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“What’s That Flat Black Thing?”

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Nashville’s United Record Pressing says “Vinyl Rules,” which may be true on some level but the bottom line is that vinyl isn’t very durable: not nearly as durable as CDs or DVDs or any other digital content delivery system because the process of playing vinyl is mechanical. Every time the needle touches the record it wears off some of the vinyl, eventually literally wearing it out – not to mention scratches, dings, warpage, etc. Because digital playing processes involves only light, in theory CDs don’t wear out.

Sure, I buy the analog “warmth” and “breathing” factors and a perfect vinyl record on a perfect system is a better listening experience than a comparable CD experience, but records are only perfect the first time you play them (if then) and who can afford that kind of system?

For live DJing purposes (having to start that up again for economic purposes – hire me for a party in Northeast Ohio, will travle for more $$), records are preferable because of the tactile aspect: there the “handling” that causes records to wear out is handy for the purposes of mixing, scratching and other “tricks,” playing “drop the needle,” and real time immediate access to any point on the record (i.e. not having to fast forward to get to a given spot on a song).

Having editorialized at some length, back to the original story from the Tennessean:

    For United Record, phonograph records certainly haven’t faded into extinction. It presses thousands of them each day and has seen business grow in the face of the digital recording age.

    Cris Ashworth, United Record’s owner, knows, however, that vinyl probably won’t dominate the way it did before cassettes and compact discs took hold, or usurp the growing use of digital downloads from the Internet.

    ”But there’s a market there,” he said.

    Since 1999, when he bought the operation on Chestnut Street near Greer Stadium, Ashworth has increased United Record’s revenues from $1.4 million to $4 million by expanding the business to include the pressing of 12-inch, 33.3-rpm records. The number of employees has increased from 10 to 40.

    Vinyl sales plummeted in the 1980s. After bottoming out, demand has been steady for LPs — slang for 12-inch, ”long playing” albums — over the past decade. Last year, 2.3 million LPs were shipped to U.S. markets, an increase of 3.7% over the 2.2 million shipped in 2000, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with the 882 million CDs shipped.

    Distribution of vinyl 45-rpm singles has dipped dramatically over the past decade, from 19.8 million shipped in 1992 to 5.5 million last year, RIAA figures show. The 2001 sales showed promise with a 19% increase over the previous year. Singles and LPs were the only categories with sales increases for 2001.

    Ashworth is banking on demand hanging on and becoming a strong niche in the business. He also sees it as a little historic preservation.

    ”This business is as important to Nashville history as the RCA studio on Music Row,” Ashworth said, referring to RCA Studio B, where artists from Elvis Presley to Roy Orbison to Dolly Parton recorded. ”I’m determined to keep it alive from that perspective.”

    ….Little about record pressing involves high technology. The basic pressing process has been around for about 100 years.

    Music captured on tape or recorded onto a computer is cut into a lacquer disc, with the grooves containing the sound information. The disc is sprayed with silver and dipped into a solution that plates it with nickel. The master plate goes to the pressing machines — and ”press” is the operative word. Chips of vinyl are melted into a gooey ball, and a label is pushed into place. Then the puck-shaped mass is shifted to the nickel-plated master, where press exerts 150 tons of force to push the vinyl into every crevice.

    ….Many recording professionals say digital sound, which is chopped up into the ones and zeros of computer data, pales in comparison to the continuous analog sound wave as captured on vinyl.

    ”Analog stuff just has a warmth to it that digital doesn’t have,” said Benny Quinn, a 26-year veteran in the business and chief mastering engineer at Masterphonics, a Music Row recording studio.

    Artists and recording engineers try to achieve the sound that vinyl produces, such as by running music that has been recorded digitally through an analog tape recorder.

    Quinn said the average person could tell the difference between a digital recording and a vinyl one if played next to each other. Analog is softer to the ear than digital, he said.

    ….United Record is one of just a handful of manufacturers in the country that press vinyl records.

    ”So many fewer places do that stuff that the remaining ones are busy,” Quinn said.

    The 25th anniversary of Presley’s death in August gave United Record a bump in a steady business for collectibles of the King’s music.

    ”Elvis has been good to us,” Ashworth said, noting that the company uses plates from 1979 to make the records. ”I can’t complain.”

    ”Our objective is to keep rockin’ and rollin’.”

Or rockin’ and spinnin’ as the case may be.

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About Eric Olsen