Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Digitizing Vinyl

The past few days, I finally got started on a long-intended project: recording some of my old vinyl LP records into digital audio files on one of my computers. I connected a turntable up to my previous laptop (retired when I got the new one, but still useful for this), wiped a lot of data off the old drive to make room, and started recording. I've transcribed about a half dozen favorite old LPs that I have not listened to for at least ten years, and haven't really had the physical means to listen to for half that time. The past few years when I've been on the road a lot, carrying heavy stereo equipment has been abandoned in favor of portable gear like an iPod, a laptop computer, a case of CDs, and a set of computer speakers.

When I closed down my parents' home after they died, I kept my father's old stereo equipment, which at one point in time had been very high-end. My father and my uncle were both audiophiles. They both were willing to invest a lot of time and money into their sound equipment. For example, a Nakamichi 700 cassette tape deck; a Phase Linear 4000 receiver; really good AR speakers, etc. I grew up around high-end audio gear, and also reading my father's monthly audiophile magazines, like High Fidelity. I learned a great deal about recording and reproduction technology before I was in college; later in life, I've spent a lot of time in the recording studio, both as an engineer and as a recording artist. In high school, I got involved with the audio-visual department. I made videos with the other students, and recorded tapes for radio. I was part of the team that read the daily announcements on the school's PA system, a daily five-minute "radio" broadcast of sorts. Not long after I graduated from high school and started college, I got my FCC Radiooperator's License, which I still have, and got involved with programming and hosting community radio. I viewed radio as another means of performance, and with a collaborator or two made several experimental radiopieces that ranged from very avant-grade live performances to mixups of LPs and cassettes and reel to reel tapes that were composed for radio. I have most of that material on cassette, recorded live off the broadcast feed. And I have a high-end cassette player also hooked up to the studio computer, and am digitizing those cassettes, as well.

One of these radiopieces was Bottle Music, made with my regular music partner Stuart Hinds. (Follow the link for a couple of excerpts to listen to.)

Another was a piece I made entirely in the radio station production rooms, and in the University of Michigan's Electronic Music Studio, a stone flute. This piece consisted of poetic texts with soundscape, inspired in part by my reading of Jerome Rothenberg's seminal anthologies of what came to be called ethnopoetics, Shaking the Pumpkin and These anthologies for the first time ever treated the oral poetries and songs of indigenous peoples from many cultures as legitimate poetic traditions, equal artistically and literarily to our own Euro-American fine art literature. Rothenberg has continued this interest over the years, and remains one of our most important editors of large poetry anthologies.

Here is a stone flute in its entirety (about half an hour long), if you care to listen:

a stone flute    

Stuart Hinds, reader; AD, soundscapes, processing, production

Some of the vinyl LPs I am digitizing first are ones I want to listen to again, after not having heard them for many years. Others are more abstract music, and avant-garde music, that likewise I hadn't heard for awhile, but also were sources I used as elements for some of those radiopieces. It's been fun to listen to them, again, as I record them into the old laptop. It brings back memories of the live on-air mixing we sometimes had to do in complex ways, in order to combine sources into our live-broadcast radiopieces.

A lot of my favorite LPs have never been re-released on CD. This is true of much of the avant-garde music I acquired over the years on LP. But it's also true of some classical performances (although these are more likely to be reissued than are other genres), some jazz, some folk music, and a lot of rare recordings of ethnic music. Smithsonian/Folkways has reissued on CD a number of the old Nonesuch Explorer series of recordings of folk music from around the world—recordings I treasured all through college and grad school—but not all of them. Some are only reissued in excerpts, some not at all.

So digitizing a lot of my rare and unusual vinyl is a project that will be ongoing for some time. I will be digging into it all winter, as I will be sorting and organizing other materials, for a proposed major garage sale next spring. After I've digitized many of these old LPs, I will be letting go of the actual physical LP; there are antiquarian collectors and enthusiasts who no doubt will be interested in some of these.

But in digitizing some of those favorite LPs over the past few days I realized as well that I do want to keep some of them. The most important to me; the most rare and unusual. This will be a small minority of the overall collection, maybe only one or two racks. But these few LPs remain valuable to me, personally, as works of music, of unusual sounds, of rare recordings. Once digitized, I might not listen to the LP directly any more, but the liner notes, the included booklets, the multi-media materials that some artists explored in the 70s and 80s: those will be worth keeping, to consult for notes, and to continue to use for future inspiration.

(Further examples of my own original music can be listened to via the Music page of my website.)

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I never owned a lot of LPs growing up, enough to fill one of those cases they used to make at the time so, I don’t know, maybe two dozen albums. I could probably name most of them actually and they were all played many, many times over. The last LP I bought would have been in 1982 probably, Juju by Siouxsie and the Banshees. I bought it in John Menzies in Hamilton. After that it was cassettes until about fifteen years ago when I switched to CDs and now, of course, CDs have been superseded by purely digital music. Never imagined there would so such change in my lifetime and we’re not done with it get.

I disposed of all my old LPs when my last wife left me. At that time I did a huge and ill-considered clearout and there are a lot of things I regret parting company with. I have copies of all the albums that mattered to me, or at least versions of the same works. I miss Sir Adrian Boult’s rather stiff interpretation of The Planets and I’ll never find that LP with the version of The Unanswered Question with narration – Shakespeare’s Tempest (Act 4, scene 1, 148–158) and it works! – but those are the only two. We did have an LP by The Real McCoy that my mum and dad bought from Woolworths when I got my first turntable – they came home one day with an odd assortments of albums, Tchaikovsky’s 4th and 5th Symphonies, an album of his ballet music, an album of popular overtures, some blues album I could never get into and The Real McCoy. God alone knows how they made that particular selection. But I was rather fond of a track called ‘Gitarzan’ which I’ve since learned was originally recorded by Ray Stevens and I’ve never found the cover version anywhere; it’s probably not as good as I remember it.

4:24 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I can safely say there are about 2000 LPs in my basement at the moment. I did more digging through the moving boxes last night, and have uncovered most of my avant-garde music LPs by now. Not all of them are worth digitizing, although I've already pulled out a few high-priority ones. Some have already made it to CD. Others never will, now. So I'll do those. I have a lot of George Crumb, a lot of John Cage, some Harry Partch from the original performances, Henry Cowell, Conlon Nancarrow's complete piano player pieces, stuff like that. I may just reel off some of this stuff and edit it into tracks later. It's easiest to record a side of an LP as one file, and split it up later. Some are lower priority than others.

And I have all those ethnomusicology LPs. That's a treasure trove, actually. Some of those I will actually keep, even after digitizing. They're too rare and beautiful.

This is not a short-term project. It will take awhile.

8:03 AM  

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