I’ve been into music as long as I can remember, but until last fall I had never owned a vinyl record, let alone a turntable.
That all changed on my 40th birthday.
My wife thought (correctly, as it turned out) that some nostalgia might be in order to help me ease into a new decade. The question this raised in terms of the listening experience was whether old technology — circa 20th century — necessarily meant it was inferior to digital technology such as MP3s and CDs?
I posed the same question to Walter McKeever, who has taught for more than 10 years as an adjunct instructor of music and recording arts at Owens Community College, wondering if digital and analog technologies were all that different when it comes to the sound experience.
“For rock music, analog definitely has a certain sound,” McKeever said. “There’s just something about it. Somehow it has a little more depth.”
After a few months of listening in my basement, I could hear the difference for myself: a bigger, more vibrant sound from records versus CDs or download, but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t hearing things.
Paul Westerberg of the Replacements no longer sounded flat like the recording of “Skyway” did from “Pleased to Meet Me” on an iPod. Westerberg’s longing vocals now sounded like he was singing in a hallway, giving it that depth McKeever referenced. Nuanced layers of stinging guitars I didn’t know existed jumped out on “Can’t Hardly Wait.”
“Pleased to Meet Me” was recorded in 1987, but how would something more recent sound? Lucero’s “1372 Overton Park” (2009) seemed like it was up to the task, especially with the record’s blue plastic hue. On vinyl Ben Nichols’ whiskey-tinged and smoke-damaged voice on “Can’t Feel a Thing” hovers above a beating bass drum and piano riffs, a sound that seemed melded into one when I listen to the same song over the Internet.
McKeever said the better analog sound quality actually is related to how the songs are pressed onto the records.
“The fact the sound pressure waves are being recorded into grooves,” he said, means “the low-mid range sounds like there is a little more depth even though you might be missing some of the dynamic range. I think once someone has heard that on a good turntable and a decent piece of vinyl, you can really hear the difference versus a bunch of MP3s which are missing a lot of information, so they’re not really hearing everything.”
The convenience of iTunes and downloading songs onto an iPhone, iPod, iPad, or personal computer is still hard to beat, especially when you usually can buy individual songs for 99 cents.
But if you’re a stereophile, it is difficult to overlook that something is literally missing.
In order to save bandwidth for streaming and storage space on MP3 players, up to 90 percent of the information that’s on a CD is thrown out, McKeever said. To mask that issue, computer algorithms are used to try to synthesize what’s missing, which comes across as lacking for a music purists.
McKeever, 46, onetime member of the 1980s band Big Hunk O’Cheese, said he always refers to AC/DC’s anthem “Back in Black” when talking about the lack of sound quality when it comes to MP3 recordings.
“It sounds washy,” he said, making the wa-wa-wa sounds himself. “You can’t tell if it’s a tambourine, a high-hat [drum], or maybe even maracas. I can’t really tell.”
McKeever said that if you really love a band, getting its new album on a compact disc is a much more satisfying sound than downloading it off iTunes, but if money weren’t an issue, he’d be more inclined to buy vinyl. For example, a new vinyl record typically costs $13 to $17 compared to $13 to $15 for a compact disc, according to Laura Fredericks at Finders Records in Bowling Green. A typical album download on iTunes costs $9.99 to $13.99.
Padding your collection is when the costs can start to pile up, with reissues and remasterings of old albums because “making a record is expensive,” Fredericks said.
“I have so many vinyl albums from before CDs were in and I could get a bunch of stuff on vinyl for cheap, but it’s not convenient when you want to listen to your favorite music on your commute,” said McKeever, a Bowling Green resident.
“Vinyl can be great but if it’s not calibrated right or if your needle is really worn it actually can gouge your records.”
And vinyl seems to be the retro thing to do right now with sales up 16.3 percent in 2012 from 2011, which also increased 39 percent from the previous year, according to Digital Music News.
That’s good news for local record stores, which also host special-incentive shopping days such as Record Store Day, held this year on April 20. Plus, a lot of new vinyl albums come with a CD or download card — “so it’s like a two for one,” Fredericks said — so you don’t have to pick or choose when it comes to sound quality or portability.
“It’s definitely cool and I was surprised to see last year that 5 million records were sold,” said McKeever, who has more than 1,000 pressings on vinyl and dozens of box sets on CD. “It can get expensive with the Beatles’ latest box set with 14 LPs costing more than $300 — it’s definitely not a poor man’s game. If you’re a sandwich artist at Subway it’s going to be hard to pull off, but there’s definitely a cool factor to it for sure.”
So, like my turntable, I guess I’m not a relic after all. Long live vinyl.
Contact Bob Cunningham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6506.