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Philosophy & The LP

Forward Into The Past - Part 1

One thing that I’d like to make clear right up front is that while I consider myself to be an audiophile, I’m neither a dogmatic nor obsessive one. One of the harder aspects of dealing with potential customers over the last 20 years has been trying to convince them of this fact, and that I’m really not passing any kind of judgment when they want to buy something that’s not necessarily what I would buy.

People have different needs, and place profoundly different values on things. For example, take cars. I’m not into them. Whatever powerful lure they may have for some is lost on me. I want reliable, moderately priced transportation. Beyond that, I don’t much care.

I use automobiles as a comparison subject because I have long since lost track of the number of people who ventured into the audio store where I used to work and kind of turned their nose up at “crazy audiophiles” who would pay $1000 or more for “a stereo”, or even more bizarrely, that much or more for a “record player”. Some of these people then head out the door, get into their Mercedes, Lexus or Porsche and drive off.

It’s all in what you want, and I didn’t attempt to do more than provide info so that a choice could be made in a knowledgeable fashion, with the buyer being satisfied with their purchase. Along those lines, I’d like to make a case that the current public perceptions about the place of vinyl record playback in a modern audio system may be somewhat misplaced or misunderstood.

There is little doubt that analog recordings in disc form are making a resurgence. I’m using the “disc form” qualifier here because recording on tape—either open reel, cassette or 8-track—are very much not. Turntable sales in recent years profoundly dwarf cassette deck sales, 8-track players are nonexistent, and open-reel recordings are all-but as scarce as 8-tracks. What is it about discs that draw people’s interest when by all reasonable accounts they should be as wan and dusty as other analog media?

Possibly I can provide a handy shortcut to greater understanding by quoting one of the legendary Buffy Anne Summers’ most artful declarations in its less-commonly heard entirety:

I may be dead, but I’m still pretty. That’s more than I can say for you.

Analog tape has all-but vanished from the modern realm because with the exception of some carefully archived open-reel recordings, it isn’t pretty. It’s functional, and from the perspective of sound quality, it’s adequate for most tasks, but it often lacks elegance and humanity in its form factor. Open reel, at least, had some fair degree of this quality. Cassettes have little. 8-tracks have less. Elcaset, DCC and DAT answered a question most people never asked. Many paths diverged in a woods, and most of them still wind up in Blandsburg.

Yes, philosophy does eventually enter into all of this. Music is art, or it should be. It is one of humanity’s oldest art forms, possibly the oldest. It is universal, crossing all races and cultures. Disrepect for the artistic, intellectual and emotional value of music in a culture is typically a sign that said culture is in decline or even dying.

And reducing music to a low data rate digital file that can be downloaded quickly from the internet, then dumped into a little plastic dingus which plays the music back through cheap headphones or ear buds is a sign of that decline, not because it isn’t practical or cost effective (which it is), but because when it becomes the only common means of experiencing music, the emotional and artistic value of music is demeaned. Music is no longer art and emotion, it’s wallpaper for a glass house.

Admittedly, such represents a minority view, but I persist in advocating for it anyway. In the old days, live music was the standard. But statistically, very few people regularly enjoy live music anymore. If they do, said music is often poorly presented, for example with an acoustic band electrically amplified until the sound level is far beyond the natural level of the instruments themselves, or even grossly distorted. There are myriad other atrocities visited upon music, nearly all of them purely commerce-related and typically self-justifying in some logically circular manner. The same is true about the proliferation of music in digital formats, including those now-ubiquitous internet downloads.

Don’t misunderstand—if this sounds like the beginning of a diatribe against digital media and its method of distribution, it isn’t. Unlike many LP record lovers out there, I emphatically do not agree with the proposition that digital is some inherently flawed concept that can never equal the sound quality of good analog. Frankly, this is nonsense, and I’ve personally spent enough time in front of both digital and analog music sources connected to an oscilloscope, distortion analyzers and whatnot to state that from a purely technical aspect, good digital is astoundingly good.

But digital media—of which the CD is still the most ubiquitous variant—so often tends to lack the feeling that the listener is more directly connected with the artist, and the art. Its ubiquity and convenience all too often are distancing. Early developers of the CD medium understood this, which is why many of the first CD players allowed you to see the disc spinning while it played, even though there was no practical reason to do so. There is no tonearm to lift, no tiny little burst of noise when the stylus touches the lead-in groove.

Such concessions to familiarity always inevitably fade in a few short years, and today when you play tunes on your iPod nothing moves at all—sound just emerges from—where? A microscopic array of memory cells? It’s no accident that the elegant visual sleekness of the iPod provides some emotional compensation for this disconnection of the music from its original source, the humans who created it and the physical machines—instruments—they employed. There are numerous cheaper MP3 players on the market, some of them as good or better than the iPod, but people don’t just buy practicality—they want more than that whether they acknowledge it consciously or not.

For example, overall physical size of a product is always a serious factor. Traditional stereo systems often sported large amplifiers and speakers, and turntables rarely are anything approaching tiny. Some people are fine with this, many are not. Personally, I have always had difficulty understanding why a chair, sofa, lamp, ceiling fan, stove, refrigerator, bed, dresser, sink, workbench, lawnmower or whatever is fine in a room, but somehow a speaker isn’t unless it is very tiny or better yet, invisible. Since I’m already deeply afflicted by the disease of digression, I’ll spare you a lengthy rant, and leave that tangent for another time.

I will, however, duly note that form normally follows function, and no one has recently rewritten the laws of physics. Yes, you can listen to music on tiny headphones, and in public that’s not a bad idea, but why would you do this in your home? Headphones cannot reproduce the acoustic interactions that the speaker in the room provides, a similar interaction to one that occurs in a live musical setting. Our brains have been profoundly conditioned by millenia of responding to sound in an open air environment, and continual defeating of this natural physical process when listening to closed-environment music acts, once again, to diminish the original artistry.

What I want to see, then, is a return to appreciating music in a way that brings the listener closer to the original source, not distances them from it. That the majority of modern listeners are unaware of this loss makes it all the more critical to try to enlighten them. One simple and effective means to help bring people closer to music emotionally is to make the action of hearing music more physically involving in and of itself.

One way to do this is to make the effort to hear more live music, preferably in a natural, realistic manner. But yet another way leads back to why some people are rediscovering phonograph records, and the quaint but sometimes surprisingly sophisticated machines that play them.

( Hey, you’re still awake? Most excellent! There’s more to the lore in Part II. )

Forward Into The Past - Part II

For close to a decade, the occasional vinylphile would wander into my previous place of employment and confidently announce that “Vinyl is coming back!” I’d smile and nod and say something along the lines of “Well, maybe a little, but it will never be like it was before. It’s a media capable of very good sound, but in all other aspects it’s not a very practical one for the world as it is today, so don’t get your hopes up too high.”

Of course, if I wasn’t in the mood for an argument, I might just grunt something along the lines of “Uh-huh.” It wasn’t that I didn’t sympathize, it’s just that in most all cases, the guy really into vinyl was also only too happy to diss recorded music formats that 95% of the world population was perfectly happy with. Sanity is not only not statistical, it’s highly subjective to start with.

Vinyl is not coming back, at least not in the sense that it will again become a dominant recorded music format. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is what I alluded to previously, which is that humans respond to physicality, and often attach emotional reactions to same.

I also alluded that while the world population at large is still into enjoying music, said music is rapidly becoming a commodity of minimal value, like a light bulb or corn flakes, and that this is happening because the process of obtaining and playing back recorded music is now so easy and effortless. Since I’ve spun through this groove earlier, I won’t belabor it, other than to say just as with food or sex, taking one’s time with art can have benefits.

The faint grumpiness you might detect in paragraph one is because I don’t typically find myself arguing for less efficient processes. Heaven knows that everyone is too damn busy already, so who wants something that involves more time and effort to enjoy, and has odd random noises tacked on top to boot? In all honesty, I mostly don’t want such myself, but I also admit that I’m wicked lazy at times, and laziness has a cost. What did the wise musician posit oh so many years ago? “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

F’rinstance? Just within my four decades of time in the workplace, I have seen the commonly alotted workday “lunch hour” shrink and shrink until now many people barely have a “lunch 15 minutes”. Some people even multitask their lunch, working from their desk—or even their car—while grabbing faintly tasted hasty bites in between phone calls, texting and paperwork.

This is insane. Food is important, and past the basic nutritional requirements, it’s as or more important to take a break from whatever you’re doing for a little while during the day and just focus on something that’s both pleasant and discretionary. I remember back in the 70’s when I was working at a TV and appliance store, how from Noon to 1 PM much of the staff would gather in the used TV room and watch cartoons while we ate lunch. Other times, we’d walk downtown and stop in at a resturant and get lunch there. As long as there was no pressing job to do—either service or a product delivery smack at 1PM, we weren’t in a big hurry. The USA back then wasn’t like some European cultures with their two or more hour mid-day break, but there was nevertheless a clear sense of not having to press through the day relentlessly.

Interestingly, one of the best customer categories for high-end audio over time has been doctors, who obviously have high-stress jobs, and craved being able to unwind by just sitting in a comfortable chair and doing little else but listening to some favorite music. Since the number of high end audio sales to this same job category has fallen precipitously in the last decade, I’m guessing that physicians have finally fallen into the same trap as the rest of us.

What more can I say? We are the cause of our own disease. We have to be able to understand that before we have a chance to cure ourselves. The past decade, my last in audio retailing, was one that increasingly put me in front of clients who seemed completely baffled at the concept of “just listening” to music, all attention focused on it.

These same clients would be just as befuddled as to why there were still turntables scattered throughout the store, connected to systems and fully operational. “Are those used models? They aren’t? You mean they still make those things?” Such and paraphrase thereof was heard more than a few times. So I’d explain, in the main, that…

“There are still many people who own record collections, and there are also hundreds of thousands of recordings made over the last half-century or more that will never be released on CD or any newer medium. If you want to hear that music, you need a turntable. So yes, they’re still being made. Do you have any records in your music collection?”

Most times it stopped there, their curiosity satisfied. They’d answer, “No”, or “We did, but we sold them at a yard sale years ago, after the cassettes came out”, or “My parents had this big old console thing, that had a record player. Mom liked polka music, she’d put on a stack of them and she and dad would sometimes dance in the living room.”

What I hoped was to hear something like that last one. For there, inside that fondly remembered description, was the emotional connection, the bridge to the art of the matter. But of course that bridge didn’t always extend to a current prospective buyer.

“Yeah, the thing that always bugged me was having to get up every 20 minutes or so and flip the record over. I’d put one on, and then go do whatever, and right away it seemed to be over. Drove me nuts. They used to make those stacker types, but they’re gone now, right?”

I’d tell them that was true, changers are only available in the used sector of the market. Changers were convenient, but very hard on records, and fell out of favor over time, especially with audiophiles. However, some people find the need to perform the rituals related to record playing to be enjoyable, involving them in the process.

“Really? Each to their own, I guess. I love our CD changer! I can load it up and it’ll play for hours. And no skips or noises or crackly sounds.”

And really, you can’t argue with that. It’s entirely true. I pretty much knew the answer in advance, but out of curiosity I’d often ask anyway.

“No, I hardly ever put a CD in and just sit there and listen to it. Hard to find the time, you know?”

Entirely true, too.

We move on. Lots of times the client ends up with a home theater/surround sound setup. Why not? It does all the audio stuff, plays DVD movies too and we get to sell more speakers. Little ones, usually, with a subwoofer to pick up on the low end that the little speakers can’t reproduce. Everybody’s happy, all’s right with the world.

But visual art is now facing the same emotional distancing that music fell prey to. I see advertisements on a weekly, if not daily basis that show people watching movies on their phones or PC tablets. My jaw would drop if it hadn’t gotten bored with doing so many years ago.

Movies? On a telephone screen?

So here is your chance. If you’ve read this far, it’s more than possible that you can at least see my point. Don’t give in so easily, at least not all the time. If you don’t have any records, that’s cool, I’m not saying you should rush right out and buy a turntable and some records to play on it. I like CDs, I own many of them. I used to have a satellite music service, I enjoyed the endless stream of tunes it provided. My internet connection can do the same for me now.

But I still own records, and I still play them. There’s a deep satisfaction of the physicality of gazing at the cover art, pulling the disc from the sleeve, placing it on the platter, cuing up the arm and hearing the playback begin. I don’t even mind that my preamp doesn’t have a remote control, there’s likewise something satisfying about turning a volume knob instead of keying a button. I liked doing these things years ago, and I still like doing them.

I’m certainly not averse to change, or progress. I used to avoid purchasing used records because they were often poorly treated and thus were rife with pops and clicks, even though this would have been a very frugal way to expand my music collection. But then came computer software that could remove those annoying noises without affecting the music itself, and make me a CD copy that was better sounding than the record, and I rejoiced. What another great way to spend time with music! And now I can play my records in my car!

Isn’t technology wonderful? When it serves our needs and doesn’t enslave us in exchange?

So one last question, and then I shall de-ramble.

Do you enjoy music? Really enjoy it, I mean, not just need it for occupational or social wallpaper? Then seek out new things to listen to. Some of those new things will be only found on old things. Go forward into the past.

Stop. Rest. Listen.

Listen slowly.

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