Who would have predicted that the vinyl LP would make such a comeback? But here we are. In 2018 you can get the latest musical release in 12-inch vinyl format, whether Ed Sheeran’s Divide or Kari Jobe’s The Garden. In our digital world, where a thousand songs can be stored on your phone, the cumbersome and bulky LP (long play) record is available again.
There are, of course, important differences between these two musical mediums. When we listen to music on an iPhone or MP3 player, the music has been stored in digital format – parts of the original musical sound waves have been captured or sampled and then converted to a series of numbers for software to interpret. On the other hand, when we listen to a vinyl record, the music has been recorded and stored in analog format. This means that the recording is shaped by the full sound waves originally produced by voices and instruments.
I would be out of my depths if I tried to say much more about analog and digital recording. I’m not even sure I can tell the difference when it comes to the quality of sound – and as you can imagine there’s an animated debate on that question in the world of musical connoisseurs! And to this whole conversation we must add the complicating factor that many of today’s vinyl albums are based on digital recordings – that is, many newer LPs don’t offer a fully analog listening experience.
Another key difference between analog and digital recordings lies in the fact that analog mediums (such as the vinyl LP) will break down over time. This is because records are easily scratched or otherwise damaged. Also, the very act of playing a record (with diamond-tipped needle on vinyl surface) causes wear and tear. As the LP deteriorates, so does the sound it produces. Digital music, on the other hand, doesn’t degrade. Hand-held devices might get broken (or dropped in the lake!), but the digital recording itself won’t break down.
Notwithstanding the obvious disadvantages of vinyl (cost, storage requirements, deterioration and a serious lack of portability) I’d still make the case for including at least some vinyl in our music collections. The importance of vinyl lies in the fact that it mirrors our nature as physical, embodied creatures.
Behind the scenes care
Every kind of musical instrument, whether a guitar, oboe or trombone – or the human voice, for that matter – requires immense care. Soaking and cleaning an oboe’s reed will improve its longevity and performance. Vocal exercises allow the singer’s voice to warm up before a performance and help the singer with breath, posture and pronunciation. A failure to care for any instrument, like the failure to care for a vinyl collection, will diminish its musical capacities and lifespan. In this sense, the physical care that music-making always requires is embodied in the care we take with a record collection.
Analog mediums also remind us that music is never simply “at hand” for us. Notwithstanding our Spotify and iTunes reality, we should not think of music as being available at our convenience and whim. The presence of music in our lives requires the activity, skill and discipline of embodied performers – as well as their time and availability. The way a record is played – you cannot easily skip to your preferred song, you listen to music in the order it has been etched into the vinyl, and you must move your body to flip the record – at least pushes us toward the truth that music is not a mere convenience. Not ours to command.
Think of the experience of playing a record. You open the turntable and pull the vinyl disk carefully from its cardboard sleeve, not wanting to scratch its grooved surface. You settle the record onto the platter, lift the arm, then gently lower the needle onto the spinning record. That telltale light crackle signals success, and the music begins. No doubt there is a good amount of nostalgia in this act for anyone who grew up around vinyl LPs. But this is much more than an act of nostalgia. With our body we are enacting the care and physical activity that music always requires.