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In praise of the LP on a turntable

There is a seeming revival today of the record player and the vinyl record. What keeps them trendy?

During early childhood I thought music from the radio came from little people who lived inside it; the faint light visible through the ventilator holes was evidence enough of this. That was until I heard the record player.

Petty professional one-upmanship, family legend has it, drove my father to buy a Philips ‘Hi-Q’ record player. The new addition to our family also marked our first “stereo experience”. And at the volume we played it wasn’t exactly earth-shattering, but our neighbours were left rather rattled.

April 16 this year was observed as ‘World Record Store Day’. After nearly a two-and-a-half decade lull there is a revival of 33 / long playing records (LPs). But why? Will it make an impact?

For one, although sound quality defines an audio system, with RPs the definition of music begins with sight: few can resist being attracted to the sleek wooden cabinet with a slick dust cover that can hide little; even an inoperative RP with can enhance a room’s ambience. The elegant turntable, the sturdy plate and the curvy arm can make anyone want to operate it. Does one experience something similar with a digital system? Buttons, buttons, buttons. Buttons are all one sees. Besides, digital systems come completely encased and have gained notoriety for nefarious uses.

The rarity of RPs today gives even the most affordable of them a certain “luxury quotient”. And have you noticed how “alive” a vinyl/LP appears, shimmering as it whirls? RPs have also been exploited by movie-makers to accentuate some scenes. (Curiously, Stanley Kubrick gets his protagonist in A Clockwork Orange to play Beethoven’s No. 9 on a microcassette instead of the transcriptor turntable right next to it.) Also, the physical contact between the vinyl and stylus makes the “vinyl experience” more wholesome. And, isn’t it a delight to watch the automatic RP at the start and end of a session that reminds one of that perfectly house-trained pet? Mind you, these operations are completely mechanical, without as much as a basic microprocessor. RPs will remain trendy because they are to music what saris and dhotis are to attire: the most basic. Digital “players” may be versatile, but RPs are meant purely for listening pleasure.

Audiophiles demand fidelity over clarity; they find the ultra-clarity of digital players artificial. But for legal or technological purposes clarity serves no real purpose. Although people appreciate and welcome advancements in audio technology that accompany advancements in video/cinema to enhance our visual experience, many seem quite content with music systems that satisfy just the basics. Vinyl imperfections — the scratches and grazes — are part of the listening experience and hardly annoy even audiophiles. The soughing rustle from the lead-in groove can produce the same excitement of anticipation that grips a live audience that’s settling for a concert; the listener feels ushered in. In fact, vinyl covers feel like invites, don’t they? CD cases, in comparison, seem to me like glorified visiting card holders.

The RP was my initiation into the culture of listening pleasure. Using it, one learnt to cultivate respect for music, and the player. Vinyl covers have the generous size of coffee-table books; they give that “substantial feel”. Their cover art is also important. Stan Getz patronised Olga Albizu’s art on his album covers. Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream album cover became very popular.

The very act of sliding the LP/vinyl out from its cardboard sheath, flopping it down the shaft, dusting it as it “idled” before setting the stylus on the lead-in groove... all of it has an almost ritualistic appeal. (Jesse England, media artist, even calls RPs “altars” to music.) Compare this elegance to the disgraceful way in which a CD player, like a toad too lazy to feed itself, sticks its tongue out each time to be fed … and prodded right back!

I have a modest collection of vinyls and, following a completely avoidable pickle, came into possession of a Garrard 3000. In my collection Classical Gas by The Ventures remains my favourite. On vinyl, listening to music is seldom “casual” and all artists – MS, Cliff Richards or Jim Morrison – receive equal obeisance. Digital music may have “democratised” music, but music is honoured only on vinyls. Long live long play!

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 6:34:32 AM |

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