Analog in a Digital Era

The Needle

For those of you that don’t know, which I am assuming is most everyone reading this, I have two turntables and a fader. That means I am, in fact, a DJ on some level. I don’t tend to tout this fact as I am not very good. I have no reputation or battle experience, but I’m not in it for the accolades. I tend to break out the turntables when I’m bored to scratch and roll. It’s a lot of fun. You should try it if you haven’t already.

Ironically, I hooked my record player up to my computer and started to spin, only to find that I needed a new stylus. I decided to call my dad for advice. He has a lot of experience with vinyl, being born in the 1950s and all. This was technological role reversal; he usually calls me to help him solve a computer problem, but this time I had a history question for him. He laughed and said replacing the stylus was a lot easier than replacing a computer part.

While computer parts have been overhauled thousands of times in the past 20 years, there has been little change to the phonograph since its invention in the 1850s. The phonograph outlasted 8-tracks, cassettes and mini-discs, three formats that didn’t last more than a decade each. Only in the past five years have we adapted to digital music in the form of MP3 players. In the history of recorded music, that is a very small fraction of time. So why has this analog format lasted in a digital era? Records are expensive to produce; the record market is small; and the equipment for playback is pricey, hard to find and fragile.

I believe Hip-hop has something to do with this, but it is an interesting paradox. Rappers use the latest in sound technology to create their beats, but for all the digital production and computer manipulation you always see the DJ spinning his record collection. There is something captivating about watching a DJ manipulate a wax disc, a certain ascetic, maybe even a nostalgic appeal to simpler times. The DJ can do things with a record that can’t be done with a CD. Digital turntables can’t recreate the cuts, flares and chirps of a record scratch. At the risk of sounding like a lame elementary school teacher, scratching is very popular in music today.

It’s Bobby Digital vs. Robert Analog. It’s the 12th round and vinyl has compact disc on its back for a ten count. The CD market is on its way out. CD sales have plummeted, but I’m sure a market analysis would reveal that vinyl sales are steady if not rising. Somehow vinyl will still be around even after mp3s have been eclipsed by the next format.

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