I don’t remember when I started collecting records again. I say “again” because I did have records at some point. I remember proudly presenting my Michael Jackson “Thriller” vinyl at show-and-tell in Mrs. Anderson’s 1st grade class. I still have some New Jack Swing-Era 12″ singles. If you’re looking for hard-to-find remixes of anything by Bell Biv DeVoe or MC Hammer I’m your guy. Don’t act like you’re not impressed. The Janet Jackson “Miss You Much” extended mix is dope and we both know it. When my parents moved out of our childhood home in late-2000 most of my old collectibles ended up in a landfill. My friend Tyson still had a stack of those 12″ singles from the many trades we made back in high school and he gave them to me a few years ago. I feel like I owe him something… My point is, I’ve been a music collector my whole life, but I was not much of a record collector. Like most music lovers my age I went from vinyl to cassettes to CD’s to digital.
As a tech junkie, the minute I found out I could convert my mountain of CD’s to files I could store on a device I could fit in my pocket, that was the end of my CD collection. I had that box of CD’s sold on eBay faster than I could rip them on to my hard drive. No more 24-disc changer in the trunk of my Ford Escort!
It was sometime around 2009 when things started to change. Was it a mid-life crisis? Perhaps. Was I feeling nostalgic in my 30’s and looking for some link to my youth? More likely. With iTunes readily available I hadn’t touched a CD in years unless it was a bootleg, mixtape, or something by Prince that I couldn’t find online. It was (and still is) a thrill to have a physical copy of music to look at, hold, and appreciate.
I entered my record collecting hobby with a strict rule for myself. I wasn’t going to be “that guy” who buys all of the unnecessary crap and talks about the superior audio quality of vinyl. I want my music to sound good, but I’m far from an audiophile. At first I didn’t even have a turntable. When my great aunt passed away and my family was deciding who got what, my dad and my grandma asked me if I wanted something. I said I’d take her old turntable, and since nobody else wanted it, I got my first turntable. I’m talking about a piece of furniture that is five feet wide, three feet tall, and takes up the entire corner of our living room. That was all I needed. I was just going to get a few of my favorite albums on vinyl so I had a physical copy of them and that’s where I’d draw the line.
For a few years I was content. Then I discovered a little something called Record Store Day. There was a copy of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” on white vinyl. The album cover was (and still is) an abomination*, but that white vinyl is stunning. I don’t even like Biggie that much, but listening to “Big Poppa” while watching the needle work its way around a record that looks like it was cut out of decadent white chocolate is hypnotic. It wasn’t just the Biggie record on that fateful Record Store Day. There was a Miles Davis record that I hadn’t heard before that I thought looked cool, so I bought that, too. I had broken one of my rules. I’d only do it on Record Store Day, though, so it’s cool.
* Seriously, why did they change the album art for that RSD release? It was one of the great album covers ever. No one has ever given me an acceptable answer because one doesn’t exist.
Soon after, the dam broke. Every town I go to means the possibility of a new record store…or at least the same old record store with different records! I found a guy who built record stands that could hold up to 400 records, and they were pretty cheap, so I got one because it would take me a long time to grow in to it (not that long, as it turns out). I discovered Discogs.com and turntablelab.com (among others). It was cool, though, because I was still using an old turntable. I wasn’t out of control.
But think about it? If I just get myself a reasonable turntable, speakers, and amp think about how good all of this cool vinyl will sound? Why am I limiting myself? If I get that stuff I’ll be satisfied and that’s where I’ll draw the line.
So, I started saving a few bucks. Then I had a birthday and was given a few more bucks. I did some research. Next thing I know I have a U-Turn Orbit Plus turntable, a Sprout amplifier, and some Pioneer floor speakers. I mean, I can’t put bookshelf speakers on the same shelf as the turntable because the vibrations will affect the sound, right? That’s what I read somewhere. But I’m not record collector guy. I’m just a simple record collector and I’ve drawn the line. There’s nothing more for me to get. Now I’m satisfied!
Here’s the thing: Line Phono makes a turntable stand that’s made of a material that absorbs the vibration so the sound is even better. Plus, it looks much better than this beat up particle board shelving unit I’ve had since college. Once I have that, then my setup is complete! I’m done. I’ll keep buying records, but I don’t need any unnecessary gear. Oh, also, I bought heavy gauge wire and gold plated banana plugs so I can make my own speaker wire, but that’s where I’m drawing the line.
You know what else sounds like it would help, though? I listen to this podcast called “The Vinyl Guide” about record collecting, and they’re sponsored by something called Groove Washer that seems like an affordable way to clean records. Of course, I already have a record cleaning brush, but this is different. I just got a used copy of the “Let’s Go Crazy” 12″ single and the B-Side has the 7-minute version of “Erotic City” on it and if I use Groove Washer to clean it up it’ll sound amazing. Then I’ll be set! Oh, wait. Also, it says that you should still clean your stylus and this ZeroDust stylus cleaner looks cool. It’s easy to use, and you just need to wash it with water once in a while. That’s where I draw the line.
However, I’ve been reading that another way to improve sound quality without drastically changing your equipment is to change your cartridge. I’ve got another birthday coming up. I wonder if someone would get me this cartridge? Yep! Thanks, mom and dad!!! I’ve never done this before, but three hours later, I’ve got a new cartridge installed and it sounds fantastic. Here’s the thing: What if the cartridge is pressing down too heavily on my vinyl? I don’t want it scratching. Or, what if it’s too light? I don’t want it skipping. I better buy one of these turntable stylus force scale gauges to make sure I’m not screwing this up. I don’t have a problem! This is all completely normal. This is where I draw the line for real.
Fast forward to April 21, 2018. I was in line at my local record store (The Exclusive Company in Green Bay, WI, if you’re curious) for the 10th Annual Record Store Day at 4:45 AM because that’s just what I do now. I had to get there early to make sure I got the Prince “1999” reissue that was dropping (on the 2nd anniversary of his death, no less) even though I already had all of those songs on one of the 54 other Prince records I now own. The album art is cool, OK? Plus, they haven’t pressed this version of 1999 since 1982. I need it, OK? If you’re judging, you’re not a record collector.
Anyway, I was second in line behind an incredibly friendly fellow record collector, and another equally friendly guy showed up at about 5:00. We had two hours to wait so, of course, we talked vinyl. In the midst of our conversation one of the gentlemen mentioned that he got a cork record mat for his turntable and it made a huge difference. I thought to myself, “Nope. That’s where I draw the line. I’m not getting a cork record mat.” But it ate at me. I’ll just put this cork record mat on my Amazon Wish List and maybe if someone is paying attention I’ll get it.
Today a birthday gift arrived from my old friend Tyson. It’s a cork record mat. I was skeptical, but it’s a gift! Before I replaced the cheap old mat I had I knew I had to test it. I grabbed my favorite record for testing audio. I dug in to the rack and grabbed “Illadelph Halflife” by The Roots. For my money, there’s no better test of an audio system than “What They Do”. Musically the song is beautiful (lyrically as well), and the opening with the kick drum, rim shots, guitar, and deep bass really test the range of an audio system. I’d like to think that Questlove, Hub, Raphael Saadiq, Kamal, and Spanky would appreciate that they set the bar for audio quality. Even if you don’t love hip hop (what’s wrong with you?) just play this track and appreciate the stunning sonic ride. Actually, listen to the lyrics too, for God’s sake. Black Thought is spitting truth on tis track. But I digress…
I started playing “What They Do” on the cheap old record mat and it sounded great. Nothing wrong with it. For the money, I put my turntable setup against any. I’m not trying to blow anyone out of the room. I’m trying to listen to good music. Then I put down the cork mat. You can call it a placebo effect or whatever you like, but damn if it didn’t sound noticeably better! How is that possible? Why can something seemingly so silly make a difference?
As I was simultaneously admiring this aural masterpiece and loving Tyson and the two RSD guys for putting me on to this fantastic cork record mat, something hit me. I might have crossed the line. Is today the day I became “record collector” guy? Who am I kidding? I think I blew past that line in 2012. Still, something felt strange to me today as I felt genuinely excited about something as frivolous as a 12″ cork circle with a hole cut in the middle.
Here’s the interesting part: All of these items that I’ve added have improved my vinyl collecting experience. Of course a decent new turntable, speakers, and amp made things sound better. You know what else did? The home made speaker wire. The Groove Washer did make that Prince vinyl (and lots of other used gems) sound better. Every time something is sounding particularly scratchy I use my ZeroDust stylus cleaner and the sound improves. The Grado Black cartridge was a huge upgrade. The scale did help me find the perfect weight so I wasn’t dragging my needle across the record, but I also don’t get skips. You know what else helps me prevent skips? The Line Phono turntable stand. My 7-year-old daughter and I dance to records in this room all the time (she’s waiting for me right now, in fact) and it never skips. Even the cork record mat improved the quality of the audio. Everything I’ve rolled my eyes at turned out to be something I love.
The question is, what’s next? If I’m now shamelessly buying in to every little gadget and knick knack they’re trying to peddle at suckers like me, what am I missing? I’m not kidding. Come on, vinyl heads. What else should I have? What’s helping you enjoy your vinyl? Do I really need a record weight? To be honest, it looks useless, but at this point I’ll believe anything.
Please send me suggestions. In the meantime, I’m gonna dance with my daughter and spin this Brown and Roach album because when I listen to it it feels like Clifford Brown is playing trumpet right next to me and it’s amazing.