Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Circle Game

Like almost everyone who grew up in the 1960s, I bought a lot of records over the years. You know, the flat vinyl discs with grooves in them... the things that used turntables with tonearms and needles... records. And like many, I never got rid of the bulk of my records after I replaced them with CDs--not because I was trying to save them, but because there was no market for vinyl records at the time, and I just couldn't bring myself to throw them away unless they were so badly scratched and scuffed that I saw no value at all in them.

Last week, I found my old Pioneer turntable, which is still working just fine; the stylus, however, was quite worn down from heavy use. So I decided to replace the stylus, which turned out to cost only about $15. I then dug through my albums, looking for the perfect "test LP" to see how the turntable sounded; I settled on my copy of Abbey Road, the original copy that I got back in 1969; it has some scratches (the largest of which I can credit to my sister Kimberly, who decided to sneak my album into her room and listen to it on her clunky designed-for-a-six-year-old record player... and when it skipped, she solved the problem by putting a quarter or two on top of the tonearm, which somehow led to her making a nice popping scratch at the end of "Come Together." I've gotten my money's worth out of haranguing her over that for more than forty years since, of course.), but it was still pretty much playable.

Now this is the album that I listened to over and over again in my room; it became the background music for a period of intense Edgar Rice Burroughs reading in late 1969/early 1970, so I've come to associate that album with Pellucidar and Venus and Mars and the savannahs of Africa. I put the album on the platter, turned everything on, then dropped the tonearm onto the surface of the vinyl; while the background noise of well-played vinyl was there, it was actually much quieter than I anticipated. And the music--well, it sounded as rich and resonant as I had remembered from my teenage years, if not moreso.

I'm not a vinyl snob, and I still love CDs and MP3s and AACs and FLAC files and all the rest--but I can confirm that there was a noticeable difference in sound between the vinyl copy of Abbey Road and the CD. There is a presence that is different with vinyl. Some insist it's better, more lifelike; I don't know that I'm ready to go that far yet, but I will say that the difference in sound harkened back much more closely to what I grew up with.

While the 30-year-old Pioneer turntable worked just fine, I ultimately decided to upgrade to an Audio-Technica that was on sale through Amazon. My old Pioneer required dedicated phono inputs, which my Onkyo amplifier doesn't have; as a result, I was having to use a separate pre-amp, and I decided I'd do better to move the old turntable into the basement of Lansdowne, while I'd get a new turntable with its own built-in preamp to use with the Onkyo at Marchmont (yes, I'm still insisting on naming the two houses--if you're trying to find an easy mnemonic way to keep up with which is the original house and which is the second house, just remember that they're in alphabetical order, so Marchmont is the name I've given the second house in memory of the home where I grew up). If anything, the new turntable sounded even better--the platter wasn't as heavy, but the cartridge is probably an improvement on the one I have.

So now I've dug out a few more of my old albums--Iron Butterfly's Ball, Stephen Stills' first album, Klaatu, Badfinger's Ass, Donovan's Open Roads, Crosby Stills & Nash, Derek & the Dominoes' Layla--and rediscovered the Old Ways. I actually listened to albums all the way through, in order, one side at time, just like I used to, and I found the experience enjoyable in its own way. The usual digital options of randomization are gone, so I rediscovered the significance of track order all over again.

I think that's one reason why I tended to like almost every song on an album from those years. I didn't listen to them randomly, I didn't transfer my favorites to a playlist and abandon the reste--I listened to the entire album repeatedly, and I grew to know every song, both individually and as a part of an artistically planned listening experience. Artists and producers put a great deal of time into deciding on song order for many albums, assuming that we'd actually listen to them in that order. The cassette deck of the early 1970s began giving us the freedom to create randomly-ordered "mix tapes" of our favorite tracks, but it wasn't until the CD player that randomization really flourished (remember the 100-disc and 200-disc carousel players of the 1980s?). By the time of the iPod, random had become the preferred order for listening, and the concept of a planned album was all but forgotten. With vinyl,however, it lives on.

And yes, there were several more memory flashbacks as I listened to old album favorites, culminating with a playback of the Who's "See Me Feel Me" from the Woodstock soundtrack that momentarily transported me back to the living room of my childhood home in the original Marchmont, where I thrilled to that track played loudly on my parents' console stereo system, which positively rattled the floor with its rich bass notes.

Those of you who didn't grow up with vinyl probably think of this as nothing more than an old guy's nostalgia, but it really is more than that, I believe. It's a return to musical listening as a more planned, more controlled experience--and the enjoyment of a means of sound reproduction that has its flaws, certainly, but also its own unique sonic qualities.

We always assume that new is better, and it was only natural in the computer era to assume that digital would be a marked improvement over the vagaries of analog reproduction.Sometimes the old ways have their own qualities that can't be surpassed...

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