Vinyl record sales are up 40% from 2013. Why? Like many other things these days, producing a vinyl records is part of ‘going green’ and an environmentally good thing to do. As a GMO free product, records are often produced from recycled and reconditioned vinyl and presses. Yet if we were to ask the average teenager or young adult what a record or a turntable is, they would most likely have no idea. So is this resurgence nostalgia for baby boomers or a new lasting trend?
Let’s look at an impressive list of artists and performers who are turning to vinyl for their recent recordings: Tauntaun, Kendrick Lamar, Wu-Tang Clan, Bon Iver, Beck, Neutral Milk, Arctic Monkeys, Jack White, Ty Segall, Daft Punk, Dinosaur Junior, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, Queens of the Stone Age, Lumineers, The National, Lorde, Justin Timberlake, and releases by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Bob Marley.
The Evolution of Music Replication: From Analog to Digital
A Vinyl analog record, introduced in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is an inscribed spiral groove to play back music on a player, phonograph, or gramophone, using a needle or stylus at various speeds, 45 or 33 ½ rpms, on 12” singles, EP, and LP formats. Records degraded, or lost fidelity after frequent playbacks due to the physical connection between the stylus and record; they were sensitive to environmental deposits, oils, soot and smoke, grease, dust, and dirt that could render them unplayable.
The 8 track tape, or eight-track magnetic cartridge, was popular as the first form of portable music. Created in the 1950s and 60s by Bill Lear, more famous for his Lear Jet, disappeared almost completely after the cassette appeared in 1982. The technology was prone to wear and other problems such as flutter and wow, jamming, poor head alignment, no rewind, and tape tension issues.
The Cassette tape, first introduced by Phillips in the 1960s, did not become popular until the 1980s. An incredible success story, especially after Sony’s Walkman, a cassette was the ultimate in portable sound and extremely cheap. The Cassette and play back systems are forever linked to numerous changes in culture and technology. However, they were prone to over production, re-recordings, variances in speed and pitch across different play back systems, wow and flutter, and tape wear and tear.
In 1982, Phillips teamed up with Sony and the CD was born. Digital music, considered an exact replica of the original, stored as a sequence of numbers, allows for copies that can be played over and over indefinitely. Initially expensive, the Compact Disc, or digital CD, was an evolution of laser disc technology for computer storage, and replaced audio cassettes around the turn of the century when costs dropped significantly. Susceptible to handling and environmental damage and frequency limitations, the CD came closest to accurate sound facsimile and lossless music quality from an original source.
MP3s, and similar audio coding formats are digital lossy (loss of sound from original format) that compress data, and have become part of the standard in portable sound because they download quickly and require less storage space, which is part of the trade-off for sound quality.
Modern Vinyl Recording
Today’s vinyl industry is trying to catch up with demand, and although production uses substantial recycled materials, some record producers believe that an outstanding vinyl record starts with pure 100% virgin vinyl, and does not contain any recycled vinyl or reused records. In addition, the music should come from an analog format, the best source for analog playback in spite of the fact that today’s recording often rely on digital technology. Once a master recording is complete, a multi-step process creates ridges on a metal record, forming a stamper or the negative version of the master recording, and then pressed onto the vinyl.
Techno/Retro Mania, Better Sound, or Personal Preference
We live in a world of technology where the newest phone, tablet, computer, tracker, or recording device is preferred over what was available last week. Similar to other trends, something old becomes something new, starting a fashion statement, or is a salute and a bow to the latest generation making their mark against the please me now mentality, albeit sometimes refreshing.
However, some music should be played through analog recordings, and cannot effectively be digitally replaced. As a more accurate rendition of an audio signal, the unique sound quality through a vinyl’s grooves, across high and low ends, has depth, warmth, and is earthy. In contrast to recent modes of music listening where the song is merely part of some file, playing a record requires, at least in part, being responsible for the sound, and an active participant in the physical experience, since you need to get up from your seat to move the needle, stop playback, or switch sides.
The creation of music is an art, and so it is with vinyl records that start from something totally blank, similar to a canvas, and even the packaging becomes part of the deal. Of course, it comes down to taste and preferences for both the listener and the creator, and the debate will continue. Yet for now the industry is undergoing a little re-education. In order to manufacture vinyl, the production costs are high, limited to a few plants currently in operation, whereas digital and streaming are well established.
Failure or Future
It is a conundrum between taste and costs. Records take more time to produce, they require more people, more equipment, and more storage space in the process and if the resurgence is merely a short-lived gimmick then a lot of money could be lost.
Nevertheless, vinyl’s appeal is its impeccable sound, and if the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Bob Marley think it is okay, then why not?