The turntable spins anew
“Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, ‘Listen, mate, LIFE has surface noise.’”—John Peel, British radio disc jockey
MANILA, Philippines -In 1982, the release of Billy Joel’s “52nd Street” on CD, along with the arrival of the first Sony CD player, was regarded as the “Big Bang” of the digital audio revolution.
It also signaled the impending death of the vinyl or “Long Play” (LP) record. But 26 years later, the LP is not only alive, it continues to spin—and is gaining more fans and converts.
In January 2008, Time magazine wrote: “Like the comeback of Puma sneakers or vintage T-shirts, vinyl’s resurgence has benefited from its retro-rock aura. Many young listeners discovered LPs after they rifled through their parents’ collections looking for oldies and found that they liked the records’ warmer sound quality, the elaborate album covers and the liner notes that come with them.”
Not to mention the experience of putting one on the turntable and sharing the music with friends, the article noted, as opposed to tuning out one another—and the world —with the now ubiquitous earphones.
The story quoted David MacRunnel, 15, a high school sophomore from Creve Couer, Missouri (who owns more than 1,000 records), as saying, “Bad sound on an iPod has had an impact on a lot of people going back to vinyl.”
Rolling Stone confirmed the phenomenon in its June 2008 issue: “As CD sales continue to decline and MP3s are traded without thought, the left-for-dead LP is staging a comeback. In 2007, according to Nielsen SoundScan, nearly 1 million LPs were bought, up from 858,000 in 2006. Based on to-date sales for 2008, that figure could jump to 1.6 million by year’s end. (According to the Recording Industry Association of America, CD shipments dropped 17.5 percent during the same 2006-07 period.) Sales of turntables—which tumbled from 1.8 million in 1989 to a paltry 275,000 in 2006, according to the Consumer Electronics Association—rebounded sharply last year, when nearly half a million were sold.”
Early this month, the Inquirer visited the “HiFi Show,” an annual event at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel which began in 2004 as a record swap meet by members of a local audio web community, wiredstate.com, for music lovers who were still collecting vinyl. The gathering has since transformed into a grand showcase of the some of the best analog and digital audio equipment, including those assembled by professional enthusiasts, plus, of course, rare and long out-of-print records on sale.
“This would sound totally awful on CD,” said Hansen Dy, manager of home entertainment systems retailer Audio Visual Driver, as he put Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello Dolly!” on a phonograph player using top-of-the-line components consisting of foreign-branded turntable, pre-amps, power amps, speakers, etc.
What Dy meant was that the record, which first came out in 1964, had a mono (as opposed to stereo) sound, and hearing it on CD would somehow diminish its raw beauty and ambience. “The sound of LPs is more real and alive—warmer, fuller, more dynamic,” Dy explained. “It’s because the engineers who developed the CD overlooked something … the mechanism is too analytical, parang nabawasan ang humanity and soul ng original studio recording.”
Another record that Dy played, Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (from the “Simple Pleasures” album) further illustrated distinct sounds that would likely go unappreciated on CD.
As the Inquirer asked more people in the venue why they liked listening to LPs, one word kept popping as a description: “warm”—as in, the warm sound that the CD couldn’t duplicate.
“Malambing e. It’s like being cradled on your mother’s bosom. The CD sound is antiseptic and cold,” said event organizer Tony de Leon, who was in high school when he became part of Social Distortion, a group that supplied the music and sound system in dance parties in the early ’80s.
Apparently, it was the DJs in clubs and parties that kept vinyl records from fading out of the scene.
Now 42 and the owner of some 2,000 LPs, De Leon said it takes a lot of money to put good quality equipment together and enjoy playing vinyl records.
Pointing to his store’s centerpiece display, the one that was playing “Hello Dolly!” earlier in one of the 27 rooms booked for the HiFi show, Dy said: “This would cost US$100,000 … and that’s a conservative estimate.”
Dy added: “But an entry-level sound system can be cheap, like P50,000.”
In the next room, another group of audiophiles showed us their own “do-it-yourself” set of vintage equipment. Business partners Joey Abad Santos and Eric Flores described their toy, pegged at P1.2 million, as “comparable to those found in the world’s leading entertainment capitals.”
Violinist Joseph Esmilla, now based in New York and still active playing with international orchestras, is in town for the holidays. He joined the event to show his self-designed vintage audio gear. The music he was playing, an album of duets by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, was likewise in mono. “I designed the system to capture the authentic sound of the record,” Esmilla said. “I want to be historically correct.”
Congressman Jack Duavit and cousin Keith Roy was in another room to exhibit their own equipment, which was playing Enya. How much did they spend? “Over P5M,” Roy answered.
We were too astonished to ask how simple folk could afford to listen to LPs again these days, when De Leon said, “You can start with your own basic system for P5,000. Just follow one of Joseph Esmilla’s designs.”
That’s more like it. Chancing upon a copy of the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls” LP that was on sale for P500, plus a few other rock releases and one Sinatra classic, we were enticed to join the back-to-vinyl club—maybe we should start saving up by riding the jeepney more often to work.