so I wasn’t too surprised to be locked out when I tried to enter my freebie code.  I loaded this version to the Aurender N10, ready if needed and fortuitous because we discovered that even the black vinyl version had a cyclical noise in the right channel on side C.  It doesn’t last nearly as long as on the white vinyl version, which noise Luke observed on every copy he opened of the white pressing, but it was intrusive enough on the first track that I opted to use the black vinyl for sides A, B and D, and the digital download from the Aurender for side C.

Shortly after the appointed starting time of 7:30, we dropped the stylus on side A of the black vinyl.  Magic ensued.  I really like this record, which I know surprises Luke.  When he suggested we launch our first jointly hosted music night with a listen to the new Radiohead record, I think he was anticipating my response to be, “Why?”  Instead, I thought, “Yeah, perfect.” 

I’m nothing like a fan.  I come very late to the party, having discovered “Kid A” only about four years ago while perusing the Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Albums list and buying some things I felt I should experience.  I’ve dug that record from the first play.  The creativity.  The lack of obvious, to me, influences.  The vibe.  And the real attention the band pays to the sonic environment they create.  It is “of a piece” in the way of which Pink Floyd are masters.  Very rare in the world of “fantasy” as opposed to “documentary” style recordings.  Its absence is what immediately turns me off  to so many modern pop and rock recordings.  I can’t hack my way through the production thicket to make it “into the room,” be it real or imaginary.  Not so with the Radiohead I have heard, including “…Pool.”  It sounds great.

But here’s the very interesting thing we observed Thursday.  No one really made any comments when I went from the black vinyl to the download for side C and then back to vinyl for D.  But when we had finished the entire record, I played the white vinyl version of the last track on side D, right after we had heard it on the black vinyl.  Everyone present, without any coercion from me, felt that it sounded markedly worse than the black vinyl version.  I then replayed the black vinyl track and the gap was even more obvious.

The consensus was that the black vinyl version was the winner, with the full CD resolution (a critical distinction from the iTunes garbage) download a fairly close second, and the white vinyl a distant third.

After the comparison, John noted that the white one, “sounded like it had been played a thousand times.”  Yes, it did.  On this last track, there is a point where Thom Yorke’s voice cracks.  On the white one it is virtually impossible to distinguish it from record distortion, but during the second playing of the black one, Scott and I looked at each other when the crack happened, grabbed our throats in unison and laughed.  It was blatantly evident that this was a human distortion, left in, if not in fact created, on purpose, and not a recording artifact.  Finally, his wife Tamara said that the black vinyl commanded her attention and compelled her to listen to music and lyrics, and to emotionally respond, while the white one left her able to treat it as mere background music.

Think about what this means in the grand scheme of things.  Great vinyl and great digital are now so close that the difference between a proper black vinyl record and a non-black one is noticeably greater in terms of the ability to enjoy the listening experience than whether the sound is originating from digital bits flying through the internet/ripped from a CD and landing in the Aurender or wiggles in the surface of a (black) vinyl record being sensed by the Lyra cartridge.  And these two vinyl versions were, in all other ways, apparently identical with all the talent- artists, producers, recording engineers and mastering (the great Bob Ludwig, in this case)- being the same between the two.

So the lesson is, if you are a vinyl fan who actually likes to listen to your records, this is something you really need to come to grips with.  The clearly less good sounding version is being presented and sold as “special” “collector” “rare” and “valuable.”  I think the only accurate part of that may be “collector” because it implies that it will be collected but not listened to.  It is perfectly good for that, but not much else.