Liner Notes: The Vinyl Ritual

This week, Thompson Davis invited me as a guest speaker on his Thursday afternoon show Geek Out. The topic of the conversation is the age-old argument, or belief, that the best way to hear music is through vinyl. But is it really? Or is it just part of a purist’s nostalgic attitude that is hard to shake, like stories from a retired army Sergeant who complains that combat “just ain’t like it used to be.”

I began seriously collecting vinyl about three years ago. Like almost anyone in this trade, I started with my parent’s old collection, rummaging through the boxes of records in their basement. Like a fashion designer in a fabric factory, I flipped through each cover with intent and fury; selecting only those LPs ‘good’ enough to appear in my collection that I was determined would be more about quality than quantity.

Of course there is the obvious need for a record player as well, but I had that problem covered thanks to an extraordinary Christmas present from my sister (a Crosley Collegiate Stack-O-Matic—a leather suitcased beauty with built-in speakers and a seven-LP stacker). Today, my record collection has grown considerably and ranges from 1932 recordings of Duke Ellington’s band on old 78s (those super thick, ultra plastic records) to Radiohead’s In Rainbows including full digital recording technology. My new music hobby was found, and there is no feeling in the world like going through a box of LPs at a garage sale or flea market and finding a mint-conditioned Let it Bleed or Blonde on Blonde. But does that really mean it sounds better?

Also, you would think moving to New York City would further increase this purchasing habit, but I find it to be quite the opposite. New York’s music sale industry knows the large market for collectors and purists like myself, which creates a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the selection is incomparable. Record stores exist all over the city with a massive collection creating the strong chance that you can find anything you are looking for at least somewhere in this town. On the other hand, album pushers know the severity of the habit, and mark-up the prices considerably making it too easy for the addict to find the junk they are after. This takes the entire thrill out of the score. Buying a first edition copy of Thriller for $25 from Bleecker Bob’s just isn’t the same as buying the same record for 50 cents from a guy selling items out of the back of his car at a farmer’s market in small town USA.

Over the last few years, I have even managed to convert some friends. My girlfriend in Toronto at the time now has a record player and plays records, as does my old roommate/cousin. I used to think it was the sound that made records better, but now I am leaning toward another reason as to why I prefer records to digital. It is the process.

To me the difference between playing music on records and playing it through your computer or iPod lies in the ritual of the act. Playing vinyl personally involves you with the listening process, and you become a part of the whole medium of the artistic expression. The effort of thumbing through stacks of records to find the right one for the mood you are in is plenty more engaging than having Pandora Radio choose songs for you.

One also finds that they are less likely to skip songs on a record, because of the effort involved to lift the needle and find the correct space in the groove between the desired track and its predecessor. This forces the listener to hear the entire side of an album as it was intended, in order, as opposed to hitting the “skip” key on his/her computer, stereo, or listening device. As well, the “shuffle” mode is completely out of the question, and if you want to keep listening, you will have to continue to select new albums approximately ever twenty to thirty minutes. All of this involvement just for a little background music, what BTR Program Director Chris Hatzis calls “wallpaper music,” as you cook or chill in your apartment may be annoying and not worth the effort to a lot of people, especially when you do have the option for something as simple as Pandora Radio, Grooveshark, or your very own iTunes library on Genius mode.

I completely sympathize with the music lover who prefers the ease and simplicity of a digital catalogue over a vinyl one. I am extremely guilty of this myself. I probably listen to BreakThru Radio and my iTunes library, skipping from song to song, more than I do my vinyl collection. But I don’t always. It is more engaging to select records to play, especially when you have one or two people over to your place and you do it together, than to listen to Pandora and have the music your playing soon equate the camouflaged drone of the air conditioner or the water from the dishwasher.

There is also the feel of the record in your hand. Holding the actual object, admiring the artwork, and reading the, ahem, liner notes on the back ascends the music from something that is intended just for one sense (our ears) to a piece of art made for all the senses: our eyes; our fingers; our taste (in the ‘preferred’ sense of the term); and even our noses (like the smell of old books. Who doesn’t love the smell of old records?).

Ultimately, there is the sound an old record makes that helps conjure the idea that the recording sounds warmer or softer, or that the device playing the recording makes it ‘sound’ better. The word ‘better’ is so subjective that the argument becomes impossible to win and therefore shouldn’t even be had. As Chris Hatzis discussed with me in a casual conversation a few weeks ago, the argument that records “sound better” is just a music purist’s myth. The recording technology is just that much better at picking up and amplifying every single sound, not to mention the software affects that can be added. If we can dispel the idea that a scratchy undertone to a song makes it better, then the argument for analog over digital is moot.

However, the argument presented here, the physical and mentally involved process that goes into the selection and playing of music through a record player, holds fast. There is nothing passive about flipping though a pile of albums, coming across an old beauty you forgot about or haven’t heard in a long time, and then maneuvering the needle over the rim of the vinyl until you hear that vintage needle sound through a set of old mono speakers. It is that moment, the ritual, that makes listening to records “sound better” to some, than the click of a mouse.

(For anyone interested in looking at Crosley Turntables as mentioned in this article, CLICK HERE.

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– Kory French

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One response to “Liner Notes: The Vinyl Ritual

  1. Pingback: VINYL – henrietta howes

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