Wednesday, January 25, 2017

For The Record

It’s not that records sound better, not at all. It’s that I listen to records better. That’s what this is all about. 

A week and a half ago, I bought a turntable. A week and a half before that I bought my first record in thirty years. I’ve bought nine more records and will buy more when I have the money. 

I posted to Facebook about how records don’t sound better but I listen better. One friend wrote that records do sound better. He may be right, but I’ll likely never know. My hearing isn’t great. I’ve known people who could hear the difference between types of amplifier circuitry. I barely notice the difference between two good sets of speakers. The qualities of sound from a record or digital stream are largely lost on me. I hear warmth in records, but that may be more a result of believing it to be there than anything actually in the sound. I hear snap, crackle, and pop off even the cleanest of records, something I was grateful to leave behind with the purchase of my first CD. The sound quality is more a trade-off than any kind of advantage, and I don’t care much about it. 

I didn’t buy a turntable and records for better sound. I bought them to better listen. 

Records are inconvenient. Compared with digital streaming, it’s a pain to listen to a song on record. With digital, I search my phone for the title, push play, and cast it to my amplifier. It could be maybe a little easier, but already it’s awfully convenient. Almost every song I want to hear is available inexpensively and with no media to store. In contrast, on ten records, I have only 101 songs. I have to flip through to find the album, pull the record sleeve out, slip the record from the sleeve, put it down on the turntable (usually having to first remove and put away the record left on the platter), clean the record, and put the needle in the groove. This is inconvenient enough that I rarely play just one song, opting instead for a whole side. 

This is the beginning of why I like records: digital streaming obliterates some of the good experience of listening to music on record. I’m not talking about sound quality. 

It’s difficult to browse a gigantic catalog. As of 2016, my subscription service had 35 million songs available, which is great until I try to browse through them. It’s an impossible task. Mostly I listen to whatever I’ve been listening to lately or what someone has recommended. The things I listen to tend to disappear into the huge collection of things available. There was a jazz album I remember liking a couple months ago, but I can’t recall what it was. My play history doesn’t go back that far and even if it did, there’s too much to sort through. Imagine shelving 35 million songs. Four shelves high, the music would stretch for three miles. Now imagine browsing through that. Even if it was alphabetical and divided by genre, there’s just no way. Streaming services have search engines, which is convenient, but that’s no way to browse. You mostly have to know what you want. 

As a kid, it was easy to browse my two hundred records. I had organized them. I knew what was there. I amassed the collection one or two records a week for years. I could run my finger over the spines and that kind of browsing is something I’ve missed more than I expected. Apple tried to replicate the experience. Remember the cover flipping feature in iTunes? It didn’t work. Organization of the music is left to the machines now. I’ve traded away something important for the convenience of having three miles of music in my pocket. 

There are huge benefits from this. Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile are about to release an album. I will have the music that morning and can cast it to the speakers first thing. it will be crisp and clear. I can listen while making my coffee and writing. The service costs $14.99 a month, less than the cost of a new record, and serves six of us 35 million songs all of which fit in our phones. It works at home, in the car, out walking the dog, and anywhere else. It is so convenient. 

The trade off is I don’t much listen to music though I have music on almost all the time. Coming home I first pet the dog and then turn on the amp. Within half an hour of waking, I have music playing. Music is on while I cook, clean, exercise, and lie in bed, but I don’t often listen, not really. Convenience means I don’t focus on the process of playing music, so I end up not listening closely. I enjoy it some, but don’t listen the way I used to. 

As a kid, I put albums on and listened. I read the liner notes, knew song names, understood where the album fit in the catalog. I can still name every Genesis album in order. My friend can tell who wrote most every song and might be able to name every song in order through Wind & Wuthering. The music was important. We luxuriated in it. I still play as much music, the habit is strong, but I do everything but listen. I blame some of this on getting older, but blame the convenience much more. 

Take sound quality out of the question and the experience of listening to a record is richer than digital because it is inconvenient. It takes a moment to select an album and put it on. Only twenty-two minutes later I have flip it or put on another. Records require attention digital steams do not. The inconvenience of playing the record rubs off on my listening. A record on the turntable calls for listening much more than a digital stream. After all, I’ve gone to the trouble of putting it on. I might as well listen and enjoy. 

None of this is to say that I can’t listen carefully to digital music. There’s nothing about digital music that precludes listening well. The ones and zeroes aren’t to blame for my failure to pay attention. No, this is on me. I could pay more attention to my streaming music, but I’m not likely to. It’s like losing twenty pounds. That would be more likely if I quit Wegmans and shopped only at the farmer’s market. The inconvenience would lead to weight loss as I prepared more of my food, ate in season, and gave up stuff in plastic packages. It’s tough to lose weight with the bounty and convenience of Wegmans. I’m not overweight because of Wegmans, but I’d be lighter if I didn’t shop there. Sticking with Wegmans and still losing weight is a long shot. It’s the same with listening well to digital music. Possible but unlikely. 

I bought a turntable and records in order to listen better, not because of the sound. I bought a turntable and records of the costs of convenience and the return on inconvenience. Digital convenience costs me the pleasure of knowing my music and my attention. Records on the turntable take time and effort to play but return me to the music. A fair trade. 

Put one more way, I can listen to much more digital music, but I listen much more to records on the turntable. Quantity versus quality of listening.

I have records and a streaming service and use both rather than choosing one over another. 

Yesterday, I read of a new jazz album, searched, and began listening to it immediately. Being able to play nearly anything immediately is a treasure. As a kid I suffered the ride home from the record store dying to play my new records. I don’t have to drive or wait anymore.

I also put records on and listen to the whole side. One song moves into the next. I look over the liner notes and stare at the album cover. I let the record spin while I remain slow down, listening, feeling content.  When the side is over I flip to the other side, put on another album, or wish I had more time to listen.

I don’t much care if records sound better or worse than digital. It’s not about that. I don’t mind the inconvenience of records; I embrace it. Records are about listening, paying attention to the experience of listening and being carried to some better place within me. I could maybe get that from digital music, and sometimes do, but I almost always get it at the drop of a needle into that long, winding groove. That’s what it’s all about.