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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Throw away your records – THIS IS NOT A TEST #6 (transcript)

Published January 31, 2015

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Hey, I’m getting a new computer tomorrow. I don’t mention that because it’s necessarily exciting news. There have been a few times I’ve wanted to pick up a computer I was using – or trying to use – and throw it out a window. and that usually happens when I’m setting up a computer or moving to a new one. There’s something awful about the whole gory, painstaking procedure – getting things set up the way you like them and reinstalling programs – then setting those up the way you’re used to using them…the whole thing is like moving in to a new house or having a dentist pull teeth out of your head really slowly.

I know it should be a happy time full of glad promise and sunshine, but it never is. those things. those unavoidable boxes. when I was new to computers I’d walk into the room, turn the thing on, do whatever I wanted to do, then turn the thing off and walk away. the only time I turn off a computer now is when I’m leaving town — sticking my crusty old ThinkPad into a backpack or a suitcase. otherwise they are always on, and I’m never more that 50 feet away from one. it’s not good, somehow, there’s something horrifying about it all, yet there I am day after day, sitting or standing in front of one. or carrying one around in my pocket. what happened to us?

luckily I don’t use a computer to record this, so there’s little chance of me throwing any of this stuff out a window while I’m doing this. Not zero chance, but little chance.

I watched an episode of Steven Johnson’s show How We Got to Now on PBS the other day – the one about sound – I love those kinds of things, where someone lays out the genesis of a big idea or change and explains how those things started and evolved. it’s usually not a single genius who creates something, but a series of really clever people building on each others ideas. that’s the case with sound recording anyway. 18 years before Thomas Edison scratched Mary Had a Little Lamb into a thin sheet of foil, a French doctor – whose name escapes me at the moment — because I didn’t bother to commit it to memory – but this doctor made the first recording of the human voice by scratching sound waves into paper that he covered with soot!

The funny thing is, while he invented recording, he didn’t invent anything to play those recordings, so he never heard them. His experiments were uncovered much later in a museum somewhere, and it’s only been very recently that anyone was able to figure out a way to hear them. What’s really funny is the fact that what he did 155 years ago is fundamentally the same thing we do to make a vinyl record today: scratch sound waves into something.

We don’t continue to use a lot of “technology” that was invented around the time the Civil War started here in America. 8 years after the soot paper recordings we’d get the typewriter, and 8 years after that, the telephone – those things stubbornly hung around for a long time, but they’re both quite obsolete now, replaced by technology that’s often better, sometimes not. Telephones, I’m looking at you. You used to be a lot better when you were hooked up to wires. But sound recording has progressed quite a bit in the past 30 years, mainly because it became intertwined with the rise of the computer, which we rightly or wrongly believe can do all things. So really, the old method of scratching grooves into something to recreate sound has become as obsolete as the typewriter or rotary phone.

Don’t get me wrong, I love records. I grew up with them, and they nurtured me and fed me and really, without exaggeration, made me who I am. There’s nothing like sitting on your dirty bedroom floor with that sleeve in your hand, staring at the images and if you were lucky, the lyrics, just taking in the music. The covers were usually pretty cool, but the music, man, that was really all that mattered. Sure, there were 8 track tapes out there too, they were everywhere, but I never had an 8-track player, and when I heard 8-tracks out in the world I couldn’t believe that they just abruptly faded out songs in the middle to switch tracks! Even as a kid I knew there was something incredibly fucked about that. But that was just businessmen making product. “I don’t care if it cuts in the middle, see, just pick it up where it left off on the next track! We can’t waste tape!”

Eventually we got cassettes too, but I continued to buy vinyl. You could make your own cassettes, but you couldn’t make your own records. Did you know there were even reel to reel tapes of albums? Yes, there were. If you were one of those audio heads who had an open reel tape deck, you could go buy School’s Out or Quadrophenia on a 7 inch reel of tape, and the box looked just like the LP sleeve.

But I grew up on 45s and LPs, vinyl, vinyl, vinyl. When I was younger it was mainly 45s, because that’s what everyone bought. Albums were rare and expensive things, so the 45s were where it was at. Singles, songs, pow! In and out, bam. hit me! So yeah, I loved vinyl, but it’s really all we had, so if you loved music, you had to love vinyl. It was like an arranged marriage.

And record stores – there was something about record stores that was just magic. Even the smell of them excited me. The plastic stink of endless possibility. The physical act of flipping through hundreds of records looking for a gem. Finding things unexpectedly, whether you came across them yourself or had one of the cooler-than-you record store guys – they were always guys – recommend something. That’s how I found The New York Dolls. the hippie at the little hole in the wall record shop in downtown St. Paul called Three Acre Wood played it for me when he saw me looking at the cover — probably with my mouth hanging open, like “What the fuck is this?” I don’t think I would have bought it if that guy hadn’t played it for me first.

But as I got older and started playing music myself and accumulating more records, just being surrounded by music all day every day, I couldn’t help but think that things could be better. Playing albums was a pain in the ass. They were cumbersome and fragile, and to listen to a double album – or triple album if you were a masochist – was painful. Every 20 minutes you’d have to get up and either flip the record or pull another record out of the sleeve and slap it on – after cleaning it, of course. which was its own kind of project. It was ridiculous and awful, and not very futuristic at all.

So as someone who ate, slept and breathed music, I can tell you that when CDs came around I thought I had died and gone to heaven. You’re telling me that the sound doesn’t degrade, even if you play it a million times? I don’t have to flip it over when it’s half done? They’re small and come in their own little plastic box? Oh my god, it was a revelation and a miracle. I think it’s safe to say that pretty much every music lover at the time embraced them as the most wonderful thing to ever happen to music – to records, anyway.

And they were, you know, with certain technical exceptions. When you make a record you do something called “mastering,” which is taking the stereo master tape from the studio and making another, final recording – the pressing master – that goes to the press. Either the vinyl press, the tape duplicator or the CD manufacturer. Those masters are all mixed and EQed and balanced differently for the different media. You know, for vinyl you can’t have too much bass or the needle will pop right out of the groove. And the longer a side was, the closer together the grooves were, which wasn’t good because it cut down the volume – that’s why the first Pretenders album said PLAY IT LOUD on the back. Not because they wanted you to rock, but because they jammed a lot of minutes onto that thing and the sound was very low as a result.

Now in the very early days of CDs, Some big companies were in a big hurry to sell you CDs of all the records that you already had, so they pulled out the dusty old masters made for vinyl and sent them to the CD pressing plant, just to get product out more quickly, and the results were not so good. Even when those big companies did remaster for CD, it was often an assembly line process, just because they were doing so many albums. And mastering a record is not an assembly line process, it takes a long time to do it right. A guy named Barry Diament remastered all of the Bob Marley and the Wailers Island records for CD in the mid 90s (after they’d already released them on CD once, of course) and he spent two weeks mastering 10 albums. But man, that guy is an artist, because those remasters he did sound magnificent. But as you can see, it’s not something you can do quickly to a lot of records. Unfortunately a lot of the big companies had to do assembly line jobs in order to get the product out. So right off the bat, CDs got a bum rap as sounding like shit. because some of them did, but mainly because of poor or rushed mastering. And it didn’t help that most of the early CD players weren’t exactly audiophile equipment.

Ah, audiophiles. We should probably take a minute to talk about audiophiles. because I’m about to propose to you that your vinyl records sound like shit and CDs are vastly superior, and that’s not exactly a universally held belief. In fact these days the average hipster would challenge you to a slap fight if you made such a bold statement, probably because they spent a lot of money on turntables and vinyl. And we’re not even going to talk about digital files that you download or rip – they are always lower quality, so bringing them into this conversation would just muddy the waters.

So yeah, audiophiles – they are people who love audio equipment and hardware. They kind of like music too, but mostly they love electronics and debating the strengths and weaknesses of a million different audio components. They are also into math, because they talk about numbers a lot. Ratings and measurements and scales and graphs, none of which have anything to do with enjoying music. Audiophiles are also notoriously gullible, and many of them will buy things like $20 round black stickers to put on the windows in their house because the person selling those two cent stickers for $20 said they “reduce reflection” or something. They also buy $500 gold-tipped cables and power filters and all manner of snake-oil – like, and I’m not making this up, special crystals to tape to your $500 cables – because they believe it makes music sound better. Or little pyramids you put on your floor in the corners of the room. I’m not making that up either. The more illogical and expensive something is, the better it must be, right?

Okay, let me back up a little further, because…I’m kind of an audiophile myself. At least in what I think is the true definition of the term. I value quality sound reproduction, mostly because I dealt in sound reproduction for a living when I was recording and live mixing bands. So I do have – what is to me, a ridiculously expensive CD player – though to the average audiophile it’s probably a piece of junk – and a great big heavy old Dual turntable, a bigger, heavier Marantz amp, studio monitors, subwoofers and all that shit. None of it is “audiophile” equipment – you know, the kind that you buy in those glass rooms with the couches in them at Best Buy – but it’s all better than the typical consumer grade stuff I had for most of my life. I have all of that because I love music, and over the past 30 years I’ve figured out what I needed to really hear music the way I think it should be heard. And even though it’s just a laser beam and some electronics, there’s a big difference between a $100 CD player – if they even still make those – and a $700 CD player. There is far less difference however between the $700 CD player and a $10,000 CD player. And yes, there are $10,000 CD players.

But in the audiophile world there’s a lot of psychology at work. After all, when people who look at graphs rather than listen to music actually do take a minute to listen to music – or really, when we as humans do anything – we’re subject to personal biases, our own perception and the placebo effect. Meaning there’s often a really wide gap between reality and what we perceive as reality. To give you an example, in the electric guitar world, there is a huge market for effect pedals – you know, distortion, echo, wah wah, all that shit. I have a lot of pedals around here, and I’ve used them for a long time, most guitar players do. But in the last 20 years or so a new kind of pedal maker has cropped up. They make what are called “boutique” pedals, meaning, usually, pedals made by hand by small companies. And of course guitar players go ape shit over these things, because, naturally, something made by hand by a small company is superior to crap made by the robots of a huge corporation, right?

Well, maybe. One of those small “boutique” companies became famous for making an overdrive pedal that everyone said was awesome, mainly because it was expensive and, you know, boutique. But then it came to light that these “boutique” overdrive pedals were really $40 Chinese overdrives with repainted boxes. I tell you that story so we all understand that humans are fallible and gullible and really want to believe what we want to believe. You know, if you spend $200 on an overdrive pedal, you’re naturally predisposed to believing that you’re getting a $200 experience. It doesn’t matter that the guts were a cheap Chinese circuit. You paid $200 so it sounds awesome!

But what it all comes down to is the human body and brain. We are made of meat and bone, so our eyes and ears can only process so much information. They both sample our surroundings and process that input and then send it to our brains which present us with a wonderful, fluid reality. Our eyes can only see a certain narrow spectrum of all of the light in the world, and our ears can only hear a certain range of frequencies. Beyond that spectrum and those frequencies we see and hear nothing. It’s as if they don’t exist. That’s important to acknowledge because people who are pro-vinyl often talk about the great wide range of frequencies that vinyl can reproduce, and that the frequency range of a CD is purposely limited. Well, yes — a CDs frequency range is limited – it’s limited to the frequencies humans can hear. They were limited when the format was invented, and that limitation was based on science and human biology. But when some people hear the word “limited” they automatically think “inferior.”

But back to sampling – which is also a huge bugaboo to the vinyl crowd, maybe the biggest. In photography they call an old school photo print a continuous tone photo, as opposed to a halftone – the things you see printed in magazines or books, which are images made up of little dots. But really, a continuous tone photo is still little dots. If you look at a photograph through a loupe you can see that. It’s billions of little pieces of silver that have been stained and tarnished and colored by chemicals. If you break up most anything we look at or hear and experience as a smooth, continuous thing, you’ll see they are all made up of a lot of smaller things that our brains assemble into one bigger thing.

People who claim that vinyl LPs sound better than CDs usually talk about warmth. And they say that music that is sampled and broken down into 0s and 1s that an electronic machine reads – like, oh, I don’t know…a CD – can’t be as good as vinyl because a needle following a groove in the record is a physical thing, and so it’s inherently better. More natural.

But here’s the thing: everything you hear on a vinyl record has been sampled too. This microphone samples my voice and converts the sound waves into electrical current, then that current passes through cables and electronics in the mixer before it gets to the recorder. The sound is being sampled and converted every step of the way. And that 2 inch wide magnetic tape that they use in recording studios – or that they used to use anyway – that is made up of billions of tiny little pieces of oxidized metal. In other words, rust. The recorder uses electricity and magnetism to charge those little bits of rust. So the tape is just one long sample. Billions – or maybe trillions or whatever comes after trillions – of pieces of magnetized rust, not music.

An electric guitar takes the vibration of the string and samples it using magnets in the guitar pickup, then the pickup converts those samples to electric current. So you get the idea – there is no continuous method of recording sound. Even the grooves on a record are samples – little bumps and squiggles that make the turntable needle vibrate, and that vibration is converted to – what? you know the answer by now – electrical current! your stereo converts that current into different current that it sends to the speakers, and the speakers vibrate and create sound wave that your ear and brain translate into music.

vinyl records are great historical documents, and you need to listen to them if you want to hear older music, or music that hasn’t been converted to CD. But quality-wise, those records are always inferior to a properly mastered CD. The noise inherent in the vinyl itself, the quality – or lack of quality – of the actual pressing – added to the vibrations from the turntable motor and mechanics – and how worn out your turntable needle is – all of those things contribute to making it a lesser storage medium. And in fact, when people talk about the “warmth” of a vinyl record, what they’re really talking about are all of those non-musical bits of noise that you hear when you play a record. Those artifacts create a kind of background noise that makes a really clean recording, like a CD, sound “sterile” to most people in comparison. Honestly, the first time I heard a digital recording of a chamber orchestra on a CD it sounded so weird — you could hear people’s feet scraping on the floor, hear the breath of the wind instrument players – it was odd and alien. Recorded music had never sounded like that, and it took a while to get used to it.

But for vinyl, in addition to all of the non-music sounds you get when you play vinyl records, the records themselves can be of wildly varying quality. You’ve probably seen film or video of records being pressed. That little turd of hot vinyl being squashed between two metal plates. But did you know those plates – which are called stampers – wear out? That you can only get 20,000 or so pressings out of them before they begin to degrade? But guess what – they don’t throw them into a recycling bin when they hit 20,000 impressions, they keep going. They keep going until the stamper gets so bad that they have to replace it. So if you buy a copy of a popular album that has sold a million copies, what do you think your chances are of getting a copy made from a fresh stamper? Probably not good. Most of the records manufactured are going to be degraded copies of the master because the stampers are wearing out or worn out. Meanwhile the millionth CD manufactured is identical to the first one.

Which is why some record companies were opposed to the very idea of CDs when they were created and proposed as a new standard. They didn’t want to have what is essentially a perfect copy of the master tape out in the world, because they knew that would make things easier for bootleggers and pirates. And if it’s one thing record companies live in constant fear of, it’s people copying their product and selling it without any of that money going to the record company.

Think about it – when you drop a needle onto a vinyl record you hear sound right away, before you hear music. That snap crackle and pop is the background noise of the vinyl, just the random little particles of shit that are in it, all bouncing off your needle. Those sounds don’t magically disappear when the music starts. They become part of the music. Those random little particles of shit are why some companies pressed expensive versions of some records in the 70s and 80s on what they called “virgin vinyl,” which was supposed to be quieter than run of the mill vinyl. And run of the mill vinyl was more quiet than bottom of the barrel vinyl. If you’ve ever heard a Jamaican 45 you know what the very lowest end of the vinyl food chain sounds like. Some of those Jamaican record sound like they have gravel mixed into the vinyl. But “virgin vinyl” turned out to be a bad thing for record companies, because people started asking – rightfully so – why their “normal” vinyl records couldn’t sound better. But all of that non-music sound on a vinyl record is what we were used to. It’s what we were conditioned to hear as music, so when you take that away, some people feel that something is lacking.

What you may or may not realize, depending on how much of a geek you are, is that “sterile” sound of the CD is what the musicians and engineers hear in the studio. You know, it was working in recording studios and being surrounded by that wonderful studio sound that made me seek out better sound when I listened to music at home. And working in recording studios also forces you to learn how to really use and trust your ears. And when I trust my ears while listening to vinyl, all I hear are all of the flaws in the format. All of the noise, all of the muffled, blanket-over-the-speakers pressings. But in the end what really convinced me that the “warm LP” was a myth was getting that really good CD player I talked about earlier. because what I heard out of that CD player sounded as close as possible to what I heard in the studio. And to me, that’s what we should be striving for – something that’s as close to the sound the musicians hear in the recording studio. That sound doesn’t exist on vinyl records. It just doesn’t.

I completely understand the psychological factors that come into play when you play a vinyl record. It’s a tactile experience, and if you’re old enough, a nostalgic experience. But that’s just psychology and self-delusion. An objective listen – where you put your trust in your ears – will show you that. all of this is really kind of pointless anyway, since most people today don’t buy vinyl LPs OR CDs, they download their music, which is an entirely different tragedy unto itself. Though I suppose with bandwidth being as cheap as it is and everyone having huge data pipes coming in to their homes, eventually you’ll be able to download a lossless digital copy of the music you buy, then stick it onto any media that tickles your fancy. That’s probably what’s next, but don’t ever expect what’s next to kill off the vinyl LP. 60 years from now there will still be little shops with grey haired old hipsters shaking their canes at you and telling you you’re not cool enough to buy that 100 year old Foghat LP.

The problem with progress is it means everything is constantly changing. So the one thing that a physical storage media like vinyl has going for it – and it’s a big thing – is the fact that it can live a long time. Longer than we can. And so far, we haven’t come up with a digital storage media that anyone will be able to translate into music 100 years from now, or even 50 years from now. If I handed you a floppy disc of this podcast, would you be able to play it? Not unless you have a really old computer out in the garage somewhere, under some old bikes and a rusty barbecue grill. But it was only 15 years ago that floppy discs were still a perfectly reasonable way to store certain things. Even CDs, which I’ve just wasted part of your life raving about, eventually degrade and become error prone and unplayable. None of mine have met that fate so far, but I know that eventually it’s inevitable.

But while they’re here, I think it’s foolish not to embrace them, to stubbornly cling to some inferior, outmoded technology because it makes you feel good. Sitting in front of a typewriter might make you feel good too, but it’s kind of like riding one of those bikes with a huge front wheel to work. It doesn’t make much sense.

Jesus, I can’t get the idea of a 100 year old Foghat LP out of my mind, and it kind of freaks me out, so it’s probably time to go. I’ll see you next time. trust your ears! and keep your shoes tied loose.

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