Sunday, September 05, 2010

Rediscovering Vinyl

A few weeks ago, I took delivery of a batch of old records that my dad was getting rid of, to give to an ex-colleague who has recently got into vinyl. I thought this would be fine. But, to cut a medium-length story shorter, I ended up buying my own turntable and keeping a handful of the records myself.

Actually, it was a joint decision between Mrs Scribe and myself. We both probably got into music about the time that vinyl was still fairly "available" and CDs hadn't quite made their full mark. This was a time before Napster, before crap CD copy "protection", before digital radio. The handful of vinyl between us was enough to spur on some nostalgia.

As a result, the weeks since then have been dottily interspersed with diving into second hand record shops, browsing dusty rows of LPs, and digging out stuff which we think will "sound good on vinyl". Ella, King Curtis, Zeppelin, Kate Bush. I even re-bought something on vinyl for the first time - Sigur Ros' ágætis byrjun - one of the few albums that's been such a part of my life, I would pay to have it in BIG FORMAT.

In a way it's this big format that has made me start listening to music again. I mean, really listening to it. Sure, I buy albums and download MP3s every now and then and there are some fantastic tracks out there. But time in the 21st century is tight, and it seems either harder to make the time for music, or easier to squeeze it into the gaps - I'm not sure which.

The inconvenience of vinyl is also its charm, for two reasons:

One: There is no "pause" button. If you're interrupted, you miss it. You don't just rewind to re-play something, or fast-forward over the bits you don't like. The only respite you get is in the middle, when the stylus reaches the end of side A. Vinyl picks you up and forces yo to listen.

Two: Physicality is what makes music in the first place. Holding a disc in your hands, knowing that tiny divots create vibration and that any scratches will be turned into sound - vinyl is far closer to a real instrument than digital. There is no "wrong" or "right", only what the turntable feels. If the disc skips, nothing corrects it. If it crackles, that's fine. There is an acceptance that the medium is a part of the music, rather than just something else to get in the way. And if you break it, there are no back-ups.

Don't get me wrong, I like CDs and MP3s, in the same way that I have a digital camera as well as a dozen film ones. But vinyl is one of those dying items that still tethers our emotions to the world around us. Once we are used to disposability and infinite replicability, do we no longer pay attention?

Forget all the arguments about whether vinyl sounds "better" than digital. The real joy is in seeing the thing go round, the turntable arm slowly progressing towards the black hole at the centre, and listening along while you hold the cover art like a hardback book.

1 comment:

John Powers said...

My friend David Pohl has a really great party sound system. He uses a Numark portable turntable--I looked at Amazon UK and didn't see anything quite like it--plugged into a practice amp. 8 LPs can provide an evening's entertainment. Here's a short video of him playing 45s on his front porch.

If you search his name + Mantra you can see an installation he did in 2001 with record players. At pingtingTV at Youtube are some short videos which give a flavor of the sound and movement of the piece.

He's done quite a number of art pieces with records--his name (dot) blogspot is a portfolio. My hunch is you'd find them of interest.