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Monday, February 13, 2012

In Praise of Vinyl Records (CDs Suck)

This weekend I realized just how great the old vinyl records were. This was sort of a watershed realization for me because CDs are one of few technological advances in my lifetime that I liked. Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of technology. I find most new gizmos to be entirely unnecessary. But, when CDs came out in the 80s I thought they were the greatest thing since casette tapes. Which they were. But, it turns out they really aren't that great. After this past weekend, I'm inclined to say records, for all their faults, were better than CDs in virtually every way.

Typical Hi-Fi Rack System
In college, I had a couple of room-mates who were "hi-fi" afficianados. "Hi-fi," for those of you under 40, is the original "-fi." It's short for "high fidelity." That's what audio enthusiasts listened to back in the days before home theatre systems and MP3 players brought quality audio to the masses. Hi-fi guys had separate amplifiers and tuners and equalizers and turntables, literally racks of equipment just to listen to music.

Our Parents' Hi-Fi System
Hi-fi people had a kind of geeky arrogance and shopped in special stores that may as well have had XXX on the windows - like audio porn. The rest of us listened to our music on portable record players from Sears or our parents' console stereo systems which, like their televisions, were cleverly disguised as furniture with speakers and evertything else hidden inside. Lo-Fi.

My Uncle's Reel to Reel
Except for the true purists who listened to very limited selections of classical music on reel to reel tapes, hi-fi and lo-fi types alike listened to music on black vinyl disks called "records." You put a record on a turntable, set the speed to 33 or 45 rpm, placed a "needle" on the spinning record, and music came out of the speakers. (Most turntables had a 78 rpm setting, too, but I've never seen a 78 record in my life. Maybe they were the Betamax's of the record world - superior but undermarketed.)

The Needle
They still sell turntables. You've probably seen the new USB-compatible ones which allow vinyl recordings to be dumped directly onto computers and saved as MP3s. Frankly, I'm a little curious as to how many people still own vinyl records. I mean, CDs have been around for 20 years or so and the only place I ever see records is in unsorted piles at thrift stores. But, I'm glad to know that people are preserving them. Even though virtually everything I ever owned on vinyl is now readily available as a digitally remastered MP3 or CD, I like the idea of preserving physical copies of things rather than reducing everything to 1s and 0s. Someday we may have no way of translating those 1s and 0s back into something meaningful.

Pile of Records
Anyway, a couple of guys I went to college with had hi-fi systems with speaker towers the size of end tables and amplifiers made by companies I'd never heard of. Their turntables were precision machines. The needles were mounted on meticulously balanced arms which were adjustable so that the needles themselves exerted the absolute minimum pressure on the vinyl records. Listening to music involved gently placing a record on the turntable without touching anything but the very edge of the record itself, starting the turntable motor, and then using a velvet lint brush to remove any dust or other microscopic debris from the record before ever-so-gently placing the needle on the desired track. There was also some sort of solution you lightly sprayed on the lint brush to eliminate static electricity. If you were listening to the Eagles' Hotel California and you wanted to hear Foreigner's Hot Blooded, you had to repeat this ritual with a whole different piece of vinyl. In short, listening to music on a hi-fi system was a huge pain in the ass.

The Vinyl Lathe
I had what might be best described as a vinyl lathe - a portable record player that you just plugged into any electrical outlet and threw records on. There was a cheap speaker built into the naugahyde-covered particle board box. It was a mechanical marvel in that the record player itself would drop records down the center shaft automatically and the needle would lift itself up and store itself at the end of a record. Never mind that the effect of dropping a stationary record onto a spinning record was pretty much the same as using sandpaper on both of them. You could throw a stack of records on the spindle and they'd just keep playing automatically until you got to the end of the stack. You didn't exactly feel like you were at the recording studio listening to the band playing, but you could listen to any music that you wanted to buy and it didn't sound too bad. As I recall, a "single" (actually two songs, one on each side of the record) sold for about a buck and a half when I was a teen, about the same as two MP3 downloads today. LPs (long-play), or albums, were about $15. Sometimes a lot more. Hi-fi guys were fanatics about their records, but at those prices even your average teen treated records with at least some respect.

This CD will not Play. . .
When my hi-fi roomie came back from the Chicago electronics and audio exposition in 1985, he described this new medium on which you could store music. He described how guys in the expo hall played frisbee with these little disks and dropped them on the floor and then just stuck them into a little player without even wiping them off! And, they sounded perfect. No scratches. No hiss. No random pops caused by static. Magic! One day these disks and the mysterious players that played them would even be available for sale to the general public for less than a thousand dollars. Unfortunately, the CDs we members of the public finally saw were not manufactured like the original prototypes. Like most things, quality was sold out in the name of profits, and today's CDs are junk.

Will Any of These CDs Play? Who Knows?
Flash forward to this past weekend. My son and his classmates are standing in a recording studio as part of a class project. They've got to take a popular song of their choosing and lay their own vocal track (with their own lyrics) over the music. The studio engineer pops the kids' CD into his computer to lay down the music track and, lo and behold!, the computer won't read it. Who knows why? The very same disk apparently played just fine in the owner's CD player. The studio computer played other CDs just fine. There doesn't appear to be any physical damage to the disk. Still, it will not play. Another copy of the music track was obtained and the show went on. But, not without a significant and probably permanent shift in my attitude toward CDs. I mean, what the hell? Stuff should work, right?

The experience caused me to realize that for all their inconvenience vinyl records were superior to CDs in just about every conceivable way. Every single time I've ever put a record on a record player, it played. Even a record with a crack or a skip in it would play. If one track on an album had a flaw in it, you could still listen to every other track on that album. I once had a record with a hole in it; I couldn't listen to the two songs where the hole was but I could still listen to all the other songs on that album. I just had to be very careful not to let the needle fall into the hole. Easy to do because I could see the hole. You can actually listen to a record on an old turntable with no electricity; it's very quiet and you have to spin the record by hand at a consistent speed, but it can be done. Try that with a CD. Sure, records popped and hissed and sometimes skipped. They also worked.

And, they were tangible. Yes, using the lint brush on every record every time you listened was a pain. But, there was also something satisfying about physically holding your music in your hands. I think I may have to go buy one of those turntables this week.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Rocksmith Guitars - A Mixed Lesson in Getting What You Pay For

One of the coolest things about Rocksmith is that, while you do need a real guitar to play it, you don't need an expensive guitar. You can play Rocksmith with a cheap, no-name knock-off just well as a hand-made custom. With one caveat: Make sure you've got good strings.

[WARNING: If you think Epiphone guitars aren't worth playing simply because they aren't Gibsons, read no further. This blog is not for you. The Gibson/Epiphone argument won't be entertained here. If Epiphone guitars were good enough for Les Paul himself to use in the studio, they're good enough for me. End of discussion.]

A few years ago I decided to get electric guitars for my kids for Christmas. My kids were only 8and 10 years old at the time, so I got some really, really cheap guitars. They cost maybe $40 each. Somebody was selling a bunch of blemished guitars on-line - really cheap and perfect for my purpose. If the kids tore them up, I wasn't out much.

I doubt those guitars had been played in the past 3 years. But, I put down my Epiphone Les Paul this weekend and grabbed my son's old guitar just to see what it would do. As cheap as it was, this guitar worked just fine with Rocksmith. To my surprise, it was still pretty close to being in tune after many months of lying around in a gig bag (even though it's got the same strings on it that came on it over 3 years ago). The ability of a guitar to stay in tune is probably one of the most important things to look for in a Rocksmith interface - or, really, any student guitar. Sustains may be a little weak on a cheap axe and this might cost you a few bonus points when playing, but crappy sustain won't actually hurt your score in most Rocksmith songs. The most important thing is that when you play a G on your guitar, Rocksmith "hears" a G and not a G-flat.

Plenty of wanna-be rock stars on Internet forums will tell you that you absolutely must spend at least $300 on a student guitar, but that's a load of crap. My son's $40 thrasher is easy to play, doesn't buzz, and stays in tune. For playing Rocksmith, that's all you need. Unless you plan to play in front of other people for money, that's probably all you'll ever need. Period. (Plus, my son's $40 thrasher weighs about half as much as my Epiphone Les Paul, which is lighter than a Gibson Les Paul by about 3 pounds; a cheapie is much easier for my son to handle. A 12 lb. guitar gets very heavy after a while, even for a grown man.)

You don't need a great guitar to play Rocksmith, but there's a limit to how far you can take the cheap road. For example, don't buy your guitar strings at Wal-Mart.

Because I had been playing my guitar a LOT lately, I decided to restring my Les Paul this weekend. I had ten sets of strings lying around so I grabbed a set, put them on, and fired up Rocksmith for another session. And, suddenly, instead of getting better, my scores on songs that I've been playing for a few weeks started dropping. I couldn't get a Phrase Level Up no matter what I tried. And, just about every note I played was either sharp or flat. There were more yellow arrows and Phrase Level Down and Late and Missed Pull-off messages on the screen than notes. Didn't take long to guess what the problem was.

A year or two ago I found a bunch of guitar strings on sale for a really, really good price. Now, I have a pretty good understanding of both metallurgy and economics and I'm not generally a betting man. But, when I find something marked down to give-away prices - in this case, full sets of brand new guitar strings for $1.00 - I'm almost always willing to take a chance. So, I bought 10 sets. Since I'm not really a guitar player, don't play a lot, and rarely change strings, 10 sets represented a virtual lifetime supply of guitar strings for me. And, ten bucks is roughly what I'd normally spend on one set of strings. So, I think I can be forgiven for ignoring the fact that these were First Act brand strings on the clearance aisle at Wal-Mart. What I had were toy strings for toy guitars. Apparently they're made of recycled beer cans because they sound like crap right after tuning and then they go out of tune and sound worse.

Lesson: Do NOT use cheap guitar strings, not even on a cheap guitar! Cough up ten bucks for some decent strings.

Before I tanked my progress on Rocksmith, I had to make an emergency run to my local big-box music retailer to buy some real guitar strings. I actually found a promo 3-pack from a very well-known guitar maker on sale for less than $7.00. It was hard to believe the difference in sound and the effect on my Rocksmith scores. In a way, this makes sense. On an electric guitar, the strings are really the only things making sound; there's no guitar body to resonate that sound, just some electrical pick-ups to translate the sound into electrical signals. Of course you can spend more money and get nicer sustains and better intonation, but keep things in perspective. Most of the songs in Rocksmith (and rock in general) use considerable amounts of distortion and reverb; a $40 cheap-o guitar is going to sound just as good as a 1952 Gibson Les Paul Custom. And, if you're playing Rocksmith, you probably aren't going to pay $1000 for a guitar anyway. The good news is you don't need to!

So, don't even let the fact that you don't own an electric guitar keep you from checking out Rocksmith. Go buy a cheap guitar and play! Just make sure you get some good strings.

(Rocksmith and Epiphone also offer an official bundle which includes Rocksmith and an Epiphone guitar. Not a bad option for anyone who doesn't already have a guitar lying around.)