You think vinyl went the way of the Dodo? Think again. Sure, piles of disco records were melted down at Comiskey Park in 1979, but a lot survived.
Vinyl culture has been kept alive by audiophiles, collectors, disk jockeys and regular folk that enjoy spinning a record on their old but serviceable turntable.
Many people can’t believe that new music is still being pressed and released on vinyl. In fact, just the other day I saw a Britney Spears album at a record store. Even HMV carries a limited selection of records.
New vinyl is being released every month and industry statistics show that while there were 661,000 units of new vinyl sold in the U.S. during the first half of 2003, combined sales of SACD and DVD-A discs during that same period was 234,000 units.
Why are people still purchasing and listening to vinyl records?
Well, not everyone had a yard sale. Not everyone bought into the record companies’ little scam of replacing their music collection with a new medium. For some of us it’s also fun. The act of sliding the record out of the sleeve, putting down on the platter and gently dropping the needle, is a dance unto itself. You can watch the needle move along the grooves. The whole process adds an extra dimension to the music listening experience.
Some excellent music has never been released on CD. Collectors enjoy the hunt of tracking down that elusive record. Cover art is another reason some collect records. Once you start collecting you keep realizing there’s another record you “need”. It’s like crack, black crack, so watch out.
DJs are some of the most diehard defenders of vinyl. Most underground music only comes out on vinyl. Recently major record labels have been making acapellas of pop music conveniently available to underground producers. These producers then make bootleg remixes of these songs and released them on vinyl. This gives mainstream artists hype and arguably street credibility.
A lot of people will tell you “it sounds better.” You don’t have to be an audiophile to appreciate the “warmth” of vinyl records.
Why does it sound better? Basically it boils down to resolution.
Sound waves are purely analog, and have very smooth curves, flowing from frequency to frequency, and changing amplitude smoothly. Because the wave is stored on vinyl exactly as it was originally produced, it retains this smoothness, and warmth. While listening to a song on a CD player may satisfy the casual listener, listening to that same song on a turntable with a high quality sound system will send chills up your spine. Also, CD players are capped at frequencies between 20hz-20Khz. Even though humans can’t hear outside of that range, we can feel it. A vinyl record can produce low sounds that may add a “punch” to the bass kick we can feel, enhancing the listening experience. A quick note, while the record may contain the purest sound, a good stylus is needed to accurately reproduce the sound. So, while an average CD player on a cheap sound system may sound okay, a decent turntable/stylus playing through a decent sound system will sound far superior than even the best CD player can aspire to.
The digital sound-wave is not really a wave at all. It’s more of a series of steps. A digital recording takes snapshots of the analog signal at a certain rate (for CDs it is 44,100 times per second) and measures each snapshot with a certain accuracy (for CDs it is 16-bit, which means the value must be one of 65,536 possible values). Some sounds with quick transition, such as trumpet or drums, change too quickly for the sampling rate and may sound distorted.
These “steps” are being made smaller by high resolution audio formats, such as SACD and DVD-Audio, but that’s another discussion for another time (see diagram below).
What about the snap, crackle and pop?
People thought the lack of surface noise on CDs was the equivalent to better sound, and this technological Achilles’ Heel of LPs almost buried what is still the premier format in terms of sound quality. Fortunately the Vinyl Brotherhood had greater intestinal fortitude than the Beta Brotherhood. It took only about six or seven years for VHS to overwhelm Beta, but the LPs have withstood the digital onslaught for over two decades now.
While vinyl is cheap, and can be seen everywhere from your car’s dash, to your kitchen floor, it’s not perfect. Because records must be read with a stylus to reproduce the sound, there is a constant friction on the walls of the grooves. Temperatures can get quite high at the point where the stylus and wall meet, gradually melting, and shaving material away. If you have your needles improperly set up with too much weight, it’s very easy to increase the wear, chewing away at the walls of the record. This wear is a fact of life, and cannot be avoided, only minimized. When the records wear, the sound degrades. It’ll become muddy, or scratchy over time, and may eventually become unplayable in any situation but a casual listen. Cleaning, and proper stylus and turntable setup both will aide immensely in reducing wear, and extending the life of your precious vinyl.
Dirt and oils wreak havoc on vinyl and styli. No matter how clean your hands are, they contain oils, which are easily transferred to the surface of the record. As dirt and oil collect, they “smooth” out the walls of the groove, reducing sound quality, and giving records that trademark “crackle.” Dirt also plays hell on styli, acting like sandpaper and dulling the diamond tip, while at the same time rubbing away at the walls. Again, KEEP YOUR RECORDS CLEAN!
Vibrations are also cause for concern with the vinyl medium. Anything from a truck driving by, to the turntable motor, to the bass pumping out of your subwoofer can cause vibrations which can be transmitted through the stylus. These concerns are minimized by quality turntables with ultra smooth drive units, solid base construction and feet that isolate vibrations. Some turntables have out board motors that provide further isolation from the platter. You can also buy shelving units for your A/V gear that further isolates your equipment from unwanted vibrations.
With all these concerns regarding vinyl, you may wonder why anyone goes through the trouble? For the same reason car owners go through the trouble of maintaining an MG Roadster, when they drive it they have a bigger grin on their face than the guy driving around in a Toyota Corolla.
So you want to get grooving? The stereo soundtrack on a vinyl record is stored on the walls of the groove. The outside wall contains the left channel and the inside wall the right channel. The sound wave is cut into these walls.
What you’ll need is a turntable. Direct drive turntables rotate the platter directly via the motor, belt drive turntables rotate the platter via a belt. This type of mechanism reduces interference between the motor and phono cartridge. As was previously mentioned there are higher end turntables that separate the motor assembly and housing from the platter and base, further decreasing interference.
You’ll then need a phono cartridge and stylus that attaches to the tone arm. The sound waves etched into the vinyl walls vibrate the stylus. This mechanical energy is then converted to electrical energy by the cartridge. Cartridges come in two variations: moving coil and moving magnet. By moving either a coil or a magnet the stylus transforms the mechanical energy into electrical impulses. Moving magnet type cartridges are more affordable, not only that but the stylus is replaceable thus saving you money in the long run. Moving coil type cartridges provide a cleaner more accurate sound with detailed highs but, they are more expensive, less compatible with phono preamps and the styli aren’t easily replaced.
If your receiver lacks a phone stage then you will need to buy a separate phono preamp. Again, you get what you pay for.
Remember to ground your turntable and to keep your vinyl clean!