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Dust off the even-older stuff

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Sitting with a large vinyl record collection and mourn the days of the turntable? Well, they never went away. JOEL KOPPING delves into the world of vinyl and the numerous options available for any old record owner to convert them to new formats.

This piece, as you may have gathered form the title, was to a large degree inspired by Arthur Goldstuck’s article, Dust off the old stuff.

Arthur spoke about a few gadgets that are still going strong after a measly few decades. I’m going to talk about a technology that is still around after more than 120 years ‚ although the gadgets themselves may not have lasted that long.

This technology is so old, its roots pre-date even the light bulb.

But there is an interesting link between the light bulb and this technology: they were both invented by the same person, namely Thomas Alva Edison, who in 1887 invented the Phonograph.

The phonograph eventually morphed into the record player ‚ or turntable, for the more fastidious among us. Until the late ‚80s, it was the medium of choice for music reproduction.

Most people tend to believe that CD killed off the record player, but the reality is that it never died: it just went into a form of hibernation, and in recent years it has started to awaken from this slumber.

Now you have to wonder why a century-old device, that technically is poorer in every way to the format that supposedly replaced it, is still around. I have a few possible answers.

The first one is that DJs love spinning and scratching vinyl (here, ‚scratching‚ involves moving the LP record forward and backward with the phono needle in the groove to create unique sounds and rhythms ‚ courtesy ask.com). The physical presence of a record and a needle ‚ or stylus, for the fussy ‚ in a groove is just so much more tactile than doing the same with an electronic facsimile of the real thing.

There are numerous turntables available to the DJ. At www.thesoundshop.co.za, I found seven DJ turntables, ranging in price from a little over R1 400 to just under the R6 000 mark.

Reason number two is that many people, myself included, believe that vinyl records and good turntables can deliver music that is more involving and easier to listen to than any other digital format. Of course, listening to vinyl records can be a painful experience too, particularly when you’re playing old and dirty records on a poor turntable.

Playing good quality records ‚ and there are many new releases available on vinyl ‚ on a good system is far more rewarding that just loading a CD into a player or pushing the start button on your iPod.

I believe that one reason for this greater involvement is that most people who listen to records have a ritual. Mine is to remove the record carefully from its sleeve, check which side I want to play, and then carefully place it on my player platter. Next, I fit the clamp that ensures that the record stays as flat as possible, and turn the player on to get the record moving. Now I use an anti-static brush to remove dust and static from the record grooves. Only when this is done do I carefully lower the arm and cartridge onto the record itself.

This ritual sets up a form of anticipation that is way different to plonking a CD into a tray and pushing play.

Apart from this ritual, I believe that, unless you have an automatic record player that lifts the stylus off the record at the end of the side and turns the player off ‚ and no self-respecting audiophile (or is that audiophool?) would have one of these ‚ you have to listen more intently, as you will have to jump up as soon as the side ends.

To get an idea of pricing and availability of turntables for the audio fans, I turned to my AVSA Buyers guide, and the listings in the magazine were rather informative.

I wouldn’t have imagined it, but the guide lists more turntables ‚ 165 to be exact ‚ than it does DVD and Blu-ray players (only 60 of these were listed). Clearly there quite a few audio fan(atics) who believe in old technology.

On the pricing front, there were models listed from around R2 200 for a complete player to R1 300 000 without a cartridge. Cartridges were listed from a few hundred Rand to about R85 000.

The third group of people who are returning to the record player and to vinyl, are those that want to archive what they have.

Many people still have large record collections that contain music that was never released on CD or any of the newer digital formats, and they want to convert these records into a digital format.

There are quite a few solutions available to archivists too, and these range from simple to sophisticated.

What the record owners and archivists all have in common is that they need a record player.

One of the easiest ways of archiving your records is to use a turntable like the ION Profile Flash LP Turntable, listed at R1 648. This turntable copies your record collection directly to a SD or USB flash card that is plugged directly into a port on the player.

This next solution isn’t quite as simple but does offer some advantages, one of which is more flexibility in formats and compression ratio.

Here you would use a turntable like the ION Audio Profile LP Vinyl to MP3 turntable that sells from around R779. This connects to a PC via USB and is even supplied with some nifty software that, once loaded on to your PC or Mac, takes you through the music transfer steps.

Of course you do need to own a computer and be just a little computer-literate.

The prices quoted for the ION products came from www.pricecheck.co.za

(See Arthur Goldstuck’s column on the subject, Ban these gadgets!).

The last solution I’ll talk about is one that has the potential to deliver the best transcriptions from vinyl to digital. It is, however, also the most time consuming.

This solution starts with a good dedicated turntable, and the better this is, the more music you’ll be able to extract from your record collection. This would then be connected to a phono amplifier which in simple terms is a device that converts the ultra low level electrical signal generated by a cartridge into electrical levels that are high enough for connecting to an external amplifier or in our case the stereo audio in on a computer sound card.

The third and fourth pieces of this audio archiving puzzle include a PC and a dedicated software package -I use Magix Audio Cleaning 11- that will convert the analogue signals from your player/phono amplifier to a choice of digital formats. The more sophisticated the software the more features it’ll have and Magix for example has the ability to remove much of the snap, crackle and pop from a recording without taking the music with it.

Vinyl is, as you can see, still alive and doing rather well for a technology that’s pushing towards its third century. So go ahead, dive into your storeroom and dig out your old record player and records.

You may just unearth a few gems that you forgot you had.

Second hand vinyl is cheap, if a bit hit or miss on the quality front, and new vinyl sounds better than ever before. Check out www.audionut.co.za to see just how many new records are available.

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