As some (most) of you already know, my day job involves training the next generation of sound engineers and musical creatives at dBs Music. As part of our undergraduate and postgraduate programs we have a series of guest lectures from various producers, engineers, musician and other Industry creatives.
The other week we were honoured to host the excellent Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, an academic and author specialising in fan culture, the cult of dead celebrity, music and music heritage.
Jen’s guest lecture was excellent and our students are still talking about it now. I took the opportunity to ask her to sign my copy of ‘Why Vinyl Matters’, which she graciously did, with her usual flare.
So why does vinyl matter?
Well, firstly, this isn’t going to be a book review. The book is excellent though, go and buy a copy immediately, if you don’t own one already (I imagine a lot of people reading this already will). Perhaps a better title for this post would be ‘Why does vinyl matter, to me?’.
Why does vinyl matter, to me?
I’ve tried answering that question a few times, over a coffee, with hastily handwritten notes, discussions with academics, being cognisant when playing vinyl, and it’s a tough one to answer. Not because there aren’t any reasons, but because there are so many and the majority of them are equally as applicable to any physical, analogue format; but I will attempt to keep this about vinyl.
For me, it has little to do with sound quality. I am well aware of the format’s sonic limitations and will happily (academically or otherwise) debate formats, sonic perception and audio objectivity vs. subjectivity.
However, this post is not about the sonic pros and cons of the format, instead it is about interaction, experience and human nature.
There is just something more authentic about being able to flick through a big crate of vinyl albums than scrolling through Spotify. The feeling of the record sleeves under the fingertips, the special “flick” you learn and improve at, the way the cardboard brakes on the air pressure between the sleeves as one 12″ cascades into another. A short pause … stopping on a classic cover, or some interesting art I’ve not seen before. The role of the physical format here, one could argue, is almost as important as the music itself.
Sliding the vinyl from the sleeve, that distinctive papery crumple. The very-careful balance we learn, of holding the disk between the fingers and palm of the hand, before placing it on the turntable. Placing or lowering the needle gently and precisely into the groove. That pregnant pause before that first subtle crackle comes over the speakers, shortly followed by the sonic signature of that particular pressing.
Listening, really listening, sitting in the ‘sweet spot’ between the speakers and actually hearing the record. Knowing that every play will wear the needle and the groove very subtly; meaning that one play, almost indistinguishable from subsequent plays, is actually unique and will never be exactly the same ever again. A sonic sacrifice.
Reading the liner notes; before the days of the Internet, so much information came from those notes. Who played what and on which track, who wrote each song, where it was recorded, who engineering it, who the producer was, where it was pressed …
The artwork, often full of glorious studio or tour photos. I still study all the studio pictures closely, occasionally I find a piece of studio or music gear I am not familiar with and that leads me on a new mission to learn about it.
Then there’s the artwork, presented as either a 12″ square or a 24″ x 12″ rectangle if it’s a gatefold. Die-cuts (ELP – Brain Salad Surgery), embellishments (Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers features a zip on some pressings), coloured vinyl (which is making a comeback), picture disks (Tool – Lateralus features the art of Alex Grey), shaped disks, inlays, inserts, posters … I fear we have lost the art of the record.
During the last century and, to some extent, the start of this one, we lived in a world of collections, where the idea of owning and currating physical objects was celebrated. Storing them, maintaining them, interacting with the medium itself.
However, this process has been largely supplanted by streaming media. Spotify and Apple Music means we can listen to any album, at any time without having to own or store that physical copy. Therefore, it could be argued that, the idea of a tangible format become less about access to the music we love and more about having a authentic experience.
I find this ritual highly social too. It’s great to have friends and family over to hang out and play records. It’s fun to teach people, who have never had the pleasure of placing the disk on the turntable, or the needle in the grove, how to go about it. It’s a memorable experience which adds ‘weight’ to the music. That interaction is almost impossible to replicate with modern digital platforms.
That is why I love vinyl.
And, then, all too soon, the last record of the night spins out and the needle sits in the dead wax at the centre of the beautiful black circle …