Sunday, February 10, 2008

Vinyl Is Back In The Groove

Audiophiles Shun MP3s and CDs For "Old-Fashioned" LPs, And Companies Meet The Demand

(CBS) Remember turntables? They were used to play LP's, those long-playing records developed by Dr. Peter Goldmark of CBS Labs. They spin at 33-and-a-third revolutions per minute. Even in these digital days, true believers have never given up on analog vinyl LPs, and today they're enjoying some vindication. Thalia Assuras examines an audio counter-revolution:

Schoolkids at P.S. 8 may not know exactly what the large round black thing is.

"It's, it's, uh, I don't know," one said.

"A CD?" another asks.

"It's a disk," said another.

Hey, if you were born in the age of digital sound, you might not know exactly how this it works, either. But they threw out guesses:

"It's something really old and it plays music."

"And it's so huge because in those days CDs hadn't been invented and this is kinda what it was."

"When you play it, it sings music out."

"It's a record!"

And … it's coming back.

Vinyl records, yes, the same kind of LPs you listened to on a turntable, have become, well, cutting edge again.

True, the newer technology can put a thousand digital songs in your pocket, but for a growing number of music lovers, there's nothing like a real groove.

Record labels are re-releasing vinyl LPs; Amazon has inaugurated a vinyl-only Web site; and the makers of vinyl records say sales are up, enough to keep them in the black.

When asked why he ventured into an analog music business, when vinyl is virtually non-existent in music stores, Thomas Bernich said, "There's enough out there to, you know, have a little piece of the pie. I'm certainly not going to be driving a Ferrari tomorrow, There's no question about that!"

Bernich is the founder of Brooklynphono, a tiny factory that presses records in small batches for artists who want the sound, and feel, of vinyl.

Why would an indie band want to put their album out on vinyl as opposed to what's supposedly cool - you know, CDs?

"It's a closed format," said Bernich. "Not everyone can have access to it. So if you don't want your music to go everywhere, it's one way of having control over your product."

With wife Fern and daughter Hazel, Bernich's record factory is, quite literally, a mom-and-pop business.

"If the money's green, we press the record," said Fran.

Jason Durham runs the production line, where each record pressed is inspected. "Both sides, A and B. Every album. We're very serious about quality control."

To Durham, the difference between vinyl and digitized music is like comparing a formal dinner to fast food.

"I think it's got to do not only with the sound but the ritual of playing the record," he said, "and also just the whole packaging. It's like a gift every time you open it."

Our schoolkids had some idea of the history of vinyl.

"In the old ages they used this instead of a DVD player," one said.

And just when were the old ages?

"In the 1960s!"

Actually, he's right. The 1960s have been called the golden age of vinyl. That decade saw major advances in how the music was actually recorded, but it all ended up on a turntable. Steve Sheldon was a college student when he joined Rainbo Records in L.A., back when vinyl was king and "The King" was on vinyl.

"The busiest period for Rainbo was 1977, when Elvis died," Sheldon said. "And within three days of his death, we had booked about a million and a half records to be pressed. Our capacity at the time was 60,000 pieces a day."

But in the 1980s, CDs hit the market, and pure sound quality took a back seat to convenience. When computer downloads and MP3 players came a decade later, it would seem that vinyl LPs were on the fast-track to oblivion. But although demand for vinyl declined, it never disappeared, in part because digital recordings just don't sound the same.

"It's smooth, right?" Durham said. "It's a groove, whereas a CD takes music, audio, chops it up. And it's done in little packets of data. And the trick is that you listen to it, if the data is quick enough, your ear 'makes up' for the difference. Theoretically, they scientifically have proven that we can't hear the difference. But there is something. There is something different."

That old-fashioned sound requires an old fashioned, labor-intensive process.

Technicians create the metal master plates one by one. The raw vinyl pellets are hand-loaded into the pressing machine, and each LP is packaged (carefully) by a gloved employee.

Making compact discs is a different story: The process is high speed, and highly automated, with a lot of the work done by robots. At Rainbo, making a CD costs less than half of what it takes to press a record, but Steve Sheldon says he's banking on the future of vinyl.

"In the next few years I'll be pressing more vinyl records than CDs."

"Here's the bottom line question: Will vinyl ever die?" Assuras asked.

"No. Absolutely not," Thomas Bernich said. "It's too wonderful of a medium."

And for true believers, a medium that will keep audiophiles happy for generations to come.

Source [CBS News]

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