u201CIs it wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.u201D ~ Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
I'm sold on vinyl. Like other passionate music lovers, ever since I was a kid I have eagerly followed the major leaps in recording technology, starting with the cassette tape all the way to the mp3. Until a year ago, I never considered pushing back against the evolutionary trend, but now here I am, completely hooked on a medium that seemingly flies in the face of decades of technological progress. And I'm not the only one.
After slowing to a trickle in the early 2000s, sales of vinyl have been making a sizeable comeback over the past six years, and were up 39% in 2011 alone (3.9M albums sold). This is happening while CD sales declined by 12.6% in the same year. While it might be tempting to chalk up the new wave of interest in vinyl to the aesthetic trends of smug, hipster culture, such a quick dismissal is suspect. I've spent the past year on my own journey into the world of vinyl and can truly say that there is something entirely unique and significant about the medium, something greater than simple nostalgia, image, or even sound.
Raise a Child Up
Music has always held a prominent place in my life. Growing up, a typical night in the Schaefer household included my dad, a professional jazz trombonist-turned-lawyer, digging through the small, dusty library of vinyl he had built up over the years, and selecting the night’s soundtrack. I can still hear him letting out a sigh as he would bend down on one knee to delicately drop the needle on the record. After a long day of legal work, this was his therapy. For me, it was an education and an adventure. I sat there anticipating the “pop” as the needle hit the grooves, beginning its sonic dance.
The three Schaefers would sit in the living room, my dad in his leather recliner, me seated near my mother, who was cross-stitching with one eye on her work and the other watching me eat grotesquely large ice cream sundaes. Flowing through the speakers like water were the sounds of joy, sadness, regret, anger, love, and hope — life’s ingredients filtered through the treble and bass clef. It was during these nights I was introduced to such names as Tchaikovsky, Pavarotti, Coltrane, Davis, Joplin, and McCartney.
While my dad usually played DJ, my mom was no musical slouch either. She was an accomplished pianist and had purchased vinyl since her high school days, amassing an impressive selection of 50s and 60s rock in addition to a comical amount of obscure 45s with everything from sing-along children’s music to Italian opera. She passed away during my freshman year of college, and my subsequent inheritance of her record collection eventually served as the rekindling of my own vinyl journey.
For years, her records sat in our garage. I said I’d get to them soon enough, but buried beneath that thought was the reality that going through her records might be a more intimate experience than I was capable of handling at the time. Finally, while cleaning out the garage last summer, I saw them again, and knew it was time. I brought them into the living room and began going through them one by one, the experience just as personal as I’d imagined, but also far more enjoyable.
I wasn’t just going through my mom’s music; I was unearthing the tangible reflections of her life, a personal art gallery of tastes and experiences filled with the good, bad, and ugly. I laughed at certain album covers, trying to think of what must have been going through her head when she purchased them (she probably thought the same about a few purchases I had made in my earlier years). In many cases the records still had the original shrink wrap on the outside and I could tell by the stickers approximately when in her life she bought them — apparently a mythical time when you could buy 12″ studio albums for $3.67.
Tuesdays With Levi
Around this time, as if on cue, an old college friend of mine moved to the neighborhood. His name was Levi, he loved vinyl, and he had no one to share his thoughtfully curated 500+ album collection with. Missionaries are trained to be ready at all times to share their message, as one never knows when a person is at a point in his life when it’s exactly what he needs to hear. Levi was a vinyl missionary and he couldn’t have found a more able and willing proselyte. My musical soul had already been tilled, seeded, and watered by the experience of un-crating my mom’s vinyl — all he had to do was reap the harvest. His sickle was a Technics SL-1210 MK2 turntable and some insanely good speakers.
In the following months I spent hours and hours planted on his couch poring through his collection while listening to him explain the ins and outs of turntables, pre-amps, speakers, vinyl care, quality, where to buy, etc. You could see the joy in his face as he laid it all out for me…he wasn’t doing it for any other reason than his love for this musical medium. I didn’t yet own a turntable so I stored all of this information away knowing that my days of living without one were numbered.
The typical ritual during those times together, which I began referring to as “Tuesdays With Levi,u201D involved me scanning his shelf looking for bands I recognized (even when I found bands I considered my favorites, I realized I’d only consumed their music in bits and pieces and had rarely, if ever, listened to their albums in full, as most were created to be heard), Levi methodically placing the record on the turntable, me pouring a round of wine or beer, followed by several minutes of silence while we actively listened to the day’s selection. We really listened. The sound was engrossing, warm, round, and far more life-like then anything I had heard on a CD or mp3. I'd often close my eyes and picture myself seated in the front row of a concert. It required very little imagination.
It Just Sounds…Better
Whether or not vinyl sounds better than its digital counterparts has been hotly debated for as long as the mediums have coexisted. The real answer is: it depends. Because records produce an analog signal (real sound is analog) and CDs/mp3s produce digital signals (close approximations or snapshots), vinyl is able to produce a richer, more accurate sound. The problem lies in the myriad of ways the analog signal can break down before ever hitting the ear of the listener, mainly due to dirty vinyl or low quality audio equipment. However, assuming clean vinyl and mid to high-level audio equipment, most people favor the sound of vinyl, noting the warmness and fullness of the sound as opposed to the harshness of a CD.