The Puzzling Revival of the Vinyl LP

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Classical vinyl Classical vinyl (Flickr/broggugs)

The numbers are striking: CD sales declined nearly 15 percent last year. But vinyl sales moved in the opposite direction: up 32 percent from 2012, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Trendy retailers such as Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods are stocking vinyl records. Sales of turntables are up and artists like conductor Gustavo Dudamel, pianist Valentina Lisitsa and the Brooklyn Rider string quartet are releasing LPs.

While the black disc never went away among purist deejays and audiophiles, it has made a broader comeback, especially among hipsters, college students and nostalgic baby boomers.

“The whole idea of actually holding a piece of music in your hand has become sort of a quaint concept because you can carry thousands of songs around in your pocket," said Greg Milner, author of Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story Of Recorded Music. However, "if you are going to have a material object, it may as well be something that’s so far removed from digital formats.”

Brooklyn Rider violist Nicholas Cords believes that vinyl records put a listener in a physical space, such as a living room or bedroom. For the quartet, "it connects us to a past, a heritage of string quartet playing that we very much admire. It was a symbolic connection to something we really love."

When Brooklyn Rider released its 2012 album “Seven Steps” on vinyl (as well as MP3 and CD) the group invoked past greats like the Capet, Rosé, and Busch String Quartets, who first became known to the world through their pioneering 78 rpm releases in the 1930s and '40s. Cords dismisses the suggestion that LPs are a gimmick, noting that their creation can be painstaking and costly given the different mastering processes involved. What's more, a vinyl release is a way to connect with a specific fan base.

Detractors argue that vinyl has plenty of drawbacks: it's not portable, it scratches, it warps and player needles wear out. But its advocates point out that, unlike MP3s, the sound of vinyl is not compressed and any surface noise actually adds warmth to the listening experience.

“One of the reasons why people like vinyl is it imparts a kind of unreality to the sound,” said Milner. “People think of it as real but it actually gives you this thing that maybe you don’t hear in real life because in real life you’re not hearing things through the veil of hiss and noise.”

But despite the love heaped on vinyl and its reported comeback, it barely moved the needle for the music industry in 2013. "Vinyl is only about two percent of total album sales, so when you talk about a revival you have to talk about it in the context of everything everyone is listening to,” said Claire Suddath, a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek. In October, Suddath reported that the number of LPs sold in the U.S. represented only 1.4 percent of all albums sold.

While vinyl may not save a troubled industry – one that saw even download sales drop last year – Cords notes that it represents a link with tradition in an age when music formats can seem overly disposable.

"I just don’t see vinyl going away," added Milner. “It’s a good format, it’s durable, it will last a long time.”

Listen to the full segment above, take our poll and leave a comment: Do you listen to vinyl? If so, why?


Hosted by:

Naomi Lewin

Editors:

Brian Wise

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Comments [29]

The real test is to compare the different formats on a high-end system. There are a few things one should keep in mind in regards to vinyl - how often the record has been played and how well it has been maintained. In addition, I've heard some really awful records made in the 1970's. These recordings are inferior to the stereo classical records produced by companies such as RCA and Decca in the 1950's and 60's because of the use of transistors rather than vacuum tubes in the recording process. Also in the 70's the physical records became much thinner and less durable. The simplest way to compare the different formats is by choosing a recording such as Reiner's 1954 "Also sprach Zarathustra" with Chicago (the audiophile's standard). Listen to it in this order: mp3, CD, and then vinyl. There is a remarkable difference. I rather disagree with the statement made by Greg Milner that vinyl "imparts a kind of unreality to the sound" due to "the veil of hiss and noise." That background noise is the sound of uncompressed, natural space. To my ears a well maintained, early pressing of "Also sprach" played on a high-end system approximates as closely as possible the experience of hearing this performance in the concert hall.

Jan. 22 2014 01:54 PM
Michael Fremer from Chris Christie-land

Thirty years of hard work trying to save the vinyl LP have paid off! At a dinner table last year, a member of the Vienna Philharmonic's string section told me "about half the string section is into vinyl. It better reproduces string tone." Members of the string section of the Bremen Chamber Orchestra that recorded a Beethoven symphony cycle conducted by Paavo Jarvi lobbied to have the set issued on vinyl. They found sponsors, had the original DSD multitrack files re-mixed to analog tape and a high quality pressing produced in a snazzy box set. It was relatively expensive so they pressed in a limited edition of 1000 figuring it would take some time to sell out. A member of the orchestra emailed to say it was just about sold out and did I think people who bought would be upset if they pressed another 1000. I said "no". People bought for pleasure not for speculation and that they'd be happy to share with more vinyl fans. I have to laugh when I see anti-vinyl posts on message boards that read "I'm a musician so I know vinyl is no good." Sure, right. Do occasional pops and clicks ruin listening? If so better stay away from live music. I go to Avery Fisher Hall and I could concentrate on the coughing, sneezing, throat clearing and occasional choking but when the music's great and sounds good too, those are easily overlooked.

Jan. 22 2014 01:18 PM
P Nadal from Dover New Jersey

I have most of my vinyl on CD now (for ease in playing) but I so much prefer my vinal! When I have the time I always play my vinal...hearing the difference is amazing...

Jan. 21 2014 02:38 PM
Paul Capon

CDs arrived at just the right time or the wrong time depending on your view point. They arrived when:
• Period Instruments were coming back
• Old (new) repertoire was being rediscovered in the Baroque period
• Period performance practices were revived in the Classical period
• Smaller orchestras
• Increased cost for labour
• Less distinctive sounds by various orchestras
• Consolidation of recording companies
• Conductors holding multiple positions with various orchestras
• Saturation of the market with existing repertoire
• New technologies
All of these factors contributed to the success of the CD and demise of vinyl. It was a boom for the early music scene, not so much for the romantic rep. Some of these same factors are now affecting the future of CDs – Le plus Chose Change, Le plus Chose Le Meme. Thanks Paul Capon

Jan. 20 2014 10:24 PM
NYer from NYC

Whether vinyl or CD, all modern recording is trickery!
Depending upon microphone placement, multiple takes, and fixing errors, recorded music produces something usually better than live music.

Recordings are rarely the documentation of a musical event. They ARE the musical event.

Jan. 20 2014 08:13 PM
Tom Hedberg from New York City


It is hard to challenge the assertion that listening to an LP has a distinct charm. Playing a record requires your attention and (for a change) the physical manipulation of an easy-to-understand machine that does not have a screen or a keyboard. You can change the volume and regulate the bass and treble by turning large friendly, responsive knobs. The resulting sound is gratifying in terms of direct analogue signal transduction, the unique immediacy of mild surface noise, the added warmth of electron tube amplification (in older stereos) and the fact that the record producing the sounds you love cannot be digitally modified to be anything other than what it is.

...and at the risk of venturing too close to the audiophile lunatic fringe, I'd also note that the millions of recordings made by strictly mechanical means before the advent of electrical amplification have an eerily wonderful and ethereal quality themselves. Anyone who has listened to the best quality Mapleson cylinders and has heard the echoed reverberations of one unique evening at the Met 110 years ago will know what I mean.

Jan. 20 2014 03:51 PM
jasonmiles

Years ago Vinyl had its sound because of the analog signal chain/ From recording to mastering -all analog. it created the warm sound that really came into play when recording got better in the 60's and of course 70's. Even Synth Pop records of the early 80's sounded warm and funky. Now Vinyl to me is an musical illusion because its now mostly an all digital signal path starting in Pro Tools,Logic etc. I have yet to listen to new vinyl but I want to. I just think that maybe people are willing themselves into thinking it sounds so much better than Digital when it maybe does but just a little bit. Also I have seen the turntables they sell at Urban out fitters-2 words-They suck
a few seconds ago ·

Jan. 19 2014 10:43 AM
geo3rge from New Jersey

It's unfair to compare vinyl to MP3s. Compare them to CDs, which are uncompressed. I used to be afraid to play my favorite LPs too much for fear of wearing them out. No such problem with CDs, and I believe that they have a wider spectrum of frequencies than vinyl.

I'd compare MP3s to listening to FM. They are both compromises for 'portability'.

Jan. 18 2014 07:24 PM
Robert E from Stony Creek

Quite frankly, I am largely satisfied with the sound I get from QXR on my computer with desktop speakers. However, I remember when the Nakamichi BX-2 was the first cassette tape recorder to record equivalent sound with my vinyl, and the days of bringing my vinyl in to the high-end stereo store to have them professionally cleaned, even when new and it made a world of difference. I have even heard vinyl on a half-million dollar home set-up of a recognized expert of turntables, sitting in the “sweet spot”, but getting home on the same day and listening to a great piece of music on my laptop, because my stereo was broken, and it sounded just great, fabulous! It was the music that made it better. When I listen to Artur Schnabel play Beethoven or Schubert, it is not the recording quality that sets my heart a reeling, that does it to me, but the better the quality of sound the deeper. I listen to silence. Or hearing Yo-Yo Ma play Bach, 4th row center in a small hall at Yale, was the best. It is what does it, that does it. Approaching retirement, I look forward to recasting and getting the best I can afford for my music listening. I have yet to explore the high-end digital downloads.

Jan. 18 2014 10:20 AM
Whit Martin-Whitaker from Kyle, TX

A function of "perceived value", which I linked to vinyl LPs in a blog post I wrote two years ago. Read it at: http://bit.ly/1kI8HvJ

Jan. 17 2014 11:00 PM
Sherrie Murphy from New York City

I have a collection of 78s that I would like to sell. I have
a total of about 40 records (in their jackets, of course) and
they are all classical, many are opera. I will gladly provide a list.

Jan. 17 2014 06:29 PM
NYer from NYC

The Truth from LES:
Your comment made me laugh!
I have not compared CD versus vinyl head-to-head. I do like the format of CD and the fact that they don't skip, scratch and hiss.
That being said, the issue only matters depending upon the music one is comparing. In the days when I used to perused audio equipment in places like Harvey's it would amuse me watching someone testing out $10,000 of equipment on The Sex Pistols while asserting that "vinyl is warmer"

Jan. 17 2014 02:23 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

My vinyl lps were worn out. Thank God for cds. As for digital sound. I found many treasures that I thought were lost to me, beautiful Neapolitan songs from my past which I downloaded on MP3, this was music I could not find on cds.

Jan. 17 2014 01:02 PM
Nancy Tooney from Brooklyn

Sound is an analog phenomenon, and for me the quality of sound on vinyl with a good system is the most satisfying.
Some years ago I spent time listening to Janet Baker's recording of the Berlioz "Les Nuits d'Ete" with good headphones, alternating between the vinyl and the CD formats. [as far as I could tell, made from the same master.]Vinyl won, hands down. Of course even vinyl did not match the experience of a live performance I heard her give with the BSO.

Jan. 17 2014 10:21 AM
The Truth from LES

The barbarians who listen to the likes of Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga don't have any sense of what real fidelity means. It's completely lost on them that they're hearing compressed sound on MP3s that's nothing approximating concert conditions. But to me the issue isn't vinyl vs. digital - it's compressed vs. non-compressed. You can buy lossless files now on iTunes that are big (and take up more hard drive space) but actually have the full range and depth of sound that classical music listeners demand.

Jan. 17 2014 10:18 AM
Ed Lubin from Florida

I'm a QXR fan, frequent online listener & classical music buff but vinyl's where it's at! I'm all high-end vinyl all the time. (Only occasional digital.) My question is... Why did you show a P-mount on your turntable in the picture associated with the piece? For shame, QXR!

Jan. 17 2014 09:25 AM
Lee from NJ

I never fully abandoned vinyl in my library. While for organization sake, it's great to have a couple of hundred discs in a carousel at your instant disposal or a player with hundreds of tunes installed, but the sound quality...the "warmth" people constantly seek in sound only comes from vinyl. I have purchased CD versions of some of my favorite albumns and they sound horrible. I plan on tranferring those vinyl albumns to CD to try to recapture the original sound if possible. Something else that CD's or downloads can never sufficiently provide is the amazing albumn art that filled the jackets of records for decades. I miss that.

Jan. 17 2014 09:18 AM
NJer from NJ

will my comment be posted? hasnt worked for months so this is a test

Jan. 17 2014 07:54 AM
reedkantor from south florida

a "needle?" boy, you really are living back in the 50s. have you ever heard of the words "diamond stylus?

Jan. 17 2014 04:25 AM
Rose W from Wantagh, NY

I have a HUGE collection of vinyl recordings, of many genres, plus 45s and 78s, which I believe were shellac, and maybe bakelite. Abut half of it was inherited from my parents, and includes many old gems like RCA Toscanini recordings, etc., and many opera sets from RCA, London and DGG. I never stopped playing them, although I did have to replace a few worn recordings with their CD versions (where available). I also have a large CD collection, built around the vinyl collection, as another listener mentioned. A lot of CD recordings were never available on vinyl, so it was necessary to acquire CDs.

I do prefer the sound of records to CDs, but I am not one of those people who is bothered by the sound of CDs, and I think most of them sound great. CDs save you the trouble of getting up every 20-25 minutes to turn the record over, or put another one on, which can become a pain after a while. Record changers never work right, and we learned early that it's not a good idea to let records drop on top of each other, so you must resign yourself to the labor of manually turning them over or changing them. On the other hand, CD changers work well and you can program many hours of continuous music, and can skip the occasional track that you can't stand.

There are pros and cons to both formats, and I happily use both. I'm glad to see that vinyl has not gone away, although I haven't bought a new vinyl recording in over 25 years. I acquired a large number of records in the early 1990s, when some public libraries started selling off their records. I was careful to inspect and clean them before trusting them to my phonograph.

By the way, turntables have been available continuously, and there are many available, from true audiophile models costing $100s, to basic models costing $50-100. There are models that also have AM-FM radios, and CD, Cassette and MP3 players, and some that can record one format to another or to a computer. With the right cables, you can record from an old phonograph or component system to a computer, and-or burn a recording to a recordable CD or DVD.

Jan. 17 2014 04:05 AM
Adele (a.k.a. AF) from Nassau County, Long Island

Not sure why the vinyl revival is seen as puzzling. It's simple: analog sound is better. See the comments of Jon Mitchell of Delhi, NY, for the explanation of why this is so.

Jan. 17 2014 03:59 AM
David

I prefer my music without the "Snap, Crackle, and Pop" of vinyl records.

Jan. 16 2014 11:40 PM
Andrew from NJ

I have a large library of LPs, including almost all the basics and many classic recordings no longer available, acquired when I was younger, and vinyl was the only format. My CD collection was built largely around my existing LP collection, to avoid unnecessary duplication. Although CDs can be more convenient to play, why should I forego the pleasure of my record collection—most of which is in excellent condition—and simply limit myself to what is currently available? Also, despite (or perhaps because of) surface noise, but also because there may be minute acoustic effects which digital technology screens out, my LPs tend to sound warmer, and have a more open quality than CDs do.

Jan. 16 2014 11:04 PM
Jon Mitchell from Delhi, NY


First off, digital is a sampling (approximation) of the sound wave. Analogue

is the actual wave. That's why it's sound is fuller; even with the pops, ticks

and wow & flutter, etc. What's needed is a major upgrade to CD sampling (after

all, it's been over 30 years!). MP3's are only a fraction of the sound of CD's.

A Blu-Ray disc has enormous storage capacity, and if used only for audio would

not only sound infinitely better than CD's, but would be much harder to copy

or download. I believe this would revitalize music sales, as well.

Jan. 16 2014 09:19 PM
NYer from NYC

Assuming that vinyl sounds better than CD, how much would one have to spend on a turntable, a rather primitive arrangement of moving parts, to elicit these qualities?

Jan. 16 2014 09:19 PM
oneMan from Madison

I'm a longtime vinyl listener who loves CDs, too. In the age of analog recording, one could make the case that vinyl sounded "better" or more "real" because the entire process was like an audio fingerprint captured in waves.

Critics of CD and digital playback media forget that the so-called "lost sounds" of digital are lost in the recording process, not the playback process. Before you go out and spend $25 bucks on a "better sounding" vinyl record, check to see if the recording was digital or analog.

Jan. 16 2014 05:25 PM
glenn from glen cove

digital sound is not the same as analog sound. Vinyl does not sound the same as digital for identical recordings - QED.

Jan. 16 2014 05:24 PM
Arlene Tiryakian from Wall, NJ

I have a wonderful collection of classic music and opera on vinyl records. Would like to sell to an appreciative buyer.

Jan. 16 2014 04:57 PM
Tom G from New Jersey

There's a certain warmth in vinyl that resonates with me that I don't find in CD's. Besides there are many artist and music on labels which are no longer that you cannot find on CD's!

Jan. 16 2014 04:22 PM

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