Spinsters Rejoice in a New Era of Vinyl
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY: TANNER HEWITT
The newspaper industry has been scrambling for answers for years now, the self-driving cars are nipping at our heels, and we're all still lamenting the loss of our Tamagotchis. Digitization has completely changed the landscape for some industries and wiped out others entirely. Yet, Forbes Magazine reported this January that vinyl-record sales will near $1 billion this year for the first time this century.
That number only accounts for about 6 percent of music-industry sales, but the fact that vinyl hasn't gone the way of the typewriter is a little surprising. Records are expensive, bulky, they need to be flipped over halfway through, and you need an equally bulky and expensive turntable to play them (which may or may not have speakers included). Finding a place to store your records seems like a hassle when you could fit 10,000 on your phone. So, why the big sales? Hipsters? Nostalgia? Marketing? Does vinyl actually sound any better than MP3s or other digital music files? DIG Mag sent me into the field to find out why people are still collecting these increasingly archaic pieces of technology and to learn if there really is something special about how they sound.
Nestled in the sleepy old-towne neighborhood of Orange, CA among the elderly and the Chapman College transplants resides a 20-year-old punk enthusiast named Shane Campbell. He took me inside his home one gloomy afternoon a few weeks ago to inspect his collection of physical music. In the sparsely decorated room, next to his desk below a massive mounted television on one wall, sits Campbell's turntable, a newer model with a wood design made to look vintage. I examined a specially made shelf on his wall that holds 100 audio tapes, all from newer age punk bands, as Campbell pulled two heavy milk crates from his closet.
The crates were filled with a truly impressive collection given Campbell has only been collecting for two years.
“My parents gave me a record player and few records; they said they just grabbed whatever,” he said.
Near the front of one the crates were those first records, some Black Sabbath and some lesser known discs from the early ‘60s. Since then, Campbell has added 92 7-inch records, 51 LPs (12-inch records) and more than 120 tapes. Nearly all of them are punk or a subgenre of punk, and they're all fairly modern, save for a 1959 Marty Robbins album Campbell bought because it features a a couple songs that appear in one of his favorite video games.
“I buy everything online, basically,” Campbell said. “There's not too many punk record shops around besides Radiation (Records) in Fullerton.”
Sometimes, Campbell will buy records when bands are selling them at concerts, and he said supporting touring bands is important to him.
“Even though there isn’t a ton of money in selling physical formats, anything helps for a touring band,” he said. Campbell's life revolves around the punk music scene (he was the frontman the group Youth Draft before they disbanded), and he's traveled all around the country following bands he likes. You could spend an afternoon just looking at the various artwork and multi-colored vinyls in his collection in a way that's much more exciting than scrolling through pictures on a computer screen, and the personal quality some of his more cheaply made records have is impossible to digitize.
When I asked Campbell if his records are near the top of his “grab when your house is on fire” list and he said, “Most definitely. I’ve spent a ton of money of these items so they are very important to me and I don’t want a fire burning them to nothing. I would be devastated.”
Campbell also showed me something I'd never seen before, a 45rpm square-shaped record made on flimsy plastic called a “flexi.” Flexis are often found wedged in the pages of punk zines.
“I have to put a quarter on it, otherwise it won't spin,” he said, as he laid down a flexi from The Nodes. The square shape means you have to offset the balance to get it to turn and keep turning, and I couldn't help but laugh when the record started playing – it sounded terrible. Not The Nodes, just the quality of the record.
No doubt the poor sound was due to the poor quality of the flexi, but it got me thinking again about my other question. Vinyl usually has this distinctive warm sound that you don't find really with digital music, but is that sound any better? Consumer choice in this era has allowed a lot of us to be picky about the quality of our choices. To learn how the quality of vinyl stacks up with digital music, I went to down to CSULB's music department.
In the shadow of the Walter Pyramid, jazz music was in the air. I poked my head into the office of Rychard Cooper. He greeted me through a gap in his desk, which was stacked high with computer monitors and speakers and other musical equipment. Cooper has been teaching audio engineering and composition at Long Beach for 15 years and is the Audio Visual Director for the entire music department. He worked as the personal assistant to one of his heroes, the legendary musician and producer Brian Eno, when the artist collaborated with our own University Art Museum in 2009. Well versed in the properties of sound, I knew Cooper could help me understand why people love the way vinyl music sounds.
First Cooper explained what fidelity means in music, or how faithful the noise on any physical medium is to what the musicians first played. He said that the physical limitations of vinyl means that it can never present the full dynamic range of most music.
“Dynamic in range is the difference in loudness between one thing and another,” he said. ”An orchestra [has a range of] about 102 decibels, and that dynamic is what gives music its punch, and its excitement, and makes it exhilarating. Vinyl has a limit of about 57 decibels [...] if it's more than that, the needle literally jumps out of the groove.”
He said that while digital music had its pitfalls in the early goings, CDs, for example, have a dynamic range of 97 or 98 decibels, nearly twice as much as vinyl. Cooper recalled how much better Dark Side of the Moon sounded the first time he played the CD version, but he did say there was something behind people loving the way vinyl sounds.
“It's not just because it's kitchy or nostalgic, or because people are hipsters, there is an actual reason why people like the way vinyl sounds,” he said. “In the act of compression, [reducing that dynamic range to put music on vinyl or tape] it creates a certain midrange distortion, which we like. We call it warmth.”
This is why we love distorted guitar too. He admitted to having a collection of his own. I left Cooper's office satisfied with what I'd learned. It doesn't matter that there's better ways of listening to music, and I didn't even delve into the importance of the kinds of speakers you use or the room you're in. The warmth that we can't help but enjoy is there on every record, and the 12-inch pieces of artwork are something truly special to hold in your hands. Vinyl has its physical limitations, but what's made them last are their intangible qualities. Will any of your money be a part of that $1 billion this year? Give it a shot. Maybe go out on Record Store Day next month –April – and start your collection. What have you got to lose?