The Next Page: Turn! Turn! Turn (table)!
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Multimedia converged in full rage as a digital projector screened a silent version of "The NeverEnding Story" on the wall behind the bar. Musicians preparing to take the stage for open mic trilled saxes and trumpets. Cell phones and BlackBerries instant messaged across the room and planet. Funky electronic jazz rumbled out of a pair of newspaper box-size speakers that boomed bass and treble notes through the packed room.
But something curious was happening back in the corner of this East Liberty bar among all the hi-tech gadgetry this recent Monday night.
Disc jockey J. Malls crouched over a pair of shining turntables spinning records -- yes, vinyl discs -- just like radio DJs of yore cued up the tunes that provided the nation's soundtrack of the '50s, '60s and '70s.
Those old DJs, had they witnessed J. Malls laying needle to groove on one of 15,000 records from his collection, would have uttered these words about the scene in this modern day cacophony of CDs, iPods and laptop digital blare: This, folks, is a blast from the past.
Well, maybe not.
Just as records rotate on a spindle -- picture the opening credits of television's "Happy Days" with scenes whirling out of jukebox records -- what goes around comes around. We are in the midst of what appears to be a full-fledged rebirth of the old playboy pad, chic-sound-gear standby of the component bookshelf sound system comprising detached speakers, reel-to-reel tape decks and audio tuners and receivers: the turntable.
THE DEVICES, aka record players, are hitchhiking on the back of the rising popularity of vinyl record sales, which increased 89 percent in 2008 over the previous year and that continue to experience surging sales, according to the January/February issue of AARP The Magazine.
"Music giant EMI has re-released some 65 classic albums on vinyl," the magazine reported, "including acts ranging from Frank Sinatra to the Beastie Boys."
The popularity of vinyl 33 r.p.m. records, and thus the machines that play them, is due to a few factors. One is the loyalty of at least a couple of generations of music fans, beginning with the post-World War II rock 'n' roll baby boomers, who built up large record collections ranging from Elvis to The Beatles and even Radiohead today.
Another is the rediscovery of vinyl, and of the blues, rock and jazz on these old tracks, by a younger generation eager to explore the old music in its original format and attracted by the relatively cheap cost of records compared with CDs.
In fact, most of the customers for the reconditioned turntables that Jerry Weber sells at Jerry's Records, the popular used record shop on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, are kids and middle-agers.
"Young people are pretty much my demographic now, 15 to 35," the 62-year-old dealer of musical nostalgia said. These folks, he said, buy turntables not only to listen to their own records but also for their mothers, fathers and grandparents.
"They'll say, 'I'm getting my mom a turntable for Christmas so she can dig out her old records and we're going to have a ball,' " Mr. Weber said of the buyers of the Technics, Sony, Panasonic and Pioneer machines he sells for prices ranging from $60 to $100. "These would have cost $200 or $300 originally. Some of those that were engineered back in the '70s, the old Kenwoods and Thorns, they're going to be around. All of them were much better than what you get today unless you spend $300 or $400."
More like $499 to $699 -- which is how much buyers of upper-end turntables will spend for the Technics, Numark or Stanton turntables that Stash Roberts sells at Guitar Center in Monroeville -- a clientele with different needs than the oldie buffs who frequent Jerry's.
Mr. Roberts, 40, categorized his turntable customers into three types:
"The standard scratch DJ, somebody who actually knows how to mix and scratch on the turntable," he said. "And then you have just the guys who want a higher quality piece that will last them most of their life. The last group is the older guy that comes in and is looking to update his vinyl to CD, and there are multiple companies now offering turntables with USB connections" that enable users to plug the machines into computers for conversion to digital formats.
Whatever the reason for the popularity, Mr. Roberts said, he sold more turntables in 2009 than the previous nine years, with a peak of about eight per week during the Christmas season.
"We were literally to the point where we were running out," he said.
That higher sound quality referred to by Mr. Roberts plugs into a debate that has been ongoing ever since CDs first hit the music scene in the 1980s.
"CD is most pristine," Jason Boyd of EMI told AARP The Magazine, "But vinyl has the warm, full sound of the music. It's a way of experiencing music rather than just consuming it."
Yes. Miles Davis' muted trumpet is mellower, Pablo Casals' cello bowing richer, Charlie Byrd's acoustic guitar strumming crisper, on record.
Jerry Weber also invoked the "warm" metaphor.
"That's been the argument ever since CDs were invented," the Squirrel Hill vinyl merchant said. "I've been doing this since 1976. It's a warmer sound. CDs are more flashy and more bright, but not everybody likes flashy and brightness. I'm a throwback. To me, old mono records like the early Beatles and Stones, that's the way they were meant to sound. They sound like you're in a hall, and they're right beside you playing."
Mr. Roberts explained it a bit more technically.
"Digital's always going to be better because it's cleaner," he said. But on CDs, "you're going to miss the actual raw sound of the instruments."
Recording engineers during the heyday of vinyl, he said, pushed the sound on the master tapes beyond the recording threshold to literally squash the sound, compressing it.
"A lot of times the sounds from those guitars back in the '60s and '70s, it was not just the guitar or amp, it was a sound quality brought by this technique."
So the fuzz guitar of Vanilla Fudge or Cream actually was made fuzzier through saturation -- a sound that cannot even be reproduced live and that is unique to the original recordings of the '60s and '70s
SOUND PURISTS seeking that sort of quality comprise many of Vincent Bomba's turntable reconditioning clients.
Mr. Bomba, a 53-year-old Mt. Lebanon native, was a computer systems technician for Mellon Bank until being laid off in December. In a space opened up for him at Jerry's Records, he's going into turntable and computer repair and reconditioning full-time.
A problem with CD sound, he said, is that when the laser beam that reads the disc breaks the sound into bits and bytes, "some detail is lost in the process" of translating those bits and bytes back into sound.
With the vinyl record, he said as he stood among shelves of reconditioned turntables on display like artifacts of an ancient sound culture, "You hear a depth. You can hear a guy cleaning his trumpet out."
The stylus of a turntable, he explained, picks up the sound directly from the groove of the record; sound is not disassembled and then put back together. Along the way, you get the background noise of the studio or club. So it's more real.
Mr. Bomba listed three types of turntables, each with its advantages and disadvantages. One is direct drive, in which the motor of the turntable directly rotates the record platter; the shaft of the motor is the platter. Consequently, some motor hum accompanies the sound of the music.
In belt-drive turntables, the motor sits off to the side, and a belt turns the platter. But the belt has to be replaced every five years or so, and it stretches; so you get sound distortion after time, what sound technicians call wow and flutter.
Rim-drive turntables use a rubber wheel that is hooked up to the motor and drives the platter.
"This is the best of all worlds," Mr. Bomba said. "The motor noise is less, and the rubber idler wheel lasts longer."
J. MALLS (real name: Jason Molyneaux) said he noticed that loss of something in translation when he tried to convert some of his records to a digital format.
"When you digitize a record, that's the closest you get to a record," he said, emphasizing the word "record" as the standard that CDs and other formats strive to achieve. "But it doesn't have the wide spectrum of a record. Something gets lost, in the lows and the highs."
Part of the appeal of his schtick besides the sound, he said, is simply the fact of being an actual DJ.
"This is my niche. A lot of people like the fact that I just play records." When they talk about DJs they've heard in other venues, he said, "a lot of people are like, 'he's not a real DJ, he has a laptop.' "
It's just strange, the 35-year-old DJ said, "to see people who actually have records."
Bottom line, for him, when initially asked why he uses a turntable -- he gives sort of a bewildered look and grin, as though no other format is possible: "To play my records."
Practicality also drove Mr. Weber, as he explained during an interview surrounded by his shelves and piles and stacks of used record albums, in his decision to go into the used turntable business.
"The more turntables they're spinning out there, the more chance they're going to come in and buy some records off me."
First Published February 7, 2010 12:00 am