For the first time in decades, analog sales have topped digital! Granted, this was during the Christmas season, but sales of vinyl have been increasing for years and even Forbes magazine is making projections on future sales. The digital supporters can only be described as befuddled. Some of them used to have great fun calling analog lovers hipsters and hippies and freaks and weirdos. How they used to laugh at those crazy people that think that any analog format could possibly beat the juggernaut of music power and might that is digital. And now they've had the rug pulled out from under them, proving the foundation they stood on was no more meaningful or mighty than their words and perpetual insistence that digital was better. Just like the bathroom mat next to the shower is just a mere pretense of safety and cleanliness, their words now ring hollow and empty, nothing but an erroneous assertion of superiority backed by nothing and perpetuated by the unknowing and unwitting empty-headed sheep of human existence. But the sheep are learning! Vinyl is not baaaad at all. Vinyl is great and Vinyl is now a billion dollar business and this is really not funny anymore, and can't be called a fad because it's already lasted too long and fads don't actually knock the dominant format off the top of the sales charts. As it turns out, and most have known all along, analog-lovers and vinyl enthusiasts have real substantial consumer power and they've proven it. The better format has won out... sort of. Christmas shopping season and the vinyl format have combined to make great gifts, especially to millenial females that identify with artists like Lana Del Rey, but to think that an analog format could actually knock digital off the top of the mountain suggests that something really has changed.
But How did this Happen?
It doesn't make sense. The problems with Analog formats are numerous. Vinyl records are large, bulky in numbers, have to be cleaned and maintained properly and can't be transported without the help of vehicles and then there's the skipping, the hiss, pops and clicks and of course, the lifting and dropping of the needle to change tracks which digital can avoid with the simple push of a button on remote control or even a virtual button on the touchscreen of a phone. Even cassettes are making a comeback and about 2 percent of all those old cassettes from the eighties are simply deteriorating with age and can't even be played. And then there's the problem of how to go about getting a good system. They cost money and need to be set up with some care and adjustment. Just getting a decent cartridge costs money and time and effort that a lot of people don't want to spend. It all seems so difficult and tedious and user-unfriendly and terribly un-portable!
And yet the next generation of analog lovers have shown they're pretty fucking smart. Those who didn't have technical knowledge found out how to work this stuff from the older folks, their friends and the internet. Those who don't have a lot of money, are raiding their parents, uncles and grandparents collections for albums and tapes. They're getting out old turntables from the attics and the garage and even picking up cassette-decks from flea markets and garage sales and cleaning them and fixing them. In some cases, they are even electronically hacking into old tech and generally finding ways of finding ways of getting that analog sound that they find new and cool, while at the same time old-fashioned, warm and comforting.
But How did this Happen, Really?
Oh, come on, Really, How did this happen?
Ultimately, we at Very Us Mumblings are biased. We might say we knew all along this might happen. We might say that we told you so. We might say we always knew the reasons. But the truth is.. we don't know exactly why, but we think we have a few good guesses.
1) The Conversion Problem
However, the conversion from analog to digital never really had to happen. This was more of a choice. At first it was done to avoid the supposedly terrible problem of tape-hiss and groove-pops, the inconvenient need to rewind, and the deterioration of records and tapes due to natural wear and tear. Most of these problems were overstated, especially the wear and tear part, but later this conversion to digital was driven, not by the desire to preserve music, but to simply detach music from its physical formats, allowing it to be shared freely and travel through the airwaves of radio and television and a 'series of tubes' called the internet, without the boundaries of cartridges and cardboard covers, mostly wireless. A great new breakthrough in sound, by any measure or calculations, this has changed all our lives in numerous ways.
But our ears hear analog, and all music is made analog and in order for us to actually enjoy music, those digital formats have to be converted from digital back to analog. The newest iphones have gotten rid of their analog 3.5mm headphone-standard jack, suggesting that they now provide a better quality digital something or other, but this is total and utter capital B.S. The technology is not new or different. It's the same. Many people have spent many hours trying to make better DACs or Digital to Analog Converters. Some are better, and some are worse. Early versions of the ipod were said to sound very tinny and weird before they were improved. Essentially, however, what everyone is buying when they purchase a CD player, an mp3 player, a Pono or even an iphone is a DAC, a Digital to Analog Converter. Sometimes they advertise these DACs as what they are, DACs. Sometimes they try to sell them, calling them new and improved, or hi-res, better than CDs or whatever. Improvements have been made, over the course of years, to reduce noise, filter out unwanted hum and background noise, but everyone who has listened to any music for the last twenty years is familiar with the sound and quality of DACs as well as their limitations. This technology is not new and there are no big breakthroughs in the technology, no one is fooled by iphone7, headphone jack or not, into thinking this sounds better. No one who has switched to analog formats has gone back to digital and said: "Oh, I was wrong. Digital sounds much better than I thought or remembered." The truth is that people may not understand the underlying tech behind DACs, but they have heard the products and are familiar with the capabilities.
And with the conversion from Digital to Analog, there is also the conversion from the original analog to the digital file on computer hard-disk or flash drive or whatever set of blips and bleeps upon which it is stored. And with this processing of analog musical performance into digital file, comes the problem of the conversion and the compression.
Waaaaay back In 1999 to around 2003, numerous home-pc users got their first taste of decent-quality digital-audio-editing software, usually downloading a trial-version from the internet, using an application that promised high quality digital recording. Many, upon using such technology, discovered that when they 'recorded' a song that was about 3 to 4 minutes long from an analog source, what they were left with was a .wav file that was about 150 to 220 megabytes. At that time, the average CD could be burned on home computers with about 650 megs worth of data. If these uncompressed songs were to be burned to disc, then one CD of the time would have accommodated three, maybe four of these uncompressed songs. CDs were originally a product of the late 1980s, and by the turn of the millenium, the digital capability of the recording industry and even home computers had surpassed the CD standard of the time, and yet, CDs were sold in stores claiming the highest digital quality and containing more songs than the vinyl version or tape cassette and some CDs even had a couple of 'bonus' hidden tracks, never telling consumers that they were buying a compressed and/or condensed version of these tracks or songs. Basically, the original recordings, if digital at all, were being done at a higher resolution like 24/96 and mixed-down or compressed to fit the CD-standard and quite possibly, had been for years. No one told the consumer or the producer that this was false advertising, and only a few dared challenge the quality of the sound. At that time, we were told CDs were 'perfect sound' and judging by sales, CDs were the king and anyone who spoke against the king were put in the tower to await death while the rest of the kids played in the playground until the bell rang. Meanwhile, all that compression was doing stuff to your music that you may not have wanted.
While the general public were unwittingly buying compression-songs without being told, some nerds actually tried to improve the sound by increasing the sampling rates. 16-bit/44.1kHz became 24/96, which uncompressed creates a 1GB file. And 32-bit/192khz recording which produces a 4GB file. Of course, these higher sampling rates have not proven themselves, in and of themselves, to be 'better' than analog, even without compression. They can only claim to be 'higher resolution' than the next set of sampling rates lower or previous. So at best, the highest quality recording available to digital technology (which you aren't getting, btw, Remember those DACs are not necessarily the latest and best) is about four songs that would fit onto a 16GB SD card. SD cards are very small, but... 4 songs, man. One 90minute Cr02 cassette tape, made in 1986, contains over sixteen songs, uncompressed, as high quality as your home system will allow. Suddenly digital doesn't seem so overwhelmingly superior, even in these modern ultra-futuristic times we live in.
2)Ears are underestimated
or (alternate title)
2)THERE ARE NO SAMPLING RATES ABOVE OR BEYOND HUMAN HEARING
(Yes, we know exactly what we stated; and yes, We Really, Really Mean It.)
Well, we at Very Us Mumblings have never thought highly of cynics or skeptics, but we truly and deeply regret to inform these people that there are no ultra-sonic mp3s, FLAC, uncompressed digital, CDs, DVD-sound, or any form of commercial consumer-product digital musical recording. There are no CDs capturing sound outside the human spectrum, nor are they replaying those sounds above the human capability to hear. Ultra-sonic capability in commercial digital music formats simply doesn't exist (And why would it?). This argument is 100% false. The skeptics are entirely wrong. And if this means you, then you're wrong, so repent immediately and atone yourself to all those you've wronged with this misinformation.
There are no sampling rates above or beyond human hearing! How can we say such a thing? How can we be so brash and unequivocal? Because that's the truth and if you think differently, it's because you've been misinformed. Somebody somewhere has confused ultrasonic frequencies with sampling rates and told two friends and they told two friends and so on until they've spread this bullshit like butter over the internet. It's wrong. It was always wrong and it's still always wrong. Audio frequencies and sampling rates are not the same. The only thing they have in common is that they are measured in Hertz (cycles per second). It's like taking a ruler, measuring the height of a rectangle and the radius of a circle and then talking about them like they are the same thing because each is measured in centimeters. We will repeat for emphasis: There are no sampling rates that are above or beyond human hearing. And yes, higher sampling rates do create a higher resolution... than other digital formats. For more on sampling rates, check here or here.
And, while talking about human hearing, there seems to be an unequivocal bias towards the idea that everyone's hearing is about as inconsistent and untrustworthy as a politician with financial backing from the big banks and oil industry. Well you can stop being so dismissive of human hearing because the human ears have CONQUERED PHYSICS ITSELF!
Nevertheless, when ordinary human beings with ordinary human ears were tested on the timing and pitch/frequency of notes in several different cases, human beings were proven much more accurate than the Gabor limit. In one case, subjects in the study beat the Gabor limit by a factor of 50. (For those who are not scientific, at this point your mind is blown, and you gasp: "OMG! Fifty times more accurate?") Yes, fifty times more accurate than the Gabor limit! What does this mean? What this means is that human listening and hearing ability is non-linear. Science and skeptics and digital-music-proponents may view music as a waveform across time, linear and two-dimensional, but our brains do not! Somehow our brains and ears have combined powers and adjusted and taken into account this wave-particle duality and managed to decipher it into music, and our minds and bodies are doing this with extreme accuracy and without us even thinking about it! We are able to listen, hear, understand and even think and remember things musically, sonically and audibly in a way that is beyond the linear spectrum of everyday life. It is not an elitist special skill but something intrinsic to the vast majority of our species. Simply put: Listening to music, voices, pitch, tones, beats and timing is what ears and brains are made for, and despite what some may say, humans beings are actually really good at it.
3) Portability is overrated
None of this is new, but how much is really better? So much of this bluetooth-capable, supposedly wireless (until the batteries run out), micro-chip enabled, miniscule amplifier in a tiny box, thin as a wafer and playing compressed audio out of speakers so small that you're not sure if they're in there until you hear them. Most of this stuff is cheaply-made Chinese plastic-coated crap. It's not as if you're getting a better amplifier or sound system for your money. It's more like you're getting a smaller, more crappy piece of tech, but it looks cute and fits in your pocket so we buy it anyway.
If you thought the Crosley turntables were bad, there are a plethora of gadgets that can be bought from many stores, and they'll be advertised with pictures of people walking in a park or jogging through the middle of nowhere, so mobile, so free, with no wires and with features like USB-capable or 'bluetooth-ready' or whatever pile of words that sound like a feature but doesn't mean or even suggest any better sound. These things will range in price from ten to a hundred dollars or even more, but often these small gadgets have two speakers but don't actually produce anything remotely resembling quality stereo sound. In one case, someone here at Very Us Mumblings wondered why the left channel appeared to be missing from his little 'stereo' speakers and opened up the device to find the wires soldered in the wrong place, literally turning a stereo-capable system into mono because of an error by some worker who probably only needed about two minutes more training, a half-cup of coffee, and a decent 15-minute break to avoid eye-strain while soldering these tiny little parts. All this audio crap is produced as quickly and cheaply as possible with poor to mediocre quality and often lasting only about eighteen months or so, but goddammit, it's frigging portable! It just has to be, right?!
And yet, somehow, the least portable format is winning.
If we are not technologically and musically detached from the constraints of the living room or basement, then no gizmo can ever be invented that will further break the connection. And yet, despite this, people are choosing to drop the needle on a record and instead of doing the dishes, they are sticking around the sound machine, watching the records spin, listening, dancing, maybe having a coffee or a beer or a joint in certain places where it's finally been legalized.
Have we been lured back into the basements, where we used to bring our friends over to play some tunes and dance and have a few wobbly pops? Are we drawn, as if by a warm fireplace, to the couch in the living room to listen to some music while having a coffee on a Sunday afternoon in winter? Perhaps we are attracted, with our spouses and lovers to the floor of the apartment, right between the speakers to take that 'Magic Carpet Ride' that Steppenwolf told us about. Perhaps all these things are true.
The LP vinyl format, at one time in the 70s and well into the eighties, was the format that separated the truly good and talented musicians from the one-hit wonders. The view was that any idiot could knock out a single hit song, often just by imitating whatever was currently at the top of the charts. But an album was more difficult. So-called one-hit wonders often put out 'albums' but these were poorly defined collections of a bunch of cover-tunes that the artists usually had nothing to do with writing, just more attempts at getting another hit single.
But then there were some really good albums. And these 'really good' albums were not just a collection of singles. Good albums were like good movies or a good books, you got 'into' them, spent an evening with them, recommended them to your friends and listened to them several times over, getting a little more nuance out of another playback. They often sat on the turntable for days because you knew you wanted to listen to that album again when you got back home from work or school, or on a Tuesday, when there was nothing on TV. Really good albums were talked about, discussed with your friends and colleagues, often the lyrics were debated or the 'concepts' of the concept-album were questioned. Your friend noticed the use of the harmonica, you thought the drums were cool, so and so's girlfriend liked the saxophone. Everyone has a slightly different take on it. Sometimes the liner-notes and illustrations on the cover gave clues as to the meaning of some of the songs.
Time and technology seemingly has conspired to stop this romantic bond between fan and artist. Corporations have tried their best to break up this marriage of audience and artistry and energy and physical disc. Mp3s and DACs seem entirely suited to turn an album back into just a collection of songs to be handed out and sold individually like cheap halloween candy. And it almost worked until millenials discovered their parents record collections. More technology has allowed such singles to be shaved off and manipulated and even mixed around, but, as it turns out, a digital playlist just doesn't carry the emotional and spiritual woo-woos of something analog, such as the home-made mix tape, which spoke something of the person who made it, and often surprised the listener to discover that you were 'into' that sort of thing.
4) So what was the Point?
When music was first put into digital formats, some thought that the music would then be 'preserved forever'. What may have been done with the intention to preserve was then compressed to fit a convenient form, then marketed as 'better than the original'. In effect, it was all hype from the beginning. The whole idea that the digital version could be better than the original was preposterous to begin with. The idea of preserving music forever in digital form, though noble in intention, proved closer to just making one more copy and making it easy for that copy to be copied and then shared through data and connections that were mostly wireless. It's like creating a statue of someone that people thought should be remembered, then taking photos of the statue and then rendering those photos to digital files and then sharing those photos all around the internet. It's just another step in the production of data, not a real or better preservation of the music itself.
But past meets present, and something that seems to be happening is not just a rediscovery of what happened in the past, but a re-discovery of what it means to spend time, about twenty to twenty-eight minutes per side, listening to your favourite artist, in a hopefully uncompressed, truly analog format on a decent system that was made to last for a long time. And perhaps that might be yet another reason why the analog formats have returned, because the thought of listening has returned to our minds. We want to listen to music, not only as a distraction from a boring car ride, but as something that creates more of an experience. We want a good quality recording and we want to listen and dance and sit or have a coffee or a couple of beers, sometimes alone, sometimes with our friends, but mostly a spiritually-shared experience with our favourite musicians and songwriters and take in music in a similar way to the way someone enjoys a good play or a good movie. It sounds good, and it feels good too.
We Won so bad it Hurts
Apparently cashing in on the wave of popularity, new turntables are appearing on the market. And while some offer value and upgrade-ability, some seem to be simply riding on the crest of the resurgence of analog sound. Many manufacturers are springing up, seemingly out of nowhere, to now provide a 'high-end' turntable in the range of a thousand to three thousand dollars or even more (We at Very Us Mumblings endorse nothing in such a price range and suggest, if you are going to spend that much $, that you make sure you know what you're getting for your money.). Features that used to be considered standard, like a speed switch to change from 33 to 45 and back again, have suddenly garnered 'upgrade' status and cost $75 to $100 to be included or require an entire upgrade to the next higher model. (The underlying electronics necessary to switch speeds of a turntable, even at premium rates, cost about $10 in parts and about $20 to install, so a price hike of nearly one-hundred bucks for a speed-control-switch seems way too much) And now new systems, featuring only what was standard back in the 80s, are charging somewhere between $400 and $600 for essentially the same things that used to be expected of any decent system. All of this seems to be changing the whole analog-lover image from that of a inner-city hipster with a cool, but relatively inexpensive hobby, into some generic sort of 'audiophile' or 'audio-geek' with a newly acquired taste for what is perceived to be a premium product. Or perhaps, since the whole vinyl resurgence has crossed-over conveniently just before Xmas time 2016, the new image of the analog-listener is a suburbanite-family thinking of gift-giving ideas or a new addition to the living room entertainment centre.
It might be the appropriate time for analog and vinyl lovers to lose their 'cult' status and step into mainstream, but some of these things seem like a cash-grab. Some people out there seem to think this vinyl resurgence is a fad and that it's going to go away, so they seem to trying to cash in and make as much money as they can, selling equipment advertised as 'high end' when it should be considered mid-range. To us at Very Us Mumblings, It just doesn't seem that people are getting the value that they once did from buying a new turntable, especially at the expensive end of the spectrum. And while some cheaper versions are available, you will likely give up something to get that lower price; a smaller motor, a lighter platter, a cheaper tonearm, no pitch control, or the speed switch has disappeared altogether and you have to manually pull a belt over to the next gear (which is not necessarily a bad thing so long as you're aware of what you're getting for your money). Our suggestion to consumers is buy for the long-term and insist on quality that will last, or plan your purchase or upgrade ahead of time to get the best bang for your buck, or just save your money until you find and can get exactly what you want at a reasonable price. Until then, you can watch Vinyl Porn videos of your favourite vinyl spinning on YouTube and other video sties.
If buying new doesn't suit you, there's always used. The 'for sale' listings of local or internet vintage audio systems used to be the market of choice for those who wanted to save money and get that vintage audio sound. It has not yet gotten to the point where there are no more savings for going vintage, but increasingly, prices for audio antiquities are on their way up. And the reason is obvious: more and more people, instead of buying yet another big screen or other addition to their home theatre system, are looking to fill that corner of the basement with a record-shelf, two turntables, a receiver/amplifier and a pair of 12-inch speakers, and if all of this comes from the 1960s or eighties, even better because it will have that 'cool retro look'. But with all the new converts to the analog formats, elderly turntables are becoming harder to find and more expensive to buy. Those bargains sell faster, and newly refurbished equipment is sometimes selling at prices comparable to what was paid when they were new. Companies that were thought to have gone by the wayside, haven't produced turntable since the nineties or were sold off and even out of business, such as Dual, Thorens and Bang & Olufsson are finding their old turntables commanding pretty good re-sale prices considering these models are three decades old or more.
While CDs are quickly becoming worthless relics, vintage vinyl is commanding higher prices. Some hoarders are buying up copies from the dollar bins and then trying to get as much as they can on e-bay or other places. A one-out-of-literally-millions copy of Lionel Richie's 'Can't Slow Down' may not start a bidding-war on e-bay, but even at the flea-markets and thrift stores, random albums have gone from one buck to five, and from five bucks to as much as twenty. Even that beat-up Stones album left in the basement for a decade, with the coffee-stain on the corner might garner as much as $10 if the vinyl inside isn't in too bad condition and the Stones fan doesn't live too far away.
And with greater popularity comes more international interest. Canada, the U.S.A and Mexico have been trading albums with each other for as long as anyone can remember, and those in the Euro-zone have been selling and trading audio equipment for decades. But what used to happen among North Americans or intra-Euro is now a multi-continent, whole-world phenomenon. Decades ago the average Chinese and Indian family likely didn't have the disposable income or internet capability to outbid buyers on e-bay or other markets, but today they do. And they're helping vintage equipment prices to go higher again, bidding up the number ones, surely, but also lifting up the prices of some of the secondary and tertiary choices for audio systems and speakers. It's great times if you're selling off grandma's old stereo from the attic; not so much if you were looking for a bargain system from yesteryear.
To Some Extent this is a Good Thing
To some extent, those who had faith all along are being rewarded. Those guys and girls that kept their vinyl and tape collections, even small ones, suddenly find that they have some gems among them. These things are valuable whether you sell them or not. And those that tinker in hobby electronics, buying vintage systems and fixing them to the best of their ability, they may find that they can now sell what they repaired for a decent price or simply hold on to those systems instead of buying new, getting value through use instead of cash.
And most of all, perhaps we can learn from our mistakes. Perhaps the next time some new technology comes along, advertised as 'better', we won't be so quick to agree. We won't toss out old equipment so quickly, or old junk old formats so needlessly. Perhaps we won't waste years spending money on another set of new products that never really surpassed the old and was compressed to begin with. And perhaps it won't matter how portable it is, because we've already got something that works for what we need, and we don't intend to get rid of it just because something new has come along. Perhaps we might say we don't need another gadget or substitute because we got the real thing and it works just fine, and if we need to, we might just repair the old one anyway instead of rushing out to buy new.
Basically we can use this as an opportunity to say we won't get fooled again.
P.S: Of course, with sales on the rise so steadily for so long, there is bound to be a few ups and downs along the way. It stands to reason that not all future years are going to be jaw-dropping successes. And there are still a few people that refuse to take the vinyl resurgence seriously. And they've changed their tune from 'it's never going to come back' to 'it's just a fad' to suddenly changing course to the inevitable question of 'How long will this last?'. But that is a topic for the next entry of Vinyl Porn at Very Us Mumblings!
Previous Vinyl Porn Entries:
Vinyl Porn: Get your groove-on with vinyl you don't have
Vinyl Porn 2
Vinyl Porn 3: The Resurgence Continues
Vinyl Porn 4: Technical Terms