What’s with the Vinyl Revival and Record Store Day?



“A big thank you to those of you who celebrated the culture of the indie record store on Saturday with us”.  From the site http://www.recordstoreday.com.



For those of us old enough to know “vinyl” refers to a recording pressed onto a record or album actually made of vinyl, April 18, 2015 was a great nostalgic day.  It brought back memories.  For some it meant searching the Internet for where these rare places still exist and going out for a visit.  For diehards it was another trip to see what’s in stock.  It was the excitement of going to a real store devoted entirely to music and those who love music as we did so often in the past.  It was hoping to pick up a new release from a favorite band or finding something entirely new to listen to.

But this is 2015.  What could possibly be so exciting about something so old?  Something so inconvenient you had to go to a store rather than downloading an MP3 and having it instantly?

Let’s just say it was partly the anticipation and partly how wonderful it sounded when you brought the vinyl album home.

Way back when for me and many others working a part-time job, we saved up and timed our going to the record store when we could afford what we wanted.  It was sort of the combination of a new movie being released today and being able to buy it now.  Perfect timing.  It was also getting the song or two we heard on the radio and playing it loud whenever we wanted to hear it at home.  But perhaps the strangest thing about the anticipation was the fact that we had not heard the majority of other songs on the record!  We certainly were interested in the band, guitarist, vocalist, or musicians.  We had their other albums but what we were about to hear was unknown.  Our friends said you should hear these guys or you should buy her album.  So we looked for the band, the new album’s cover, bought it and brought it home.  And listened, as if it were their debut.  Some of us even went so far as to ask our best friend to come over and hear it for the first time with us.  Yes, in the past you had to buy the entire album as it was with all the songs, no more and no less. It was a complete package from the artist or artists recorded and released for you.  As you listened from first song to last, you might love it, you might hate it, you might think it was their best or their worst.  The whole thing stuck in your mind.  If it was exceptional, the album grew on you.  You would hear a song you really liked that wasn’t even played on the radio.  For those not knowing  records, these were sometimes called “deep tracks”.  They were the discovered gems we truly listened to and truly loved.

Vinyl record albums were imperfect.  If played over and over or left lying around,  they inevitably got scratched.  The sound wasn’t always clear or high quality.  Some of the early Beatles albums were even mono, that is recorded in one single channel.  When it came to records the real music connoisseurs were the pioneers on the quest for hi-fi or high fidelity.  They overspent their money to hear every nuance of sound, from bass to high notes on expensive stereos with separate speakers.  When they listened to a record it was to hear everything they could.

Now about that wonderful “vinyl” records’ sound.  Things took a bit of a detour.  Around 1978, when I was a sophomore in college,  I heard an interesting talk given to a small audience on “digital music”.  The guest speaker explained how sound was produced by waves and how these waves could be mapped precisely as thousands of mathematical points on those waves with the help of computers.  This was so long ago that punch cards were used to program mainframe computers and compact disks (cds) did not even exist to store songs.  What he showed us was a stacked printout of paper almost a foot high that could have wrapped around the room many times over.  Then he played the computerized sound which resulted from all that data.  It lasted for only a few seconds but it was astonishing.  It was unlike anything we’d ever heard before.

Years later, when whole albums of digital music could be stored on compact disk cds, it was the clarity of those cd’s that was astonishing.  Every note was crystal clear, with none of the hiss you might hear from listening to tape.   If you listened close enough you might even hear something you had never heard before on your favorite song.  Yes, technology had achieved near perfection in reproducing sounds and music.  But that wasn’t the end of the story.  Those real music connoisseurs got older and replaced their gear as something new and better came along.  Tape decks were replaced with CD players and the background hiss was gone.  They were amazed again at the clarity of digital music.  But then an interesting thing happened.  It was a phenomenon of sorts.  And it was noticed first by those connoisseurs.  Basically, it seems the longer people listened to digital music, the less they enjoyed it.  Perfection in a digital sense didn’t sit well with human hearing.  It was the music enthusiasts who noticed this subtle difference, but more and more companies who produced audio gear started to add in something to smooth out the harshness of digital perfection.

If you are one of these music enthusiasts you probably know what happened.  To satisfy the way our very natural hearing works, those working with audio gear and music had to find a way to take the sharp edge off of digital music.  The solution was surprising because it wasn’t something new.  They had to simply took a step back and use an older technology better known as analog.  Analog recording came before digital.  Listening to a record on an old fashioned turntable one hears the vibrations a needle makes when traveling the grooves pressed into the vinyl record.  So for this technical reason, listening to a vinyl record vs. listening to a digital cd sounds more natural to the human ear for those with exceptional sensitivity.  For longer periods of time analog sound is smoother and easier to listen to when compared to harsher digital music which could even produce some listening fatigue.  Another fascinating approach to taking the edge off of digital sound is using good old vacuum tubes from the past in amplifiers and other equipment.  Some experts even claim the tubes used can make a difference by coloring the sound you hear depending on which tube you use.  There actually is a market in selling tubes manufactured in the 50’s to the present day.

Sounds pretty extreme, doesn’t it?  Whatever the case, there is a range of music enthusiasts who will always search for their favorite way to listen to their favorite music.  Some of us older music lovers have been sentimental enough to keep our record collections and even luckier to still have our old turntables so we can play them on.  Whether pursuing the new revival in listening to vinyl or simply returning to an old favorite, quite a few of us enjoyed our “Record Store Day” this April.  Chances are we will keep this date alive next year.  All it takes is pulling out that favorite record  we haven’t heard for years and listening to that song we loved once more.




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