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The Resurgence of Vinyl

Analog makes a comeback in the digital age

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During the summer months, BU Today is revisiting some of our favorite stories from the past year. This week, we feature a series of stories about life on campus.

Madeline Shalita vividly recalls the moment she fell in love with vinyl. Having grown up with CDs and MP3s, she had dismissed records as old-fashioned. But when she stumbled upon her father’s old record collection and played one on his dusty turntable for the first time, she says, she was “introduced to a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard.”

Shalita (COM’14) is part of a growing number of listeners behind what’s being billed as a “vinyl revival.” Vinyl records sales are up 745 percent since 2008, according to Amazon.com. It’s not just an American phenomenon, either. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reports that global sales of LPs were $171 million in 2012, a 52 percent increase from the year before. And it’s younger listeners, those 18 to 25, who are leading the charge. This year, top-selling artists like Justin Timberlake, Arcade Fire, and Daft Punk released vinyl versions of their latest albums. All this despite the fact that records are more expensive than downloads or CDs, averaging about $25 compared to $10 for an album download.

What’s behind the comeback? Shalita says listening to a record is a much more immersive experience than listening to a CD or streaming music and is an altogether different experience. “You have to walk across the room and actually place the record on the turntable,” she says. “If you want to skip a song, you can’t just hit a button—there’s a careful needle-balancing act you must do to hear another track. But once that needle drops you’re treated to a sound that’s fuller and warmer than anything the digital world has to offer. The musical sound is cleaner and brighter than digital, especially MP3s, which suffer from compression that can kill deeper, more resonant sounds.”

Don’t own a turntable of your own? Not to worry. There are plenty of places you can experience the pleasure of listening to a vinyl record. Here on campus, Mugar Memorial Library’s music library has a dozen turntables available to students and a whole back catalog of records.

Shalita recommends the following local record stores for audiophiles interested in buying vinyl.

Nuggets Records
486 Commonwealth Ave., Boston
Phone: 617-536-0679

In Your Ear
957 Commonwealth Ave., Boston
Phone: 617-787-9755

Newbury Comics
332 Newbury St., Boston
617-236-4930

Are you a record collector or a vinyl enthusiast? We’d love to hear how you fell in love with vinyl or about places where you buy records. Share your stories in the Comment section below.

Madeline Shalita can be reached at mshalita@bu.edu.

This story was originally published on February 10, 2014.

17 Comments

17 Comments on The Resurgence of Vinyl

  • BU student on 02.10.2014 at 6:20 am

    My uncle gave me my first vinyl record when I was 14. I had got really into some older music so he gave me this old Beatles record. I’m wasn’t really a Beatles fan back then, nor am I know, but it motivated me to dig into my mother’s expansive vinyl collection. I found nothing but treasures there. Through the rest of high school I basically spent all of my earnings on used records. If I had a turntable here at BU, I still would, but it’s probably a good thing I don’t. Once in a blue moon I’ll indulge though to save something I’ve truly sought after for when I go home. The sound is so much warmer than the tin-y sound of newer formats. By the way, I highly recommend In Your Ear. They have a great, eclectic selection and decent prices for the quality they sell. I don’t really recommend Nuggets though.

  • Donald Denniston on 02.10.2014 at 9:26 am

    This is nothing unusual! Analog recordings are still better than the digital ones that are being produced today. One reason: the sound is “warmer” than CDs. Even analog recordings that have been transferred to CD format have lost a great deal of their luster! Many of Sony’s Classical CDs (Columbia later changed to CBS sold their classical division back in 1990 to SCR. Even today their are still a lot vinyl recordings that have never been transferred to CD format from CBS: Bartok/Bluebeard Castle with Rosalyn Elias and Jerome Himes/The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (in English)/Ravel Daphnis et Chloe with Bernstein/New York Philharmonic (recorded in 1961 a the same time Charles Munch and The Boston Symphony Orchestra made their second recording of the work since 1955), Marc Blizstein’s “Airborne” Symphony/Bernstein/New York Philharmonic (this recording sat in the “can” for years before CBS finally released in its original LP format)

  • John on 02.10.2014 at 9:57 am

    Vinyl has its merits, but those are largely due to the ritualistic listening aspect and the potential for big, elaborate artwork and packaging. The sound quality is objectively worse than a properly mastered CD or lossless digital file. Don’t get me wrong, I own many records and it has a wonderful appeal, but you have to call it what it is.

    • Manoj Agrawal on 02.10.2014 at 11:16 am

      Hi John, not really and it really depends on lot of factors, for instance if the original recording was in analog or digital. I once compared one to one by playing same music on CD and then on vinyl and back using a headphone and found that in some cases Vinyl was definitely superior. Sounds were more upfront and it had more ‘Live’ like feel. Since you own some records I will suggest maybe you can do the same and see it for yourself.

  • Scott on 02.10.2014 at 11:05 am

    While the sound of vinyl is unquestionably better than mp3s (especially the questionable bitrates that most people download via itunes or illegally), I think that the magic of a physical record is that it is an experience. When I put a record on the turntable I listen to the entire thing, many times I actively listen like I would at a concert, the music is not just for background noise. Obviously we can do this with any format of music, but since we can’t plug in a vinyl to our ipods as we walk to class I think the turntable represents a commitment to sit down and actually listen to the music.

  • John Hall on 02.10.2014 at 2:46 pm

    Awesome work, Stella and Bryan! It makes me want to dust off my old records, if I can just clear off all the CDs on top of the turntable.

  • David Keefe, BU Today on 02.10.2014 at 9:43 pm

    I’ve been a voracious music collector for the majority of my life. I thank my family for an early introduction to music and vinyl LPs:

    I remember as a little kid my dad would put his Rolling Stones record on and we would dance around our basement to “Start Me Up”. My brother was a huge U2 fan and bought many of their early albums on vinyl when they were first released. In particular, I remember him putting on “The Unforgettable Fire” and I would sit through it, start to finish, holding the record sleeve in my hands, gazing at the artwork, reading the lyrics to “A Sort of Homecoming” printed on the back of the sleeve. I still have his U2 records today.

    Queen’s “News of the World” also got a lot of play in our house when I was a little kid, and the cover art totally freaked me out! (I wasn’t alone on this either–see this episode of Family Guy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killer_Queen_%28Family_Guy%29). I would pick up the album, look at the cover art, get scared and freaked out, put it down, and always came back to look at it again.

    The new music I buy on vinyl these days tends to be limited edition and special packages as opposed to the standard album release. Contemporary bands are doing a great job leveraging the the artwork and packaging potential of the record sleeve and LP box sets (http://www.superdeluxeedition.com/news/suede-the-vinyl-collection-box-set/). Jack White/Third Man Records is doing a wonderful job innovating the vinyl medium:
    http://laughingsquid.com/jack-whites-third-man-record-booth-allows-fans-to-record-themselves-live-onto-vinyl/
    http://thirdmanrecords.com/news/view/live-to-acetate-at-third-man-records)

    As an aside, cassettes are making a comeback, too. Indie artists and bands are releasing new music on cassette, and used stores are buying/selling used tapes. I do not understand this at all. New releases on cassette tape–ok. But used tapes?!?!?!

  • Phil Wilcox on 02.10.2014 at 11:56 pm

    I run a book and record shop in Jamaica Plain thats also a tapas and wine bar. We cater to vinyl lovers of all tastes, ages and styles, and we are so thrilled by this article! In Your Ear and Nuggets are Boston institutions where I started my record collection years ago, and they should be treasured and visited by everyone. Record collecting isn’t kitsch, it isn’t a nostalgia kick, it isn’t a vintage fad-it’s a way to experience, cherish and, as this article said, ‘immerse’ yourself in music as you never have before, not to mention truly own in, not just borrow it from some infinite cloud. The artwork, the lyrics, the feel of it in your hands…it’s the closest connection that can come between listener and artist short of going to a show or making the music yourself. It’s a beautiful thing that records are coming back, and I hope everybody who reads the article above and DOESN’T have a turntable goes out and buys one(preferably from me, but even Urban Outfitters and Target sell them these days). You will instantly fall in love, and become addicted to wax. And if you’re ever in JP, stop by my work, Tres Gatos on Centre Street, and have a cup of coffee(or if you’re old enough, a glass of wine or a beer) and listen to some great music with like-minded people. Good work, guys!

  • Richard Sims on 02.11.2014 at 11:23 am

    I was born in the 78 RPM era, listened to music on 45′s and then LP’s. After years of enduring all the surface noise of vinyl, I couldn’t wait for something better. Then came open reel tape albums, and then cassettes – an era in which we endured tape hiss and competing technologies which tried to minimize it. Finally, the CD brought us digital music, and we finally heard clean sound for the first time. Apple perfected the portable digital music player, and iTunes upheaved the technology-resistant record industry.

    The current vinyl fad reaches back to a good-old-days era that never actually existed. I would never put up with vinyl again – or tape. Apple has an ongoing Mastered for iTunes program, where they get music as original master recordings, rather than source material which is targeted for whatever is the common digital data rate of the period. This means that iTunes can provide the best possible sound quality that prevailing mass distribution methods allow. I have been buying digital tunes rather than transferring the content of collected CDs after finding currently available digital tunes to be much more vibrant than what the CD provided. This is far better than what came before.

    • Daniel on 07.22.2014 at 7:36 pm

      Chris, what you fail to mention is that millions of things aren’t available on Cd or Mp3, only on vinyl. I’m from the Lp generation and remember very well when my albums used to fill the room with nuances, dynamics, crisp highs and amazing bass on quality stereo equipment(1970s). After Cds came out, all those qualities got lost in the mix. But it was too late cause I had already given away or sold all my Lps. Now I’m recollecting them and many lost gems that still aren’t on digital or that Steve Jobs didn’t manage to confiscate.

  • Chris Lynch on 02.11.2014 at 3:28 pm

    I love vinyl for its unique sound and because it encourages listening and even paying attention to full albums, but there is misinformation in the following quote: “But once that needle drops you’re treated to a sound that’s fuller and warmer than anything the digital world has to offer. The musical sound is cleaner and brighter than digital, especially MP3s, which suffer from compression that can kill deeper, more resonant sounds.”

    As an audio engineer I would like to correct these statements for the record. I offer this information without judgment, as it is far from being common knowledge. It’s great that people love vinyl (and so do I), but the mythology surrounding it is not based in reality.

    “[vinyl is] fuller and warmer than anything the digital world has to offer.”

    Due to the limitations of the vinyl format, low bass frequencies have to be reduced in mastering to keep the needle from popping out of the groove, thus making the sound less warm. Further, if there is stereo information in the low end, it must be collapsed to mono selectively for the same reason. As a result of this auditory workaround to physical limitations of the format, mastering engineers sometimes try to make up for the lack of deep lows by boosting around 200 Hz. This can sound “warm,” but it is only to mask the lack of deep lows that were intended by the recording artist, and can make the sound muddy. In any case, it results in an experience that is less than the artist and recording engineer intended. There is, however, extra low end present in the form of non-musical “surface noise.” Digital gives the consumer (at least the uncompressed formats) the exact experience intended by the artist.

    “The musical sound is cleaner and brighter than digital,”

    While it’s true that vinyl’s frequency response can be higher than that of CDs, that information is 1) inaudible to humans, nor can we “sense” it in other ways (no, we really can’t), 2) can cause nasty distortion if played on systems that can’t reproduce such high frequency material, 3) is likely to be plagued with distortion unless you have a perfectly tuned turntable with high end components and electronics, unlike the vast majority of consumer products. This distortion increases as the needle gets closer to the center of the record, and high frequency resolution also falls off close to the center, so sound quality is inconsistent on all records. In addition, not all vinyl is created equal. All vinyl is subject to hiss, crackle, and pops, but not all records are pressed with virgin vinyl, which has fewer noise-making impurities. All of this combines to be subjectively and objectively the opposite of “cleaner than digital.”

    “especially MP3s, which suffer from compression that can kill deeper, more resonant sounds.”

    The compression used in MP3s is based on human perception of sound, and it removes frequencies that are likely to be “masked” by other frequencies in the music. Most of this happens at the high end of the spectrum, mostly leaving the low end alone. I’m not defending MP3s, as they are clearly the worst sounding format compared to vinyl and CDs, but they start to sound OK at 256 kbps and up, which drives up their file size and defeats their purpose.

    As for “what the digital world has to offer,” the best listening experience is 44.1 – 48 kHz and 24 bit. Higher sample rates like 96 or 192 kHz are meaningless for consumer formats, but are of real benefit in recording and digitally processing music, but that’s a different discussion. I still enjoy vinyl and CDs, but at the moment the best sound quality can be had from artists who sell downloads of high resolution FLAC files. Or vinyl, because let’s face it; there really is something to all that mud, noise, and distortion. Just don’t call it “better” or you’ll make nerds like me cry.

    • Daniel on 07.22.2014 at 7:39 pm

      Ooops! Sorry Chris. The above comment was directed at Richard Sims.

  • Sally Fields on 02.11.2014 at 4:48 pm

    Mr. Sims you totally missed the boat. The perfection is what falls flat. Music is over produced in Studios and while it may improve sound quality it rips the soul from it. There is a time and place for imperfect but pure sound.

    Sally

    • Chris Lynch on 02.11.2014 at 5:20 pm

      I would argue that only over-produced music is over-produced! Sounds like you imply that soul is added in the format selection, and I’d bet most artists would claim to have created the soul in the studio. Nothing wrong with liking vinyl, but give the musicians some credit! ;) I agree about imperfect sound, which is why I still use tube amps and analog tape.

      • David Keefe, BU Today on 02.12.2014 at 10:26 am

        One up! Soul is most definitely created in the studio, not the delivery medium!

  • Sally Fields on 02.11.2014 at 6:20 pm

    It is the format that allows music producers to perfect a musical piece to such an extent that it’s current state of perfection is not authentic or soulful. I like it all as well but we lose something when we over produce it. The digital realm is what has created the I would argue over perfect environment just like real human models are Photoshopped – they look more “beautiful” but they are no longer authentic.

  • Nathaniel Bradley on 02.13.2014 at 11:37 am

    I grew up with vinyl, and had a great collection of ’80s California punk rock when i was in high school. Unfortunately, I sold them all and replaced them with tapes. Would probably be worth a pretty penny now, but it is really the sound and the ritual of LPs that I began to miss in MP3s and CDs. Listening to a whole album? That was becoming a lost art. Now you see LPs coming back and artists are making more cohesive “albums” as a result, rather than shuffle friendly singles. It has been fun to rediscover my love for vinyl. It is a great excuse to actually LISTEN to music, side A to side B, and gain a full experience with great sound quality, album artwork you can actually see and hold, and liner notes or lyrics (or posters, or other awesome things you find in LPs). I remember having the H.R. Giger poster that was enclosed in Dead Kennedys’ “Frankenchrist” album.. which was subsequently censored/removed from pressings, and the whole lawsuit for obscenity… A CD never had the impact, and MP3s never possibly could. Long live vinyl. Very happy to be buying it again. It’s a curated collection at this point.

    Oh, and the best record store in Boston is Deep Thoughts in Jamaica Plain, if you are looking for more “underground” artists, great jazz, obscure folk and international music, and metal and punk. On South Street, JP.

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