Apple Kills Vinyl? Not Quite!

March 7th, 2018

For years, I thought vinyl was dead. But as a street kid in Brooklyn, New York. my tiny record collection was built on 45s and LPs. As much as people adored vinyl, I resented the imperfections, the ticks and pops and the inner groove distortion,  the need to replace them if you played them too much. I was so happy to ditch them when CD came along.

Sure, CD wasn’t perfect at first. Mastering engineers had to learn how to handle the new digital medium and not make them sound shrill and harsh. I remember the first CD demonstration I heard at an audio show near New York City in the early 1980s. A CD version of a Bill Joel album was being played, and it was just plain awful.

CD was promoted as “perfect sound forever,” and I didn’t believe a word of it. Ever hear of “CD rot?” Or maybe that was just a myth.

Anyway, recording and mastering techniques improved. CD quality improved, and remastered versions of vintage recordings were common. If you had the coin, you could buy many versions of your favorite Beatles or Elvis Presley recordings. The music companies were only too happy to take your money again and again. So even though you didn’t have to replace a worn LP, there was always a brand new digital mix with improved audio, alternate takes and even artist demos. No longer did Ringo’s unique drum arrangements always fade into the background.

The Beatles are my faves, but the surviving artists and estates are only too happy to have you buy their recordings over and over again to listen to something you may have missed the first 10,000 times. Don’t forget that the original fab four albums were actually recorded on mono, and the stereo mixed was rushed out later for the U.S. market. So wouldn’t you prefer the mono version of “Sgt. Pepper”?

In recent years, there’s been a sort of  vinyl resurgence. Maybe it’s partly about today’s too slick recording techniques, but some regarded digital audio as sterile, unemotional, and wouldn’t you prefer the wonderful warm, honest sound of vinyl?

Now it’s true that the reason vinyl sounds different is a matter of distortion not accuracy, but if you like it fine. But the vinyl of the 21st century wears as quickly as the vinyl of 1968.

In 2009, Steve Jobs sort of jumped on the vinyl bandwagon, but with enhanced digital recordings, fuller liner notes and other doo-dads. He introduced iTunes LP, announcing, “Some of us here are old enough that we actually bought LPs.” It meant you could order a special version of an album with the extra stuff for more money.

Evidently the idea didn’t quite catch on. So Apple is reportedly phasing out iTunes LP. Evidently people prefer “real” LPs, like the vinyl kind.

At one time I was even convinced that most people would prefer to own music rather than rent it. Clearly tens of millions of Apple Music and Spotify subscribers do not agree with me. Computerworld’s Jonny Evans, the “Apple Holic,” suggests it may be about eventually developing AR versions of music. So if you think music is moving to the background, there will be exceptions.

Besides, vinyl hasn’t gone anywhere.

You still see people in movies and TV shows lovingly placing the needle on the groove of a spinning disk, the soft background noise heralding the beginning of the music.

For the past 12 years, vinyl sales have actually increased worldwide. In 2017, some 14,32 albums were sold. The top ten listings consist of recent material and classic rock.

Number 1 and number 2? It’s almost 1969 again, with two Beatles albums in their proper locations at the top of the charts. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” followed by “Abbey Road.” Another perennial best-seller, Pink Floyd’s, “The Dark Side of the Moon” is number eight, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller is number ten.

All right, the quantities are far lower. “Thriller” sold 49,000 and “Sgt. Pepper” sold 72,000.

On occasion, I wonder if I shouldn’t consider buying a combo player which includes LP, CD, AM and FM, or just a plain turntable. Crosley, the modern successor to an old-time audio company, is still building vintage gear with classic designs for prices that start at just shy of $90. Many are Mac and PC compatible with USB cables and even Bluetooth. There are a few old fashioned table radios and classic rotary phones in the lineup.

Over the years, I’ve actually contacted Crosley about getting some review gear to test, to bring back some pleasant memories of the past. But they don’t routinely send out many samples.

But one thing is certain: The Night Owl may be old, but I’m not in the least eager to buy into vinyl once again. Once digital sound found its way, I happily gave up on vinyl, surface noise and wear and tear. The CD may not have exactly been “perfect sound forever,” but it was a lot closer to the music than LPs. I still have some of older discs on hand that are over 30 years old. Not a spec of CD rot on them.

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