Last year, I became intensely interested in what is known as the Great American Songbook – popular music from the 1920s to 1950s – and I read a book by Michael Feinstein called The Gershwin’s and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs and he talks about how he obsessively began to collect all the records he could lay his hands on. Now, of course, I just have to download mp3s and it’s as easy as pie. But sometimes it seems a little too easy. And there is something a little sad sad when Doris Day is reduced to a little file on my computer.
I’d also read in several places that vinyl sounds better than CDs or MP3s, that it had a warmer and fuller sound that was lost when the music is digitized. So, last Christmas, I got a record player.
I could be fooling myself, but I do think it’s true about the sound…or it’s just the idea of playing records that I find so attractive…the nostalgic romance of it. I even like the scratching, static noise that comes with it.
It’s not a hugely expensive one – it’s one of those combinations. I can play records, CDs, cassettes (I do still have some, somewhere), and can plug in an iPhone or mp3 player.
However, the only records I could find in the house were from the seventies and eighties (not even remotely Great American Songbook-ish), so I’ve had to start collecting from scratch. I ordered several, and they sounded pretty good, but they were dusty and I looked up on the internet about how to clean them.
People who collect records are apparently very devoted, because nowhere could I find nice, simple this-is-how-you-clean-your-records-using-the- things-you-have-at-home instructions. Everything involved special equipment, special soap or special brushes. I finally asked my grandmother and aunt what they used to do and they said they would wipe them off with a damp rag. This seemed to work.
My grandmother let me look through her records and I found many soundtracks of many of the musicals I love and another aunt found several Irving Berlin albums at Goodwill, as well as some classical music and several musical cast recordings.
She also found a musical by Irving Berlin called “Miss Liberty” (1949). This was interesting, because the records in this album were smaller and only contained one song on each side.
I was aware that there were several rpms (rotation speed) for records, but I couldn’t find anything on the”Miss Liberty” records that told me which. My record player had three options that I could change to match the record: 45, 33 1/3, and 78. I once again turned to the internet for enlightenment and came away empty (I seem to lack the knack for finding the right search terms).
However, I somewhere derived the impression that 45 rpms were smaller and 78 rpms were larger (most of my are 33 1/3). I took the first record from “Miss Liberty” and tried it at 45 rpm.
And thought to myself “Gee, that man sounds strange.” He sounded thick and kind of slow. I tried 33 1/3 and the result was similar. Finally, I put it on 78 rpm and thought, “Oh, that woman sounds much better.” I’ve learned a lesson. If a woman sounds like a man, you are on the wrong rpm setting.
For an interview with an audio engineer about whether or not records truly sound better than cds, here is a link on NPR.
This is not my record player, but here is Connee Boswell (forgotten, underappreciated, but bluesy, jazzy, lovely singer that Ella Fitzgerald credits as a model) and Bing Crosby, singing “Basin Street Blues” written by Spencer William and made famous by Louis Armstrong.