in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Monday, February 12, 2007

Why Vinyl Will Survive

You can’t make a rational case for choosing vinyl, and I wouldn’t – there isn’t a single one that’s compelling. Digital is cheaper, less wasteful, more malleable and far more portable. There’s virtually nothing to store, scratch, warp or shatter. Records meanwhile remain cumbersome, fragile and expensive. And yet, in spite of all this, I will continue buying, collecting, playing with and paying for the damned things, for as long as I’m willing and able to. Why?

Well, there are lots of reasons. First of all, it’s because vinyl has life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not such a caner – I don’t think that my records are alive in the way my lover or my dog is. They don’t eat, drink, bark or bone. But, like us, they exist in space and through time – they have their own history, they wear their own scars, they need our care. They have a world.

When you dig for vinyl and you find something you’re looking for, you don’t just uncover the music. There’s a sense of connectedness, both of your desire to the sound and the sound’s embodiment in the object. Who knows the circumstances surrounding the original purchase? Maybe the record got sold because of a drug habit, a death, or a disappointment. Or maybe because of indifference. But in every case the piece you hold in your hands is the silent bearer of a story, a mute witness to whatever and wherever it went. It also carries the signal of its producers, embodying their dreams. I think Danny Wang said it once: second-hand record stores are such sad places. That’s because they’re dream graveyards. At one point, a group of people invested all their time and talent in making it. It was going to make them famous…

At the receiving end, the previous owners of a record invested their best hope in it too. So they chose it, they took it and kept it with them, and it slowly mapped itself into the web of their memories. Or they hated it, and flogged it. I don’t recall every intricacy of what I did last week, but I can tell you almost without fail the circumstances surrounding each record I own, and explain the resonance it has, what it evokes. It’s an object of music and of memory, and to me that gives it the true aura of an artefact, and makes it deserving of respect, reverence. I also love the presence of the music in the scratch. The groove is a perfect visual representation of the metaphor of what the thing is and does, and the music is there in a way that digital formats, even in whatever visual/waveform representations they use, aren’t. Functionally, this makes absolutely no difference. ‘Visual mixing’ of the kind now possible with digital obviously has advantages, but it’s always at a distance. Like talking through glass.

Records are also incredibly sensual objects, and this has always been their advantage for mixing. Even with the abilities the new technologies have given us to loop, sample and freely choose key and pitch (which is in every way musically superior as an instrument) there’s no substitute for being able to touch, to play by feel. Serato and Final Scratch have overcome this limitation, but even in ‘the best of both worlds’ there’s more than a little of nowhere and nothing at all. Mp3 doesn’t even exist, at least, not in the way we and our records do. It’s a nothing and it exists nowhere but in blips on our portable nonplaces.
Crucially, choosing a track through drag and drop is utterly different to digging through a box with a very limited selection thoroughly and carefully chosen before leaving home, or so you’d hope. In fact, the irony of having a greater number of choices is that it’s invariably harder to choose, or easier to make do with default choices, which are not real choices at all. A lot of DJs’ selections turn to shit after they start using digital. Somehow - no, because of all those choices, they’re unable to make a single interesting one. This is no coincidence.

There’s no sacrifice involved in collecting digital formats either. Any two-bit chump can download a huge body of work in a matter of days, something that would have required a huge expenditure of time, effort and money on the part of a vinyl collector. When you go and see a veteran play her set, she’s carrying with her whole decades of memories whittled down to some eighty selections. Packing a box requires further sacrifice, further selection, further acts of will, respect and love. You have to think, choose, include, reject. Without these repeated sacrifices, it’s all to easy fall prey to the tyranny of ‘any old thing’. ‘Oh shit, I need a track with drums to mix out of this, um… shit, only sixteen bars to go, oh, okay, this’ll do…’ Click, click, drag, drop. You hope the audience won’t feel the difference, and you fool yourself that you feel anything at all. I wouldn’t argue that this is a necessary outcome of digital, but it’s going to happen far more often.

The same is true of Ableton: paradoxically the program’s incredible power, speed and flexibility means you can churn out an average tune, not even in a matter of hours, but on the fly. ‘You can do anything on Ableton’ and you can, but most people do less and less. They don’t make minimal, they make very little of a lot. In fact, in a turn of events that would shock grandpappy, it’s easier to record a track than to write a song. All too often it shows: lazy drum programming, boring melodies with no tension or development, and a screaming, dithering, swarming shitload of plugin effects to cook the tune in, so we don’t have to listen to the half-baked mess. And how good are you as a musician really, Mr DJ? Can you really perform with the same level of musicality that’s contained within a well-made record, something a talented, dedicated person invested everything in for days, weeks, months? Why not let the record play, if it’s a good one. If it’s not, no wonder you’re bored, no wonder you need to fiddle.

Back to the body – the other quiet crime of indifference that this ‘choice’ contains is the death of another related artform: cover art. One of the things that make records so valuable and beautiful is the incredible creativity that goes into a lot of the covers, even if it’s the artful details of the colours and fonts chosen on the plainest of my EPs, or the ‘mastered by X at the Exchange’ scratched into the run off. No doubt the artisans who manufactured gilt frames for heavy oil paintings mourned the passing of their time, and maybe all systems of artistic representation are not only bound to, but should wither and die. It’s still sad.

Like most ‘technological advancements’, digital isn’t an improvement of what went before, it’s a rationalisation. Never forget that. From a consumer point of view, CD wasn’t ‘better’ than vinyl, and at least until the mid-nineties, a well-pressed record played better through a good component system (again, all put together through individual choices) than most CDs, even with, and probably because of the sound artifacts and sub-audible frequencies in the record. We’re losing them, too. But they’re inaudible, right? Never forget, it was the ‘record’ companies, greedy to reduce distribution costs and fit more units on shelves, who pushed for CD, and we paid more for less. Three times the price for something a third of the size and a fraction of the cost to make. Now they’re reaping the whirlwind, and a big and happy fuck you all.

The technology might end up getting us over barrel too: it isn’t ‘simply better’ – it’s a new entanglement that solves some problems and embroils us in others. I’m late finishing this article. That’s because, not three days ago, my Powerbook, on which I do, well, almost everything, decided to play Hungry Hungry Hard Drives and eat itself for breakfast. Luckily, all my media and documents are backed up – are yours? Don’t think it won’t happen. Houses burn and vinyl will too, but data loss is a completely new kind of risk. If any of you still have the XT you grew up with, go pull it out of the garage, turn it on and see if it still works. Then, take one of the diskettes with all your old games on ‘em and see if you can load them. Captain Comic, Space Quest, all those daggy old things. Remember them? The only story most of mine can tell me now is one that goes from beginning to end in three words: permanent fatal errors. Vinyl dies too, but not all at once. It goes slowly, just like we do. Do yourself a favour, and age gracefully with records. They’re not dead, they’re elderly, and they need your care and respect.

I suppose this whole thing’s based on a bogus choice ‘vinyl or digital’. We don’t have to choose. I’ll eventually buy myself a digital interface and start using it, in conjunction with my records. But don’t expect me to love the interface. That’s a leap I’ll never make. Can you? Do you really ‘love’ your interface? Can you cherish a hard disk? I can only speak for myself and my records, the only musical objects I keep that capture my imagination, just as they capture something of the magic of music in space and time. And that’s something that no data packet can ever do.

This rant was previously published by Resident Advisor here:

© Peter Chambers 2006

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.