What’s Really Behind the Vinyl Resurgence?
In 1977, when I got my second turntable, a Technics SL D202, the first thing I fell in love with was the stroboscope and the corresponding dot-pattern on the side of the platter. It just looked so bloody cool and oozed hightech, even for 1977. The best thing about the brand new Technics 1200G turntable, for $3 grand, is that it still has the same dots on the platter and strobe. In fact, the new table is visually pretty much identical to the one it replaces. It just somehow never got old looking.
When CDs came out in the early 80s, I was extremely excited and glad to move on from vinyl. Goodbye to snap crackle and pop. No longer having to flip the disc over to hear the B-side. Low distortion, high output, clean sound, and fresh new slick-looking components. Au revoir dust cover and clunky mechanical movements. My friends and I began to sell our big black vinyl discs to fund the subsequent purchases of the new shiny silver discs. No more warping or melting LPs. Better, easier, and less required storage space. These things will last forever, I recall thinking. The future finally arrived. Turntables and vinyl quickly began disappearing from stores and from the public consciousness. Analogue was deemed outdated, old fashioned, cumbersome, noisy, and fickle. Hooray and welcome to the digital age, this is gonna be great!
My first CD was Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits, primarily because there was little else to choose from at the time. The first song, So Far Away came on my player for the first time and it sounded clinical, a little metallic, clean and very bright.
I loved it! But, there was one big thing that differed, which I wasn’t so sure I liked. The actual disc got sucked into the player, which in of itself was super-cool, but it also made it disappear from sight. I couldn’t see it spinning, and now had to rely on blinking squares with numbers to understand what track was actually playing. You were unable to see it working. What was it actually doing? It had lasers! Why couldn’t I see the lasers? I felt somewhat removed from the process without the visible representation of what was occurring. Maybe the laser would blind you, or even kill you. I had heard they could do that, as witnessed by all the Star Wars movies. So, as a result, it had to be hidden away, deep in the bowels of the player. Cool. I told myself it was probably a safety issue. My player even had a large ominous sticker, indicating it was a Class 1 Laser Product. Whatever that meant, it sounded pretty serious. That sticker single handedly stopped me from opening up the whole player to witness the laser in action. Perhaps that’s why I’m still alive, and enjoying the gift of sight.
Many years later, MP3s and their corresponding players came into fashion, namely with the iPod and iTunes leading the way. I substantially embraced the iPod, but late in the game. At the time, my wife was pregnant, we were trying to finish the kid’s room, we had baby stuff to buy and assemble and I had a large “honey-to-do” list. With thousands of CDs in my collection, I also had a lot of ripping ahead of me. I simply had to have every last album on my iPod. The sheer concept of being able to walk down the street with my entire music collection in my pocket was thrilling and mind blowing. My CD collection was housed on the first floor, computers were on the second floor in the office. I can’t tell you how many times I’d get caught with a stack of twenty five CDs heading upstairs to rip the next batch. “Kevin, we need to put the crib together!” “OK, I’m on it”, thinking, right after I get this batch started.
iTunes was the new format and delivery system. It initially felt weird to me that the format was on something that wasn’t exclusively a music-based component, but I was able to live with that. It took me six months to rip all my CDs and once complete, I felt technically and musically fulfilled, in addition to being a new Dad. I missed the tangible discs and liner notes, but the upside of having the equivalent of three thousand CDs in my jacket pocket, or car, was worth it.
In the last several years, two formats have arisen and rearisen, somewhat simultaneously, which I find a bit puzzling. For $10 a month, you now have the ability to listen to virtually anything that’s been recorded in the last eighty or so years. Suddenly, streaming opened the door to limitless listening, from the past right into the future. Tidal, amped up the level to higher fidelity. Interestingly though, I don’t use streaming nearly as much as I thought I would. I find the vast choice of what to listen to totally overwhelming and have yet to fully digest not owning the music to do with what I choose. I feel a little less connected to the music and tend to jump around from song to song, album to album and artist to artist. It’s a very ADD experience, and not the old CD recording specifications of the past.
And, of course, vinyl is back, in a big way. I have a cartoon drawing on my bulletin board in my office of two guys standing next to an expensive audio system, including a turntable. One guy is saying to the next guy “the thing I really love about playing vinyl is the added cost and hassle”. That itself is part of the answer. Being connected online is somehow leaving us feeling less connected with, and, to our music.
Re-enter music on vinyl. Songs from one artist, one album at a time, split into twenty five minute intervals. You can watch it spinning at 33-1/3 RPMs, physically moving from song to song. Perhaps it was/ is somewhat the rapeutic. There’s all that ambient background pop and hiss. You find yourself automatically sitting on the floor with the cover and inner sleeve in hand, checking out who played what instruments and trying to make sense of the album art. It’s what you did as a kid. It’s what you did with your friends, lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling with a black light on, listening to Dark Side. No “buffering”, no ads, and no “bad network connections”. Using vinyl now can be deeply nostalgic, which is certainly one powerful variable in the big mix of things. The thing about vinyl, for us who grew up with it, is we can remember everything associated with the purchase and listening circumstances of any particular record in our collections. I recall being on the bus back home from the record store with my friends, ripping open the shrink wrap to see what was waiting for me on the inside. I think for the most part, that’s gone. Or, is it? Maybe the vinyl resurgence will bring that back to a new generation. A few years ago I was playing a record and when the side was over I asked my 11-year old son to flip over the record. After a minute or so of looking at the turntable dumbfounded, he asked me what I meant. I walked over and flipped over the record, he was stunned and asked me how the whole contraption worked.
In fact, my colleague Erik, in his late 20s, has confessed to purchasing some vinyl recently, confiding in me that he does NOT even own a turntable. With the purchase of the vinyl, he obtained a free digital download to listen to, keeping the vinyl to look at, feel, and relish in old-school craftsmanship. Apparently, there’s a lot of that going on. Fascinating!
You can certainly argue the better sound issue, and for a lot of us, that’s a strong aspect, but that’s a whole other story, for another time.
While finishing up this article, I thought it only suiting to break out Brothers In Arms for a listen. Only this time around, I can easily see what song my new Ortofon cartridge is tracking as the LP spins round. You know what, it does sound pretty damn good! Unfortunately, I will have to get off my ass and flip the disc over in a few minutes, but, I still relish doing it.