Back to the Future of Audio: Explore Vinyl Record Collecting, Save Money, and Have Fun

I don’t own an iPod, but I like music. I don’t generally listen to music while walking, biking, running, or riding the bus. It’s too noisy on the city streets, and the volume level required can damage one’s hearing – no good for long-term enjoyment of music.

Apple has successfully created a portable digital music player that has single-handedly created the online music store. You can go to iTunes to search for and buy music instantaneously. A song at the Apple music store costs just ninety-nine cents. What a deal. Why, then, haven’t I joined the modern age of music distribution?

I get my music even cheaper than that. And I don’t steal it using a Bit-torrent stream. I buy the music legally on vinyl records at the local Salvation Army for a dollar per record. If the average records contains ten songs, that’s ten cents per song. Sometimes the records are on sale for fifty cents or twenty-five cents, and the cost per song becomes almost absurdly low.

When I started to buy records tentatively, I had to learn how to clean them and play them. The cleaning part requires patience and some skill, especially if the records are filthy – as they tend to be at the Salvation Army. If one is willing to spend a few hundred dollars, special record-cleaning machines can be purchased that remove the last trace of dust and grease. All you really need, though, is a clean damp cloth, a home-made solution of rubbing alcohol and distilled water, and perhaps a ten dollar carbon-fiber brush.

To play a record, a record player or turntable is obviously required. A fairly good used turntable can be found on Craigslist or Ebay for less than one hundred dollars – for about the price of an iPod Shuffle.

Once you are set up with a record player and the knowledge of how to clean and care for records, a strange and wonderful universe opens up. I’m still amazed at the music that was created in the latter half of the twentieth century- the golden age of the LP record. If one is willing to acquire a turntable that can play 78 rpm records, the first half of the twentieth century also becomes accessible.

Regardless, at the Salvation Army price, you feel the freedom to try out music you would never pay for at the cost of a new CD, or even ninety-nine cents per song. Jazz, rock, folk, blues, Broadway musicals, classical music – it’s all there. I had never been much of a fan of jazz, until I took a chance and grabbed some mint-condition records with music by Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespie, Glenn Miller, and other giants of the golden age of jazz. I found myself zoning out to Gregorian chant, feeling the Middle Ages come alive in my living room.

Fans of vinyl LPs call their domain the world of “analog” music, as opposed to the digital age that the majority now inhabits. An analog signal is continuously variable, just as sound waves are in the real world. Digital technology cuts the music up into one’s and zero’s, and samples the music at a rate that eliminates some of the ambience and fidelity – spaciousness and realism is lost, even though some qualities that are called “superficial” by an analog audiophile are enhanced.

Dynamic range (the difference between the loudest and softest sounds) is increased by digital technology, and noise is decreased. The music can sound cleaner, but is often colder. Elements that are subtle but real are eliminated altogether. This essay isn’t a place to go into the technical details, but for those who are interested, there will be some links at the end of the article.

I wrote this article in the hope of inspiring at least one reader to go out and buy a few used records, clean them up, and put the needle into the groove. A cautionary note is in order however: the new record collector may find himself or herself spending more and more time in used records stores, pulling the records out of the sleeves to examine them under the light for minute scratches or imperfections, and devoting an alarming amount of shelf space to the growing library of music. Significant others may find the habit annoying, although the record collector could just eliminate some TV time. According to a recent A.C. Nielson Co. survey, the average American watches over four hours of TV per day. That’s a lot of time for collecting and listening to our musical heritage.

In the end, however, it’s all about listening pleasure. If you play a decent, clean record on a decent turntable (with a good stylus or needle), I’m confident that you’ll find, to the extent that you are open-minded, that the music takes on an enhanced realism and power.

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