The first music I heard on a CD was the Beatles' Revolver. It was at my friend Tim's apartment on State Street in the early 1980s. An accomplished recording musician, Tim was pumped to share the new technology.
Tim purposely chose a Beatles recording because he believed my first CD sampling should be something I was very familiar with, so I would better recognize the differences. I did. But it wasn't all for the good.
The musical ingredients seemed somehow more organized. Each component was easier to isolate. That was cool - but also a drawback. It had the effect of cleaning up the music unnecessarily. On sonic wonders like "Eleanor Rigby," the high end thinned out and vanished. It just wasn't the same as listening to the LP, but as the decade progressed, CDs all but eclipsed the vinyl format.
Until recently. Wax is back, like Sperry Topsiders and skinny neckties. According to the Nielsen Company and Billboard's 2011 Music Industry Report, 3.9 million vinyl records were purchased in 2011. That's small compared to the 103 million CDs and 29 million downloaded albums sold, but the vinyl number represents a whopping 36% uptick from the previous year. The format, once left for dead, is back on its feet.
Record Store Day is Saturday, April 21. Let's mark the occasion with some thoughts from Madison vinyl fans.
The sonic difference between LPs and CDs is something Madison drumming legend Rand Moore describes much better than I can. He cites the Tony Williams Lifetime's jazz fusion album Emergency!, a classic vinyl release. "When I switched to CD, the amazingly rich sound of the cymbals was reduced to a thin attack sound of the stick hitting the cymbal. Essentially everything was lost."
LPs can be more social. "The elongation and pace of listening to an LP with friends made it more of a treasure and gift to share," says middle-aged rocker, music lover and UW rural sociologist Dan Veroff. "Plus, because of the relative fragility of vinyl, loaning a record was an act of trust and love."
Whole-side listening actually had its drawbacks for Madison musician Jim Robarts. "The need to play a whole side of an LP led to concept albums, but it also led to some cuts that weren't pleasing to individual listeners. I never did like 'Rocky Raccoon' but was always too lazy to go to the turntable to bypass what I considered a throwaway tune."
Then there's the physicality of a vinyl record - the act of playing one, the product's visual aesthetics.
"I like the feel of setting a needle on a groove and feeling 'closer' to the playing of the music," says Sugar Shack Record store owner Gary Feest, who has bought and sold albums of all varieties for over 30 years. "I much prefer flipping through a pile of LPs to digging through a bunch of CDs, enjoying the album covers as I go."
For some, the pops on vinyl give off a kind of warmth. For others, the pops and cracks simply speak to the annoying task of maintenance. My friend Kirsten Earley ties her nostalgia for LPs to the sound of other audible pleasures gone by: the whir of the rotary phone dial, the clickety-clack of a typewriter. Now, she laments, "These things are done on the smooth faade of my iPhone."
In a way, the analog vinyl format better represents how the music got to the disc, not just what it sounds like once it's there. I asked Garbage's Butch Vig about his back-to-the-future analog approach to producing the Foo Fighters' 2012 Grammy-winning Wasting Light.
"With tape," he says, "you can't fix it; you can't grid the drums, you can't run it through Auto-Tune, you can't cut and paste. You know - futz around to tighten it up."
Now more than ever, Vig believes, the honesty captured by analog recording is at the heart of good music's vibe. Remember that as you tickle the inventory this Record Store Day.