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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.

10 comments:

  1. Loved it- your insights are right on the mark! I could never really divest myself of the vinyl collection...even when the turntable quit on me 20 years ago.

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    1. Thanks! Sorry I didn't see your comment earlier.

      Glad to see they still sell turntables. I don't have one, but I think they'll probably always be around.

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  2. I laughed at my daughter a couple years ago when she wanted to buy a USB turntable. She found a couple of my old LP's in the basement and loved playing them. Within 6 months I had gotten my own turntable again after like 20 years and am now scouring used record stores. There is just something about vinyl that I love, despite the noises, I find them charming and endearing (as long as they don't skip). They are very tactile. I can hold 30,000 songs on my external hard drive, but when I want to play an album, I pick it and touch it and choose which side and clean it and gently put the needle down. I think it is love of the process as much as love of the medium. My folks cabinet stereo, almost exactly like the one you picture above is where I got my start. Great post!

    Michael

    www.auralretentive.wordpress.com

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    1. Thanks, and enjoy your records!

      My ex-girlfriend from college somehow managed to swipe my entire album collection (which was pretty small), but I still have some old, old 45s.

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  4. The start of a new occaisional column today. We spend so much time writing about the great bands and labels out there, how about some love for the record stores that keep the flame alive? Despite decreasing sales and uncertain times, this column will shed light on some of the best purveyors of vinyl, CD's, merch from around the world.

    List of press and radio contacts

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  5. Wow so one CD won't play, and that means CD's suck? Pffff.... Vinyl hipsters will always come up with new ways to say vinyl is better.

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    1. LOL! Hipster? That's very funny. I could be the rather old father of a hipster. I'm not young enough to find vinyl "charmingly retro." I'm old enough to remember when it was the only medium that existed. And, this was FAR from the only experience like this I've had. It was just the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, and motivated me to write about how much CDs suck. Not because they're "new" but because they are poorly made and impossible to troubleshoot. To each his own, but I'm pretty much done with CDs.

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  6. Why I hate CD's, for music. Has nothing to do with the obvious more practical aspects. Years, years ago I was listening to "Satisfaction", 8000th time, on the car radio. I have a rather superior, no big deal, ability to sense when things are different, etc. Like when you hear a funny noise from your car.
    So, all of a sudden I'm hearing, quiet clearly, the distinctive sound of an acoustic guitar. First time. Then I found out: it wasn't just the transfer of fragile vinyl to way more durable cd's; these geeks separated every sound, put it back together with some digital shit I had no clue about. And....the sound was not only different but sucked, in relative terms. People like George Martin an Phil Spector were called geniuses for their ability to mix sounds. Then all of a sudden, Mervin the Geek says: oh, let's undo every bit of that.
    Good example, for oldies. "Four Rode Bye", Ian and Sylvia, Canadian folk duo, one of my all-time favorites. Acoustic guitar by John Herald beyond phenomenal. Now, I listen to the "way better, man" digital shit on YouTube, guess what? Sylvia's high-pitched harmony now overpowers Ian. It sucks badly, trust me. They separate out every voice, instrument, put 'em back together, and say it's great. It's tin vs. platinum, and aurally, sucks awful.

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    1. yes!yes!yes!yes!yea!yes! and they sound dead, flat. Those Beatles remasters are some of the worst,along with Genesis' the lamba lies down on Broadway. Heartbreaking,almost unrecofnizable

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