Why I fell in love with vinyl



Go back three years or so, and I was 'slagging off' vinyl lovers, as hipster, revivalist luddites. Spotify can store nearly all of the worlds vast back catalogue of music in the cloud for your ease and access, anywhere, any time.

But over the past few years I've noticed a down-side in the way we listen to music. Because it's so accessible and easy to find, we tend to search for exactly the artist we want, flit between tracks, maybe listen to the most popular list for that artist. We make playlists built up of thousands of disparate songs and styles. We skip tracks, we scrub to parts we like, we gloss over the album art which is displayed only large enough for you to recognise the album without any extraneous details.

We've developed ADHD in the way that we listen to music. Very few people now will sit down and listen to an album start to finish. Well guess what, that's what the artist (generally speaking) intended for you as a listener to do.

Very few artists release an album with the intention that a listener will just skip to the tracks they like. Most albums tell a story, there's a thread that runs through the album. Most artists will spend a huge amount of time debating and deliberating over what order the tracks are in, because an album has a flow to it; a structure.

Don't get me wrong, I still love Spotify, and still pay for premium. But I felt like something was missing. Generally speaking I'm pretty good at listening to full albums, but it tends to be whilst I'm working, it's just something I quickly throw on and forget about. Which is a damn shame.

When something is so accessible, so easy, it's sometimes just as easy to take it for granted.

I went round a friends house one evening, he'd been into records for quite some time, and had built up quite a collection. From 70's prog and classic rock, to ambient black metal and old school death metal.

I'd made remarks about his record collection on a few occasions. But this time he got his collection out and a few caught my eye, albums I really loved and spent a lot of time listening to in the past. I was intrigued, I rifled through them all, I noticed subtle details in album art I thought I knew that I'd never noticed before. I read the inlays and the gatefold notes. I saw these albums as products, works of art. Here in my hands, as intended. It felt more personal, more special.

But I noticed something else, when I chose an album to put on, we had a conversation about that album, we talked about the time we first heard it, and how many years ago that was. It was nostalgic, but the music by this artist that was clearly special to us, was being discussed and given the attention and focus it clearly deserved, and was hoped for by the artist.

Vinyl collection

That's when it dawned on me, that we'd begun to neglect music. Whilst digital formats made things logistically easier, and don't get me wrong I'm not against that, I'd find it difficult dragging my records on the tram into work each day, or on a run for example. We scarcely dedicate any real time or attention to music any more.

But just the process of taking a physical record from a beautifully designed sleeve, and placing it on a record player, is in a sense a dedication, or a promise to retain your focus and attention to this as a work of art again, and not just some passive medium.

There was also a moral dilemma playing on my mind when it came to Spotify. I have friends with releases on Spotify, who have done quite well, and despite thousands of listens, the money they get from Spotify is absolutely trivial. In fact many of those friends accept that their music is mostly on their for exposure.

Mastodon inlay

This is a huge problem in the music industry, when people expect digital copies of music for free, or for very cheap monthly subscriptions online, how do these often very skint artists monetise on their hard work? We keep expecting the music we love to keep being released, fully aware of the time and costs involved in creating an album. But we let our favourite bands down when we do this. I think we have a moral responsibility to do what we can. And what better way of doing this, is buying the full, high quality version of the albums you love the most?

Remember also that vinyls are assets, which often attain more value over time. If you're lucky enough to find a rare record in some dusty old box at a car boot sale going for a tenner, unbeknownst to the hapless owner that it's a rare limited edition, original press. There's potentially a lot of money in vinyl as physical assets.

Finally, if those weren't good enough reasons, I'll delve into a slightly more technical reason now. Each time music passes from the physical to the non-physical realm, it goes through a process known as ADC/DAC (analogue to digital conversion, digital to analogue conversion).

When music is uploaded to a computer, it is sliced up into thousands of slices per second (usually 44100 to be precise). Because a computer operates in CPU calculations (of which are measured in cycles per second, or Hz), the audio has to be sliced up into bits and bytes each processor tick. Secondly, the waveform of the audio has to be mapped out into steps in order to create a digital representation of the audio.

In other words, instead of a long, continuous stream of audio, you're actually getting a sliced up version of the same audio.

Digital audio waveform

There are then gaps between these slices, which are essentially missed between CPU cycles, and glitches where the audio falls between two points. This is known as quantisation error. Often this will present as random clicks and pops in the audio. So to get round this, 'dithering' is applied. Dithering is an algorithm, that applies a thin layer of randomisation across these steps, in order to mask these discrepancies. This process takes place as audio goes into a computer, and is then put through the reverse of these processes when being played back.

Dithering audio example

As a concept, dithering was first discovered during World War 2, they found that the analogue computers used to calculate bomb trajectory and navigation would seize up, and give less accurate data when grounded and static. They found that the gentle vibrations from the planes engines would actually allow these computers to function to a greater degree of accuracy.

Finally, most audio is often compressed into an mp3 (or similar) format purely to keep file sizes down. Which again means a loss in quality.

Anyway, I've definitely digressed! So as you can by now understand, if you didn't already. Audio is torn apart, sliced up, dithered, randomised, squashed and stretched in order to fit by the thousands onto your smart phone or iPod (are they still a thing?).

What you get on a vinyl, is the audio as intended by the artist and the mastering engineer. With a full dynamic range and uncompressed.

So go to your local record shop, and experience the buzz of stumbling across one of your favourite albums, taking it home and just dedicating some time to actually enjoy it. Do it for the artist who put sweat, blood and tears into that masterpiece. But most importantly, do it for yourself. Start loving music again.

Thanks Phil Illsley for showing me the light!