Vinyl 101

Oh What To Spin Now?

Technology sometimes, if rarely, does shift backward. This does not occur very often because in most cases technology changes improve on what has occurred before. There are a few examples of when looking backward can actually be a good thing.

Growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s was a wonderful time, especially if you had an ear for music, which I did. Classic Rock was all around me and consumed much of my time, both in listening, collecting and enjoying the sheer awesomeness of the artwork. Like most people in my age group, let’s just say the late 40’s most of my vinyl was eventually sold or given away when CDs burst onto the scene in the 90’s.

What a mistake that was! During the past couple of years I have rediscovered vinyl and a new hobby was born. And I am not the only one to rediscover vinyl. Vinyl sales have been steadily growing during the past few years and most artists are now actually releasing vinyl versions of their new material. Because of these factors vinyl is one of the few exceptions where technology takes a step into the past.

Why Buy Vinyl?

There are two basic reasons for this: You are an audiophile, and appreciate the sound of analog recordings, or you simply like the sound of vinyl records, packaging, and turntables. And it usually is both! But the aesthetics, the physical aspect of it, is pretty key to its appeal. These records are more beautiful and substantial than CDs, which mostly have the look of office supplies, and they are the best way to make purchasing music feel like something. Vinyl allows you to have a sentimentality about albums — there’s a tactile quality, a ritual to pulling a record out of a sleeve and putting it on and focusing your attention on the act of listening for one side at a time. Even if you still mainly listen to music on your computer or iPod, it gives you the option of having a more special experience with your favorite albums, and an object you can display in your home.


Is Buying Vinyl A Smart thing To Do?

In my opinion buying vinyl records today is the truly only way to purchase music that is likely to give you a return on your investment. You can’t resell a digital file, and in most cases, CDs have almost no value on the secondary market. Vinyl records — new or old — retain a lot of value, and so long as your copy is in decent condition and there is some demand for the title, you can often make a profit if you choose to sell. You probably shouldn’t get into buying vinyl as a way to make money — there are much easier ways to do that — but it’s definitely nice to know that if you had to, you could sell your collection.  But I of course have no intention of selling mine.

What Does Analog Mean?

Analog means that there is a continuous signal in which the varying part of the signal is a representation of another time-varying quantity. So, when it comes to sound recordings, the instantaneous voltage of the signal varies continuously with the pressure of the sound waves. Basically, the groove of a vinyl record is like a drawing of the sound wave in a single continuous line through the entire side. Your turntable essentially reads that and decodes it in real time, which results in the sound you hear from the speakers.

How Is Vinyl Different Then Digital?

Digital signals are not continuous. They are discrete, which means that they send a series of samples of an audio signal’s power at precise intervals. Sound does not naturally break down, so a digital system subdivides it into bits, the smallest possible form of information. This is binary code, so everything is broken down into one of two directives, which is typically described as 0 and 1. The benefit of binary code is that by breaking down information to its smallest possible form, it can represent virtually anything with only two elements.

Does Vinyl Actually Sound Better Then Digital?

Sometimes. It depends on a lot of factors, and most of them have to do with the quality of your turntable, amplifier, and speakers, and I will get to that in a future post. If you’re listening to a vinyl record, CD, or high-quality digital file of the same song on a good stereo system, you probably won’t notice a lot of difference between what you’re hearing unless there is a problem with the actual physical media — scratches, dust, defects. There have been many studies that show that the untrained ear can’t discern these differences, and that those who favor one format have a confirmation bias based on their preferences or values going into the test.

Why Do I Like Vinyl Sound So Much Better then Digital Sound?

There are aspects of vinyl records and analog recordings in general that you definitely can notice beyond the pops and crackles of surface noise. This sound is actually a result of analog’s limitations in capturing and reproducing sound, particularly on the low end of the mix. Digital recordings are far more accurate than analog recordings and can capture a much broader dynamic range. Analog recording is much less detailed, and the gaps in data result in a slight abstraction of sound that is often very pleasing to the ear. You get a very similar difference between images captured on film as opposed to digital cameras – purely digital recording can feel too precise, cold, and clinical, and lose the “warmth” and humanity many people associate with analog technology.

Do You Need a Stereo Receiver to Enjoy Vinyl?

Yes. If you are buying a stand-alone turntable, you will need the receiver – or just an amplifier – to process the signal from the turntable and line out to your speakers. This is where the volume and audio control knobs for your system will be. Some receivers will have a radio built in, and you can line other things into the receiver too, like CD players and televisions.

 
 
 
Setting Up the Receiver
 
If you have a turntable with a built-in pre-amp, it’s as simple as connecting everything with the appropriate RCA cables and stereo wire. If your turntable has no pre-amp, it will be a bit more complicated because you will need to “ground” the system so that electricity flows properly or you will hear a constant low-pitched hum through your speakers.
 
Buying Vinyl
 
Anywhere they sell it, really. If you don’t live near a record store, you can’t go wrong with Amazon since it stocks a wide range of new vinyl at reasonable prices and will ship anywhere. There are other good online shops such as my personal favorite Discogs. You can buy vinyl from the official websites of many artists and most independent labels. Buying used records this way, or at record fairs or garage sales, is a great way to build up a solid collection without spending a lot of money. Probably the most fun way to purchase vinyl is to find a local record shop, like the Electric Avenue Music at 323 East Gay Street in West Chester PA where you can simply browse until you find something that catches your eye… and ear. This is also the best way to meet really cool people who also have a love of vinyl.
 
 
 
 
What Is The deal with 180 Vinyl?
 
Most new albums will be very well made and sound great on even an average stereo system. A lot of new records will have some sticker announcing that it’s on “180 gram” vinyl, and that’s a good thing, especially if you’re an audiophile. The thicker, heavier vinyl will degrade more slowly than a thinner pressing and the records will stand up to repeat play a little better. That said, all vinyl degrades a tiny bit every time you play it. Not to worry though I still enjoy a lot of vinyl that was pressed in the 1950s and 1960s.
 
 
What About Old Albums Released on 180?
 
You should be cautious of new reissues of old albums on vinyl. In many cases, the master is made from the most recent CD of the title because the record label does not have access to the original analog master. If you are into the “warmth” factor, like me this totally defeats the point of having the recording in this format because you are basically just buying a lesser, imperfect version of a CD. If you’re unsure about whether a new reissue is sourced from CD, take the time to do some research beforehand. If you have the option of finding an original vinyl pressing of the album, you should just do that. 
 
Buying Old Vinyl (My Favorite Part)
 
If you are planning to acquire vinyl copies of your favorite albums, you should know that many records either were never released in the format, or were released in very small numbers and are now out of print. The latter is especially true of vinyl produced in the ’90s through the early ’00s, when vinyl sales were at their lowest and CDs completely dominated the market. Vinyl pressings for major-label albums released in this era can be incredibly difficult to find and very expensive to buy on the secondary market. Searching sources like Discogs is probably your best bet here.


Storing Your Vinyl

You should always store your records in a cool, dry place, and have them standing up vertically. If you stack them on top of one another, you run a high risk of warping the vinyl. If your records are warped, they will never sound right again, and you can’t fix it. It can be a challenge to find just the right way to store your vinyl that works in your home. Customized “LP Browsers” like the one pictured above is the best way to go. You can learn more about the amazing “LP Browser” here.

There is so much to cover regarding vinyl that I will post a second article soon….

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