Deconstructing Pop Culture

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Vinyl LP Albums Making a Resurgence

December 7th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

An article in the December 7, 2007 New York Times by Patrick McGeehan, “Vinyl Records and Turntables Are Gaining Sales,” discusses the resurgence of vinyl long-playing records. They still however remain a miniscule fraction of the marketplace. The transition from LPs to vinyl started in the mid-1980s and had snowballed by the early 1990s. I recall having copies of the great Kate Bush record “Hounds of Love” in LP, cassette and CD formats. At the time I was Vice President of Capitol Records in Hollywood California. Capitol had vinyl manufacturing plants in Glendale, California (near the old Van de Kamp Bakery) and in Jacksonville, Illinois. The relationships between vinyl manufacturers were fluid. For example for some time during the 1970s Capitol manufactured all of Warner Bros. Records’ vinyl albums. When one record company had a particularly fast-selling title it would subcontract manufacturing to the other record companies with pressing plants in order to keep up with consumer demand.

Vinyl pressers are huge pieces of equipment. A small globe of vinyl is placed on the machine. It then is squashed between two metal plates or stampers. An incredible amount of steam pressure is necessary in order for the vinyl to extrude fully around the metal plates. Each pressing machine has a unique signature. It was possible to tell which machine pressed each record just like it was possible to isolate the distinguishing characteristics of typewriters (key pressure, slight irregularities in the type face, etc.).

Around 1986 or so I sold all of the equipment in Capitol’s Glendale plant to Record Technology, Inc. (“RTI”) based in Camarillo. The Jacksonville plant was shut down a few years later. At the time RTI did custom pressing work for organizations like Scientology. Scientology had researched the matter thoroughly and concluded that vinyl was the most durable way to preserve the spoken words of L. Ron Hubbard. Digital media were likely to disintegrate or become obsolete over time (as in, “who has a Sony Betamax player anymore?”). Another one of RTI’s clients was JVC.  Ironically I later consulted for JVC, which became interested in buying RTI, though no transaction ever materialized. I am sure that, although it no doubt endured a fallow period, RTI’s business now has rebounded.

In addition to a good pressing machine there are two other important determinants of the quality of a vinyl record. They are: the quality of the original master sound recording; and the quality and amount of vinyl used to make the LP record. In the 1970s – 1980s it was a scandal how terrible the quality of the master tapes were. Capitol’s studio would take a copy of the original master sound recording then make 3rd generation copies of it for each of its pressing plants. Additional 4th generation and 5th generation copies undoubtedly were used as well. This resulted in inevitable deterioration of sound quality. This issue now by and large has been addressed with re-mastered, high-quality copies derived from the original, 1st generation tapes (for both vinyl LPs and CDs).

Low-quality vinyl also was used abundantly. For all I know it was made from recycled automobile tires. Approximately 120 grams of vinyl typically were used to make the record. In the late 1970s – early 1980s a company called Mobile Fidelity started pioneering the use of 180 gram, higher-quality vinyl. It obtained licenses from the major record companies to issue their sound recordings in that format and became modestly successful in audiophile circles. If I’m not mistaken it later filed for and subsequently emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy as part of the transition from vinyl LPs to CDs. Most of today’s vinyl LPs are made of high-quality vinyl and either 180 grams or even 200 – 240 grams of vinyl are used.

One of the main constraints to vinyl reproduction now is the quality of turntables and phonograph record needles. In the 1980s one could spend thousands of dollars on a high-quality turntable. Magazines like Stereophile advertised ultra-expensive components. High-end turntables rested on vibration-isolating legs, the speed and torque of the motors was carefully calibrated, the arm was weighted just so and they used a high quality needle. While this type of turntable still is made they probably only sell a few a year to ultra-high-end audiophiles, which now comprise an even smaller percentage of the already small percentage of vinyl users.

Today’s turntables are mass produced, consumer items. They are a mis-match with the higher-quality vinyl being used and it is difficult to see how they can reproduce it accurately. Many of them have digital outputs enabling the user to rip the vinyl record onto CD. This exercise probably is illusory for two reasons. First, most master sound recordings worth listening to probably now are manufactured somewhere on CD. It has taken me some time to find a few of my personal favorite LPs, several of which were manufactured in limited quantities (say, 500 or so) on obscure European labels. But they’re out there. Second, the quality of the digital conversion on the new hybrid turntables is extremely low. The most inexpensive Apogee converters – an industry standard – cost over three times the entire turntable package. Ripping one’s vinyl LPs to CDs might be fun but it is unlikely to result in a high-quality listening experience, to the extent that matters.

There also now is a limited but active market for reselling copies of one’s old vinyl records. As might be expected this is driven by supply and demand. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s commercially demanded. Mass-produced vinyl records are not saleable at any price, whereas rare ones command hundreds of dollars.

In conclusion I suspect that vinyl will remain a miniscule fraction of the marketplace. People who buy vinyl records think they’re cool, and they probably are. However with technological advances there is little difference in quality between LPs and CDs (and their emerging successors), or to the extent there is it is imperceptible. One of the biggest surprises of Internet audio – downloads and streaming – is that people don’t care all that much about audio “quality.” Convenience and ease of use by far are more important factors. It is likely over the coming years that physical media itself will become obsolete. CDs and even downloads will be replaced by cloud computing. One’s entire music library will be accessible from anywhere without the intervention of physical media. In fact two days before Mr. McGeehan’s article (on December 5, 2009) Brad Stone wrote an article in the New York Times, “Apple Strikes Deal to Buy the Music Start-Up Lala.” Apple, with its incredibly (and deservedly) successful iTunes, is on track to implement precisely this objective. People will continue to buy and experience music, although the format in which they do so will continue to change.

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An old-school vinyl pressing machine