Vinyl/shellac …. the ‘good old days’ … or not?

Years ago, during the vinyl era, an old friend bemoaned the long-gone days of 78s when putting a record on the turntable was a sacred ritual: you’d play a disc containing, say, two Chopin Nocturnes (one either side), settle to enjoy the first, then pause to turn the disc over and play the other. It took time. You attended to what you were listening to and there was a certain magic in watching the playing arm journey across the disc surface in pursuit of the miraculous sounds that were emerging from the speaker (or even the ‘tone arm’ if it was a genuine 78 player). Of course when vinyl was the principal music ‘carrier’ (I’ll omit tape for the sake of focusing my point) no-one imagined that a few years hence CDs topping the 80-minute mark would enable us to put on a disc and either attend to what was on it, or not, according to our mood. My question therefore is, have we lost the knack of listening with awe? Did the effort needed to play 78s, 45s and lps help us (even make us) concentrate on what we were listening to? Is some sort of education process necessary to reclaim the value of quality home listening? Do you still play vinyl/shellac yourself – or do you think that those who do are caught in some sort of generational time warp. Your views would be welcome.

23 thoughts on “Vinyl/shellac …. the ‘good old days’ … or not?

  1. Hi Rob,

    I sort of agree – though I personally would not welcome a return to the pops, clicks and surface noise inherent in vinyl.

    But, I think the real issue that comes out of this is the ubiquity of music and entertainment in general. In fact it is now possible (probable?) that many music lovers are rarely without some of music. In their cars, on the train, in the bath, at the office, anywhere thanks to the use of portable devices and digital media.

    So, there is not even the same anticipation involved as might have been when one had to wait to get home to listen to a record, or a radio programme featuring a work. And we all know that’s a large part of the enjoyment of any experience.

    Tim Wu recently wrote a piece that touches on this in the New York Times:

    To a large extent listening to music is no longer “an event”, or at least rarely.




  2. David Edwards

    Yes Rob, it’s a complex question and there’s more to it than analogue/digital, but not only is it increasingly easy to listen lazily (because we know we can go back and ‘listen properly’ later – I once caught myself thinking ‘it’s OK I’ll play it back later’ when I didn’t catch a word someone said to me!) it is still impossible to listen as closely / insightfully via an electronic medium as one does live. Personally I do find LPs more transparent than CDs: every time I hear them I am struck afresh by the immediacy and the natural detail of the sound, the position of instruments in space, etc. – if the recording was good. (And I don’t understand all this about pops and clicks – my LPs have almost none.) It is definitely closer to listening live – easier to listen actively, focus on individual players / musical lines. Apparently clean digital sound keeps me at a distance, as if there is a barrier beyond which one cannot listen – probably because of low level confusion: so it’s also about the number of microphones, time/phase errors between them, over-close placement and so on. (Cassette recordings of old Prom relays sound a lot more like a concert experience than the current R3 sound, which is largely fabricated in the control room.)

    When I first bought a CD player (chosen by blind listening at a serious dealer), after comparing CDs I had bought of recordings my parents had on LP I was horrified at how inferior the CDs sounded. I wanted to go out in the streets and tell people not to be taken in. I took the player back; the shop used the best player they had (a £1000 Sony – this is >30 years ago) and then played the same recording off LP (through Quad electrostatics, etc.): with the LP you could practically hear how far away the rear wall was as the sound bounced back off it – it was enormously superior. I turned to the sales assistant and said “If I had just paid £1000 for that I’d be furious!” They gave me my money back and that was it for me and CD for nearly a decade. I decided to buy a moving coil cartridge instead.

    But one can’t keep listening to the same performances. The music is what matters and so one compromises. CD players have improved; my hearing is certainly not what it was (hf extension far less) so I am surprised how much I do still prefer analogue.

    As a footnote, at Oxford I knew Michael Gerzon, the inventor of ambisonics and someone with very acute hearing. As I recall it he also loved and collected 78s!


    1. Thanks so much for that David. Most interesting. For me one of the problems with digital recordings – whether on CD or on vinyl – is that the extended dynamic range distorts the listening experience at home. Somehow analogue better suits a natural room environment. Digital is like having a full-size cinema screen in your living room; what you see is unnatural in relation to the truth of what is being shown. Loved your last para re Michael Gerzon.


      1. David Edwards

        Dynamic range is a funny thing: it’s clearly artificially compressed on FM, and when R3 gave us a flac stream last summer I did finally prefer that to FM, but I recently got a new moving coil cartridge and now, the best turntable being in my French flat where I have to be very careful about sound levels in the evenings, it’s LPs that I dare not play because of the very loud peaks, CDs I can keep within bounds. In the day I revel in the greater dynamism, but I probably listen at a lower level than you do.

        Where live v recorded came home to me sharply recently was hearing the Birtwistle piano trio at Plush. It’s a work I had tried to get ‘inside’ from CD, but after a few minutes I would find that my brain had shifted into purely ‘appreciative’ mode, simply finding it very beautiful. In concert, where the ear could far more easily differentiate the two string instruments, the way the piece had been put together was much clearer – and I found it far more clearly a masterpiece. Back home, listening to the CD was as frustrating as ever in comparison – and I’m talking of musical understanding here. I’m not at all sure what’s ‘wrong’ with the CD experience, but spatial localisation has got to have a lot to do with it.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Hi David. Welcome again! Regarding compression last night I dipped in on via my Iphone (on Bose ‘phones) and to my amazement found that there was next to no compression. Very different to listening via digital on DAB, which is not good (I haven’t yet tried FM on my Roberts DAB player). Very interesting re the Birtwistle live/recorded. Regarding listening to serial music I recently read a fascinating quote from Stravinsky who conceded that his serial works were ‘difficult’ but that one should listen to serial music ‘vertically’. Suddenly I started to do that – and the experience was mildly revelatory! Best. Rob


  3. Point is that none of these formats (I started out on the family’s wind-up 78 machine as a 5-year -old) never really sounded very good sonically – but the music you discovered on them could often be life-changing.

    As new formats came along (and others faded) we obviously weren’t aware what else might be coming, so each one, LP, cassette, CD, mini-disc, laser-disc, really was (kind of) ‘new’. If the companies couldn’t invent a new music format fast enough they’d invent a new player for it i. e. Sony Walkman etc. So, really, one new ‘player format’ replaced the previous. As is the case with musical styles of course.

    It’s different now, all these formats are lined up and available. The original, old ones are still in service – very much so. I still have that childhood 78s machine and I still use it (Al Jolson or Greig or G&S) and I still have my Dad’s red PYE 45 Dansette (Lionel Bart to The Edgar Winter Group to The Human League) and of course all of the 45s.

    Spotify et al are really just one amazing music-library. A fantastic resource to check something really quickly but I wouldn’t ever use them to listen to any ‘music’ in a serious way – i. e. for pleasure, or discovery. They are sonically terrible – all of them – with not even that charming noise of needle biting into crude oil/acetate.

    But you can always book yourself into Abbey Road Studios listening-rooms for a week and listen on their immaculate systems to all of your favourite things. Essentially format-wise it doesn’t matter, because those tunes, chords, arrangements, philosophy, ambiguity; that magic which is the music itself will remain in your mind – and your soul – and that is actually the ‘authenticity’ or ‘truth’ of the matter, i. e. ‘memory’ is reality. Memory is music’s final resting-place, not disposable electronic formats.

    Tot Taylor


    1. ‘I still have that childhood 78s machine and I still use it (Al Jolson or Greig or G&S) and I still have my Dad’s red PYE 45 Dansette (Lionel Bart to The Edgar Winter Group to The Human League) and of course all of the 45s’ …. ‘Memory is music’s final resting-place, not disposable electronic formats.’ Wonderful memories all-round Tot, and I share some of them myself. As to the resting place idea, on another thread I allude to taking a walk with music in my head rather than in my ears – not only is it more satisfying, I can imagine a performance that’s a thousand times better than any I’ll acquire on record/CD/tape/steaming or whatever. All you need is relatively accurate recall of the piece to hand and your mind can do the rest. Very best. Rob


  4. Gary Carpenter

    Listening to SACD versions of old RCA/Reiner/Chicago recordings is a different thing altogether. In my opinion the sound is better as it’s uncompressed from tape masters and better than the vinyl release (which I have) when taking wow and flutter, clicks, pops, tape hiss (still audible on SACDs) and skips into account! What I find noteworthy is how the actual analogue recordings are wonderful – and usually superior to contemporary digital ones. You can get a similar immediacy with BluRay audio.


    1. Yes Gary I think that’s true. Also, microphone placement is everything, just about. Think of the old single-mic Mercuries. Strange that when RCA reissue their Reiners, Monteuxs etc in big boxes they appear not to opt for the SACD options, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. But being uncompressed analogue is not the same as having an impractical all-digital dynamic range, which I do think serves to distort what was recorded in the first place. Best. Rob.


  5. Philip Anderton

    There was a definite magic when buying a vinyl album – the large format cover design is a pleasure lost forever. But I consider that we’ve gained not lost through digital. I’ve played a CD copy my cousin once made me of an old vinyl recording of Beecham’s Handel In Bath more times than I’m prepared to publicly admit to, adoring the warmth of the analogue sound. So if I’m going to listen to Casals play Bach’s Cello Suites then I much prefer Pristine Classical’s restoration which gives me the ambience of the 1930s sound with a clarity that previously wasn’t available. To me, that creates a new wonderment and awe.


    1. I agree Philip, with one caveat. Whose transfer to go for? With the Casals you have Pristine, Naxos, Warners, Opus Kura and others, all sounding subtly different … though I agree the Pristine is excellent. I remember buying a CD set of the Bartók quartets with the Juilliard Quartet (their middle recordings, from the sixties) and being bitterly disappointed by the harsh sound. A few years later a kind listener sent me CDRs taken from excellent vinyl pressings and the difference was truly amazing. I still have them, and treasure. Best. Rob


      1. Philip Anderton

        You know Rob, I don’t think there’s any answer to that. I’ve got the EMI and Pristine versions of Casals but I alternate them with Yo-Yo Ma’s digital recordings and Paul Tortellier’s version. If a great performance can be marred by technical issues I suppose a restoration can be similarly enhanced or ruined by the way it’s handled. Do you want your restoration sounding like it was recorded yesterday or with a commensurate amount of period noise? Do you prefer a Rubens left with the accretions of time or stripped and revarnished to look the way it did when first painted – a Georgian mansion put back to the way it was or left with the Victorian extensions and history of its occupation? It’s personal taste and individual ears probably – but at least digital gives us the choice. Regards, Phil


  6. Thanks Phil. ‘Period noise’ for its own sake? Definitely not. Noise reduction that doesn’t work or compromises the musical signal? Definitely not. Michael Dutton has done some great things but his version of Koussevitzky’s Also sprach opens like a squadron of Dakotas approaching from
    afar. Not only doesn’t it sound like Strauss, it doesn’t even sound like music! Ruskin was desperate to sketch certain aspects of old buildings because he knew that the renovating process would alter, even ruin, their character. If the digital transfer (or a good analogue transfer) enhances, all the better. Think of EMI’s ‘Record of Singing’, RCA’s Ellington Anniversary Box (‘Black, Brown and Beige’ sounding a thousand times better than it did on the old RCA Bluebird release), Sony’s digitisation of their Stravinsky recordings – all improve on what was. Best. Rob


  7. Mark

    Hi Rob, my job is running a classical music vinyl shop online, and I can confirm that classical LPs are as popular as ever!

    The celebrated SXL, ASD, and SAX labels are still highly sought after by collectors worldwide, but you would be amazed by the variety (in age, occupation and location) of the people who still enjoy classical music in the LP format, and the huge variety of music they seek out.

    Every person seems to have their own reasons for listening to vinyl…no-one can quite clearly define it…the pleasure of having no screen to look at whilst listening, the “physical connection” of having to make time and effort to play the music is certainly an increasing factor. There is no reason why vinyl should not stay with us….after all, television did not kill off radio as predicted.

    What I can tell you for certain is that when non-musical visitors see my vinyl stock, they always pick up the records saying “oh, lovely! how wonderful! beautiful!”. They never do this with my cd collection, let alone digital music files. The vinyl LP was without question one of the classics of 20th century design.

    ps – if anyone does disagree and is glad to see the back of the vinyl format, i’m always looking to buy quality vinyl collections…can collect! 😉

    But just to add in praise of digital / online music… one of the joys is shuffle play, which can be a revelation, some invisible hand curating your music collection, throwing new light on old favourites and taking you down strange unforseen paths. The internet also allows music makers at every level to be heard, with some surprisingly high quality amateur and student performances available on youtube alone. It encourages music making at all levels.

    But to me the glory of the digital age is the proliferation and ease of access to all music.This enables an individual to follow a path of discovery without limitation – all music is instantly available, you can go through any door you want at any time. Surely this can only have a positive effect, especially on future generations.



    1. ‘But to me the glory of the digital age is the proliferation and ease of access to all music’. Totally true and I sympathise 100% with your assessment of vinyl. I still have around 2-300 discs myself. Thanks for writing Mark.


  8. A friend of mine has a 78rpm shellac record player that sounds marvellous. (He played a record of Albert Sammons where you really felt you could have put your arm down the horn and touched him!) However, I came across an immaculate set of the classic Elgar Violin Concerto played by Menuhin with the composer conducting and, having got over the novelty of the sound, it became quite tiresome having to change records every 4 minutes or so. The ‘sweep’ of the music was completely lost. So I suppose that as a ‘one off’ it’s fun but if I had no choice but to listen to large works in that manner then it would lose its attraction VERY quickly.

    With regards to the whole ‘vinyl vs cd’ debate, I hated everything about vinyl. The poor quality pressings which bedevilled even full price discs, the fact that records deteriorated after multiple playings, (my mother BEGGED me not to play the Boult/LPO Brahms 2 AGAIN after about the 50th playing!) and that bloody side change in ‘Heldenleben’ to name just one spell breaker!

    Long live the cd!


    1. Love it Rob, I mean your Mum and the Boult Brahms 2. These ‘for’s’ and ‘against’s’. Actually HMV 78s (Menuhin/Elgar) tended to sound noisier than laminated Columbia 78s (Sammons/Wood) but, yes, the side change-overs in bigger works (Bruckner symphonies, Bach M minor Mass, etc) were tiresome. I was thinking more of individual, short pieces. As to digital and CD I will never forget auditioning the new technology at a friend’s house for the first time: the beginning of Mahler 1 with Abbado …. music that was habitually visited by rumble and vinyl noise generally, however quiet. Here there as nothing …. no rumble, no hiss, just very, very quiet music. Bliss! Best. Rob.


  9. I seem to almost have them all – from a 1929 HMV wind-up gramophone via various LP and electrical 78rpm replay systems, 1/4″ reel-to-reel at half-track and quarter-track, cassette, 8-track, DAT, MiniDisc, DCC, Betamax PCM, CD, solid-state 24-bit Digital, Spotify, Google Play Music and more (I even have Mike Oldfield’s 1970s Sony Elcasette “portable” recorder on a shelf somewhere).

    Most of them have their shortcomings, some more obvious than others. I have finally returned to a certain amount of vinyl replay outside of the remastering studio – a very good vinyl replay chain sounds great on hi-fi speakers, even if the medium’s limitations are soon revealed on studio monitors – and there is the pleasure of the physical medium and the various rituals involved that bring a certain amount of retro pleasure. To a degree the same can be said of the occasional winding up of the gramophone and enjoyment of some very vintage 78s – original Victor Caruso discs (well worn and of almost no real value!).

    My CDs on the other hand are almost all in the attic, and though I of course keep a CD/SACD player in the studio it’s rarely used unless I need to quality check a CD. Sounds fine but I don’t need it elsewhere. Digital music is streamed usually in FLAC format to my hi-fi via a Google Chromecast Audio with an optical digital link into the amplifier from a hard drive server that holds my complete digital music collection. Much easier to manage and no racks of jewel cases and stacks of unboxed discs cluttering the place up.

    The latest wheeze is a Google Home Mini speaker, which shunts music replay to the aforementioned Chromecast Audio. Something about demanding recordings verbally has led me to all sorts of forgotten albums, artists and so forth. Sometimes it’s a bit of a lottery as to what you get, and I had to ditch Spotify as the primary provider as Google does a much better job of finding music from its own library (and manages gapless streaming), but I’m getting better at specifying what I want, and sometimes it’s fine just to let it take you on its own merry musical journey.

    Ultimately, despite my work at Pristine, I’m not a true “audiophile” I don’t think. For me the music and the performance is far more important. Unless there’s something truly dreadful about the recording (and of the masters I’ve produced recently that have made it onto vinyl, one is an abomination that sounds nothing like what was delivered) I’m happy to listen to it. I know the technical shortcomings of just about all formats and accept them. As long as they don’t get in the way I’m happy.

    P.S. Thanks for the kind comments above on the Casals! 🙂


    1. Thanks Andrew. Great to have you represented here and I’m sure I write on behalf of everyone when I thank you for the marvellous work you’ve done at Pristine. You’ve been responsible for so many discoveries and rediscoveries via superior transfers. As to you ‘Google Chromecast Audio with an optical digital link into the amplifier from a hard drive server that holds [your] complete digital music collection,’ I’m green with envy. Were I even to attempt to transfer my complete collection onto a hard drive server it would probably take more years than I have left to me. I work by what I call the ‘Cowan Chaos Theory’, boxes upon boxes of cds and scores of surprises every time a go to look for anything. Refreshing really and a stimulating way to spend a few hours. A ‘saddo’, or what? 🙂 Loved the Koussevitzky Beethoven disc, by the way. Do you want to preview what’s coming up on tis site? Incidentally any chance of Alexander Borovsky’s Bach English and French Suites (Vox)? Like Rubinstein playing Bach. Quietly stylish. Very best wishes Andrew.


      1. “Do you want to preview what’s coming up on tis site?”

        I used to do a “coming next week” or “coming soon” thing from time to time in our weekly newsletter. It seemed to have the effect of depressing sales for what I was trying to promote that week as people saved their pennies for the following week’s offerings!

        I’ll have a look for those Bach recordings and see what I can do in due course. I’ve just finished putting a new Bernstein recording online today ( if you’re interested) for official release on Friday – drawn from two 1946 NBC broadcasts it has Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony, what might be the only ever performance of a short piece by Don Gillis called Motor Perpetuo, and Bernstein at the keyboard as well as conducting the Ravel Piano Concerto in D. It’s the first of a pair of 1940s Bernstein’s to mark his centenary – to follow in a few weeks will be his 1943 NY conducting debut where he deputised for Bruno Walter at the last minute…

        All of these originated on direct-cut acetate discs – a sub-format that’s perhaps one of the most frustrating for me, as they range in quality from incredible (when mint) to abysmal (when worn – and that didn’t take many plays) and you really never quite know what you’re going to get…


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