Spinning Vinyl

Did you have a mullet and live in the cassette era? Do you remember the ribbon falling off the track? Crinkled? Did you pull the brittle rainbow out, stick your finger through the plastic wheel, and turn baby turn? Growing up, cassette tapes possessed a magical quality. You could record your voice, play the recording back, and hear your own words flow from the boom box speakers. This seemed magical, even if you hated the sound of your own voice. My Missouri twang is cringe worthy.

And, these little plastic rectangles were portable. Pop the cassette out of the tape deck or boom box, slide into your back pocket, and take your tunes on the go. Sony created this music revolution. What is more magical than the Walkman? The iPod … 22 years later. That’s a market leading head start.

Sony launched the device in 1979. While companies iterated on making a better player, the recording revolution had begun. As a kid, I remember stacks of my parent’s vinyl piled high in the corner closet. Elvis. Cash. Emmalou. The Beatles. For whatever reason, I felt these round, plastic disks were old technology, meant to be scattered and left behind. Put them in the dollar garage sale box and move on. Onward. Progress.

Pondering this, I now realize convenience and novelty can destroy the greater good. Microwave dinners aren’t known for being healthy. With the recent vinyl resurgence, I decided to invest in old technology. Now, you can spend a significant amount of coin on a solid player. I went middle of the road and invested in an audia-technica player and a brush to clean the needle. There are many in the choices out in the wild today. I feel this is a personal choice. All in one systems dominate Target, Barnes and Noble, and Best Buy, but I elected to order a specialized model on Amazon, connecting to an external speaker system.

After set-up, I purchased the following records (this is where the fun begins):

Sergeant Pepper. Technically, everyone should own this album for the cover art alone. End to end, this is a solid play. Rolling Stone proclaimed this as the Number One best album of all-time. Safe choice.

The Beatles (Pretty much the rest). After falling in love with Sergeant Pepper, I visited purveyors of fine records across Nashville to find the White Album, Rubber Soul and Abby Road. There is a reason this is the most famous band in the universe, but listening on vinyl gave me new appreciation for their larger body of work. My favorite? Well, Abbey Road. Hey, the band thought this was the final act. Why not put all of your cards on the table? The Fab Four did just that. All of their works are good, but this is special.

Pet Sounds. Without a doubt, the best album recorded in the pre-digital era. I struggle that the California crew beat out the Beatles, Rolling Stone, Elvis, Young and insert band of choice. But this is the most played album in my growing collection. Only a crazy person could devise this body of work. Taking risks paid off as there isn’t a bad track from first play to the end. A synopsis of Brian Wilson’s masterpiece deserves its own post. Worth noting, this album has the longest Wikipedia page of any album I’ve found. Complexity.

Harvest. Neil Young. His best work.

Highway 61. Ranked number four on Rolling Stone’s best. Recently remastered, the 13 minute long Desolation Row made this an easy purchase.

Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison. The album begins with, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Never lets up from there.

What’s worth noting is that these albums sound above and beyond their digital counterparts on Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora. There are entire websites outlining the reasons why analog recording methods beat modern day digital technology. The format, big plastic verse bits and bytes. Lossless conversion. What do I believe? Well, I think these albums were designed to be made into a record. Nothing else existed at the time. For example, if you design a piece of software for a specific hardware device there are fewer variables involved. I say almost because I don’t want droves of email coming from ravenous Windows fans. Apple has an easier problem to solve. OSX only runs on a handful of laptops and desktops. Windows runs on hundreds of skews made by various manufacturers including Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, and more (build your own if you like). Focus make life easier.

If you don’t believe my design argument, listen to Pet Sounds on iTunes. Then, give the analog setup a spin (terrible pun). These are two different albums, and the vinyl record has a noticeably richer sound. I have a couple of hounds at home. They always look around for other dogs when the vinyl spins. Yet, they rarely budge if Brian’s masterpiece is streamed from service of choice. Even if you leverage the same speaker setup, the richness is lost.

Does vinyl always beat digital? Sadly, the medium doesn’t. Some artists didn’t build their software for a specific device. Digital to analog conversions are inconsistent. I have a die hard Swifty in the household. And I’ll admit Taylor is an outstanding recording artist, but there is little reason for Reputation to be on four vinyl records. Giving her props, these are some of the best looking album covers in my budding collection; however, pressing a record doesn’t improve the sound quality. I dare say the digital version might win out.

When buying new records, take the extra time to see if the artist recorded in analog. These records were remastered for the experience:

Cleopatra. The Lumineers go to the trouble. They did this one the right way. This is probably my second most played album.

Sonic Highways. Recorded for vinyl. The Foo Fighters experiment.

Head and the Heart. They have three releases but only the Signs of Light felt vinyl ready.

Stapleton. I think this guy might have mass market traction. Pun intended.

What did I learn from my vinyl experiment? Records are cool. No, I won’t be installing a record player in my car and deleting my iTunes subscription anytime soon. Yet, I know there is a place for both, one doesn’t beat the other. Vinyl is an experience.

Friday night. Drink of choice in hand.

A crackling fire.

Needle jumps. The tones find their groove.

Flip the record. And start anew.

My poem ain’t great. Still, this is a technology to cherish forever onward. When building, think the long game. Some building blocks should last forever.

Other notes:

JT’s Man of the Woods might be the exception for a digital recording to pressed record. Solid effort. And what’s with all the Timberlake hate these days? Hard to be an artist from yesteryear. May he shrug the criticism off, or learn from the feedback, and just keep doing his thing.

And Divide, Ed Sheeran’s opus, is the only record I’ve found where you have to adjust the record speed. If you don’t, he sounds like Barry White.