Vinyl Docs, Part 1 + a Smattering of Nostalgia

February 11, 2015 | By

Vinyl2000_posterI’m putting up the next set of reviews in one big cluster over the next 24 hours because I expect to be in codeine Heaven after a tooth is yanked at lunchtime, so first up are a trio of documentary reviews covering vinyl, spanning the single and LP formats, their cultural  impact, and the extreme record collector.

Near the end of my podcast interview with film composer John Murphy, the discussion closes with some thoughts on releasing Anonymous Rejected Filmscore in digital, CD, and vinyl formats, so I’ve added a review of Alan Zweig’s doc Vinyl (2000), in which the already LP-obsessed director interviews extreme vinyl collectors.

The LP versus CD debate is eternal, something touched upon in Chris Rodley’s BBC doc The Joy of the Single (2012), covering the lowly yet highly influential 7″ 45 RPM record; and in Steve O’Hagan’s follow-up BBC doc When Albums Ruled the World (2013).

Instead of delving into the grim psychological states of individuals whose personal issues may have pushed them to excessive collecting (something that’s applicable to other objects of devotion), O’Hagan’s focus is how the LP upset the music industry by giving the power to create an album to the artists, chucking singles into the dumpster in favour of epic tracks that formed part of a meticulous concept or just free-form album that mandated you sit down and listen for 45 minutes or more, especially of it was a double or triple set.

My albums of preference began with soundtracks, which kind of exploded at one point, but never reached the 1,000+ range because it got both expensive, and became just too much. A lot of what’s in Zweig’s doc is true – the cataloguing, transferring to tape, archiving, organizing bug is what makes the Serious Collector both a force among music fans and someone probably in need of a little budgetary guidance (and maybe therapy).

No one needs 30,000 LPs, but I get the progression of how it explodes in small nuggets. When the ultimate and unattainable is reached – your most sought-after LP – then what’s left is the meh, the mediocre, the reissues, and then crap, and that’s where the extreme collectors lost their love of the music, and gathered mere objects to fill physical and personal voids. Zweig in very open about his own perceived personal failings, and yet he wants to grapple with some exit routes and not become the extreme collector whose bathroom might be packed with a metre of crap vinyl.

The debate between analogue vs. digital and what and how one listens to music is ultimately a personal thing, but as stated in O’Hagan’s doc, there are albums that sound better than CDs and visa-versa. I can rattle off several soundtracks whose CDs – early editions – I sold off because they lacked the bass and oomph on the LP.

On the other hand, the doc also cites the inherent flaw of the LP – as the tracks approach the label, the breadth needed for clean sound goes down, resulting in distortion. I think the technicalities include the angle of the needle which doesn’t favour a tighter circular groove, but it makes sense why big & bold cuts were placed at the beginning, and softer less dynamic cues were closer to the label. That alone screams Flawed Invention, which probably explains the 45rpm LP format for singles in the 80s that offered superior sound, and those ‘mastered at 45 rpm’ albums with just a few cuts on each side – far away from the distortion range.

I can recall thinking the turntable’s needle must be bad, because it made no sense why distortion became perceptible as some the needle tracked towards the centre of some LPs, but then there are exceptions where the album master and final LP were engineered to minimize that flaw, or at least mask it in a way that didn’t make one shout WTF?

It may also be that older tube amps smoothened specific frequencies, masking the distortion, whereas their successors focused on the clarity of CDs, exposing bad LP recordings and bad vinyl stock – impressions that probably nudged the LP’s tumble while the CD enjoyed a meteoric success.

That vinyl thrives and is increasing its market share compared to the CD maybe isn’t surprising, because just as bands taught us how to listen – really listen – to their music when concept albums emerged in the late 60s & early 70s, the bands that brought the LP back have re-trained ears to appreciate the format’s sound, and the process of visiting a bricks & mortar shop, socializing with clerks and customers, and buying what was once considered dead tech – turntables, amplifiers, and tube amps that take digital music and warm them up a little for those wanting their music to be presented with a preferred sonic consistency, if that makes any sense.

I like digital and analogue – I bounce between the two, and there are some albums I’d rather listen on a Marantz than a Pioneer – but it depends on my mood (plus the time the Marantz needs to warm up and reproduce audio relatively quirk-free, given its about 40 years old).

Digital files sound fine on the computer, but I prefer my Rio Karma, which was supposedly an audiophile player when it debuted in 2003. My original was a hand-me-down that was stolen by two scumbags on the way home, but the replacement I snapped off Ebay still works and puts out great sound. (The fact the software still enables Windows XP and 7 to see it is also a bonus. The unit’s battery is long shot, so it sits in its cradle as a music player, but everything sounds good coming from that palm-sized gizmo.)

All three of the aforementioned record docs are on YouTube, along with other vinyl-themed short docs that fill out the affection music lovers share for the physical format that apparently can’t be killed.

If I’m coherent while medicated, I’ll post a follow-up blog covering some of the best / most unique short docs new and ephemeral on Vimeo + YouTube. If not, expect a weird drawing of what the world looks like through codeine.

Coming in the next review clusters: a new set of Nikkatsu Naughties, and the recent thrillers John Wick and Nightcrawler.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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