So the other day, I was sitting in my living room listening to “American Beauty,” the 1970 Grateful Dead album on vinyl, and I realized something: the experience of listening to a record on a turntable is completely different from listening to a song on a CD or an iPod.
The sound produced by a turntable is like a full-bodied wine; crisp and satisfying. When you are immersed in the sounds of a vinyl record, it is like sitting in front of the fire, wearing a slinket (blanket with arms).
Does everyone still know what a turntable looks like? Well, a turntable is a round disc which turns. It is composed of several parts. The top is a circular piece of wood or plastic, and the bottom, a rectangular piece of wood or plastic. To the right of the circular, turning part is an arm-like apparatus with a needle on the end. This is called the tonearm, and the needle, a stylus. The turntable is attached to an amplifier, which is in turn attached to a set of speakers. Usually there are two speakers, one for the high frequencies and one for low. An LP (long-playing) or vinyl record is placed on the circular part and the tonearm is lowered onto the LP, and music magically comes out of the speaker attached to the turntable. Now, no matter how many birthday wishes I dedicate to the existence of magic, it does not exist. So how exactly does a needle extract sound from a circular piece of vinyl?
When an LP is made, the vinyl is pressed, and the sound waves themselves are pressed into the vinyl. These pressed sound waves are now grooves in the vinyl. The grooves vary in frequency and amplitude. To play the record, place the vinyl on the circular part of the turntable. Now, take the tonearm and place the needle just above the outermost groove in the vinyl. Vinyls vary in size. Standard vinyl records have a 30 cm diameter and rotate 33.3 times per minute. They play 25 minutes a side (yes, you can turn it over). There are also smaller vinyl records with an 18 cm diameter, which rotate 45 revolutions per minute. These play two and a half minute sides. Once you turn on the turntable and lower the tonearm, the circular part will start to rotate, and the needle will follow the grooves in the vinyl and it starts to vibrate. (If you put a record on and turn off the speakers and amplifier, you can hear the music very faintly.) These vibrations are amplified by the amplifier and are then sent to the speakers, which, amazingly, project the sound.
Other than extracting sound out of a piece of vinyl, the turntable can do some other pretty cool things. It can play a record backwards, so you can hear the devil’s many inspiring messages. This is called backmasking. Many artists (the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Rush, The Rolling Stones) backmasked their songs to add effect, to avoid censorship and to parody the idea that people actually thought that rock was the devil’s music.
Turntables are considered “vintage” now, but lately more and more artists, like Sonic Youth, Of Montreal, etc have been releasing their albums on CD and on vinyl. The turntable has a hands-on, intimate quality and sound that we lose with digital music. Let’s bring the turntable back!