In an iTunes Age, the Case for Vinyl


ELP Corporation

Any music aficionado worth his salt will always claim vinyl as the best format for music. Records are the Cadillac of musical mediums. Digital hi-fi snobs exist, but they are few and far between. Those audiophiles who obsessively fawn over obscure additions to their stereos - like tube amps, gold cables and wooden knobs—recognize the flattening of the waveform, the lack of gate-fold art, and other aesthetic flaws of the digital form.

That might be well and good for hi-fidelity obsessives, but there's a better reason for the non-fanatical to return to an antiquated medium like vinyl. Listening to music on a computer or iPod via headphones has become the ultimate in anti-social activities. It is the soundtrack for work. With headphones and mp3s, music becomes a discretely personal affair. Although a personal attachment to music is a good thing, it eliminates the social components of music. The shared experience of listening with others is not unlike the cultural rituals of communal eating. Music may not have the primal necessity of food, but it is something people commonly ingest together. To listen alone might be akin to eating a cheeseburger in a corner: nourishing but isolated.

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Before recording technologies became available, music was a primarily social affair. Live performance was the only avenue to experience music, whether it be at the opera, dancehall, or church. Since the inception of recordings, and then headphones, and then personal listening devices, that musical experience has become mainly a conduit between one person and their audio components.

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Headphones have been around for the better part of a century, invented in the early 1920s by a Utahan named Nathaniel Baldwin who subsequently spent the money he made from the invention on a dead-end gold mine and a vacation spot he dubbed "Polygamy Alley". Baldwin's headphones were clunky, slightly dangerous, and mainly used for radio transmissions. It wasn't until the 1950s that John Koss invented the stereo headphone that we know today.

Still, it wasn't until the Sony Walkman, invented by Akio Morita, came along that headphones became a common accessory. That combination of portability and independence provided was a huge success. Parents no longer needed to be annoyed by the music tastes of their children. Children no longer needed to interact with their parents. Everybody could be satisfied with their own preferences. They were the logical accoutrement of the '80s.

Even from its inception, the Walkman was criticized for its anti-social, atomizing effects. It was also feared as a harbinger of unfettered capitalism and ignorance, although many other products could fall under the latter categories too. A Tokyo professor by the name of Shuhei Hosokawa countered that the Walkman actually empowered people in urban spaces who had been alienated from "harmonious contact with nature". Listening to music this way might create a secret audio theater which could transform a person's perceived landscape into something they controlled.

That was the bonus of the Walkman. But Hosokawa also described the sharing of music from Walkman to Walkman, something akin to making a mixtape or sending someone a leaked album, as "incompossible communication which establishes a radically positive distance", or, in other words, a shallower form of interaction. He considered that experience as a cheapened form of listening with its simplicity, immediacy, and low fidelity.

This still holds true now that iPods and mp3s have made the Walkman obsolete. You can approximate fidelity far beyond what any reasonable listener would notice with higher bit-rate files, but it's the 128kbps mp3—that easily downloadable nexus of decent compression and respectable quality—that is the de facto format. It is certainly possible to connect an iPod to a single-ended, mono-block, tube amp and play Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon on repeat, but you still need a computer. Mobile devices are surrogates of other computers. They don't hold much on their own. It's a temporary detachment and computers don't make for simple interfaces.

Heavy gauge vinyl, on the other hand, has already solved these issues of social atomization, simplicity, immediacy, fidelity, and storage. It can be listened to in isolation or shared environments, It can be artisanal in how it is crafted, made of human ashes, piratable, popular, and art in and of itself.

Producing records of shellac made from the secretions of the female lac beetle—to the mastering, the lacquering, and the hydraulic pressing—is an intensive and expensive process. Something that can be hard to justify for its aesthetic properties. This may be why only the truly obsessive still buy them.

Laser turntables could be a perfect middle ground. Rather than a regular turntable with a physical stylus feeling the stubble of minute grooves to determine an audio signal, laser turntables offer the possibility of pure, concentrated light skimming the surface to mine even more detail from the delicate texture. For those who wish to relive and relish the ritual of putting disk to plate in a social context to listen to music, laser turntables offer all of the same aesthetic qualities of regular turntables but without the annoyances of changing tracks.

Currently it struggles with a price tag outside the range of casual purchases (starting around $7,000) and issues with dust particles (described as "listening to crunching potato chips") that heavy styluses never had to worry about.

Few people can, or would want to, justify purchasing something like a laser turntable, but it's an interesting possibility. If the complications of old mediums were eliminated, would people eventually return to social listening and eliminate Hosokawa's "incompossible communication" issues? Chances are that the convenience of portable, immediately accessible music is too hard to give up. But it may not be a foregone conclusion.