Guest Column: Vinyl Records Are Better

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by Ralph Greco, Jr.

An Audiophile’s Philosophical Approach

As we march ever onward with a breath of hope from the recent shutdown maybe we can exchange or at least balance Zoom business meetings with in-person conference-room strategizing over bagels and coffee. Forgoing masks in our mad rush out the door while grabbing keys, wallet, and cell phone, it’s simply getting out and about in the sunshine, fresh air and take to sharing smiles across a hedgerow. Every now and again I find myself considering or should I say pining, for things denied me not only this past year but that which I surely let fall from my orbit. 

Indeed, I’m not for self-flagellating myself too harshly, especially in-light of trying to face the anything-but our new normal, but we’re all responsible for letting our already-atrophied brains flump a little bit too lazily over the past decade. From having our GPS’s leads us by algorithms, using GIFS instead of words, engaging in consistent Amazon Prime sprees, and allowing people to walk onto airplanes with all manner of different critters (and ones as big as a mini horse!) claiming they are service animals, we have not been the best examples of the naked ape we can be.

Sociologists, theologians, and politicians all can bandy about the detrimental effects of the insidious encroachment of digital, our need for ever-more convenient conveniences, and the self-isolation we were well enjoying and making a matter of course even before COVID-19’s ‘social distancing’ protocol. Except for those whose work is already home based, or they travel long distances to and from work and they got more work done at home, the focus of the matter is that for any number of us…well, we might have been letting particular details slip by, and enjoying the atrophy.

Still, in my attempt to not only to curtail my ennui from the last year and what I fear I had fallen into even before, juxtaposed to the fact that two U.S. Record Store Days just past in a blink of the eye, I decided to go back to my vinyl. And as much comfort, to relive my past, to hear what I want to hear the way I need to hear it, I have yet again come to realize, as I have always known, that records are better.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a casual music listener. First, I have been a professional musician/songwriter for the past 40 years. Second, through the other half of my professional life, I write for a slew of music and entertainment websites and publications. Through this professional access, I had had the pleasure to interview the makers of the classic rock music I love, have been granted early listening to the new music they are producing (yes, they are still ‘out there’ making music), and have been humbled by ‘comp’ access to plenty of live shows, back when there were plenty of live shows. So, I do know of what I speak. 

You can trust me when I say records are better.

Why?

I offer this, “Music has a richer, textured, better sound coming off a vinyl record than CD or streaming.” 

The term ‘better,’ though, is a subjective call. Yes, I think the sheer richness of the sound I detect coming from a record warms my cockles in the way digital never will (and what are we without warm cockles, really?) And as I write this, there is yet another new technology (Spatial Audio) being applied to album ‘remixing,’ a subject alone that could inform column after column. But what I hear is not what you are going to necessarily hear; not better or worse, just different.

To my ears, records provide a superiorly nuanced sound, over any other medium—save live—where I have heard music. But if you don’t hear things the way I do, this does not mean your assessment is faulty and mine pristine. It is just a matter of taste. Where records are ‘better’ is in, what I feel are indisputably, two areas, areas not at all considered by the modern listener, and a shame that is.

Album packaging and song sequencing.

Way back in the day, when albums came into popularity as a singular piece of pop musical expression and not just a collection of a band’s singles to be sold lumped together on one long-playing disc for a higher price, music makers—the band who made the music, their producer, had they one, record company A&R people and even the album’s engineer—could all be involved in the decision of where to place what songs on side A and those on side B. These sides were constructed to deliver a specific range of dynamics, details, set moods, or destroy them, all within the groove space allotted. 

Science, art, commercial concern, all three, and more were plugged in, into what song went where and how it matched and mixed to what had to come before and after it (if any did). What began and ended the L.P. how each side ebb and flowed with the mood, the all-elusive ‘feel,’ of the overall presentation was defined by what song went where. Surely, not every album you might pick up has such artful attention to song sequencing detail, but many did, and they are a wonder to listen to. The right song sequencing will give the listener a singular experience that they will remember fondly for years to come.

On a CD where songs are presented without the delineation of a Side 1 or 2 (you do not have to flip a disk over to have it keep playing), and certainly with the modern practice of downloading single tracks, there is no need for song sequencing. And we are the lesser for it. People of a certain age don’t rightly know from song sequencing, so for them it becomes a concept of one not knowing what they are missing, but I opine, the modern-day listener is missing a lot.

Also, as I mentioned above, with a record the fan gets to experience some wonderful packaging. The album sleeve artwork, promo goodies like pictures and buttons, so much and more could be included between the hard covers of an album. I recall working through the origami-like folks of triple live albums, using posters included with this album or that to create a montage on my wall, pouring over the interior ‘booklets’ included with some releases, and committing to memorize linear note facts (linear notes an art form all their own). Then too were the lyric sheets many artists included. This stuff is often reproduced in the modern CD/DVD box set anniversary releases of classic albums, but whatever one gets presently will never best the flimsy newspaper included in my original Jethro Tull “Thick As A Brick,” album or will ever beat the fun I had looking for the ‘Paul Is Dead’ clues on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” 

Sure, if none of the above matters to you, and again if you wouldn’t recognize the difference in sound, you probably won’t agree with me that records are better. But if you do know what I am referring to or want to learn what us crusty old audiophiles so protest about over and over, get yourself out to for the record days coming up and lift an album or two to your nose, sniff…then buy the damn thing, and find somebody with a turntable. 

You’ll be happy you did.