Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"...And we're puttin' it on wax! It's the NEW STYLE!"

In the past few months, I've purchased three new albums - Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, U2's No Line On The Horizon and Pearl Jam's re-issue and redux of their 1991 debut album Ten, known as "The Legacy Edition" - in a way I have rarely ever purchased any of the 450-plus albums in my collection; I bought these three on vinyl.

It's an evolution that few could have predicted, and yet it's a notion that large number of audiophiles have always agreed upon: vinyl records - or "LPs", as the old folks call 'em - are the way to go.

And now, seemingly out of the digital blue, the modern-day record stores, which come in the form of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, are hocking the latest releases and some of the all-time great albums in the form of a big, shiny, black disc made of vinyl with one groove imprinted in a tightly-wound spiral from edge to center and charging roughly 20 bucks a pop. Along the valleys of this aforementioned microscopic groove are variations so slight and frequent that a special "needle" is required to run along the crevasse, reading each bump and wiggle and translating them all into electric pulses which are transformed into amplified sound waves pumped through a speaker system.

This system, my dear young ones, is what is known as an "analog signal". Vinyl records are a form of music recorded and played back through an analog sound signal. The word "analog" literally means "proportionate" - a "one-to-one" ratio of sound recorded to sound re-played. CDs and MP3s are digital recordings - crisp and clear, and safe from the dangers of dust scratches and warping to which vinyl have long been known to be susceptible. No binary code of ones and zeros can ever replace the exact replication of sound waves - digitization will always be an extra step in the recording process. And this is why the sound quality of a vinyl record is forever superior to any digital recording that can ever be made.

But the question that instantly arises in the year 2009, after more than 20 years of the Compact Disc as Format King in the realm of music duplication, is: "Why the hell would vinyl be making a comeback now?" And I have a theory or two about this. In fact, the acquiescence to this retro trend may have been triggered in me personally when two notions crossed my conscience's path at once.

The first of these was when I noticed how easy it has become to acquire music these days. I remember a fonder time when Tower Records was still a thing. In fact, somewhere around 1995, at the tender age of 14 years, I was so hungry for my own copy of a Dire Straights greatest hits album - if only to have "Sultans of Swing" on CD to play on my own stereo system any time I'd wish - that I, still a few years away from having my own car or a license, made a 10.4-mile roundtrip trek from my home to Tower Records in Dublin and back home again. I got the album I wanted, but I'd earned it! And the sound from that CD was all the more appreciated. That's what I and the entire post-Napster world have lost: music appreciation. The fact is, and may always remain, that I can log onto my computer and, within a matter of minutes and with the transaction of little to no of funds, I can have a digital MP3 file of generally any song in the realm of the popular music of the past 50 years. And that's the difference: a couple minutes in front of a computer versus an afternoon of hiking across city limits to obtain ownership of the music I want; it's just way too easy these days. I can no longer respect or appreciate naturally the music I acquire, and that is truly a shame.

And then I "acquired" a digital copy of a live, stand-up comedy album by screaming comedian Lewis Black (of The Daily Show fame) called
Anticipation. On this album, Black sticks to a theme that recalls how many things are quite disappointing compared to the actual anticipation of them. The anticipation of an event or a feeling you know is coming, he proposes, is always better than the actual occurrence. And when he touched on how this theory applies to recorded music, I understood completely:

"Boy-oh-boy, it’s a totally different experience – record albums – than from what we have now – CDs and digital downloads - because now it’s like, unbelievable! If you don’t like that piece of shit that you bought for 99 cents, you press a button – that fucker’s gone! Another song comes right the fuck on! No waiting! No fucking waiting! You can switch from an album to a fucking other album! Are you fucking kidding me? That’s a miracle! Everytime I push the button on the iPod and that happens, literally, the expression on my face, I believe, is exactly the same as primitive man when he first saw fire!

"Now, see, with a record album, if you wanted to change the song ‘cause you didn’t like the song, you had to
work! You had to get up - out of your chair - and walk across the entire living room to get to the 'record player'. And the 'record player' has a 'tone arm' with a needle in it. And then you’ve gotta take that and find the right 'groove' – and there are like, a billion of ‘em! Now, where the record would actually change and the next track would come up was a little bigger... but it’s still like performing surgery!"

And Black was right. There was something magical about the experience of listening to an album on 10-inch vinyl. The anticipation of getting to track three or four was completely abolished with the advent of digital music. "Click!" Next song! "Click!" Next album! We have totally destroyed our patience, and thus, our appreciation for the album as a unit of music. Get up? Get up and cross the room? I crossed city boarders and a highway to get an album! That's dedication! That's devotion! That's patience! And that is what makes an album worth it's price. So, when I saw that the new Guns N' Roses would be released on vinyl, I knew something was up in the music world at large. The winds were changing. "New music on old technology? Hmmm...," thought I, "What's going on here?" I gave it a shot and, low and behold, I'm diggin' it.

And upon further review, here are a few nerdy, technical, little facts about digital music that bury it even deeper: Sure, you can buy a song for 99 cents on iTunes nowadays, or a full album for around 10 bucks. But what you're getting is of a much lower quality. Yeah, it may sound pretty good coming through your computer speakers or iPod earbuds, but the fact is that the CD pressing that those songs came from would have given you the highest digital quality possible - and in the world of digital music, quality is measured in units of the volume of data transfered per second - kilobytes per second - or "kbps". A CD has each song recorded at a very high volume of data per second: 1411 kbps, which sounds amazing on a hi-fidelity sound system, even if it lacks the depth and breadth of sound - the "warmth" - that vinyl delivers. But when you log onto iTunes or otherwise download a song from the Internet, you're lookin' at getting an MP3 that's been "ripped" at 192 kbps or even 128 kbps. That's less than 10% of the raw data being transferred when compared to the actual CD quality. And the thing that bugs me about this is that iTunes will still charge you the regular price - be it $9.99 or $13.99, depending on the album - while only delivering 10% of the music product, not to mention a lack of packaging! We've been sold a bill of goods here people! Snake oil! And that is exactly why people steal music off the Internet - they're tired of being ripped off!

Well, we've come full circle. Vinyl to the rescue! Vinyl is worth the price. The new pressings of new and old albums (I recently picked up GN'R's "Appetite For Destruction" for $19.99 at Best Buy, but found it even cheaper among the much more vast selection available at Hot Topic, of all places!) are even superior when compared to the hay day of the LP record, from the 1940s thru the 1970s. New Premium 180+ Pure Virgin and Heavyweight 180 Gram vinyl sounds better than anything we've ever been sold in the past. It's sturdy, strong and less susceptible to damage, so your dollar goes further than ever. All you need is a turntable, a needle and a couple of good speakers. And beyond all that, when you buy a record album on vinyl, you've really got something! Not this little 4-inch CD in a plastic tray. You've got a big square fold out book, complete with either one disc, or now often two discs, and big art work! Something you can display in a frame if you want to - because people will be able to see it from across the room! No more little booklets. Sit down and unfold on your lap real gift from your favorite band - buy an LP!

Now, I'm certainly not going to toss out all my old CDs and I'm definitely not going to stop downloading music online. But I have decided that the real gems, the music that is priceless in and of itself, deserves to be heard on vinyl as often as possible. I owe it to myself to experience these songs this way. So shake your head at me and call me a nerdy "audiophile" if you must - I enjoy it. In fact, I kinda like being a little like those guys in the movie, "High Fidelity". I just gotta get me one of those cool little lint brushes for the records. Do they even sell those anymore?

******* UPDATE - April 27, 2009 ********

(Seeeee?  L.A. TIMES story)


Anonymous said...

good luck with that. wanna buy a Bob Seger 8-Track?

Vanilla Ice said...

I think this post comes from a conversation we had driving home for Christmas last year (probably after listening to the quoted Lewis Black bit), so I'll save you the long winded version...suffice to say, it's called "Progress".

Mike Wood said...

Response "@Vanilla Ice",

POINT THE FIRST: As you are my cousin, Sean - and not a man whose given name was Robert Van Winkle - I have no idea why you call yourself "Vanilla Ice". It makes little to no sense. For you do nothing "to the extreme", and I don't know exactly how you "rock a mic", but I assure you it is certainly not "like a vandal".

POINT THE SECOND: Of course, the advent of digital music is "progress" in one direction, yes; regress in another. For, you see, the progression of music portability and accessibility led us to mp3s and to the iPod, but the same "advances" led us away from sound quality. I know I can't spin up some old Motown Records in my car (i.e. "van"), but if I could, I certainly would. All I'm saying is that I'm venturing back to the epitome of sound quality... or, at least, trying to.