It's often fun to see how people get into vinyl records, let alone hunt for those gems that hide deep in a record store. One can have fun and get lost in a store, especially one that allows for beverages and a public turntable to test/experiment with your selections before hitting the check-out counter. Early days, I would too dive in without a plan, but as expected, I would find that I had less time and would need a plan and understanding of what I wanted in my record shelves and on my turntable. Ultimately, I decided to determine my preferences, the sources. I could find them, the reviews/quality write-ups, and match them to my system's capabilities. Introducing a new acronym to the endless number that circles us in life; PSRS: Preferences, Sources, Reviews and System Capabilities.
Preference: This may sound obvious at the start and no one knows your choice better than you. An excellent place to get started is albums and artists you remember or know that move you. After all, the music should elicit an emotional response from the listener; you are not selecting music for an elevator. Let's add a little more to this mix. For example, are you interested in Audiophile-level performance regardless of genre? Are there music genres, instruments, or venues you are learning to appreciate? Are you a collector of rare releases, labels, or producers? This might open up your targets more. For me, it did; I often have a running list of albums/artists I want to collect from specific manufacturers and releases. I am still learning classical music. I enjoy collecting vocals at critical moments in time of the artist's performance; it's a way to experience how their performance started, progressed and peaked, allowing a selection of their performance sweet spot for you. Leonard Cohen is an exciting study from when he was young to later in his career; it's not a study of good, from better to less good. It's the difference in his voice and the maturity of the singing with venue impacts. Leonard Cohen produced his last album knowing he was not long for this planet and you can hear some of that. The same is true of Glenn Campbell. Every artist and their published works, album releases are history lessons.
Image Source: Wix.com
I also collect albums that demonstrate outstanding performances that are life-like from a studio or live-on instruments. It's a reference for my system for tuning and checking performance to live events. Yes, I recommend going to live events as often as possible to hear instruments without amplification. One such interesting yet annoying example is Nemanja Radulović, an outstanding violinist with a soft technique as if he conjures the strings to move without touching them. You can only truly hear this during a live performance because I have not found any vinyl release for him and the digital/CDs can be good but nothing like his live performance. Sometime back, I had emailed his manager and encouraged a vinyl release; perhaps it's time to do that again.
Sources: Buying your vinyl has become more accessible and yet more complicated. Sure, you can find the record stores and those are a blast, but it's a challenge at this current time to keep up with the re-releases, many of which can be limited productions and don't make it outside the factory direct via online sales.
Demand is at an all-time high, good for vinyl but challenging to keep track of. When living in and visiting Taiwan, there was a record store with new and used records. They would order everything that came out, evaluate the audio performance of the release, and audition them for customers. It was an excellent service, a one-stop for everything that was released in a month, a direct review of the quality and a chance to check it myself if needed. It also came with recommendations of what I may be interested in, based on past purchases from the store owner himself. Great place in Taipei; check out 'Joy Audio' if you are in Taipei and reading this or have plans to visit someday.
I have not found a way to replicate this yet in the USA, but you can leverage Discogs to get reviews, post what you are looking for, discover new/old buys and have a complete listing of an album's release by country. A few smaller stores in the US keep an active YouTube channel discussing new releases and reviews, such as "The ‘In’ Groove" in Phoenix. I buy records from this store because of the similar process from Taiwan, albeit an all-digital experience.
Sure, you can do eBay, amazon, direct sites from the manufacturers, but I like the seller with some recommendations. Its means they spent some time studying their inventory, understand the quality and stand behind it. This equates to a significant time and expense saving to you, the buyer/collector. The quality of the record is not known until the stylist is engaged with the record, some homework, therefore here is definitely required.
Reviews: Depending on the expense and value of the record, you can look up and search for reviews. Not all releases are created equal. The review writers worth their salt can tell you the difference in the audio performance, why and provide a quantitative ranking of the musicality and audio quality. Often, I have albums of different releases, pressings, and there is a dramatic difference in performance. Re-releases also do not mean better; they can be improved but can also be re-mastered in a way you are not interested in. For example, the low frequency is often increased vs. what was in an original pressing from decades ago. Nevertheless, plenty of reviewers are available today across forums and feedback from owners like you and I spinning those discs with their comments. These can be valuable and helpful to find the proper album, release and pressing to purchase.
Eva Cassidy, a female vocal/folk singer, had releases from US and German pressing companies. The albums had the same source, same producer, just different pressing companies for the records. The difference in performance was significant, but you won't notice this unless you read a qualified reviewer's comments or run into someone like me who brought both and spoke directly to Blix Street Records in Gig Harbor, WA, regarding the future release of Eva's music. They listened and I believe every record that has come to the market went through the German factory. Thank You, Blix Street Records, for the great releases of Eva Cassidy. I have been using the Eva Cassidy Songbird album as a reference for high-frequency vocal checks. Beautiful voice and higher volumes and frequency still sound warm and clear and not bright or harsh.
System Capabilities: Your audio setup does not determine what you collect, but it does determine how it performs. Collect as you wish, just know, for extreme performance, not all systems can reproduce well across genres like classical to a folk singer or jazz band. I learned this early when I found recommendations for classical recordings and I struggled to hear what the reviewers had promised. Initially, I was disappointed until I continued improving the system to produce across various genres. Then at some point, you start to hear more out of albums that the reviewers do not hear. Albums that sounded ok then now sound amazing; it's crazy fun to experience this.
A good example is Chuck Mangione, The Children of Sanchez album; it's very dynamic and complicated for a system. This album was a challenge for years to pull every piece out of it. It is a passionate piece worthy of any collection but requires the system to make it dance and yes, very rewarding.
As always, you are the master of your choices. The same goes when building your vinyl collection and enjoying the hunt and adventure. What's your strategy? How have you built or are building your vinyl collection? It will be interesting to know about your journey and your feedback in the comments section.
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