STARTING A COLLECTION: PART 2

Swap

In Part 1, I broke down what I see as the basic kinds of collecting philosophies/motives – completionists, obscurists and eclectics – and then I offered some basic ideas on how to approach a beginning collection. Namely, start with a genre you like, read up on its history, sample the canon associated with it and then learn more from there.

In Part 2, I want to tackle the “where to buy” question but that still, ultimately, comes back to what you want to buy and therefore, what your collecting philosophy/personality is.
Continue reading STARTING A COLLECTION: PART 2

THE SOUL SIDES GUIDE TO PORTABLE RECORD PLAYERS

(I’m surprised I never wrote this for my own site before (since I’ve done some version of this elsewhere). This is connected to the on-going, “Starting a Collection” posts but it warranted its own, solo post. )

There’s many choices in portable turntables out there and I’m simply focusing on in-the-field functionality rather than aesthetics or collectibility.

Sleeper Bargain: Fisher Price’s battery-powered models ($50 or less)

Fprp
Continue reading THE SOUL SIDES GUIDE TO PORTABLE RECORD PLAYERS

STARTING A COLLECTION: PART 1

Photo by Eilon Paz
(Photo by Eilon Paz for dustandgrooves.com)

First off, I don’t know why this never occurred to me sooner but I created a Tumblr-like “Ask Us Anything” page. Not that I expect a flood of questions but I do get random queries every once in a while and as someone who writes and teaches for a living, I’m more than happy to take people’s inquiries into…whatever.

On that note, I received this email today:

I’ve been following your blog Soul Sides for a while now, and I’ve finally decided to expand my vinyl collection (from a measly 2). I couldn’t help wonder what recommendations you might have for someone starting their own collection. I’ve pretty much loved everything you’ve posted in recent history, especially that extended cut of “Steppin’ Out” by Lionel Robinson that you linked in your blog, but really anything that you regard as a must have I guess would be awesome.

Here was my initial response and I think it works for anyone who’s contemplating the same question:

First off, I’d like to think there’s a taxonomy of basic collecting personalities:

  • Completionists: whether by artist, label, genre, or whatever other organizing principle you have, the goal here is to own as “complete a collection” as possible. At the mega-extreme end, you have this dude. But even without going that far off the deep end, completionism is ultimately a desire for mastery and thus, is a common impulse behind all collecting.1
  • Obscurists: Having a “complete collection” is one form of bragging rights (and to be sure, much of collecting is about bragging rights) but so is “having sh– no one else has.” The obscurist is interested in discovering the “ungoogle-able” records out there. They seek out private press releases, acetates, records in “foreign” (to them) countries, et. al. If it’s common enough to be on iTunes, no thank you.
  • Eclectics: These are the jack-of-all-genre collectors, the ones who are interested in “all kinds of sounds” and tend to be more impulsive around what they want/look for. Their collection may not have the same kind of logical organization as a completionist but it doesn’t thrive on rarity the same way it would for the obscurists. The eclectic likes a little bit of everything (or so they claim. In reality, I find that people who claim to “like all kinds of music” almost never do).2

That’s far from a complete rundown of potential collector types but in the collecting circles I came of age in, they’d be the big three.3 I don’t think these are “goals to strive for” so much as individual motivations that will end up guiding your collecting behavior over time.

Step One: Pick a genre

Musical genres may mostly be the product of arbitrary labeling but I still find value in them insofar as they provide a useful starting point to building a collection regardless which personality you are. One benefit of genres is that almost all of them have extensive resources available to anyone who wants to learn more about them: record guides, histories, compilations, “best of” lists, et. al. Sure, this approach is canon-driven and you’re most likely to begin with those records that everyone already has/recognizes (obscurists beware) but personally, I don’t have a problem with that. Anyone who claims to like soul music should own Aretha’s I Never Loved A Man or Al Green’s I’m Still In Love With You even if they’re both multi-platinum albums.

Remember: we’re talking about starting points. If a particular artist or label or set of personnel catches your fancy, then you can start digging deeper but beginning with the obvious/common records is a perfectly valid, sensible and useful strategy. Besides, one of the advantages to living in a post-Youtube/Spotify world is that if you’re reading about a record and you are curious what it sounds like, you have easy, free options to do so. You don’t have to “take a chance” on buying something blind (though that can be fun in its own way).

Step Two: Read the liner notes

It takes a team to make a record. As appealing as the auteur theory may be, almost no record is the product of a single genius mind behind it. Rather, it’s a team of musicians, producers, engineers and songwriters who help contribute to making that magic happen. Therefore, reading the liner notes, even if it’s just back cover credits, is useful to developing a sense of which people seemed to have that magic touch. If you looking at some Memphis record you’ve never seen before but you notice “W. Mitchell” in the credits, that may be worth taking a chance on. 4

It also helps to develop a feel for “era” and this is always tough because styles of music change very quickly and a particular sound you like from 1970 may not sound remotely the same if you jump back or forward even a few years. Some collectors have particular rules around this, basically record equivalents to “don’t order fish on Mondays” but I feel like you need to figure this out on your own, given your own tastes. I mean, there must be some people out there who really like, say, James Brown’s disco era (shudder). The point being: read the credits/liners and learn you something.

Step Three: Care about quality

Record collecting is always a challenge of finding good records but at good prices. One common error is that beginning collecting is often driven by the impulse to stock up quickly but too often, people’s desire for accumulation comes at the cost of finding records that actually sound decent vs. having been skated on. This is a problem that aspiring completionists run into frequently, especially in their desire to check off boxes but assuming you actually want to listen to the records you buy, it’s far better to overpay for a mint copy of something than underpay for a crackle-laced version.

There are exceptions: most older hip-hop records that don’t skip can be “good enough” since, in many cases, those records are sampling from crackly vinyl to begin with. Some claim that low rider soul sounds better with a little crackle; I don’t happen to ascribe to that philosophy but maybe firme rolas are better enjoyed if they sound rolled on.

But in general, no matter how good the deal, try to buy something that sounds good enough where, a year later, you don’t think you’ll be wincing about how crappy it sounds. (Word to the wise: the worst possible rating for records online is VG+ since that category seems to apply equally to “records that sound like crap but don’t look that bad” to “records that look bad but play pristine”. Just be careful).

In Part 2, I’ll try to tackle where one should begin as well as some basic tools of the trade.

  1. The definitive essay on why men, in particular, pursue completionism in record collating is likely Will Straw’s “Sizing Up Record Collections: Gender and Connoisseurship in Rock Music Culture.” In Mary Celeste Kearney, ed., The Gender and Media Reader. London and New York, Routledge, 2011.
  2. A fourth category could be called Mighty Collectros: This is a joke that started on Soulstrut but the Mighty Collectro might as well be defined as “all of the above.” If that sounds slightly contradictory, it both is and isn’t. In any case, though, seeking to become a Mighty Collectro isn’t a good place for any beginning collector to start. But it might very well be where we all end up eventually.
  3. I left out audiophiles for example, who surely constitute a significant population but it’s not one that I have much contact with or use for.
  4. Personnel is no absolute guarantee of quality: you could take the same people, put them on two separate records, and have them be wildly divergent in quality…but that’s more the exception than the rule in my opinion.

THE CAVERN PRODUCTIONS/SOUL SIDES GUIDE TO DIGITIZING VINYL

Prepared by Brendan Irvine-Broque (for Cavern Productions) and Oliver Wang (for Soul-Sides.com)

Before you start to build a vinyl digitizing system, remember how sound signal chains work. Every sound, whether it’s coming from a singer’s voice or a groove from one of your LPs, has an origin, and passes through a number of different physical and electric stages before it becomes the 1s and 0s that reside on your hard drive.

This is the long version:

1) The physical grooves of a record
2) The turntable, which spins the record at a theoretically constant speed, and isolates it from any internal or external vibrations.
3) The tiny needle that follows the grooves
4) The cantilever system that acts as a suspension system for the needle as it is affected by the record’s grooves
5) The tonearm that stablizes the needle and keeps it in the grooves
6) The wiring inside the tonearm, and the wiring coming out of the turntable, which carries a very weak signal through unbalanced cables into the phono preamp.
7) The phono preamp, which uses the standardized RIAA equalization curve to boost bass frequencies that cannot be represented by grooves on a vinyl record at high amplitude.
8. The cables that connect the phono preamp to the Analog/Digital Converter (ADC)
9) The ADC itself – its dynamic range, accuracy, and clocking.
10) A computer software program that then saves that information into a sound file (AIFF, WAV, MP3, etc.)

This is the short(er) version:

1) The record itself
2) Stylus + cartridge (can be upgraded separately)
3) Turntable + tonearm (can be upgraded separately)
4) Phono preamp (either stand-alone or built into a stereo receiver or DJ mixer)
5) ADC (either stand-alone or your computer soundcard)
6) Computer software

For each part of this chain, your decisions will impact the quality of sound at the back end.

Continue reading THE CAVERN PRODUCTIONS/SOUL SIDES GUIDE TO DIGITIZING VINYL

The Soul-Sides.com Guide to Turntables For Digitizing Vinyl REVISED!

…This…is a remix.

Based on numerous comments as well as corrections on other sites, I’m remixing this guide so I don’t have to post a dozen updates as postscripts.

With all due respect to the NY Times, their recent story on computer-compatible turntables makes the process seem far more expensive and/or complicated than it really is.

I address some of the basics on digitizing in my “How to Start an Audioblog Guide” but I decided to write something down that’d be more detailed.

Keep in mind: this guide is intended for folks looking for a quick, efficient way to convert vinyl into digital files. It’s is NOT meant for hardcore audiophiles who want to squeeze out the best sound possible. There are ways you can do it but it’d involve an investment of at least $500 and up vs. what’s suggested below which shouldn’t run most folks over $200, if even that.

First of all… let’s assume you do not already have a turntable. You have a few choices here. This is the most important detail you should think about:

Until recently, most basic turntables did not have a built-in amplifier. This is because turntables are/were always plugged into something else that could amplify the sound, whether it’s a home stereo receiver or a DJ mixer – building an amplifier into the turntable itself was unnecessary. However, if you want to plug a turntable into a computer, the lack of an amp presents a problem because the sound coming out will be too quiet for digital encoding.

Solution: Buy a turntable with an amp. You have a few options here, depending on convenience vs. quality. The convenience option would be something like a Numark PT-01 Portable Turntable. The quality option would be something like an Audio Technica AT-PL50. The key feature with both of these is that they have built-in amplifiers which will allow you to connect them directly into a computer without having to run them through another device such as a mixer or receiver.

The Numark is good for those who like its smaller footprint and the fact that it can be, if desired, battery powered and taken on the road. The Audio Technica is better for those who want better sound and plan to just digitize at home and don’t really care about portability.

Alternative Solution: Buy a pre-amp. See footnote [3].

How do you connect these into a computer? This is where the NYT article really got things completely wrong: as long as you have a microphone jack on your computer (and just to be clear: not all have them but most do, including most laptops), you’re good. This is where the NYT article and my original post both got it wrong. Sort of.

Depending on the kind of computer you have, the solution to connecting the turntable to the computer may already be provided to you: a stereo line input. I described this as a “microphone jack” though many others were quick to point out that most mic jacks are mono not stereo. My confusion arose out of the fact that most of the computers I’ve used to digitize vinyl have had combination microphone/line input jacks. (God bless Apple). I was under the mistaken impression that this was the norm therefore, not realizing that on many other computers (*cough cough* PCs), the mic jacks may not double as effective line inputs for stereo sound. So be sure to check ahead of time. These days, most new computers will have a stereo line input but not all.

Assuming you do have a stereo input, regardless f you’re on a PC or Mac. All you need is this: an RCA/stereo jack adapter. It’s $5. Walk into any Radio Shack and they’ll have one. Plug the two RCA ends into your turntable, plug the stereo jack into your microphone port, voila. It’s that simple…well, almost.

At this point, you can now send sound from your turntable to your computer but you still need some kind of software to process that information into a digital sound file format. The NYT recommends Cakewalk Pyro for PC users. I’ve never tried it so I can’t vouch for it but I assume it’s probably basic enough for a neophyte.

As a Mac guy, I use Sound Studio 3 which I think is a great, easy to use program for sound editing and digitizing though it does require at least a teensy bit of a learning curve (like any unfamiliar software) for someone to get up and running. Nevertheless, I’ve been using it for years, especially to edit my mixtapes and digitize stuff for Soul-Sides.com so clearly, I’m pretty happy with it.

But what about USB turntables? These aren’t bad options insofar as they too get over the limitation of not having a pre-amp built-in. The NYT recommends the Ion USB which, to me, seems more or less identical in features to the Numark TT-USB and both come packaged with Audacity, a sound file software program that works on both PCs and Macs. (I’ve used Audacity before, am not a fan but given that the turntable comes with it, at least you know they’ll be compatible). Both these models have standard audio outputs if you want to plug them into a stereo system and not just your computer.

USB turntables are more convenient in that you won’t need to buy that extra RCA/stereo jack adapter. The advantage of the non-USB turntables is cost: you’ll save at least $50. Any which way though, any of these turntables will get the job done.

Does USB vs. line input make a significant difference though? There’s considerable disagreement here and my opinion is: no. See below, footnote 1.

Which turntable should you get? Personally, I’d probably be more inclined to buy the Numark TT-USB, mostly because 1) it has pitch control (even though it is NOT designed for DJ use), 2) the sound quality is probably going to be decent and 3) it’s a good brand (I’ve never heard of Ion). In second, I’d roll with the Audio Technica AT-PL50 because AT makes excellent audio devices and it has an automatic play option that’s lacking on the other turntables. The Numark Portable is good for record diggers but the sound quality for digitizing vinyl likely just won’t be there the same way it would be with the other models.

Let’s be clear though: you don’t need a USB turntable. You really don’t. It’s not a bad added feature but it’s not essential. Again see [1].

Last, but not least: what if you already own a turntable? I already addressed this in the “How To” Guide but basically, if you already own a turntable, most likely, it lacks a pre-amp which means you to run it through some kind of amplifier. The easiest source would be a home stereo receiver. You would then run that RCA/stereo jack adapter out of the receiver (or you could even buy a different adapter and do it through the receiver’s headphone jack) and back into your computer’s microphone jack. It’d be a slightly more tangled set-up but hey, that’s the breaks.

But what if your computer doesn’t have an audio line input? Get a Griffin iMic. It will allow you to plug an audio input into it and convert it into a USB port on the other end which you can connect into your computer. For more info on the iMic (and its limitations), see footnote [2].

ADDED: A reader in the comments section noted that Turntable Lab has a page dedicated just to vinyl –> digital solutions. Some of these look pretty good but be careful: none of them seem to come with a pre-amp built in. You’d still have to run your turntable into another device in order to use these stand-alone USB/Firewire devices.

But what if your computer doesn’t have a microphone jack or a USB port? Uh, time to upgrade.

Any questions I leave unanswered? Post in comments and I’ll amend this guide accordingly.
Continue reading The Soul-Sides.com Guide to Turntables For Digitizing Vinyl REVISED!

SO YOU WANT TO START AN AUDIOBLOG…

I figure I might as well take advantage of all this new traffic we’ve been getting lately. For those of you interested in starting your own music log, here is the Soul Sides Bare Bones Guide To Audioblogging (all rights reserved. no biting allowed, herbs)

Philosophical Considerations (aka Some B.S. You Might Want to Think About).

The point of an audioblog is to provide edutaintment. Make it fun, make it instructive, but either way, make sure you’re taking into consideration both you and your subscribers. These blogs, by nature, are a practice in narcissism but it’s self-aggrandizing, hey-look-at-all-the-cool-shit-I-know-about narcissism that actually might benefit people who are willing to put up with your preening for the sake of hearing what music you put up. THEREFORE, make sure they’re getting something out of it and not just you.

Personally, I think audioblogs help service musical areas that most people don’t know about. Posting up Nirvana songs – unless it’s some bootleg of a concert from 1989 – is not exactly spreading the word on the obscure. Aim for songs or artists or genres that are off-the-radar. It’s not about obscurity as it is about exposure. There’s nothing wrong with posting up a popular song, but ideally, your blog shouldn’t resemble the Billboard Hot 100 or a mixtape only a hardcore trainspotter can appreciate.

Also, I’d also recommend keeping your audioblog separate from any other blogs you have. That’s just my own philosophy; it makes it easier for subscribers to find the content they want. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include personal experiences about the music you’re posting up: of course you should, but people don’t need to read about what you ate for breakfast or how work is going interspersed with your audio offerings.

How To…
1) Pick Your Songs. In any single post, aim for 1-3 songs only. I could explain the rationale behind this, but really, it’s just a good idea to emphasize quality over quantity as well as selectiveness over inclusiveness. Also, don’t pick the song you thought was “ok,” hit folks with that crazydumbhotness.

2) Convert and Upload Your Songs. If you want simplicity and efficiency, I’d recommend creating sound files or ripping CD tracks as 128 MP3s. It’s not CD quality but it’s still quite listenable and more importantly, it keeps the file small(er) which is good for you and your subscriber.

New: How does one convert vinyl into a sound file? I should have included something about this the first time: basically, you need to find a way to connect your turntable to your computer and there are many ways to do this, depending on what your audio and computer set-up allow. For me, I have a portable turntable with stereo RCA outputs and I use a simple RCA-to-mini-jack Y-adapter to plug that into my microphoine input on my Macintosh computer.

Once there, I use an audio program known as Sound Studio but there are dozens of similar programs you can use that will allow you to record sound to your computer and then edit it.

Most programs will tend to save sound files as WAV or AIFF files which will need to get converted to MP3. Apple users can just use iTunes. PC users – you’re on your own but I can’t imagine it being very hard. Like I said, I recommend MP3s at a 128 bit rate which is good enough to listen to but isn’t CD quality sound, and therefore, is smaller.

Many free WWW hoster/servers will have storage limitations that you will likely fill up quickly if you store too many files at one time. Keep in mind that there is roughly a 1 minute = 1 MB ratio. Think ahead to how many sound files you want to keep up at any one time, calcuate how much time that will take and then you’ll know how much storage you’ll need. If you’re posting up a few songs everyday, even if you only keep them up for 1-2 weeks, that will add up very quickly. Storage is cheap but if you have a free server, it may not give you that much to work with. Just keep that in mind.

3) Create an Audioblog. There’s no shortage of ways to do this but for simplicity’s sake, I’d recommend Blogger.com. It’s basic but easy to navigate and if you know any HTML, it’s not hard to adapt to your own design visions.

Eric suggests:

    “There’s also audioblog.com, which allows for direct upload and compression of mp3/wav, plus a higher quality method of recording from the browser, in addition to the standard phone posting capabilities for up to 60 minutes. The basic service is 4.95, which may or may not be good, depending on your trust/value of ‘free’ services.”

4) Design Your Audioblog. Ok, this is pet peeve of mine. The whole point of an audioblog is to draw attention to your songs. Therefore, you should make it as easy as possible for someone to identify the songs without confusing it with other text on the screen. Examples of design triumphs and gaffes:
Great: super simple and clean.
Good: even though there’s more information given, Fluxblog uses the same format for every post and separates it from any other links that might cause confusion.
Not so good: The design is a clutter of text and with so many hyperlinks, it’s hard to tell, at first glance, what’s the song and what’s something else. Use of bolding for the songs would help, but so would creating a format that starts off each new post with the song first and then everything after.

From Kojack:

    Get Your Tags/Filenames Right. Proper tags on your mp3s and a filename following the conventional “artist – song name” format make for easier enjoyment of the music you’re taking the time to highlight. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s hit “Save Target As” on a whim one too many times, only to end up with a couple of dozen mystery mp3s taking up space on my machine.

5) Launch!. Getting people to find your site comes down to creating links with other audioblogs. You highlight their blog, they’ll highlight yours. Just remember that no one is obligated to link you, even if you’re linking them and that you should be polite when requesting a link from someone else. In general, the better the songs you post, the more attention your blog will receive but “better” is in the eye of the beholder. If you specialize in Japanese death metal, you may not get a zillion people trying to find you, but you’ll probably be big in Japanese death metal circles.

6) How long should you keep songs up for?. This is pseudo-philosophical/legal question of sorts. The thinking being: if you keep your sound files up indefinitely and eventually amass 10,000 songs for free download, RIAA might come knocking on your door and you don’t want that. There’s also just the idea that your audioblog rewards subscribers who check every day or two for new songs rather than some lucky newbie who randomly stumbles on, downloads everything, and then never returns. It’s on you though. Most audioblogs seem to leave material up for 1-2 weeks and that sounds about right to me.

For future reference: Please do not hit me with technical questions, i.e. “what kind of software should I use to convert my sound files” or “where can I find a free server.” I’ll just ignore them. However, if you have comments or questions of a more general nature, try emailing me. Good luck and have fun.


Need more resources? Read Tofu Hut’s Guide.