Last week a nerdier segment of the music world was abuzz with the news that an Austrian company Rebeat had taken a $US4.8 million ($6 million) dollar investment to help bring its "HD vinyl" records to market by mid 2019. Huh? HD vinyl? How does one make the last analogue music storage format (that people still care about) high-definition?
It screamed pure marketing buzzwordship to us, but we consulted with some experts and surprise, it seems there's reason to be cautiously optimistic.
Now, generally speaking, it's pretty rare to hear complaints about vinyl not sounding good enough. That's generally why people still like to listen to it: It sounds good! Well, that and hipster cred. But the thing with audiophiles is that there's no such thing as "good enough." It can always be a better, closer reproduction of the sound that came out of those actual instruments and voices. HD vinyl aims to make improvements, and that's not a bad thing if it can pull it off.
One major problem that does exist about vinyl is that there's currently a major strain on manufacturing. There's been a re-explosion in popularity of records - vinyl record sales grew for the 12th consecutive year in 2017 - that the world's remaining pressing plants can't keep up with. Additionally, lacquers can only be produced in certain finite quantities, has led to serious bottlenecks in production. HD vinyl could help alleviate that strain - But let's back up.
What is HD vinyl?
For starters, know that the HD vinyl record you buy will be materially the same as the records your grandpa bought, as in they will still be made of vinyl and you can still play them on a standard turntable with a standard cartridge. So, no, it won't be a DVD vs. Blu-ray situation. What makes HD vinyl different is the process that goes into making them.
The process for making a standard record typically goes something like this. A master recording (frequently digital these days), is played through a machine that cuts a lacquer disk. That's basically like a one-sided record and should be the most faithful analogue reproduction of the original sound you can get. It will be inspected for errors by the engineers, musicians, recording artists, and what have you, and if it passes, then it gets electroplated. This is a chemical process that essentially gets metal (typically nickel) all up in the grooves of the lacquer. Once set, that metal disk is popped off and it's essentially an inverted copy of the lacquer disk. This is known as the "father" or "metal master" which can now be used for stamping hot, gooey blobs thus turning them into records. But that's not always what happens.
What almost always happens is that, in order to churn out records faster (and not degrade the original metal plate), the father plate is again electroplated with metal, and those plates are then popped off, too. Those new metal plates are known as the "mother plates," which can, in turn, be used to produce more father plates, so more records can be pressed simultaneously. There are a lot of steps, and at every one there's the potential for some loss of quality. (For way more detail on how this process works, watch this.)
The process of making HD vinyl is very different, and theoretically, far more efficient. For this process the sound file is turned into a digital, 3D topographic map of what the stamper's surface will look like. (This will probably piss off the purists, but according to Rebeat, 98 per cent of the music that goes on vinyl these days comes from a digital source file anyway.) That map is then laser etched into a ceramic plate, and presto, that's your final stamper which will then be used to press the vinyl blobs into records. There are a ton of advantages to doing it this way, and Rebeat's CEO Günter Loibl enthusiastically expounded them over email "…compared to traditional vinyl: the nickel stamper is the third copy of the lacquer, which means you press vinyls with the third copy. In our case the ceramic HD Vinyl stamper is the original - no copy!"
With this new process, there's far less chance for degradation to happen in the copying (and re-copying) process, assuming the laser can cut the ceramic plate with ultra-fine accuracy, which seems likely. It should also be faster and a lot easier on the environment, since it eliminates all the nasty stuff used in the lacquer and electroplating processes (stuff like stannous chloride, silver, nickel, and so on).
Theoretically Rebeat can print as many stampers as it wants, too, without any loss in quality since they always come from the same digital source file. Loibl also told us that traditional vinyl stampers degrade the more records are pressed, which leads to a difference in quality between the first and last copy and a consumer never knows which he or she is getting. He said that HD vinyl stampers have no wear so the first copy is the same as the 10,000th. Of course, that all still remains to be seen (err, heard), but generally speaking ceramic is a lot harder than nickel, so it should be more resistant to deforming, but then again, ceramic is generally far more brittle, so we'll just have to wait to find out.
Will HD Vinyl be noticeably different?
From the listener side of things, the most definitive difference may be that HD vinyl will supposedly be able to cram 30-40 per cent more music onto an LP. That's a lot. We asked Loibl if they accomplished this by somehow making the grooves narrower. Turns out it's sort of the opposite.
"30 per cent more content does not mean narrower grooves," Loibl told Gizmodo. "We just optimise the space between the groove. The size of the groove will be 100 per cent like on trad[itional] vinyl. We can even go one step further. Due to the high precision laser and wear-less stampers, we can provide what we call 'perfect groove.' The shape of the groove on HD vinyls doesn't change. So it will be possible to produce needles that fit perfectly into the groove, which is not possible yet. The additional content can be used for more volume or better dynamic or longer playing time or a combination of those three."
Again, these are claims that nobody can yet vouch for. Rebeat says the records will also have 30 per cent more volume. It theoretically would be accomplished by creating a groove that the cartridge needle fits into perfectly, and maaaybe that could give it a wider dynamic range. These are the most dubious claims Rebeat makes about HD vinyl, and it's worth emphasising that we're going to have to hear it to believe it
So, wait, why is it "HD"?
Ehhh… because marketing? See, unlike HD video, there isn't a universal standard for HD audio, but in digital terms, it's generally considered to be anything higher resolution than 44.1kHz/16-bit audio, also called CD quality. (There's a lot of debate about audio sampling rates and bit depth and if it makes a difference, which you can read about here.) How exactly that standard translates to a vinyl record is totally unclear. In its recent press release Rebeat claimed, "overall audio fidelity is likely to double," which is a big, but still somewhat nebulous claim. Double what, exactly? If it really sounds way more like the original recording then obviously, that's fantastic, but again, that's a big if, and if it does, does that make it HD?
What do the experts say?
We talked to several industry experts to get their opinions for this story. We started with Buzz Godard from Pro-Ject Audio Systems, makers of high-end turntables and audio equipment. We asked, essentially, if it sounded like bullshit to him. Buzz's response?
"It is not BS. Pro-Ject has been following this very carefully for years (we have the advantage of also being an Austrian company, so communication is easy and frequent). There is potential for significant sound improvement, along with much less variability of individual records. Other benefits include faster manufacturing turns and less environmental damage. No BS…
There are big challenges to overcome, but they appear to be making excellent progress."
We then spoke with the Grado family of Brooklyn-based Grado Labs, a company renowned for their audiophile grade turntable cartridges and now headphones, via Jonathan Grado and his family did some legwork and had this to say:
"We spent the last two days looking into it and asking around. From what we see, if a more precise method of making vinyl comes into existence from this then that's great. It's like if we were to find an improved process of building our drivers for our headphones. If it creates a better sound then that's great. It's hard to tell till we can actually take a listen though so there's no definitive answer just yet."
We also heard back from Cameron Schaefer, Head of Music and Brand at Vinyl Me, Please, a popular record-of-the-month club, who said:
"The term 'HD vinyl' is maybe a bit of a distraction from what's really a new way to make stampers via a laser cut using a digital audio source. This was the original problem the company set out to solve (how to get around the lacquer production bottleneck) the fact that they're stating it will also produce higher fidelity, volume, etc. is really more of a side benefit that like any new technology will need to be heard before it can be believed."
Yeah, so, like I said at the beginning: cautious optimism.
What else should I know?
Rebeat has ordered the equipment it needs to start making its laser-etched ceramic stampers, which it hopes will arrive in July 2018. It hopes to make some test plates for five (yet to be determined) forward-looking pressing-plants, and then to bring those plates to Detroit's Making Vinyl conference in October. If everything goes perfectly, then we could see these HD vinyl puppies hit record stores by Summer 2019.
We asked Rebeat's Loibl if these records would be more expensive for consumers. He said we should expect that it will be similar to any new media format that comes out. "At the beginning HD Vinyl will cost more because labels will charge more and stores will charge more. But once the catalogue of HD vinyls is big enough price will be nearly the same like for traditional vinyl."
While Rebeat emphasised that HD vinyl records will work with standard equipment, if it catches on we would expect that some companies may attempt to make specialised needles that fit perfectly in these new grooves. Will we see a wave of HD needles and cartridges? If there's money to be made, then probably.
Ultimately, we suspected that there wouldn't be much substance behind this hype, but it seems that these innovations Rebeat is attempting in the manufacturing process really do have a ton of potential. We'll just have to wait and see if it can deliver. In the meantime, you can read more about the process here. While claims about increased audio fidelity still remain to be seen, everybody seems bullish on the hope that this process could be a major step forward on the production side of thing. If it means more vinyl, faster then we're into it. For everything else we'll just wait and listen.