Ian Ringstead gets all biblical about his love affair with the black stuff.

“I then had an epiphany moment and saw the light. Turntables were being written about again in the hifi mag’s and manufacturers were making real efforts to produce better decks, arms and cartridges. ”

What is it about a 12″ piece of round plastic that gets my juices flowing? Well I am a child of the 60’s and started my love affair with vinyl early. My parents liked music and used to go to dances regularly when they were young during the 1940’s, but they were never really bothered about seriously playing it at home. The farthest they got was buying a Pye Black Box sterogram which was a nicer piece of furniture than it was a music centre. It had a valve amp with basic tone controls and a Garrard turntable that had 33, 45 and 78 and one full range speaker per side. I listened to middle of the road music on it like film music, light classical and the Beatles.

In The Beginning

My first foray into serious music that I bought was Black Sabbath’s first album, Elton John and Wishbone Ash. I then progressed literally onto prog’ rock like Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, ELP etc. This fascination with records fired my enthusiasm in hi-fi so much so that it led to me working in the hifi retail business for 24 years. I still love music and hifi to this day of course and LP’s have always been at the heart of it. It took me a long time to adopt CD when it arrived in the 80’s, partly because it didn’t sound very good to me at first. Yes it’s more practical, doesn’t have pops and clicks and better dynamic range, but it’s the end result that matters and CD didn’t cut the mustard for me until well into the 90’s. I finally succumbed to the convenience of CD spurred on by the fact that the choice of my favourite music was getting harder to buy on vinyl.

The signs were vinyl was dying out and the digital revolution was in full swing. Was I being unfaithful to my first love? Well no, I just went on a hiatus for a while. I’d had Linn LP12’s, Pink Triangle, Fons CQ30, JBE Slate turntable, Thorens TD165, Pioneer PL12D, Revolver Rebel, Clearaudio Emotion, etc. so I had no shortage of units to play records on, or hear them to a great standard. I just got disheartened for a few years, sold quite a few of my early records to fund new equipment or ideas and got lost in the wilderness.

The Road To Damascus

A few years ago I suddenly realised what had I done. I’d left the hifi business in 2004  having got disillusioned with the internet and how it had destroyed a lot of small businesses, and people had turned away from hi-fi to play with their mobiles, Play Stations  and ipods. Having a good hifi system was no longer the cool thing to do and kids didn’t know what a record was anymore. I’d kept a core of my favourite LP’s, about 200 roughly and they had gathered dust on my shelves in the living room. I then had an epiphany moment (road to Damascus experience where Paul was blinded by God and then regained his sight once he believed in him) and saw the light. Turntables were being written about again in the hifi mag’s and manufacturers were making real efforts to produce better decks, arms and cartridges.

Although vinyl sales have had a great resurgence recently they still only account for less than 3% of total music sales, so world domination is hardly on the cards. It’s still a niche format and like quality hifi equipment will only be for the passionate enthusiast or people who “get it”.Vinyl-records

Numbers

Why listen to vinyl when digital formats are perfect? Well they aren’t. Digital formats in all their different guises can sound great, but when I see the prices of some systems with separate DACs, clocks, transports and power supplies costing tens of thousands to achieve a top sound I wince. Now straight away you’ll all shout what about the ludicrously expensive turntables out there like the TechDAS Air Force One at nearly £80,000…amongst many. Yes you’d be right, but you don’t have to spend these lottery winning amounts in order to achieve superb sound from vinyl. I’ve heard many expensive CD players that are embarrassed by a good sub £1000 turntable with a decent arm and cartridge. How is this possible? I don’t really know. I suspect because vinyl is an analogue format and as humans we hear in analogue, so we prefer an analogue sound. This is simplistic I know and many may well disagree but ultimately it’s all about what you as an individual like.

The same can be said of FM radio versus DAB and we all know how poor DAB sounds when bit rates are reduced compromising sound quality. If you have heard a live FM broadcast of a Radio 3 classical concert on a good system it is astounding. Reel to reel is also amazing. The common theme of course is analogue sound. There is room for all formats and I think they offer the consumer the chance to choose whatever they prefer, rather like music types.

Genesis

Now back to my vinyl affair. As records were the only real choice for good sound when I started buying good hifi and music, I bought into them with an avid zealousness. My first decent hifi, bought with six weeks of hard earned summer holiday office work, was a Thorens TD165, Shure M75ED type 2 cartridge, Metrosound amplifier and Koss Pro 4AA headphones. I couldn’t afford speakers initially and I suspect my parents were very thankful! This meant I could listen to my records whilst in bed at night. I remember getting Genesis’s album “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” and listening to it again and again as I loved it and still do. Headphones meant I could hear imperfections in the records more easily, so I was very fastidious about keeping them clean and in good condition.

Once my sister moved out to go to university I wasted no time moving into the larger back bedroom and, when funds allowed for speakers, my parents and the neighbour’s days of peace were ended. I left school and my brief sojourn with university away from home ended after only a few unhappy months, so full time work beckoned and so did hifi bliss, as I could now afford my dream equipment and lots of records. As I worked in Sheffield city centre my lunchtimes invariably meant I would go record shopping several times a week and I spent many happy hours thumbing through the vast choice on offer from the many shops around then. We are talking about the 70’s when vinyl was king. My work colleagues as well as my mum would say “What, more records!” every time I came back with another bag with one or more new purchases, but isn’t that the case with any passionate hobby.

Lamentations

I used to only buy new records but these days I am not averse to charity shop or flea market purchases. As vinyl has become scarce in high street stores, the internet or second hand are the only alternatives. It feels great when you rediscover an old classic or favourite from yesteryear that costs a fraction of the original, or you find one in mint condition. Yes second hand can be a risk, but more often than not, when cleaned thoroughly, (unless they are badly scratched or worn) they can yield delightful surprises. The format of records means you can read the covers and credits far more easily than on a CD case, where a magnifying glass is de rigueur once you reach middle age. The cover art on LP sleeves is tactile and engaging and often is the first thing that attracts you to a piece of vinyl. I remember Roger Dean’s artwork for many of the Yes albums which are superb and imaginative in themselves. When seen on a CD they just don’t have the same impact… and on downloads none at all. The covers became an art form themselves.

Redemption

Another thing about vinyl is its tactility. Picking a sleeve out and extracting the LP is a process I enjoy, but I know many loathe it due to the dangers of damaging or dropping the vinyl. Handled properly it’s not a problem, but, like the process of putting the vinyl on the turntable platter and cueing the delicate stylus into the lead in groove, fills many with apprehension. I think it’s all about confidence, but appreciate many people prefer not to have the hassle. I think, for me, vinyl was in my DNA and I was destined to enjoy it along with my passion for hifi and all types of music. I have other hobbies like photography and model making, but they don’t seduce me in the same way. Two of my closest friends are as nuts about music and vinyl as me and I thank God they share my passion. Even my beloved wife likes records, although she leaves me to put on and take the records off.

I do hope vinyl does not die out with my generation, but has a long and prosperous affair with the public in general, especially the younger generation. It’s plastic fantastic.

Ian Ringstead

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