When the Needle hits the Groove

POSTED March 29th, 2018 UNDER Album Design, Design, Friends, Gear, Music, Personal Passions & Hobbies

I’ve recently dug out my old record collection, moved it to the studio, and have been doing something I haven’t done in decades: spin records.  Music moves me in a way I can’t explain. I have it playing all the time. I spent my 20’s working in record stores. I love photographing musicians that need images for things like album/cd covers and packaging.  After the cut, I’m going to do a bunch of talking about my history with them, their importance to me, and why I won’t ignore my records again.

The earliest memories I have of records playing was in the early 80’s.  Growing up, my parents had a record player in our living room and I specifically remember hearing lots of Men and Work and Olivia Newton-John.  Two performers that even now I have a strong, deep love for. When I was in high school, I had a record player in my bedroom and I’d play records when I got home from school; things like Def Leppard and Van Halen (and Men at Work and Olivia Newton-John, but as a high school kid I’d never admit that).

Growing up I was also exposed to 45’s through a Jukebox that my father used to keep in the garage.  It had an amazing assortment of 80’s singles – “We are the World” and “Who’s Johnny” and “Somebody’s Watching Me” and “We Don’t need Another Hero” and on and on.  I still have a majority of the 45’s from that machine.

The magnificent jukebox I was exposed to growing up. So beautiful.

The magnificent jukebox I was exposed to growing up. So beautiful.

I took some time off between high school and college and entered the retail workforce.  My first job was being hired as Christmas 1993 help for Lechmere‘s music department.  I loved music.  I wanted to surround myself with it.  I remember my interview process and the department manager asking me all kinds of music questions.  From Herb Alpert to Yanni to Van Halen – I had a pretty good extensive, varied, knowledge of music – especially the 80’s.  Throughout the 1990’s I worked for record stores.  It allowed me to listen to music eight hours a day.  It helped me developed the ability to talk to people and customers.  As a self-employed portrait photographer, I need to be able to communicate with my clients to help them feel relaxed and hold their attention.  Retail is a challenging way to develop those communication skills.

After Lechmere I hopped down to North Carolina for about a year with a family move. I worked for a place called Tracks Music in Norfolk, VA.  Tracks was bought out by Blockbuster (Video) and it became Blockbuster Music for a short time.   Never really adjusting to the area I moved back home to NH where I worked for a mom-‘n’-pop record store.  It was chock-full of used vinyl and cds and imported singles and even bootlegs (ahem! unlicensed European releases, thank you very much).  I was still picking up the occasional record and adding them to my collection, but in the 90’s I had switched over pretty much to CDs for ease of storage, collectability, and ease of use, but I was still picking up vinyl of things that had never been released on cd (as a fan of the 80’s, I was searching constantly for solo-albums by band members.  People like Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford (both of Genesis), Tommy Shaw (Styx), Bill Champlin, Peter Cetera (both of Chicago), John Wetton (Asia), Colin Hay (Men at Work) and on and on.  The rabbit hole goes deep for me.

I remember in the mid-90’s I was visiting an ex-girlfriend who was away at college in Pennsylvania.  On her way to a dance class we passed a record shop, and I convinced her to drop me off and pick me up after her class was over.  Once inside, I was exposed to a giant store chock full of old promotional 12″ remix albums of 80’s musicians.  I must have spent five hours in that shop, grabbing vinyl of solo-albums and promotional cds, 12″ 80’s dance remixes, and all kinds of stuff.  It was amazing.  If I remember correctly, I had to get another suitcase to fit everything in for my return to NH.

After years of working at the mom-n-pop store, I was hired to be part of the opening crew for the Manchester NH Newbury Comics.  This was an optimum fit for me as it catered to not only my obsession with music, but Newbury also sold comic books, which is another of my life passions.  Comics and music and pop-culture.  Talking shop with customers about music and comics.  As far as retail experiences go, it hardly gets better.  All the while helping me develop my ability to communicate and interact with others.

I went back to college in early 2000.  Some of the records got boxed up and brought to college and found their way into a small student lounge that a friend and I had created in the basement of one of the school buildings.  It only lasted a short time, as the lounge was broken into and vandalized and all the vinyl I had brought in there, along with a record player, and a television was either stolen or destroyed.  A third of my collection was suddenly gone. It was a terrible feeling.

Cut to a few years ago:
my wife and I never had a record player in our apartment until one Christmas when my mother picked up a Crosley all-in-one unit.  My Herb Alpert collection yelled in excitement!

Crosley all-in-one turntable.

Crosley all-in-one turntable. Not very good. Buyer beware.

I got excited since it gave me the chance to pull my records back out of the closet and fire them back up.  It was short-lived excitement though – that Crosley player is a terrible, terrible record player making everything sound like it was being played inside a tin can.  My Herb Alpert collection became depressed.  But, it re-lit the fire that I had for playing records.  It made me start searching for a record player that was simple, but sounded good.

After doing a bunch of research online I kept coming back to a company called U-Turn Audio based out of Mass. They offered a simplistic belt-driven turntable with no frills at all.  Just a power switch and an external belt system and a tone arm. Very clean. Eventually I ordered one with the thought that I could keep it here at the photography studio and spin records while I’m working.

Here’s the little setup:

U-Turn Audio "Orbit" paired with a a circa-1979 Akai stereo receiver.

U-Turn Audio “Orbit” paired with a a circa-1979 Akai stereo receiver.

The player I ordered did not come with a pre-amp on it (to amplify sounds to go to external speakers), so I needed an external pre-amp, and I found a 1979 Akai stereo receiver unit locally for a good price, and because I’m obsessed with lights and things, I picked up a little LED strip that makes everything glow (and compliments the yellowish light the Akai puts out) and Sara’s dad made me a small white shelf to rest it on that matches the rest of the cabinets and stuff I have here at the studio.  I play stuff while I’m editing images or answering emails here at the studio, and it gives me an excuse to get up every 20 minutes or so and stretch my legs and flip the record or put something else on.

It also stabbed me right in my obsessive-compulsive collector lobe in my brain and my need for new vinyl into overdrive:

The current inventory of records at the studio.

The current inventory of records at the studio. Not pictured: the big batch of 45’s that I still have from that jukebox growing up.

I’m a big flea market junkie, and I’ve always ignored all the records for sale because I didn’t have anything good to play them on, and because I didn’t want to get sucked into souring through collections and picking stuff up.  But now that I’ve got a decent player ready to go, I’m really looking forward to the new season of flea markets; digging through boxes and finding old out-of-print tiles for (mostly) pennies on the dollar, and endlessly boring my wife to death looking and looking and looking (even more than now going through cds and comics and movies – to be married to me is torture some times).  I’ve been looking in the cracks everywhere now; antique stores and Goodwill and Savers and… all kinds of places.

In fact, just the other week I popped into a local Savers and found a whole stack of recent releases:

Lana Del Rey, Metric, MSMR, Lindsey Stirling, Kimbra ... 16 albums that came in under $20. Crazy! Awesome! Crazy Awesome!

Lana Del Rey, Metric, MSMR, Lindsey Stirling, Kimbra … 16 albums that came in under $20. Crazy! Awesome! Crazy-Awesome!

And a few weeks before that, I hit up our local library’s media sale and got the following at 2 for a buck:

Herb Alpert, Lee Evans, Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, Henry Mancini, Woody Herman, all great stuff to spin!

Herb Alpert, Lee Evans, Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, Henry Mancini, Woody Herman, all great stuff to spin! Yes, that “Exotica Suite” comes with a piece of tiki-bar fabric on the cover!

But I’ve also been sucked into new-vinyl releases (and remasters/repressing – there are a TON of those being made currently).  The great thing about this “vinyl resurgence” that is going on is that some really great albums are being repressed.  I missed the first go-around when things like The Chemical Brothers“Exit Planet Dust” or Hooverphonic’s “A New Stereo Sound Spectacular” were released, and these new editions allow me to pick things up without having to search for them used.

However it comes at a cost: the downside to new releases on vinyl currently is the price.  A majority of these releases have very high MSRP, usually in the $30-40 range, which is totally crazy.  It seems that this resurgence is partially about creating really lush editions on heavy 180gram vinyl with colored records and collectable packaging.  I’m all for a really nice presentation, but the prices on this stuff is stupidly high.  I’ve been trying to be careful about what I’ve decided to pick up that is “new”, but there were some recent releases that I simply couldn’t turn away from.

Some of those included:

(L to R: "The Dark Crystal" 35th Anniversary edition on purple "crystal" vinyl, "Tom Clancy's 'The Division'" videogame soundtrack, iam8bit's colored vinyl release for the videogame "The Last Guardian", Newbury Comics' colored vinyl release for the "True Romance" film score, the "Transformers: The Movie" movie film score.

(L to R: “The Dark Crystal” 35th Anniversary edition on purple “crystal” vinyl, “Tom Clancy’s ‘The Division'” videogame soundtrack, iam8bit’s colored vinyl release for the videogame “The Last Guardian”, Newbury Comics’ colored vinyl release for the “True Romance” film score, the “Transformers: The Movie” movie film score.

I have a large collection of movie scores on cd, and I love playing scores while working and emailing because there are no singers/lyrics to distract me (writing emails while someone is singing/talking is terrible for me and I can’t concentrate at all). So picking up scores on vinyl really interests me.  The collector in me is fascinated/obsessed with all the various colored-vinyl editions (good job, Marketing!) but it also stinks because these albums are usually released with an extremely limited release window, in low batches, and their price instantly doubles, quadruples or more on the used/resale market (eBay scalpers: you stink!).

So: why vinyl?  Why the sudden obsession with large, cumbersome, delicate records?  Yeah, I get it.  CD’s are much easier to deal with. And I have lots of MP3’s, but I’m a physical media guy – I want hard copies of my movies and comics and music and stuff.  I’m a product of my generation and I want to build a library someday.

One reason is the artwork.  I love music packaging and design.  When you have a 12″ x 12″ album in your hands, it’s like being handed a playbill for the performance you are about to hear.  I love looking at the images and reading liner and lyric notes nice and big.  I gives me the chance to really digest the artwork and the whole presentation all while sitting back and listening to something.  I like the few silent moments when getting up to flip a record over and start side two.  It’s like a small listener intermission.  I get to drop the needle, go sit back down and I get ready for part 2 of the performance. (I also used to collect Laserdisc movies, where also were a 12″ x 12″ size, and, like records, I loved the packaging).  Plus, being from music retail, I love walking into a record store and pawing through the selection.  AND there is so much stuff out there that was never printed or released on cd, I love finding out-of-print oddities and surprises.  And when you can find them for a buck, it is worth bringing home, plopping down and investing an hour or so listening to something new.


One of my favorite album design books is "The Cover Art of Blue Note Records" - a gorgeous collection featuring covers from Blue Note's legendary cover archive - click the link to order through Amazon

One of my favorite album design books is “The Cover Art of Blue Note Records” – a gorgeous collection featuring covers from Blue Note’s legendary cover archive – click the image above to order through Amazon

Vinyl slows me down.  And I totally dig it. When talking record collecting with people that come into my studio, I always hear opinions about how MP3’s are easier and quicker (a discussion that also can be used for digital photography, and watching movies, and …), and I totally get that, and I gotta admit that I love pulling out my iPod and playing an 18 hour long playlist for a car ride or if I have a long day of image editing or a photo session going on.  But it’s physical and tactile and I can hold it in both hands and I can love that damn thing so much (*ahem* like Olivia Newton-John albums) and there are just feelings I get when holding and playing a record that fiddling with an iPod can’t make me feel.  And there is room for both, and I’m in the camp that likes things to be a little slower to give me more time to celebrate and digest them. Now get off my lawn, you dam kids!

I love watching the record spin.  I love picking that needle up with my finger, and gently putting it down.  I love hearing the initial contact it makes on the record and I love how you can take this round piece of plastic and put it on a circle and using a diamond it helps play music that can make someone cry, or dream, or inspire, or motivate.  That is an important delivery system for me and many others, and I think it should be celebrated, cherished, and honored.


…and, of course, I’ll always have my Olivia Newton-John collection on constant play:

I have no shame for my extreme love for early 80's Olivia Newton John. It's a crush that started as a kid and it has never gone away.

I have no shame for my extreme love for early 80’s Olivia Newton John. It’s a crush that started as a kid and it has never gone away.



Love vinyl?  What are some of your favorite records?  Share in the comments and let’s talk records!


Edit March 30th: 2 days after writing this, a special limited edition to the movie score for “The Goonies” by Dave Grusin on gold vinyl went on sale, and I snatched up an order.  This is the first time the score has ever been pressed on record. It’s one of my favorite scores, and one of my favorite movies. OMG.

One Response to “When the Needle hits the Groove”

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