Monday, April 21, 2008

Back to basics: A visit to vinyl

By Jim Downing, Musician and Writer

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Reprinted by permission from

The counter-revolution has been on for some time now, as I’m shopping for a new cartridge for my turntable.

I’m not much of a casual music listener anymore; I don’t have an iPod and don’t particularly want one. I didn’t even use my Walkman very often. When I listen to something, I pay attention, and I want good sound.

You may disbelieve, but nothing sounds as good as a vinyl record. That’s not an opinion; it’s a fact. That’s why some records were cut direct-to-disk, bypassing analog tape with 1/8” track widths. By comparison, a cassette is just a little wider with four tracks on it, and those awful 8-track tapes had one-fourth of that track width.

Audio quality has gone steadily downhill since the ‘70s. Studios used tube amps until the manufacturers sold them a bill of goods that transistors were the way to go. The studios then bought tube pre-amps to regain some of the lost quality. With CDs, they lopped off the highs and lows and were able to get more than twice the time on one disk. MP3s subtract even more signal. We may be headed toward the tinny AM pocket radios of the fifties; why not – who cares?

On the other hand, you have the car stereos with grossly disproportionate low frequencies that amount to scrotal massage – nothing at all like music is supposed to sound.

Donald Fagen made the first digitally recorded hit album 25 years ago. He complained then about the dullness of the sound and digital’s deafness to nuance and dynamics. The good part is that there is no extraneous noise from tape hiss or a speck of dust in a groove.

The four-track that the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was recorded on was bigger than your dishwasher. They tediously spliced different tapes together with a razor blade and tape. Now you can put a decent four-track in a briefcase. That certainly makes it a lot easier to record a gig.

Digital recording has made many amazing things possible. One unit has so much RAM that you can record 256 tracks for 40 hours before dumping to a hard drive. There is even software that composes music. You can cut out one measure of a guitar lick and paste it into another spot. This would be like cutting windows in tapes: nearly impossible. You can alter the sounds into digital samples of other instruments, turn a wobbly drummer into a human clock and even make a tone-deaf banshee sing on pitch. In short, bad musicians can be made to sound almost talented. Is this a good idea?

These capabilities are wonderful and can be very useful. But a perfectionist can also get bogged down in the details and literally tweeze something to death, not to mention spend far too much time in the studio reinventing the wheel.

Artists and engineers are rebelling. One Los Angeles mixing engineer even wrote a hilarious book about a crappy band with a ridiculous budget that he was recording for a major label. He could make a bad band sound good even without using all the tricks he could have used, but why? It was an epiphany for him; he now produces music he actually cares about.

Some of the biggest names in music are returning to the old method: rehearse the songs and then go in and record them live, maybe overdubbing only the solos and vocal harmonies. After all, some of the biggest sounding records ever made were recorded on one track. The first Beatles tracks are just what they sounded like in the studio. Creativity, talent and passion cannot be synthesized and never will be.

A factory in Nashville still produces vinyl recordsMixing is an art in itself now, and good mixers command high salaries. That’s just the way it’s done. But, as one said, “We can give you all kinds of haircuts, but it won’t matter if you’re just ugly.”

I’m looking for a stereo tube amp, maybe even a Heathkit, to go with these nice Bozak speakers.

Monthly Ebay Record Sales

April 2007 - March 2008

April 2007 / 45rpm - Rolling Stones "Street Fighting Man" Pulled 45 w picture sleeve - $15,200.00

May 2007 / LP - Mozart Oubradous Pathe Box Set - $11,300.00

June 2007 / LP - Beatles "White Album" #0000006 - $21,411.00

July 2007 / 45 - The Counts "Peaches Baby" / "My Only Love" - $6,776.00

August 2007 / LP - The Beatles White Album Acetate - $5,478.00

Sept 2007 / 45rpm - The Five Crowns "I Want You" / "Hillum Bay" De'Besth - $5,900.00

Oct 2007 / LP - Beatles - Yesterday and Today Butcher - $10,000.00

Nov 2007 / LP - Bach Cello Suites, Andre Levy Box Set - $20,000.00

Dec 2007 / LP - Mozart a Paris Oubradous Pathe 7 LP Box Set - $7,230.00

Jan 2008 / 45rpm - The Misfits "Horror Business" (Signed) - $14,301.38

Feb 2008 / 45rpm - Bruce Springsteen "Spirit In The Night" / "For You" Columbia - $5,100.00

March 2008 / 45rpm - The Limelights "Don't Leave Me Baby" / "(Time Has Passed) You Don't Love Me Anymore" Uncle - $6,889.10

This Date In Music History- April 21

The Cure's Robert Smith was born in Sussex, England in 1959.

Guitarist Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies was born today in 1959.

Ernie Maresca ("Shout! Shout! Knock Yourself Out") turns 69.

In 2003, legendary vocalist/pianist Nina Simone died at age 70 at her home in France. Her biggest hit was the smoky "My Baby Just Cares For Me."

Elton John made his solo concert debut in 1970, opening for T. Rex in London, England.

R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and avid vinyl record collector was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2001 after allegedly causing a drunken ruckus during a flight from Seattle to London. He was later found innocent of all charges.

In 1993, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann saved a young surfer from a California riptide.

Folk singer Sandy Denny died in 1978 at age 31 after falling down a flight of stairs. You can hear her on Led Zeppelin IV's "Battle of Nevermore" and with her band Fairport Convention on albums like 1969's Unhalfbricking.

In 1973, Alice Cooper had the #1 album in the US with "Billion Dollar Babies.” The LP also topped the chart in the UK.

Legendary Skatalites trombonist Don Drummond, who wrote and arranged hundreds of ska hits, died in Bellevue Hospital in New York in 1971. He had been committed to the institution after his girlfriend was found stabbed to death in his home in 1965.

In 1970, Chicago slide guitarist Earl Hooker died from tuberculosis at age 41.
In 1961, Folk singer Cisco Houston died of cancer in San Bernardino, Calif. The influential troubadour traveled America with Woody Guthrie and was Leadbelly's houseguest.

In 1960, Dick Clark admitted that he had a financial stake in more than a quarter of the records that were played on American Bandstand. The congressional committee investigating payola orders him to sell off several of his holdings.

1947- Rock's wondrous front man, Iggy Pop, was born today in Michigan as James Osterberg. He's led the wild and wildly influential band, The Stooges, and recorded a string of solo albums.

The Bihari brothers founded Modern Records in 1945. Over the years, the label will become an R&B powerhouse, releasing discs by John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Etta James among others.

In 1963, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones met for the first time during a Stones performance at the Crawdaddy Club. 'We got all nervous', said Bill Wyman, “but then we had a chat with them afterwards and stayed up all night rapping and became really good mates.”

In 1969, Janis Joplin made her first London concert appearance at Royal Albert Hall, a performance considered by many to be one of the best of her career.

In 2000, Neal Matthews of the Jordanaires died of a heart attack. He sang back-up on Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog" and also worked with Ricky Nelson, Marie Osmond, Tom Jones and Merle Haggard.