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The record player evolved from the cylinder to the gramophone to the 12-inch; by 1949, records were produced on a substance discovered by scientist Waldo Semon, who had been working on developing a synthetic adhesive. Originally used to make golf balls and shoe heels, the substance was known as polyvinyl chloride. The vinyl era of music was born, and soon, a slew of legendary rock recordings was produced.
Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash used a system that took a sound source directly from the microphone and, hooked to a lathe with a gem-equipped cutting head, inscribed audio directly onto a piece of lacquer-covered aluminum to create the "stampers" that would press an LP.
That process soon gave way to recording first to magnetic tape, then to digital recording. Infrasonic's Lyman has done his part to resurrect the analog arts, continuing to offer his clients vinyl mastering. He has even done a direct-to-vinyl recording session for Beck. This process isn't for everyone; each lacquer plate runs $30 and allows for one take to get it right (two, if you flip the lacquer over). It definitely requires musicians to be well-rehearsed.
The machine in his studio is known as the Neumann lathe. Built in the 1950s, it was once the property of RCA records. These machines are no longer made, and parts are hard to come by, so Lyman contracts with a technician with a machine shop who makes parts when necessary. Working with it, he says, is akin to "driving an 18-wheeler down a cobblestone street." But the effort is rewarded in the final product.
"I prefer the sound of vinyl 90 percent of the time over a 16-bit compact disc," Lyman says. "There is something the medium does that actually changes the way [the music] sounds—in a pleasing way, I think."
And there's an entire subculture of audiophiles that agrees. These music fans can afford to drop six figures on a turntable.
Dan Meinwald distributes high-end audio components for European electronics company EAR and serves as an industry consultant to the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society. At 58, he has been listening to vinyl records since he was 15 and enjoys everything from classical Indian music and subgenres of jazz to Jimi Hendrix. He estimates he has 5,000 records in his collection.
"I never stopped buying records and playing records," he says. "It was very obvious CDs didn't sound very good in the beginning. . . . I have lots of CDs now, and I play them all the time. But when I really want to sit and listen to music carefully, I play records because they sound better."
That's because on vinyl, audio waves captured with microphones are directly reproduced by the playback system, giving the listener a true analog of the original event. With digital formats such as MP3s and CDs, sound waves are captured by the microphones the same way, but they're converted into bits and stored in a computer. Those bits are then replayed on a CD in what Meinwald refers to as a "digital approximation."
"There's all kinds of subtleties in music. If they're not there, you miss them—even if you're not aware of missing them. I think digital still does not do a good enough job," he says. "To me, LPs just simply sound more natural, more like real music than CDs do. [CDs] always sound a little bit sterile. But it's gotten better, quite a bit better."
According to Nielsen's Bakula, vinyl's real or supposed sonic advantages pose little threat to the digital format.
"Certainly over a 128K digital file, there probably is a [vinyl] sound superiority, but I don't know if the average ear could hear it. . . . I don't think the majority of mass consumers are going to say, 'Oh, I'm going to stop buying digital because the sound quality of vinyl is so much better.'"
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Whatever one's thoughts on why kids buy vinyl, it's hard to dismiss the tactile benefits of getting away from one's computer, stepping outside, and socializing with knowledgeable humans on the creation and presentation of rock & roll. The human experience is lost in the digital ether and blinking lights of the hard drive. It's this human factor that Rand Foster sees as reason for hope in the future of his business.
"There will always be a marketplace for the physical music experience," he says. "Whether that will continue to be an accelerating aspect of the marketplace is the one big, hairy question in the room."
Though he's technically in competition with several nearby stores, Port of Sound's Weir remains optimistic about the state of vinyl records. "I see more stores opening up as a good thing," he says. "People coming from farther away are more apt to drive to an area where they can hit five stores as opposed to going out of their way to hit one."
Even though Weir sees future dips in sales as inevitable, he remains unfazed. "It's kind of in vogue now," he says. "But even when that tapers off, there's always going to be enough people interested in LPs to keep a store with low overhead open."
This article appeared in print as "Revinylized: Vinyl is going for a spin again, and Orange County is seeing a boom in area record stores"