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The Vinyl Countdown ...

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My banker sent this article over to me at Ciamara .... Thought it may interest some of you and spark some discussion!


The vinyl countdown

By Ludovic Hunter-Tilney

Published: August 8 2009 01:18 | Last updated: August 8 2009 01:18


Is it the best of times or the worst of times for recorded music? Since ­Thomas Edison recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into the first phonograph in 1877, mechanically reproduced sound has shifted from wax cylinders to vinyl records to digitally encoded compact discs and now to the whirring bits and bytes of computer hard drives.


Physical shrinkage of music-playing devices has been accompanied by a hallucinatory expansion in scope. An iPod Classic boasts space for roughly 3,000 albums in a box the size of a cigarette case. You could comfortably quadruple that on an equally small portable hard drive with greater memory. A handful of such devices would be enough to house the legendarily vast music collection of the late British disc jockey John Peel, who was forced to build an extension to his Suffolk farmhouse in order to store his estimated 26,000 albums, 40,000 singles and 40,000 CDs.


Obsessive record collectors used to labour for years assembling their gargantuan collections. Now anyone with a fast internet connection and lax regard for property laws can do it in a fraction of the time, for a fraction of the cost. The process will accelerate as technology improves. Hard rock producer-turned-academic Sandy Pearlman, who worked with Blue Öyster Cult and The Clash, envisions a day when music fans will carry around tiny electronic chips filled with every song ever recorded. Cited in Steve Knopper’s book Appetite for Self-Destruction, Pearlman describes this sci-fi scenario as the “paradise of infinite storage”.


Knopper’s excellent account of the record industry’s failure to adapt to the digital age is the best of a clutch of recent books that address the changing face of music. It describes the major labels’ panic and confusion as their business model collapses in the face of rampant piracy and the death of their cash cow, the CD. For the tottering titans that have ruled the industry for the past century, these are the worst of times.


Others share their anxiety. “If you can afford a computer, you can afford $16 for my CD,” rapper Eminem complained after the internet file-sharing service Napster began peddling pirated material in 1999. Since then the landscape has changed drastically. Bands and jobs have been axed by record labels as budgets are slashed. Record stores have been reduced by online retailers such as iTunes. The format of the album is threatened as downloaders pick only favourite tracks for their MP3 players.


In Perfecting Sound Forever, American music writer Greg Milner addresses another troubling side-effect of the digital revolution: the degradation of sound quality as songs are compressed to take up less memory space and artificially tweaked to seem louder, or “hotter” in studio engineer-speak.


Complaints that music has grown thinner and faker-sounding date back to the advent of digital recording with the CD. “From the early 1980s up till now, and probably for another 15 years to come – this is the darkest time ever for recorded music,” Neil Young warned apocalyptically in 1992. More than 15 years later, there is no better hope: the emergence of the MP3 has made things worse for vinyl diehards such as Young.


Perfecting Sound Forever portrays the history of recordings as a series of battles between quality and commercial expediency, where the latter invariably triumphs. The story opens in New Jersey in 1915 with Edison performing a public demonstration of his latest “talking machine”, the Diamond Disc Phonograph, showing off its recording capabilities by playing it alongside real singers, to “audible gasps” from the audience.


When Edison invented the phonograph, he conceived it as a dictation aid for businesses. By the time he made the Diamond Disc Phonograph, his focus had switched to music. His aim was not merely to reproduce live performance but to improve on it. “The acoustics of no opera house are perfect,” he insisted. “Something is always lost between the singer and the auditor. I shall record the voices of the singer in such a manner that nothing will be lost.”


Edison’s quest for absolute audio fidelity was eccentric – he had poor hearing and limited taste in music. He was also commercially unsuccessful. The gramophone, invented by Emile Berliner, trumped his phonograph despite an inferior sound quality: its discs were cheaper. The introduction of electrical recording systems in the 1920s took records further away from Edison’s purist ideal, as microphones artificially amplified voices and instruments. The age of studio trickery was dawning.


Milner documents further innovations in recording technology such as the invention of magnetic tape in Nazi Germany, which enabled recordings to be cut and spliced, and the evolution of multi-track recording, brilliantly exploited by The Beatles. This allowed musicians to record their parts separately and layer them together in fantastical ways. “Beatles records don’t transport you to the concert hall,” Milner writes. “The presence they evoke is another world altogether.”


Edison’s concept of the recording as a faithful document of a real-time event was left behind, yet an Edisonian desire for high-fidelity sound persisted, Milner tells us. A hi-fi boom in the 1950s (annual sales topped $70m) saw the emergence of “audiophiles” who played sound-effects records on their state-of-the-art systems in order to recreate the sound of church bells or trains in their living rooms. A contemporary commentator was appalled: “It has broken families and led men to ridiculous extremes in their search for perfect sound.”


Perfecting Sound Forever itself takes an audiophile turn as Milner considers the switch from analogue recording to digital. Ushered in by the CD in the early 1980s, digital recording marked a decisive break from Edison’s method of inscribing sound waves on wax or vinyl.


He has a relish for technical details: “Using PCM, the CD system takes a sample every 1/44,100th of a second and expresses the sample as a 16-bit number”. But Milner’s outlook is essentially romantic. Scientific tests that prove no audible difference in quality between CDs and vinyl are not allowed to impede disquisitions into analogue’s supposed “warmth” and “presence” compared to digital’s soullessness.


He writes interestingly about high-tech tricks such as the loss of dynamic range in modern recordings in order to emphasise loudness. But a disproportionate concentration on alternative rock acts gives the theme limited perspective – an entire chapter is devoted to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ultra-compressed 1999 album Californication . More attention on the sound quality and aspirations of other music genres would be welcome, but the book, so thought -provoking in its earlier stages, undergoes its own form of musical compression as Milner indulges his anti-digital prejudice.


Vinyl tends to inspire blind devotion. There is a fetishistic quality to dark, mysterious records that brittle, shiny CDs do not have. “Just how did so much stuff ... so much noise ... fit into those tiny, tiny grooves?” British writer Travis Elborough remembers marvelling as a child. In The Long-Player Goodbye, he delivers a fond, though unexceptional, history of the long-playing record, from its beginnings in 1948 when it was introduced by Columbia Records, to its eclipse by the CD in the 1990s.


The LP itself was case of quantity triumphing over quality. Columbia’s new 12-inch records (the first was a Mendelssohn Concerto) were less impressive sonically than rivals’ seven-inch records but could accommodate more music. The difference in sound quality is why seven inches remained the favoured format for singles.


Elborough offers a lively account of the LP’s rise in the 1950s. Glenn Gould was the format’s first classical star: he preferred playing in the studio to the “the non-take-two-ness” of the concert stage. Frank Sinatra popularised the LP with a succession of hit records, learning to tailor his singing for the studio. “I learnt very early that my instrument wasn’t my voice,” he said. “It was the microphone ... You have to learn to play it like it was a saxophone.”


The LP’s apotheosis came in the late 1960s, when artistically ambitious rock bands shifted the music industry’s focus from singles towards albums. Unfortunately The Long-Player Goodbye stumbles at this point, unsure whether it is telling the history of long-playing vinyl records or the album. The confusion results in a potted history of rock and pop told via key albums, which ends abruptly with the arrival of CDs. The muddle between form and content concludes with Elborough contorting himself between tenses: “The LP, and really the album itself, has only survived this long because it met the needs and fed the desires of its times.”


Vinyl is a niche market now, but albums still dominate the music industry: more than 44,000 were released in 2005, compared with 5,000 in 1973. Yet the album’s golden age indubitably lies in the past, as shown by the weighty succession of 1960s albums cited in Chris Smith’s 101 Albums That Changed Popular Music. The Velvet Underground and Nico, Are You Experienced, Sgt Pepper, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow – those are just from 1967. Hang on, where’s Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn?


Smith’s diverting book is an upmarket version of the best-of lists that rock fans love to argue over. But for a true hit of nostalgia nothing beats Richard Morton Jack’s Galactic Ramble, whose survey of both famous and deeply obscure British albums from the 1960s and 1970s is the next-best thing to flicking through stacks of vinyl in one of those dusty record stores that downloading has rendered as rare as the South China tiger.


The impermanence of musical formats is the subtext of Steve Knopper’s Appetite for Self-Destruction, which opens with the industry junking vinyl records for CDs in the 1980s. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA was the first CD sold in the US, neatly eliding the fact it was Dutch-Japanese technology. CDs were adopted for a number of reasons – profit was paramount. The gleaming new discs allowed record labels to increase the price of albums, renegotiate royalties with performers and recycle their back catalogues. The result was an unprecedented boom. “Cash came in like you would not believe,” an executive recalls.


It lasted from 1984 to 2000. Then came the crash. Knopper portrays the major record labels as a spendthrift semi-cartel staffed by tough-talking, hard-living bosses utterly ill-equipped to cope with the new world of the internet. Opportunities to collaborate with file-sharing services such as Napster were spurned in favour of bullying litigation. Old-fashioned record men such as Sony Music’s Tommy Mottola, whose personal and travel expenses “ballooned to $10m a year” in the boom, were determined to maintain the status quo.


Knopper relates the industry’s downfall with pace and verve. In his telling, the arrival of digital music was an opportunity that unimaginative, greedy record labels flunked. He is wrong to pronounce them doomed – they still maintain a prodigious apparatus for finding and promoting new talent, and are belatedly adapting to the new reality. But he is right to be optimistic for their product, declaring: “The music business, however, has a happier future.”


The market for pop music has never been bigger, with an audience stretching from baby boomers to their grandchildren. If the classic album, with its artwork, sleeve notes and scratches, is on its way to becoming a museum piece, the music for which it was designed as a showcase has never been so available to so many people. Sound quality will improve as the memory storage of MP3 players and computers grows. The best of times is still to come.







Sanjay Patel | Ciamara Corporation | New York, NY | www.ciamara.com

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Here are the books this review covers:


Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music

By Greg Milner


The Long-Player Goodbye: The Album from Vinyl to iPod and Back Again

By Travis Elborough



Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age

By Steve Knopper


101 Albums That Changed Popular Music

By Chris Smith


Galactic Ramble: A Peregrination through British Rock, Pop, Folk and Jazz of the 1960s and 1970s


I own all of the books listed, excepting the 'Galactic Ramble' title.


'The Vinyl Countdown,' (USA title for 'The Long Player Goodbye') is my favorite, mostly because it's got a clear point of view - it's the story of vinyl.


I also liked 'Perfecting Sound Forever.'


Missing from the list:


Greg Kot's 'Ripped,' which is a good companion to 'Appetite For Self Destruction'


...and more importantly, 'How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll' by Elijah Wald.


Terrible title, but wonderful book. It pokes into the nooks and crannies of popular music since 1900 and unearths an alternate history. Really, really well written and just...fascinating. Wald upends the traditional histories of pop and rock and roll and jazz and the rest, in a modest sort of way. One of those books that grabs you by the shoulders and says 'Look. Here's what you didn't see.'




edit - why is 'Beatles' on this list? Because it dwells on recording and playback technology as one of the ways into the alternate history.


\"...many people are doped up, drunk, compulsive liars or completely bat-s**t insane. And some are all of those, all the time.\" - found on Slashdot, 4.11.11

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Yes, I have to agree the best really is yet to come. I have been a hard core analogue junkie for as long as I can remember. But let's face it. Digital is here to stay, and as storage and processing continue to become cheaper, we are entering a high-res world that will finally rival -- if not better -- vinyl. There! I said it! ... something I swore I'd never say.


The issue, as I see it, is that companies bet (rightly) that the masses will choose convenience over quality most of the time. No wonder after dealing with the major step down to CDs from Vinyl we have had to endure yet another abomination to sound ... the MP3 and lossy compression.


Vinyl will probably stick around for a while ... But if you do any digging, you'll see that most tracking and recording is done in the digital realm. HRx, Reference Recordings, Linn and many others do their recording straight to digital. There are still a few studio guys from the 80s that insist on 2-inch tape, but more often than not, they record digital, output to Analogue Tape, and then re-record back into digital to get that "analogue tape feel and warmth" they are used to. Provided the converters used are excellent, I suppose this is ok ... but theoretically, this is degrading the sound at each A-D or D-A conversion step.


Anyhow ... the point is that if studios are recording straight to digital, there really is no point to analogue media anymore. So the war is over ... Now let's focus on advocating for high quality for the masses ... not just us "fringe" audiophiles. People will accept lower quality for convenience, but that doesn't mean that, if given the choice, they'd choose the crappy quality MP3 over the 24bit/96kHz high rez file ...


I dream of the day that even Pop music is recorded well and available in high res formats ... Bring it on!





Sanjay Patel | Ciamara Corporation | New York, NY | www.ciamara.com

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