Sunday, August 10, 2008

Got Vinyl?

Rolling Stone published a piece in its June 12, 2008 issue noting a resurgence in vinyl sales -- a smart follow-up to the magazine’s piece a few months before on the decline in recording quality and mastering. As more music fans become dissatisfied with digital formats, especially MP3s, they’re turning to vinyl for better sound. The numbers the article quoted won’t keep Apple’s Steve Jobs awake at night -- the biggest seller was Sundazed Records’ reissue of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, at 25,000 copies since its release in 2004 -- but they’re enough to help ensure that LPs will keep a healthy enough following to keep them alive.

The analog advocates quoted in the piece, including mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, defend LPs for the reasons most of us remain loyal to a format that’s been repeatedly pronounced dead. Records sound warmer and give you a better sense of the way the music actually feels -- you can hear the attack of the bass, and drums often have a more visceral punch. I was reminded of vinyl’s power to connect me to music in ways that CDs don’t a few months ago while listening to Frank Zappa’s music in both formats. I preferred the vinyl by far. The soundstage was deeper, and the music sounded more natural. The kickdrums on the close of "Holiday in Berlin, Full-Blown," from Burnt Weeny Sandwich, moved more air via vinyl than they did via CD. They hit me harder.

But I’m not such a diehard record lover that I avoid CDs altogether. CD players have improved vastly in the last few years, and, in theory, digital mastering technology is better (it’s what some engineers do with that technology that’s disturbing). I won’t even argue that a recording on vinyl always sounds better than its CD counterpart. Verve’s 1960s pressings, made after the company became a subsidiary of MGM, are often noisy, and the CDs released under the Verve moniker are usually well mastered. I do enjoy listening to CDs, and a lot of the music in my collection isn’t easily or affordably available on LP. On the other hand, some titles aren’t available on CD at all. As far as I can tell, Dizzy Gillespie’s A Portrait of Duke Ellington has been released on CD only in Japan. I was able to pick it up on vinyl, along with a number of other hard-to-find titles, from a friend of mine whose uncle was a jazz collector.

Another gem I picked up from that collection was Dale’s Wail, a two-LP reissue of Roy Eldridge’s mid-’50s Verve sessions. The music is available as part of a Mosaic set, but otherwise, you won’t find it on CD. Same for mono versions of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, and Blonde on Blonde. If you love those recordings, or Miles Ahead, Miles Davis’s first collaboration with Gil Evans for Columbia Records, you owe it to yourself to hear them in mono. As much as I enjoy Phil Schapp’s work on the CD version of Miles Ahead, I like the mono LP better -- the tape splices are less jarring, and the music flows more easily.

If you’ve heard Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks only on the edgy CD that’s been around since 1988, then you really must hear it on LP -- it’s so much richer and more enveloping on vinyl. You can find a copy of Astral Weeks on eBay, but be careful. One seller currently lists two copies of the LP and is asking $45 for each. He tells you the condition of the record and cover, but doesn’t describe the label or list the matrix numbers from the deadwax. A seller asking $45 for an LP is pitching to collectors and should know that they’re looking for such arcana. A seller who isn’t aware of that fact doesn’t know what he’s doing, and can’t be counted on to accurately describe a record’s condition.

Here are a few more tips I’ve gained from 10 years’ experience of shopping on eBay:

1) Try to learn some history of the LP. An olive-green Warner/7Arts-label Astral Weeks is collectible; an olive-green WB label is less so but still sonically good and may command a few bucks. Check the "Completed Items" listings on eBay for an idea of what each pressing might be going for. Later pressings may sound OK, but they’re not worth more than $10 even in mint condition.

2) Look at the seller’s history. Buy only from one with a long history of sales and a high rating.

3) Read the product description carefully. The seller may think his copy of Revolver is rare, but if he hasn’t played it, and/or doesn’t list the condition of the record and the label, and/or doesn’t include a photo, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

4) Buy from sellers who use PayPal, unless they have an extensive history (for me, it’s at least 100 transactions with a 98% or higher rating). I’ve been stung only once by an eBay seller, and it was because I didn’t follow these guidelines.

Because vinyl shops are now unheard of outside urban areas or college towns, the Web has been a boon to vinyl collectors. Music Direct, Acoustic Sounds, and Elusive Disc are great sources for vinyl on the Web, and while they carry many of the same titles, each has unique selections. True Blue Music, a subsidiary of Mosaic Records, sells mostly jazz vinyl; you can pick up Original Jazz Classics pressings from them for about $10 each. (The other three retailers mentioned also sell OJCs, so check them all if you’re looking for a particular title.) True Blue also sells jazz on some other labels, such as VSOP and obscure Japanese record companies. In many cases, I haven’t seen these LPs anywhere else. Finally, check out the vinyl site of, which carries a wide variety of LPs and offers free shipping for orders over $25. I've had mixed results with's shipping, but the rest of these retailers take great care in packaging LPs. A little Web searching ("online LP retailers" should do it) can help you find other online sellers. Start with

Buying records via the Web won’t ever take the place of rifling through a stack of LPs and finding something you really want. I often stop by flea markets to look for record dealers, or I’ll swing by a Goodwill or Salvation Army thrift shop. There’s nothing like finding an old Blue Note or other gem for a buck. I also like to find out if there’s a record shop in a town I’m visiting. When, a few months ago, my wife and I visited Albany, she did a Web search and found three record stores there. She also knew we’d be stopping for lunch on the way and found a shop in Scranton, PA. Sometimes, I think vinyl collectors develop a sixth sense. On the way to a concert in Washington, DC, I stopped in Silver Springs, MD for a cup of coffee. Wandering around, I ran into a record shop and found three great jazz LPs, two of which are not in print on CD.

Cleaning is a must for LPs. Again, the Web is a good source of information, but articles on record cleaning read like case studies in obsessive compulsive disorder. In this instance, the sufferers are on to something. The cleaner the record, the better it will sound. Whatever’s in the grooves is picked up by the stylus and magnified. For years, I used a solution of one part isopropyl alcohol to four parts distilled water, which I then wiped off and followed with a rinse of distilled water. I tried other cleaning products and noticed no difference -- until I bought Audio Intelligent’s vinyl-cleaning fluids, after reading Marc Mickelson’s review in SoundStage!. Every word he wrote is true. I noticed a significant difference in the sound of LPs I cleaned using Audio Intelligent, which removed nearly all the background noise on the Verve pressings I referred to earlier. Even new records benefit from cleaning, which can remove the mold-release compounds that remain from the manufacturing process.

Record-cleaning machines are great, but they’re expensive, starting at about $300. Until you can save up for one, try Spin Clean, originally manufactured for sale by Record Rama in Pittsburgh. Record Rama should be returning to business this month, but you can pick up a Spin Clean from Garage-A-Records -- at $65, a cheap and viable alternative. The Spin Clean consists of a water reservoir, two rollers adjustable for record size, and two cleaning brushes that grip the record as you spin it through the unit. By the time I use the Spin Clean on my own LPs, I’ve already cleaned them with Audio Intelligent; the machine merely provides a final rinse to make sure any residue is gone. The cleaning solution provided (you add it to the water) is good if you want to do a quick clean and dry, but in most cases I use distilled water alone.

And if you just want to put an LP on the platter and spin it, pick up a Mobile Fidelity record brush for a quick clean.

But obviously, while LPs can be more work than CDs, I think there are advantages to the effort required by vinyl. Cleaning and carefully preparing an LP for play helps you focus -- you’re telling your brain you’re going to concentrate on listening to music. In addition, you’ll learn more about the music. It’s not only because I have weak, middle-aged eyes that I know less about who produced or mastered many of my CDs -- I’ve had trouble reading the print on CD cases since the beginning. And even the most ingeniously designed CD case lacks the impact and visual flair of a foot-square LP cover.

In the end, though, what matters is the sound. Even after 25 years, analog still beats digital.


written by Joseph Taylor