What’s Re­ally Be­hind the Vinyl Resur­gence?

NOVO - - EXPLORING THE CLASSROOM OF THE FUTURE - TODAY - by Kevin Rak

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.

Happy lis­ten­ing!

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