Friday, October 09, 2009

My turntable's not dead

People keep telling me there's a vinyl revival. I have friends in their fifties and in their twenties who have recently bought vinyl records, and yea, even I have bought some, because I'm a member of the Dead Weather's fan club - it has a spiffy name, The Vault, not "the Dead Weather fan club" because that wouldn't be hip - and you won't be getting no CDs from a Jack White enterprise. In fact their record company, Third Man Record's, slogan is "Your turntable's not dead".

And you know what? It isn't. I had a day off yesterday and I was playing records on it. Not The Vault records because they're collectors' items (tm) so they are stored in a hard vacuum at absolute zero between non-reactive flat-to-the-nearest-nanometer titanium plates at 60 pounds pressure. OK, I'm lying. They're in their paper bags I brought them home in.

The records I was playing were from the 1970s. Some of them I've had since back then and some I've acquired via that excellent resource, the St. Vincent de Paul Society. It's creepy that people who bought Rocket Man or Every Picture Tells a Story are now old enough to be involuntarily donating them to charity shops, but on the other hand, for people from Yorkshire, who like me were too poor or tight-fisted to buy them back in the day, it's a boon. And what have I learned about vinyl?

The turntable wasn't dead, but the records were frankly moribund.

Records really don't last very long. Certainly they don't last the forty years its been since the seventies began. A goodly proportion of them, both ones I've had in my possession the whole time and the ones I've recently obtained, have enough surface noise to interfere with listening pleasure. These aren't long scratches, and it's not just dust (I dusted them). They are the usual snap, crackle and pop that records seem to attract from nowhere. I imagine that if scientists were to study the phenomenon closely, they'd find out this is where all the Higgs Bosons are at - they are attracted to vinyl and leave a crackle wherever they strike it.

Since I had experience in tuning out the crackles before CDs were invented, it's pretty easy to get back in the groove, so to speak. But what do newer vinyl collectors do? Is it going to come as a horrible shock that the third time they play a record, as if by magic, it has developed that sound you hear when you listen to a sea-shell, if not actually the sound of a chain of firecrackers?

There's a lot you can do to mitigate it, of course. Specifically you can not roll joints on them, which I think was a major source of analogue errors back in the seventies. Other good tips are to not leave them in sunlight, not leave them leaning against something, vacuum them before every play, make sure your stylus is in good condition, and the number one tip - only play them once, rip them to a wav file and then never play them again. Or buy a CD, of course.

I have heard of vinylphiles who buy buckets of rubber glue and coat their records thickly with the stuff, leave it to dry and then peel off the rubber, theoretically taking all the crud that was in the grooves with it. I haven't tried it myself, mainly because who can afford that much glue? The one person I asked about it said he did it before he, you guessed it, ripped the record to wav and wasn't expecting to ever have to do it a second time.

Probably the most enjoyable record I listened to yesterday was The Meters' Rejuvenation. I think I bought it because Led Zeppelin liked it - not realizing at the time that John Bonham liked lots of things I didn't like, like prize Hereford bulls and dragsters, and his stamp of approval wasn't necessarily a recommendation. I've grown to appreciate funk a bit more since then, and this is a very funky record indeed. The cover shows a woman in full seventies drag eating a Twinkie and treating her records in a way that is bound to cause surface noise. Hasn't she listened to a word I've said?

You can buy the mp3 or the CD at the link above, but you won't get the listening experience I did with my original vinyl. Mostly because the edge of my vinyl is warped like a sneering lip and the first track on side two has three skips because of it.

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