Vinyl gets a second chance

Classic medium gets a rebirth

Created date

October 27th, 2009
When compact discs introduced consumers to digital audio in 1983, it appeared as though the vinyl record had met its demise. Throughout the 1980s, CD players quickly went from technological novelties to standard household items, and the discs they played, touted as matchless in sound quality, sold by the millions. Store shelves once packed with 12-inch-by-12-inch cardboard album sleeves gave way to narrow columns filled with plastic cases less than half the size. By the early 1990s, analog LPs had essentially vanished from major record label production lines and vendors inventories. It seemed clear that the music industry s future was digital, and many believed that records had no place in it. They were wrong. As it turns out, vinyl is working its way back into the consumer s consciousness. A recent report from Nielson s music tracking service, SoundScan, shows that vinyl sales totaled 1.9 million units in 2008 alone up 90% from the previous year. Though this figure represents under 1% of all album sales, it s the highest vinyl total ever logged by SoundScan in its 18 years of tracking such data. In fact, Nielson expects this year s numbers to set yet another record high with sales projected to reach 2.8 million by the end of 2009. This renaissance may come as a surprise to some, but music retailers like John Kunz have been urging record labels to fire up the pressing plants for years. Independent stores like mine have told labels time and again that they were missing the boat with vinyl, says Kunz, who owns Waterloo Records ( in Austin, Tex. I think we re all saturated with digital; because of that, the demand is shifting toward a format that offers more substance than a compressed MP3 file on a computer or iPod.

Sound dynamics

Mastering engineer Kevin Gray seconds Kunz s opinion. More and more consumers, especially the younger generations, are starting to realize, Hey, I can actually hear dynamics when I listen to vinyl, and I think this is largely responsible for the resurgence that we re seeing, he explains. The problem with these ultra-compressed MP3 files is that they simply aren t capable of producing the sonic depth that you get with analog. The California-based engineer knows a thing or two about sound quality, having nearly 40 years of experience mastering vinyl and CD releases for artists such as The Beach Boys, Billy Joel, Elton John, Miles Davis, The Who, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, to name a few. Now Gray has turned his attention almost exclusively to vinyl, as his studio at AcousTech Mastering ( floods with tapes from labels scrambling to expand their catalogs to the grooved medium.

The classics and new releases

Over the last few years, he s cut vinyl reissues for 120 Blue Note jazz releases, albums by James Taylor, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell, and Van Halen, as well as new releases that include The Red Hot Chili Peppers Stadium Arcadium (2006) and heavy metal group Metallica s Death Magnetic (2008). All told, AcousTech s onsite record plant, RTI (, produced over two million pressings in 2008, more than any other year in its decades-long history. And while vinyl will always carry with it that element of nostalgia that oldies but goodies often do, the industry has made a few improvements to help ease it into the 21st century. For instance, the vinyl formulations used today are significantly less noisy during playback than those from the 1970s. Also, some labels are releasing titles on thicker, 180-gram discs that are less likely to warp with time. Even today s turntables, which are popping up everywhere from boutique electronics shops to chain stores like Best Buy, have received a face lift. Some phonographs employ the lighter, more rigid carbon fiber tonearms that provide stable playback with less of the low frequency rumble that sometimes obscures a record s audio material. Improved stylus cartridges, too, can extract more information from a record s grooves while doing the least possible damage to the playing surface. Given the growing interest in vinyl, Kunz says that he s had no trouble selling the turntables stocked in his store a trend that he hopes will continue. Being someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes music, I ve never really left vinyl, but I m glad and not at all surprised to see it regaining mainstream popularity, he says. I always knew that if the record labels made it more widely available, people would buy it, and that s exactly what s happening. ' '

Tips on caring for your vinyl

  • Here are some simple things to keep in mind when handling and caring for your vinyl records.
  • When removing a record from its sleeve, do it without touching the disc s playing surface. That is, slide your hand in and place three fingers over the label, guiding it out with your thumb on the record s edge rather than over the grooves. That keeps finger oils from getting all over the record and attracting dust.
  • Keep your records cool and stacked vertically. Extreme heat and poor storage will warp them.
  • Keep your records clean. The last thing you want to do is grind existing dust or dirt into the grooves. There are good and fairly inexpensive brushes available to help you prevent this. You can also buy record-cleaning machine