The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXIII: Ten Years After
The only musical format that has increased its unit sales over the last three years has been vinyl LP's.
I wrote those words ten years ago, in January 1998. Back then, I was a manager of an outdoor nursery in Virginia, still in my mid-thirties. My kids were barely out of their toddler years, and my younger son had a habit of pushing in the tweeter domes of my little Spendor S20 speakers with a tiny, peanut butter-encrusted finger. My wife's cat used to sit on top of my amplifier and puke on it occasionally - and no one seemed to be listening to vinyl anymore. Those were tough days to be an audiophile, in other words.
Now, I'm a writer and editor of an audio and music magazine. My kids are teenagers and know better than to go anywhere near my stereo equipment (they're too busy listening to their iPods to be concerned with my antiquities). The wife has become an ex-wife, and I'm currently seeing a very cute blonde woman who also happens to have a master's in American Literature and loves the Beatles and actually knows Big Star's story... and after nearly nine years in the aesthetically-challenged San Fernando Valley, I live in the Pacific Northwest, where it's rainy and wet and green, just as I like it. Needless to say, it's a great time to listen to records.
This column, my 63rd, marks the 10th anniversary of this column. I know that a large part of this endeavor has been to offer a running commentary on the health of the analog industry, to circle the wagons when needed, and to jump up and down when something good happens. In 2008, something good happens in the analog world almost every day, whether it's the introduction of a new turntable, or the announcement that a major label is once again offering LPs, or a simple statistic that shows that LP sales are once again increasing each year.
Imagine that... the only physical format that has increased its unit sales over the last three years is still the LP.
What has changed in the last 10 years? I still get strange comments from people that I meet outside of the music and audio industry. I'm still asked questions such as "Do they even make new LPs anymore?" I've had two individuals in the last couple of months look at the massive platter on my Michell Orbe SE turntable and think it was a big stack of LPs. I still get the odd stare, the incredulous gaze, and the furrowed brow when I say things like "LP's sound better than CD's."
Still, the biggest change in the last 10 years is the attitude toward vinyl. It's becoming mainstream. For every Luddite (natch!) I encounter who professes ignorance toward the continued popularity of the LP, I meet two people who tell me that they either love vinyl, or they miss it and are thinking about getting back into it. I've said before that I tend to be sheltered here on the Internet, where the e-mails about this column are overwhelmingly positive. In the real world, however, I'm feeling the love more and more.
Just the other day, for instance, an amazing thing happened. I was talking on the phone with a fairly new acquaintance of mine, and the conversation turned toward our hobbies. Much to our surprise, we both turned out to be audiophiles. After the perfunctory exchanges about the equipment we owned and the music we liked, I mentioned that I had been writing online about LPs and vinyl for the last decade. "You mean like The Vinyl Anachronist?" he asked. Then he put two and two together, and said "Oh my God, you're that Marc Phillips!" That was a very nice moment in my life.
So yes, this column is very special to me, which is why I'm still writing it. While it is certainly not my style to pretend to be all-knowing when it comes to the technical side of things (I've always presented myself as a layman, not an engineer), I have learned a few things over the last couple of years. For instance, I can now mount and align a cartridge in just a few minutes (something I couldn't do in 1998). While re-reading my first few PSF columns, however, it occurred to me that I might not give the same advice to newbies anymore. Part of the reason is that I've learned so much in the last 10 years but another part of the reason is that the world around me has changed as well.
So I'd like to offer the newly-revised tenets of the Vinyl Anachronist, which should be added to the previous tenets I offered back in 1998 (that you need to take good care of your records, and that you need a decent turntable):
At 45, I'm still dancing, tapping my feet and even playing the occasional air drums on my lap when listening. I meet so many audiophiles who listen to records motionless and silent, with a grim look on their faces. Fuck that. Try listening to Patricia Barber or Eva Cassidy or any other audiophile favorite while having passionate sex on the floor between your speakers. Your stereo will never sound better. Just make sure you apologize to your partner when you have to get up and flip the record over. You know - just like in the old days.
- Level your turntable. That's right; stick a spirit or bull's-eye level on top of your turntable and make sure it's level. You'd be surprised how many people put their turntables on shelves that are uneven. Most turntables come with adjustable feet so that you can compensate for a crappy IKEA bookcase, or a sagging hardwood floor. If it doesn't, slip a plumbing gasket or two underneath one of the corners. If your turntable is just a little bit off, it will sound dreadful. All the anti-skating and VTA adjustments in the world won't help.
- Stop fiddling with VTA. Speaking of Vertical Tracking Alignment, I've met many people in the last who obsess over it. I met one twisted soul who purchased a pair of digital calipers to measure LP thickness. He makes a chart of every LP he owns. He says that a ten-thousandth of a millimeter makes a difference. He is no longer having fun listening to music. As tonearm manufacturer Frank Schroder told me, set the VTA so that about 80% of your LPs are covered, and then forget about it. Fiddling with VTA means you're also fiddling with tracking force, yet few people adjust both at the same time. Oh, and if you have no idea what VTA is, you're one of the lucky ones. Smile to yourself and move on to the next tenet.
- Don't get audio advice from online discussion forums. I've talked about this recently, and it is my new crusade. I have seen so much horrendous advice given on audio forums in the last year. I actually got banned from one forum because I objected to this so vehemently. Honestly, you have no idea who these people are. They probably know less than you do. In fact, you should adopt that as your mantra if you wander into one of these places by accident. To illustrate this point, most reputable audio manufacturers stay the hell away from audio forums because of all the misinformation. "It's a wasteland," one manufacturer told me recently. "Why are you there?" The answer is: I'm not anymore.
- Make mistakes. That's right; I said it. Don't be afraid to make mistakes when it comes to buying turntables or LPs or anything else in life. It's part of the journey. It's part of what makes the hobby so interesting. This tenet goes hand in hand with the last one, since I see so many poor lost souls who want a crash course in how to buy the perfect turntable that will make them happy for the rest of eternity, and oh, they forgot, the wife won't let them spend more than $300 or $400. My advice is to dive in head first and grab the first thing that comes along. You might love it - or, you might hate it, sell it on e-Bay or Audiogon for almost as much as you bought it, and then buy something else. One day, you will have listened to just about everything, and then you'll start a column on an online e-zine, and write about your experiences for 10 years.
- Listen to LP's... don't collect them. I do get a few e-mails from time to time asking about the best pressings for certain LP titles. Honestly, I don't care about matrix numbers, or who signed the dead wax. I will never own 10 different copies of the same friggin' album just because they were pressed in different plants, at different times. It kills me when I see someone who has 10,000 LPs, knowing that they've listened to perhaps one-third of them all the way through at best. I'm a music lover. I could give a rat's ass about the color of the label, or whether the paper obi is still intact on my Japanese pressing of The Best of Firefall.
- Take a quick listen to the song "Surrender" by Cheap Trick. "When I woke up Mom and Dad were rolling on the couch/Rolling numbers, rock and rollin'/ Had my Kiss records out." Either you get it, or you don't.
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