Record player, media console, record collection

Why do vinyl records have such popularity despite other media being easier to use or more available? It must just be about the charm associated with these large, tangible pieces of art.

Back in the day

As a teenager, I was late to get into music. I was a teenager in the 2000’s, but I had older siblings which meant I had a lot of 1980’s and 1990’s music played in my household. On top of this, my parents exposed me to a lot of music from the 1960’s and 1970’s, mostly pop and rock’n’roll from those decades. I remember being really partial to 80’s new wave (I didn’t know it was called that at the time), and I would have said that my favorite song at the age of 14 was Tainted Love by Soft Cell, but specifically the extended mix with the long instrumental interlude. I was hypnotized by the sound of all of the synthesized instruments.

Then one day I discovered Time by Pink Floyd, playing on one of the local classic rock stations. I think I had heard it before, but I remember hearing it this time, and just being so mesmerized by the sound of it. The percussive intro, the heartfelt vocals, and the powerful guitar solo.

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Time – Pink Floyd

I asked my father about the song, because he knew a lot about music from that time (which turned out to be the 1970’s), and he told me it was from a record called The Dark Side of the Moon. I had heard of this record before, because I learned that one could synchronize it to the film The Wizard of Oz, but that was the only thing I knew about it. My dad actually had a copy of this vinyl record in his record collection that he still owned, but we didn’t have a record player in our household at that point. My brother had it on CD though, in addition to a lot of other music by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, and more modern artists like REM and Smashmouth. My brother had built up a large collection of CDs while working for Target, and would spend his high school earnings on music he could buy with the perk of an employee discount. He had amassed this collection right before the revolutionary wake of Napster, the first time the internet was used as a consolidated medium for music distribution. Prior to Napster, if you wanted to listen to a song while it wasn’t playing on the radio, you had to own a copy.

When I say “back in the day,” for any Gen Zers and younger, the 2000’s might sound like a long time ago, but for any Gen Xers, I see your disdain for my reference to that time as back in the day, and I acknowledge it. I put in The Dark Side of the Moon in a CD player with headphones and gave it a listen. Having listened to mostly the pop and most popular rock’n’roll songs from the 60’s to the modern day, it was admittedly unlike anything else I had ever heard. I won’t say that the first time I listened to it was a revolutionary moment for me, or anything spectacular. I learned that the song Money was also on that record, and I had heard my dad play that before on a cassette tape. It was the sort of thing where it would get stuck in my head some point later, so I thought, I want to listen to that again, and I would play it. It didn’t take very long, and I was hooked on that album. I got to the point where I would play the entire CD once a day.

Through my introduction to Dark Side, I made my way into other Pink Floyd albums, like Meddle, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall. I also started getting into Led Zeppelin, specifically Led Zeppelin IV. People knew I was obsessed, and for my eighteenth birthday, I got a newly pressed vinyl copy of The Dark Side of the Moon. I was very happy with that and thought that was a very cool gift, but we still didn’t own a record player, so it would still be a few more years before I could play it. I remember collecting a few other vinyl records along the way, like Kilroy Was Here, which is still one I love.

Dark Side of the Moon record album cover
My first copy of Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl, with damage to the cover from packing tape while in storage

How I inherited a record collection

When I turned 19 I moved from North Carolina to Colorado to spend 2 years as a missionary for my church. I met a lot of different people while I was out there. There was one person in particular who I visited regularly while I lived in Boulder named Taylor Klein, who was thirty years my senior. Taylor had a large record collection. It was probably the largest record collection I had ever personally seen, but I was only 20 years old by that point, so it’s not like I had seen a variety of record collections. It was one of the first things you would see when you walked into his cigarette smoke filled home. I think he had 200 records. What I quickly learned was that this was no ordinary record collection! This guy liked all of the exact same things as I liked! By this point I had gotten into every Pink Floyd album, and every Led Zeppelin album, and I was a big fan of the Beatles. Not only did he have the first four Zeppelin albums, and the most popular Pink Floyd albums, but he had some of their earlier stuff too that I adored… Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother, Relics, Meddle, Obscured by Clouds. He had a lot of good stuff though. He had several Thin Lizzy records, some Jimi Hendrix, he was apparently a huge Jethro Tull fan, owning nearly all of their records, but also had a few early Genesis records (during their progressive Peter Gabriel era). Specifically, he had one Genesis record called Foxtrot, which contains one of the most epic progressive rock songs of all time, Supper’s Ready. I had well acquainted myself with that song prior to me leaving North Carolina, attempting to learn how to play all of the keyboard/organ and guitar parts, and memorizing the novel of lyrics to that song, and listening to it every single day. At this point, I hadn’t heard the song in over a year (it was 2007 and the song wasn’t exactly coming on the radio), so I had him play that record and it was bliss, all 23 some minutes of it. Like me, Taylor was a true progressive rock fan.

I remember visiting Taylor regularly, and he was the kind of person who had a lot of ups and downs. One particular time, he fell on hard times and was about to have his home repossessed. After figuring out what his options were, and if there was anything more us or our church could do, I remember saying to him in passing, Man, it would be a shame for this record collection to go to waste. He responded, Well I was thinking of giving it all to you guys. I didn’t think he was serious, or that this could actually be a possibility, but once he expressed that this offer was genuine, we quickly made plans – my friend who served with me at the time in Boulder was also going to get a portion of the records. The thing is, 200 CDs might fit into a single cardboard box. The same could be said of 200 cassette tapes. But for 200 vinyl records, it was a little harder to strategize their relocation logistics. This amount of records filled the entire backseat of the Toyota Corolla we drove around. I was only halfway through my two-year tenure as a missionary, and sending these records via mail was not a cheap thing to do. Luckily, we had another friend named Jim – we lived in his father’s one hundred-year-old farmhouse in Boulder – who agreed to temporarily store these records in a bin in his house, contingent that we would return to retrieve them in the not-too-distant future.

Another year went by and I finished my time as a missionary, not having seen those vinyl records since the day we dropped the lot off with Jim. I returned home to North Carolina, but I knew I would return. I resumed college at North Carolina State University upon returning home, and I regularly hung out with my college roommate from Freshman year, who was my best friend from High School and to this day continues to hold the title of best friend. I told him we needed to do a road trip to Colorado. I told him about the record collection that I inherited. And he was totally down for it.

My best friend and I were able to embark on that road trip for spring break of 2009. Raleigh to Denver. And eventually Boulder. What an unforgettable memory that trip was! (As a side note, smart phones had just started to gain popularity, but neither of us had one yet. We also hadn’t purchased a GPS – or Satnav as they say across the pond – as they were several hundred dollars, out of the price range for us poor college students. To navigate, we bought a road atlas, and followed the map the whole way. Yes, this happened in the same millennium we are currently living.) We came. We saw. We conquered. We had gotten in touch with Jim prior to the road trip, who not only was happy to have us visit, but even fed us dinner, awww, and helped us load the giant plastic bins of records into our car. Here is one of them.

I was devoted to this. These bins were heavy! Technically one person could lift each one, but you really wanted two to lift. I had come all the way out there for these records, and well, also because Colorado is a really cool place to visit in general, and I had the opportunity to hang out with some really cool people while my best friend and I were there. After a week-long visit to several of the different cities where I had spent time while I lived in Colorado, we left back for North Carolina, with the prize in hand.

I have carried this record collection with me ever since. For the first decade after owning them, every time I would open that bin, a waft of cigarette smoke smell would perforate my surroundings, taking me right back to Taylor Klein’s home. Right back to all of our conversations about rock’n’roll. Right back to his ups and downs, and what the meaning of life was. Taylor did end up having his home repossessed shortly after he gave us his record collection, and also lost his cell phone and cell phone number. I was never able to get in touch with him again, to see what happened to him, or even just to thank him again for the impact these gems had on my life.

Now I get my groove on

After getting married, graduating college, and eventually buying my own home, I was able to take these records out of the bin Jim had originally put them in for storage and put them on display. They received their own dignified place in my home, out for everyone to see. The longer they have been out of that bin and been able to air out, the more the cigarette smell smoke of Taylor Klein’s home has worn off, for better or for worse.

Right after I returned from Colorado to North Carolina with my non-discreet record collection, my parents for my birthday that year gave me a Crosley record player so I would actually be able to make use of them all. After all, I didn’t just have these records to look at them, though that was certainly an appealing aspect of owning them. I wanted to listen to them. For ten years I used that Crosley record player, which had the turntable and speaker all-in-one together. The motor on it died eventually, and I upgraded my record player setup to a turntable separate from the speaker (displayed in the featured photo of this post). I am by no means a snob or even slightly qualified to talk about good, better, and best equipment when it comes to sound immersion, but when I spin each record, I just like the way it sounds.

So then why did I want this collection so much?

Having been born in the 1980’s and then grown up in the 1990’s and 2000’s, I was part of a unique generation who got to experience music on a variety of media. I’m talking, cassette tapes being the norm when I was a young kid, CDs overtaking the market before I became a teenager, iPods and the compressed MP3 format (as well as Napster and Limewire and all the rest of those) all during my teenage years, YouTube and MySpace emerging as places to listen to popular and indie music during that time, and then all of the internet streaming platforms into my adulthood. Each new medium improved on the convenience and quality of the previous medium (sometimes to different extents). Now, I pay for a Spotify membership, and have instantaneous, effortless access to any song I can think of (nearly any, Spotify doesn’t have everything).

Let’s talk about what it is like to listen to records

  • First, you have to know where the record album is. Hopefully, it will probably just be close to your record player, but if you own more than 50 records, then you have to search for it through your stack. Hopefully you have your collection organized!
  • You have to pull the sleeve out of the album cover, then pull the record out of the sleeve, and then load it onto your turntable. This is a pretty quick thing, yet we still have many more steps to go!
  • Engage the turntable by moving the tone arm toward the record. We are probably only listening to 33⅓ RPM records, so I’ll skip the part about changing the rotation speed.
  • Before you drop the needle onto the vinyl, but while the record is spinning on the turntable, there is a strong chance there will be dust on it. The dust on the record will impede the quality of the sound, so now is a good time to get your record brush out and apply it to the spinning record to pick up all of the dust off of it. Oh yeah, don’t forget to own a record brush! You’ll want all of the accessories once you buy into a record collection. If you don’t have a record brush, a tissue will work in a pinch.
  • Drop the needle onto the record, onto the very edge of it, so that way it can start right at the beginning of track one. If you don’t do this part right, the needle will either fall off to the side of the spinning record and make an unpleasant static sound, or it will jump a few seconds into the first track, and you’ll have to lift it up and gently start it right back at the very beginning of the first track.
  • Great! Now you are off to the races! You are listening and it is sounding good and authentic. But don’t go too far, because in 15-20 minutes, you’ll have to return to the record to flip it over to the other side to continue listening to it. Unless you are a rich kid who bought the automatic turntable that will flip the record for you once it finishes the first side. And that only works for single albums. For double albums, you still have to take the first record off when it is finished and then put the second record on to continue your listening experience. And if your double album is like many double albums of the time, Side 1 and Side 4 share a disc and Side 2 and Side 3 share a disc, so your automatic turntable would only save you one manual flip. I guess unless you have the even more expensive extra fancy model that queues records up. I grew up calling those jukeboxes.
  • I’m not done talking about the 15-20 minutes interruption yet. If you are doing some activity where you would like to constantly be listening to music in the background, then hopefully you are at a good stopping point every 15-20 minutes, because that is how often you will need to return to your record player to keep the music going. If you are cleaning, maybe washing dishes, and are mid-dish and your music ends, you have to decide if you are going to put down the half-washed dish, dry your hands and flip it, or if you are going to finish washing the dish, leaving you 30 to 60 seconds with no music. If you are studying at a desk, and the record player is not also at the desk you are studying at, then you have just built in a good 15-20 minute exercise break to get up and walk around, which you’ll have to do if you want the music to keep going.
  • If the telephone rings or somebody knocks at your front door, you will need to decide which order you want to go in: pause the record first and then answer the interruption, or answer first, and go over to your record player to pause it while you make the person wait. This usually involves walking over from where you are to where your record player is. Though that may be a fairly short walk, it is not as instantaneous as the pause button on a remote or your phone. While you are walking to pause your record, whoever you need to answer to will be waiting while you do that walk.
  • Want to skip to a specific track on the record? This is admittedly easier to do with records than it is with 8-tracks or cassette tapes, but not quite as easy as CDs or any other digital way to playback music. Most records have the grooves darker where each track starts, so all you have to do is move the tone arm to that exact groove and drop the needle there. Only, if you don’t get it quite right, you’ll either be listening to the last few seconds of the previous track or you’ll start several seconds into the current track. Depending on how particular you are, this will either be good enough, or you’ll go through several iterations of lifting the needle, moving the tone arm, and dropping it till you get it right.
  • Ideally your records are in good condition, and you have already gotten all of the dust off of them before you dropped the needle onto them. However, if the record has some degree of wear, it is possible that your needle will skip on one of the grooves. This can result in one of two things: either your record skips forward a few seconds and you miss a moment of the song, or it skips backward a few seconds, and your are forced to indefinitely repeat those few seconds of the song, until it autocorrects (this is unlikely) or you get up and go over to the record player to correct it. Don’t forget that a physical needle is being drug against a piece of vinyl, so the more you play the record, the more it wears, and the more you are detracting from the audio quality of future plays.
  • Make sure to keep your record player functioning in tip-top shape. You will want to keep the needle clean, and you’ll want to make sure the motor is spinning at a consistent speed. Sometimes if the needle is not clean, it will degrade the audio quality. If your motor is not running perfectly, its spin speed will either be too fast or slow, causing the pitch of the music to be higher or lower than intended, or it will not spin at a consistent 33⅓ RPM, causing the pitch to waver. This can be slightly annoying to listen to, because it just won’t sound right, like listening to a bad singer on American Idol or X Factor.
  • And finally when you are done listening to the record, depending on your record player, either the platter will stop spinning the record because the tone arm has reached the middle of the record, the record player will automatically lift the needle and return the tone arm to its home position, or it will just spin indefinitely playing the quiet static that lies at the middle of the record. Now when you return to your record player, you can remove the record from the platter, put it back into its sleeve, and then load the sleeve back into the album cover, and ideally file it back into where it came from. By this point after everything else you have done, this should feel like no big deal.

I’m not really selling it that well, am I?

Having been a part of a generation of music on CDs where (as long as I kept my CDs in a case with soft pouches) listening to them was as simple as popping them out of the case and into a CD player, and also being part of a generation where streaming music is as simple as a few taps on a device I carry with me 24/7, listening to records in comparison is very inconvenient.

But none of that matters!

As procedurally intensive as listening to records can be, it is infallibly redeemed by just a few aspects:

  • The analog audio quality gets all the fine little details that digital may not. You’ll hear purists and record aficionados tell you this one a lot. To some degree its true. When recording in analog, you get the exact waveform is it is going into the air, but on magnetic tape and eventually in vinyl. When recording in digital, there is a cutoff frequency, which has typically been around 22 kHz, and any frequencies above that are not present in the stored recording. Though the human ear debatably cannot detect frequencies any higher than that number, I have also heard it said that the human ear can detect a difference when listening to something where those higher frequencies are removed. This point may be debunked by the fact that in absence of a frequency cutoff, you hear all the clicks and pops that degrade the audio in a different way, and that may be true, but it leads me to my next point…
  • There is a huge nostalgia factor associated with listening to records the way they were originally listened to when much of this music first came out. When it comes to music, I think the aspect of nostalgia is one that most people can relate to. That is not necessarily associated to all music one may listen to, but for people who like listening to music, there is definitely a portion of that music that one likes primarily for nostalgia reasons. This is important because a lot of what makes music enjoyable is based on how it makes you feel. For me, adding the nostalgia factor elevates the listening experience; knowing that when I put this record on, I am listening to music the same way Taylor Klein did, or the same way that anyone who bought the record the day it came out did. I get to hear what they heard, and I feel connected to the music in a way other media just does not.
  • This also goes for just owning the physical copy itself. For many of these records, when I hold the album in my hands, I am holding an original pressing, something that was put on the shelf straight from the record label distributor into a record shop, and then picked up for the listener to drop the needle on it and experience it for the first time. There is a charm associated with the way we used to seek out music in the 1950’s up through the 1980’s. I have heard many describe what it was like to frequent record shops during that time period. When you bought a record album back then, you may have only heard one or two of the singles released from it played on the radio – so when you were playing it, you were experiencing it all for the first time. Or maybe you had a friend and listened to some of it at their house. But now you get your own exclusive dive into what’s inside. Maybe you bought one because you heard a lot of the hype surrounding it. Owning these original copies, though their sound may be worn after many plays, connects me to this total experience. I like having that additional connection to some of these artists who wouldn’t exist in the same capacity after the 1980’s, like Led Zeppelin without Bonham or Pink Floyd without Waters.
  • Each album cover is a miniature piece of art. Though record albums had been coming out for decades prior, starting in the 1960’s, there was a shift for cover art of an album to be more artistic. I also own a number of records from the 1950’s, and these covers are usually less interesting (although some may appreciate them purely for their nostalgia). Up through the mid 1960’s, album covers usually had a picture of the artist’s face or faces, and there was a lot of text, indicating the name of the record, some of the songs that were on it, and maybe a tag line – it was all very advertising-oriented. Take a look at the first Beatles records or Rolling Stones records. Then by the mid-1960’s you started getting more adventurous with the covers, and less “advertisey”. Take a look at the Beatles’ Rubber Soul or Revolver albums, or the Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons (which no longer includes any words on the cover, other than the record label), or Pink Floyd’s debut album which came out that same year, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. By the 1970’s, with releases like Led Zeppelin IV (its unofficial name), The Dark Side of the Moon, and In the Court of the Crimson King (released 2 months before 1970), you were starting to have album covers with no text on them at all. This trend has since continued, where artists put a great deal of thought into what the cover of an album looks like. But I will say, CDs do not do the art justice, nor do their digital representation on a touch screen device when I stream music. Having the entire cover that I can hold in my hands – a tangible component to the music – adds a noticeable and enjoyable dimension to the listening experience. This is also something I like about owning Taylor Swift or White Stripes records – records that do not necessarily have the nostalgia or original pressing aspect – because it is a fun way to experience the music differently than just seeing a picture of the cover on a touch screen device. Plus, I think they make fantastic wall decor.
  • Listening to a record pushes you into listening to it in its entirety. This is really a product of how inconvenient it is to skip around between tracks on a record, or to skip between records. The fact is, they are not just called Long Play (LP) records because of how much you can possibly fit on one continuous groove (compared to 45 RPM records, which typically have one song per side), but how much is intended to be listened to when played. As additional media technology emerged, making “mixtapes” with cassette tape recorders, burning mix CDs with CD burners, downloading individual songs with Napster/Kazaa/iTunes to put on your iPod, or creating playlists with streaming services made playing individual songs tremendously more convenient than putting on one 45 RPM record at a time to listen to individual songs. When you put on an LP, there is some degree of understanding that you are committing to the whole side of the record at a time. This is in contrast to the other technologies where you do not need to commit – even if you are playing or streaming a whole album – because skipping around is so simple to do. The fact that skipping around songs with LP records is not an obvious option immerses me into the music, giving me a much more in-depth experience while listening.
10 Record album covers as a wall decoration aligned in a grid
A collection of record album covers I put on display in my home

I choose records because of the whole experience

Owning this record collection – and the lengths I went to in retrieving it – is important to me because music is important to me. The point I am trying to make is that I enjoy the entire listening experience more than just the sound I hear by itself. I love having this additional connection to this music that I feel gets lost or abstracted by newer technology. That is not to say that records are the only way I listen to music, nor is it to say that I always think records have a better quality than their digital counterparts (though in some cases I would say so), but it is to say that listening to records gives me a level of enjoyment I cannot always get by other means. And this is in spite of the level of effort it takes to listen to them – in my opinion, this simply adds to the experience.

Over the years, I also inherited my father’s record collection – which is why I now own multiple copies of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or Steely Dan’s Aja – and like going to record shops now to see what they have that I can add to my collection. If nothing else, having a record collection is no different than how other people have stamp collections, shot glass collections, or even wine collections. I just also like taking advantage of the audio aspect of this collection. I get excited when I see a record I really like at a record shop for a good deal, one that I have been hoping to find. By no means do I have the largest record collection, and I am not necessarily on a quest to have the largest collection, but I will keep looking for records to add to my collection, and I will keep spinning them on my turntable to get the immersive audio experience that these gems provide.



No responses yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *