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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2008/07/22
by Mike Gruenberg

From Vinyl to Plastic & Back Again

In My Life
The late George Carlin, comedic philosopher of our time spoke about the differences between baseball and football in one of his many landmark routines. Baseball is different from any other sport, he said. Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game. Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle. Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium. Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.
Carlin pointed out that the objectives of the two games are completely different: In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use a shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.
In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe!
While buying music these days I am often reminded of this routine in the comparison of buying vinyl and CDs. For those of us who bought their music on vinyl (and some of us still do), that experience is reminiscent in much the same way as Carlin is in comparing the intricacies of baseball and of football. For example, although we still go to a similar store to buy both media, the arrangement of the selected musical albums is markedly different for LPs than CDs. In buying LPs you are able to read and thus recognize your chosen band quite easily by virtue of the clearly defined artwork on the front and back of the LP. Glasses are hardly a prerequisite to see clearly. Whereas in buying CDs the disc cover is small and as such, the front and back cover artwork may be difficult to recognize and the inner artwork impossible to see especially if said CD is housed in a plastic case to avoid theft.
When rummaging through the bins of LPs, the covers are not confined and the record is still in the sleeve. The records are unconfined, not locked up. In rummaging through the bins of CDs, they are often encased in hard plastic. They are confined and not free and the only way you can eventually buy the disc is by going to the front desk where the casing can only be opened by the shop attendant with his magical key. Much like the Plexiglas used at some banks today to protect the tellers from robbers; the CDs are locked behind a plastic case. So much like the baseball/football comparison, LPs connote a gentler and more placid aura than the CD.
Most record collectors like to systematically work through the bins of records finding their favorites and unearthing the rare gems they did not expect to see. There is a rhythm in rummaging through the selections. For LPs, there is a soothing, thump/thump/thump sound as the buyer flips through the albums. Not so the case with looking through the CDs. The sound is an annoying click/click/click as plastic hits plastic.

A new LP is usually covered in a shrink wrap. To open it when you got home all you have to do is run your nail of your forefinger along the crease and it easily opens. So much so that you can keep the protective shrink wrap on the LP and still easily extract the album while it is still in its inner sleeve providing the record with even more protection. The people who developed the system of sealing the CD seem to gain a perverse pleasure in making it as difficult as possible to open the merchandise. First, there is the wrapping around the case. Be careful to find the folded part that never opens readily. Once that is done, there is tape along the top of the CD that has to be removed usually in a two to three step process since the tape is quite strong.
A used LP usually has the record still in the sleeve. Careful buyers will take out the record, hold it up to the light, examine the label and the grooves and look for any scratches or blemishes on the LP. In a used CD store, all you get is the empty case and once again you need to approach the front desk with your choices where the attendant goes to a file draw to find the CD that matches the case. Hard to tell if the CD is defective until you take it home to play it whereas with an LP, you know immediately if any flaws exist.
Once you get home with your LP, the best part is putting it on the turntable, watching it spin slowly and securely at its 33 1/3 speed, while adjusting your headphones and reading the LP liner notes as you sit comfortably in your favorite listening chair with the LP spread across your lap. It is easy to read the LP liner notes front, back and middle. The graphics and artwork are easily distinguishable as you check to see who produced this gem and who the session musicians are. The inner sleeve often contains more artwork in the form of pictures of popular albums by the artist and/or the record company.
Coming home with your CD however requires a significant amount of time in removing its wrapping. Once it is finally opened, you then place it on a tray of your CD player where upon pressing a button, the CD enters a compartment shutting a small door (to keep you out) only to be seen again when you extract it from its dark compartment. You never get the opportunity to see it spin and if you do have a player that shows it spinning, it is spinning far too fast to recognize any art or words or pictures. Trying to read the liner notes on a CD usually requires a magnifying glass. In some cases the geniuses at the record company marketing department have included a miniature poster that has been folded ten or more times and needs to be flattened out under your fathers old copy of War and Peace for a month so that one day you can actually read it without all the folds.
Of course the most dramatic difference between the LP and the CD is the sound. LPs produce a much more vibrant and richer sound that their shiny plastic brethren. And that is the acid test of the main difference between the two.
The buying process of an LP is far more satisfying and relaxing than the buying process of a CD. Much like the baseball vs. football comparison, the LP vs. CD differences are much the same. To me, the entire buying process is the issue. For many women, the process of buying shoes is one that gives them great joy. In buying an LP, the sounds, the convenience, the easy accessibility, the large print make it a much more pleasurable experience than buying a CD.
George Carlin (1937 2008) R.I.P. and thanks for giving us a great comedic insight into our times our foibles, our strengths and our insecurities.

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