Vinyl Gets Another Spin
Check out our slideshow on the rise, fall and rise again of vinyl records.
In a dark room at A&R Records & Tape west of downtown Dallas, Stanley Getz II cuts an electronic group's music into acetate — a reference point for what their final vinyl product will sound like. He stands behind a mastering board pushing buttons and turning dials as he performs one of his favorite parts of the vinyl-making process, the one where he gets to help artists realize their vision.
We've been awash in a vinyl revival for five years now. Vinyl is sexy. It's tactile, malleable and sensitive to the touch. Its grooves give it a warm sound. If you treat it with love and care, it can last forever. It has a mystique all its own — carrying a certain cachet that some bands want to attach themselves to and that an increasing number of buyers crave.
"It just comes screaming out of the speakers, fat and wiry, and if it's recorded great, it sounds great on vinyl. It's almost like a spiritual thing," says Getz (no relation to jazz great Stan Getz),who operates the only record-pressing plant in Texas.
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In the past two years Houston has seen the opening of two vinyl-only record stores, Heights Vinyl off White Oak and Vinyl Junkie off Canal in East Downtown. Both have done well, catering to classic-rock and indie-rock crowds.
When a couple breaks up or decides to divorce, they don't agonize over who gets the iTunes account, but arguments about who gets what Rolling Stones record can turn into vicious fights.
But vinyl can be ruined with one rough scratch. It has to be stored correctly. Its owner has to learn how to clean it correctly so he's not overwhelmed with pop and hiss. Vinyl can't sit for hours in a hot car, and can't be played during a road trip. And amid all this go-go-go — and remember, CD sales still far outpace vinyl's — not all the records being made today are quality products. And even if tremendous craft and skill were used in making a record, play it on a crappy turntable and all that doesn't matter.
And still the future of vinyl is somewhat questionable. Fewer people know how to run pressing plants, and some of the major components are not being made anymore.
The sound debate has gone on for years and at this point is tedious. CD supporters say it isn't fair to compare the initial CD technology to records with their 100-year head start, and they suggest vinyl lovers ought to recheck their hearing. And then there's the whole ease-of-use argument.
But major record companies, not wanting to miss an opportunity, are getting back into vinyl — which hurts the mom-and-pop operations who kept it alive once tapes and CDs were all the rage.
Getz and the A&R family just put the finishing touches on creating 20,000 copies of the Flaming Lips' The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, the psych-rock band's double LP offering for this year's Record Store Day event on Saturday, April 21, featuring a cavalcade of musical odd fellows and typical weirdo fare for which the Oklahoma band is known.
In the mastering room, Getz is surrounded by a few thousand copies of Fwends, which will hit stores on April 21 and be sought after for weeks, months and years, selling on the secondary market on eBay for stupid amounts of money. He's had strict orders for nothing to leave the plant.
Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne was just in the house the week before, helping the A&R staff package all those thousands of records. He autographed every few inserts, and did some special secret scrawling for the last one to come off the line.
Record Store Day, a biannual celebration of all things vinyl, began in 2007. Five years later it's turned into a sort of (expensive) holiday for record collectors. Special limited pressings, deluxe editions and other baubles have made lines wrapping around mostly independently owned record stores the norm, with some folks waiting in line for hours just in the hope of getting something rare. (A few years back, Record Store Day organizers also instituted a "mini" day in November to coincide with Black Friday, the annual gluttonous exhibition of retailer might.)
It's harder to get rid of a record than a few files on your computer, which can be accomplished just a click and a drag away from leaving your life forever. Despite all sorts of innovations, records just seem to hang on.
Creating a piece of vinyl is a deceptively simple, yet mechanically intricate, process. It involves plenty of human supervision and a touch of artistic skill. Getz's operation comprises a handful of LP and 45 presses, all humming five days a week, or even more depending on the job.
To start with, vinyl pellets come in all sorts of colors in huge bags, like fertilizer or flour. Besides the standard black there's every color imaginable, plus multicolored reground pellets from cast-off jobs. Unless the vinyl was burned or contaminated, Getz insists there is no issue with using reground material and that any claim that it creates an inferior listening experience is a myth.
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.
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.
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.
Brad Denison, an A/V engineer at College of the Mainland, is more blunt than Ebersbaker when it comes to vinyl. Vinyl fanatics, prepare to clutch your proverbial pearls.
"Records are delicate and you can wear them out. Dust and micro-cuts on the vinyl can cause pops in the playback," Denison says. "When it comes to digital audio, you get what you put in, so a clean recording will always be clean. I've just been spoiled by digital for too long."
Denison says he has never listened to his copies of the Beatles' "White Album" or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but they do make for great wall art in his apartment.
And Google vinyl records on the Internet and you'll find a whole lot of classic bands who don't have as nostalgic a view of vinyl. Its space limitations sometimes led to truncated versions of songs. As Uriah Heep keyboardist Ken Hensley reportedly put it: "When we were making vinyl, we had a lot of time limitations for each record so songs were left off for a number of reasons. Now with CDs, much more music can be included."
Plenty of younger bands want their music to be pressed to vinyl, but what few realize is that versions mastered for compact disc and download vary from those that are to be used for vinyl. It may look cool to have your debut garage-punk release on delicious colored wax, but if it sounds awful and doesn't reflect what you recorded, then what good is it to press to vinyl? Titus Haag, who opened Vinyl Junkie in the summer of 2010 in East Downtown, weighs in.
"A lot of people want to press vinyl just because it's cool, but don't know anything about [it] or don't understand that for top quality, you should get your music mastered specifically for vinyl," says Haag. Things get even more complex once it comes to the actual running time of your album.
Two locals signed to Americana label New West Records, the Wilco-esque band Buxton and singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, both had their label debuts mastered separately for vinyl. As fans of the medium, they saw it as a given. Buxton bassist Chris Wise was insistent that special care was taken with mastering February LP Nothing Here Seems Strange specifically for vinyl.
"If it wasn't going to be mastered separately for vinyl, then we probably wouldn't have sought out a pressing. Your lacquer [from the pressing plant] is the template for the actual sound of your record. You're not burning a disc."
The vinyl resurgence is bringing back the joy of physical discovery of music, the actual, communal, scavenging for treasures.
The wildly varied Vinal Edge is a drive for most Inner Loop dwellers, but it is the best in town when it comes to catering to collectors who really want to dig for great finds. Vinal Edge sells new records — mostly indie-rock, metal and experimental stuff — and its used vinyl is scattered throughout the store in heavy boxes stacked a few feet high. The used records come from those culling their collections or from confused families who don't know what else to do with a dead relative's stash.
Roast and most other record stores in town can't keep most of the bedrock used catalog stuff in stock for more than a few days. "The stuff from Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin turns over constantly. Every kid goes through a Zeppelin or Floyd stage, it seems," Roast says. (See "Vinyl Essentials.")
The resurgence of the 45 rpm single has figured into the uptick, too. In these times when the music industry is worshipping the holy hit single, it's nice to time-trip back to when singles weren't meant to be used once and then destroyed. Most record stores will have countless bins of 45s ripe for plundering or, in Houston, to be put to use by DJs.
Female collectors seem to feel somewhat out of place at record stores, as if they're nerdy man caves. They are looked at either as rare unicorns or as interlopers on the hunt for gifts for a boyfriend or husband. Jenny Selber, a twentysomething PR and social media account executive, deals with this during her buying binges.
"I'm not sure it's because I'm a woman, but I do think there's a lot of pressure to make the right choices and buy records that won't result in major judgment from the person manning the counter," Selber says. Mr. Roast at Vinal Edge notices the phenomenon in his shop almost every day.
"I would say our crowd is about 90 percent men and 10 percent women. Men are more apt to dig, while women just want to hear the music and aren't too concerned with what is rare. It's a geek thing," says Roast.
Some of Selber's male friends are astounded that she has the collection she does, let alone a record player. "I'm not sure if I should think this is awesome or utterly offensive," Selber says.
Many garage, soul and country DJs in Houston have been using vinyl exclusively for their sets at venues and bars. Former Houston Press staff member Brett Koshkin's soul-drenched Dirty Honey nights at Boondocks in Montrose were vinyl-only affairs. His younger acolytes in the Fistful of Soul collective have continued to follow suit with their monthly dance parties, since Koshkin moved to New York City recently.
"I deejay with vinyl because most of the songs I play have never made it past the 45 rpm format and even if they were, something would be lost in translation if they were played off a computer," says Koshkin.
"If I wanted to see you play on a laptop, I'd just come dance at your office while you type up those TPS reports. It carries the same amount of stage presence," Koshkin adds.
When it comes to the future of vinyl, there are some cold, hard truths. The parts and presses are not being made anymore, but most plants have machinists staying busy on site or near each facility making various repairs, usually fabricating certain parts from scratch if they cannot be pulled Frankenstein-style from other out-of-service machines. Getz says there is a close-knit community of pressing plants that hook each other up in the event that something is needed.
If newer start-up pressing companies do not have access to original machines that have been around for years — along with the experience behind them — they probably aren't able to handle their production runs with complete care. This is where complaints from collectors, label heads and shop owners have become the norm.
"We get our share of screw-ups just like everyone else, but we try to keep it to the barest minimum possible, and if something happens, we go back and fix it," says Getz.
"It's a common misconception that this process is only machine-based. Plants are still creating product by hand, meaning the artwork, inserts and the cutouts for the digital downloads," says Aaron Sainz, head of local label Team Science and the boutique management company Savory Music. He's been in charge of getting a lot of local bands' music onto vinyl.
Now that major labels see that they can turn a buck on reissuing some of their more high-profile artists' catalog on vinyl, some stores are feeling the hurt. Kurt Brennan of Sound Exchange off Richmond is sitting on defective product that he cannot send back.
He says that although only 2 percent of their vinyl comes from major labels, it's those records that account for almost all of Sound Exchange's customer returns due to defects. The store has stacks of records from major label acts like Metallica, Thin Lizzy and Portishead that are defective. Since the majors won't allow returns, the stores have no other choice than to sell them at deeply discounted prices.
"The indie labels are, for the most part, doing an excellent job of pressing records. These are labels run by people who are vinyl lovers themselves and the quality of the record and packaging is generally a thing of beauty," says Brennan. He names 4 Men With Beards, Sundazed and Light in the Attic as some of the best to work with.
Of course, just because the label throws "remastered" on the packaging of a "new" old album doesn't mean you are getting a primo experience. Majors are banking on emptying the wallets of novices and diehards alike. A sticker on a record touting it as "remastered" or as being on heavier, "180-gram" vinyl should be a red flag.
"The biggest deal with 180-gram is that it reduces turntable rumble. The same metal parts are used to make the record anyway. It's a security issue for collectors. I disagree that the sound is superior," says Getz. Most records are cut using 140-gram vinyl. He used up to 160-gram materials for the Lips project.
If it's originally recorded on analog equipment and then remastered from a digital source, then you are essentially getting a large, expensive compact disc or MP3. And even though these records are heavier and thicker — evoking a feeling of security to shoppers — if the material used and the equipment to make the record are shoddy, be prepared to be disappointed.
"We took the Pepsi challenge on a brand-new copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, the 180-gram press on Capitol, which you can get at Best Buy for about 30 bucks. We compared it to the 1973 Harvest Records pressing that was in very good shape," says Brown at Heights Vinyl.
"With five of us in the room, there was no debate. Although the new Capitol pressing certainly was shinier and had less occasional pops or crackle, the overall sound was flat and cold. It didn't have nearly the same dynamics or warmth as the 1973 pressing." If you're curious and want to hear for yourself, one of these Harvest pressings can be easily obtained on eBay for anywhere between five and a few hundred dollars depending on the rarity and the version of each LP.
Quinn Bishop runs the popular and influential Houston record store Cactus Music, and has been a loud voice in the industry when it comes to making sure the plants that have been pushed into commission in response to the vinyl craze are sending out quality product and are in general treating his and their customers correctly.
He rattles off a list of problems he has seen since the revival began a few years back: seams on LP jackets that split when heavyweight 180-gram pieces are shoved into standard sleeves, and corners that get crushed and bent because some distributors are not shipping their product in the proper protective boxes. Bishop says that most of the time these issues occur when smaller labels license major-label material for limited-edition runs.
"Overall, situations where an entire pressing of a record is bad, and that we get multiple returns on, are rare when you consider how many new LPs we sell. Pricing is still my biggest gripe."
The funny thing about this vinyl revival is that some people who are buying vinyl don't even have record players and aren't even buying albums to listen to them, instead putting them on a shelf to display or collect dust — vinyl hoarders, if you will.
The 55-year-old Getz has been at this end of the industry since he was young. While he was growing up in Michigan, his parents bought an old building and converted it into a recording and mastering studio, cutting albums on the spot and also pressing them, mostly polka group sessions. He remembers accompanying his father when he went to pick up a mixing board he was buying from Motown Records and walking in during a session of The Mamas & The Papas. There is no telling what classics were fed through that board.
A few weeks back, one of the boilers at the plant was up for state inspection, and the official who came by A&R was astounded that vinyl was still being made and consumed, much less in Dallas.
The inspector told Getz about how his teen daughter had recently come back from a birthday party beaming about these things called "records" and how you had to play them on a special machine. For Getz, this was great and reassuring news that vinyl will be alive and well for quite a while.
"I think it will only get bigger. That's why I bought the additional machines."
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