Monday, December 18, 2006

78 Revolutions Per Minute


Newcomb
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
OK, I'm doing more of these DJ gigs, I'd better get out and see how the water is before I jump into the deep end of this pool. And its a huge, quickly growing pool, but there's a crop of older DJs that are doing something completely different from the mixmasters.

What I'm liking about the "older" DJs is that they spin vinyl. And I like that for a variety of reasons. One, because there's a lot of great music out there that for whatever reason, hasn't been commercially made available in a digital format. (ie, iTunes or Rhino hasn't managed to sign a contract with whoever owns the mechanical rights). Two, I kind of like the recycling nature of people who can't bear to buy another copy of a song they love, simply because they already have it on vinyl. But third, as Steve Albini and company will continue to argue, there's still something wonderfully warm about the sound of analog vinyl hitting a diamond stylus, even if it means we have to put up with the occassional scratch or pop or whatever. Supposedly, the difference in fidelity between analog and digital is beyond human perception, but then how come I can tell if something's vinyl or MP3? Its not just because the digital version is clean and skip-free. In fact, I never want to hear "In A Gadda-Da-Vida" clean. That song is meant to be heard with pops and cracks, subtly telling the story of the countless parties it had been played at, with nobody noticing that the drum solo that goes on forever was really going on forever because the needle was stuck in a neverending skip loop. No, for a reason computer nerds can't explain in biomedical terms, I can just tell.


Andy Pagel takes that sound one step further during his wonderful Lo-Fi DJ spin Sunday nights at Frank's Power Plant in Bay View. (full disclosure: friend of the family, drummer in my band, and in my totally unbiased opinion, one of the most versitale --read: best-- drummers in SE WI) He only plays 45s and 78s and this means he needs to get record players that play 78s, and where did he get them? At school rummage sales. That's right, he's playing these things on those all-in-one school record players made by Newcomb. "They smell like nerds," he grins, and instantly I flashed back to the AV kids who trucked them from classroom to classroom on those wheely-carts during Study Hour in fifth grade. Man, I remember wintery days in fifth grade where they'd let us loose during the lunch hour to play our 45s on them: besides WLS, this was to be the only time in my life I could hear Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" smack next to the Osmonds' "Yo-Yo", both played through that mono speaker, which was only slightly higher fidelity than the AC/Delco AM car radio.


cleaning
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
Pagel confirmes that there's a line out on the units to plug into the DJ's mixing board. "But it sounds like crap," he says as he mikes up those mono speakers, and begins to clean off his 78s with Windex. Those 78s can take a lot of scratches, but as Andy the Sunday night bartender at Franks' will tell you, they're brittle: "Andy (Pagel) shatters at least one of those 78s every time he does this DJ thing. Especially in the cold." I didn't witness any 78s shattering tonight, but then I'd laid a pile of 78s (that Brian and I had inherited from his Brian's grandpa, sitting around gathering dust and ghosts) on Pagel, and he was busy windexing off the new selections. He knows a lot more about the artists that made them, he has the means to play them, so we knew these were in the right hands, even if one of them will get shattered someday. Pagel's eyes bug out, reading off the names of artists I've only heard in passing, as he pages through the albums of 78s in their binders: remember, these are why we still call our LPs "albums." (And why LPs are called "Long Playing" -- because a whole 10 inch record actually lasted 30 minutes or so -- that’s 25 minutes longer than the average 78 side.) And the variety was amazing: from (truly) oldschool country, to swing, to big band, to blues, to the kind of stuff you'd hear during a Popeye cartoon.

And as Pagel is quick to point out, the sound quality on those 78s is amazing. You get a level of detail with that speed that naturally comes with the high sampling rate of a rapidly spinning plate of vinyl. So what if it's not stereo? Its still all there, from the rumble of the bass violas in the orchestra, to the squeal of the muted trumpets, from the rich voice in the front to the mellow marimbas in the background.

And the 45s pick up from there: from do-wop to 60s soul, from pre-Elvis to psychedelic garage, its all there, in cracklin' warm analog mono. All from a time when the single was important, when one song made or broke you, one performance to convince people to keep listening, and perhaps show up when they caravaned through town. The production is indeed amazing: you can hear everything important, including the lyrics (which in some cases are worth actively listening to). It wouldn't sound right digitized, and it would be altogether wrong in stereo.

Yes, I own hundreds of CDs. Yes, I've got some 15 gig of music loaded on my Ipod. (Yes, I own an Ipod). But I'm glad guys like Andy Pagel are still spinning the vinyl, and are keeping the turntables (oops, that's record players) that can spin it at 78 revolutions per minute going.

Andy Pagel does his low-fi record spin every Sunday night from 9-midnight at Frank's Power Plant on S. Kinnickinnic in Bay View.

1 comment:

thesandwichlife.com said...

There's nothing like the sound of a 78. Ernie will always be a vinyl guy so the year he finally got a cd player we also got a 78 player---just to balance out the technology. Now we have several----the warmth of the sound is incredible.....

Glad there are others out there that love them!