So, I finally did it, I bought a record player. Have I condemned myself to a hipster existence? Jumping onto a passing fad, tinged in nostalgic fetishism. I already wear chunky glasses and can grow a pretty impressive beard, which I’ve never attempted to actually grow, it just does so way too fast to handle. Next, I’ll probably be acquiring a fixie bike to complete my full transition, please no!
Let me explain how I got here and ended up dipping my toe into the crackly world of vinyl. Music plays an important role in all our lives. It’s one of those universal things that we can all agree upon, albeit with our own musical preferences. We may dislike a particular genre, but no one actively hates all music.
Of course, it’s not a necessity like food or water, however it’s intrinsic to the human experience. Music exists in all cultures and one of the first things to develop in human civilisation, music is life.
Throughout my life music has played a big role and for some unknown reason, I’ve always been drawn towards it. I remember as a child, dancing to the kitchen radio whilst Mum made dinner. Telling the midwife that I wanted my brother to be called Michael Jackson Kane (good call that my parents didn’t run with that). And at school jumping at the opportunity of learning an instrument. I wanted to play the saxophone, but it was too expensive, my parents suggested the cornet as it was cheaper and “kinda looked like a saxophone”. Music became my main interest.
Growing up there were two formats to choose from, cassette or CDs. Vinyl records were a thing of the past, my parent’s collection definitely had a curiosity factor. Records seemed magical compared to CDs and cassettes, but there was something overwhelming about the format. They were big and impractical, and how on earth were you supposed to get them to play. The closest thing I had to owning my own record as a kid was this science book! There was a section about sound, which included a bit of plastic and a makeshift stylus. With your finger you could turn the plastic to play one of the first ever sound recordings, ”Mary Had a Little Lamb”, this was utter witchcraft.
Jump cut to 2016 and how do we listen to music? Digital downloads, online streaming played through laptop speakers or basic in-ear headphones. We have instant access to every song ever recorded. This is all great, however I find I’m blinded by choice. Instead of listening to full albums we have endless playlists to accompany some other activity. Digital music is compressed to an inch of its life, it’s loud and trying to cut above everything else in our busy lives. We are bombarded with sound, music has become noise.
I find, with the combination of how we consume music and how digital sound has been pushed dynamically to its limits. I have unlearnt how to truly listen to music and fully appreciate the art form for which I love.
Now, I could just revert back to listening to CDs or another lossless format. However, as I’ve already mentioned, there’s something sinister lurking in the world of digital audio. From my limited understanding, in theory CDs are better than vinyl, a very contentious statement to make. CDs can faithfully recreate sound as intended to be heard. It has a greater dynamic range than vinyl and as a format can capture the full range of an orchestra, with more detail and clarity. But there’s a big BUT, due to the greater dynamic range, the mastering of digital audio is being compressed to sound louder, and subsequently the audio becomes squeezed, definition is lost and our ears are left with a tiresome wall of noise. The physical limitations of vinyl doesn’t allow such manipulation of sound, therefore, to my ears the sound can breathe and be fully appreciated.
My main pull towards the format is the openness of the sound. Many people talk about the warmth of vinyl compared to the “sterile”, “coldness” of digital audio. This isn’t something that I’m overly anoraky about. The perceived warmth of vinyl is a colourisation of the original sound and it’s really a personal preference if one likes it or not. I do happen to like it and in general my ear leans towards imperfection.
Another reason for my adventures into vinyl, is to reengage with music. By its very nature you have to engage with vinyl, from placing the record on the player, lifting the needle, letting it play through and flipping each side as it finishes (listening to every track), it’s an immersive experience. The whole concept of playing a record feels out of touch with today’s society and demands more attention to detail.
In today’s culture, I find my focus is always flitting to the next thing. I’m on my phone, whilst listening to Spotify, skipping through hundreds of songs, whilst browsing a billion webpages and watching videos. I need an infinite amount of arms and eyes to consume everything coming my way. Nothing leaves much impact and everything is disposable.
Vinyl on the other hand requires concentration. There are no distractions to tantalise the other senses, just you and the sound. Its limitations are its strength.
Vinyl also has a physicality, which has been lost in the digital age. From the gloriously oversized artwork on the sleeves, a celebration of its content to watching the record spin around the turntable or rummaging in a record shop. This all adds to the appeal and recaptures that sense of discovery.
If music can be described as anything, its emotion and the immersive experience of vinyl taps into this very nature, which no other format possesses.
So, how is it that in 2016 I took the plunge into the format? I had been thinking about it for sometime, never actually committing. I had reservations as it can be a pricey hobby. It can be a minefield to navigate, with all the different editions, original pressings, reissues, remasters. I still have some questions about buying new records; if they are digitally sourced am I just buying an overpriced oversized CD?
The bug hit me totally by surprise and my boss is to blame. He’s a convert to the vinyl church and regularly receives records at the office. One day, he returned from Asda with Miles Davies’s “Kind of Blue”, bought for a fiver — a fiver! That was it, I couldn’t resist, I had to have it, the lure was too much. I rushed down to Asda and grabbed the last copy. I quickly bought a second record, however I had nothing to play them on, so you can imagine what happened next….