I was prowling around the local music store this past week and, as always, I found my way to the area where the vinyl recordings are kept. To my surprise, a bright new wall display had replaced the shabby bins into which records had formerly been relegated. Now, the discs in their colorful jackets were being showcased for all the world to see! I’ve been a vinyl fan and collector since my early teens, and you might imagine, I was delighted to see this expanded and upgraded display of my still-favorite music medium.
With the advent of the compact disc in the 1980s, most DJs abandoned their LPs, 45s and disco singles and bought into the belief that that vinyl was dead. (Not to mention the small lightweight CDs meant no longer lugging cases of heavy vinyl!) Not so! In fact, vinyl has never gone away. Over the past five years or so, the vinyl recording has been reborn, enjoying an amazing resurgence in sales, totaling 4.6 million units in 2012 – an increase of some 500% since 2007! Keeping pace, sales of turntables have increased by more than 40%. During this same period, sales of CDs have fallen by more than 13%.
What has caused this revival of the “ancient” medium of vinyl? For one thing, many high-profile artists such as Adele, The Black Keys, Mumford and Sons, David Bowie, Daft Punk and others are promoting their products on vinyl and driving sales. Aside from that, listeners often describe the sound of a vinyl recording as pleasing to the ear or “comforting.” The warm analog sound, scratches or pops included, appeals to many who find the precise digital sound of a CD cold and lacking the unique sonic qualities produced by vinyl.
Consider United Pressing in Nashville, TN, a 64 year-old record pressing plant whose 18 presses now stamp out recordings 24 hours a day, six days a week. United CEO Mark Michaels says he plans to increase the plant’s capacity by 30% in order to keep up with soaring demand.
Also, there’s Mobile Fidelity (and Music Direct, a high end on-line music site), a company founded in 1977 and noted for obtaining original master tapes and painstakingly transferring them to high grade heavy vinyl that further enhanced the sound. Mobile Fidelity declared bankruptcy in 1999, but re-emerged in 2001. Today, Mobile Fidelity (also known as MFSL –Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab) is currently releasing albums which sell for about $50 for a two-disc set and half that for a single disc. Some of these albums are mastered at 45 RPM rather than 33 1/3, as the faster speed produces even higher tonal quality. Notably, original Mobile Fidelity recordings are now prized collector items and command premium prices.
Both highly coveted and collected by audiophiles today are the UHQR (Ultra High Quality Recordings) of some 30 years ago by JVC Japan. Currently, another American pressing plant, Quality Record Pressing or QRP of Salina, Kansas, claims to be reviving the UHQR name with even higher standards of quality.
The debate over digital vs. vinyl rages on and no doubt will continue well into the future. Sadly however, there is an entire generation which has never had the opportunity to experience the act of sitting in front of a pair of speakers and dropping the needle into the groove of a favorite track. Another benefit of vinyl also occurred to me as I reminisced about my early years as a DJ and a music fan. There was frequently a social element involved as I and my friends would gather to listen to, debate about and enjoy the latest release we had purchased. While downloads are great for portability and convenience, they totally lack the tactile and emotional feedback provided by a turntable, a vinyl disc and a good pair of speakers. For many, this is the point at which music and art intersect.
As mastering engineer Shawn Britton at Mobile Fidelity observed, “CDs were convenient. Downloading music is even more so. Vinyl is fussy. You need to take care of it. Have the equipment. Worry. But …” Britton’s eyes open wide and he smiles. “Oh, the joy they can bring.”