Vinyl Gets Another Spin

Showing it has more lives than a cockroach, vinyl has been reborn, resulting in some beautiful music. But sometimes production values in records and turntables are lacking.

The pellets are poured into a hopper and melted down to make a pliable material, which then gets extruded and formed into a "biscuit," which is then topped with the record's label. Heat and pressure — never adhesives — are used to stick on the labels. This biscuit is placed on nickel plates with the musical grooves already ingrained.

Almost 2,000 pounds of pressure are needed to turn the biscuit into a flat pancake. The excess is shorn off, creating a smooth edge.

Stacks of the records are then weighted to prevent possible warping. After a day or so under pressure, they are put into their sleeves, shrink-wrapped and sent to distributors, record labels, a band's house or, in the case of the Lips' product, back to the Warner Bros. distribution facility to then be shipped to record stores around the country.

Almost one ton of pressure is used to press a vinyl record.
Mark Graham
Almost one ton of pressure is used to press a vinyl record.
Craig T. Brown opened Heights Vinyl off White Oak in late 2011 on a mission to spread the gospel of vintage turntables and classic vinyl.
Allison McPhail
Craig T. Brown opened Heights Vinyl off White Oak in late 2011 on a mission to spread the gospel of vintage turntables and classic vinyl.

Punk and grind-core groups kept the better part of the vinyl industry alive after compact discs and cassette tapes took over. Getz says those bands were the reason he had to invest in a machine to make 45 rpm singles years back. This kept vinyl in the semipublic eye, even as many mainstream listeners were buying millions of CDs, which they are now ripping to their computers and buying on vinyl all over again.

Until just a few years ago, smaller bands not signed to a label couldn't afford to have their full-length albums pressed to vinyl. CDs were a more economical investment for a band with limited funds. Prices have gone down and more bands are now able to do it.

Another big part of the vinyl revival was the availability of cheap, kitschy turntables, like the kind you can find at Urban Outfitters or Target. They were most definitely doing a great job of bringing the vinyl experience to the hands of the younger generation, but they make most audiophiles cringe. Shoddy fabrication, disposable technology and harsh needles are enemies of the feel and sound that brought them to vinyl in the first place.

Heights Vinyl owner Craig T. Brown sees vinyl and all its paraphernalia as an opportunity for his business to thrive. They stock vintage, refurbished turntables, in addition to new and used records.

"I've had a strong goal since first planning our opening over a year ago to replace every plastic ION and Crosley turntable in Houston. I'm excited people are just listening to records again," says Brown. But many new turntables are built to be disposable, like most electronics these days.

"For the same one hundred or so dollars that you might spend on one of these turntables, you can get a twenty-pound, built-like-a-tank, upgradeable, easy to repair, late '70s Pioneer or Dual piece," Brown adds.

Even the most immaculately restored and remastered album won't perform as well on one of these new players, sounding more like a fourth-generation dubbed cassette than an aural masterpiece.
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Vinal Edge owner Chuck Roast began selling vinyl at punk shows in Houston in the '80s to fans thirsty for music they couldn't find at the chain stores. A little more than 26 years ago, he opened his shop on the north side of town and has done well ever since. He stocks a batch of higher-end, "halfway decent" Crosley machines, mainly to move on Record Store Day, but admits even those have a downside.

"They are a cheap way of getting you into records, but in a year, when they break, these people may get out of their record phase," Roast says. He points to Crosley's old-time-looking faux-wood model as the worst offender for its tinny speakers and weak construction.

A brand-new vinyl recording of a major label artist's latest work can cost nearly twice as much as its disc counterpart. The hook with new vinyl is that you get a digital download coupon so you can go mobile with it.

"I see CD plants going out of business as record plants are starting up again," says Getz, noting that a CD plant the size of a city block up in Plano shut down recently, with the employees getting almost no notice beforehand.

Some claim that vinyl has a nicer, richer sound, while digital audiophiles champion modern, computer-assisted mastering techniques and the inherent ease of digital music — it's easy to store, easy to carry around. Charlie Ebersbaker, a Houston paralegal and member of the stoner-metal group The Linus Pauling Quartet, wishes he could at least hear what all the fuss is about.

"I've heard the argument that vinyl sounds better, and that might be true.  It's hard for me to tell because my ears are fucking shot," he jokes after years of playing guitar in the volume-happy LP4.

"I do recognize that early compact discs, at least those from the '80s into the early '90s, do sound inferior, but that's because you're comparing a mastering process that's been around for decades to a mastering process that was then brand-new," he says.

"I'd argue that discs mastered now stand up to the sound quality of vinyl albums pretty favorably; at least, I've yet to hear something that would convince me otherwise," Ebersbaker says.

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19 comments
Steve
Steve

Nice piece, esp. good at explaining the technology - nothing to this day sounds as good as old vinyl - i recently slapped on my original press of the first Stooges, then the remaster CD from 2005 - the difference is very clear; vinyl trumps even recent digitalJust for the record, the Mamas/Papas never recorded for Motown or at the Motown studios -

Rob
Rob

Ah, vinyl and religion: two great delusions.

I have 1200 LPs and nearly 1000 cd's. Anyone who argues that a nicely mastered CD is inferior to even a nicely mastered LP is a complete idiot and probably tone deaf. I used to work in record stores, too, in the 1970's and 1980's. You have to make so many sonic compromises with vinyl that it is the musical equivalent of punching yourself in the face because doing so has somehow been deemed hipster (and most hipsters are the most musically bigoted, tone deaf assholes I've ever known) cool. The political equivalent is voting against your own interests.

Starquest
Starquest

I have to agree. CDs do not impede how the music was intended to sound. But I still prefer vinyl because it's more fun.

Also, and this may sound bizarre, but as a result of the loudness wars I have a new appreciation for the first generation of CDs. They really sound much better than all the critics say. Audio engineers knew less about analog-to-digital conversion back in the 80s, but that also means they knew less about how to ruin a recording by destroying its dynamics. Which is pretty much what they do now with the ninth remastered deluxe limited version of everything. Certainly there are many remastered discs that sound great, but a lot of them are just overblown.

Finally, some of the very first CDs are somewhat collectible now.

MASSMURDERMEDIA
MASSMURDERMEDIA

i have a friend who "thinks" he likes music... when i say "thinks", he's the type of person that bought the CD's for the hit singles, loaded hundreds of them into his fancy-ass multi-disc player, and pre-programmed it to play the hits... he does this with MP3's now... he wasn't patient enough to give the "filler" on some decent CD's a second listen and doesn't get the appeal of experiencing a good album in it's entirety...

furthermore, he couldn't get why i would want to take the trouble of dropping platters and needles, so i gave him, as a muscle car enthusiast, an analogy he could understand... which would be more fun to drive, his standard transmission mustang or an automatic transmission?... my decks are my muscle cars...

WestSideBob
WestSideBob

Can't understand why no dap for the Black Dog shoppe here in H-town. Also, right around the corner on Alabama is Sound Exchange. I've bought many an LP from each and make regular stops as the stock changes frequently.

I've got to agree with the comments on big label re-releases. Give me the old time first or second pressings every time.

Craigley
Craigley

Black Dog reminds me of a store that sells records vs. a record store. I just don't feel the connection between the folks working there and the music.

Craig Hlavaty
Craig Hlavaty

The owner of Sound Exchange is quoted in the piece though?

Steve
Steve

Its bizarre having something have a resurgence that you have never stopped playing. I have had vinyl records since I was 5 and when everyone was getting into cassettes and later cds, I still kept buying vinyl. Sure, over the years I bought some stuff on cd, things I couldn't otherwise get-or recording my band pre-digital era on cassettes) but even now I still have well over 1,200 LPs (down from a DJ era high of 6,700) that have never been issued on CD or any other digital format. Still have 2 working record players with 2 replacement needles each and I keep the records clean. On a quiet day here, they sound virtually the same as cds. Newer issued records just sound colder because a lot of the mastering and recording is done from digital to digital using synthesized instruments so they are both taking in less sound frequency and outputting on systems not made/specialized for analog sound reproduction to begin with. Most of these newer plastic 'traveling' players are not great anyway. an older deck has real steel beneath the wheel and way better deals even if you have to fix em up yourself.

Think I'll go play a Flipper 45'.

Geezy
Geezy

I remember when I was a kid, my parents used to come home and we'd sit together while they put on the newest record, dancing, singing all the while expanding my palate from country, tejano, soul etc. This is what always made vinyl so attractive to me, it made the music being played an interaction, a presence in the room. I have no beef against cd's or ipods, shit I have them myself- but they take the interaction out of music. The vinyl jackets gave the records a face, although some were mundane there was some very heavy cover art produced both inside and out which I always have found fascinating.

I've been buying vinyl since I was a kid, I must be about 6-7K deep collection wise. Two tech 12's with pioneer mixer grace an upstairs room in my house with a fully converted closet to house my stash. It's an amazing treat to be able to take my 5 year old up there and have her put on something simple like those old Winnie The Pooh, Charlie Brown or Betsey McCall records from back in the day. Takes me back to when I was kid, and where my affection for vinyl started.

Fantastic article here Craig. Good to see vinyl still being bought and listened to too, and the interaction being put back into listening again.

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

Exactly! Listening to vinyl isn't a passive exercise. There's the ritual of picking out the record, displaying the cover, and flipping the record when one side is done. There is no "set it and forget it."

James
James

And why is that such a positive thing? I kind of like being able to put on some music and walk away and do other things, or sink into my chair and listen to the entire album in one sitting, not having to be disturbed midway through to get up and turn it over, but rather to close my eyes and experience the album from start to finish. I don't know, that always seemed like a weird ancillary reason to like vinyl.

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

Don't discount ritual. It's a big part of the appreciation for many things in life.

Craigley
Craigley

Depends. There are some cool concept albums out there where you HAVE to flip the side. Changes the mood and the trip. And albums should be a journey, where the songs connect; otherwise, play a 12".

I think the invention of the CD negatively impacted the concept of arranging songs together in a logical order. Seems not much tough it put into it other than making sure the best song is at Track 5 or 7 on the CD.

Craigley
Craigley

Oh vinyl, I never left ye. And my Sony TT hooked up to my Bose SoundDock sounds great.

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

Now you need a vacuum tube amp. We call ours "our fireplace."

Rick
Rick

Why not have both vinyl and digital?

Some folks would take the plastic disc digital is "better" and more convenient to the next extreme - that you are speaking ancient and should be streaming that digital source material from solid state memory "hard drives". In that sense it is said, the jitter, clocking sync problem, and error correction anomalies of plastic discs is a sonic problem.

Many recordings are only available on used vinyl, they were never transferred to digital disc. In that sense there is a wealth of music open to folks willing to use them and hunt them down.

Tubes? there used to be a saying by the tube-analog folks vs. solid state-digital:

Digital finishes what the transistor started - killing the sonic purity of all tube analog playback...

 

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