RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#393: Format of Choice
What is your audio format of choice? Which is the one that makes up the majority of your collection?
In addition to occasionally speaking in the third person, LeBrain has specific wants and needs in his music collection. I have a fast and loose set of rules when it comes to choosing the format on which I buy new music. Some, like Deke from Arena Rock – Thunder Bay and Beyond, prefer the ease and speed of downloading from iTunes. Others, like 1537, prefer vinyl. How do you decide what formats to buy your music on?
Here are my collection priorities:
#1. Compact Disc
99% of my collection is on CD. I have many reasons for this. One is the superior sound quality: a CD just sounds better than an mp3. A CD won’t crash like a hard drive. The oldest CDs in my collection are over 25 years old, and still look and play perfect. They have always been stored in their CD cases after use, in a cool dry place. They do not suffer from CD rot, which is a deterioration of the aluminum layer inside a CD due to oxidation. The discs may not last 100 years, but I am confident that most if not all will be enjoyed through my lifetime. CD rot can be minimized or prevented just by handling your CDs correctly.
I have chosen CD as my #1 format for other reasons other than longevity. They are easily transferred to mp3 for better portability (they are already easily portable). Playing mp3 files in a mobile environment like my car can only extend the life of the source CD. Also, compact discs are easy to store and just look cool when all lined up in my collection!
I buy almost all my CDs online now, and they ship fast and easy. Most of the time the packages will even fit in my mailbox, saving me a trip to the post office! For these simple reasons, CDs are the lion’s share of the LeBrain Library.
Today’s vinyl LP has been around since 1948, and even then the technology wasn’t new. It merely updated and standardized something that had been playing on gramophones for a couple decades. They used to be made out of substances such as hard rubber and shellac, but vinyl proved to be versatile and enduring.
Since vinyl has been around so long, and couldn’t even be killed off by the cassette or compact disc, it is safe to say you should always be able to buy something to play an LP. However, an LP doesn’t have the longevity of a CD in terms of a long playing life. Your CD laser never makes contact with the plastic, but your stylus does contact the surface of the vinyl. The force of friction means that every play will wear down your LP, even if it’s only microscopically. The key is to use good clean equipment and records. If you do, a record will outlast a temporary format such as VHS or cassette tape. Minimizing friction-causing dust particles extends the life of both LP and needle.
For all these reasons, vinyl is my second priority in format collecting. They are bigger and take up more room, but when I want the warmth of an LP or just bigger cover art, there is only one way to go. 180 gram vinyl is especially nice to hold and listen to. For buying old albums affordably, vinyl is a great alternative to CD. Some old metal albums have had limited CD releases in other territories, making them expensive and hard to get once they go out of print. Vinyl can be a cheaper alternative for your collection.
Vinyl bonus tracks are a slam-dunk reason to buy an LP. Alice Cooper’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare is a great example of an LP that has a track unavailable on any other format (“Flatline”). And of course Jack White took the idea of LP bonuses to the ultimate level with his “Ultra LP” version of Lazaretto.
#3. Digital download (mp3)
I hate paying money for something that does not physically exist. If I have to, I will, but I only “have to” when there are bonus tracks unavailable on any physical format. Given the choice and the money, I will always buy the physical version, not just 1’s and 0’s floating around on a magnetic hard drive. I hate that you (usually) don’t get any info or liner notes with an mp3. I hate that your hard drive just needs to have a nice crash for you to lose this music that you paid for. I understand the convenience, but digital downloads do not service my needs.
I know there are high quality download formats such as FLAC, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of not being on a physical format that won’t crash, and my issue of paying for a non-physical entity. I also know that a lot of people don’t care about these things, and I wanted to understand why. I asked Deke over at Arena Rock why he loves his iTunes:
“Here’s my deal: At the time when iTunes first came out, I had three young daughters. Getting to the record store (when there were record stores) was tuff to say the least, let alone the cost as well! I just couldn’t drop $20 all the time. Sure, I made exceptions and I bought actual product like Maiden and Rush, but iTunes became my way of music buying. Especially re-buying albums I had owned on cassette or vinyl. I just re-buy them on iTunes and download straight to my iPod! Now that my daughters are teens, I have just stayed the course with iTunes. I pre-order product from them, like the latest Priest, and the Van Halen live album. Convenience is just the way of life for me now! Don’t get me wrong though, I would still enjoy buying the actual product, but man it does boil down to affordability! iTunes delivers that and I can stay current with adding to my dinosaur rock collection! Ha!”
Once the mighty majority of my collection, cassettes have been reduced to a mere novelty. I treasured them for portability and convenience, but now I loathe them. I debated putting mp3 last on my formats of choice, but the truth is, cassette is far worse.
Cassettes have several things going against them. The first is moving parts. A CD or LP requires no moving parts, but a cassette has spindles and rollers that rub against and wear the magnetic tape. Sometimes a cassette’s parts can be too tight inside, causing it to warble when you play it. But it’s the analog tape itself that is the real problem. Even brand new, a cassette will not sound as rich as an LP because it’s not capable of reproducing the same range of frequencies. A cassette has a built-in high level of static noise. Then once you start playing it, magnetic particles begin to wear off. In fact over time, tapes will degrade to be unlistenable, no matter how well you take care of them. Even worse, record companies used the worst quality tape for their releases. If you bought a cheap blank Sony tape, you would have better quality than a store-bought record label’s cassette.
The poor sound and lack of longevity are the two main reasons I’m still replacing all of my old tapes with CDs and LPs. Anybody got a copy of Bonham’s Mat Hatter on CD for me to upgrade to? How about Wolfsbane’s first? Still looking for those!
Not really ranked last, I just wanted to mention other formats that I own music on.
5.1 surround sound can’t be encoded on a standard CD, so DVD and Blu-ray have to step up to the plate. I have several Rush, Queen, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple albums (among many others) that have been given official Quadrophonic or 5.1 surround mixes. Often, these mixes include bits of music that are not in the stereo versions, such as guitar solos and fills.
The problem with DVD and Blu-ray is that I only have one home theater system. I only have one place, one room in the house, where I can listen to these special albums. I can’t play them in the car, on a walk, or at the cottage. As such, a Quad or 5.1 release gets limited listens at Chez LeBrain.
How many people are there like me? Let me know your favourite formats in the comments section!