The Groove Is Back: The Vinyl Revival Is Real
Vinyl is back, baby! Well, sort of. It is alive and kicking, and that’s more than can be said for quite some time. In fact, you may well have purchased a vinyl record or received one as a gift. And if you’re new to the format, you’re holding on to something with a long connection to music history.
I thought I’d take this time to dissect the resurgence of vinyl as an audio format, and share some best practices for the uninitiated on how to care for them properly. But first, a brief and (moderately) accurate history lesson.
Roots of vinyl
When Edison’s phonograph invention took flight nearly 140 years ago, I’m sure not even he could foresee the legacy that it would create. For roughly 80 years, vinyl discs manufactured by Edison (and later by his far more successful competitor—Victor Talking Machine Company) would dominate how we listened to recorded sound. The medium was, for a time, so core to our species that we even launched a couple of them into space. The Voyager Golden Records (these were actually gold-plated copper discs, though they utilized the same technology), launched with the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts, contained spoken greetings in 55 languages, music ranging from Bach to Chuck Berry, and even the singing of humpback whales. So far, no five-star reviews from the outer reaches of space.
For all intents and purposes, vinyl's rule ended in 1986.
Radio, birthed at roughly the same time as the first commercially available phonograph players, has a long and intimate connection to those vinyl platters. When quality and commercial manufacture of playback devices finally ramped up sufficiently to make them viable in a professional setting, record players (along with audio tape) helped extend the broadcast day for radio stations that had previously scheduled live orchestras and actors to fill airtime. The diversity of recorded music on vinyl records also helped pave the way for decades of format creation (Album Oriented Rock, Big Band, Easy Listening, Country, etc...), some of which still dominate the airwaves today. Through its early decades, non-commercial radio was also heavily reliant on vinyl records for its celebration of the musical arts—classical music & opera, jazz, old-time folk and bluegrass, blues, and more. Due to the repetitive nature of many music stations, vinyl records were often recorded to reel-to-reel or other audio tape for the actual on-air playback. Then, after repeated plays, once the condition of the tape had degraded, a new ‘master’ recording would be made with the original vinyl. Otherwise, the albums stayed in storage to keep them pristine.
That relationship between radio and vinyl started to end in the early 1980s when CDs hit the market. The shiny plastic discs were lighter, smaller, more durable, easier to store, faster to cue up songs, and able to show remaining time on a track. All of those traits are, even today, extremely useful to broadcasters. Also, CD players themselves could be located in a rack safely out of the way of clumsy hands and elbows — all in all they made the ‘DJ’ job much easier. When I hosted my very first radio show in 1988 (at small but mighty KASB, for the record), the station was roughly ½ vinyl and ½ CD. But that ratio was changing week by week.
For years, most stations maintained at least one working turntable somewhere in a studio for the occasional need, but nowadays they’ve almost entirely disappeared from the broadcast booth — the only exceptions being specialized ‘throwback’ vinyl shows. I don’t think we’ve had a functional turntable at JPR in nearly a decade; our new studios weren’t designed in a way that going back to playing vinyl would be easy even if we wanted to.
Outside the broadcast world, vinyl records found a similar fate. Not necessarily dead, but certainly on life-support by the 1980s. On the consumer side of life, two other factors helped speed vinyl’s demise: the cassette tape and the Walkman™. By 1980, the cassette had been around for about 15 years. Its compact design and greatly improved fidelity had managed to shrink down the unwieldy reel-to-reels of the past into a product consumers could use to play, record, and play back music repeatedly at home or in the car. And then Sony changed everything with the Walkman. For the first time, recorded music became portable. The world largely never looked back. The jump to CD as the medium of choice was the final straw. For all intents and purposes, vinyl’s rule ended in 1986.
But not for audiophiles. Music lovers have long treated vinyl with a kind of mysticism, using terminology like “warmth” to describe a special intangible quality that some say eludes digital recording technology. Getting the most out of a vinyl record requires more effort than the simple huff of warm breath and a wipe on the t-shirt that many of us (shouldn’t, but do) give a CD to wipe off fingerprints before sticking it in a player.
Growing up, my home contained a record player the size of a Shetland pony that took up a quarter of our den. Due to my dad’s ‘hi-fi’ affinity, we also had a veritable Crutchfield catalog of electronics: giant British Wharfedale speakers, an Aiwa reel-to-reel, a multi-band equalizer, receiver, power amp, cassette deck, and a curious box of accoutrement kept in the storage area. There were brushes, swabs, bottles of rubbing alcohol, some mystery tinctures, and even a bizarre plastic gun-shaped device designed to fight static electricity and keep the equipment running at maximum efficiency. Our house rules were simple: use the gear whenever you want (all the Evie, Boston, Fleetwood Mac, Mannheim Steamroller and The Eagles a six-year-old kid could ever want, ugh!), but clean everything properly when you do. The cleaning always seemed a delicate combination of art and science — an important one if the goal was pristine sound. The reason for that is simple: turntables function by dragging a tiny diamond needle through an even tinier groove cut into the vinyl. Within that groove are microscopic deformations that cause the needle to vibrate, and the energy of those vibrations are turned into sound energy. Imagine how much information exists in those tiny spaces—La Boheme, West End Blues, Abbey Road! Any foreign material like a small piece of dust could cause slight deflection of the needle, causing unwanted noise. The ‘crackle’ that so often comes to mind when we think of a needle being places on a record is actually sound you don’t want. And at my house, there was one specific set of tools that ruled them all to get things clean…Discwasher.
Imagine how much information exists in those tiny spaces – La Boheme, West End Blues, Abbey Road!
In the early 1970s, Dr. Bruce Maier, an audiophile and professor of microbiology at the University of Missouri, developed a special brush and a cleaning solution that removed gunk from vinyl records. He called his company Discwasher, and it soon became the most popular vinyl cleaning product in the world. The iconic walnut-handled brush and distinct red plastic bottle mysteriously labeled “D3” or “D4” could be found next to many high-quality turntables at home and at broadcast locations. Maier wanted the cleaning process to be easy and fast. A user would apply a few drops of the cleaning fluid to the brush, and then while the record was spinning (using a motion I’d best describe as “whisking dust off of a table with your left hand”) they’d slowly wipe the record with the wet edge and roll it slowly to the dry edge to dry everything off.
When sales and popularity of vinyl waned in the 1980s, the company was sold off and eventually folded, sending throngs of audiophiles scrambling to find replacement options. Fast forward to 2015, and enter Steve Chase. Chase was an old friend of Dr. Meier (Chase’s wife was actually Discwasher’s third employee and accounting manager), and sought to recreate Dr. Meier’s original system. The first major task was the solution itself. As Chase put it in an email to me,
"Dr Maier never revealed his formula to me. He did publish three of his formulations in his 1974 patent. All were very similar. His surfactant of choice was DuPont’s Triton X-100, which is still on the market.** With help from a scientist friend, I selected 4 of our ingredients from his ingredient family. And replaced his anti fungal chemical for a high tech wetting agent, which makes (our) G2 fluid thinner than the (original) D fluids. Reduced surface tension is a critical feature for cleaning a groove that is only 25 microns wide and 6 to 10 microns deep. Plain water (the fluid used in some record cleaning kits) will just sit on top of the grooves.”
According to the Recording Industry Association of American, in the first half of 2020, vinyl album surpassed CD sales for the first time since 1986.
Chase’s company is now called Groovewasher, and while it’s just one of many dozens of options on the market today, it is the system that most closely resembles the original standard bearer. I asked Chase how often he’d recommend cleaning a record.
“The Discwasher experience trained me to ‘do the ritual’ every time before cueing the stylus. This can be as quick and easy as a mist spray on the cleaning pad and a light grooming on the turntable… On hearing dirt. That’s a personal issue. I won’t listen to a record that is dirty or in bad condition (scuffs, scratches, etc). We love to play vintage records in our plant that are in excellent condition but just need a quick cleaning. Some people don’t mind pops and clicks from a dirty or bad condition record. Some low priced record players are designed to reduce the noise from dirt in the groove. Crosley, Ion, Victrola and others. Because the needle is grinding out the groove each time it’s played. A mid-range turntable with an elliptical stylus will play records without damage. And the better the sound system, the more music you can hear (and noise from dirt and dust.) If the record has been well cleaned, and stored carefully, it will only need a light dusting (dry or damp) before playing the next time.”
So how should you store your new (or vintage) vinyl collection? Well for that, I turned to Mark Rainey, the CEO of Cascade Record Pressing in Milwaukee, Oregon. The company is described as “…the first large production automated record pressing plant in the Pacific Northwest.” I figured if anyone knew how best to store vinyl records, it would be him: “Upright on a sturdy shelf, in the same way you’d file books on a bookshelf. Make sure you keep your record collection in a cool, dry space that’s away from direct sunlight and other sources of heat.”
The tips are designed to reduce the chance that your records will warp. If you’re just starting a collection and you’ve only got a few albums, you don’t really have to worry much about leaning them against something, as their individual mass isn’t great enough for gravity to sufficiently affect. But, as someone who has moved tens of thousands of vinyl records in my career, let me tell you, these things get heavy fast. You really don’t want a bunch of weight pushing down on your albums.
For the novice or casual collector, that’s about it. Rainey says that “If treated right, your record collection will likely outlive you. Generally records get 'wrecked' by deliberate abuse, neglect, and force majeure.”
But, if you are on the “serious” end of the audiophile spectrum, there are some additional steps you can take to help keep your collection in pristine shape. Rainey says that he personally switches out the inner paper sleeves that come with records for poly-lined sleeves in his own collection, explaining that some paper sleeves can leave scuffs on the surface of your records over time.
“This issue has become more common as PVC supplies move away from using lead as a hardening agent. The result is that compounds that many modern records are pressed on can be “softer” than what the industry was using in the 1980s and earlier. Typically the blemishes that paper sleeves leave are only cosmetic, and won’t affect playback sound quality, but if you are serious about record collecting, you should treat it as an investment.”
Vinyl is hot right now, with many labels and artists releasing a number of “exclusive” items to entice consumerism. Things like multi-colored vinyl. Or “collectors edition” heavy gram platters. I asked Rainey his thoughts on a few of the new trends. On colored-vinyl:
“To put it simply, when you step away from black vinyl, you are stepping away from audiophile. I love color vinyl records, I own a ton and I press them every day, but color vinyl is a marketing gimmick. Modern color compound has greatly improved since the 70s and 80s, and I think records pressed today on color vinyl sound just fine, BUT if sound quality is more important to you, nothing beats black vinyl.” And in case you’re curious why that is, I asked for you. “It’s the best because it is the least “adulterated. Really, the best sounding vinyl would be what gets called “natural” vinyl, which is just PVC without any pigment added. The problem with this material is that it’s difficult to visually make out the land between songs so you can easily cue up a particular song. The reason that the carbon black gets added to record compound at all is so grooves are easier to see. So black vinyl is, compared to other color options, more stable. You are asking less of PVC with carbon black as a material to perform well in the pressing process than PVC that’s had other pigments added to it. This is even more the case when you’re mixing colors. The more elaborate you get with color vinyl, the less stable the material is (meaning that it can be more susceptible to warping, have a higher noise floor, etc.). However, it’s important to point out that none of this means that records pressed on color vinyl will sound bad. And the actual program material can play a role in how much this is an issue. For example, with a really low-fi, fuzzed out Garage band, the choice between black vinyl and some kind of elaborate color mixture could make no difference whatsoever as far as how the record sounds, because you’re already starting with a noisy recording. But other side of that coin is that you don’t seen Blue Note Jazz records, classical music or quiet singer/songwriter material pressed on splatter, tri-color glow-in-the-dark vinyl.”
And what about that heavy gram vinyl that’s touted as “audiophile”? Rainey explains a common misconception:
“Like color vinyl, 180 gram vinyl is a marketing gimmick. The difference is that a 'standard weight' 12” record usually weighs between 120g–150g, so 180g gives you a heavier, more durable record that’s less likely to warp etc. BUT that also means that it’s more expensive, much heavier and therefore more expensive to ship, etc. And 180g sounds exactly the same as a standard weight. There is a misconception that 180 gram has “deeper grooves” than standard weight. This is completely false; the lacquer masters cut for standard weight pressings are IDENTICAL to those used for 180 gram. They’re the same thickness, the grooves cut are the same depth, THEY ARE THE SAME PART.”
According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in the first half of 2020, vinyl album surpassed CD sales for the first time since 1986 ($232.1 million compared to $129.9 million—though truth be told that says more about the rapid decline in physical sales of CDs (down 48%) than it does about a huge swell of vinyl collectors (up 4%)). John Brenes, owner of Music Coop in Ashland says that his sales in 2020 were roughly half CD and half vinyl. “LP buyers in the Coop are all ages, 10-year old's to 70+ years,” said Brenes. “LPs are not coming back, THEY ARE BACK!”
Online retailers like the Magnolia Record Club offer all kinds of beautiful colored vinyl options for a lot of newly released albums, but the place to go for vintage finds and unexpected discoveries is, and always has been, the local record shop. Perusing shelves for rare finds created a sense of community. It’s where I and countless others heard things I never knew I liked. And it’s where friends were made through common interests. The online world just can’t replicate the sense of place a community record shop offers, nor the incredible depth of knowledge that its proprietors can supply. Sadly, the pandemic, and its on-again, off-again shutdowns of retail establishments has affected those cherished places.
While radio (JPR, specifically) will always be my first choice, and my first suggestion for music fans, the deliberate process of tracking an album song by song on a vinyl record really can’t be beat. Even with a little bit of crackle. Good luck out there, and happy hunting.
Eric Teel is JPR’s Director of FM Network Programming and Music Director.
**Correction: Triton X-100 surfactant was patented and copyrighted by Rohm and Haas, which has since been purchased by Dow Chemical Company.