Friday, August 18, 2006

8.17.2006: Vinyl Uber Alles

[This originally appeared in the 8.17.06 issue of METROLAND MAGAZINE.]


OK, OK, allright, down boy, etc. I’ve taken a little bit of heat for my last column in which I referred people my own age as geezers, and who maybe are a little slow to embrace the inevitable conversion of music from CDs to MP3s and other digital-file media.

Sorry, but we are geezers. Even AARP thinks so. Really, though, it could be so much worse. You could be 20 and stupid, right?

The whole MP3 thing has changed how I listen to music, and for the better. I’ve got something like 15 days worth of recordings here on my laptop, and I stick my music player on shuffle play, and viola, I’ve got a radio station of my own creation. (I’ve got the death of radio, actually, but that’s a story for another day.) While the songs go by, I grab the ones I really like and stick them in playlists, burn ‘em up into CDs, and I’ve got custom, personalized listening.

There’s only one drawback, one that goes back a ways, and one that might make us geezers, in a weird sort of way, feel a little better about ourselves.

While MP3s might sound almost as good as CDs (especially if you crank the bit-rate up north of 192 bps), they don’t sound as good as vinyl records. Nothing, short of being there watching a performance live (and maybe not even that) sounds as good as vinyl records.

Many of you probably know this already, and still have your turntable set up, and your records lined up on some shelves (or in crates) and alphabetized. Maybe you’ve got an old tube amplifier, and those big-ass speakers they don’t make anymore. You know what I’m talking about. Weirdo.

Simply, digital technology, based on 0’s and 1’s, mere instructions, will never duplicate the smooth and continuous flow of sound that comes from an analog reproduction on a vinyl record. I remember hearing my first CD, probably in 1984 or so. It was crisp, clean, precise, and almost completely devoid of life. I was a-scared of the damn thing. I recall Neil Young saying at the time that listening to digital recordings was like looking outside through a screen door, except the screen would only allow one primary color at a time through each little screen-hole. He got that right.

Yeah, things have gotten a little better since then, there’s no doubt about that. But still today, when I buy a CD (or an MP3) of one of the great recordings of my youth, it just fails me every time. The warmth, the spaciousness, the humanity of the recordings that I remember just aren’t there. These things are suggested, but absent.

Of course, I suck it up and move on. I pruned my vinyl collection a few years ago, reduced it from thousands to a hundred or so, which I realized almost immediately was a mistake. But it has made moving easier. My turntable collects dust in the basement, as do my remaining albums. The stuff just takes up too much room, and despite how beautiful I think my collection of vintage albums may be, they’re all pretty damn ratty. I have to admit, in moments of weakness and reflection, that the observation that they “don’t go” in the living room (or anywhere else in the house except the basement) is probably dead-nuts right. And my hearing is probably shot so bad at this point that it really doesn’t matter anyway.

But at least I’ve got my memories.

And that’s not the only reason vinyl’s better. There’s also the graphics. Remember Jethro Tull’s great pop-up package, Stand Up? King Biscuit Boy’s Gooduns in a burlap bag? No? The 12x12 format lent itself to works of art, something the dinky little books in the crappy plastic boxes can never approximate. And those flimsy cardboard “enviro-pacs” aren’t any better. Think anybody’s ever gonna publish a book about great album cover art 1995-2005? It doesn’t really matter anymore.

And in buying an MP3 off the web, well, you don’t get anything except some tiny little invisible electric numbers delivered to your computer. I suppose you can go the band’s website and bask in the glow of their web designer’s brilliance. How touching and real.

And then there’s the whole tactile thing. It’s never been described better than by Lester Bangs in Creem magazine, in 1971:

The real story is rushing home to hear the apocalyptic event, falling through the front door and slashing open the plastic sealing “for your protection,” taking the black record out – ah, lookit them grooves, all jet black without a smudge yet, shiny and new and so fucking pristine, then the color of the label, does it glow with auras that’ll make some subtle comment on the sounds coming out....? And finally you get to put the record on the turntable, it spins in limbo a perfect second, followed by the moment of truth, needle into groove, and finally sound.

Tell this to kids today and they won’t believe ya. They hardly have time to think about it, anyway. Too busy pointing and clicking and staring deeply into the screen.

2 Comments:

At 2:13 PM, Blogger TLR said...

Amen. Thank goodness I'm one of those very fortunate folks that looks alot younger than his age 'cause on the inside, I'm a old timer dead on hardcore Maxi-overdrive Geezer and proud of it yet folks seem none the wiser to my closet vinyl addiction. Turning youngsters on to vinyl is one of the few musical thrills I have left to live for in an age where I too spend most of my time pointing and clicking. I get the feeling that the expectations have changed on the side of the consumer. Many of my friends would purchase a CD only in order to burn it to their computer, converting the files to MP3's and then trade in the disc while the jewel case still has the shine, rarely opening the (tiny, to me) booklet. To this day, I still hold the lp covers, searching over the artwork, lyrics and other music geek related info (producer, mixer, studio, musicians, artists, song credits, record company, special thanks, hidden messages, etc.) I also dig the color, design and logo on the lp label even as it spins. I used to know the name of each tune I liked and even the ones I didn't (so I could remember which ones to skip over or get a sandwich to or talk over). When I crank most lp's, I get this bump in the chest and a light harmonic distortion that more closely resembles a live band. When I crank a digital file, I just get a headache. Don't get me wrong, some music has actually seen some benifits here in the digital age. My gold disc Beach Boys CD's sound pristine through my headphones with all the harmonies beautifully seperated and re-EQ'd to the original master tape specs. Very enjoyable, especially now that I can dig Pet Sounds in true stereo. Nice. Zep IV was not mastered well for lp and early CD. The Jimmy Page re-do's are a great sounding package and offer some neat revelations. On the other hand, that's part of the problem I have with it as well. I've not only traded away some of the warmth of the vinyl but am actually finding that some of what I grew up thinking I heard, is indeed not what I thought and that some of my Rock Gods were, alas, human. I don't have the time right now to go back and site some examples but it wouldn't take much to hear some of the sloppy punch in's and iffy edits and outright flubs. Fun when I'm in musical tech geek mode but other than that, gimme' the warmer, less clinical, musical vinyl sounds anytime. Heck, there are many pop groups from the sixties and seventies that I liked much, much better when I heard their sounds smushed through a cheap portable stereo or three inch speaker on the car dashboard or only a two incher on the transister radio. Heck, most of the time I was riveted to the tunes because when they went off the charts, if my big sister didn't buy the single, they were gone forever. Forever!! Pure trauma for an eight year old! Oldies stations only played Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Martin and all that Ray Conniff stuff. Why is THAT the only vinyl everyone seems to have kept! Now, I don't care 'cause I can get it anywhere, anytime, anyhow. Which is great, but it does take something kinda' special out of it don't ya' think?
Even more important than the transistor radio was the girl walking with it! She knew she was being watched and between the tunes and her fashion, she was an audible, visable advert for girl watching. Yeah, Baby! Hey I was mostly in the single digits in the sixties but with older siblings, I did have SOMETHING of a clue. I had a pretty good idea of what was happening and I wanted a piece of it for sure! Even if it just meant a pat on the head from a beautiful honey. I may have looked like Earnie from My Three Sons but that didn't change what was going on in my imaginative little boy head.
I imagine it's just my retro-perspective but the folks I see walking with their Ipod earbuds in, look more like they're tuned out, minding their own business and would prefer if you did the same. I didn't mean to get into social issues here but I s'pose that is/was a part of the whole musical experience.
My intent isn't to be a complainer though either. I do indeed willingly admit that I prefer my headphones or six speaker car stereo to the clanky, buzzy, trebley sounds of the old hand held radios. I'm happy that the technical standards have changed to a degree but the trade off for portability as well as "Punch and Clarity" is often times a disappointing exchange for lack of musicality. A great middle ground I've found has been some of the cool 160 gram vinyl put out by mucic loving companies like Sundazed (right here in our backyard in Coxasckie, NY). Maybe at this point the situation can be looked at in kind of an "Apples and Oranges" sort of way and there is certainly more to life than only Apple. What I'm most encouraged by these days is when I hear that a fellow music fan is heading out to see a musician or band play live because they liked what they heard when they downloaded and now want to check 'em out in person. Cool. Now that's a way to sample a taste of the real fruit.
Yeah, perhaps vinyl has gone the way of the old muscle cars of yesteryear but boy, give it a spin if you get the chance 'cause it may just be an experience that ya' can't quite get anywhere else.
Thanks for the chance to blab on yer' blog.

Cheers,

TLR

 
At 2:14 PM, Blogger TLR said...

Amen. Thank goodness I'm one of those very fortunate folks that looks alot younger than his age 'cause on the inside, I'm a old timer dead on hardcore Maxi-overdrive Geezer and proud of it yet folks seem none the wiser to my closet vinyl addiction. Turning youngsters on to vinyl is one of the few musical thrills I have left to live for in an age where I too spend most of my time pointing and clicking. I get the feeling that the expectations have changed on the side of the consumer. Many of my friends would purchase a CD only in order to burn it to their computer, converting the files to MP3's and then trade in the disc while the jewel case still has the shine, rarely opening the (tiny, to me) booklet. To this day, I still hold the lp covers, searching over the artwork, lyrics and other music geek related info (producer, mixer, studio, musicians, artists, song credits, record company, special thanks, hidden messages, etc.) I also dig the color, design and logo on the lp label even as it spins. I used to know the name of each tune I liked and even the ones I didn't (so I could remember which ones to skip over or get a sandwich to or talk over). When I crank most lp's, I get this bump in the chest and a light harmonic distortion that more closely resembles a live band. When I crank a digital file, I just get a headache. Don't get me wrong, some music has actually seen some benifits here in the digital age. My gold disc Beach Boys CD's sound pristine through my headphones with all the harmonies beautifully seperated and re-EQ'd to the original master tape specs. Very enjoyable, especially now that I can dig Pet Sounds in true stereo. Nice. Zep IV was not mastered well for lp and early CD. The Jimmy Page re-do's are a great sounding package and offer some neat revelations. On the other hand, that's part of the problem I have with it as well. I've not only traded away some of the warmth of the vinyl but am actually finding that some of what I grew up thinking I heard, is indeed not what I thought and that some of my Rock Gods were, alas, human. I don't have the time right now to go back and site some examples but it wouldn't take much to hear some of the sloppy punch in's and iffy edits and outright flubs. Fun when I'm in musical tech geek mode but other than that, gimme' the warmer, less clinical, musical vinyl sounds anytime. Heck, there are many pop groups from the sixties and seventies that I liked much, much better when I heard their sounds smushed through a cheap portable stereo or three inch speaker on the car dashboard or only a two incher on the transister radio. Heck, most of the time I was riveted to the tunes because when they went off the charts, if my big sister didn't buy the single, they were gone forever. Forever!! Pure trauma for an eight year old! Oldies stations only played Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Martin and all that Ray Conniff stuff. Why is THAT the only vinyl everyone seems to have kept! Now, I don't care 'cause I can get it anywhere, anytime, anyhow. Which is great, but it does take something kinda' special out of it don't ya' think?
Even more important than the transistor radio was the girl walking with it! She knew she was being watched and between the tunes and her fashion, she was an audible, visable advert for girl watching. Yeah, Baby! Hey I was mostly in the single digits in the sixties but with older siblings, I did have SOMETHING of a clue. I had a pretty good idea of what was happening and I wanted a piece of it for sure! Even if it just meant a pat on the head from a beautiful honey. I may have looked like Earnie from My Three Sons but that didn't change what was going on in my imaginative little boy head.
I imagine it's just my retro-perspective but the folks I see walking with their Ipod earbuds in, look more like they're tuned out, minding their own business and would prefer if you did the same. I didn't mean to get into social issues here but I s'pose that is/was a part of the whole musical experience.
My intent isn't to be a complainer though either. I do indeed willingly admit that I prefer my headphones or six speaker car stereo to the clanky, buzzy, trebley sounds of the old hand held radios. I'm happy that the technical standards have changed to a degree but the trade off for portability as well as "Punch and Clarity" is often times a disappointing exchange for lack of musicality. A great middle ground I've found has been some of the cool 160 gram vinyl put out by mucic loving companies like Sundazed (right here in our backyard in Coxasckie, NY). Maybe at this point the situation can be looked at in kind of an "Apples and Oranges" sort of way and there is certainly more to life than only Apple. What I'm most encouraged by these days is when I hear that a fellow music fan is heading out to see a musician or band play live because they liked what they heard when they downloaded and now want to check 'em out in person. Cool. Now that's a way to sample a taste of the real fruit.
Yeah, perhaps vinyl has gone the way of the old muscle cars of yesteryear but boy, give it a spin if you get the chance 'cause it may just be an experience that ya' can't quite get anywhere else.
Thanks for the chance to blab on yer' blog.

Cheers,

TLR

 

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