Buying Vinyl Records Can Be So Goddamn Annoying!!!

I wonder if the phrase “You Can’t Go Home Again” also applies to technology too?  Can we return to living with older inventions?  Why haven’t some people rejected television and returned to radio?  There’s always some Luddites.  Just last week CBS Sunday Morning had a piece about people going back to typewriters.  Really?  Who wants to go back to carbon paper and liquid paper after using a word processing?   Who would even want to return to WordPerfect or WordStar after using Microsoft Word?

Many people want to return to vinyl records.  I’ve been trying to go home again with music too, but it’s like the Thomas Wolfe novel.  I’m having trouble.

I love shopping for old records.  I love the big 12” covers.  But nostalgia is not all its cracked up to be.

I love old records, until I play them.  If they play without incident I love the heck out of them.  But if they skip, skate, crackle, pop, hiss, it shoots my blood pressure way up and pisses me off.  It makes me want to smash the record and give up LPs for good.  But I don’t.

It’s such a crapshoot to buy old records.  Come on, how much can we expect from half-century old plastic? 

I’ve bought LPs that looked mint and they’d have a constant background hiss.  I’ve bought records for one cut, and that cut, and that cut only, causes my stylus to skate.  But I’ve also bought records covered with fine scratches that sound wonderful.  It’s weird, but the heavy beat up old records from the 1950s and 1960s often play far better than the thin, nearly new looking records of the 1970s and 1980s.

Part of my problem is my “good” turntable.  It tracks so light that any imperfection causes a record to skate or skip.  My good turntable is hooked up to my good stereo.  I buy records hoping to find the wonderful warm sound of vinyl.  I play them loud.  So when a record acts up, I hear it jarringly loud, which makes it all the more annoying.  The good turntable is designed to make the records sound better, and to protect LPs from wear by lightly tracking through the grooves.  If a LP doesn’t play well on the good turntable I put it on the bad turntable in my computer room.  This older player, with its much heavier tone arm and tracking, can often play records the good turntable can’t.  But I have to listen to problem records on my computer speakers, which are Klipsch THX and sound good, but they aren’t like listening to the Infinity floor standing speakers in the den.

Maybe I should always use old technology to play old records, and new technology to play new records.

Many audiophiles claim LPs sound superior to CDs, but I disagree.  Yeah, LPs have a warm sound that’s very appealing, but it’s not why I buy records.  Modern CDs sound technically superior by far.  I buy records to travel back in time.  I want to go to a record store and shop for a new LP discovery.  I want to flip past hundreds of albums and find one I want to take a chance on.  I want to bring that album home, put it on the stereo, kick back in my recliner and listen with all my might.  And if I get lost in the experience, thrilled by discovering something wonderful, I find blissful pleasure.

All too often now I’ll be deep in reverie and BLAM! – the tone arm slams into some microscope imperfection.   Or WEEEEEERRNT! as it slides over a portion of the cut.  This is so goddamn irritating.  This seldom happened decades ago when the LPs were new.  And even now it doesn’t happen as much as you’d imagine for such ancient technology, but it happens enough to wonder why I bother with retro tech.  Digital technology is infinitely more convenient and reliable.

Like here’s a favorite LP I fell in love with back in 1968 that I recently rediscovered and bought on vinyl, The Secret Life of J. Eddy Fink by Janis Ian.  The copy I found even had the blue paper insert with a couple extra poems.

secret-life-of-j-eddy-fink

Coming home, I was so happy to have found this LP again.  I put it on with great expectations.  Then it didn’t play right.  I could have save myself a trip and $5.  It’s available to play online for free at Janis Ian’s website, and doesn’t skip there (although the site fades out the end of the song in a way so she’s not giving you’re the real thing).  I do have the same songs on a CD I bought years ago, Society’s Child: The Verve Recordings, or from Rdio, but it’s more fun to play from an LP that looks like the LP I owned 45 years ago.  Because it doesn’t play from the good turntable it ruins the whole experience and fun of buying the album.  It will play from the bad turntable and that’s a consolation, but it deflates the fun.

Does it really matter if a song comes from squiggles on vinyl, pits on a CD, or via electrons over the internet?  Why am I trying to go to a long ago past, when I have a bright and shiny present to explore?

I was buying a lot of old records.  I’ve bought 61 albums since the beginning of the year, but I’ve stopped.  I suppose I could switch to very expensive 180 gram new albums, which run $20-50, but I won’t.  I’ve gone back to mostly listening to Rdio.  It has about a million albums.  I’m not hurting for music to listen to.  It was just fun trying to find lost albums.  I just missed record stores and flipping through bins of records.  But I guess I can’t go home again.

I haven’t completely given up on vinyl.  I’m just more careful.  I’m learning to be a more savvy vinyl shopper.  I keep my eye out for LPs that have never been reprinted, or the CDs have long gone out of print too.  I use digital for most stuff, and vinyl for when digital lets me down.

I guess I’m an old fart when I claim that buying music online is not the same experience as shopping for records in a store.  That something has been lost by modern ways.  But I am willing to admit that the new ways, with modern technology, are far superior.  If I was forced to choose between Rdio and records that played perfectly every time, I’d pick Rdio.  If I was forced to choose between Amazon and bookstores, I’d pick Amazon.  The world wide web is better than CompuServe and GENIE.  I’m not crazy.  I do know a 2013 Ford Mustang is technically superior to its 1965 classic ancestor, even though people will pay far more for the older model.  Nostalgia sells, but modern technology is superior.

We might talk about going home, but now is better.  For instance, a couple weeks ago I got a heart stent.  In 1968 I’d have been shit out of luck.

JWH – 5/25/13

Audiophiles and the Quest for High Fidelity

Audiophiles are music lovers who claim ordinary music fans are missing a range of high fidelity sound when playing music on ordinary equipment.  Audiophiles talk as if the difference between ordinary sound and high fidelity is like the difference between watching a TV show on an old black and white TV or on a new HD TV.  Are they on drugs?  Are we deaf to sounds only they can hear?  Are they just being snobs, sneering at us plebs for drinking $10 bottles of wine while they savior their $100 bottles?  Some people think audiophiles and their promotion of high-end audio equipment no more than modern day snake oil peddlers, and even if you had a degree in electrical engineering, you wouldn’t actual hear the difference between a $400 turntable and a $4,000 one.

maxell-ad

I have gone to a high end music shop and sat in a sonically ideal listening room and heard music from a $25,000 stereo and the sound quality was many magnitudes better than my $2,000 setup.  Few people want to be audiophiles if it costs a fortune, but what if you could significantly improve your existing sound system for a $100-$1000?  Maybe we’d all like to be junior audiophiles.

Most people just listen to their favorite tunes and never think about sound quality.  Few people even know that audiophiles exist.  Compare the two this way.   Most people are happy to get a meal at McDonalds, it’s filling, quick and reasonably tasty.  Those are your average music fans. Audiophiles are gourmets  that only dine at 5-star restaurants who then talk and write endlessly about what they just ate.

There are damn few audiophiles in this world, and I’m not one of them, although if I wasn’t so cheap, I’d like to be.  However, I’m intrigued by the idea of high fidelity and how music is recorded.  I would think anyone would be fascinated by how audio engineers record music in a studio and convert that sound into a very long streams of 1s and 0s, and then we convert those 00100111101100101001s back to music that goes into our ears.

It’s very hard to imagine how we hear Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” when we look at the microscopic pits on a CD:

cd-pits

Of course, this compares to the old days of cutting tiny but visible grooves into vinyl platters where a very small needle would ride along the groove and recreate the vibrations of the recording.  Neither recording technique sounds plausible to me, but then like Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any significantly advanced technology will seem indistinguishable from magic.”

And it’s no easier to understand how we’d hear Beethoven coming out of these squiggles.  It is magic!

record-grooves3

As a kid I wondered why stereo records didn’t require two grooves and needles, one for each speaker.  And I would try to imagine how they got so many instruments and vocals squeezed down to one physical squiggle that the needle would interpret.  Making all those sounds into ones and zeroes is just mind boggling!  How many people actually know how to re-invent CD recording?

Neil Young will be promoting in 2013 a new device called Pono that will deliver master tape quality to the masses, with the promise that record companies have already converted 8,000 albums to 192 kHz 24 bit files for his new system.  When you look at Young’s Pono player, you really wonder about the magic of audiophile technology in such a small device.

pono

When I think about sound recording I imagine a band on a stage with two microphones recording the performance, then taking that recording and decoding it so it’s reproduced by the two speakers in my den.  What I would like to hear is the same sound I would have heard if I had been in the audience at that concert.  We don’t actual hear the same sound, we hear an approximation.  The question of music quality comes from how close we can get to hearing what was performed.

We can all tell the difference between a sharply focused photograph and a fuzzy out-of-focus picture.  What audiophiles are suggesting is most people can’t hear the different between a good and bad recording.

Over the years audiophiles have argued millions of words over the superior sound quality of vinyl records versus CDs or vice versa.  Unless you want to read a tremendous amount of technical jargon its very hard to understand this discussion scientifically.  What I’ve decided to do is just use my own ears and make a subjective decision.

I love music enough to make the effort to improve my listening equipment.  I’m thinking I can be a cheapskate half-ass audiophile pretender and get more sound quality to enjoy for not much effort and money.  I’m willing to study a certain amount about improving high fidelity, and I’m willing to spend a little money.  Recently I got back into vinyl and I’ve taking a chance by spending $200 on a new turntable hoping it will get me better sound.  It’s like spending a few bucks on headphones to improve the sound over stock ear buds that comes with Apple and Android devices.

A quantum leap in sound quality can be achieved by going from an iPhone with stock ear buds to a  modest CD, receiver and speaker setup.  Adding a turntable adds a whole new dimension of sound from vinyl.  But is vinyl worth the effort?  Many young people are jumping from digital music  to old turntable stereos they’ve scrounged from their parent’s attics or found at flea markets or garage sales.  Would they be better off skipping the trendy record player and just getting a CD player?  If they’ve already set up a surround sound system for their TVs or video games, they might be interested to know that those DVD and Blu-ray players also play music CDs.  Or adding the right powered speakers to a laptop, desktop or mobile device can add significant sound quality to playing music from iTunes.

Since I’ve been getting back into playing vinyl records I’ve also been thinking about their sound quality as compared to CDs and .mp3 files.  Some vinyl enthusiasts claim vinyl sounds better, but I believe this is only subjective.  I’ve read a lot on this topic and I’ll have to call it a theoretical draw.

I decided to do my own very limited listening test.  I only have 16 albums at the moment, with only a few overlaps with CDs and songs available on Rdio.  For my test song I used “Dreamsville” from the Peter Gunn soundtrack by Henry Mancini.  You can hear the song here from Youtube.  Play it very loud if you can.

It’s a nice cut to use because it has soft and loud parts, and solos from several instruments, and a lot of different sound textures to compare.

Listening is a very subjective experience.  Everyone has different ears, hearing ability and musical training.  I played “Dreamsville” on my stereo system through floor standing Infinity speakers cranked up loud.  I had a CD input, an Aux input for the turntable and TV input for the Roku where I listened to Rdio for the streaming .mp3 version.  Admittedly I have an older turntable, with a cheap pre-amp, but I believe I’m getting a pretty good sound from my records.

Playing “Dreamsville” over and over, and switching between the inputs, it was pretty obvious that the record lacked the highs and lows that the CD had.  Even the .mp3 file was in the middle of the two formats.  The streaming music was much closer to the CD in sound quality.  One disadvantage of the LP is it plays softer than the CD and .mp3 file, so I would have to pump up the volume when playing the record.

No matter how loud I played the record I couldn’t get the complex sounds I heard on the CD.  I made my comparisons by concentrating on the brassy sound of the horns, the high tinkling notes of the piano keys, the range of textures of the brushes on the drums, the deeper vibrations of the trombones, the fuller twangs of the electric guitar and so on.  Records do sound warm compared to CDs, but that’s because CD have a lot more treble and more bass range than vinyl.  And I suppose that extra texture can sound harsh to some people.

Then the UPS guy delivered my new turntable, an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB and it proved the audiophiles are right – spending more money gets you a lot more sound quality.  Repeating the tests, the LP now sounded much more dynamic, with tons more bass, and a lot more textured sound than the older turntable.  This goes to show that a newer, superior cartridge with new stylus could make a lot of difference, and another factor was the turntable had it’s own pre-amp that might have been much better than the cheap one I had.  It makes me wonder what I’d hear if I bought a $400 turntable or a $900 one.

Look at this table I’ve copied by screenshot from Enjoy the Music web site, and the article “Fidelity Potential Index: iPod, MP3, CD, LP, SACD – What Sounds Better and Why” by John Meyer.  Clicking on the image will enlarge it.

Fidelity Potential Index

By the numbers the quality should be .mp3 then LP then CD, but I didn’t perceive things that way.  Their Fidelity Potential Indexes are MP3=3.2, LP=4.2-6.3, and CD=7.1.  In comparison, a SACD is 35.0 FPI and a 24bit master is 46.1.  This leads me to believe that my old record and old turntable might be far from optimal quality, and the new one closer to what a record can actual do.  I guess that’s why vinyl fans spend lots of money on turntables and pre-amps.

My guess is .mp3 files and CDs played loud on a good stereo (not audiophile, merely good) will sound better than the average old turntable on the same system.  So for casual music listening CDs or .mp3 files are plenty good enough, so pick whatever is convenient, although I do think CDs sound better and are worth the trouble to listen to when you want to do some serious listening.

For the average music fan formats don’t matter.  If you want better fidelity you’ll need to spend some money, but how much is relative.

I’m really enjoying getting back into records and my new turntable makes me enjoy them all the more.  I still think the CD sounds best, but I actual enjoy buying and listening to records.  I guess it’s part nostalgia and part ritual.

So Why Buy Vinyl?

The reason why I got back into vinyl is because I want to hear records that I can’t get on CD or from Rdio/Rhapsody.  And it’s fun to play records sometimes, to enjoy the old way of listening to things.

One thing I learned from this test is not to buy records if I have them on CD or from streaming music.  This means the fun of playing vinyl is shopping for out-of-print records.  But records are good enough sounding that if I found albums under $5 that I don’t have on CD they are worth buying.  Spending $5 for an album I have on Rdio is just wasteful.  It’s a hard decision if the choice is between a $5 used album and a CD a on sale for less than $10.

I’ll play CDs, SACDs, LPs, and MP3s.  If absolutely everything was available on streaming music services like Rdio and Rhapsody I’d probably abandon all physical media.  I tend to believe 10 or 20 years from now everything will be streaming and physical records will only be played by folks sentimental for quaint technology.

What If Ripping Music Never Had Happened?

If music was still just a physical medium how would things be different now?  My guess is SACDs would rule.  If MP3 had never existed and people still bought CDs, I think vinyl would have disappeared just like 78s.  We’d still have LP collectors like we do with 78 collectors, but CDs would dominate, and maybe the newer Super Audio CDs (SACD) would have caught on.  When music became free because stealing songs became so easy and widely accepted by the young, it ruined more than just the music business.  I think it ruined the high fidelity concept.   Even now when more people are paying for digital files, their convenience has kept Hi-Fi sound quality from being an issue.

iTunes and the other digital music services have also ruined the concept of the album.  If we had never gone down the downloadable road, I think we’d have SACDs or better formats, with artists creating super-sized concept albums.  And without physical media I’m not sure if we’d have audiophiles.  It is possible that iTunes, Google and Amazon could sell 24-bit FLAC files , and Rdio, Spotify, Rhapsody and other subscription services could stream them, but there’s little demand.  People have gotten used to lo-fi convenience of .mp3 files.

Most people do not know about audiophiles and high end audio equipment.  It doesn’t matter to them.  An iTunes song played on an iPhone with stock ear buds is good enough.  If the hip young are rediscovering records and how much better they sound, maybe those same kids will become audiophiles and rediscover CDs, SACDs and 24-bit FLAC files.  Pirated music led a generation of music lovers down a dark tunnel of lo-fi music, and I hope the resurgence of vinyl is an indication that hi-fidelity is the light at the end of that tunnel.

How to Hear High Fidelity Without Buying the Equipment

One way to hear music at its best is at a movie theater.  Most good theaters have excellent multi-channel stereo systems.  Have you ever wondered why songs sounded fantastic at the show, but ho-hum at home?  What you hear at the theater is the high fidelity that studio engineers work so hard to record.  What you hear is closer to the 100% of the recording that Neil Young talks about when he complains that fans only hear 5% of the potential music when they are listening to a .mp3 file, or 15% when they listen to a CD.

JWH – 11/20/12

The Subculture of Vinyl Record Fans

After I wrote Back to Vinyl I started buying used LPs again and playing them on a hand-me-down JVC direct drive turntable.  I quickly realized there’s a psychology to loving vinyl records.  I can identify several common behaviors that vinyl record collectors share, and I’m slowly discovering a subculture to vinyl record fans and collectors.  It’s not a big subculture, the majority of its members are older and they’re dying off, but a new generation of record fans are emerging as sales of vinyl records increase, and young people discover the joy of “owning” music they can hold in their hands.  Some members of this subculture have collected huge archives of music history, while others just like records because they are fun way to play music.  And sure, some fans are just stubbornly refusing to accept the new technology they consider cold and impersonal.

Overall though, record fans remind me of other dying pop culture fandoms I’ve belong to, like pulp magazine collectors, silent film buffs, old time radio enthusiasts, pre-code Hollywood movie fans, who become guardians of popular arts of the past.  Much of the music vinyl fans preserve has been converted to newer digital formats, but far from all.   It’s a shame copyright laws are so restrictive because these people hold thousands and thousands of forgotten treasures that will be lost.

I’m not trying to proselytize for vinyl, or even convince my readers to start playing records again, I just want to describe the subculture a tiny bit, it’s quite fascinating.  But if you do have some old records, you might get them out and try playing them again.  And maybe some of these behaviors are ones that will appeal to you.

Shopping

Record stores have all but disappeared. Even music sections in stores like Target and Walmart are shrinking.  Back in 1965, when I was 13, I developed a passion for haunting record stores, and I think the older record shoppers today have stuck with vinyl so they can maintain this pleasure.  Shopping for digital music just isn’t the same experience.  Devoting a Saturday afternoon to record shopping appeals to a certain kind of person, similar to people who go antiquing every weekend or those who routinely shop at garage sales and flea markets.  Most vinyl aficionados love finding used 78/LP/45 bargains and often hope to stumble upon a rarity at a babble-to-your-friends low price.

Internet shopping, subscription music and digital downloads are extremely convenient, but that kind of music buying isn’t a fun activity like shopping for records.

Collecting

The instinct to collect is animalistic, like a squirrel hoarding nuts, and some collectors amass gigantic collections that represent library or museum level archives of musical history.  Like a baseball fanatic with their stats, record collectors know thousands, if not millions of datum about songs, performers and recordings.   They become music historians.  Just read “The King of 78s – Joe Bussard” and admire the photos of Joe’s collection that include over 50,000 records.

Dust & Grooves]

There are many kinds of record collectors.  Some just seek everything recorded by a favorite band, or collect one kind of music, like Motown or soundtracks.  Some people might be like me, just a nostalgic old fart looking to re-find all his old favorite albums that he lost contact with over the decades.

Like shopping, collecting triggers our hunting instinct.  It feels good to have an elusive album to pursue and find.

Sound Quality

The most fanatical of record collectors are the audiophiles that claim vinyl is the best medium to listen to recorded music.  I don’t think this is true, but I don’t want to start any flame wars right now.  I’ll ignite this battle over high fidelity in another essay.  However, I do think vinyl has a quality to its sound that appeals to certain people.  They often describe this quality as warmth.  Highly skilled audiophiles swear they can hear details in vinyl records they don’t hear on CDs or from listening to .mp3 files.  For example, read Ariel Bitran observations about Rush’s bass player in “Enter the Void of Cygnus X-1: A Vinyl vs. CD Comparison (Kinda)” or Beatles fans discussing the latest vinyl releases of the Fab Four in “The Ultimate Beatles Sound Test.”

I aspire to have listening skills like these audiophiles, but I don’t have them now.  When I read Bitran I admire his ability to discern details in musical performances.  I have zero musical skills on my own, but I passionately love hearing music.  Mostly I passively consume music as a way to energize my brain, or stimulate various emotions and feelings.  Generally, I digest music whole, letting it make me high.  But sometimes, when I have the time to concentrate and study, I like to observe all its parts, admiring the components of a song like studying how a clock works by examining the gears and springs.  The parts to study take many forms – the sound of the instruments, composition, lyrics, melody, the performance of the musicians, the way the song was recorded, and so on.  People who love vinyl often have these skills.

Gadgeteers

At first I was going to include playback equipment in with sound quality, but the love of gadgets is a behavior by itself.  Most people are happy to listen to music on an iPhone or car stereo and never give the equipment two thoughts, or even one.  Although there are high end CD players, most people who play music on CDs consider all players equal.  Audiophiles who love vinyl often become obsessed with the equipment records are played on.  Extremists will spend the price of a house for their stereo gear, and even hipsters with little money, will hunt ancient audiophile level turntables, amps, pre-amps, speakers, etc. at bargain prices.

I’m afraid I’ve got the gene for gadgets myself.  The old JVC turntable I have is plenty good to play old records, but I’ve already talked my wife into buying me an Audio-Technica AT-LP120 turntable for my birthday.  I hope it won’t be my gateway drug to expensive audiophile gear.  I think I’ve got my friend Janis hooked and will give her the JVC.

Hipsterism

Vinyl has become hip.  Modern bands often sell vinyl to their most fervent fans.  Vinyl has become trendy among young folk who have caught the bug, which is strange because they have chosen to embrace a technology outdated before they were born.  This is sort of like guys my age who find old cars from the 1930s and rebuild them.  And on the Internet I’ve read many blogs by young women who have taken to vinyl after stealing their parents albums and equipment, admiring it’s retro style.  Albums and a turntable have a cachet like a black dress and pearls, where an iPhone docked to a Bose sound station is more like jeans and a t-shirt.

The popular culture of digital technology is so huge and pervasive, that running across a person who still plays records makes them enchantingly eccentric.

Subculture

I believe lovers of vinyl make up a subculture on their own, like comic book fans, although record collectors are a very small subculture.   You’d think we’d see Leonard or Sheldon play LPs on The Big Bang Theory, but they haven’t so far as I know.   Occasionally you’ll see this subculture in movies, like Ghost World and High Fidelity.   Although vinyl is making a comeback, I think it’s flying under the pop culture radar, and expect it to actually die out as its older fans die off.  I don’t know if hipsters can keep the vinyl technology alive, although many artists are trying to get their fans to buy vinyl.  I wonder if returning to the days of LPs, EPs and 45s would do away with song piracy?

A great web site that explores this subculture far deeper is Dust & Grooves, run by Eilon Paz, and to get some idea of the diversity of vinyl collectors and collections look at their Archive page.

Eilon Paz chronicles the world of vinyl lovers in words and photos.  Paz is currently working on a book about vinyl collectors, but it would be fantastic if that could evolve into a Ken Burns style documentary.  To get some idea what such a film might be like watch:

My Return to Record Shopping

I thought I’d illustrate these behaviors by how they are already coming out in me just a week after deciding to try vinyl records.

After writing the essay Back to Vinyl I went out and bought four used LPs at Spin Street.

I was not feeling good that first shopping trip – I have a bad back, and it was bothering me more than usual last weekend, but I wanted to shop for records like I used to.  I was able to force myself to stand for about 30 minutes to go through Spin Street’s collection of used LPs and pick out four albums.  They were having a sale, buy three get a fourth free.

The fun of shopping for records again brought back that old pleasure of flipping through  bins of albums hoping to discover something great.  I stopped LP shopping back in the 1980s when Peaches went out of business and CDs took over.  I still bought 2-4 CDs a week, but shopping for them was never as fun as looking at the huge album covers of LPs.  The little 5 inch CD covers never had the impact of the 12 inch rock art vistas of LPs.

Standing is hard for me, but the endorphins produced by album hunting made my back feel better – at least until I got home and they wore off.

The four albums I found in order of discovery are:

  • Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini (Crown Records CST 138)
  • Wendy Waldman by Wendy Waldman (Warner Brothers BS 2859)
  • Heart Like a Wheel by Linda Ronstadt (Capitol SW 11358)
  • Child is Father to the Man by Blood Sweat & Tears (Columbia PC 9619)

I was very excited to find Child is Father to the Man by Blood Sweat & Tears because I have been thinking about this album for years.  I bought it in 1968 because I liked Al Kooper, and it was his current project at the time.   Kooper was always doing something new and exciting back then.  However, I lost access to this album when I sold all my albums to finance leaving home after my first year a Dade Jr. Community College in 1970.

I played side one first, Sunday night, and was surprised that I only remembered one song, “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” the second cut.  I guess forty years is an effective brain erasing tool – but why did I even remember that one song?  I think I have more memories about the album history than memories of the music on it.

Shopping and finding this album was one kind of excitement, but listening was a different kind of experience.  It triggered memories I hadn’t thought about in 44 years.  How is that possible?  How is such data stored in the chemical structure of the brain?  Of course, these memories were fragmentary and faulty.  I had to consult Wikipedia to validate some, and recover other information.

Kooper was the founding band leader for Blood Sweat & Tears for this first album, but was replaced by the singer David Clayton-Thomas, which most people remember as the vocal leader of the band after the group got famous with the second album.  Kooper then went on to do Super Session and The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, that also came out in 1968.  Al Kooper was legendary for playing organ on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, and according to Wikipedia played on hundreds of other albums.  Child is Father to the Man was his big project to combine jazz and rock, along with elements of folk and just goofy experimental stuff.  Think rock music with horns.

child is father to the man

When I found the album in Spin Street’s bin I had a rush of joy – it’s great to find something you’ve been looking for like this, and I quickly checked the condition.  It wasn’t great, but I thought it was worth taking a chance on.  I was surprised how well it sounded.  I have a very old JVC turntable that was given to me, and I was playing an album that could be 40+ years old.   It all still worked.  I loved the spatial arrangement of the musicians that let me hear everything distinctly.  There was some pops and crackles but they were only noticeable between cuts or when the music was very quiet, and that didn’t annoy me at all.

The Blood Sweat & Tears album sounded warm, like vinyl addicts always tout, but it also seemed quieter.  I’m used to modern music that is highly compressed that gives an intense sense of loudness and punch.

Next up was Peter Gunn soundtrack by Henry Mancini.  I own this on CD, so it’s fresher in my mind.  Susan, my wife, spotted this first at Spin Street and the cover and sleeve was in such bad shape that I almost rejected it immediately.  I then examined the heavy, translucent red vinyl and even though it had some minor damaged, the disc looked pretty good.  I’m not a professional classifier, but I’d call it VG.  It looks like this photo I scrounged from the web, except that the cover is so bad that the front and back barely stick together.

peter gunn

When I put the red disc on the turntable and started playing it I was shocked by how great it sounded.  I was impressed.  I loved the sound much more than I ever loved playing my CD version.  I thought, wow, those vinyl fanatics are right.  I wanted to compare it to the CD, but I couldn’t find it.  Hey, I’m bad about alphabetizing and re-shelving.  Besides it was a night for LPs.

The opening cut, the classic “Peter Gunn” theme, was like visiting an old friend, and as each succeeding cut played and I remembered the tune, there was a new dimension to the sound and how heard it.  For years I’ve been adapting to a new way of listening to music.  Either I’m listening to playlists with absolute favorite songs that I play over and over, or I’m impatiently clicking through new albums hoping to find another hit to add to my playlists.  Listening to a LP is very different.  You put the record on, sit down, relax and go with the flow.  If there’s a cut you don’t like you still listen to it.  I found myself relaxing into the pace of listening to album sides that night.

Listening to albums requires being open and accepting.  You experience each cut as it comes on – it’s more like being at a concert.  It’s not about hearing what you want, but listening to what you get.   Album collectors often listen to far more diverse types of music than casual iTunes listeners.

Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini is the soundtrack for the television show Peter Gunn which originally aired from 1958-1961.  I barely remember the show, but the theme song pops up pop culture time and again.  Listen to it and see if you don’t think it’s familiar.

Next up was Heart Like A Wheel by Linda Ronstadt from 1974, an album I’ve never owned.  I bought this album because I wanted to hear something new from the old days.  I would have bought this album back then if I had had more money.  I often see while flipping through bins of musty old albums today, ones I remember flipping past forty years ago and remember wishing that I could have bought them back then.  Like the road not taken, it was the album not bought.  I’m going back and taking the other road to see where it leads.  You can do that with music, books, movies and television shows, you just can’t do it with life.

heart like a wheel

Reading the liners notes to Heart Like A Wheel I noticed musicians and singers that I remember being on albums I did buy at the time.  And strangely enough, one of the background singers was Wendy Waldman, because the fourth album I bought last Sunday night was Wendy Waldman’s first album.  I’ve been hoping to find her LP Which Way to Main Street, which has been popping up in my memories lately.  The album I found at Spin Street was her self-titled debut album, Wendy Waldman.  Of the three LPs I’ve owned by Waldman, all were labeled PROMOTIONAL COPY – Not for Sale.  It’s a shame all the promotion didn’t make her more famous.

Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry for Wendy Waldman, and I don’t know why.  But it did redirect me to a group I hadn’t known about, Bryndle, where Waldman was part of the lineup with Karla Bonoff, Andrew Gold and Kenny Edwards.  And guess what?   Bonoff, Gold and Edwards also played and sang on Heart Like a Wheel, as well as the Wendy Waldman album I bought.

wendy waldman

This is why you have to buy used vinyl – many albums never made it to CD or iTunes.   I recently discovered that two of Waldman’s albums, including Which Way to Main Street have been reprinted, and I think on vinyl, but the site isn’t clear about that.  I’ll have to check it out!

As you can see, with one decision to try vinyl records again, I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole like Alice.  There’s no telling where this will lead.  I bought these four albums last Sunday, and then Monday after work I bought four more, and yesterday, Saturday, I bought seven more at Shangri-La Records.

  • Willis Alan Ramsey by Willis Alan Ramsey (Shelter SR-2124)
  • Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits by Barbra Streisand (Columbia 9968) – sealed no less
  • Mirage by Fleetwood Mac (Warner Bros. WB K 56952)
  • Judith by Judy Collins (Electra 7E-1032)
  • The Tin Man Was A Dreamer by Nicky Hopkins (Columbia KC 32074)
  • A Period of Transition by Van Morrison (Warner Bros. BS 2987)
  • Breakfast in America by Supertramp (A&M SP 3708)
  • Carolyne Mas by Carolyne Mas (Mercury SRM 1-3783)
  • Thirty Seconds Over Winterland by Jefferson Airplane (Grunt BXL 1-0147)
  • Howlin Wind by Graham Parker (Mercury SRM 1-1094)
  • It’s Like You Never Left by Dave Mason (Columbia KC 31721)

So in little over one week my record collection expanded to 16 albums.  And looking at the list it appears I’m stuck in the 1970s.  I was thrilled to find the Nicky Hopkins album.  I love his piano for Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Rolling Stones, and on Jeff Beck’s first album Truth.  Hopkins was an epic session piano player.  He played for The Beatles as a group and on many of their solo albums.  The Tin Man was a Dreamer has a real treat, “Edward” a version “Edward, The Mad Shirt Grinder” that I’ve always loved off of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Shady Grove.

Videos About Record Collecting

Part I – Back to Vinyl

Part III – Audiophiles and the Quest for High Fidelity

JWH – 11/17/12

Back To Vinyl

In case you don’t know what I mean by vinyl, it’s what we used to call records – LPs, 45s and 78s – albums with big twelve inch square covers.  Vinyl sales are growing while CD sales are shrinking.  Why would a retro technology make a comeback?  Audiophiles have always claimed that vinyl had a superior sound, but many audio engineers also claimed that was silly too.  Who knows?  Who cares?  Well, enough people to keep a retro technology alive.  Enough people to entice me into thinking about moving into the future by returning to vinyl records.

I have a few friends that extoll the virtues of vinyl.  And on the web I’ve read many enticing essays about the superiority of vinyl.  These fans chronicle a never ending quest for the perfect sound, claiming they hear more than us pedestrian CD and MP3 listeners.  Their extreme love for music is infectious.  So I have to wonder, has music listening become too easy?  Has convenient and abundance ruined our passion for songs?  Maybe a rare 12” vinyl treat is the natural way to acquire new music.

Why I Gave Up LPs The First Time Around

I gave away all my LPs when I started listening to subscription music on Rhapsody.  I had over 1,500 CDs, and a four foot wide shelf of LPs left.  My LPs had survived several house moves, often never even getting listened to in some places.  When I moved to this house, I decided not even to unpack them.  Since a new generation of music technology was coming out, subscription music, I could get rid of albums that required technology two generations back to play.

I bought a USB turntable to convert my albums to mp3 that weren’t available on CD or Rhapsody, but that turned out to be too much work to be worthwhile.   Plus, the scratches, pops and skips got recorded and that only emphasized the lameness of vinyl.  LPs were out-of-date technology, so why not let it go?

Then I met a Katrina refuge and she lamented losing all her albums, so I offered her mine, and threw in the turntable.  That was about six years ago.

Also, there’s another “thing” that killed LPs a very long time ago.  We stopped listening to music together.  Digital music is great for personal music.  We’ve all retreated from reality with our noise cancelation earphones.  I wrote about this five years ago, “Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?

Is It Crazy To Think About Going Back to Vinyl?

Recently a friend, Doug, mentioned a song he wanted to find, “Stoney End” by Linda Ronstadt.  I checked MusicStack for him and found the album it was on, Stoney End by Linda Ronstadt & The Stone Poneys (Pickwick SPS-3298).  It turns out Doug already had this album but not the turntable to play it on.  I was tempted to order it for myself thinking it might be fun to listen to a record I can no longer buy from 1972.  There have been many times lately where I’ve wanted to hear a song I remember only to discover that it never made it to the CD world, and isn’t on any of the music subscription services.

ronstadt_linda_the_stone_poneys_stoney_end_lg

Now here’s the thing.  If I was willing to download illegal music I could probably find anything I wanted on the Internet because I’ll bet aficionados have ripped pretty much everything to .mp3, or so I would think.  However, I have no idea how to search for stolen music, nor do I want go down the dark alleys of the internet looking for out-of-print music.

What are my options if I want to hear long forgotten songs?  First, I could wait and eventually they might show up on subscription music sites.  Second, I could buy the original vinyl recordings used.  Or, third I could just let them stay forgotten.

On the Flip Side - Ricky Nelson

I used to own On the Flip Side LP but gave it away when I gave away all my LPs.  I’m starting to regret that, but at the time it was a pain to maintain LPs and the stereo equipment to support them.  I also figured one day everything would show up in digital on subscription music services.  Another album I just had to hear again was Never Going Back to Georgia by The Blue Magoos.  I tracked that one down about a year ago and my friend Lee gave me an old turntable to play it on.  I even had to buy a cheap pre-amp because my modern day receiver no longer supports turntables.  I now have a library of 1 LP.  Talking to Doug about albums that never made it to CD makes me want to buy more.

Never-Going-Back-To-Georgia

Vinyl is a Costly Addiction

The trouble with returning to vinyl is it’s an addiction.  I was just reading on Amazon about a guy buying a $400 turntable and really loving it, and then his customer review had an update at the bottom saying he had just bought a $900 turntable.  He also warned buyers:  “$400 for the turntable is just a drop in the bucket, plan on spending double to triple that to get EVERYTHING you need. Nice phono preamp, carbon fiber brush, alignment tools, decent plastic lined sleeves for all that new vinyl you about to buy, tweaks, gadgets, cleaning supplies, etc…”  He also said, “Plan ahead and budget for a record cleaning machine, after you own a few albums you will want it. Even brand new sealed vinyl has dust and will crackle and pop” and “50 year old used records sound like………50 year old used records.…”

Reading reviews of turntables makes me wonder if I even have the technical skills to set one up, adjust it, and know if it’s playing correctly.  The audiophiles make it sound worse than rocket science.  And that knock against 50 year old records dings my enthusiasm because the records I want will all be 30-50 years old, or even older.  Another fear is getting addicted to 78s.

Collecting

I think buying vinyl also appeals to the collector in us.  When my friend John wrote about John Lennon’s Jukebox, I immediately wanted to track down and buy those 40 singles that were Lennon’s favorite songs.  Vinyl lovers often have whole walls of albums.  This isn’t a bad hobby, but it could become an obsession.  I can see myself getting up early to hit the garage sales every Saturday morning, and constantly visiting the used record stores, and Goodwills, hoping to find some elusive gem.  Or getting hooked on Ebay.

Nostalgia

I think the main appeal of wanting to return to vinyl is nostalgia – I want to go home again – to my teen years when I loved buying LPs.  Or I just want to hear songs again that I haven’t heard for 40-50 years.  I’ve done this a few times in my life already.  I first heard On The Flip Side when it was shown on Stage 67, a show from the 1966-1967 television season on ABC.  About twenty years ago I thought of that show and tracked down a used soundtrack of the show.  I actually loved the album, and played it several times, but eventually forgot about it.  I was into CDs then, and CDs were much easier to deal with.  But when I gave away my LPs, I did take the time to record On the Flip Side to MP3, and it’s playing while I type.  So I still have it as two long MP3s, each a whole recording of a side.

To be honest, hearing On the Flip Side playing now is a nostalgic rush, but I doubt I’d want to play it over and over.  Maybe once every five years.  And my mp3 recording reminds me clearly of the flaws of vinyl because I hear the pops, skips and clicks that disappeared with the invention of CDs and mp3 files.

Would On the Flip Side be more wonderful if I was playing it on a good turntable hooked up to a great stereo setup, with perfectly configured speaker spacing?  I don’t know.  I’d have to spend quite a bit of money to find out.  And if I spent all that money and I loved it, would it mean I’d start searching out more old albums?  How many are lost in my memories?

I have a complete set of The Rolling Stone magazine on DVD, and I’m amazed by all the albums reviewed that I never heard of, or played or have even seen since.  It might be great fun to start in 1968 and see how many albums I can find that deserved to be rediscovered.  Or is that bullshit?  Shouldn’t everything worth listening to already be reprinted and available today on CD or subscription music?

And would I end up like the other vinyl addicts, always wanting more expensive turntables, cartridges, styluses, pre-amps, receivers, and speakers?

man-from-uncle-1

Many of the albums I fondly remember did have CD reissues, but strangely enough some like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Our Man Flint didn’t seem to have the exact cuts or cuts in the same order as my memory.

I think the urge to buy LPs is to hold the same cover and to listen to the same cuts in the same order that I played them 40-50 years ago.  Is capturing this past worth all the effort?  And if I was to be truly faithful to the past, shouldn’t I seek out an old console stereo like I had as a teenager, or even a portable record player like I started out listening to when I was 12?  Why spend hundreds for turntables that didn’t exist in 1965?

Getting Old and Sappy

I think what I miss the most is shopping at record stores and playing my new discovers for my buddies.  Or even going to record stores with my pals, and spending a couple hours deciding how to best spend the two dollars I had burning a hole in my pocket.  For $10 a month today I get access to more albums than any record store I’ve ever been in.  As a kid I could only afford to buy one or two albums a week.  When I first started buying albums, when I was 13-14, I had to mow lawns, babysit or go without lunch at school to get LP money.  Maybe those treasures that were so hard to come by back then, are now the same treasures I seek to find now?  Maybe they need to be just as hard to come by again to get the maximum fun?

I don’t know if I’ll go back to vinyl or not.  I’m awful tempted to buy myself a $216 turntable at Amazon, a Audio-Technica AT-LP120 and give them a try.

Part II – The Subculture of Vinyl Record Fans

Part III – Audiophiles and the Quest for High Fidelity

JWH – 11/9/12

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