Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The needle and the damage done-Breaking down the jargon-filled world of vinyl record-collecting

 BY E.D. Cauchi

Given the medium's 51-year history on turntables, calling the current vogue for vinyl records a "fad" is short-sighted at best; even though you can fit a dozen CDs in your purse or put 100,000 songs on an iPod, people have been eagerly returning to the format that many audiophiles consider the only one fit to listen to.

According to a Nielsen SoundScan survey, North American vinyl sales doubled last year, and two-thirds of those sales came from small independent shops. But unlike the record-shopping experience of yesteryear, our parents didn’t have to deal with obscure terms like “180-gram audiophile pressing” or “virgin vinyl,” both of which you’re likely to see on new record releases. Since most of us aren’t audio geeks but still don’t want our new records to sound like crap, figuring out all the jargon tossed around in record stores is worth your time, whether you’ve inherited your dad’s collection or have decided to start one of your own. Once you’ve got a halfway decent turntable — your Fisher Price player ain’t gonna cut it — you’re ready to start shopping.

“Amazingly, there are only four vinyl pressing plants in the US, and they use the same machinery that was used 30 years ago,” explains Robert Benson. The avid vinyl collector works out of his Wisconsin home running an online record-appraisal service, and in 2007 he published The Fascinating Hobby of Collecting Vinyl Records, an eBook explaining every facet of record culture. So, is it worth it to buy 180-gram reissues? Benson is adamant that it is.

One thing vinyl geeks look out for is the weight of the record — the heavier records are, the less they become prone to warping and being easily scratched. Also, the grooves on heavier records are cut deeper so that the needle will be less likely to pop out. Lighter records can warp, which can cause anything from more popping and clicking noises to weird pitch shifts that can add an unwanted haunted house quality to, say, your copy of Neil Young’s Harvest.

The standard record weight in Japan — mecca for audiophiles — has always been 180 grams, but America’s was much lower until the recent resurgence in vinyl's popularity. Now it’s common to see stickers screaming “180 grams” on new and reissued records, usually accompanied by claims of “high quality” or “pure sound.” If you plan to play your records a lot, look for a heavier copy.

Watch out for when the record was manufactured, too — a sense of style wasn’t the only thing lacking in the late ’80s. Records created at the beginning of the CD era were often shoddily made, since companies were investing most of their resources in the newer, shinier medium. The same holds for records released in the late ’70s, when the petrochemical crisis caused a scarcity in petroleum-based products like polyvinyl chloride, the key ingredient in vinyl production. This meant records were being produced at half the usual weight, and from a higher percentage of recycled vinyl than normal. Today, these may not play at all and if they do, the sound will be distorted.

You might have noticed that some new records are described as “virgin,” which has nothing to do with whether or not they’ve been played (or anything else) yet; “virgin vinyl” just means that the record is made of all new, non-recycled materials. While it’s possible to find well-preserved LPs, decades of play and improper storage — i.e., in humid basements under discarded furniture — eventually take a toll on the sound.

“There’s something sexy about having the OG,” says Slinky Music’s Paul Azevedo, “but you have to keep in mind that a Led Zeppelin album, for example, has probably gone through three or four people’s hands, making the chances you’ll find one in really good shape less and less.”

At 41, the owner of the Queen West vinyl and CD shop — which shares space with music/DJ equipment store Moog Audio — knows his stuff. Azevedo’s been a DJ since grade eight, and managed Kop's Records for a decade before breaking out on his own.

As someone who moves lots of vinyl inventory, Azevedo also points out that who made the records matters tremendously. Specialty audiophile labels like Classic Records release the purest vinyl you’ll find. They tend to take more time in producing their records than major labels ever did, which means there’s more sound being gathered in the grooves and more to hear when you play it.

Of all the formats, digital music inevitably sounds the shallowest, because MP3 files only hold about ten percent as much sonic information as records. Put it like this: the difference between a well-produced vinyl record and a compressed MP3 is like the difference between the actual Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre, and a copy of the Mona Lisa on a postage stamp: no matter how close you get to the shrunken reproduction, it could never contain as much detail as the full-sized version. Then again, it’s hard to take the Mona Lisa — or your Stones albums — with you to the gym.

For Benson, the collectability factor is the most rewarding part of buying records. “With proper care, records can last for generations. So, if you’ll excuse my pun, vinyl records are a sound investment.”


1 comment:

Shawn said...

Bob, you are my hero!