Vinyl's sonic perfection finds new fans in digital age
Posted January 22, 2013
SEBASTOPOL, Calif. - If you don't believe in time machines, step inside the offices of Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. Today it's Jan. 30, 1979, and Rickie Lee Jones is cutting her debut album's single, Chuck E's in Love.
"Just listen to that," says mastering engineer Shawn Britton as the original analog tape of Jones' 34-year-old studio session fills the equipment-packed room with the singer's lush sighs. "It's what music is really all about."
What Britton and Mobile Fidelity are all about is taking such pre-digital master tapes and transferring them once again to vinyl, that 12-inch petroleum-based grooved platter that was famously delicate (woe if it got a skip-making scratch), inconvenient (side ends, get up, flip it, sit back down) and bulky (sizable collections ate up rooms).
In this iPod era, watching folks cut new LPs - that's Long Playing, MP3 peeps - is a bit like visiting a vibrant Model T factory. But Mobile Fidelity's retro business is brisk these days; Britton can barely keep up with the priceless masters from the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan that fill his in-box, and the shiny black fruits of his labors sell for between $25 and $50 a pop.
What to make of the well-documented five-year renaissance of vinyl, whose sales of 4.6 million units last year represent nearly a 500% surge from 2007? Conversations with music scene experts and retailers point to the same phenomenon: Vinyl's return is emblematic of a renewed passion for sonic quality that co-exists with an appetite for digital downloads and streaming audio.
Evidence of the new push ranges from a projected 40% growth in turntable sales (from $7 million in 2011 to a forecast $10 million this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association) to the Grammys teaming up with the CEA to create the educational site qualitysoundmatters.com (featuring clips of Neil Young and other major artists pushing the sonic fidelity point).
In fact, the only loser in the mix appears to be the 30-year-old compact disc, a digitally perfect if sonically cold medium that, after blowing vinyl off store shelves in the '80s, is in a sales slump (down 13% last year to 130 million units) that may prove irreversible.
"This is the dawn of a new age of audio fidelity," says Luke Wood, president of Beats Electronics, the company started by Dr. Dre and Interscope Records boss Jimmy Iovine known for headphones priced as high as $500. "The older generation always loved great sound. Setting up your stereo in college was a big moment. But even young people today are getting fatigued of music just meaning a huge hard drive. They want more of an experience, and putting a record on provides that."
Helping drive the vinyl train is an affordability factor that belies the assumption that great audio demands comical cash reserves. Sure, you can still spend $150,000 on a Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn turntable (needle sold separately). But these days there's great stuff for far less, says Robert Harley, editor of audiophile journal The Absolute Sound.
"Not all kids are content with hearing music through inexpensive white ear buds," says Harley, noting that a number of manufacturers who exhibited at the recently concluded Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas offered entry-level gear. "Pro-Ject offers nearly 10 turntable models and most are less than $500 complete. There's never been a better time for music lovers to get into great sound affordably, particularly with loudspeakers."
Harley cites a $600 pair of MMG speakers made by Magnepan in Minnesota as typical of well-priced equipment that can bring out the warmth and realism of vinyl. But Magnepan marketing manager Wendell Diller says reasonable prices are only part of the story.
"About 10 years ago, we were being pushed (by the recording industry) from CDs to surround-sound recordings that utilized the home-theater system for audio," says Diller. "Well, consumers have rejected that. This trend is about the return of two-channel audio, which all started with vinyl."
Dave Schools agrees on both counts. The bass player for jam band Widespread Panic grew up worshiping each new 45 RPM disc he bought (his first: Deep Purple's version of the Neil Diamond song Kentucky Woman), and to this day remains a fan of playing records while seated before a pair of speakers.
"I never bought into the surround-sound CD thing, mainly because I always wanted to pretend the band was on stage, I never wanted to sit around the band members," says Schools, whose group has consistently made its albums available on vinyl.
"Sure, CD offered cleaner lows and shimmering highs, but it was missing that analog glue. Vinyl just sounds right; it's comforting," he says. "The digital vs. analog debate will always rage. But putting on a record with friends is about rituals. It's so much more than just hitting 'play.' "
Schools' commitment to the medium includes serving as an adviser to United Record Pressing in Nashville, a 64-year-old vinyl stamping plant whose fortunes have been revived due to vinyl's return. The plant's 18 presses now operates "24/6, and we're hoping to increase our capacity 30% this year to meet demand," says CEO Mark Michaels.
Michaels says music today has "become like sonic wallpaper," a popular criticism in vinyl circles. "There's a whole generation that never really got to experience music as art," he says. "They may value the portability (of downloads), but they still want to have an experience."
One of United's clients is analog lover Jack White, whose Blunderbuss is the top-selling vinyl album of 2012. Its 34,000 copies topped The Beatles' Abbey Road (30,000 copies), part of a 14-album vinyl reissue of the Mop Tops' oeuvre. Next year should bring the release of The Beatles' mono works on vinyl.
"That vinyl is back is no longer news," says Ben Blackwell, head of vinyl manufacturing and distribution at White's Nashville-based Third Man Records, noting that other popular bands - The Black Keys, Mumford & Sons, Bon Iver, Adele - are pushing their product on vinyl. "The real question is where is this going, and the holdup there is vinyl manufacturing capacity."
Blackwell says vinyl sales will never hit the millions they commanded in the pre-digital age ("100,000 would be a phenomenal number today"). Nevertheless, between the limited number of existing plants and the growing number of artists interested in offering a vinyl option, demand for plant time is soaring.
"As popular as downloads are, they don't offer up a product for those who want something tangible," he says.
Those eager to create - or re-create - vinyl collections walk through Gary Scheuenstuhl's doors daily. His Mill Valley (Calif.) Music shop, which sells new and used records, is an offshoot of the town's defunct Village Music store, a popular haunt for the likes of Elvis Costello and Jerry Garcia and the focus of a new documentary Village Music: Last of the Great Record Stores by Gillian Grisman, daughter of mandolin great David.
"Used vinyl in particular is going through the roof sales-wise, simply because it's affordable," says Scheuenstuhl of records that sell for a few dollars each. "People tell me they're no longer buying CDs, they don't want to take up room with something that's not collectible. But LPs are another story. Even kids who grew up with a download mentality are starting to come in and buy."
Scheuenstuhl also does a brisk business in the more pricey fare from Mobile Fidelity, which was born in 1977 to serve the vinyl diehard. The company quickly made its reputation by obtaining original master tapes and transferring the music painstakingly to heavier-than-usual vinyl platters that further enhanced the sound. But Mobile Fidelity foundered in the digital age, and declared bankruptcy in 1999. (Today, those original Mobile Fidelity LPs are prized items on eBay.)
"I bought it in 2001, and it lost money for a while, so it really was a labor of love," says Jim Davis, CEO of Mobile Fidelity and Music Direct, an online high-end audio site. "I'm glad I stuck it out. It's hip to like vinyl now, there's a romance to it. Everyone knows how convenient an iPod is, but it can blind you to the experience you can have with music."
Back in Mobile Fidelity's cramped offices, engineer Britton and colleague Krieg Wunderlich are making sure the sound waves Jones created on that day in 1979 transfer flawlessly to a master lacquer platter from which thousands of vinyl records will be stamped.
"Our job is to be as transparent as possible, just get out of the way of the music," says Wunderlich. "Less is more."
Britton knows this stuff isn't for everyone, particularly since this particular album, which is being mastered at 45 RPM for even greater tonal quality, will wind up as a two-disc set priced at $50. But for some, it's everything.
"Every album we work on we figure is some person's favorite album, and we treat it as such," say Britton, who has worked on discs such as the Allman Brothers' Eat a Peach and Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman. His dream is to one day remaster Pink Floyd's best-selling Dark Side of the Moon to vinyl.
"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."
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