The vinyl frontier

Deities help us, we have a turntable set up again, for the first time in longer than I can remember. We have started to listen to the two crates' worth of records that we didn't sell before we left Boston more than 20 years ago, armed with a stack of CDs. No dancing in the living room when a record is playing! This is an old house.

I've been critical of the resurgence of vinyl for a number of reasons. Vinyl records are easily damaged. Every time you play a record, the reproduction quality goes down. You can't run a weighted diamond stylus through jagged plastic grooves without molecules flying off. That's just physics. And to get the best sound quality, you need some seriously good equipment: a quiet, leveled turntable running at exact speed, a well-damped tonearm with optimum balance, and a stylus that is not worn. If the record warps, you're toast. A skip is forever.

Let's not even get into the weirdness of the RIAA rolloff or the physics of playing inner grooves versus outer. Given all the factors, I find it even more amazing that it's possible to get such fidelity out of this system than it is to believe that music can be reduced to bits and then turned into music again (which is also weird).

Still, it's not the inferiority of the medium that I have objected to most strongly. It's the fact that the new vinyl you're buying is unlikely to give you the full analog experience that you get from an old record.

Back in the day, no part of the process of making records involved sampling voltage levels and encoding them as bits. Music was recorded on analog tape. Effects were analog. The mastering process was analog. The entire process involved some form of waves, not zeros and ones. Even in the early days of CDs, the steps before CD manufacture were analog. You can see the letters "AAD" on old CDs, meaning that the recording and mastering were analog and only the process of encoding onto CDs was digital. Little by little, analog slipped away, first from the mastering stage (ADD) and then finally from the entire process (DDD).

Nowadays, if you have enough money, you can still record on analog tape. You can even do analog mastering, if you can find a mastering studio set up for it. But unless you're super careful, you will likely be using digital effects during recording. Some part of the signal will have been turned into zeros and ones before being reconverted for recording on analog tape. ProTools and other effects software are ubiquitous, doing their best to emulate the analog reverb, compression, and other effects they replaced.

Most bands can't afford to record on tape. It's not only expensive; it's hard to do, and thus time-consuming. In the old days, if you screwed up a note, you could "punch in" a new one, if it wasn't too close to notes you wanted to keep, but that's about it. Otherwise, you recorded another take, and maybe several more. You couldn't correct the myriad mistakes that are routinely corrected now, such as imprecise rhythms. Digital recording and effects are the devil's toolkit, but if you're willing to sell your soul, your band can sound better than it has any right to sound.

This means that when bands press vinyl, and buyers think they are hearing analog sound like on old records, they're wrong. They're hearing a digital bit stream converted to analog one step earlier in the process, at the turntable rather than the amplifier and speakers. They're hearing a certain amount of analog "warmth," to be sure, but not the same way as they would if they were to listen to all-analog recordings. Really it's like a CD with pops and scratches. Even reissued older recordings are often remastered, and that remastering is usually digital. Vinyl lovers seem not to realize that at least some of what they are appreciating is high-quality digital sound.

But actual all-analog vintage records, we got 'em! And I definitely understand the appeal of taking out a record (nice weight), carefully putting it on the turntable, and listening to the results, possibly while checking out the full-size artwork or lyrics you can actually read (and possibly using that double-album gate-fold for other purposes). We'll listen to a whole album all the way through, the way it was intended to be listened to. Even turning the record over is part of the pleasure, unless you're having trouble getting off your couch.

I get it. The satisfaction of playing our old records isn't just that we haven't heard them since forever. It's the return of the record playing ritual, something you can't get from CDs and certainly not from MP3s (nor, really, from cassettes). For kids, it's something new and exciting. For altekakers like me, it's old and exciting.

New records? Still problematic. And I could not care less about things like coloured vinyl. I have never treated records as collectible items. I bought them to play. And sometimes that meant they got very scratchy indeed. But every pop and scratch is familiar, like an old friend. Yesterday, I was listening to some new music using my computer and headphones, and all I wanted to do was to put a record on downstairs and let music fill the house.

(Apologies to my dear friend Mackie for nicking the name of his old band for the title of this post.)

No comments: