Vinyl 101

My record player setup

Today probably everyone can say that they listen to a lot of music. If you cannot say so, go away. You are not the type of person who should be reading my rants :). So a big part of our entertainment is listening to the sounds produced by celebrities we love. And no wonder all performers become celebrities. They touch us with their creativity in a way nothing else can. By choosing whose music we listen to, we make up our identity. It is part of who we are.

Nevertheless, some people have a more special relationship with music. I think I am one of those people. It forms such a big chunk of the things that are important to me, that I don’t think I would have existed without music. Anyway, that being said, I am inclined to do things that normal people don’t usually do. Things like spending money on physical CDs when everyone around you is pirating even single songs. Or taking whole evenings to search for album art and properly tag and categorize your mp3 collection. And although those things make my relationship with music physical and unique, they are never enough. So I’ve discovered one more totally unnecessary black hole where I can throw my money – buying vinyl LPs.

IMG_3194

LPs are those large black discs that maybe your parents mentioned or even owned. They look like large black CDs, but have very miniature grooves on them and are listened to by playing them on a turntable. A turntable is a circular platter that rotates. It also has an arm with a needle at the end which magically outputs music when it touches the spinning LP record.

Now that we’re done with the definitions for the kids, let me explain why I am crazy enough to spend money on such archaic things. There may be several reasons that you’d want to start listening to analogue vinyl.

  1. Someone told you that vinyl sounds better than any other medium (including CDs)
  2. You are a DJ and you want to make those scratchy sounds
  3. You hate technology and digital stuff. You dream of going back to everything physical in nature
  4. You’ve gone insane

My choice was formed partly because of all the above, according to the following distribution:

  1. 20%
  2. 0%
  3. 30%
  4. 50%

Now, I am not even trying to explain number 4, but I think I can rationalise the rest at least a little.

Vinyl sounds better than everything else

The thinking going behind this one is the same as in situations where you spend 500 pounds (see, I am thinking British already) for a bottle of wine. Or, as another example, cases when you pay 300 pounds for a Burberry scarf, instead of 20 for a normal one. In other words, you are so obsessed with originality, quality and purity, that you’re willing to go the extra 80% cost, to get the extra 20% difference. Or more like 95% : 5%.  Now, some purists are saying that vinyl sounds awesome. They talk about warmth, hi-fidelity, natural sound and other fancy words. They are telling you that everything digital loses some of the soul of a recording. Although there is a scientific explanation for this, most humans are not able to hear any differences in compressed formats, let alone lossless digital formats like CDs and FLAC. So although I wanted to hear what could happen, this wasn’t the main reason.

DJ parties and scratching

DJ scratching on a turntable

I am not a fan of any style of music involving DJs. For me they are just publicity junkies who want to appear creative, but are not willing to put in effort and learn any musical instrument. This is a discussion for another time, but let’s say my dive into turntables and records has nothing to do with DJs.

Building a physical relationship with your music

Now this is where I was sold. Being a huge music aficionado, I feel like being on drugs in each situation where I am touching, looking at or communicating about music-related stuff. Yes, I said “aficionado”. I am trying to sprinkle some non-understandable words to appear knowledgeable and hip. Anyway, I am the type of person buying merchandise after concerts, wearing band T-shirts, buying posters, etc. I want physical stuff to help me communicate my passion for music. That being said, it’s hard to touch MP3s in your computer. One of the reasons I started buying CDs. The thing is, though, that vinyl records are larger, allow for more album art, are physically interacting with your turntable, and just plainly look better. I was sold.

Clapton LP Truckfighters LP Stevie Wonder LP

There are many more facts about vinyl that you may or may not know. These are not reasons to start buying them, but may have made the music world what it is today more than you think. The LP (long-playing) vinyl format is what ushered the music industry into the album era. Before LPs existed, there was no way to record a whole album on anything small enough to be practical. Other record formats could only hold 1-2 songs per record. Since LPs allowed artists to distribute music 10 songs at a time (more or less), they started recording whole themes and ideas formed by multiple songs. The LP created the music album as we know it today.

Here is the moment to mention another thing about albums. Although nowadays this may be lost to many, artists actually think about how to arrange the order of the songs in an album. They intend you to listen to the whole thing at once because that’s the way they created it. If you take specific songs out, you are missing out the whole idea. This was the reason many artists objected when iTunes started selling single songs for $1. With digital players and formats, it is very easy to switch to the next song when you are listening to music. Vinyl makes this a little bit harder, so usually what you do is play a record from start to finish. This gets you as close to the artist intention as possible.

So all I’ve said may not be that important to you, but it is for me. Vinyl records have made music what it is today. They allowed artists to scale their distribution and reach millions reliably. They started a revolution of awesomeness which has continued in the music industry until today. And although there may be easier ways for you to listen to music, I am the person who is willing to pay my respect to vinyl and indulge in the physicality of it for no sane reason.

I have just completed my setup. I bought a turntable, an amp and speakers and already collected my first records. You need all those things to start listening to vinyl, and although for any meaningful quality it requires quite a budget, for me it’s worth it. If you decide to go into it, just make sure that you do enough research and don’t buy a turntable that looks good, but will ruin your records. Living in London helps quite a lot. There are numerous vintage record shops where you can browse for hours in search of your favourite artists. And when tired of everything else, that’s what I’ll do.

Photo credits: The DJ photo is from http://www.flickr.com/photos/djcheff/5438605567. All other photos are the author’s.

1991

In today’s digital age, it’s easy to forget the lessons of the past and dismiss them as old-fashioned. There’s always going to be a big divide between young and old, liberal and conservative. But I think sometimes looking back into time can pay off. By just observing how people lived without our modern tools, one can wonder how they managed to survive. For good or bad, I’ve always been fascinated with the past.

In 1991 I celebrated my 7th birthday and started school. There was no Facebook and Twitter, the Web was just getting started in some remote part of the world, there were no digital cameras and most people in my country didn’t know what a computer is. At the time Bulgaria was preparing for the country’s first democratic elections after the fall of the communist regime in 1989. I vaguely remember my parents talking about it and how they went to the polls. People had their hopes high and were singing a song in the streets I’ll always remember. The lyrics were: “45 години стигат, времето е наше (45 years are enough, time is ours now).” I remembered all this by looking at the pages of a 1991 magazine I bought on EBay a month ago. Here’s what it looks like.

Disclaimer: This blog post contains pictures of Rollingstone Magazine from January 1991. I don’t intend any copyright infringement, I’ve included them as reference. All rights of the magazine content are held by Rollingstone Magazine and the respective authors.

The reason I bought the magazine is Slash on the cover. For me, that’s the man who created the best guitar solos in the world, so no wonder I bough it.

Rollingstone Magazine 1991 with Slash on the cover

Although at first I just wanted to read about Slash, that issue quickly became a trip back to 1991 for me. Apparently at the time they had the movie Green Card in theaters, and there was a full page ad about it.

Green Card movie ad

It seems the economy wasn’t in any better shape, too. Confirms my theories that according to media, we’re always in some crisis.

The economy

State of the art technology was Digital Audio Tape Recorders. Another ad.

Sony digital audio tape recorder

The article on Slash was awesome. I didn’t regret buying the magazine at all. It was an interview he gave a little before Guns n’ Roses released the Use Your Illusions album. I read somewhere afterwards that this particular interview was one of the reasons the relationship between Slash and Axl worsened. I have no idea why. There’s nothing so revealing about Axl in there.

Slash Interview

Slash Interview

Eight grand in 1991 got you a Plymouth. Of course you’d have to be blind, because I don’t see how anyone could buy such an ugly set of wheels.

Plymouth ad

Although CDs already existed, Sony was still trying to sell its tape cassettes. It’s Metal-SR after all. It gives you a wide dynamic range. What-eva.

Sony Metal-SR cassette

Now, if you think Microsoft is the pioneer of word processing, think again. I don’t know if at the time Word was just an idea in Bill’s head, but people were selling high-tech typewriters. If you don’t know what a typewriter is, ask your dad.

Typewriter ad

What self-respecting magazine wouldn’t include classifieds? Not Rollingstone, that’s for sure. You could find anything there. From birthday wishes and inventors, to striptease clubs and phone sex.

Classifieds 1

Classifieds 2

Classifieds 3

And to finish up with my 1991 review, I’ll give you the charts at the time in the US. Remember Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer? They were kicking ass.

Billboard charts

All I can say after reading the whole issue is that 1991 was an awesome year. It may sound unlikely to you, but people had fun without our digital gadgets and being connected all the time. They probably hung out more often, and I think they definitely created better music than people do today.

So next time your internet connection is slow or your iPhone’s giving you trouble, remember 1991 and go do what you want to do in person. And listen to a piece by Slash on the way. You’ll thank me later.