I blame Ear Candy's bins of used records. Back when I was a senior at the University of Montana, my roommate had a record player, which we used to play classic country compilations and Bob Dylan while drinking in our teensy two-bedroom off Front Street. To flesh out the collection, I bought a bunch of records by the likes of Nazareth and Dolly Parton and Great White for a few dollars. I loved the ritual of pulling out the LP, placing it on the platter and lifting and setting the needle.
But then I graduated and moved away to take a job. I still had the records, but nothing to play them on. I endeavored to get a turntable of my very own. My roommate's set-up didn't seem so complicated, and it provided hours of enjoyment for what I thought wasn't much investment.
- Pumpernickel Stewart
Unfortunately, it's not necessarily easy to get into vinyl if you're starting completely from scratch. It's a hell of a lot easier to find cheap records than it is to find a decent turntable and stereo system these days. My parents had a turntable when I was a kid, but they threw it out during a basement-cleaning frenzy in the late '90s, never anticipating the hipster vinyl resurgence. Several of my friends have turntables, but none were immediately on hand to help me when I had questions. It's been a long road, full of confusion and Craigslist hunting and heartbreak. Here, I offer some tips to aspiring vinyl nerds.
Let's talk about what you actually need to play records. Of course, you need a record player, also called a turntable. But you also need a receiver and speakers. Some units will have all of these components stacked together in the same piece of equipment, in which case, lucky you. Otherwise, the record player plugs into the receiver, which sends the signal to the speakers. Receivers need to have an analog input on the back; it will be labeled something like "tape/phono." If it doesn't have that input, it won't work with a record player.
Still with me? You might also need a preamplifier, depending on what kind of record player you have. It boosts the turntable's electrical signal before it goes to the receiver. My record player plugs into the preamp, which plugs into the receiver, which is wired to the speakers.
Where to find it
Try looking through pawn shops, thrift stores, Craigslist, Grandma's attic and garage sales. Make sure that before you buy any component, someone turns it on and shows you that it really works.
You can also buy new stuff, which has two drawbacks: It will either be poorly made, or it will be hella expensive. Those old-timey-looking fake-wood players often sell for less than $200, but I've had friends say they don't last more than a couple years. On the flip side, you can easily drop a few grand on high-quality DJing equipment. I decided it was worth it to find the middle road and cobble together second-hand, decent-quality gear. I bought my turntable and preamp for about $250 from a dude on Craigslist. He plugged it in and showed me how it worked before I forked over the dough. It turns out I made a good choice; it's a hefty Technics with a fully automated arm and precise speed controls.
Care and maintenance
Vinyl Maintenance 101: Records can melt. Hot sun + plastic = ruined records. Keep them in a cool, dark place, and only handle them by the edges or center hole. Wipe off dust with a lint-free cloth. Record players sometimes need dust or dirt gently wiped off the needle. If you feel your receiver getting too hot, like my ancient tube-amp does, shut it off and let it cool down.
And then, what if all the nice equipment you bought craps out? Turntable repair experts are few and far between these days, though you might try a Google search or Sears. I'd suggest Dudley Chichoine at Tech1 (check out tech1electronics.com). He works out of his home, and as soon as you walk into his living room and take a look at the floor-to-ceiling sound system set-up, you'll see he really knows his stuff. He also sells all kinds of stereo equipment, often at very reasonable prices.
Now for the fun part: Buying records. Finding great albums in Missoula is as easy as hopping over to Ear Candy or Record Heaven, both on Higgins. And the family attics: I love my mom's old Meatloaf and Slade LPs. I also love perusing record stores when I'm visiting big cities; I'll always treasure my Mean Jeans full-lengths I bought from Green Noise Records in Portland and the Warcry 7-inch I found in downtown Seattle, not just because I love the music, but because the record itself brings back a memory of a place and time. Another place to score vinyl and geek out with others is the annual Total Fest Big Dipper Record Swap, scheduled for Aug. 17 this year.
Records are an investment of time and money, for sure. But in an era when a musician can spend months crafting an album, and listeners can spend two minutes downloading it for free on the internet, listening to records is a way to remember that music is still more than a disposable commodity.