The Road to Vinyl Addiction is Paved with. . .Vinyl

by Robert Pincus | June 14, 2014

his story begins when I got my driver's license in 1975. The first time I ever drove by myself, I went to my local Music Plus in Thousand Oaks. Music Plus was a popular chain of music stores in California, and they had a good selection of records -- or at least I thought so at the time. The store's latest attraction was a recently added import section, featuring incredible-sounding UK pressings of the Beatles LPs that murdered the domestic releases on Capitol and just about anything that's been made since. Being able to drive myself to the source of my obsession was dangerous in more ways than one, but once I got into my stepmom's station wagon, there would be no turning back.

When I started buying records my knowledge of jazz and classical music was limited, so I stuck to the music that is now called classic rock. Many of the records that were available then were stamped from the early metal parts, often on quieter vinyl. Thanks to exposure to what are now seen as vintage pressings, I got accustomed to the way records were intended to sound by the artists and the producers who made them. One consequence of my early exposure is that I am quick at noticing the peculiarities found on a number of the modern reissues. Having this experience also helps me avoid audible mistakes when I'm working on vinyl projects for Impex. While scores of audiophiles continue to compete for a deeper soundstage and debate the irrelevant differences between DSD and PCM, my goal was and still is to reproduce my records and CDs as faithfully as possible. I've never cared how deep my soundstage is or how black my backgrounds are. It's been my experience that systems that excel in those areas are devoid of musical color and have blunted dynamics. No thanks.

A few years later, well on my way to becoming a vinyl addict, I discovered the joy of buying used records. This would be in the early 1980s. Since then, and more so since the late '90s, I've been phasing new LPs out of my buying habits. I got my first taste for secondhand vinyl at Aaron's Records in Los Angeles. A few short years later came garage sales. Then came the local Salvation Army thrift store. In 1986 I started visiting the Agoura Salvation Army thrift store almost every day. Unlike today, missing one of my near-daily trips meant that important LP titles would be grabbed by somebody who didn't deserve them as much as I did. Every visit was filled with anticipation, and there were always surprises, the kinds I wish for today. On some days the bins were filled with '60s rock, while on the very next day I'd see vocal records from Sinatra, Dino, and Ella. I was just discovering the legendary conductors when Bruno Walter's first LP cycle of Brahms symphonies fell into my hands, and, of course, Toscanini's indispensable Beethoven set. My love for '60s folk was accelerated by the amazing-sounding Peter, Paul and Mary albums on Warner Brothers, and by the electrified dance energy of Trini Lopez At PJ's. Rubinstein's Chopin albums were always on hand as regular default choices, but I was more attracted to the limited pressings of high school bands and church choirs, which had air and immediacy that you'd never get from dark and bloated Telarc recordings.

There were so many fun ways to put wear on a cartridge that it never occurred to me that the flow from this vinyl volcano would ever slow down. It also never occurred to me that most audiophiles weren't interested in vintage records. In fact, it took me nearly 30 years to figure it out. Today I often leave thrift shops empty handed, but not in those days. Today LP donations are sporadic. Back then 20 albums a week was my typical intake. Garage sales aren't what they used to be either, but that's no reason to stop playing records. I used to fanatically scan the newspaper classifieds, but now I prefer the Internet. Recently two different audiophiles told me that they couldn't possibly spend their afternoons rummaging through thrift shops or their mornings going to yard sales. Between work and their families, they're content with the LPs they order online. New vinyl, when it sounds great, is a wonderful thing, but what kind of analog enthusiast lives on it alone?

In 1986 I experimented with canvassing -- knocking on doors in my neighborhood and asking to buy records. It seemed like a great way to see collections before others got to them, and it really was a great idea, until I discovered that some doors never open and some people ask stupid questions like, "Do you still own a record player?" However, I got lucky on my very first try. A friendly lady answered the door, listened to my pitch, and invited me inside. As soon as I entered, she pointed to the cabinet that contained her records. Within minutes I pulled out stacks of tube-mastered musicals, pop vocals, and Brubeck LPs. I'm sure she was thrilled to rid herself of the dusty crap, and I was in heaven.

After some continued success, I expanded my canvassing to the upscale neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley. The hills, the Valley's infamous heat, and a lack of success brought my canvassing to an end. Eventually I learned how to spot potential LP owners in public places. One afternoon I tried my luck at Starbucks. Like my first door 20 years earlier, I struck gold again, this time with a large collection of '70s rock, filled with early pressings of the Eagles, the Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, ELP, and Fleetwood Mac.

I live for the social interaction with my record-collecting friends. Perhaps I should say my record-collecting audiophile friends, because most record collectors own dreadfully dilapidated audio systems. My friend Bob Donnelly has an excellent audio system and he has amassed a huge LP collection. We enjoy getting together and sharing our latest discoveries. He searches for LPs as voraciously as I do, and I love the look on his face when he's forced to experience the unusual things I find. He's an expert at finding jazz, folk, and '60s rock, and when he finds himself deep into a pile of classical records he calls me. His years of experience have paid off very well, and he has a good ear and good eye for things that I like. His knowledge of vintage jazz rivals my knowledge of vintage country, and we both love psychedelic rock. Trading albums with Bob can be a challenge, but it's a necessity when he dangles something like an early Waylon Jennings LP in my face. If you've bought LPs at Southern California swap meets, then you might already know Bob.

You may remember Frank Pernice from my coverage of last year's Newport Beach show. He and I cruised around this year's show too. I first met Frank at the Agoura Salvation Army in 1986. Frank is still into high-end equipment, and he's still collecting LPs. Frank turned me on to Brubeck, Chet Baker, and June Christy, and he credits me for getting him into classical music. Back when I first met him, he owned Acoustat 4s, a Well Tempered turntable, a Monster moving-coil cartridge, and an updated Dynaco PAS-3 preamp. He never bought an amp big enough to drive his huge electrostatic panels correctly, but in those days I didn't care. I was more focussed on his his closet full of used LPs and the boxes of records in his garage. Frank used to hit the same thrift shops that I did, so it was interesting and sometimes painful to see titles that I had missed.

I don't believe collectors ever ever get over the threat from their competition, but I know that meeting Frank was meant to happen. Bob and Frank are among my closest friends, and while it's true that our common interest in LPs and good sound brought us together, we share a genuine friendship that goes beyond these things. It's hard for me to accept that today's tech-savvy audiophiles, people who don't play LPs and care less about them than the kids who shop at Urban Outfitters, are going to find the same kind of friends through their sterilized version of our hobby. Maybe I'm wrong and just deranged from continued exposure to surface noise and tube distortion to think straight.

I still find interesting LPs almost every day. On days when I can't find a good record, I call Bob to see if he's doing any better. Back when I was first getting hooked on used vinyl it was records like Frank Sinatra's No One Cares and show albums like West Side Story and The Sound of Music that caused the most profound changes in my listening habits. Until I heard these titles, I mostly listened to rock on my turntable and classical music on FM. Prior to hearing these golden oldies, I never bought "adult" music. At first I thought they lacked up top, but I enjoyed the relaxed presentation and the dimensionality. Even through headphones I could hear the depth. My rock records didn't do this. The Absolute Sound had many pages dedicated to the Mercury and RCA classics, but little was written about these labels' pop releases. While most readers only paid attention to the equipment reviews, I paid closer attention to the recordings. My quest for that vintage sound brought me to albums like Persuasive Percussion [Command RS 800-SD] and Martin Denny's Exotica [Liberty LST 7034]. My friend Tom Port calls it "tubey magic," but back then it had no name. It was the sound you heard from labels like Reprise, Liberty, and Command. It was an exotic thrill, the kind that you won't hear on a surgically clean Norah Jones record. The download-only faction of our hobby isn't into that sound, but they seem to enjoy a steady and improving stream of great analog titles, although I wonder if Miles and Brubeck titles are available to satisfy old fogies like me and Frank. I've heard high-res downloads that sound amazing, but when it comes to analog reissues it's blind faith. Without a reference to other formats, how would you know if you're hearing the best sound? Maybe being hooked on vinyl isn't such a bad thing.

Now that I've probably upset most of the younger readers of The Audio Beat, let me to put my money where my mouth is and show off a few slices of my oversized record collection.

Love [Elektra EKS 74001]

love.jpg (14866 bytes)This is one of my very favorite albums, period. I rank it at the very top of all rock records, right next to Revolver, The Doors, and Surrealistic Pillow, and the band came from Los Angeles! To rate their third album, Forever Changes, as superior, as some people do, has never made sense to me. Forever Changes contains some equally great music, and with the benefit of CD's bonus cuts, you can skip the lame ones and still get an album's worth of greatness. Love's first album is different. It starts rocking the moment the needle hits the groove. It has no lame cuts, no strings, and very little filler. Outside those of the Beatles, very few mid-'60s rock albums come off sounding as strong from start to finish. Historians point out, in an almost degrading tone, that this is a studio rendering of the band's stage set. And this is a problem, coming from the same people who praise punk rock for its spontaneity? The "set" nature of this album also makes it comparable to the Beatles' Please Please Me, only the Beatles hadn't risen to this level of musical inspiration on their first album. Love's debut effort has only improved with time, not only by comparison to contemporary rock, but because it's a timeless treasure, a genuine musical document by a truly gifted band.

The sound is another reason to have this magnificent piece of plastic. It's raw and clean at the same time. Bruce Botnick, well known for his work with the Doors, was already at the top of his game when Love entered Sunset Sound in January 1966. This unique combination of raw energy and studio clarity could possibly be compared to Nirvana's work 25 years later. Sorry to offend some, but as much as I love some cuts by Nirvana, I'll sooner reach for these high-octane songs by Arthur Lee and Brian MacLean before anything from Kurt Cobain.

The last time I played this record I couldn't help myself from reminiscing about the many audiophiles I met while I worked for Cisco Music. Before I worked for Cisco, I never met men who listened to slow-motion female vocals drenched in digital reverb. Did these people ever enjoy vintage rock, or did they miss out on the fun? Most of them are my age or older, so I really don't understand how a person could trade great music for slime. I could never fathom the idea of erasing my past and replacing my favorite albums with recordings that are more suitable through 6" woofers, single-ended amps, or inefficient planars.

Shelly Manne and His Men [Contemporary C2503] 10"

I'm crazy about 10" records. Clean ones are hard to come by (so are the inner sleeves). I also love playing music that was recorded in the early '50s, especially when it swings like this. Okay, so I love to tout music from my homeland, Los Angeles; however, with Bob Cooper on tenor, Art Salt on alto, and Marty Paich on piano, and the effortless drumming of Shelly Manne, you shouldn't mind my pride. Along with Howard Rumsey's Music for Lighthouse Keeping, also on Contemporary, this is West Coast jazz at its energetic pinnacle. These men didn't bash out the beat, like their streetwise colleagues from New York, but their rhythm and melodies were just as irresistible and their interplay was full of sunshine, like you'd see on a Hollywood postcard.

The album's opening cut, a Latin feast called "La Mucura," is an arrangement of an old Colombian dance record. Arrangements of Latin pop records were a common practice for musicians who came from the Stan Kenton Orchestra. However, as soon as Art Pepper illuminates your senses with his first of many solos, all thoughts of Latin jazz quickly vanish. As an audiophile who digs drummers, I Iove the rich and powerful sound of Manne's calf-skin drum heads. The second cut, "Mallets," written for Manne by Shorty Rogers, is, as the title implies, a drummer's showcase. The powerful bonk from Manne's sticks and drum heads is pure audio gold and kick-butt fun. The final cut on side one, "Gazelle," an original by composer Bill Russo, is your chance to focus on the band as a swinging unit. Side two contains pretty much the same mix of ideas as side one, but the first side is better. Whether you're enjoying the solos or you're more into the band cooking together, this is magical music and awesome jazz with incredible sound to boot.

The four cuts on side one were recorded on 4/6/53 at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. John Paladino was the engineer. Side 2 was recorded at the same studio on 7/20/53. You can't play a more enjoyable record, and showing off your 10" LPs will make you look cooler than anyone with a megabuck music server. By the way, this LP sounds tonally spot-on through both my tubed EAR and solid-state Yamaha preamps with their factory-wired RIAA curves.

Art Carney: Doodle-Li-Boops and Rhinocelopes [Columbia CL 2595] 10"

art_carney.jpg (15755 bytes)Most of us know Art Carney from his work as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners and as the star of the film Harry and Tonto, but before he was a TV or movie star he had a distinguished career as a funny man on radio. According to Wikipedia, he recorded prolifically for Columbia. I wonder whose definition of prolific this is. Perhaps he mostly made 78s, because I simply have never found any of his records new or used, including this one. This LP started its playing life in my grandparents' home. Based on the release date, 1954, I assume that it was bought for my uncle. He would have been seven years old when this LP was released. There also is no "Rhinocelopes" cut on this six-song LP. Where did it go? Columbia's House Party series was in some cases budget reissues of the full-priced CL 6000 series. Perhaps the cut is found on an earlier version. (I have five other titles in the House Party series, and so far they all have excellent sound.)

This is the single most worn LP in my collection. In fact, I was living on distant memories when I decided to drop my Denon '103 into its groove. Wow. "Where Did the Chickie Lay the Eggie" sounded as fresh as it did when I heard it as a child, and I still knew every word. What I did not expect was the terrific sound. Despite the wear (I didn't even clean this record), the dynamics jumped and the bass was rock solid. And all of this comes from a record made for children. Audiophiles with young kids should pay closer attention to the kind of sound that children hear today through their iPods. It's nothing like this. I also have Sesame Street 2 [Warner Brothers BS 2569] and, believe me, it isn't too easy to find these days either.

Doodle-Li-Boops (let's drop the rest, thank you) is a wonderful LP. Dare I call it a guilty pleasure when it features great musicianship and, by the way, excellent sound? Nah, I don't feel guilty at all.

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