Sunday, January 1, 2012

Confessions of a Vinyl Junkie: Why I Like Listening to Records

I won't get into the endless debate over the subjectiveness of sound quality. But I feel fortunate that my dad invested in a high-quality stereo system back in the early 60's that still works (most of the time) to this day. If I hadn't grown up with that record player, I might not have developed such a love of the ritual of listening to a record.

When I listen to music on my computer, all I do is click the mouse. A playlist doesn't require any involvement from me; eventually it turns into background noise and I may not even pay attention to what's being played. MP3s aren't tangible; I can't "see" the music, and there's no artwork or liner notes. And obviously my computer speakers, or earbuds, can never provide the same quality sound as a home stereo system. I don't feel the same connection to digital formats as I do a record. Even CDs don't give me the same experience; often you can barely read the liner notes or booklets due to small type, and I feel sort of "divorced" from the music if I can't see it spinning around hypnotically. Does that make sense? 

I like watching the needle read the grooves in the vinyl and magically turn that into sound. It's like I'm watching the music as well as hearing it. I can look at the grooves of a record and see where the quiet pauses are in the song. I can tell from the grooves if the song is quiet and acoustic. On vinyl I can literally see where the piano solo begins in "Layla". That's cool. It's tangible. Not to mention, an excellent-condition record with no scratches, and the rainbow sheen glistening against the black vinyl, is an absolute thing of beauty.

Plus, my turntable has a very distinct scent. I don't know how to describe it, but it's the smell of mechanical gears and grease and motorized parts. The smell of old electronics that were built to last. It's a good smell. Because it affects all these senses, I feel more of a connection to the experience of listening to a record.

First, I have to make sure I handle everything delicately. This is old equipment, after all, and my system is sometimes buggy. The turntable motor is starting to wear out, and sometimes it takes a minute or two to get up to the right speed. Then I visually inspect the vinyl, give it a brief check to make sure it's free of dust and fingerprints (I clean my records regularly.) I have to put it on the platter and gently lower the arm onto the record. I'm involved in the process, I'm making the music happen. I'm not just clicking a mouse or hitting a play button. If I want to cue up a song I have to pay close attention and watch where I'm putting the needle.

While listening to records I'm usually sitting on the floor or on my bed. Ever since I was a kid, I've enjoyed holding the cover in my hands as I listen to the music it contains, studying the pictures and liner notes or reading the lyrics. A 12" piece of cardboard with a gatefold cover or booklet can be a beautiful piece of art. If it's been stored away it often has a faint musty scent, same as old paperback books, that I just love. Plus, used records occasionally have someone's name written on them somewhere, and you wonder who that person was and if they enjoyed the album, and what they were doing while they listened to it.

33 1/3 RPM is hypnotic for me. One of my earliest memories is getting told not to touch the record player (I think I put a scratch in my mom's Neil Diamond record by touching it while it was playing, but I just loved watching it spin around so slowly, and frankly she shouldn't have left the record player in reach of a toddler!)

The simple existence of Side A and Side B also require the listener to stay involved. After about 5 or 6 songs, you have to get up and flip the record over or put on something else. (Unless you have auto-repeat on your turntable.) It discourages you from relegating the music to background noise or only halfway listening to a track. You pay more attention to the music that someone spent weeks or months creating. I have to admit that I do get fatigued sometimes with CDs that have "too many" songs on them...just because you can fit over an hour of music onto your album, doesn't necessarily mean you should.

Don't get me wrong -- I do have CDs and MP3s I use for trance and meditation, and music that I put on for background noise for zoning out while painting or making other artwork. I could never use vinyl albums for that purpose. But when I want the experience of listening to a record, putting it on the turntable and holding the cover in my hands just gives me a deeper connection to the music and the artists. It's a multi-sensory, listener-participation experience. And that doesn't even get into the brilliance of analog sound played through a high-quality system. However, that's another essay for another time.

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