Vinyl Matters


There was a strange closet in the house I grew up in. The old Victorian, built in 1892, once had a secondary staircase leading from the kitchen to the landing on the 2nd floor, which had since been ripped out and replaced with a vertical empty space perfect for a modern refrigerator. My young brother and I explored the unknown in that house: and this closet was rife with mystery given it's ten foot drop off into a cavernous space behind the kitchen fridge! Below the coats and sweaters were a few old milkcrates filled with what looked like books. Santana, Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull? Further confounding my curious mind was the fact that The Band's "brown album" seemed to host an image of young version of my father with some ghostlike acquaintances (he looked like Rick Danko to me).

We had a record player in the 1980s but CDs were encroaching into music playback, but I did get a lot of exposure to cassettes and vinyl through contact with my uncles, one of whom bestowed upon me my first mix tape: a collection of hits from Dion, The Beach boys, and a host of other "California sounds". My other uncle had a large number of vinyl records and as I grew older, I realized a lot of musical recordings hadn't yet made the transfer into the public domain or found a label willing to remaster and re-release them. Vinyl records were the Napster or Spotify of my youth. We dug through obscure web sites, spent hours in record stores, and I even found myself ordering archived vinyl that was recorded to cassette by a discerning collector (amazing gems!).

Today I still own over 1,000 LPs. The collection ranges from a mix of rare 45s, newly released, freshly pressed vinyl, mint condition classical records rescued from Florida flea markets, and even some of my parent's scratched up wax! I love records because of the historical place they have in my life, but I also find comfort in the audacity of the entire enterprise: massive cover art, the liner notes, over-the-top box sets, and the extraordinary effort it takes to keep a vinyl rig tuned properly. The mechanics of vinyl playback still astound me: microscopic grooves housing a hidden highway with the analogue stereo channels physically printed into the groove-wall. Vinyl recordings have historically tended to have better dynamics (more natural sounding swings an apparent volume) - possibly as a  product of more mature audio mastering at a time when the medium called for special attention to recording processes and even utilized special equalization in the transfer to the vinyl medium. Specifically, an agreed upon standard, the RIAA curve  meant the low frequencies were attenuated about 20 decibels and vice versa for the high end, thus special hardware was needed to decode it for playback (a "phono" amplifier). 

So, while digital audio may very well now surpass the fidelity of vinyl playback, the tinkering involved in maintaining a vinyl playback system is still enjoyable to me (albeit frustrating at times). An old record sings a special song, you just have to pull it off the shelf, and drop the needle - what's more iconic than a tonearm descending like alien spaceship onto a new onyx-colored world, and a diamond skids out of the lead-in groove, and!