Essay: In Defense of Analogue

"The Kids Don't Stand A Chance" by Vampire Weekend 45 single pressed on limited edition white vinyl, U.K. import

"The Kids Don't Stand A Chance" by Vampire Weekend

45 single pressed on limited edition white vinyl, U.K. import

By Dave Pezza

Editor’s Note: Dave walked into my office some months ago and said he had this idea to write an essay on his vinyl record collection. Sold. He joked that he should write it on a typewriter. I then demanded he write it on a typewriter. He did. Head over to our Facebook page to check out scans of the typewriter-inked and bourbon-infused first draft.—Daniel Ford

Her hair was blonde, really blonde, platinum blonde, Gwen Stefani blonde, and I liked it. She sat there on her knees, thumbing through my records with her right hand, rum and coke in her left. I sat near her, draining my own glass out of nervousness. We sat there, and she browsed my records, lightly judging my taste as I hoped. She would take one out every now and again, scan the album art, check the songs on the back, take a sip from her glass, and place the records back, poised, so vibrant with her ultra-blonde hair in a ponytail hanging down her straight back.

“What’s your trifectah,” she asked.

She had a thick Rhode Island accent, an accent that can sound harsh and ignorant to those not used to it. But to me, sitting on that faded blue carpet, sucking on ice, it sounded so inviting and warm, like that moment the sun hits your face for the first time in the morning. I looked at her blankly to show that I was trying hard to understand her question.

“You know, like your top three bands, but in a triangle so that you don’t have to put one first.”

She had said bands, not artists.

“Oh,” I said.

Casually, trying not to sound too foolish or aloof.

“Led Zeppelin, Queens of the Stone Age, and the Foo Fighters. You?”

“Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, and Johnny Cash.”

She answered without missing a beat.

“Damn.”

She owned a turntable and records too. They had been her grandfather’s. My turntable, a vintage Technics, was/is my Dad’s, confiscated the first moment I put needle to wax. In fact, my obsession with music started with me confiscating my Dad’s old DJ equipment. All of her records were her grandfather’s, and she had never bought new ones. I told her I knew of a place in Cranston, R.I., that sold used vinyl on the cheap, with plenty of classic rock albums to boot. She didn’t seem overly interested. She was perfectly content with her grandfather’s old records. That made sense to me, especially as I sat there watching her in front of my record case. Those records mean quite a bit to her, and my turntable means the world to me. These physical objects hold so much in them, a value not measured monetarily. It hit me then, sitting on the rug with her, that we understood something that not any people understand anymore, or even care to consider. A way of thinking that is not much talked about or recommended anymore.

An analogue way of thinking.

Technically, analogue is something characterized by a physical, measurable capacity. The most obvious example, in my opinion, is analogue music, and the easiest way to explain analogue music is to compare it to digital music. In analogue music, sound waves enter your ear from a tangible source. Think of a music box. Music boxes operate in a very old method of playing music, and producing sound. Older music boxes are composed of a metal cylinder with various raised bubbles on its surface, much like Brail. Winding the music box’s knob causes the cylinder to rotate. As the cylinder rotates, flat stripes of metal reach out from the box and touch the cylinder perpendicularly and scrap across the cylinder’s surface. Every time one of the stripes of metal moves over one of the brail like bumps it produces a sound. The effect of multiple metal stripes with different lengths and thickness passing over multiple bumps at a time is a simple, but soothing, melody. This process is a simplified explanation of how vinyl works.

Vinyl, a circular piece of plastic with tiny, microscopic grooves cut into it, serves as the metal cylinder. As a turntable’s needle is dragged across the grooves, much like the bumps, sound is created. Unlike the music box, the grooves on a vinyl record are incredibly precise and are able to produce a wide range of pitch, tone, bass, and treble. The grooves are the essential piece of listening to vinyl and represent the concrete nature of the music. How is the plastic physically molded into these small grooves, and how are the musical vibrations transferred therein? Vinyl records are pressed into circular pieces of wax and then physically cut with what is called a cutting lathe. Cutting lathes take a fresh piece of vinyl and transfers the vibrations of the music, which was usually recorded on master tapes and played back, into a cutting needle which physically cuts the music into the plastic vinyl (from which where the phrase “cutting a record” is derived). When a record is played back on a turntable, the turntable’s needle uses the kinetic energy of circular and undulating motions of the platter to generate sound from the grooves (if you watch a turntable move it doesn’t just revolve, it also dips up and down slightly). This sound is then sent by an electrical current through the turntable to a receiver or pre-amplifier where the signal is beefed up and played through the loud speakers.

I once watched a documentary on the Roman town of Pompeii that was covered in preserving ash from an erupting Mount Vesuvius in minutes. Preserved in the ash were several pieces of pottery, some of which were in the process of completion. Some scientists believed that when a Roman potter cut his pottery from the clay, the knife he was holding also cut microscopic audio vibrations in the clay. I only bring this odd recollection up because it is a perfect of example of how a record is cut.

What these clinical explanations mean is this: the sound produced from a record is the physical impression of the actual sound waves produced by a band in a studio. It is as close as one can get to listening to a music being played without having a band set up in your living room. That is not to say, however, that vinyl cannot be manipulated. Or, more accurately, that the audio cannot be manipulated before it is transferred into the physical medium of vinyl. Mixing, synthesizers, back tracking, overlapping of guitars and vocals, all of these effects are created before the record is cut. As a result, all those properties are then transferred to the vinyl, indistinguishable from original unadulterated audio. For example, say a record company wants to begin releasing albums digitally recorded onto vinyl. One might assume that this is categorically impossible. Wrong. It seems stupid and idiotic because the process defeats the purpose of distinguishing between analog and digital, but then again money has never much cared for ideological truths. These types of records might not seem different when compared to the digital, unless the digital track was made from a master tape that still exists and can be used instead.

We have gone from guitar to sound waves, from waves to tape, from tape to record, but how does one get a record into one’s hands. A record doesn’t instantly appear on the turntable ready to be played like digital downloads. To procure a record, one must acquire a mode of transportation to a local or, more likely, chain business which sells vinyl records. One then personally browses the business' vinyl supply, selects his or her potential purchases, finalizes these purchases, pays for said vinyl with monetary means from a cashier who completes the transaction for you, and transports his or herself back home. Or, of course, you can go on Amazon and click your mouse three times and wait two days for the vinyl to be delivered to your door. The latter is totally lame, unless you are unable to otherwise find a record you feel deep down in your soul you cannot live without, which happens to be almost any record. Either way, you’re still not done. You still can’t simply plug your headphones into the records and press play. Vinyl is not for the meek. Vinyl lends itself to a certain type of consumer, a certain type of music lover, a certain type of person.

I’d like to approach my argument from two sides, from both the digital and analogue camps, but I’d also like to describe, briefly, the process that one must go through when listening to vinyl. First, admittedly, you need to know a thing or two about audio equipment. It’s not like an iPod or iPod dock. Music does not play directly out of most turntables. You can purchase cheaper turntables with their own speakers attached, but for the majority of the better sounding record players you must hook it up to a receiver. A receiver operates as a control center for audio. It receives music in—pretty clever name, huh—and then sends it to the loudspeakers and any woofers. Loud speakers are your typical speakers, which are composed of tweeters, smaller speakers that produce all the high frequencies or treble (high notes or high pitch singing voices). Woofers produce the low frequencies or bass. Woofers or subwoofers are speakers solely dedicated to producing bass. Those are the big boxes you might see on the floor.

Once all of this is set up—which to be honest is not easy, but it’s not that hard either—you place the record on the turntable platter.

"Chulahoma" by The Black Keys A cover album of blues guitarist Junior Kimbrough

"Chulahoma" by The Black Keys

A cover album of blues guitarist Junior Kimbrough

She rocked back and forth on her knees, still thumbing, still sipping. I felt I was intruding on this moment between her and my records. She hadn’t felt the need to engage me about what she liked amongst the box. I enjoyed the silence, enjoyed watching her, enjoyed knowing she knew I was watching her.

“There are 45s in that case on the table,” I said.

I immediately regretted it.

I had broken the fourth wall of her in my room in my records. I had inserted myself, and the scene didn’t work as well now.

“Oh, I don’t really care about singles, not really my thing.”

She hadn’t said it pretentiously, just matter-of-fact. She didn’t do singles. I shut up then. I had learned my lesson. I wanted to tell her how I drove from Rhode Island to Nashville, Tenn., to visit Jack White’s record studio/store, which is the Mecca of analogue (White has begun a vinyl renaissance that has all but exploded with his Third Man Records studio). How once there, I couldn’t be disappointed by the single room record storefront. How I’d waited in a line on Record Store Day for more than an hour to get my hands on exclusive pressings that would be sold out once I reached the door. These qualifications were unnecessary though, the records spoke for themselves. Road tripping to through the Mid-Atlantic states to Nashville to patron a record store was one of the highlights of my life, and made one of my best friends my brother. Waking up early on Saturday with my roommate to rush to Newbury Comics just to wait and be let down was still worth the rush, the adventure.

She could tell all of this though, somehow, by flipping and sipping.

"Medium Rare" by Foo Fighters Another cover album of various artists only released on vinyl

"Medium Rare" by Foo Fighters

Another cover album of various artists only released on vinyl

The record is finally on the platter.

But before you can play it, it needs to be cleaned with record cleaning solution and brush. Electrical currents attract dust, and a turntable runs an electrical current from the vinyl to the needle. This makes the record a magnet for dust, which can obscure the point of contact between the needle and the record and make a lot of the popping and scratching noises many associate (falsely) with the sound of a vinyl record. Dust can also permanently ruin you records. Consider the vinyl and needle on a microscopic level. When dust is attracted to either the needle or the groove in the vinyl, the dust particles can act like sharp edges boulders cutting up the sides of the vinyl grooves and dulling the point of the needle. Okay, finally, you can drop the needle onto the vinyl and heard some goddamn music! Right? Right. But only for about 20 to 25 minutes, and only side A of the particular record of that particular band. To get to side B, flip the record, clean the other side, because it will be as miserably dusty as an old gummy worm underneath a sofa cushion. Unless, of course, you have a single seven-inch small vinyl disc used in juke boxes. Then you get to listen to one whole song per side! Pretty convenient.

Compare all that work to your normal process of listening to a song on your iPod. You have to turn on your obnoxious computer, which takes a whole 10 seconds. Click on iTunes, that horribly convenient, but terribly, built and operated software that allows you to type in any song you want and it arrives immediately in front of you. Click on the song, pay for it electronically, download it to your iPod, put in your headphones, and just press play. Music. It’s that easy. And you are getting great sound quality in a perfect digital format that lasts forever and is highly customizable and allows you to make digital versions of mix tapes called playlists. Not to mention how portable iPods are.

Infinitely better, no? Well, not really, no. Not from a certain point of view. Not to a certain type of person. Not to me. That whole process seems lazy, ignorant, and downright boring. That’s not to say I don’t download music when I’m lazy, ignorant, and downright boring. Have I offended you? Good. Here is why all that digital whatnot is bullshit. Don’t back out now, just because you have already written me off. For God’s sake, stick around to be berated. You might learn something, even if it isn’t convenient for you.

The digitally recorded songs on an iPod are nothing more than binary code of zeroes and ones. During the digital recording process, analogue music is converted into a digital. That code is sent by the Internet or any digital transfer into audiophiles. This is all well and good, sort of. When music is encrypted digitally, it must conform to the limitations of the digital code. The bandwidth from which the file is downloaded is the size of the digital file, and even the device or application through which you play it can limit the quality of the audio. Digital audio is limited by the very nature in which it exists. And it doesn’t matter if you listen to it on Dr. Dre headphones or the cheap as shit white ear buds Apple packages with their products. Anyone who knows anything about music knows that you could have the best speakers ever constructed in the history of the world, but if you are playing shit audio, the speakers will only emphasize the shit quality of the audio. It’s like watching a VHS video tape through an HD television. Unless you are downloading audio files that are as big as some programs on your computer, you’re not getting the same quality of sound as you would from vinyl. And even if you did, the limitations of the digital code don’t allow you some of the peripheral sounds that vinyl can supply, such as audio decay. Audio decay is the ability to hear a musical note slowly fade out. For example, when a drummer hits a high hat note, you hear a crash. That crash then slowly dissipates even as other sounds are being produced by the drummer. Such nuanced sounds are lost in most digital music.

And why does one give shit about things like audio decay? Because, if you truly love music, you strive to listen to it as if it is being played in your living room. If that statement does not apply to you, stop reading and go do something else, like stick an ice pick through your ear drums. If that is in fact your goal--and believe me it most certainly should be—picking the type of playback system that lets you most accurately reproduce that live sound is your task. Unless you own the master tape recordings of a band and have a reel to reel set up to your speakers or have the means to hire the Foo Fighters to play your living room (if you are reading this and you have the means to do so, please, please invite me because the Foo Fighters rock like no other), vinyl is your best bet. It is, quite literally, audio transcribed into physical form. Digital audio, conversely, transforms audio waves into a binary code that emulates the sound that once existed in the physical world. This is fundamental difference. Be assured of this. Just like ink on a page is fundamentally different from pixels creating the image of letters on a screen. One thing physically exists, the other does not. One is a real tangible object, the other is a representation of that object. That is why I am sitting at my kitchen table on a beautiful day attempting to explain why picking up this essay and reading it off of the typewritten page is metaphysically different than reading it off of whatever screen you are currently reading it off of.

"...Like Clockwork" by Queens of the Stone Age An album recently reviewed by Danny DeGennaro

"...Like Clockwork" by Queens of the Stone Age

An album recently reviewed by Danny DeGennaro

This page is real. This ink is real, and very messy. These things exist. You might be asking, “So fucking what, Dave? Big friggin deal. So what?! So you are better than us because you sit down at a typewriter and make mistakes and type away and have to retype this whole thing in a word processor?” The big deal, imaginary, pissed off questioneer, is precisely what many people now-a-days consider analogue’s biggest weakness. This essay exists in a concrete capacity, and therefore it can be destroyed. It is fragile. It is finite. It is human. If I were to pick up this page right now and set it on fire, it would burn, and it would cease to exist in any form recognizable or significant. It’s precious and fleeting and won’t last for a 1,000 years unless we decide as a culture that it warrants preservation. Unless we decide it is worthy of being printed and reprinted decade after decade (which I am confident it won’t be).

On the contrary, any tweet ever made will be available forever.

Forever.

“I just took a shit #shitsaturday” will be available in the annals of the Internet until the sun explodes, or the Internet stops working. It will survive the author’s death, just like the creepy Facebook pages of the recently deceased. At one point in time, one had to produce something so culturally significant that it would be deemed worthy to be preserved for years to come. Objects like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Preservation gave credence and importance to these objects, and these objects combined to give our civilization a culture! When I go out to buy a vinyl copy of Jack White’s new album “Lazaretto” in a month, it will be because I believe in him as an artist, in his musical expression. I will physically own and cherish that music, because it means something to me. It took effort and time and money and gas to go out and obtain that music, and it’ll take time and effort and patience to play it on my turntable through my speakers. My collection of vinyl is impressive. Anyone’s collection of vinyl is impressive. It means they got off their asses and found that music, and it means they continue to do so to hear their favorite songs and albums. They didn’t just click a button to check it out for a buck. A buck!

As human beings, we create. That, I think, is God’s (or whoever you believe in) greatest gift to humanity. And all creation, by its nature, is precious and vulnerable. That is why creation, in all its forms, is unbearably beautiful. Michael Angelo’s “David” will only be a gorgeous masterpiece as long as it exists in Florence, Italy. Once it topples, once it crumbles, no picture or image will even come close to representing its beauty. People have dedicated their lives to restoring it and protecting it for precisely this reason. That is why analogue is important. That is why you should listen to vinyl. Listening to vinyl shows an appreciation and understanding of the art it presents. Vinyl allows you to comprehend the immeasurable beauty and fleetingness of the shared experience that is music.

When she finally picked an album, Led Zeppelin’s third album, and that first note played after a few crackles that is the warm, human sensation of vinyl, you realize that this moment will never happen again. This song will never sound like this again, literally. Every time you play a vinyl record the needle slowly, minutely destroys the integrity of the vinyl’s grooves. In that moment, that sound will never be again. It will only exist right then, right there. It can’t be captured on Facebook or Instagram to be experienced later. It is only right there, right now, and never again.

So if you want my advice, go pour yourself another drink, lay the needle on some vinyl, and enjoy every moment of it. Enjoy how she bobs her head to the beat, the soft touch of her skin, and the feel of the music flowing between the two of you. Because you know what? You might never feel this again. Life is too short and too harsh not to enjoy a moment for what it is: a single note in the album of your life. Much like vinyl, a moment can never be replayed as it sounds in the present.

Enjoy it now because someday you won’t be able to play anything at all.

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