I dropped into a record store the other day, as I am prone to do, for no particular reason other than looking around and listening. This has been a habit of mine for decades.
I’m always on the search for new music, or I’m searching for five or seven particular albums that I have on a mental list: albums that need to be heard, or replaced, or rediscovered. Yeah, yeah, I know; I could probably spend a few hours online to find those exact titles I am looking for, but it goes against my nature (and this habit I’ve developed over the decades).
I simply love the tactile experience of shopping for music. There is a thrill in flipping through the bins and being reminded of certain artists or certain songs.
I will admit I am especially fond of (even obsessed with) vinyl. I’ve got thousands of records, even after culling, selling, or passing on to my daughter (who has been genetically predisposed to my condition), but I also have boxes and boxes of compact discs I listen to frequently.
In walking about the record store, I came across a young couple that had recently bought a turntable and were beginning to build a record collection (as seems to the fashionable thing to do these days). These were members of a generation even younger than my daughter, a generation who grew up with the compact disc, the MP3 player, and then streaming. I’ve got compact discs older than they were.
Then I heard one to tell the other how much “better the music sounds on vinyl”.
Given my druthers, I will admit my preference is for the classic 12 inch 33 1/3 LP, but it is not as much about the sound as it is for the packaging.
The album cover — the paintings, illustrations, and the photographs — allowed you to hold in your hands a piece of art with history and lyrics, liner notes you could actually read (unlike the microscopic text on a CD sleeve).
But I will argue that when it comes to music, the media or method of listening matters far less than the song itself.
Music appeals to the senses, not just the sound. Listening engages a sensory perception as much as memory recognition.
It’s not so much about how you hear it.
Many of my all-time favorite songs I first heard on a transistor radio, or the dashboard delight of my parent’s car.
The Doors song Riders on the Storm, on compact disc, or re-mastered vinyl still does not sound as good as it did in my Dad’s station wagon on a rainy night of driving on a summer vacation in 1972.
Or listening to Rush on a friend’s 8-track on the drive to high school. I’ve listened to earsplitting heavy metal on a crappy stereo at mind-numbing volume, and through the tape hiss and crackling speakers it still sounded damn amazing.
I’ve been collecting records since I was 12. I have since replaced Alice Cooper’s Killer with a re-mastered issue on 180-gram vinyl and, like everybody else, first replaced many of my early album favorites on compact disc when that media came alive in the mid-80s.
And yes, I lived with the bright, crystal clear (yet compressed) reproduction of the sound and enjoyed the convenience of the shiny silver disc in the car and at home. Quite frankly, I truly enjoyed not having to get up from the sofa every 21 or 22 minutes to flip the record over.
I also enjoyed the convenience of listening to cassettes in my Walkman or in the car. Come to think of it, much of the music I listened to in my early life blared from a magical cassette system in my Subaru, where album after album, or song after song, had been diligently recorded onto the convenient 90-minute tapes (remember those mixed tapes we used to make?).
But I’m still not sure I can fully endorse one method of listening over another.
There is so much memory attached to many of our favorite songs; where we were, whom we were with, and the reminders of the concerts and clubs we saw those bands at; all important details in the life of a song. The greatest music is etched into our soul.
I love the snap, crackle and pop on some of my vintage vinyl as much as I thoroughly enjoy the complete playback of an album that is allowed with a compact disc. Actually I prefer my classical music on CD (even my jazz) because of the clarity and dynamics.
Still, you have to admit there is that certain satisfaction with the time-tested turntable. Perhaps it’s the excitement (or is it anticipation) that builds up in those seconds between the needle dropping on the record’s groves before the guitar chords of that one particular song or album brings it all to life..
I won’t say that music sounds better on vinyl, perhaps it just sounds more authentic.