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Slow Listening to Records With A Turntable

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis


Today, too much entertainment is available too easily and too quickly. Yes, scarcity of needed resources—such as food, shelter, political freedom, and love—is still real and must be addressed by wise and kind people. This is a result of the fall (Genesis 3). Slowness still annoys us, especially when we are stuck in bad traffic or waiting for a doctor’s visit or a test result. However, especially in communications media, we suffer not from scarcity, but from overabundance, from a surfeit of substances that choke out truth, beauty, and goodness. We are flooded with information; but flooded is an outmoded and unelectrified metaphor, since no rush of mere water can match the volume, intensity, or pervasiveness of information that issues from “big data.”


Music in a Different Way


This thesis can be illustrated in a dozen ways, but consider only our reception of music through various media. Nothing compares to attending a live concert of excellent musicians playing worthy music, as I did in January of 2023 at Snug Harbor Jazz Lounge in New Orleans to see drummer Herlin Riley’s ebullient and stellar quartet. It was so lively, joyful, and virtuosic that I wanted to record it in order to experience its trace again. But in the entire history of the human race, music has only been recorded and replayed since the late nineteenth century. Before that, one either played music, heard music, or remembered music in one’s mind. No external devices could replay it. Books and magazines recorded words to be read and reread, but not so for music—except for written scores, which are more like blueprints of the music.


Now let us enter a different world, one of embodiment, slowness, deliberation, and delectation. I refer to vinyl recordings (or records), which, I hear, are making a comeback. So, all must not be lost for American civilization.


Baby Boomers (born approximately 1946-1964) came of age listening to the radio and to objects (flat disks with grooved black vinyl) upon which was somehow inscribed music that could be heard when played on the proper devices. One needed the external object (the record), a turntable, a needle, an amplifier, and speakers (and/or headphones). This made up the “stereo system.” Compared to listening to a playlist on a streaming service, this was terribly inefficient in several ways. First, you could not listen to music anywhere you wanted, as today. You had to be physically near the stereo system or to a radio. Second, this setup was inefficient because the music available was limited to whichever records you could acquire. Thus, you had a “record collection,” or you might borrow records from friends, which was always dangerous given how easily they could be warped or scratched. This was all we had to choose from back in the day. We didn’t know what we were missing, since there was nothing to miss. So, why would anyone want to return to such anachronistic practices, or to such inefficiency?


Some of us Boomers kept our old stereo equipment. I kept my 1973 Pioneer turntable and still use it today. I am on my third needle. I have retained a stereo system with a turntable all these many years. In fact, I have three systems: two at home and one at my office at Denver Seminary (where I have the hippest, if most messy, office on campus.) Let me explain five reasons why I kept my system.


Five Reasons for Slow Listening to Records


First, a record comes in a record jacket and sleeve and sometimes contains a poster or other paper inserts There were often liner notes, which are essays or comments about the music and the musicians. CDs have a plastic container and may include some photographs or written material in an insert. Streaming music services have very little photographic or written material to draw from, although you might get some commentary. Record albums were holistic objects, with the covers, inner art, and written comments being as important as the music itself. Some of the essays found on liner notes of older jazz recordings are of a high literary and historical value, especially if written by literary masters such as Nate Hentoff. Some of the older original record sleeves advertise music of that time, which is enjoyable to remember.


Second, with records, one knows what one is listening to. When I put on the record “Are You Experienced?” (1967) by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, I know what music is there. I am not surprised by anything (unless I hear something I had never heard before). When the album is over, the music stops.


On the other hand, when you listen to a playlist, you may not know what you are listening to and the algorithm may automatically go to another tune. Thus, I was surprised several years ago when I asked someone in a bookstore what music was playing. He didn’t know, since it was on his playlist. I don’t like playlists. I like selecting what I listen to and when, thank you.

Third, the sound quality heard on CDs and streaming services is often compromised since the music is compressed, meaning that the fuller range of frequencies is limited. The sound is flatter, thinner, and weaker. Why do we withstand this? In many cases, no one even knows what has been lost, since they have never listened to vinyl albums on a good sound system, poor souls. But for those who know of the loss, it comes down to a tradeoff: convenience in place of quality.


But sound quality has its aesthetic rewards. The sound on a record is analogue, not digital. As such, it is warmer, more natural. The downside is that one can easily damage a vinyl disk. You can usually get a good sense of the quality of the vinyl if you look at it while at a record store. But anyone searching for vintage, original recordings has to be aware of this. I have ordered classic jazz and rock recordings that have been positively ruined by scratches, pops, and being played on bad equipment—that is, heavy needle pressure and bad needles. (If I cannot bear to listen to these albums, I put the covers on my wall.) I can endure a certain threshold of scratches and pops for the sake of the music, however. They are part of the history of the album (I tell myself). Skips are another issue entirely. It seems the fabric of existence is violated when an album skips, since the rhythm is violated. One skip can ruin your whole day.


Fourth, there is a certain performance quality about playing records on a stereo system which has its charms, since it is deliberative, time-intensive, and should be done slowly. You do not touch a screen and get endless hours of music. Instead, you select a record. If you are like me, that means taking one from hundreds of choices, mostly in jazz, classic rock, and progressive rock. You take the vinyl disk out of the folder. You put it on the turntable. You make sure the needle is clean. If it is not clean, you brush it off with the proper device. You wipe down the album if it is dirty (or use a more elaborate device for cleaning). Then you place the needle on the album, making sure the stereo system is on and at the right volume and tone control. (Streaming services do not, to my knowledge, have tone control. You are at their mercy for the balance of bass and treble.) Since one side of a record has at most thirty minutes of music (and usually less), you have to take the needle off the record, take the record off the turntable, and decide what (if anything) to play next.


Fifth, shopping for albums in brick-and-mortar stores has its pleasures. While much of what I want is more easily available online, there is a discrete pleasure to looking through the stacks of records in a store such as Twist and Shout, Angelo’s CDs and More, or Wax Trax in Denver (or Boogies West in Castlerock). You never know what rare treasure you might find, and it can be enjoyable to talk to other record shoppers.


A Special Pleasure


While I enjoy playing one of my thousands of CDs, listening to music on a streaming service while in my car, on a bike ride, or listening to rare Jimi Hendrix performances only available on YouTube, I prefer listening to those old, embodied, and inefficient objects of aesthetic enjoyment: vinyl records. Consider entering this antique and inefficient world of aesthetic delight, which is yet another gift from God through culture. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17, NIV).

 

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