My brother recently posted about many of the advantages of playing music on a record player instead of one of the many other forms available. Among those he listed that you have probably heard before is that vinyl records provide a superior sound quality to ever other form. Now, that may sound pretentious and it may remind you of many a record store denizen who looks down his nose at the kids buying Lady Gaga CDs, but the fact is that analog recordings are superior in many ways as long as the playback device is of high enough quality to allow the listener to tell the difference.
The problem is that most modern audio recordings have been done through digital equipment which means that the advantage of the analog playback is lost. See. digital transformation reduces the curvature of sound waves to a series of smaller right angles (to simplify the idea a bit). So, while most of the material is preserved, it is a lower quality copy of the real sound. When digital playback is looped through analog forms, the separation from the original sound is even more severe.
My brother is right that the sound should be better, but for a lot of recordings in the 1990’s it just doesn’t matter. Where my brother really hits the nail on the head (or, let’s say he drops the nail in the groove) is his focus on the communal aspect of music listening and the nearly ritualistic process of using a record. I want to hit each of these in turn.
The reason vinylphiles often annoy people is that they too often affect the same sense of superiority that you may get from jazz afficionados. But, especially when they are young, they can seem like strange anachronisms, longing for something that was obsolete before they were even born.
Yeah, this one is a little too obvious
Now, all of this sounds like I am dissing my brother, but the fact is that he is right about the fact that you get more from listening to music with people–you participate in an experience that creates a shared presence and shared memory for the future, a moment that unites two or more people in something however briefly bigger than either alone. You learn from watching others react. You hear different things when you hear them with others.
This may seem strange as hell, but it will make sense shortly
My brother also rightly points out that the process of using a record slows down the experience of a music and forces you to value it more. And he couldn’t be more correct–the digital age has killed the album, made song lists and mix tapes way too easy and, ultimately, has made popular music more ephemeral and disposable than it ever was before.
The only thing I can say that my brother has missed is that the ritual and the communal nature of the record was also a part of what used to make radio so attractive as well. Even though there are only seven years between us, my brother did not grow up in a house (1) without cable or (2) with a record player as a primary means of entertainment. So, he is romantic about the record player as an object of already anachronistic nostalgia. I remember it from childhood.
Before my brother was born and soon thereafter we would regularly borrow albums from the local library. In those halcyon days, we listened to disney albums because there was no such thing as a VCR. I keenly remember listening to The Jungle Book over and over again. When the visual and aural coincide, the visual always dominates. When we deprive our senses, we are forced to use the others more keenly.
Another one of my favorite records was the album of Robin Hood. I remember listening to both whenever my mother surrendered control and relented from a rotation of Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond albums.
But one of my strongest memories of this period is of waiting to listen to the radio play of Empire Strikes Back. I remember the dark wood and yellow wall paper of our first home, along with the smell of woodsmoke. Listening to the story of the movie required my imagination and fired my passion for the story more than any number of toys, advertisements or repeated watchings of the films ever could.
When I tell students about this memory, they look at me as if I were born three generations ago instead of three decades. The truth is that I hold this memory and this experience precious because I wasn’t ‘corrupted’ by cable television and video games, because my parents made music a ritualistic and imaginative experience, and because my serendipitous birth in between eras has allowed me to enjoy the best of both.
And I am thankful to my brother for making me remember it.
What about you, my brother? Do you remember when our parents game home unexpectedly with the Sony CD player for the first time?