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The Vinyl Experience

Written by Dux, November 2009

massing a collection of things has been a hobby I've enjoyed for as long as I can remember, especially when it happens to coincide with a passion that I have already had previously. Though I've been collecting music in one form or another since I became seriously interested in rock and metal, it has largely been relegated to CD's (and mp3's if you count having copies of a digital file as a "collection"). Despite this, however, I have always been a huge proponent of what I formerly called "the CD experience," which could generically be put as the more verbose "physical medium experience."

n either case, the gist is this: I feel that something is lost when music exists only as a series of bits as an mp3 or your favorite flavor of digital music format. That being said, my argument for this is a multi-tiered one. I suppose the most obvious reason is having a physical copy of both the medium and its accompanying cover and liner notes. I like admiring the album art that is not compromised of pixels, the tactile feeling of flipping through the booklet, and being able to read through the liner notes right there in my hands. I like having a bookshelf full of jewel cases to peruse, or a CD wallet full of discs that I can physically take out and put into my player of choice. Most importantly, I like the fact that having the physical copy of your music means that you have it in the highest, uncompressed quality you can get (short of acquiring the master tapes), and, in the event where you need something more mobile, are free to rip it to as many lossy digital formats for as many of your portable devices as you like.

p until recently, this mindset has mostly applied to my library of compact discs. However, it has always been my intent to get into collecting select albums in the vinyl format when I had gotten to a point where I had some expendable income for buying (potentially) doubles of music I already had. I'm not going to make the hackneyed joke about the youth not knowing what a record is, but suffice it to say, all of the principles I spoke about above apply equally, if not more aptly, to vinyl than they do to CD's.

espite CD sales plummeting in favor of the more convenient and portable files from digital distribution and associated pirating, as of the last few years, record sales have been on the rise. White, suburban DJs aside, what exactly is the appeal of a format more cumbersome and delicate than its successor? In a word: plenty.

inyl records take the physical medium experience to its height. The album art is lavish and huge, its details alone being able to be appreciated as works of visual art. Though the liner notes typically consist of only the back cover, or the inside of the two folds if it is in gatefold style, there is more than enough room to list lyrics and credits at a more readable size than its compact counterpart. Handling the one foot by one foot "booklet" is truly a joy.

ack in its heyday, listening to an album was an event unto itself. Though it sounds hard to believe in the context of today, people used to get together and huddle around their stereo system and just listen (imbibing your favorite alcoholic beverage and/or ingesting your substance of choice at the same time was also not uncommon…) . The point I'm trying to make is that modern forms of music have turned it from being an involved experience to a passive one. Playing a record requires the listener to take it from its sleeve, place it on the platter, start it spinning, and then carefully place the stylus. Then, when one side is done, you have to flip it over and repeat the process. This requires active participation from at least one of the people listening, and fosters an environment where if you're someone taking the time to listen, chances are you are actually invested in the music and the company around you, rather than merely casually hearing ambient noise.

n terms of sound quality, my experience thus far has been a mixed one. Though I don't know if you would call me an "audiophile" in the strict sense of the word, I have developed a keen ear for quality. Traditionally, it has been debated that because of their analog nature (and related higher sampling rate, amongst other things), records are the medium of choice for providing the most true-to-the-source reproduction of a sound recording. I'm not going to sit and debate the technical nuances of CD versus vinyl, but merely offer my personal observations.

o my ears, vinyl pressings live up to the "warmer" attribute commonly associated with them, and certainly sound more full than their digital counterparts. This is unsurprising, as the sound being picked up by the needle is an actual, physical snapshot of a sound wave pressed into wax (try listening to a record unplugged from your stereo and you'll faintly hear what I mean). That being said, the main reason I got into vinyl was because I was told that it was better able to achieve greater separation than other formats due to an analog format's inherent property of letting noise in the sound spectrum "breathe." By separation, I mean the ability to pick out discrete instruments in the mix. While vinyl almost always sounds less flat than its digital equivalent, its mix is sometimes more obscured, and rather than providing a high fidelity experience, merely provides one that is more rich, albeit with less clarity.

his seems to be less noticeable from releases that came out during vinyl's height of popularity (read: 70's and early-to-mid 80's), which brings me to my next point. All recordings start off as analog waveforms at some point. However, the difference between modern productions and ones of yesteryear is the processes that technology has made available. While digital editing suites like ProTools and Resin allow much easier manipulation of tracks than their reel-to-reel predecessors, they also require that these analog signals get converted to digital ones at some point, losing varying amounts of the dynamic range they once had, all dependant on how expensive your hardware and/or software is that does the conversion. It makes sense that an analog format pressed from a mix that was done entirely analog is going to achieve a more true sound than those that have undergone a conversion.

hat being said, almost all pressings of modern albums to vinyl seem to be using the CD mix in an effort to a save a buck, rather than remixing the tracks to take advantage of the medium. It shows. In many cases, the vinyl versions of modern albums sound at best as good as their CD counterparts (and sound equally as flat), and sometimes worse. Rule of thumb: listen to recordings as they were originally meant to be pressed.

ther idiosyncrasies have made themselves apparent as I have spent more time with the format. For example: the quality of the sound degrades the closer the stylus gets to the center of the record, sometimes very noticeably, because of the way the grooves concentrically become closer together, compressing the etched waves. Similarly, the faster spinning the format of the record is, the better quality recording you are getting (more RPM's equal more 'data' underneath the stylus at a given time).

espite any qualms I might have, there is just a certain indefinable 'x-factor' that makes it all worthwhile. Is there a certain chic, elitist angle going on? Sure. The retro quality is certainly a factor, and makes the listener feel as if they belong to a smaller, more "in-the-know" subset of the music collective, perhaps creating a sense of nostalgia for listening to music purely, the way it was perceived to be decades ago.

here's also the collecting aspect. Some record releases are limited to small production runs in the single-digit thousands, and even then broken up into smaller runs of different-colored variations or picture discs. Many times the albums will come with extra bonuses like posters or patches as a small 'thank you' to the buyer. Other times, you might be trying to find a band whose release has been out of print on vinyl for a decade or more. That chase of searching small independent shops, or actively survey the 'bay for that elusive pressing are a whole pleasure unto themselves.

y foray into music on wax has given me a great amount of satisfaction, and is one I will continue to pursue as a rock music aficionado. However, to the casual listener, it is a case of pearls before swine; the nuances of the medium being lost to those who don't care to seek them out. It is simply easier to get a fairly good sound on modest equipment with a CD than it is to achieve a great sound on the audiophile equivalent with vinyl.

ee you at the next listening party.

Dux - November 2009