Get in the Groove!

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“If you don't like what you're doing, you can always pick up your needle and move to another groove.”

Timothy Leary

Get in the Groove!

It's 1992. You make that trip to the basement carrying something that once was the centerpiece of your living room. Not the coffee table, not the couch, but your record player. Your turntable is kind of like Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 3, who gets stuffed into the attic with the other toys. You've grown up to the CD now. No more static, no more skips, no more flipping the side over.

Well there's a new generation that has discovered that old dusty record player. They're wondering why you ever stopped playing records. What is wrong with these kids?

What's wrong is they crave something they can hold in their hands and see. You can't hold an mp3. CDs aren't hip. LPs are real. And what's real is that LP sales are the highest they've been in 22 years. It's the same movement that's going on in photography. It's also going on in the book world. People are rejecting digital for analog.

Why records? To quote my daughter Mara, "I enjoy being more involved in the listening process." Records are collectable. How many CDs have you purchased that you thought might increase in value? Records have a different sound. They've been described by new listeners as "full," "warm," and "rich" sounding. What was your first description of a CD when you heard it? Mine was "I don't hear any scratches." They didn't sound warmer, fuller, or richer. In fact, I remember early CDs sounding harsh and gritty.

The sound of audio CDs have improved since then. But curiously, CDs have the same sonic specifications from 1980, while recording technology has leapfrogged those specs several times. It's like watching Avatar on a TV from 1980. But LPs have retained, and even improved on, the sonic quality that apexed in the 80's.

To fully capture the full frequency spectrum of a well-mastered and pressed LP, one must at least quadruple the sampling rate (or number of snapshots per second) of standard audio CDs, and increase the dynamic range resolution (or bit rate) from 65,000 possible levels to nearly 17 million. Even then, digital is not a true representation of a waveform, records still come closer.

The young are not the only ones playing LPs. Many of us old folk are rediscovering vinyl. And the record companies are rewarding us with LP-only bonus tracks, re-releases, and specially mastered discs. Jack White's new LP Lazaretto has brought together many "tricks" from the old LP days, like double grooves, inside-out play, locked grooves on each side, and a first-ever hologram. He also had a new trick up his sleeve - playable labels. That's right, the round labels in the center on each side also contain songs, one at 45 rpm and one at 78 rpm. Watch a video with White and Ben Blackwell of Third Man Records as they explain all the details.

You know what else is crazy? Cassettes are making a comeback. Now this has to just be a fad, because cassettes can not top the sonic quality of records. But there are musicians that will only release their material on cassette.

I think I know what the next craze will be. The children of today's young parents will dig through the boxes in the basement and pull out a these small round objects in wonderment. They will marvel at their shiny surface and "Ooh" and "Aah" at the motorized drawer that snatches them from their hands. They will sit mesmerized by the glow of numbers just counting up, up, up, while brittle music slams into their ears. They will be the new CD generation.

Did You Know?

Here's an old trick we used to do: Hand someone a record. Have them examine the surface, and ask them to count how many grooves they see on one side. You may get answers like, "350," "1,000," or "there's too many to count." The correct answer is "one." It's actually one long spiral from end-to-end. Most of the time the spiral runs from outside-inwards. But some records, especially short-run records from the 1940's and 50's, went inside-out.

Some records actually had two or more grooves on one side. Depending on where you set the needle down, you would get a different program. One classic example is Monty Python's Matching Tie and Handkerchief, a "three-sided record." Jack White's new Lazaretto album has one song that starts with two grooves (one groove has acoustic guitar, the other electric guitar) that eventually blend into one groove.

In modern stereo LPs, one side of the wall of the groove contains the left channel, while the opposing wall contains the right channel. Early stereo records used both walls for the one channel, and the valley or floor between the walls for the other channel. Although the sound quality was superior to double-wall stereo, the "floor" channel would wear out rapidly from friction.

Tech Notes

Mastering for records is much different from for other media, like CDs or mp3s. When heavy rock came along in the late 60's, producers pushed mastering engineers for more bass on the records. But the engineer faced a dilemma. Because bass waves are large, the needle would just bounce right off the record if the bass was too heavy and loud. Both parties compromised by lowering the overall level of the music and adding more compression than previous records.

Without taming the dynamic range through compression, the needle will fluctuate and vibrate too much, resulting in poor audio. Keeping this from happening while maintaining a pleasing dynamic range is difficult. When Alan Parsons was engineering Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, producer Chris Thomas insisted on compressing everything. Parsons argued against it. As a compromise for the final mix, Parsons compressed vocals and instruments, leaving the drums alone.

Neil Kesterson

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