On Vinyl

More groovy than I imagined…

I recently made an impulse purchase of a record player. Ok, not quite an impulse buy, because having made the decision I made a careful choice. It’s also something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I dismissed it as an unnecessary luxury and something I don’t have room for. And it’s true, I still don’t really have room for one(!) but I think I’ve learned a couple of worthwhile things –

  1. Vinyl really holds up well against digital – much better than I expected.
  2. Offering a physical copy of an album is consequently something I’ll take more seriously again.
  3. Particularly when listening to digital transfers of older records, or transfers done during the 90s, it is possible to find that the process has been butchered.
  4. My kids need a way to be able to explore the musical landscape, or at least our record collection.
  5. I forgot (and looking with children has reminded me) how much fun it is looking through records, and even buying one not being sure what is included.

Anyone who has seen me work knows I’m fairly comfortable with the digital audio workflow, from recording through to mastering (though for this last stage I may defer to someone with better equipment and more expertise). My point though is that before this I was already familiar with some of the early problems with digital – jitter, dithering and clock stability and then later the loudness wars of the 90s, but I was also familiar with its strengths. For my own purposes I made comparisons of the compressed formats (with uncompressed audio) and decided on one I was happy with using for most listening purposes. I was less familiar with the arguments in favour of vinyl, but my opinion was coloured by my early experience of it.

I grew up listening to cassette tapes and radio. I used to listen to all sorts of things – jazz, classical, comedy, drama… I’d swap mixtapes with friends – the 90s equivalent of the playlist. By the mid-90s, CDs were becoming more popular and I had friends who has made the switch – no more winding back and forth to listen to your favourite track. I remember buying OK Computer (Radiohead) on tape… that was late 90s… but at some point I persuaded my parents to top up my birthday money one year and buy something I could listen to CDs on, while still retaining to ability to make mixtapes.

I remember a trip to Currys(?) and setting eyes on an Amstrad hifi – separate speakers, two tape decks, the all important CD drawer… and lurking on the top, a turntable. I subsequently bought The Bends on CD… and either that year or the next, while on tour in Ireland with a youth orchestra, I bought my first vinyl records.

As it happens, I chose well and was lucky with what I found in the now closed Connolly’s Bookshop in Cork –
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (IR£3)
Carmen-Suite 1, L’Arlesienne-Suites 1&2 – Von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic (IR£3)
and either at the same time or soon after I added
Elgar Symphony No.2 – Vernon Handley, London Philharmonic
Rimsky-Kosakov Scheherazade, Capriccio Espagnol – Charles Dutoit, Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal
1812 Overture, Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture, Lohengrin Prelude to Act 3, Night on a Bare Mountain – Charles Mackerras, London Philharmonic

I realised at the time that the turntable was not very good – the sound I would get from these records was thin and lacking detail compared to what I would hear on the radio… but the performances were good. I continued to pick up and enjoy the occasional record, but in the meantime my lasting interest in funk, pop, jazz and fusion blossomed and any music I bought would be on CD… with two exceptions. I bought Head Hunters – Herbie Hancock on vinyl first… and Tribute to Jack Johnson – Miles Davis. Jack Johnson was a life changing record for me… but the vinyl I left in its shrink wrap – by then I’d decided this turntable really wasn’t something I wanted to use to play a brand new record of music I loved.

It may not have been a very good hi-fi overall, but it survived my teenage years – it survived University. I played the records less and less, and one day the drive belt snapped. At the time, I certainly couldn’t afford to replace it. A couple of years later and I invested in a couple of bits of second hand audio that I still use today – a Cambridge Audio A1mk3 SE amp (£40 I think) and a couple of Wharfedale bookshelf speakers that I picked up for £25… I’d play CDs via a dvd player and in the end replaced one woofer… but for casual listening it was (and still is) fine to good. For serious listening I’d just go into the “studio” and listen on monitors. The forgotten records were wrapped up and put away and haven’t been looked at for the best part of 20 years.

I didn’t forget about them completely – the Handley Elgar recording I picked up cheaply on CD, but the Bernstein I could never find… or at least I couldn’t be sure it was the same set of performances. In the end, on a trip to the loft and I spotted the records and decided either I’d get a record deck or I’d dispose of the records. I’ll write another post about deciding what to buy and then setting it up to get the best from it. But to cut a long story short, I was gobsmacked by the results.

These records had never had a proper clean, but they were fortunately still in good condition… but it was like I had never heard them properly before. The bass extension was something I’d not expected, nor the clarity and stability of the stereo image – I don’t think I’d really noticed the organ added near the end of the Elgar. But more than that, this was music I’d forgotten how I’d played it over and over again… particularly the Bernstein recording and the Scheherazade – I suddenly remembered this was my soundtrack whilst reading the Frank Herbert Dune series. Music strongly attaches itself to your memories, but even knowing that I was surprised by the rush… places and people coloured in by my imagination, and memories of the place I spent hours reading, and flipping records – a place long since completely changed.

In the weeks since, to my amusement I managed to locate a digital copy of the Bernstein recording… so I bought it and took the opportunity to try an informal comparison, and to my surprise the vinyl held up well… and in some ways (perhaps partly due to familiarity) I preferred the more forward sound of the winds and brass, even though I could hear that in the digital transfer they had managed to widen the stereo image and, for want of a better description, the sound is more “modern”.

The biggest surprise though was the reaction of my children – they are seven and five, and in part I had just wanted to share with them some music they hadn’t heard and that I used to enjoy. I don’t subscribe to any of the music subscription services and the house record collection is stored on a NAS and streamed from this via a Kodi box, which we control via our phones. As a consequence, the music isn’t as accessible as I’d like it to be (…except for the parts of the collection they need to be older for)… and so it shouldn’t really be a surprise how much they enjoy the tactile experience of cleaning a record and putting it on, or the colourful record sleeves, or as the covid lockdown has eased, the new found fun of popping into a charity shop and browsing through a box of records in search of hidden treasure.

As a result, I understand better the appeal of releasing new music on vinyl.

I’m not a complete convert – in terms of durability and potential sound quality, digital wins… and we don’t have any needles skipping during enthusiastic dancing when streaming from the NAS. It’s not so portable. But I have a new found appreciation of the quality of both the recordings found on vinyl and the sound reproduction – we’ve picked up a few Frank Sinatra LPs and they’ve been fantastic… some I hadn’t heard before, and it sent me down a rabbit-hole finding out more about Neal Hefti and Nelson Riddle – so I’m convinced if you have a decent setup, it’s a good way to really appreciate music… not just sticking something on in the background or in the car, but sitting down to listen to something in its entirety and appreciate a work of art.

These days when producing music and trying to get people to pay for it, if you’re trying to connect with an audience I can see how it helps to be able to offer them something tangible… something with artwork and notes to pore over. Getting someone to listen to a stream it’s very much here today and gone tomorrow while a physical copy of an album, particularly something that takes up as much space as an LP, is a reminder of the effort that went into putting the thing together.

p.s. Choosing records with a five year old is very amusing… and in my experience it’s worth humouring them because the results can be unexpected. So far we’ve heard Billy Smart’s Circus, Gilbert O’Sullivan and the unexpectedly hilarious Werner Muller Orchestra – the cover of the LP gave no clue as to what we were in for.