Monday, August 11, 2008

VRD: What’s That Round, Black Thing?

Find all Vinyl Record Day blogswarm posts starting at jb’s blog, The Hits Just Keep On Comin'. The complete list of Vinyl Record Day posts is here.

August 12, 1877. Before that day, every sound ever produced by an animal, a falling tree, or the Earth, as it matured, evaporated shortly after its creation. When Thoreau described the sound of the train in Walden, published in 1854, he was describing a sound some of his readers would never hear. Before August 12, 1877, if you didn’t go to a railroad track to hear an engine roar by, you never heard one. No one could bring the sound to you.

It would still be another ten years or more before most people heard reproduced sound, but this date marks the possibility of hearing a sound wave outside of real time. As early as 1860, you could see a sound wave, thanks to a French inventor, Léon Scott, who created something called the phonautograph. But he never developed a way to play back the sounds. Thanks to and massive advances in computing, the oldest phonautogram, a snippet of Au Claire de la Lune, can now be heard.

Thomas Edison, though, did think in terms of playback, and he succeeded in creating one of the few enduring technologies of the nineteenth century. While his first thoughts for the phonograph did not turn to music, he invented a delivery medium for artistic expression that could not be rivaled for portability until the VCR became part of our lives.

Let me fast-forward 85 years. (There’s a term that would not exist without Edison.) It may well have been August 12, 1962 when I became aware enough of music to ask what my mother was doing to produce it. She used a little box and some flat black discs to make groovin’ sounds. And she could do it over and over. She was a miracle-worker, my mother.

Radio stations can ignore the lights on their phones when they don’t want to take requests, but my mom was stuck with the monster she had created. I would not let go of music. So, before I turned three, she taught me to put the vinyl on the platter, move the tonearm carefully to the beginning of the groove, and drop it onto the blackness that somehow exploded with sound (and color, but that’s a different discussion).

Her short investment of time reaped great rewards for her, as she never had to wonder about my whereabouts once she showed me the intricacies of the record player. I was hooked on music. I have audible proof of how much music mattered to me when I was three years old, thanks to this Christmas recording.

I don’t know if listening to Edison’s invention made me musical, or if I was going to have an urge to produce sounds of my own, and that made me love other people’s records. But it doesn’t matter: as abiding as my delight has been in playing a piano, a guitar or a tin whistle, nothing has ever pleased me more than putting a vinyl record on a turntable.

I was fortunate to have grown up in an era where the 45 was king, and everyone wanted to cash in by creating a record label and producing a hit. That rush in search of black gold led to a variety of 45 labels that were appealing to the eye, in hopes that a splash of color or an intriguing logo would lead a potential buyer to give the song a spin. It also led to the release of some strange recordings, the likes of which would never be issued in an era where a one-size-fits-all disc is expected to contain a dozen songs.

But for a little kid who was discovering music via the 7” 45 rpm record, the world was full of sonic delights. It helped that I had an uncle who bought cutout 45s from a local department store and brought them to me, twenty at a time. Each new pile of vinyl provided at least 80 minutes of joy the first time through, and while cutout 45s were by nature unpredictable as far as quality went, I found a lot of classic tunes in those stacks.

I have never mentioned on this blog that I found trips to the hardware store with my dad a wistful experience. While he was making his purchases, I would eventually wander by the section where sandpaper was sold. There, you could buy sanding discs that would spin on a sander. To my five-year-old eyes, their flat, circular form, complete with label in the middle, looked like a vinyl record.

That image always made me wish they had music on them, so I could bug my dad to buy one for me. The elegance of the flat black circle with a label and a hole in the middle imprinted itself so deeply in my psyche that recently, when I visited a hardware store with my dad, the sanding discs still tugged at me, telling me that wishing music onto their gritty surface would make it so.

Given that I am an audiophile, you can imagine my joy at reading in Billboard around 1980 that Philips and Sony were concocting a scratchless, popless, skipless medium for playing music that would hold more than seventy minutes of sound and provide previously unimagined dynamic range. I had LPs that, even when they were new, sounded gritty on the last track because of the way the tonearm interacted with the grove. I was all for clarity and precision.

The CD, when it arrived in 1983, proved to be compact (1000 of them fit in the space of my 400 LPs), durable (as I don’t touch the surface, the first CD I bought still sounds the same) and convenient (they work much better in the car than vinyl does). I can even say that I almost always can tell you if a song is being played from a CD or vinyl, thanks to the tiny bit of static, the occasional crushed sibilant, or the wow and flutter of vinyl.

I can also distinguish vinyl from digital by the nuance of sound that gets snipped out by a limited digital sampling rate. I love my CDs, but I have learned over the years that there really is something to be said for listening to a tenderly kept piece of vinyl on high-end equipment, beginning with an impeccable stylus. There is simplicity in the mechanics of cutting a sound wave into a plate that then presses that exact sound into a piece of vinyl. The process brings all of the presence of the original performance from the studio to your ear. If there are a few pops along the way, it’s no worse than hearing a concert live and having someone cough during a quiet passage.

I never thought I could prove how magical vinyl is, but now I can. I bought a new stylus a couple of years ago so I could digitize some songs I had on vinyl but not on CD. In most cases, I got what I expected: warm recordings with some pop and chatter. In one case, I got far more than I bargained for: I got a spectacular example of why vinyl, and thus Thomas Alva Edison, still matters. The recording of “Down Under” by Men at Work that I took off my LP, as I didn’t have it on CD, displays vinyl at its best.

Even though I was stupid enough to delete the wav file when I compressed the audio, the resulting digital file is amazingly crisp and warm. It shows why vinyl is still here 25 years after we went digital, whereas the 78 rpm lacquer disc gave way to vinyl in five years or so. It shows, too, that an idea first implemented on August 12, 1877 stands the test of time. There is really no improving on the vinyl record; there are only lateral moves from the lateral groove.

A note on the recordings: I am posting both my LP and my CD versions of “Down Under.” I am doing so to give you a chance to guess which version comes from vinyl. If you have a second, after you listen, please use the poll to the right to make your guess as to which track is from the LP. I’ll divulge the answer on Saturday.

Tomorrow, it’s back to business as usual, and I’ll be discussing one of the last newly issued 45s I bought, in 1988. Thanks for stopping by, and I invite those of you who are here for the first time to stop by for new posts on Wednesdays and Saturdays. You can subscribe to the blog via the links to the right, if you wish. See you tomorrow!

Men At Work, Down Under, version A

Men At Work, Down Under, version B


yah shure said...

Say, wasn't that Christmas tape the first caithiseach recording we've heard here? Not bad, but it could've been a hit if Jeff Barry had been sitting in the producer's chair. :)

Your vivid musical and vinyl recollections from age two and three are amazing! Just be sure to keep the sanding discs far, far away from the vinyl ones.

Happy VRD 2008! And the circle goes 'round and 'round...

jb said...

"If there are a few pops along the way, it’s no worse than hearing a concert live and having someone cough during a quiet passage."

Yes, yes, yes. I never thought of it that way, but you're right.

On the radio, I always say that clicks and pops aren't flaws, they're character.

Thanks for participating in the VRD blogswarm.