Vinyl records, once thought to be as dead as 8-tracks and dial up internet, are back with a vengeance and are expected to surpass one billion dollars in sales for the first time in decades. While LP records still only account for a small percentage of total music sales, around 6%, the vinyl comeback has been a bright spot for a music industry that has endured crippling losses due to music piracy and free streaming sources like YouTube. Personally, I got my own turntable in 1997, so for once in my life I was ahead of the curve in terms of things that are fashionable. I really only stopped buying records for a few years in the early ’90s. So why then do people like myself find vinyl to be their preferred method of listening to music? I’m so glad you asked, let me tell you about some of the reasons I and others like me still listen to records.
5. A Vinyl LP is a Work of Art!
One unfortunate side effect of the digital era of music is that albums are no longer associated with their cover art. Think of the iconic prism and rainbow cover of Dark Side of the Moon, or the absolute lack of artwork for The Beatles’ 1968 so-called “White Album“. Even in the CD era, while the album cover had shrunk considerably, you can still point to memorable covers like Nirvana’s floating baby on Nevermind or Dr. Dre’s riff on the Zig Zag packaging on The Chronic. Not only did they elevate the album to a fully realized artistic package, but those images can even influence the way we hear the music. Listen to the watery guitar of Nirvana’s Come as You Are and it instantly evokes images of the deep blue pool on the album’s cover. These days, most people consume music in songs as part of an algorithm composed playlist on Spotify or Pandora. Even if they do listen to the whole album, the artwork is an afterthought. Think about it, what’s the last album cover you can even remember? When you listen to a record, you automatically get that extra component of the music right in front of you when you pull the sleeve out of your collection. Thankfully, there are still artists out there like Radiohead and Tame Impala that put effort into the presentation of their music with thought provoking covers.
4. Playing a Record is an Active Listening Experience
Another thing that has happened with the advent of music being stored on devices like your computer or your phone is that often times music easily fades into the background as we endlessly stream hours of music. That’s not the case when you are listening to a record. Perusing your vinyl collection that has appropriated vast swaths of your domicile’s square footage and then choosing that perfect record to fit the mood is a ritual in itself. Once you’ve pulled the record from the sleeve, you need to clean it, drop the needle and then a mere 20 or so minutes later flip it over and clean the other side. The point is, you aren’t just passively consuming song after song after song, you are a part of the process of listening to the music. The whole endeavor helps create an environment and experience where you are more likely to really pay attention and hone in on the music you are hearing. Sure you may be multitasking when listening to vinyl, but the limited play time of a side of vinyl demands that you reengage at regular intervals. Simply put, if you ignore your record player you will end up sitting in silence pretty quickly, so you are going to have to take an active role to keep the tunes rolling. I think putting in that extra effort to play a record ends up many times giving the listener a greater appreciation of the music than in other formats where the listening is less involved.
3. The Thrill of the Hunt!
Because vinyl records do comprise a smaller part of the overall music pie they are harder to find than the CDs that you still see at every big box store. This is changing now, but in the late 80s and 90s when vinyl was on the wane, vinyl pressings were extremely limited and some titles weren’t domestically released on vinyl at all, making them only available as pricey imports. Sometimes there would just be an initial run of a few thousand and that was it, when they were gone there would be no repress. So hunting down an original copy of something like Pearl Jam’s first record is no easy task. Others, like old jazz or ’60s and ’70s rock albums have been out of print for decades. Looking for these titles by scouring the dusty bins of thrift shops, Goodwill or other out of the way vinyl sources is known as “crate digging” or simply “digging”. Sure you can probably find what you are looking for on Ebay for hundreds of dollars, but for the real vinyl fanatic, finding a forgotten copy in a mom and pop shop that is priced well below market rates can become a “white whale”. You’re not likely to find that type of vinyl gold, but it does happen. And when it does, when you are finally holding that one record that you’ve been digging for over the course of years, it’s a feeling of triumph and satisfaction that’s incomparable. I can admit that sometimes it really becomes about chasing that feeling rather than just the music on the record. And while that may sound obsessive to the point of concern, at the end of the day you still have a collection of records that you can play and enjoy. The epic search for hidden gems in unlikely places is just an extra bit of fun.
2. They Sound Better! (Maybe)
This one is a bit controversial, but it’s my opinion that a high quality, well cared for vinyl pressing will sound superior to a CD or other digital formats. There is a lot of debate about the technical specs surrounding the comparison, so I am going to just briefly mention a couple of them. First, since CDs are a digital format, they rely on sampling. That is, they take “snapshots” of the original waveform to recreate a digital version of that original sound wave. Specifically a CD is encoded at a sample rate of 44.1 kHz, which means that a CD contains 44,100 snapshots per second of the original waveform. Now, the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem holds that a sample rate of twice the frequency bandwidth is sufficient to reproduce the waveform without artifacts. So since humans can’t hear frequencies above 22 kHz, a 44.1 kHz sample rate should be all that is necessary. For this reason on a CD, any frequencies in the original source above 20 kHz are filtered out with a low pass filter. However, no such filtering is applied to a vinyl record and in fact many vinyl records contain sonic information above 22 kHz and frequencies up to around 23-24 kHz are common. Now, you may be thinking, if you can’t hear those frequencies why does it matter? Well with frequencies this high, we are talking about harmonic overtones and those overtones can actually influence the size and shape of lower frequencies that we can hear. Think of it like waves in the ocean. You may not be able to see waves that are miles offshore, but they are still pushing toward the land and affecting the waves we do see crashing on the beach. It’s the lack of ultrasonic frequencies in CDs that may in fact lead them to have a more “sterile” sound that many audiophiles describe.
This next point is much more subjective, but the sound a record produces is the result of a physically vibrating needle in a groove as opposed to a CD player that is merely reading pits as zeroes and ones. That physical movement, and this is strictly just my opinion, results in a more lifelike sound reproduction. The sound of a well pressed LP is just more visceral and realistic to my ears than a CD or other digital source. The bass hits you harder, the overall instrumentation has that analog “warmth” and the soundstage is more three dimensional. This is especially apparent when listening to an older recording that has an all analog lineage. If you are listening to something like an original pressing of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, the LP really just puts the CD to shame. The CD is like looking at a picture or watching a video of the sessions, while the LP really makes you feel like you are there in the studio with the musicians way back in 1959. Again, that’s just the way it sounds to me, your mileage may vary.
1. They are Timeless
Now that vinyl is back again, it’s clear to me that records are truly the enduring format. In much the same way that in the last couple years high profile directors like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have championed old fashioned film for their movies, there is just a mystique and allure to a vinyl record that will never die. Beside the cool factor, records also have an inherit value. Other formats come and go, but there will always be a place for vinyl in the collections of serious music aficionados. Look at cassettes, the dominant format for much of the ’80s, they are basically worthless now. CDs are quickly on the way to becoming nothing more than shiny coasters. But records will always have a strong collector market, a classic like an original copy of The Beach Boys Pet Sounds in mono or a unique item like the Beatles Butcher Cover is not something that is subject to the whims of fads or fashion. These are true cultural artifacts and by owning a decades old record such as one of these, you get to own a little piece of music history. When you spin that record on your turntable, not only are you going back in time to hear the original session that produced the music, but you are also sharing that moment with the previous owners of that record. It becomes a bridge across time, connecting you inextricably to listeners you’ve never met and never will, and yet they’ve left behind tokens to let you know they were there, a little scratch on the vinyl or a scrawled initial on the cover. All these “imperfections” tell the story of that singular piece of vinyl’s journey from the pressing plant to the store to the hands of those listeners many years ago to the final destination of your turntable. Collecting and listening to vinyl is first and foremost about enjoying music and becoming a more involved part of that process, but it’s also about listening to history and at that same time creating your own part of the narrative. We add our own little pieces to the story as we enjoy our records and know that the majority of them will outlive us and go on to additional lives in the vinyl collections of the future.