I wanted to start this article about Vinyl Revival with a short history of vinyl records, but I decided to skip that part because there are many articles online related to that topic. My goal here is to talk about "return of the vinyl" that is happening in the last few years, there's a big hype that vinyls are back (or will be back) again. For the last couple of years I'm seeing bands promoting vinyl albums on late nite tv shows, internet is full of "vinyl news" and I noticed that more and more electronic music artists proudly advertising their vinyl releases, mostly for DJs. Maybe this article is not interesting for all of you, owners of large record collections, but it may be interesting for others, folks looking to get into this world as a DJ profession. It's expensive to buy and collect vinyl records today, so should you go that way with your music collection? Or, should you stay where you are, and stick with your digital music formats such as CD, MP3, etc?
I will not try to convince you that you should or shouldn't buy vinyl records, this is just my personal observation how some people wants to take one fading music format and bring it back as profitable again. I don't mind profit, I just don't like when they advertise vinyl as "pure sound", "real sound" or "the best sound" on the planet and stuff. Let me get this straight right away, if vinyl record was "the best", it would never be replaced with CD and other digital formats, people voted with money. And all those news in online media that record sales are going up again every year are misleading people, vinyl records sales are 3% of total music sales in 2014, crumbles. If we're talking about US, mostly country music will boosts those sales, but it's all really nothing compared to sales of downloadable music formats. So, all of you DJ newbies and wannabes, hold your horses before you spend all your money on vinyls, first you have to be sure that you can buy music that you want on vinyl. You don't want to build your music collection on what's available on vinyl when everything is available on digital formats. And, maybe this "vinyl revival" is not connected only to new music, there are millions of records in the world and their proud owners will tell you that music was better before, so why would they replace vinyl at the first place? They didn't.
If you ask any vinyl collector for vinyl revival, they would tell you that vinyl is not coming back because it never went away, it was here all the time on their shelves. I agree with that, many people never stopped using vinyls. There are millions of old records on the markets, in the stores, still in trade, and there are probably millions in personal collections. All those records are still alive somewhere, some of them still in daily use (most of it not), and for many real record lovers, they are treasure and they will keep their collections forever. There are many reasons for that, one is that you can still buy new turntables. Try to look for the one, you'll see that there's no lack of new turntables on the market, some of them even include USB port so you can hook them right away on your computer. I know, offer is not that big like in was in eighties, you will not find new Technics 1200 in your music equipment store, but there are others professional and good turntables waiting for that price, and if you're into high HiFi, offer is never better. Also, if you're on the budget, you can buy good used working serviced turntable for under $100 on eBay, and if you are willing to bid, even lower.
So, what is that special and spectacular about vinyl records that keeps them around for such a long time? Is it "the best sound"? Many vinyl junkies would claim that vinyl is "the top quality" sound, there's nothing better, that's it! Is it the album art and physical touch of the the record? It's nice to hold vinyl record package, there's a cover, you can find song lyrics, other useful information, and sometimes you would even get real poster of the band with it. There are many reasons for regular folks to still buy and collect vinyl records, but, there are even more reasons for Disc Jockeys. DJs play maxi singles and EPs, and besides some pop, rock & country bands, they're probably responsible for latest vinyl revival. I personally know how important vinyl is for some DJs, it goes into fetishism, it's a cult. For some of them you're not "a real" DJ if you're not spinning vinyl records on Technics turntables. But everybody knows that's stupid and ignorant, pure nonsense. DJing was never about technical stuff, it was always about choice of music first, and if you know how to make good mix, even better. Besides DJs, we have some smaller group of music producers with vinyl collections, they keep mostly older stuff on their shelves and use it for sampling and sometimes stealing ideas. Everyone has their own reasons, but one reason is the same for all, quality of the sound.
Vinyl Sound Quality
Most of the people who kept their vinyls and turntables for all these years would tell you that the main reason for them to continue to use vinyls is quality of the sound, vinyls are great, sound unbeatable, period. Many of them would also claim that analog sound is better than digital no matter what, vinyl better than CD, mp3 sucks, etc. And, who's gonna buy all those records again on CD? You'll find that many of them simply ignore fresh ideas, new things, old school rules! Old school is fine when you make food, or do things traditionally to keep the quality and standards, but, old school doesn't work that much with technology. People are inventing things, and sometimes good things. Anyone using black and white TV? No. Anyone without smartphone reading this? I don't think so. I just personally believe that analog folks never had a chance to compare analog vs digital sound properly. Only few people would stay in analog domain after they would hear excellent HiFi system with great D/A conversion. The truth is that Vinyl gives you super sound quality for the money, but, is it the best? Nooooooooooo. So, who are those vinyl records fanatics, records collectors, those music lovers that are still riding on the vinyl train?
Lifetime vinyl records collectors
People who spent their whole lives collecting music are the one who never gonna switch to digital, they may include CD in their setup, but vinyls are not going anywhere. Why would they? All the music that they like is already in their possession, and if not, they will chase some great records to the rest of their life. Most of them have rooms dedicated just for the records, and some of them remodeled their rooms with special air conditioning ideal for records storage. And, even if you convince them that digital is better, as I mentioned before, who's gonna chase and buy all those old records on CDs? Many of them is impossible to find and buy, and not to mention money that you need to spend for that "upgrade". No amigo. They don't mind flipping the record when one side is over, they don't need comfort and mobility of digital formats, they don't listen to only one music genre, they don't even need remote controllers for their amps, only pure sound is what they want. And I respect that.
Those passionate music lovers with huge or best record collections are not listening music on some cheap plastic Sony $300 systems, they spent thousands of dollars on good equipment because they know what has to be done so you can have best sound from your records. They're deeply into HiFi, their speakers are heavy wooden pieces of furniture, their pre-amp and amplifier are heavy weight too, it's all metal and wood, champagne colors, you name it. They would spend just on speaker cables as average person would on their whole HiFi systems. I'm talking about extremes of course, but it's an expensive hobby, not many people can afford it. But, is it the best sound you can get for the money? No, I don't think so, but still, sound coming from these systems is F great!
Specific genres collectors
Many folks are collecting only specific kinds of music. I have to admit that I'm one of them, not completely, but I do collect mostly house music. This is natural, it's nothing unusual for people to choose something to follow. If you love some type of music you'll try to find and buy similar kinds, and that's how you end up with collections. You'll find rock music collectors, pop-rock, soul, classics, reggae, electronic music, you name it. Those people are in love with their music and they'll do whatever it takes to expand their collections. They will search for the "one" that's missing and offer good money for it. Markets are still full of old records that were popular, but genres collector are often interested in rare records, small prints, special editions, especially if they're in great condition. Just like general music collector, genres collectors are always chasing what's missing from their collections, and that's never-ending story. And, it's not all about music, there's something charming in the process of trade, you connect with similar people, and you're bringing home something new even if it's twenty years old!
Specific genres collectors are also using good HiFi equipment, but they don't have to turn on amplifier one hour in advance before listening so lamps can reach proper temperature and produce the best sound. Most of them bought speakers and amplifiers specially designed for their favorite music genres, you don't buy same speakers for dance and classic music right? You will find CD players and other digital formats in their systems such as music DVDs, some mp3s, etc, but the vinyl is the king and turntables are in everyday use here. Those people are also big in memorabilia, they collect other stuff such as posters, concerts, rare studio tapes, etc, not only vinyls. You'll find them hanging out in record stores, they are regular on records trade shows, everywhere where vinyls are present, genres collectors will be there to check it out.
When I started working as a DJ long time ago, I played music only from vinyl records because that was the only way art that time. Later, we added CD players with pitch control, but, vinyl was our main source for music. It was a pleasure working there because club owner was also deeply interested into new releases, and he did invest in new music on a weekly basis. Later, I decided to put my money in my records collection, and I got singles and played those records in the clubs almost every night. Collection was never big, money and storage space were always the issue, but it was my vinyl collection that was carefully selected. And, there are not so many Disc Jockeys that are having huge collection of vinyls. You could say that those DJs are mostly famous, some of them rich, and they're doing this job for a long long time. Exceptions are rich hipster kids, this is just one more hobby for them, and they can spend a small fortune on records, boring.
But, even with career, money, fame, respect and glory that comes with this profession, as a top DJ you still have few problems with storing and moving records around. Top DJs can buy as much as they want, but they still need to go in the store or online and buy new records. If they are really famous, half of it will come as promo on their postal address, but the other half needs to be "discovered" in the record store and that takes time. When you have to do this once in a while, it's a real pleasure, but if you have to do it every day, I don't think so, every repetition in work is boring after a while.
Then we have the heavy weight of the vinyls. Pack one hundred records in one bag and just feel how heavy that is! Pack two hundreds if you want to have more music to choose in the club, and you need bro to help you with it for that event. Next, you'll have occasional problem with sound quality and functionality of turntables, they are never new, mint or spotless. Needles are very sensitive and bad DJ can waste one or two per night, you have to have yours if you want clear sound when you play your sets. Also, when you use records many times in the club, sound quality degrades, you have to clean even up all the time. DJ with huge collection of vinyls also needs space for all those records, storing and making them easy for search was always the big issue.
If you put all those problems with vinyls and try to find similarity with CD, you will see why CD took the DJ scene like a storm. Many of those "strictly vinyl" DJs that didn't want to play CDs at the beginning, are using it now. That only tells you that there are many more DJs in the world, standards are changed, and now CD is what record used to be, popular, cheap, universal in all clubs and joints. Sooner or later many realized that is better to have ten tracks on one CD and many CDs in one bag, then ten records in one bag, nobody can resist that comfort. Many well known DJ names one by one adopted digital media as their main music source. And, it's not a problem to drag all those record bags once or two times per month, but if you're active working DJ and type flying around the globe, it is a problem. If the bags are lost on airport, you are screwed. Not to mention how faster now DJ can find desired track on modern CD players and controllers, rolling that jog wheel works much better and faster then bending over and over again browsing through yuppie bag in the dark looking for the "right one"... You got my point... And, if you're also a producer/DJ, you can spin your newest track tonight even if you made it few hours ago. With vinyl? Not that fast pretty boy.
So, knowing all those advantages of CD and digital formats, why some DJs still prefer vinyls in their collection and refuse to use CDs? It's a spiritual thing, sound is great on good equipment, and simply put they like physical contact with their records. I respect that, do what you like to do on your life.
To make good music, you have to know music, and that means that you have to listen to great music many times, that's why we have decent number of music producers that are also big record collectors. After all, you have to be able to compare your work with others, the best way is listening to the music on the same monitors, in the same room, in their producer studio. Their collections are maybe not the biggest, but quality of the sound that is presented on those vinyls is some of the best. Many times they would buy genres that the usually don't listen just because record sounds fantastic and they would have good use of it. Decomposing music helps them learn tricks, ideas, and skills from other fellows producers. That's why you will find mixed genres in their collection, those people are more sound oriented because their job is to listen and learn, and at the end produce top quality song out track.
But, all those records that you'll find in producers collections are there for one more important reason, they will influence some of the best future music productions! There is a lot of modern music that is sampled from the past, maybe you don't hear it so much in genres such as pop and rock, but electronic music is cluttered with samples. And, the only way that you can sample something is from the source, and that means from the records. We would probably never heard some great old music if someone didn't took sample of it and put it in some modern production. I personally searched for original songs many times after I heard "somehow familiar" sound in new track, and that's how sampling connected me with original artist. There are some limits with sampling, you can't take the whole phrase and mix it like nothing happened, you're not Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, but you can work legally with some pieces. The best thing with sampling is that specific record can wait for years before someone discovers it, take samples from it, and make some new hit or just a great track.
So, is it coming back or not?
No, vinyl is not coming back ever, it's fading away slowly and it's a vintage thing. All those collectors that I mentioned never stopped using vinyl, it's not revival of the vinyl for them. They will use it everyday like they use to all these years. Some small boost in vinyl records sales are not important for the music industry, that is just a fraction of the market and there are no serious money to be made here. You'll see some country music artists and some alternative & pop-rock bands who are promoting their albums with vinyls, extra offer together with CD and downloads. Beside that (larger) group of artists who are offering vinyls more for advertising, as a trendy thing, we have smaller group of electronic music artists who are pushing their vinyls for a different reason. They sell records strictly to DJs, and they can make more money selling one vinyl compared to one download. Sounds crazy? It's not. If they sell track for $0.99, they'll probably get 30% in best case, but selling one vinyl brings them ten times more. I know, number of sold vinyls are low compared to downloads, but hey, it is what it is. They will push it as long as they can, it's a symbolic way of fight against the piracy too. And, I bet, all DJs who are playing only with vinyls are probably getting better gigs or more money for their gig, it's just the way system works. But, if you're good DJ with good music, you can use whatever equipment you want, you'll find gig too, in most cases even better.
Should you start buying records?
If you want to be vinyl collector, you should ask yourself few questions before start with the whole thing. Do I have money for this expensive hobby? Am I ready to drag those records around? How's this gonna make me better DJ? What is the main reason for you to step into vinyl DJing? If the reason is any other than "because of the love for the music", I believe you should find some other hobby, like music production, or simply use modern tools to play music. I stopped buying records long time ago. For me, vinyl is just a music format, transport, something that brings sound to my speakers. I gave up on it long time ago just because it was not practical using it anymore. Main reason was that I couldn't find what I wanted to buy on vinyl, I don't want to buy music just because it's on vinyl. If you're interested more how and why I quit using vinyl records, here is "the technical" part of the story, my HiFi journey.
Many years ago when first CD players became available on the market, I was very interested to get one and taste that digital sound. It was a new technology and it took some time before regular customer like me could afford it. As an HiFi rookie I did have turntable, deck, amplifier and solid speakers, and I was more than ready to include CD player in my system. I didn't have chance to chose model since they had only one in offer in my local store, but I was eager to have it and I took it home. It was a cheapest Technics player with basic commands, and after first few listening sessions I realized that I was not satisfied with the sound quality. I did like the clean sound, but it was somehow metallic and sharp, not so pleasurable, it sounded compressed. Something was missing here, maybe this model was not good, or I got a lemon? I took my CD player to my friend who was the proud owner of latest Sony CD player that was probably few times more expensive than mine. Also, his speakers were much stronger and better than mine, I could really test it and hear what's going on here.
First time we hooked up my CD player with his system, he realized after first minute that player is really just a basic model and there's nothing I can do about it except to sell it. When he played first notes from his player, I was stunned, afraid, confused, betrayed by mine player... I was looking for more (hidden) speakers in the room, but there was no other speakers! Sound was warm, detailed, inviting, like I was there in the middle of it! How can this be possible, middle class CD player sounds ten times better than starting model? He explained to me that one of the major things that is going on in every CD player is digital to analog conversion, his player had advanced D/A converter that sampled sound with much more details. What is the sound then of high end models, can it be that much better than my friends CD player?
Oh yes, it can be even better. I figured this when I started to visit audio shows in Belgrade, and audio rooms in some of the finest Munich's HiFi stores. There you can find hi end equipment, and what's even better, you can test it! You could select which input source (CD player or turntable) will be connected with specific amplifier and speakers, you could switch combinations instantly and compare the sound without interruption. Now, position of the speakers is not the same since they're all rounded up against one wall, but they would pull out model of speaker that you want to hear so you can test them at the same listening position if you wish. The only better way to test HiFi components is to bring it at your home and use it for a few days, but that was impossible for 99.99% of us regular Joes. The only thing you need here is CD or vinyl that you know really well, and that you tested hundred times already everywhere you could.
What I first realized playing with all those HiFi components in HiFi high end rooms is that amplifier without tone controls sounds better compared to those with Balance, Bass and Treble knobs or digital controls for equalization. Yes, some amps have DIRECT button which will route your input source directly to amplifier section, but if speakers and amplifier are right, there is no need for any kind of equalization. Respect the mixmaster production work, they would make song to sound best as possible on all speakers, and your home equipment should be set to default audio settings for optimal results. Sound from input source should go directly to amplifying, shorter way - the better. When you have tone controls, sound has different route and it may be a bit degraded, doesn't have too if they used top components, but theoretically yes. I'm not against equalization, I love it, it helps me to adjust and make good sound even in badly shaped rooms. But, I prefer direct sound if you can achieve it ($$$).
Not having tone knobs on your amp is of course suitable only for ideal situation where speakers are right and your room is properly setup and you are using it just or mostly for your music listening. But, in 99% of the households, or should I say rooms, situation for music listening is far away from ideal. There is always some piece of furniture, bed, sofa, table, you have to be smart and make the most of it if you want to enjoy best possible sound. That's why sound controls may be necessity for many listeners, and if you have more money to spend, you can get yourself equalizer to correct your sound spectrum before it gets to amplifier and then speakers. Nowadays amps and receivers coming with a microphone that can be hooked on receiver to analyze and properly adjust your whole speakers setup. This is very usable, you have small computer that will adjust your speakers levels and tone, correct your room acoustics and sound will be better. However, mention equalization to any HiFi enthusiast, he will just tell you to go away.
Vinyl vs CD
High end rooms in Munich were very nice place to be, they didn't know if you gonna buy $10.000 amplifier so they treated each visitor/potential customer the same. To enable certain comfort for their customers they prepared some albums on both formats in their testing rooms, CDs and vinyls. Munich stores were always ready to squeeze last Deutsche Mark from you and if you're visiting show rooms with expensive equipment, they'll take care of you.
Classical music, CD won
On one visit I wanted to compare sound of Vinyl record versus CD, and I started first with some random classical music. I asked the guy to hook up turntable and CD player (priced the same) with top quality amp and speakers. Their Vinyl records collection was not that big, but they had well known records that you compare with CD releases, and that was enough for me. I have to say that I don't listen to classic music and my mission here was just to compare music formats, to get some pro and cons. What I noticed from the beginning is how noise is very bad for classical music. Compared to CD, sound of vinyl may be a bit warmer in some parts, but also noisy on quiet parts. Classical music has all kind of variations, tempo is changing very often, music is quiet sometimes, sometimes is loud, and when it's quiet, it's not clear and good enough for me. After listening to both, I wanted to have CD in my collection, not vinyl. CD won me for classic music listening, I may be minority or majority here, but I don't care, my ears don't like crackling, pops, noise, or any other "sound" that musicians didn't put on their master.
Pop-Rock, CD won
Well, I was never interested in this genre in my life, but as a radio DJ I played many popular bands and artists, it was not unfamiliar music territory for me. Testing vinyl records with Rock and Pop music in the High End rooms was a great experience, however CD was simply much better compared to vinyl. I was always amazed how much compression those rock and pop bands can squeeze on that CD and how they make it sound ten times louder than anything else before. You may hear similar results with both formats when volume is not loud, but I don't know many rockers who're willing to keep the volume knob down. If you listen to some older production, you could think for a moment that vinyl could win this battle, in this genre sometimes that crackle and pop with noise gives you special unique atmosphere that you can't get on digital equipment because it happens randomly, but otherwise, CD won for me. Newer Pop and Rock production really puts vinyl behind, just get good CD player and you'll be more than happy.
Jazz, Funk, Soul... Hmmmm..
Besides House music that I like the most, I do like Jazz, Funk, Disco, Hip-hop and some other genres influenced by Jazz. So, I did some tests with this kinds of music too, and, I was a bit surprised with the results. If we're talking about warm sound and atmosphere of the vinyl sound image, I heard some difference listening to those genres, sound was more natural, warmer and it was really good listening experience. Jazz sounds really good on vinyl, listening to same songs on CD, I kinda missed something, sound was somehow "to clear" for Jazz, Funk and Soul. I bet that you can find Jazz CD that sounds better than vinyl, but when I was experimenting long time ago, sound of vinyl was slightly better than CD. Could the reason be perfect engendered behind vinyl mastering that helps vinyl to keep up with CD? Always.
Maybe this is the right moment to mention how mastering music for vinyl is extremely important, there's a lot going on in that process. It's not like when you burn your home CD and simply put music on it with mouse and click on Burn, it's totally different and complicated process. Bad master will give you bad copies, that's why behind great records you have not only great musicians, but also people with great ears and skills for mastering. This process is the same for all records, all music genres, however It seems like a mastering engineers took special care on most of the Jazz records that I was able to catch there. All I want to say that I completely understand all proud owners and collectors of Jazz, Soul, Funk, and other quality genres, it's worth it.
Now, I do realize that all those tests that I made are probably subjective for some folks, but since I was personally there many times playing with all that HiFi for hours, I have built some personal opinion. I didn't mentioned names of the artists, songs, brands of the equipment, it was really not important, but I'll mention that complete turntable setup was around 5000 Deutsche marks, CD player (transport) and D/A converter together 5000 marks, so it was equal amount of money put on the test. All that plus help from professional people who are working all their life in high end HiFi rooms, it was worth it, at least for me.
And, I have to be honest, before I made all those tests I was pretty much vinyl "horny", especially because at that time all the music that I was buying was strictly published on 12" vinyl. I didn't have choice and I was very satisfied with the sound of vinyl, but it was very hard for me to get music that I want. With internet and digital music stores, I was able to buy what I want and when I want. I can buy wav file that is same uncompressed quality as CD, so vinyl doesn't work for me at all. If I'm active DJ and I'm making nice money, I could use vinyls for my set, I wouldn't mind. As I said before, it's just an format for me, music that is on it is only that is important. If you think that you gonna be better DJ because you spin vinyls, you're wrong, it's your music selection that moves the crowd. You can play music from cassette tape and be much better DJ than some fancy strictly vinyl DJ, remember that.