Sunday, January 9, 2011

Fabricated Nostalgia - A Discussion of Vinyl Records

About a year ago, the music faculty of the college I attended decided to freely distribute their record collection, as it was about to be replaced by a purchase of a CD library (I know that seems behind the times, but I know no details about what collection they were purchasing, and these records were just taking up space).  I gathered numerous records, focusing on those that likely had not been redistributed on CD, even though I had no way to play them.

As a holiday gift, I received from my parents a turntable.  I recently set it up and am very much enjoying the experience of using this mechanism.

I want to get out of the way the idea that I might end up espousing the tired arguments that vinyl records sound better, or are more true to the performance they recreate.  While my knowledge of audio engineering is limited, it is complete enough that I feel confident in stating that all legitimate concerns about digital audio have been overcome.  Ultimately, the purity and durability of modern digital recording and reproduction far exceeds that of [even modern] analog-to-vinyl recording and reproduction.  Instead, my discussion (soliloquy, perhaps) is meant to be centered on the experience of using this technology:

I imagine it would be quite difficult to play records without feeling a more palpable and personal awareness of, and connection to, the music that one listens to.  I even feel a stronger sense of ownership of the music that I have on records than the music I have stored on my computer.

One must interact with records in order to hear what they contain.  To select a track, the onus of visually seeking the proper location on the record on which to drop the needle requires a conviction that, while trivial, is hardly present in the process of selecting a track on a computer.  Continuing to listen to a complete album (nay, a complete Wagner opera, as I've done), requires attention; the listener has to move the arm, stop the spin of the record, flip the record (or select the next continuation), spin it, and play it.

On that note, I wish to point out the silly convention that I've discovered.  If there is a 10-disc series, parts 1 and 10 are opposite sides of one disc, 2 and 9 the next, 3 and 8, 4 and 7, and 5 and 6.  This requires a lot more fiddling around than a 1/2, 3/4, 5/6 pattern would.
(Edit: Commenter davew has humbled me by explaining that some record players were designed to stack records and flip them over according to this convention.  I would say that I wish I had one of those to play 10-disc operas, but that would sort of fly in the face of my "more interaction with the media by paying attention to the changing of discs" theory, wouldn't it?)

Another discovery; I seem to be more a product of the computer age than I thought.  I was just beginning to write about the value of the booklets included with these albums that I have when I realized that many CD releases have such a thing, too.  My exposure to CD's has been primarily through modern rock music, and those albums rarely even include lyrics, but it's possible that CD's of the orchestral, choral, or operatic variety do include informative booklets as well.  The type just isn't as big.

I'm finding that the information included with these records is quite interesting.  I'm currently listening to "A Toscanini Treasury of Historic Broadcasts" (1967), which contains a letter from the Chairman of the Board of RCA, a biography of Toscanini, many photographs, as well as notes about each included recording.  Below is a video consisting of the "Notes on the Music" title page and the NBC symphony's 1949 performance of the first movement, the Adagio, of Haydn's 99th symphony.  The notes describe it so:
Here...from the typical opening Adagio to the vivace Finale, the string writing conforms closely to the quartet style, in which the leading voice passes from instrument to instrument, and there is hardly a consideration of "melody" and "accompaniment." In the Adagio the oboes, clarinets, and bassoons are blended into the whole with a prophetic sense of the place they would occupy in the orchestra palette of the future.
video

Through this set of vinyl records, I feel more connected to this history.  As an analogy, it's great to be able to listen to the oldest known recording of a voice...

Au Claire da la Lune

...but how incredible would it be to physically play the original phonautogram?

Ultimately, I can't resist considering how much interaction other forms of musical reproduction require.  I grew up with cassettes, which were fairly pure and very durable, but extremely frustrating when I wanted to play just one song.  Then I used CD's, which I think are rapidly fading as a standard.  Before the widespread use of computers for music storage and playback, CD's did require a certain amount of interaction and care. but were much easier to forget about during use than vinyl records are.  Still, I like being able to download music at my desk and have it play within seconds.  I wonder what Toscanini would think.

I'll leave you with this magnification of a vinyl record's groove.

6 comments:

  1. I grew up with records, so I was ecstatic when they invented CDs. With records, you play them a few times, and they develop skips and problems. I felt as though I was wearing them out each time I played them (and literally, that's what's happening). For me, the only records out of my vast collection which I'd like to hear again are the truly pathetic recordings made by my father. He made his own recordings in the 1930s using a Wilcox Recordio system. Unlike normal records, they play from the inside out. We no longer have a record player that will play them, and I'm not excessively technologically adept, so even though I remember them as being relatively unexciting (especially compared to the later reel-to-reel recordings he made, all of which perished in a fire), I still would love to hear them again.

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  2. That weird convention is not when you know why. Back in the day record changers let you stack up the records on top of each other. The sequence allowed 1,2,3 to be played then flip the whole stack to play 4,5,6.

    This random video is a reasonable example:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FmwuKt9uM4

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  3. Nice post, fun read. Keep it goin.

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  4. Jude- Records definitely wear out. I'm extremely fortunate to be able to record the output to my computer, which saves their music with the integrity they currently have and makes it easier for me to bear continued use of the discs.

    davew- Thanks! I've made an edit accordingly.

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  5. Vinyl is a thing of the past it seems. I grew up on vinyl products playing in the backyard! How fabrication and technology has succeeded!

    I miss the days sitting out on the old wooden porch swing enjoying a cool glass of lemonade and listening to the old bands like Arrow smith and The Shed Heads! Or Mike and the mechanics - http://www.instantcargarage.com/ - Those were the good ole days!

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  6. Vinyl is a thing of the past it seems. I grew up on vinyl products playing in the backyard! How fabrication and technology has succeeded!

    I miss the days sitting out on the old wooden porch swing enjoying a cool glass of lemonade and listening to the old bands like Arrow smith and The Shed Heads! Or Mike and the mechanics - http://www.instantcargarage.com/ - Those were the good ole days!

    ReplyDelete