Sunday, February 16, 2014

I've just taken my first step into a larger vinyl record world...

Thine ears have heard the glory of the sound of music – no, I’m not referring to that old movie about the Von Trapp family *rolls eyes* - rather, good ol’ vinyl records. 

I love music…all kinds of re-energizes me.  Additionally, I would say about 95% or so of my favorite music was recorded during the pre-digital days, so I had been itching to go back and listen to vinyl records and their analog sound again.  There were two things holding me back though: 1) the vinyl records that I remembered hearing back in the day never really impressed me sound-wise because we never had a fancy sound system, plus I was too young to really appreciate good audio recordings anyway (I listened to crappy 8-tracks and cassettes for pete’s sake!) – and – 2) I’m rather frugal by nature, and the thought of buying new equipment and re-buying expensive albums I already owned on CD/mp3, made me a bit hesitant to say the least – though the collector in me had been wanting my favorite albums on vinyl anyway just to have.

Well, after feeling a bit down and stressed with life (why I get that way, I don’t know, I actually have a lot to be thankful for) I needed a bit of a pick-me-up.  So, I took the plunge and jumped (in a budget-friendly way) straight into the deep end of the vinyl pool.  I got a turntable, decent cart/needle, phono amp, SpinClean record cleaner, and a handful of new and old albums, and started my journey into a whole new/old world of sound.

And what an amazing new/old world it is!!!

As a frequent lurker on the various “audiophile” sites/forums, the two constant themes you hear in regards to vinyl’s superiority over the CD/mp3 format is: “warmth” and “dynamic range” of the soundscape.  As two examples in response to that I thought - “Well, I’m really happy with the sound quality of my Ozzy-era Black Sabbath Deluxe Edition/Remastered 2009 CD’s from the UK Sanctuary label, as well as my 2011 Remastered CD’s of the Queen albums from the 70’s…is a vinyl recording really better than those?”.  There is a fair amount of “vinyl snobbery” on those sites, so I had to separate the “wheat from the chaff”, so to speak, in the information I was taking in.  Anyway, as my first vinyl purchases, I went and bought all 8 of the Ozzy-era Black Sabbath albums that Rhino recently re-issued on 180 gram vinyl from a site called Acoustic Sounds.  These albums had received good reviews on those same audiophile sites; the original UK pressings, as much as I would love to have them, are a bit too pricey for me.  On Ebay, I was lucky to happen upon a set of original Canadian pressings of the Queen albums from the 70’s (News of the World wasn’t included though, dang it!) at a good price, so I went for it (also, the sound quality of the old Canadian pressings seem to be held in the same high regard as the old UK pressings).  After a cleaning in the ol’ Spin Clean record cleaner, they all looked fantastic.  So, how did these new/old vinyl albums sound?...I’ll get to that in a bit.

First though, my new turntable experience.  I had no idea the amount of work that was needed in properly setting up a turntable to get the best sound – more specifically – setting up the tonearm and needle (stylus) cartridge.  I probably spent about a week studying info. and YouTube videos that detailed this whole procedure.  I learned terms such as: VTF (Vertical Tracking Force); Overhang; VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle); Anti-Skate; and their importance to creating great sound while also preserving the records and equipment.  I didn’t remember any of this stuff being done to our record player when I was a kid!  I was pretty overwhelmed to say the least, and by the time my equipment arrived, I was almost too nervous to even touch the stuff.  Speaking of preserving records, that was a whole other eye-opening learning experience!  The various ways in which people keep their records clean, and all the various “do’s” and “don'ts” involved with that were so overwhelming, that I was almost too afraid to even touch the dang records!  However, I was not going to be intimidated or defeated!

I ordered my equipment on the web from a store called Needle Doctor.  I highly recommend them!  Super-fast free shipping (and everything was well packaged for protection), and since I was also buying a new cartridge/needle from them, they even connected and mounted everything and got the Overhang spot-on for my turntable tonearm, so I didn’t have to mess with any of that – thanks guys!!!  I assembled the turntable, and set up the tonearm (a very critical step!) to all the necessary specifications.  Everything that I had been so nervous about was conquered within an hour.  Quick tip: I place an unscented dryer sheet under the turntable slip mat to reduce static build-up as the record is spinning (this cuts down/eliminates hiss and crackles that aren’t related to surface dust already on the records)…you can use a scented dryer sheet too, but those should be used in the dryer first to get rid of the scent chemicals.

Next, I hooked up the turntable to the Phono Amp, which in turn, was connected to my existing Receiver.  Most turntables have a “pre-amp” onboard so you can plug in directly to a Receiver, but to get some really quality sound, turning that “pre-amp” off and running through a separate Phono Amp is really the way to go. 

Finally, the records themselves.  First off, I washed them with the Spin Clean – even the brand new Black Sabbath albums.  A few key items on that process: 1) Use distilled water – not tap water!  Tap water has minerals and other gunk. 2) After going through the Spin Clean process, and before drying them, give your records an extra rinse of distilled water with a little squirt bottle. 3) When drying, use some good soft microfiber towels that won’t release any lint or fuzzies.  Invest in some clean, quality sleeves to keep your records in after cleaning: I purchased some Mobile Fidelity Original Masters.  Now, in-between cleanings, most people use a carbon fiber brush of some sort to keep surface dust and static build-up at bay.  However, I read too many horror stories about people scratching their records with those brushes.  Being a bit of a klutz, I could see myself being one of those people.  So, here’s an alternative method that I’m using: lightly sweep a Dry Swiffer sheet (original, unscented – don’t want the scent chemicals messing up the vinyl!) around the record.  Works like a charm!

So, with all of that work done, it was now time for the piece-de-resistance: playing the damn records!!!

First up, I put on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality.  Not because it’s my favorite – it’s actually my least favorite (uber-hardcore Sabbath fans can kick my ass later...then again, I should kick my own ass for using the term "uber") – but because on every CD I’ve heard (even the awesome 2009 Sanctuary versions) the sound on that album has always been a bit “cloudy”, or even a bit “muddy” as is the popular term.  So, I crank ‘er up, and man, the vinyl was so silent – nary a crackle or pop, and absolutely no hiss!  This album sounded so good – not “cloudy or “muddy” at all!!  The percussion instruments sounded so damn natural and real – that’s what really stood out for me in noting the difference between analog and digital.  Electric Guitar and Electric Bass sounded about the same, but still better than CD.  Accoustic string instruments sounded awesome and more natural like the percussion.  Vocals sounded more “live” than any CD version as well.  Additionally there were other little bits and pieces that came through that I had never remembered hearing before – for example: near the end of the song, Children of the Grave, there’s this evil-sounding organ passage that I don’t ever remember hearing – very cool!  Also, in the song, Solitude, there’s some very light ringing of bells that’s really neat.  All in all, very awesome, and can’t wait to listen to the other 7 albums.

Next, came the ear-altering, jaw-dropping experience I was hoping for.  I put on my all-time favorite album by any artist ever – Queen’s Queen II.  If you don’t like this album, then I just can’t be friends with you.  March of the Black Queen is not only Queen’s greatest song (yes, even better than Bohemian Rhapsody), it may just be the greatest song ever recorded period.  I have this album on cassette; 1991 CD release; mp3; and the 2011 CD Remaster (which I really like).  What I heard from this original Elecktra Canadian pressing, just about made me weep tears of joy!  That vinyl audiophile term - “dynamic range” – that I had read so much about but didn’t fully understand, revealed itself fully to me.  Holy shit, the soundscape of this album on vinyl is indescribable! I was hearing things like echo effects, vocal inhales/exhales, and drum passages that I had never heard before – everything was so real!  The drum passages in particular were impressive, because even though they are farther back in the mix, I could still hear new, little details.  Every single aspect of this album sounded better, and individual instruments were separated out better than any version I had ever heard before!  This album is so good, if someone came up to me and offered something ridiculous like $1,000 for it, I would punch them in the bean bag for such an insulting offer.

So, I can’t wait to listen to the other 5 Queen albums from this collection now.  Also, I can’t wait to once again play my old The Story of Star Wars album (it needs a bit of a cleaning first) that I have not heard in over 30 years!  Yes!  Additionally, I've ordered an old Nat King Cole album...that dude's voice singing When I Fall in Love is amazing ear candy; and an old Patsy Cline album...she could sing the telephone book.  My vinyl collection will slowly but surely be built.

In conclusion, the best way I can describe the analog qualities of vinyl now in comparison to the digital quality of CD/mp3 is: Organic food vs. processed food.  Vinyl is more organic – it’s real/unaltered; it’s fresh.  CD/mp3 is more processed – while cheaper/more convenient, and even satisfying (if done right), it isn’t quite as good for you in the long run.

I hope I don’t sound like a “vinyl snob” now.  I’m just really happy.

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