Many audio formats have come and gone over the years with some of them being better than others. Music on physical formats, particularly vinyl, have been increasing in popularity year over year. In addition to vinyl records, I personally have been adding to my CD collection. In order to actually play CDs I had to buy a CD player (or two) because I have either gotten rid of the players I had or they failed. To date, I have a total of three CD players. Two Sony 5 disc changes and a Sharp DX-200 single disc player. These units all needed some amount of effort in order to get them back into shape.

Not content with just CD and vinyl, I decided it was time to get into one of the few formats I had never owned or even used before. Minidisc. As described by Wikipedia, Minidisc is an erasable magneto-optical disc format that allows users to record sound either in real time or, using specific equipment, transfer data using a USB connection. The discs can be reused like a cassette but unlike a cassette they are digital and provide near CD quality. Minidisc uses a proprietary, lossy compression system that allows it to fix 60-80 minutes of audio onto a single disc. Unlike CD+/-R, Minidiscs can be modified, on the player, after the fact with text info, track arrangement and even editing of where tracks are split. All in, the Minidisc format feels incredibly ahead of its time even today. There is no other format that is remotely close to what Minidisc can do outside of sitting at a computer and fiddling in software. While it is true that Minidisc’s features are superseded by music software like Apple’s Music or Spotify there is a real and undeniable charm to the format that makes it fun to use even today. Later iterations of the Minidisc format provided additional capabilities which you can read about at https://www.minidisc.wiki//technology/start.

Minidisc recorders and players come in a number of form factors including portal players that are barely larger than the discs themselves (aside from thickness) to full HiFi component sized units. While the HiFi component size is my preference there are few that support NetMD, or a USB connection for interfacing with a computer. Many portal players, even earlier models, support NetMD for quick transfer for music from a computer to the Minidisc.

The player I picked up is a Sony MDS-JE500. This model, from 1997, has issues with its loading mechanism that causes it to continuously attempt to eject the disc even after ejecting the disc. A known and common problem, this unit will need to have some microswitches replaced in the near future. I picked this model because it comes an era when Sony was producing devices with my favorite design language. This device is able to record both analog and digital directly to Minidisc and allows for manually setting analog recording levels. Overall a really nice and functional device.

Minidisc, despite being so feature rich, ultimately failed for numerous reasons including high initial cost and the rise in digital formats and players like the iPod. In addition to this, commercially licensed music outside of Sony properties was far and few between. Even today you will not find many Minidiscs and those that you do find fetch a high price.

If you are interested in learning more or getting into the format I highly recommend taking a peek at https://www.minidisc.wiki/. This community run wiki provides a growing collection of articles related to the Minidisc format including where to buy devices and minidiscs, device features and even repair information.

Minidisc is not a format I expect to find a lot of prerecorded music for but I am enjoying transferring my vinyl records to minidisc or creating custom mixes. It’s true there are more modern ways to do the same thing, including just skipping the process entirely and creating playlists in Spotify, it is still an interesting departure from the norm and, most of all, is fun.

Since 2021 I’ve been using a combination of tools to handle my music collection. Today I’m going to talk about the tools I’m using to manage my collection including how I catalog, import, serve and listen to it.

Although I do subscribe to a music streaming service I have taken an interest in expanding my physical collection as well. My collection consists largely of CDs with some vinyl records mixed in. While I appreciate the convenience of digital stream I also enjoy the process and experience of playing physical media, which I’ve written about before. That said, I like to also take my collection with me in digital formats and enjoy knowing that it comes from my own personal collection. Before we get into how I copy my CDs to digital lets first discuss how I catalog and keep track of my collection.

Cataloging

A couple of years ago I learned about a site called discogs.com. In their words Discogs is “a platform for music discovery and collection” and this is exactly how I use it. You can search for and add to your collection each piece of physical music media you own or are interested in owning and add it to your collection or wishlist, respectively. The database contains user submitted and curated information about most releases available with surprising detail. You can choose to be super detailed about how you add items to your collection by selecting the exact release or more simply add the first item you find. How you use Discogs is ultimately up to you but it is an incredibly handy way to track what you already own, find new stuff you’d like to own and so on. Using Discogs allows me to track the state of my media (some of it is damaged and needs to be replaced, for example) as well as ensure I don’t buy the same item twice.

Importing

I import all of my CDs using a tool called XLD, available at https://tmkk.undo.jp/xld/index_e.html. Using an external DVD drive to my Mac, XLD is able to look up what CD is in the drive, grab metadata about it and take care of copying the music off of it and onto my NAS. The metadata ensures that the folders are named properly as well as the track titles. I stick to the FLAC format for the files as it ensures the best quality and compatibility with playback software. Whenever I sync music to my phone for offline play in the car I opt to have the songs encoded on the fly to a smaller format.

Some vinyl records also include digital files that you can download from a site. For these I will typically add them to an appropriate folder of either MP3 encoded music or FLAC encoded music.

Storage

All of my music is stored on a TrueNAS based storage system and then shared out to a virtual machine that is running Plex. TrueNAS exports the data using Samba so it is easy for my Mac and the virtual machine to access without issue. TrueNAS stores the files on a raidz set for redundancy and I periodically back the data up to another disk.

Playback

Once the music is imported and stored on TrueNAS I add it in Plex. Plex is a convenient way to manage music as it detects the music you have added and downloads additional metadata about it, like album reviews. Recent releases of Plex allow you to “sonically fingerprint” music so that it can better find similar music in our collection for building better mixes.

Although Plex is the server part of the music system the actual software I use is called Plexamp. Plexamp is an app that is dedicated to music playback offering a slick interface, ability to download music locally from Plex and provides gapless playback. If you’ve ever listened to an album and wondered why there were gaps between tracks that sound like they should flow together, gapless is what you’re looking for. In addition to gapless, when playing a mix you can optionally have Plexamp fade between songs and I find that this works extremely well. Overall, Plex and Plexamp are my favorite tools for listening to music.

The actual hardware I listen on varies depending on where I am. While working and at my desk then I will be using the setup detailed on my audio system page. While out and about it will be through my iPhone connected to headphones or my car.

Conclusion

I’ve long listened to music but only recently have I gotten back into the general process of collecting it and paying attention to the process of listening to it. I enjoy my physical formats but I’m also not blind to the convenience of digital formats. How do you manage your music?

Semi-related to my previous post, this post quickly touches on the fact that having swap on your system is not always a bad thing. I have seen “disable swap” become a common “performance hack” suggested by a lot of people and it appears to be growing in popularity. I believe a lot of people are simply parroting something they heard once but don’t actually know when it makes sense to disable swap on a system. I have found that outright disabling swap has a detrimental effect on system performance.

The basic idea behind not using swap is sound, on the surface. The argument is that swap is both much much slower than system memory and that if you are hitting swap then you need more memory. To add to this, a lot of people don’t understand how memory works on Linux (and indeed all major operating systems). Linux wants to use as much memory as possible. If you give it 1TB of memory (or more) then it will do everything it can to eventually use all of it. However, how it uses this memory can be confusing. Looking at this output from free -m, it may not be obvious what is happening:

[[email protected] system]# free -m
              total        used        free      shared  buff/cache   available
Mem:            809         407         137          37         263         251
Swap:          1023         282         741

In the above example output from free -m you will see the columns total, used, free, shared, buff/cache and available. The values for each, respectively is 809, 407, 137, 37, 263 and 251.

In a lot of cases, the value most people will look at is “free.” Unfortunately, on a system that has been running for some time, this value will almost always give the impression that the system is low on memory. Like so many things, there is a lot more to it than what the free value shows. In reality, the value you want to pay attention to is available. This value represents the amount of free memory with memory that can be reclaimed at any time for other purposes added in. The “cache” portion of the buff/cache value is what can be reclaimed and it represents the amount of data from disks that is cached into memory. It is this cache that operating systems try to keep full in order to avoid expensive disk reads and is why a system with a lot of memory can potentially have very little free memory.

A system that is low in available memory will also not be able to cache a lot of disk reads (because remember that available is free+cache added together) which will lead to lower overall performance. Of course, loading an entire disk into memory won’t necessarily have a positive affect on overall performance either. If a file is read once and never used again, does it really need to be cached? Having a lot of memory can lead to things being needlessly cached. A system with 16GB of memory can perform just as well as a system with 32GB of memory if most of the 32GB memory is filled with files that are very rarely read again.

Getting to why having swap is not evil, some apps and portions of apps aren’t always being used, even if they are running. For this reason, having swap available on a system is beneficial because the operating system can page application memory to disk and free up memory for to use as a disk cache for more active applications. In instances, such as the web server hosting this site, having swap available is a necessity because it allows me to have a system with less memory while still maintaining proper performance in normal conditions. Services that are necessary but rarely used are swapped out leaving room in memory for application code to be kept there instead. WordPress is considered “hot data” where as systemd is not. Once the system has booted systemd, while necessary, is not actively doing anything and can be paged to disk without affecting performance in noticeable way. However, swap is an issue if you are dipping into it continuously. This will quickly become evident if you have a lack of available memory as well as a high usage of swap. In this case, you truly do need more memory in the system.

I hope this post helps clear up some of the confusion around memory usage on systems. Have anything to share? Did I get something wrong? Leave a comment!

In a previous post I mentioned that this site is hosted across two different hosts. One that is dedicated to running MySQL and Redis while the other runs Nginx and PHP. I use this arrangement for a few reasons. First, this is the cheapest way to get two real CPU cores on Digital Ocean. During a web request, multiple processes including Nginx, PHP, MySQL and Redis must run and share CPU time with each other. By using multiple machines, the work is spread across multiple physical CPUs which improves overall performance and throughput. Second, it allows me to configure MySQL to use most of the system memory without fear that it’ll be OOM killed. An OOM kill is what happens on a Linux system when it determines it is out of memory and the biggest user of memory needs to be removed (killed) in order to protect the system from a meltdown. In general, regular triggering of the OOM killer should be considered an error in configuration and capacity planning but know that it is there to protect the system.

In this post, I want to discuss a scenario where you want to host a common LAMP/LEMP stack on a single machine. In this kind of setup, multiple processes will be competing with each other for resources. Without getting too into the weeds about tuning software on this kind of setup, I’m going to assume that you will likely configure MySQL in such a way that it, as a single process, will consume the most memory of any process on the system. Indeed, most distributions when installing MySQL (or MariaDB) will have a default configuration that allows MySQL to use in excess of 1GB.

Unlike MySQL, the amount of memory that many other processes may use is relatively unknown. Looking at just PHP (using php-fpm) the amount of memory is fairly dynamic. It is unlikely that you will be able to tune your system to ensure PHP doesn’t use too much memory without sacrificing total throughput. Therefore, it is necessary to configure PHP in such a way that you over provision available memory in an effort to ensure you get the most performance you can most of the time. However, in this scenario it is likely that you will eventually face a situation where PHP is asking for a lot more memory than usual and the system will invoke the OOM killer to deal with the sudden shortage of memory. MySQL, being the single largest user of memory on the system, will almost always be selected by the kernel to be removed. Allowing MySQL to be OOM killed is far less ideal than killing a rogue PHP process or two because it will disrupt all requests rather than the problem requests. So, how do you avoid MySQL being selected?

Most modern systems ship with systemd. Portions of systemd are not well received but, at least in my opinion, the init system is excellent. Using systemd, we are able to customize the startup routines for MySQL (almost any service, actually) so that we can instruct the kernel’s OOM killer to select a different process when the system is low on memory. Here is how it is done:

  • Create a directory – /etc/systemd/system/mysql.service.d. The directory name must match an existing service. For MariaDB it would be mariadb.service.d. You can determine the name by running systemctl list-unit-files
  • In this directory, create a file called oomadjust.conf with the following in it:
    [Service]
    OOMScoreAdjust=-500
  • Run systemctl daemon-reload
  • Restart MySQL

To confirm your customization was picked up run systemctl status mysql. In the “Drop-In” section you should see your customization was picked up. It’ll look similar to this:

Screenshot showing the oomadjust.conf file was picked up by systemd

This setting adjusts the value the OOM killer will calculate when trying to determine what process is using the most memory. By forcing this value to be lowered for MySQL it is much less likely to be selected. Instead, a problem PHP process will likely be selected first and removed. This will save MySQL and the overall availability of your app. Of course, your mileage may vary and you will need to tune your configuration to reduce if not eliminate the need for the OOM killer.

If you would like to learn more about systemd drop-ins take a look at the documentation by flatcar Linux at https://www.flatcar.org/docs/latest/setup/systemd/drop-in-units/. Many things can be overridden without having to edit files provided by packages (which you should avoid).

Have you used systemd’s drop-in system before? Curious how else you might use it? Leave a comment!

CentOS 7 is now in full maintenance mode until 2024. This means it won’t get any updates except security fixes and some mission critical bugs. In addition to being in full maintenance mode, the OS is simply beginning to show its age. It’s still a great OS, just that a lot of packages are very far behind “state of the art.” Packages like git, bash and even the kernel are missing some features that I prefer to have available. With that in mind, and an abundance of time on a Saturday, I decided to upgrade the underlying operating system hosting the site.

The choice of what operating system was not as simple as it was just a year ago. In the past I would have simply spun up the next release of CentOS, which is based off of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and configured it for whatever duty it was to perform. However, Red Hat had a different idea and decided to make CentOS 8 a rolling release that RHEL is based off of, rather than CentOS being a rebadged clone of RHEL. The history of CentOS is a surprisingly complex and you can read about it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CentOS.

Since the change, at least a few options are now available to give people, like me, access to a Linux distribution they know and can trust. Among those, Rocky Linux appears to be getting enough traction for me to adopt it as my next Linux distribution. My needs for Linux are pretty basic and more than anything I just want to know that I can install updates without issue and keep the system going for a number of years before I have to worry about it. Rocky Linux gives me that just like CentOS did before. As of this writing, the web server hosting this site is now running Rocky Linux 8 and I’ll upgrade the database server at a later time. So far it has proven to be identical to RHEL and very familiar to anyone who has used RHEL/CentOS in the past.

Nobody asked for this but today I’m going to discuss why I put a CD player back into my audio setup.

Before we get into that, I want to touch on one of my biggest pet peeves about macOS: the media controls. A few years ago a change was made to the keyboard media controls that allowed them to control more media, even media that is available on web pages like YouTube or the little video widgets on news sites. On the surface this seems like a welcome change but in practice it feels as if the feature was programmed to purposely do the wrong thing at all times. For example, let’s say you have Spotify open playing music in the background and you visit a site that as an auto play video. Then you get a phone call so you press pause on the keyboard and…the music doesn’t stop? What gives? Well, macOS decided that the keyboard controls should control the video on the webpage and not Spotify. Or, maybe you’re like me and you use multiple music apps like Spotify and Plexamp. You’re listening to music with Spotify in the foreground with Plexamp paused in the background. You press pause on the keyboard and now suddenly there is two songs playing because macOS decided that what you really meant was to unpause the inactive music app, not the one you are actively using!

While I certainly appreciate having access to an effectively unlimited supply of music at the click of a button the overall experience has degraded significantly over the years. I believe a major contributor to this is due to how powerful today’s computers are. We’ve added greater functionality and expectations to computers and in a sense they’ve become too capable and complex for their own good. It used to be that browsing the web while running Winamp was about as much as you could reasonably expect a computer to do. I’m not lamenting that computers are more capable but I am saying that it has come at the expense of some tasks that used to feel simple and straight forward.

Which brings me back to why I’m using a CD player. As I mentioned in my broader post about the state of my audio stack in 2022, I have put a CD player back into my audio setup partially because of the straight forward simplicity that it offers. I turn on my amplifier, CD player, turn the input knob to CD and then put in a CD. That’s it, that’s all it does. Since the device has but one function there is never a question of what pressing a button will do. If a CD is playing it will always pause it. If it paused then it will play it again. As Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry Terre des Hommes once said, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” and I believe using a CD player is similar in a way. It’s incredibly refreshing to put down a device that can do anything well enough in favor of a device that does just one thing really well.

Of course, using music apps will always offer greater overall flexibility what with the huge selection to choose from, ability to take and play the music anywhere and all the other reasons CDs lost out to file based formats. But like reading an actual book, taking a CD out of its case, placing it onto the tray of a CD player and pressing play provides the sort of tactile experience not possible using digital files. For these reasons, at least for now, I am back to listening to CDs (along with my vinyl records) at least some of the time.

If you are in the business of creating software, no matter your role, then you owe it to yourself to take a consider David Farley’s Modern Software Engineering: Doing What Works to Build Better Software Faster. I’m not in any way affiliated with the offer and I’m not getting any sort of kickback on that link. I just think it’s a good book.

This book, along with what I consider a sort of companion to it Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations will likely get you to rethink how you are approaching software development. The Accelerate book provides information backed by data that shows that the processes defined in Modern Software Engineering do in fact work to improve the pace of software development, the quality of the software and improvements in developer/employee satisfaction.

The overarching message to take away from the books is that being fast is the key. The quicker you can write and release code into production so that you can then get feedback from it the better your code quality will ultimately be. Care should be taken to remove anything that prevents developers from getting their code into production quickly and with minimal roadblocks. This doesn’t mean you are careless, however! Putting a heavy emphasis on testing, the books paint a picture of the ideal system where tests are written first and then code to satisfy the tests. This process helps ensure that your code is divided up into parts that can be tested easily which will, in essence, indirectly force you to write better, more readable and more easily understood code. These tests then have the additional benefit of allowing developers to know that the changes they made either satisfy requirements or at least didn’t break existing functionality. The difference between “I think it works” and “I know it works” pays huge dividends in developer and team satisfaction. It also provides long term benefits as people are rotated out of teams because it codifies intended behavior. Well written and described tests, when they fail, will tell the developer what the intended outcome of a function is.

This may feel counter-intuitive but the Accelerate book does a great job of showing, with data, that these things are in fact true in most if not all cases. While reading the book there were a number of times where I stopped to consider how I was approaching things and realized some of the assumptions I had made were incorrect and need to be adjusted. Much of what Farley describes sounds difficult to implement and indeed everything he describes does require a certain amount of discipline amongst the team to ensure the work they do enforces the defined ideals.

If you’re looking for a good read that will make you think about how you are approaching software development, regardless of your role in it, I highly recommend Modern Software Engineering as well as Accelerate book.

Like a “what’s on my computer” post, I thought it would be fun to go through a list of what is in the audio system in my home office. Back in 2020 I started down a journey of upgrading my audio equipment. This post details what I’m currently using and a little bit about why.

Amplification

Late in 2021 I upgraded the heart of the system from my Sony STR-DE425 to a Denon PMA-600ne. During the last half of 2021 the Sony started to show some signs of old age where it would randomly half enable surround sound mode or start the test tone but in just one channel. To fix it I’d have to unplug the receiver for a bit and then plug it in again. For this reason, I decided it was finally time to step up the amp I use in my audio chain. I decided on the Denon PMA-600ne integrated amp because it provided a number of analog and digital inputs, a phono pre-amp while providing basic tone controls. It has more than enough power for my room and reviews very well. What I immediately noticed about this amp was how much brighter it sounded than the Sony. I’ve always thought the Sony receiver had what I could only describe as a sterile sound but what I didn’t realize was how rolled off it was on the top end. With the Denon in place there is a lot more detail on the top end.

Sources

Despite having a nearly limitless selection of music available to me through Spotify I sometimes like to engage in the experience a bit differently depending on my mood. For this reason, feeding the Denon is a mix of devices that I can select from.

About mid 2021 I picked up a Sony CDP-C245 so that I could have a CD player again. This 5 disc changer was a cheap find on Craigslist that got me listening to my CD collection again, even though most of it is ripped to the computer anyway. What I like about the CD player is that it is dedicated to the task of playing CDs, has its own unique sound signature and has a nice display. Using the CD player is a bit like picking out a skin for WinAmp years ago or selecting what software you want to manage your music collection in today. Like software, the interface on each device is different and unique. It has physical buttons for all of the functions that the device offers. I like the classic Sony CD player display with the calendar grid, the symbols for which disc is selected along with the track and timer display. All told, using the CD player adds a bit of nuance to the experience that is just satisfying. The player, being old and used, has its issues. The tray sometimes freaks out and needs to reset itself by opening and closing. It also lacks digital output. I may replace it with a slightly newer model that has digital output but I’ll definitely stick with the classic Sony design.

Since the Denon is not a receiver it doesn’t have a built in radio tuner…but I do listen to the radio sometimes. To solve this I am using the tuner in the Sony and simply outputting it to the Denon. I wasn’t really expecting this to sound as good as it does but the Denon does a great job here.

My computer, which I run Spotify and Plexamp on, is connected to the Denon using a Schiit Modi 3+. Prior to the Modi 3+, I connected my computer to the Sony STR-DE425 using plain a 3.5mm to RCA cable. Oddly this resulted in a bit of hum some of the inputs on the receiver. To resolve this I picked up the Modi 3+ so that I can could add an excellent DAC with digital inputs to the Sony, remove the hum and just improve the overall sound quality. The Denon does have digital inputs but unlike the Modi 3+ it doesn’t have a USB input. Rather than adding optical out from the computer I opted to just stick with the Modi 3+ and feed it into an analog input on the Denon. Also connected to the Schiit is my Xbox One X’s optical output.

I have a few other gaming systems in my office in addition to the Xbox One X. These systems are all HDMI based and for these devices I use an HDMI switch that includes digital outputs. The HDMI switch allows me to output all of the systems to a single HDMI input on my monitor and then route digital audio from the switch into a digital input on the Denon.

The last item connected to the Denon is my Audio Technica LP120x turntable. This is a well known and excellent turntable that also reviews very well. Since the Denon has a built in phono preamp I opted to use that instead of the one built into the LP120x. I can’t really say if one sounds better than the other but both are more than acceptable and any remaining differences would certainly fall within the realm of personal preference.

Speakers

The Denon is currently connected to a set of Polk T-15 bookshelf speakers. These speakers are a bit unique in that they aren’t really designed for direct, on axis listening like other speakers. Instead, they were engineered from the point of view that a lot of users aren’t able to create a dedicated listening space and would instead position the speakers in a less than ideal arrangement. For this reason, the speakers offer the best sound when you are about 20 degrees above or below the tweeter. “Luckily for me”, my desk design doesn’t really allow for ideal speaker placement and the T-15s, while inexpensive, sound great to me in this room. I may upgrade in 2022 but before I do I plan to put some acoustic treatments in the room.

To round out the sound, and give it a lot more heft, I also have an old subwoofer connected to the subwoofer output on the Denon. This Yamaha subwoofer is from a home theater kit that I bought to give me a little something while living in an apartment. It is…not great but provides some much needed bass extension that the T-15s lack. This is arguably the weakest link in the audio chain today and is the first thing I am looking to upgrade in 2022.

Software

As I said, my computer (a Mac mini) is one of the sources connected to the Denon using the Schiit Modi 3+’s USB interface. Using this connection, the Modi 3+ appears as an output audio device on my computer providing a direct path from my music software to the DAC which is then converted and fed into the Denon as an analog signal. The software I am using includes:

  • Spotify (with subscription) provides streaming audio
  • Plexamp (requires Plex Pass) allows me to play my ripped CDs from my Mac but also on my iPhone
  • Plex for some of the items in my collection that work better on Plex, like OCRemix tracks and some game sound tracks.

To help route audio on my computer I use Rogue Amoeba’s SoundSource. This app allows me to route audio from the above apps directly to the Modi 3+ while keeping other apps like system audio or Zoom routed elsewhere.

Conclusion

Thank you for joining me today as I go through my audio system as it currently stands. Putting this together has been a lot of fun and listening to it even more so! When it comes to audio, what do you use? What is your favorite piece or what are you looking to improve first? Leave a comment!

As a certified Xennial, I’ve seen and used almost every music format that has come into existence. When I was growing up, I can remember having multiple systems in the house that could play records (both 33 1/3 and 45s) and 8 tracks. For awhile we even had a large console system with a radio, record player with changer feature and an 8 track player. We had a collection of records sitting on the floor in a closet and a set of records would come out around the holidays. There were even a few specifically for us kids. We had tape players and eventually CD players too.

I was too young at the time to really appreciate what was in the record collection or even tell if the systems we listened on where of any quality. The records were beat up and if they were in a sleeve at all the sleeve was tattered at best. I can still remember all of the pops and crackles that I thought was just normal for the medium. Records were all we had at the time and I didn’t know anything different at that age. Eventually tapes replaced vinyl records and CDs replaced tapes. By the time I really got into owning my music it was only on CD and then digital formats took over. I still have a large number of the CDs I bought over twenty years ago and they still work perfectly fine.

Late 2020 I got into a conversation with my wife about how vinyl records were so popular again, how we both grew up with old Christmas records and how we missed listening to them. Being who I am, I couldn’t help myself and got caught up in the idea of giving records a try again. That year, I bought one of those inexpensive little suitcase players and a couple of Christmas albums. Even with this little inexpensive player I was intrigued with it all. The large artwork, the record itself spinning on the platter and the relative simplicity of it all producing sound. Naturally this meant I had to add a “proper” turntable to my wish list along with some records and hope for the best.

Suffice to say, a turntable was eventually delivered to the house. In January of 2021 I received an Audio Technica LP120x and I got to work hooking it up to my system. The AT LP120x requires some mild assembly to get started. I had to put on the counter weight and the headshell as well as the platter itself. Then I had to properly balance the tone arm and ensure everything was set just right to ensure it played records as well as it possibly could. Then I set the needle down on a record.

The first thing I noticed was just how good it sounded. It was nothing like I remembered at all. The sound was full and rich in a way that I did a double take. Was I really listening to a record and not a CD or stream? How did I not know that records sounded like this?

I’m not here to tell anyone that records are better than any other media format. They’re not. Records simply cannot compete with digital in terms of wow and flutter, jitter, dynamic range, noise floors and every other technical spec you can think of. Records cannot compete with the convenience and portability of digital files and streaming. What I am saying is that records can sound really good and change your listening experience in a way that you might find enjoyable. Vinyl records are an experience that is a bit like reading a book rather than watching a movie. The larger format is tangible and has weight. There is no mystery to how it is played, you can see it plainly spinning on the platter with a needle tracking a groove. Records are delicate and require care to prevent scratches and occasional cleaning to keep them sounding good. Unlike a CD, a scratch in a record is definitely something you’ll hear.

Records, to a greater degree than other formats, allow you to customize the sound a bit. The sound signature of CDs and CD players (as well as digital files) is largely the same between devices. I think most people would find it difficult to tell the difference between one player and the next. Record players, however, because of the physical properties of it will always have tradeoffs due to physical differences and limitations imposed by those differences. You can change the tonal characteristics of a record player by changing what type of stylus (needle) you use or the cartridge it is attached to. Maybe you want a warmer sound with more midrange and bass. Or maybe you prefer a brighter sound. Whatever your preference, you can work towards it in subtle ways.

All of this is to say that, listening to music on vinyl is more involved in a good way. You are more a part of the process and for some people this is perceived as a benefit to the medium. Being perfectly capable of excellent sound quality while adding in these other tangible bits really adds to the overall experience if you’re someone who is looking for just a bit more out of the experience it is an excellent direction to go towards.

Of course, records aren’t perfect. Because they are played by dragging a stylus through a groove, vibrating the stylus in order to reproduce sound, they will pick up anything extra in those grooves like dirt, dust and scratches and reproduce them as annoying clicks, pops and crackles. They’ll even happily playback static shocks that might occur if the air is particularly dry. This was one of the most difficult things for me to get used to when starting out because I was very much used to CDs and digital files being free of any pops and clicks. Records can also come with manufacturing defects with badly pressed grooves, grooves that are off center or even records that are warped. Most of the time these don’t ruin an entire album but I have at least once exchanged a record that I just couldn’t get cleaned properly. This is just part of the process.

https://www.newyorker.com/cartoon/a19180

Through all of 2021 I have been picking up new and old records, adding them to my collection and tracking them on discogs. I also picked up equipment to make cleaning records easier and as effective as I could so that I could reduce all of the pops and clicks as much as I could. For 2022, I don’t expect that I’ll completely stop adding to my collection but there is one more problem that is unique to vinyl records right now which is cost. Records are considered a “premium product” and carry a premium price. Even at the beginning of 2021 a lot of newly released records were priced between $20 and $30. At the end of 2021 I’ve been seeing a lot of records priced between $40 and $50, a significant increase that really makes me rethink a purchase unless it’s something I really want. I’m hoping market pressures will resolve the pricing issues in 2022.

Thank you for joining me today while I ramble on about my vinyl addiction. If you are also into vinyl or thinking about it leave a comment!