The other day, I put my ClearAudio turntable in the trunk of the car and took off on a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Four Oaks, NC, where a man named Alex Lok runs the Analog Store. Alex is the authorized service center for McIntosh hi-fi equipment in the Carolinas and parts of Georgia, but knows his way around virtually any piece of analog sound equipment. He runs his business out of his house, a small dwelling on a country road where visitors park in the front yard. We chatted for a few minutes about a mild stroke he’d recently had and his plans to sell an old Toyota Spyder (“The Sports Car You Forgot About,” as one YouTube video put it). I left the turntable with him (he was installing a new cartridge and adjusting the tone arm) and took off for some shopping and lunch at a charming Lebanese restaurant in Raleigh’s Method neighborhood. When I returned three hours later, his wife was fixing a meal in the kitchen. We chatted for a few minutes, I loaded the turntable in the car and returned home, eager to plug it in and listen to some Bill Evans.
There isn’t a lot to see between Raleigh and Southport, where I live, so there’s plenty of time to think on the drive, especially if you’re alone. So why, I thought, did I spend nine hours and several hundred dollars to fix a turntable? The simple answer is that Alex is the closest person I could find with the expertise to do the job; the more complicated answer is my obsession with analog sound. It’s probably fair to say that vinyl records and analog equipment are something of a fetish for me, at least as defined by the Oxford Dictionary: “An inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.”
It’s not like I’m a Luddite about digital music. As I write this, I’m streaming the new record by pianist Noah Haidu on Spotify. I also stream Amazon and Apple, and subscribe to LivePhish, where I can stream virtually any show Phish has played in the last 35 years. I use SoundCloud, where I recently uploaded a song I co-wrote with a friend. I have Sonos equipment in four different rooms. As a consumer of music, I’m an omnivore. Analog, digital, live, I’ll take it any way I can. The great benefit of streaming, of course, is convenience and choice. Spotify has more than 70 million songs and 4 billion playlists; if you can’t find it on Spotify, it probably doesn’t exist. The great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once conceived of a universal library (“The Library of Babel”), but even he couldn’t conceive of a universal jukebox like Spotify.
And yet, even with all that convenience and choice, there’s still something missing. Neil Young famously declared that digital playback only captures about 5 percent of what was recorded. There’s some technical truth to that, but Neil, crank that he is, was exaggerating to make a point. I’d say it’s more like 80 percent. The 20 percent of sound that we lose from digital is a fair trade-off for the the two C’s — choice and convenience. Plus, technology is catching up with things like DACs (digital analog converters) and high-resolution files (check out Amazon’s new HD streaming service). Digital sound isn’t perfect, but it’s getting better.
But as I thought about it on the drive back from Alex’s house, there’s more to it than just the sound. There’s a level of engagement with vinyl that simply isn’t required by digital. I think back to the days before CDs (God, what a con job CDs were!). If you wanted new music, you had to go to the store and if it was a new release you had to get there before it sold out. Records tended to make us listen to music more deeply since it was a bit of a hassle to change records often, and frankly, even getting up to flip the thing is always something of a buzzkill (for that reason I’m a big fan of the dinner playlist). And then there was the damn dust! If you didn’t keep the platters clean it would build up and create the hiss and pops that could ruin a good mood. Unlike digital, vinyl is tangible. We all remember some of those great album covers (“Sgt. Peppers,” “London Calling,” and “Blue,” to name a few). And back in the day, a record cover was a perfect platform to roll a number. So listening to vinyl wasn’t passive. It required an effort by the listener, from purchase to playback. It required more personal investment and so fostered a deeper relationship with the music. Or so I think.
But the sound is the foundation. The last 20 percent captured by analog is the difference between a sparkling, clear day and an otherwise nice day dampened with a marine layer or thin cloud cover. Digital music is compressed and doesn’t convey the same space and dimension as analog. Where digital is brittle, analog is warm; where digital seems packaged, analog seems boundless. The other night, over a round of Old-Fashioneds, I put on Chet Baker’s “Chet,” the 1959 classic, and my cousin said, “I don’t have much of an ear for music, but this sounds fantastic!” The sound of analog is visceral; we may not know why it sounds better, but we know in our bones that it does sound better.
Years ago, I heard Lee Clow tell a funny story. He was on set with Ridley Scott during the filming of the original “Alien.” They were on the deck of the Nostromo, in all of its futuristic glory, and hanging from the ceiling was an old set of wind chimes. Lee thought it might have been an oversight and asked Scott about it. “That’s intentional,” said Scott. “I think the things that we love will always be preserved and used, no matter how advanced we become.”
So it is with analog. I love having my universal jukebox, but I get much deeper pleasure out of picking “OK Computer” out of the record library, sliding the platter out of the sleeve, cleaning it with a few wipes of the brush and listening to it all the way through. How the hell do they build all those layers of sound, anyway?