Friday, December 28, 2007

"For the record - Vinyl discs are making a comeback"

from - by Ron Cassie
Frederick, Maryland - Sunday night, two days before Christmas, two teenagers working checkout at the Best Buy on Buckeystown Pike suddenly find themselves ringing up something they can still manage to get excited about.

It's a-thought-to-be obsolete invention from the late 1800s called a record player.

"These are awesome, you can plug the USB cable right into your computer and make your own CDs," the young man said to his female colleague, examining the box for a better look. "I'm definitely going to buy one after Christmas."

Before actually completing the customer's purchase, he punched in several keys on the store computer, "Look at what it is with our store discount!"

Less than $100.

"Oh my God," the young woman said. "My parents have all these great Black Sabbath albums I can listen to now."

Vinyl is making a comeback.

According to a National Public Radio report earlier this year, in the midst of flagging compact disc revenues, long-playing, vinyl record sales spiked 10 percent last year.

In October, launched a vinyl-only section, stocking it with an ever-expanding number of titles, including releases from Eric Clapton and Neil Young, to the original U2 recording of The Joshua Tree remastered, to Nine Inch Nails, to the soundtrack of the Bob Dylan film, I'm Not There, which, of course, is both an old and new subject itself. even offers several turntable options online and an online forum for questions about vinyl "technology."

Part of the credit for the resurgent goes to the merging of old technology with new technology, highlighted in the story above. Turntables are now available at local stores like Best Buy and Record Tape Traders with USB cables enabling listeners to record their LPs onto their computer. Once there, they can be easily converted into CD or MP3 files.

"Buying CDs is fading out, to tell the truth," said Chris Wolfe, a bass player and guitarist with the local band Ecstasy the Flower, as he fingered through some used LPs at Record and Tape Traders.

Wolfe, 22, has worked at the West Patrick Street store for two years. He says for most young people the compact disc format began waning years ago because it's easier to go to the Internet and download music for free -- or select singles for individual purchase.

The funny part is that many are bypassing CDs for relatively cheap, LP, "hidden treasures" -- as Frederick sound restoration and preservation expert Steve Smolian, put it.

The quality of the vinyl recording sound, it appears, is being discovered for the first time by younger audiences. So is the experience of listening to one album side, then another -- an idea also previously thought obsolete for a generation generally derided for its short-attention span.

"We do sell turntables and the USB cables are definitely making a difference -- we're sold out right now," Nick Salisbury, a manager at Record and Tape Traders said. "Some of the interest is collectible LPs, but companies are still making them, too. The new turntables have made it easier to move from format to format."

The Beatles, Rolling Stones, classic rock, Coltrane, Jazz, Motown, punk, and New Wave naturally remain popular in the used market at places like Joe's Record Paradise in Rockville. What's more interesting is that emerging artists like Washington-based Georgie James are imprinting their debut albums on vinyl first and then offering a code inside so their music can be downloaded from their website for free.

Salisbury said Record and Tape Traders does a healthy business in new LPs, which major companies still issue, and used LPs. Like many customers, he prefers the "slightly rough" sound of vinyl.

It's a quality, a "texture," that Smolian, 73, appreciates as well -- though he notes that popping and clicking on worn and damaged records can be a concern.

"A lot of LPs have 'a broader' sound, not left to right, but a 'richer' sound," Smolian said. "A great part of it has to do with the equipment. It's 'hum' is in there -- that's part of the charm."

Smolian added that's there software available to "clean up" scratched or damaged LPs for digital recording. Along with the sound quality of LPs, Smolian said he enjoys the larger round albums for other aesthetic reasons.

"I like the size of it, you pick up the album jacket and there is some 'art' to it that's been lost," Smolian said. "The CD is impersonal by comparison, It may look great to a cat, but to me, it looks micro. They don't have a fold-out, a pop-out box, there's a means of artistic expression that's been lost."

Finally, Smolian said, while the CD may hold more space, bands often lack the songs to pull off the longer format. More -- or newer -- doesn't always translate to better.

"They have to dredge up less than wonderful material, 39 minutes maybe on an LP versus 79 on a CD -- I think that's pretty clear."

Matt Jaro, a record collector from Damascus and the treasurer of the Baltimore Vintage Record Club, also said "pops and ticks" can be an issue on older LPs. At the same time, the 62-year old said, the "the sound can be really cool."

"Some people say that that sound's richer because they have everyone playing together and they microphone on each instrument and the whole thing is mixed together right there by the engineer," Jaro said. "Now they hang one microphone in the hall and somebone's singing who is not even in the same room.

"It doesn't have the same presence."

Wolfe, who said that he grew up on Motown and Classic Rock, thinks the USB cable equipped turntables will make older music "more accessible for younger people." He never apparently had to be converted, recalling the first record he ever heard was his dad's copy of Pink Floyd's, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn."

"I don't listen to music any other way when I'm at home," said Wolfe, who has a 4,000 vinyl album collection. "Everybody's into vinyl these days, it's been revitalized.

"It's more of a warm sound, not digital, not overproduced, and you don't feel like you want to skip to the next track," Wolfe continued. "Just pure analog. You hear it, how it was played, even if there are defects or mistakes, it's a real sound."

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