Aug 1, 2013

plastic memories

I'm not much of a hoarder or collector. I tend to throw things out or sell them. I do have a soft spot in my heart for old mechanical devices and scientific equipment. Things like old rotary bakelite telephones, antique microscopes, etc. But I never buy them. I just like to see them. And I don't want to use them. Going backwards in technology seems, well, backwards.

But the recent resurgence in vinyl record albums and turntables has caught my eyes, heart, and soul. This is a bit strange because I recall vividly when CDs came out. What? You mean no more cleaning records, no more pops and hisses, no more treating the album gently. I was sold and sold hard. I bought lots of CDs before I could even afford a CD player.

And then in the early 1990s I started augmenting my voracious CD music appetite with the occasional vinyl album. Even then I wasn't sure why. In some cases there were esoteric albums and singles that just weren't available on CD. And in some cases the music fit the medium. Specifically jazz. And at that time Blue Note Records was making a revival and releasing 180g vinyl editions of some obscure albums. Blue Note album covers are just too nice to be viewed on a small CD case. But really I wasn't sure why I was doing it. Hipster retro urge? Maybe. "I was into vinyl, post the death of vinyl, before you even knew what vinyl was and it made a second revival."

Ironically I didn't have a turntable when I bought these records. And I bought a lot. 500? Give or take. All stored pristinely and transported with me for the last 20-25 years. Sitting there. Doing nothing.

So this week I decided to buy a turntable (Pro-Ject Debut Carbon) which apparently is a decent entry-level turntable and a cheap pre-amp (because holy shit you need a pre-amp, who knew?) to feed through my Sonos amp.

And then I'm driving my daughter to gymnastics which gives us a nice time to chat with each other. We talk about all sorts of things. I love it. And I mentioned that I finally bought a turntable. We had talked about this before so she knew what it was and how it worked. But she asked a poignant question.
And this is the part I hadn't really thought about much. I mentioned some boloney. "Well it is supposed to sound better and you can pick up more sound staging and higher and lower frequencies." Or some other such crap. I don't really care about sound quality. Never have. It's the music I wanted to spend money on. Not the music equipment. And then it dawned on me why I did buy it.

I bought it because I have lost my connection to music. Ask me to name my favorite song from the last year and I could think of it but not name it. In fact I couldn't name the band. It'd be on one of my Spotify playlists. And I'd have to search for it by playing each one until I could read the answer. I really have no idea who half the stuff I listen to is written and played by. And that's the problem. Music is disposable now. I don't think anyone or anything is to really blame for this. It just happened as a side function of the technology advancements in music storage.

But playing vinyl is DIFFERENT.

Here's why. When you play vinyl it's a belabored process but a far more observant one. You pick out your album, pull the inner sleeve out, pull the record out, inspect it for dust or hair, give it a blow, open up the turntable cover, place the record down, maybe give it a turn with the record brush, turn the motor on, unlatch the tonearm, raise the tonearm lever, move the tonearm over the outer rim of the album, drop the lever, and wait for the music to come on. Then what you do is sit down and listen. You generally don't go off and do something else. You pick up the album cover and sleeve. Look it over, check out the artwork, read the label notes, who produced it, where was it recorded, what are the names of the band members, maybe read through the lyrics, and then you do it over again. And then you put that down and you listen more deeply again. And in this moment deep memories are implanted. You remember all the things you read. Over time you notice commonalities. Records recorded in the same studio, good bands on the same label, band members who play on other albums. It begins to weave together into a giant data bank of memories.

And all this leads to a richer experience. A really different experience.

And I bought the turntable to get back to that. It's my one time in the day when I get to smell the roses. And immerse myself in the moment. I don't do that much.

So tonight I connected the spider web of power lines and connectors, ran the basic setup requirements like tonearm weighting, and put my first record in years on the turntable.

Lou Donaldson - Mr. Shing-a-ling

God damn, when that tonearm went down and I heard the music come out... It sounded AWESOME. I mean it really sounds very different from Spotify. It really does sound better. Super clean and crisp. I now know what sound stage means in a practical rather than theoretical sense. Listening to the sound reminded me of dinner parties at my mom's house and there would be some album playing in the background and a din of voices chatting. It had that same sound. A different sound than what I've been listening to for the last 20 years.

And I listened to the album. Really listened to it. And I read the liner notes ("Lonnie Smith is on this album? No way! Who is Jimmy "Fats" Ponder? Man this 'The Shadow of Your Smile' is GOOD. Didn't Gilberto do a cover of this?"). And I looked at that gorgeous cover art (Reid Miles). And my blood pumped. And I listened to it again. And then I listened to it again. And I did nothing else. I just listened. Man Lou Donaldson is good. This guy kicks it. I've seen him live about 5 times and I was there with him live a sixth time listening to this on vinyl. And then I listened to it a fourth time.

The pops are still there. BANG. There goes one. But I don't mind now. I'm in love with music again.

I'm kinda hooked. I'm probably going to be visiting this kind of place a lot in my future. It has been a while.

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