Tuesday, September 14, 2010

33 1/3 Great Things About Vinyl

Go to any indie record store or one of the better chain places, and it appears that vinyl l.p.s are making a comeback. (Though, as L L Cool J would say....) Here are approximately 33 1/3 reasons to celebrate the new vinyl revolution.

  • You really have to listen to them. Even if you just put a record on to listen to while you're cleaning house or something, you still need to pay attention to know when to lift the stylus and flip it over. (Ed. note: I have since been told that those turntables with an "auto" setting will lift the stylus before it hits the paper part. However, if you're using your grandma's old record player, then there's a good chance that setting doesn't work anymore. And besides, the point about turning it over still stands.)
  • At about a foot square, the album cover itself can be a work of art in its own right, and, in fact, many of the most iconic images of modern popular music are from album covers. Cds shrunk the artwork so that it was kind of pointless to design something interesting. And digital downloads have all but made the album cover irrelevant.
  • And, thanks to the larger size, you can include cool extras like posters in the packaging. I know sometimes you can get them with cds, but in that case you either have to by the expensive boxed set or have them folded up really small.
  • Song order really matters. Because of that break in the middle, you have to choose not only what would make the best beginning and ending song, but how side one will end and two begin. Thus, there is more often than not greater variety in the song order than in a lot of cds that just put all the hits on the earlier tracks and fill the rest out with any old trash. (Though, it should be noted, that there are still plenty of artists--some of them young even--who try to put some thought into sequencing their albums.)
  • The mixing is way better. Notice how loud that cd you just bought sounds? Back in the day when they made records on vinyl, the engineers actually understood that not everything should be the same volume.
  • No need for the remix. A lot of albums were very hastily and carelessly transfered to digital format, resulting in a rather muddy sound quality. Now, a lot of cds have been remixed or remastered to try to recapture the quality of the originals, but the problem is that the record companies have used this as an excuse to jack up the prices.
  • The overall sound quality is better. The process of a vinyl record: the sound waves are recorded on electronic tape, a mechanism reads the waves and presses it into a vinyl disc, then the needle reads those waves and sends them to your speaker. So you're pretty much hearing the same sounds as were made in the studio. Digital recording: a computer records the sound waves as a series of ones and zeros, and then the computer in your cd player tells the speakers what sounds to make. Because the sound waves are binary code, they will come infinitely close to the original, but cannot fully reproduce it. Sound like that's too small of a difference to really matter? Compare a cd and an l.p. of the same album. More than likely the latter will sound fuller, more alive.
  • Vinyl records are a more participatory experience. The process of actually playing one is far more involved than a cd (let alone an MP3 player!), and they require further maintenance and care.
  • You can watch the record go 'round and 'round as it plays. I know, it sounds like something you'd only do if you were really stoned, but here me out. If you want to listen, I mean really listen to music, then it helps you concentrate if your eyes have something to focus on.
  • There's the nostalgia factor. Sure, it's easy to call vinylphiles a bunch of Luddites, but when you listen to a record, it's like you're part of a living history. Slap on your parents' Pet Sounds and you're hearing a little slice of 1966.
  • And then there's the cool factor. There's just something impressive about someone with a lot of vinyl. Besides, you aren't really a hipster if you don't own a copy of White Light/White Heat on vinyl. (Preferably bought at an indie record store.)
  • Vinyl records, properly stored, have outlived first generation cds. Whereas compact discs actually decay, vinyl records just wear out because you've played them too much. But then you can frame the cover and hang it on your wall.
  • They're kind of fragile so it's a little risky buying them online. So it's probably better to go to an acutal physical store. Which is good, because then you might get to know the store's employees and other customers.
  • Online music purchase (whether iTunes or Amazon) isn't really good for browsing. But, if you have to go to a store, given the right mood, you can spend hours just looking at what they've got. And there's nothing more enjoyable than a leisurely flip through a bin of records.
  • Vinyl records aren't nearly as portable as cassettes, cds, and MP3s. Normally, that would be a bad thing, but look at it this way. If you have to be in proximity to the actual apparatus, there's not as much that can distract you from giving the record a good listen.
  • To combat the portability problem, there are some turntables that allow you to copy records onto either cassette or cd. Some even come with a USB port to allow you to load them onto your computer.
  • In the future, it's quite possible that records could be issued with a code to download a digital copy, if, in fact, they aren't already.
  • We wouldn't have certain genres of music like hip-hop or house without vinyl records.
  • Vinyl records are also highly collectable, what with all the bootlegs, Japanese imports, and outdated greatest hits collections that never received a cd rerelease. Sure, there are limited release and special edition cds and download offers, but what's the fun of hunting something down when you can just have someone burn you a copy?
  • And they're great for showing off your collection, too. As was mentioned before, the covers are big enough to frame and display, and you need shelving to hold them all. You can't very well leave your MP3 collection lying around for people to look at, now can you?
  • You can physically manipulate a vinyl record while playing it. Which means you can have all sorts of fun "scratching" or changing the speed to make them sound like chipmunks.
  • As Shaun and Ed proved, you can use them to kill zombies.
  • Cuing a record is really hard, but being able to master it improves your concentration skills tenfold.
  • They're recyclable! The Jamaican record industry still releases singles on 45s so that, if they don't sell, they can recall the extras, melt them down, and repress them as a new single.
  • When singles used to be released on 45s, the artist wasn't necessarily obligated to fill out an entire album just for people to hear it. Similarly, if you just liked that one song by an artist, you didn't have to buy the whole album to here it they way you do with cds. Now, download services have done a lot to bring the single back, but there's a new problem. Everything can be bought as a single, including some songs that don't really stand on their own.
  • When singles were on vinyl, they had B-sides. Usually, these were just throw-away songs, but occasionally a classic song would wind up there. "I Will Survive," "Maggie May," "La Bamba"? All B-sides. With singles today only releasing one song, who knows what hidden greats are slipping through the cracks.
  • They have an aura in the Benjaminian sense. Those clicks, pops, and skips are traces that the record has been owned and played.
  • Also, as an analogue recording, they are an indexical sign of the recording session.
  • Because there's a break in the middle, you don't have to commit to listening to the whole thing in one sitting.
  • And because you can stack them up, you can create relationships between parts of different collections that you can't with a cd changer.
  • Since it's harder to cue, it's easier to see an album side as a unified whole as opposed to a bunch of unconnected songs.
  • However, as a listener you still have choice--Sides One and Two are merely suggestions; you choose where to begin listening.
  • Since so many people have bought into the myth that digital is better, they tend to give their records away cheaply--if not for free. You can make some really great vinyl finds at garage sales or, for the more daring, going dumpster diving.
Ok, so I'm 1/3 short. You try coming up with a fraction of a reason.

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