2017: A Vinyl Odyssey (Extracting Humanity From the Data)

This is the third installment of a four part journey through the entire history of music and technology. In Part Three, the evolution seems to be complete or at least gone full-circle, as mankind rediscovers some very basic truths about music and his relationship with it.

* * *

The first few years of the second decade of the 21st Century found the music world in a2001-pen-2 shambles. Melody had been forsaken for dance routines and thoughtful lyrics for salacious invitations that lacked even the pretense of being clever. The simplest of all musical tools, the wax disk cut with musical vibrations, had served mankind nearly unchanged for 120 years, but alas that was to be no more. Music now existed on the Cloud, and it was as ethereal as it was ubiquitous, but it was often barely recognizable as human. Algorithms predetermined what song we listened to next, and we Shazamed import car commercials to get the 411 on new music. Everyone thought they were happy and musically satisfied.

They weren’t.

Then one night – no one can be sure when exactly, a lone hipster started fiddling with an archaic machine he found, maybe in a rummage sale, maybe in his dad’s attic. I say he but no one really knows. It may have been a she-hipster, but I think most of us would agree that it was in fact, a hipster.

And following the evolutionary cycle of mankind since sun-bleached animal bones became our first musical instruments, other hipsters began to notice the joy and satisfaction of this archaic mechanical device. Soon enterprising hipsters were opening commercial establishments to support this burgeoning new entertainment medium. Sure, people who cut their teeth on CDs in the 90s laughed at this de-evolutionary development, but the wave was unstoppable. The evolutionary pause button had been hit, and the people were becoming happy once again. In fact, by the middle part of the second decade of the 21st Century, holiday season sales of newly manufactured versions of this archaic mechanical device surpassed sales of all other audio equipment. Before long, in 2016 to be precise, vinyl sales outpaced digital downloads. What was at once declared a fad was now a force to be reckoned with.

But the people trembled with worry and fear. What sounded better, CD and high-res files (that were only occasionally actually high-res), or wax disks sending mechanical vibrations to a magnet that translated these vibrations into song?

It’s a hipster fad, cried the digitized masses. Modern technology is so far superior. This fad will die out right after lumbersexuals with amazingly groomed beards and checked shirts become quaint relics of a bygone era the anti-hipsters sneered.

0f0187ef51b007478fe458fb45dbf471

Like Dave destroyed HAL with a screwdriver in the Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, (and David destroyed Goliath with a donkey jawbone and a stone, interesting…) a spontaneous re-discovery of vinyl records didn’t destroy the technical evolution of how we listen to music, but it certainly knocked it back a few notches. This gave all of us music fans a chance to catch our collective breaths and pause for contemplation.

You see, who cares which format sounds better? Who cares which tool another person is using to listen to music? Isn’t the reason we listen to music because we are human beings and we’re wired specifically to communicate via its magic? That being said, the act of removing a wax disk from a cardboard box and placing it on a moving machine is so much more satisfying to our human need to connect to our music then hovering a cursor over a filename and hitting play on a computer that would really rather tell us what to listen to next instead of doing what we tell it to do.

I understand the math that proves that sampling a song at 44.1 kHz completely converts all of the usable musical information to 1s and 0s that are then converted back to musical information. I understand the storage capacity limitations of digital media that forces us to compress our songs into unrecognizable mp3s. I understand that early CDs were not mastered correctly for digital technology so they sounded horrible but that we eventually got CD mastering right. I completely dig the convenience of streaming. My mom had an FM radio on top of the refrigerator in our tiny little kitchen that streamed music pretty much 24 hours a day for the 19 years I lived in the house I grew up in. I stream classical music on my desk while I work (notice that I didn’t say listen to classical music). I live a life that includes non-stop music, but I also separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to my listening experiences.

With all of this in mind, my ears tell me there is a difference. I perceive a naturalness with vinyl even though the music is logically no different than what I hear when I listen to a decent resolution digital file (there actually is a technical reason for this that we’ll cover somewhere down the line). I have done blind listening tests and could easily tell the difference between mp3 and medium-resolution files, but I had mixed results telling the difference between medium-resolution and high-resolution files.

In spite of all of this, the science part of my brain tells me there is something more that I 2001spaceodyssey133experience when I listen to vinyl. Is it possible scientists 30 years from now will discover there is indeed something missing from an analog sound when it is digitized? That’s altogether possible, even though it’s pretty unlikely at this point in our technological evolution.

Maybe the difference is too simple for science. With vinyl, rather than scrolling my Facebook timeline, or shampooing the dog while I listen to Leon Bridges, I’m sitting in a chair and listening. So forget science and math for a second – of course music sounds better when it’s the sole focus of my attention. At once I am carried back to the origins of my humanness and a fire under the stars, or a candle-lit room surrounded by people who understand me. Music becomes the experience it was intended to be when I listen to vinyl. I sit through the dull songs rather than get up and move the needle, whereas on a CD or a streaming device I simply push the skip button. But when I push the skip button my connection to the music – whatever that is in a cosmic sense – is lost, even if just for a moment. When I control the music, the music cannot wash over me.

When I allow music to wash over me, I am transported to another plane and that is the intention of all art isn’t it? Especially music. We are, in a sense, moving beyond our current state of evolution and consciousness when we listen to music.

You may think I’m being pretty liberal with the hyperbole, and if you are, then I urge you to just sit and let a room full of music wash over you. Don’t get up, don’t play with any other device; don’t skip the weak songs – just be for forty minutes or so. I’m completely confident you will eventually be transported away from your dull existence as you travel through space and time to a plane not of this world.

That, my friends, is what the vinyl commotion is all about – it has nothing to do with fidelity and everything to do with art and humanity.

That being said, in tomorrow’s epilogue we’ll look at the good things technology has done for us – musically speaking.