33 ways to a better listening experience
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Why is vinyl is the best format for music? Here’s a seemingly random list of reasons:
1. It’s interactive. You’re required to hold the sleeve, slide out the record, carefully place it on the turntable, put the needle on the groove, and let it run. Repeat for sides two, three, four, and so on as necessary.
2. The warm sound. Thurston Moore has a great passage in the book Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture about the unique experience each analog listening session creates. The needle running over the groove creates a sound captured by an artist, and the way it’s delivered through the speakers, bouncing around the molecules in the air and ultimately landing in your ear drum, is slightly different every time. Depending on the amount of play of the record, the humidity in the air, the temperature of the room, the state of your own hearing (no doubt shot from years of exposure to the mighty rock), it will always be a new experience, even if it’s an album you’ve lived with and loved for years. Digital just can’t compete with that kind of growth.
3. Vinyl lasts forever — just ask the folks at the Library of Congress. With a sharp needle and a little luck, you’ll only need to buy the White Album once.
4. Artwork. Whether it’s a standard cardboard slipcase, a gatefold sleeve or a lavish box set, the 12x12 nature of an LP is the perfect vessel for fantastic artwork, a necessary extension of the music contained within. 7” singles and EPs offer a kind of minimalist freedom via its medium, too.
5. Can you dig through racks of used CDs at a flea market and walk away feeling like you’ve found a bit of buried treasure? Perhaps you can, but I never have.
6. Labels. Record labels are going the way of the dodo, and they only have themselves to blame. But long ago in the before time, labels meant something. That bright red Columbia label on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde was a seal of quality. Neil Young turning the famous golden Reprise label black for his sinister Tonight’s the Night was a statement. The Beatles’ Apple logo marked the beginning of a new era of artistic freedom. And there are few sights as welcome and beautiful as that classic Sun label on a classic Johnny Cash or Elvis collection.
7. Inner groove etchings. Often just a place for the record plant to mark sides and runs, but sometimes a place to find secret, hidden messages placed from the band themselves. Check out almost any of Sonic Youth’s LPs in the 1980s to find one.
8. Secret tracks and locked grooves. With CDs, unless it’s hiding behind the first track, secret tracks are easily detected, either by the extra number or a final track with some ridiculous 33:04 running time. Records? Unless you’re counting the bands in the grooves, you have a much greater chance of actually being surprised by a hidden gem at the end of an album.
9. They fit so nicely under your arm, and when you’re walking around town with one, or sitting on a train, they spur conversation. So, really, they could help knock down the anti-social walls that so many of us erect around ourselves. No, really. Anyone who wants to talk to you about the Stooges or the new Beck record in your clutches must be cool.
10. Those little adapter inserts that snap into the big holes on certain 45s. They’re so great, one of them serves as the icon in the address bar of this site. It’s also the only tattoo I’ve ever seriously considered.
11. You never have to worry about losing all your vinyl because your hard drive crashed.
12. You can watch them. If you’re curious and bored enough, you can literally watch the sound hop out of the groove via the needle and out through your speakers, all while that previously-mentioned iconic label spins at 33 ⅓ RPMs (45, of course, for singles).
13. You can futz with the speed and make your favorite bands sound like the Chipmunks. Or, as Patton Oswalt pointed out, you can make the Chipmunks sound like boring, monotone guys and their manager Dave sound like a demon from the bowels of hell.
14. Whenever you move, you have to come up with new and creative ways to safely and successfully store your collection.
15. A series of record spines, carefully collected and shelved, is the greatest decoration your living room could ever ask for.
16. You can spend years looking for a particular record, searching for it in stores across the country. And, along the way, sometimes you’ll see a record in a store that you’ve never seen before. It’s a special feeling, holding something in your hand you’d only previously heard of, never before having come in contact with it.
17. And you have to walk out of the store with it. You may never see that particular piece of wax again.
18. The term “album” comes from the manufacturing of “record albums,” which were designed to hold collections of 78 RPM discs, a la empty photo albums. Later, labels started collecting several 78 singles from a particular artist and selling those as a new “album” of songs. You probably already knew that, but in case you didn’t, isn’t that cool?
19. This column was written while Pete Townshend’s Who Came First went for a spin. Or two.
20. Somewhat mentioned earlier, but the depth of the sound created from a record just can’t be topped by any of the digital music options available today. The way the music is born from the groove cannot be duplicated, not even by DVD-A or Blu-Ray. High sampling rates are great, but analog is endless.
21. It’s much harder for bands to hide Satanic messages backwards on a CD. Well, maybe not, but decoding that same Satanic message on a record is much harder and, therefor, much more rewarding.
22. Buying a messenger bag specifically built to fit a record changed the way I wander around. It left me free to comfortably buy a record wherever I was, confident that it wouldn’t fall out or, perhaps worse, bend while walking around.
23. Looking for a fun way to learn about a band without spending a lot of money? Buy a 45. Typically, you get two songs, and the fun of putting it on the turntable, listening intently, and flipping it over for the B side will not only force you to truly process what you’re hearing, it will put you in a great mood, therefor giving the artist in question the best possible chance to win you over. And you could discover a new favorite in the process. There is really no downside here.
24. It’s much easier to fit a kick-ass poster in a record sleeve than in a CD jewel box.
25. After Townshend wrapped up, the Flaming Lips were called into duty to bring this column home with The Soft Bulletin.
26. Folks like Dylan, Coltrane and Miles somehow sound even more revelatory coming off of vinyl.
27. Colored vinyl. The sheen of the light bouncing off a traditional black record is great enough. Add in the purplish marble color of the discs of Lullabies to Paralyze by Queens of the Stone Age or, say, the red and white records of the White Stripes’ Elephants, and you’ve just discovered another level of cool. And colored vinyl has been known to send collectors batty, the author included.
29. Listening parties are many times more fun when a record is involved than, say, a playlist built in iTunes.
30. Hunting down a long-coveted record is a little more difficult than downloading a torrent of the same music, but actually tracking those songs down becomes much more satisfying when the sleeve is within sight, hiding in a rack of pricey imports or, just as often, in the $1 bin.
31. Short of a van Gogh, nothing looks better hanging on a wall than a framed copy of Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, or, in my case, The Who By Numbers.
32. More than any other format (though you cassette heads are to be commended), vinyl breeds obsession and passion. There are full-blown societies dedicated to preserving the format and spreading the gospel of its qualities. There are clubs formed for finding and tracking down the latest in this loved plastic world. They’re a medium specifically designed for, and kept alive by, music fans, for whom nothing in the world is more rewarding.
33. And, long ago, they helped take my love of music to a new level. For that, I will always be grateful.
Oct. 22, 2009