"Listen mate, life has surface noise"

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vinyl record on turntable
Hanco at record fair

"Listen, mate, life has surface noise" — the oft-quoted words of the late John Peel when someone was bestowing the virtues of CDs over vinyl records.

Despite some unquestionable advantages of CDs — lack of said surface noise, no clicks or jumps, higher portability, indestructibility (even more with mp3 and streaming) the sales of vinyl records are thriving and not just among ageing hippies and raging hipsters, but with the younger generation too.

Before I get into the possible reasons for this, I want first to consider the history of the record in its most distinct format, namely the 33 rpm vinyl 12 inches (that's 30 cm kids) long player.

Why 33 rpm? It goes back to 1926 when talkies became the rage and needed a medium to carry the soundtrack. Initially, 12 inch 78 rpm discs were used, but at that speed, they needed changing every five minutes or so; not ideal when film reels ran for 11 minutes.

Slowing down the revolutions meant more sound could be stored and the need to change records so frequently was reduced. However, the early shellac discs couldn't provide enough capacity, so the size of the discs was increased to 16 inches. Imagine having a collection of 16 inch LPs stashed in your Ikea unit!

This became the standard format until movie reel and soundtracks were combined in the 30s. Curiously, unlike the records we know today, the stylus ran from the centre outwards and not from the outer edge inwards.

Despite the advantages of this format, classical music lovers tired of repeated breaks in play caused by their 78 rpm records only playing for a short time before having to be changed.

A point of reference here, records are referred to as albums because classical records were often sold in book-type volumes with several discs stored between the covers, like a photo album.

Early attempts to produce 33rpm records didn't take off — mostly because the equipment of the day drove demand and, as this was at the time of the great depression, the timing wasn't right even if the technology was.

Everything changed in 1948 when the Columbia company, having worked on the concept from before the war, unveiled a vinyl disc that could provide 20 minutes of music per side at 33rpm.

An early 12 inch 33rpm of Beethoven's 5th was described by the New York Times thus: "We were not prepared for was the quality of reproduction ... incomparably fuller".

The post-war years brought increased prosperity, and it prompted record manufacturers to move from shellac to vinyl, Shellac was also in scarce supply, so these early records are the same black vinyl discs that we know today.

Or think we know?

Did you know, for example, that an LP groove stretched out would be 1/3 mile long?
Did you know that the record on a turntable at 33rpm is moving at one mile per hour?

No, nor me, but I do know I prefer records to compact discs, streaming or mp3. I won't even refer to those "revolutionary" (read snake oil) technologies that were going to be the next big thing such as mini-discs.

Vinyl records have a certain authenticity, but you have to put in some effort to get the thing playing properly;

  • 1. fire up the equipment (plug, pre-amp, amp),
  • 2. lift up dust cover,
  • 3. slip record from the sleeve,
  • 4. slip it then carefully from inner cover,
  • 5. check it out,
  • 6. place carefully on the turntable,
  • 7. turn on the turntable,
  • 8. clean record with an anti-static disc cleaning pad,
  • 9. line up the tone arm,
  • 10. gently lower needle onto groove (carefully landing on the outer rim, not the music — that's a crime).
  • 11. Then, and only then, can you sit down and listen (note, listen not merely hear).
  • 12. And in 20 minutes, you get up, lift up, turn off, turnover and play side two.

Exercise for both body and soul! It's the difference between a nice cup of tea from a warmed pot, made with fresh leaves, in a china cup and some nasty hot liquid from a vending machine.

And the sound, like the NYT man said, "incomparably fuller". It is also warmer, less tinny, less screechy, deeper and wider.

I don't have particularly top-end kit or particularly top-end ears, but I can hear details on a well-produced record from the 70s that I simply do not hear on the iPod or docking station.

It's the sound of sound, not of 0s and 1s, and while robots may be hard-wired digitally, we humans are very much analogue creatures. Yes, there's surface noise, but there's much more besides. And for a bonus, there is album art, but that's another story and yet another reason to love real vinyl records.

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