Rippin’ Records

Death is pretty final, I’m collecting vinyl
I’m gonna DJ at the end of the world

R.E.M., “I’m Gonna DJ”, from the 2008 album Accelerate

My musical coming-of-age happened while cassette tapes were king and compact discs were first entering the scene.  Tapes were fun; they were small & pocketable, sounded okay, and they were great in the car or your Walkman because they didn’t skip.  As a rust-on-tape technology they eventually wore out, and if you weren’t careful the tape could come flying off the capstans and all over the floor of your ’81 Ford Granada.  Thankfully, all you needed to fix a testy tape was a six-sided pencil and a bit of patience to rewind the spools.

CDs are fine.  The sound quality is generally excellent if they have been mastered correctly.  Skipping was a HUGE problem for portable CD players at first.  It wasn’t until oversampling technology came along that CDs were worth putting into cars and portable music players.

Of course, the musical world spins on mp3s and other electronic file formats today.  The concept of music on a physical medium is quickly going the way of the dodo bird and John Tesh’s career.  However, there’s a funny little secret about the music industry – vinyl is making a HUGE comeback.

For now, the fraction of people collecting new vinyl is really small.  And truth be known, it will probably always be a niche market.  However, vinyl sales are up something like 40% since this time last year, and it’s not just contrarian hipster douchebags with bed-head, bad beards and berets driving the comeback.  I think a lot of hardcore music listeners are looking for a change from the sometimes harsh sound and emotional frigidity of downloaded mp3s.  It’s also great to see large-format artwork on store shelves again.

Many of my favourite artists are releasing their new albums simultaneously on CD, iTunes, and vinyl, often in 180 gram audiophile quality and double-gatefold sleeves.  They aren’t cheap, but it puts the fun back into shopping for music.  It’s also a riot to sit around on a Friday night spinning platters of plastic and reveling in the unique sound of a well-mastered record.  It’s even cool to have to flip the record over every 20-ish minutes (hey, you have to get up to refresh your drink anyway).

I picked up my first turntable about a month ago.  I did my research, picked a price point that would give me excellent fidelity at a manageable cost, and bought a Pro-Ject Audio Systems 1 Xpression III Classic in a lovely olive wood finish.  The hi-fi salesman showed me that it can be upgraded if I really want to get crazy, but the quality of the stock components are all first-rate.  So far I’m really happy with the machine.

My Turntable

Everything is completely manual. You even have to take the platter off and move the belt from the small sheave to the large one to switch from 33 to 45 rpm (very old-school cool).

Usually when you buy a new LP today, it will come with either a digital download or a CD copy of the album.  Wilco are putting out all of their records on vinyl through their website, and they typically come with a CD.  The download code or extra CD is handy because it makes loading the album into iTunes a snap.  It gives you total control over your music collection; sit at home and listen to vinyl, or take your mp3s with you in your pocket wherever you go.  The experience vs the convenience.  However, the old ‘classic’ vinyl records, and even some new albums, don’t come with an electronic backup copy of the music.  I’m looking at you, Los Bastardos de la Coldplay.  So what to do if you want to take your vinyl with you on a walk around the neighbourhood?

I picked up a device called a U-Phono UFO202 at amazon.ca, from a company called Behringer.  It’s a device that takes the left and right channels of low level output from your turntable, boosts it to line level, then transmogrifies the signal to a digital bitstream.  It can also grab line-level signals directly (cassette players, CDs, DVDs, etc.) if you’re so inclined.

Plug that into your computer’s USB port, run a program like Audacity, and rip your records to hard drive.  Audacity gives you the power to balance the volume levels, eliminate clicks and pops, separate each side of the album into individual tracks, and edit the ID3 tags.  After a little playing around, I was able to make a digital copy of Mylo Xyloto.  It worked out pretty well.

Now I’m looking forward to ripping some of my parents’ old vinyl to mp3.  Chances are pretty good I’ll start exploring the local record shops for my own vintage vinyl, too.  Who knows what kind of out-of-print gems I’ll discover.

New hobbies rock!

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