The Arm of Fun
by Max Mobley
So, digital has finally become passé, huh? Are you finding embedded menus and touch screens to be the next 8-track tape? Bookshelf speakers and earbuds the new orange shag? Not quite. The mp3, which has become a bucket classification for digitally stored music not residing on a CD, will remain number one slightly beyond the foreseeable future, probably longer. There are simply no challengers this side of the horizon. However, now that portable mp3 players have been around for over 10 years, technically, and consumer digital audio for over 20, operating digital is as fun as driving a Camry. It’s not bad, but it’s not that interesting, either.
The humdrum experience of clicking, pushing, clicking to call up a song cannot compete with taking a vinyl disk out of its beautiful jacket, placing it onto a spinning platter, and then lifting the arm of fun (tonearm) from its perch and gingerly placing it on the disk’s edge—with just one finger. Admittedly not terribly convenient when jogging or riding the bus, but an enlightening experience under the right circumstances. There is something about the physical ritual involved with playing a vinyl record that just feels good. Looking at the album cover is like looking at the song’s face and back. Before you even hear it you have an idea what it will be like. With vinyl, music becomes tangible, certainly less ephemeral. When it slides out of the sleeve, it’s like you’re holding the songs in your hands, don’t drop the songs, man, they shatter. It just needs to turn round (baby right round, round-round), in orbit around the spindle to be heard, while a tiny sharpened rock scrapes the precisely carved black furrows with grace and precision. The result has the same effect sex, drugs, and nature have on a libidinous and youthful spirit. Fuck, yeah! The act of playing a vinyl record is a great metaphor for life, art, and our relationship with both. As great as it is to physically play a record, the results are what make us swoon. You do all that work and you’re rewarded with a sonic flood that cleanses, purifies, strips you naked, and leaves you wet and wanting more. It’s a bath for the soul, washing away the ache and stain of life.
This ritual and the payoff that ensues is part of a growing appeal for a medium with roots over 100 years old. Just like old punch card computers with gears and sprockets instead of hard disks and microprocessors, the process of getting great sound from a circular slab of vinyl borders on incomprehensible. Music lovers are probably just as flummoxed with how sound really does come out of an iPod, but that process is hidden beneath plastic and liquid crystal. Out of sight, out of mind. The act of playing a vinyl record, however, completely exposes the mechanics involved. The magic is front and center; there is no curtain for the wizard to hide behind.
With the steady and serious growth of vinyl record sales over the past two years (roughly 850,000 in 2006, a million in 2007, and projections topping 1.5 million for 2008), I wonder if the audiophile community feels vindicated or threatened by this resurgence. They’re a tough bunch to gauge, and I think they certainly should get credit for keeping vinyl on life support over the past 15 years or so while we toiled with the strident clones that are mp3s. Ultimately, this news isn’t just good for audiophiles—it’s good for anyone who loves music.
While myself and many of my colleagues struggle with the snake oil element found in audiophile catalogs and certain audiophile technologies, it is generally agreed upon that, in the proper environment where meaningful differences can be measured, vinyl beats the popular digital formats every time. But if you apply a monetary constraint—say on a 200-dollar system, the advantage is decidedly digital. However, with a good phonograph, a good sound system, and a good phonographic record (they wear out, CDs don’t), analog wins.
I salute the audiophiles’ commitment to this fact. But I refuse to believe that the material inside the knobs on my stereo makes a spit of difference. At least one audiophile catalog that came across my desk offered a mahogany ‘anti-resonance’ knob for several hundred dollars, and apparently they’re serious! We’re not talking about the potentiometer or digital encoder that the knob sits on and that the audio signal passes through. Nope, just the turny-thing you touch. The gimmick is, since your metal knobs may resonate and thus add unwanted distortion into the sound, you should replace them with a wood found in dwindling rainforests. Twaddle! If you really feel you have this problem when listening to records on your high-end stereo, here’s what you do—MOVE YOUR HEAD AWAY FROM THE KNOB AREA! Ideally, move them closer to the speaker area. Seriously though, the only thing more absurd than buying a knob to make your system sound better is the argument I get whenever I bring this up with an audiophile. In fact, this issue has gotten me kicked out of several doctor’s offices, one dentist’s chair, and my CPA will now only talk to my wife.
So, turntables—scratch that—record players (turntable has come to mean something else these days… Scratch this!), have a retro-funky user experience going for them. And they truly have the potential to sound much better than your best CD. (Trick adjective! All CDs sound the same. That’s digital for ya!) Add to this some fairly recent technological upgrades like optical styli instead of diamond or sapphire, and USB so the devices don’t have to live in mechanical isolation, and what is old is what is new.
Indeed, when I was reintroduced to my vinyl collection thanks to a recent gift of one of those combination record player/CD/cassette/radio/coffee grinder/towel rack thingys, it was the physical act of playing a record that made us pine for the old stinky wizard bong (maybe those will see a resurgence too!) The unit itself sounded like what you’d expect from a combination record player/CD/cassette/radio/coffee grinder/towel rack thingy, but that didn’t stop us from playing a hundred different records on it from Tom Jones to Lou Reed. I can’t explain it, but I can still listen to KISS on vinyl.
With all this going for vinyl it would be good to keep some perspective. Radiohead put out In Rainbows on vinyl, and it sold a whopping 13,000 copies, which is considered big news for vinyl. So the big black circles will not be replacing digital any time soon, but it’s nice to know there is an alternative, like going to the theater instead of renting a DVD, only you control who gets in, and who gets the bong next.