We live in an digital age, all things compressed into computer-interpretable zeros and ones. While this is fine for speed and convenience, something is lost in translation. Something of the analogue simply doesn’t carry over to the MP3 or digital photo file. There are formats that record what the computer considers uncompressed data, but these make the files often unwieldy and seldom user-friendly to the casual user.
I’ve dabbled with gardening over the years and this year the craft has grown in my affections, I’ve learned to recognise many plants and have created a flower garden to my own plan from scratch in 6 months. A more analogue hobby could not be found (although I did order most of the seed on-line). The perverse pleasure of soil beneath the nails, pushing seedlings in using a pencil, the rhythm of the seasons beckoning each plant to flower has affected me deeply. Combined with a change of job that permits me to work from home a lot I have a greater connection to the plants I’ve grown than I have to many people I know.
With this slower pace of life has come a greater appreciation of things that display craftsmanship, things that take time for one to learn to appreciate, things that in a world of instant-hit gratification for many just do not seem to have the appeal they once held. The primary reason they once held this appeal is because they once were cutting-edge, then ubiquitous. Technology changes and things advance – in appeal if not in actual quality. My newest interest is a good example of this.
In my teens and early twenties I was an audiophile with a limited budget. I constantly upgraded as I could afford to do so, but my interest waned as other money-pits came into my life. Motorcycles, then cars took my funds away from the arts, although I did maintain a passing interest in photography. Over the years I embraced and still love digital photography, retaining an affection for film photography. Music-wise I’ve moved from CDs (the all-pervading format of my audiophile days) to audio files on my various Apple Macs. I even create music digitally from time to time. One thing I’ve liked less and less in modern music is an obsession with filling out the sound with bass, to what my ears have for a couple of decades felt was an unacceptable degree.
Fondly I have recalled the days of playing my father’s old LPs as a child. No heavy, uncomfortable bass there, just a well-balanced sound that gave listening pleasure. And this set me thinking. Perhaps my memories are false. Perhaps vinyl isn’t as I recall?
This thought festered in the recesses of my mind for several years until I realised I have a week off this week and little to do to fill the time. The old memories of vinyl resurfaced and on a whim I bought a cheap turntable from Preloved. I had no vinyl so popped out the next day during my lunchtime to visit a record shop. This was a cavern of a place with nooks and corners tucked in and around the back of the other shops in the parade. Vinyl, it turns out, is comparatively expensive. When an album in iTunes costs about the same as a CD copy in a supermarket, £8-£9, a vinyl pressing costs around £18. Ouch, but not completely unaffordable. Fortunately, second hand was much cheaper and I found three LPs for £10 and departed happy. On my way back I was distracted by a bureau in a charity shop front, and startled to realise they had piles of old vinyl LPs alongside. The bureau instantly forgotten, a quick search (I was running out of time) brought out three more I wanted – 50p each!
I hurried home and in-between jobs tried to get the turntable working. Initially I was desperately disappointed. The sound coming out of the amplifier was hideous, each click of dust a bang and the bass ugly, little mid-range and weak treble. Exactly the problem I was seeking to avoid. A little more thought made me very carefully clean the records. Slightly better for bangs but still distorted. One final try and it occurred to me that the turntable might have an internal amplifier. I plugged the turntable into the laser-disc inputs (remember them?) and suddenly… bliss. The sweet balance of sound coming out of my speakers brought flooding back all those fond memories of the mellow sound of vinyl. The smoothness. The almost cossetting delicacy of the sound, albeit with a necessarily limited dynamic range caused by the physical restrictions of the thickness of the material, was a revelation. The digitally-unmatchable naturalness of the upper mid and treble is, to my ears battered by years of clubbing, listening nirvana. Vinyl is the listening equivalent of turning the soil by hand, the sowing of seed and planting out of seedlings. The pleasure similar to that of taking cuttings and nurturing them to root. It’s a simple process that needs time to engage with and is not for everyone. Possibly that is the reason I’m growing to love it more with each passing day.