By Laurence Vittes | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine
“Vinyl is the coolest thing and will outpace sales of CDs soon,” says cellist Jan Vogler, whose 2017 hit recording New Worlds: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler, and Friends was released in a limited edition two-LP set. “CDs are transitional—the old word now is digital. Streaming is winning the battle for the masses, but vinyl sounds beautiful, is collectible, and it’s fun to take LPs out of their sleeves and put them on the turntable.”
The LP (long playing) record was introduced in 1948 by Columbia, and over four decades served as the perfect medium for the immediacy of analog sound—along with new artistic possibilities represented by the 12-inch square it came packaged in. Vinyl became a key currency along cultural trade routes, both written about and discussed. And now it’s happening all over again.
For John Chen, sales manager at Brooklyn-based Grado Labs, the reason is clear: Analog vinyl is essential because it’s “the polar opposite of digital. Why look at a digital photo of a Klimt when you can go to the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue? The same is true for music: Analog gets you closer.”
Vinyl has recaptured its cool to the point that, according to RIAA data, it accounts for half of physical recording sales in the United States. And ten percent of that is classical, which, incidentally, is what is was in the heyday of the LP. Vinyl outlets range from media giants Amazon and Barnes & Noble to the thousands of independent record and book stores that celebrate vinyl in particular twice each year on Record Store Day.
Industry giant Warner Classics is heavily invested in vinyl, especially analog. “Reissuing the crown jewels of our back catalog, from analog sources of the highest possible quality, is what mainly drives our vinyl sales,” explains Markus Petersen, senior vice president of global operations and business development at Warner Classics & Erato. “Great soloists like Jacqueline du Pré and Itzhak Perlman, whose iconic Paganini and Bach are scheduled for upcoming vinyl release, are in especially high demand.”
In addition, Petersen points out that many Warner artists, like the Ébène Quartet and pianist Alexandre Tharaud, who are “very precise about how they want their recordings to sound, actually demand that we release their new recordings on vinyl because they like the sound.”
While Universal and Sony are also investing big in vinyl, indies are also active in this space. Avie Records, for example, will release a limited-edition vinyl version of violinist Jennifer Koh playing Anna Clyne’s The Seamstress, recorded live with the BBC Symphony.
Clyne tells me, “I love the manual process of playing vinyl—taking the time to really stop, listen, and enjoy a complete album—as opposed to streaming. I enjoy the ritual of loading the record player and turning it for both sides. I have quite an extensive vinyl collection myself and this is the first time that I will have a chance to hear my own music on my record player.”
Violinist and violist Liz Knowles says that “things are getting decidedly more analog and that is what vinyl is for me. I crave that sound—the popping, the actual moving of the needle—and the fact that it is finite: it will end when it reaches the end. iTunes does my head in with its constant play, the sheer overwhelm of what is in my library, and the fact that it is always modifying what it thinks I should hear.”
Cellist Joshua Gindele of the Miró Quartet recounts that the “fabric” of his family was rooted in vinyl. “We listened to Isaac Stern’s Four Seasons, Mountain, Led Zeppelin, the Band. And I’ve continued the tradition. We have a weekly Sunday event at the house. The kids put a record on the turntable, put the needle down, and we listen together—to both sides. My wife subscribed me to a club that sends hard-to-find releases. I got a Marvin Gaye album a few months ago. The last classical I got was Mr. Stern playing the Brahms with Ormandy.”
For L.A. violinist Eric Gorfain, leader of the Section Quartet, vinyl is an indispensable tool of the trade. “I listen to vinyl almost every day. I have three turntables: one in my studio, one in the living room, and one in my den. I have often recorded to analog tape and there are old-school producers who still only record to analog.” Gorfain has mixed to tape on many occasions and wishes tape were more readily available and economical so he could use it more often. “It’s completely different from digital sound.”
Curious to explore the sonic differences between analog and digital recordings on vinyl, I compared the Ébène Quartet’s digital LPs of live performances from its globetrotting Beethoven cycle to the Quartetto Italiano’s recording of the same quartets made in the mid-1970s by Philips. I used a U-Turn Orbit Basic turntable with a Grado cartridge and Klipsch R-51PM powered Bluetooth speakers.
Both recordings had similar moments of sheer beauty and physical impact, but the Ébène’s stunningly intense playing was captured with more dynamic range and more purity of tone. However, the Quartetto Italiano’s analog sound was more visceral and dimensional. While software is busy processing digital musical pixels, filling in any it missed, analog remains unwaveringly in contact with the physical sound. It results in a kind of authenticity that makes it feel like you’re there.
Perhaps it’s because of the physical contact between the stylus and the groove, which comes as close as a mechanical device can to the physical interactions of instruments. Perhaps it’s because our brains are analog. Perhaps, as a noted Parisian audiophile and mathematician explained, “When you integrate a curve in the digital process you lose micro information. And music, like all the other arts, is a world of nuances that generates more micro information than you can ever imagine. Add the world of nano information from the unconscious and you know why digital is not enough.”
If you’re ready to dive in yourself, you’ll find new and a ton of used classical vinyl online and on the ground. For a listing of independent stores stocking vinyl, check out the Record Store Day site.
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