Friday, March 13, 2009

Ear Wax: an argument for vinyl

There's something special about music on vinyl. It's almost magical to hear a new record. Even on the lousiest compact speakers, something about records just sounds so present. It's like hearing music in 3D.

My musical journey did not start with vinyl. While still in high school, the arrival of most Thursdays meant a trip to Tower Records. I would flip through hundreds of CDs and spend a lot of time at the listening stations. I loved the employees' recommendations. I'd take a peek at what others were purchasing. Once in the car, I would rip the plastic wrap off of each one of my purchases and insist on playing a new CD through the car stereo. But, by the time Tower Records tanked, I had lost all interest in CDs as viable media.

At about the same time, I discovered my step-dad's record collection. I flipped through the albums, full of curiosity. He hooked up his old turntable to our surround sound speakers, and although it didn't result in the best sound (old isn't always compatible with new), I still loitered around the basement to listen to many albums. I felt something magical about those old platters, and still do. They had stood the test of time, and many of them still sounded crystal clear and new.

I started to collect albums myself, but only those to which I felt a strong connection. I looked for a used record shop in every city I visited. First came Phil Ochs, then The Who's Quadrophenia, The Beatles and Cat Stevens. The list goes on. Then I discovered that new artists were pressing vinyl. The internet, and later John at Strawberry Fields Music, helped with that. Suddenly my collection that started at five or so records was pushing 50.

You are probably asking yourself, "why vinyl?" For me, vinyl is the full experience of music. You hear music as it was meant to be heard. Once music is processed digitally and changes from pure sound to "ones and zeros," it can never recapture its original quality. No matter how high the bit rate, it is never quite the same. I am also wary of classics re-pressed on vinyl for that same reason.

The visual aspect of records is also undeniable. There is much more space and freedom for the artwork, which oftentimes adds another layer to the music and the story it tells (for example, The Who's Quadrophenia came with an entire book of photographs; The Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America came with a comic book). Album art often stands as art on its own; CD media always sort of swept art under the carpet.

Lastly, there is the tactile aspect of vinyl records. You peel back the huge sheet of shrink-wrap, shake the inner, paper sleeve out and there is that huge onyx-black platter. Everything is a delicate process (scratches are not your friend). You can see the needle physically skim around the record. There's also that fresh yet acrid smell.

The main reasons that people avoid vinyl are obvious: new records can get pricey, and the price you pay doesn't buy something that you can carry around in your iPod. I admit that, in a pinch, I'd probably sacrifice my vinyl collection to keep my iPod. Luckily, most newly pressed albums come with a code for a free MP3 download. Artists respect the vinyl medium but also see the need for portability. Used vinyl is also a great option. For only a few dollars, a complete work of music can be yours to take home, listen to, and judge.

Call me a music snob or call me old-fashioned, but I still think that vinyl is the best quality music around. With the resurgence of vinyl in the past few years, hopefully it is here to stay.

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