The LP of James Matheson's String Quartet sitting on a Denon turntable
Vinyl Fever

Vinyl Fever

If experience is the primary generator of wisdom, it’s unfortunate that wisdom often comes at a high and sometimes painful price.

All told, I can recall moving 22 times since I was an undergraduate, with at least another half dozen moves before then. Usually I would throw everything I owned in a car and drive. Eventually I started renting U-Hauls.  The last couple of moves I hired movers, like grown-ups do.

Everywhere I went I took my crates of LPs. AC/DC, Zeppelin, Psychedelic Furs, Solti’s complete Ring Cycle with Birgit Nilsson, Dorati’s complete Haydn Symphonies, most of Zappa’s records – and many more. In one of the later moves, my Denon turntable broke. And I now had crates of CDs to drag around, too.

Perhaps, dear Reader, you can feel where this tale of too-late wisdom is heading…

In 2012 came move number 19. I was consolidating, downsizing, rushing to pack, and thought – what if I just… you know… found my records a good home? I called my landlord and asked if he knew anyone who was into vinyl. He said yes. I left the records when I left the apartment.

He called a few days later to tell me how thrilled his friend was to inherit such a great collection, and that is when my sense of having made an impulsive yet life-altering decision – a very bad decision – began haunting me. On occasion it still keeps me awake at night.

When Bob Attiyeh, who founded and runs Yarlung Records, and I decided to start raising money for a new CD project that would feature three works that I am particularly proud of, including my Violin Concerto played by Baird Dodge and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by living-legend Esa-Pekka Salonen, my String Quartet played by Color Field, and my song cycle Times Alone with Laura Strickling and Thomas Sauer, I was already thrilled. I knew that Yarlung also sometimes released vinyl versions of products after the CDs had come out, but we hadn’t discussed a vinyl release and I thought maybe someday.

But it became clear during the recording sessions at the Segerstrom Center that Bob was thinking big. Very big. There were engineers setting up mikes for an ultra-high quality DSD (Direct Stream Digital) recording, a surround sound recording, the first-ever commercial SonoruS Holographic Imaging recording (which renders an incredible 3D listening environment from a pair of properly configured speakers), and we were also recording to tape. As in analog tape. Because Bob was scheming to release the entire project on vinyl also.

Quick vinyl primer, for those who have forgotten or grew up after its heyday: tape is the best source for vinyl. Tape is expensive. Tape is hard to edit. Vinyl, even at 33 rpm, doesn’t hold anywhere near as much music as a CD. 45 rpm vinyl offers higher quality (it is the speed for which the microgroove standard was originally designed), but at the cost of even shorter playable length. 180 gram vinyl is the audiophile standard at this point, because its squishing time and cooling time yield more accurate records than 150 or 200 gram vinyl. But Bob is a big thinker and devoted audiophile—and 180 gram, 45 rpm vinyl is what people expect of him and of Yarlung. And there was a solution to the capacity problem—just release the whole project on three LPs. Simple!

The recording session is one I and everyone involved will long remember. Recording a project for so many different formats—CD, vinyl, DSD, DSD surround, and Holographic Imaging—would mean an incredible amount of editing across incompatible platforms. A single four-minute track often contains hundreds of edits. Again the solution was deceptively simple: no edits allowed. NONE. Every movement had to be recorded as a single take. Even the extremely difficult, 18-minute-long first movement of my String Quartet.

16 minutes in, and someone misses a beat?

Stop.

Pause.

Start over.

This just isn’t how things are done. Recording this way takes more time, and escalates production costs. Releasing on three 12-inch 45s as opposed to, say, two 33s, also raises manufacturing, storage and transportation costs, and significantly raises the price point for purchasing the complete project on vinyl.

It was incredibly stressful and for the musicians an Everest-like challenge. There were moments when morale was tested, when it looked like this just might not happen—and then the next take was perfect. Literally flawless.

I remember when Thomas Sauer finished the final take of “Clouds ripped open,” the third song of the cycle Times Alone. As far as I was concerned, he and Laura had nailed the song a couple of times at least. But Tom would not stop until it was perfect. Every damn note. And it was Laura’s best take as well. When Tom leaped from the piano and rushed over to me for a high ten, it was clear just how exciting this goal of edit-free perfection had become to everyone. It was frightening, but it was amazing.

The CD and the three records came out a few weeks ago. Early reviews have been extremely positive. People are buying them. But those recording sessions were magical.

Are you, like me, someone who along the road gave up your vinyl? My kernel of wisdom is this:

Stop.

Pause.

Start over.

Because vinyl is still awesome. And my collection is growing again. Yours?

Piles of LPs against a wall of shelves filled with records; at the front of each pile is one of the new James Matheson LPs.

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7 thoughts on “Vinyl Fever

  1. Mark Wilson

    Congratulations on the successful recordings! I know a little bit about each recording format you mentioned and what is required to record High Resolution PCM files, DSD and DSD Surround. (Ironically, I am not familiar with tape or vinyl from a production standpoint and SonoruS Holographic Imaging is completely new to me.) Money is the primary requirement…a tremendous amount of money and you managed to raise it! How you did it would be a fascinating article you should consider writing. Perhaps the audiophile community is generously supportive of each other?

    I do not want to detract from your music or the musicians that had to play it perfectly, but musicians tend to have integrity to spare. The recording industry seems to be lacking in integrity, it also seems to be tied to the “size of the check.” Yarlung Records appears to be an exception. I can not think of an analogy at the moment so I’ll just leave it at this: Musicians can always play better, this will be true forever. Recording engineers work with a “ceiling” called technology, and they were using all of it during those recording sessions!

    So again, congratulations! Yarlung Records is new to me and I never thought such a label could exist in the U.S. I am glad I was wrong!

    Reply
    1. Bob Attiyeh

      Mark, we are Yarlung are so appreciative of your comments. Yarlung is so small that it is comparatively easier for us to leap into new formats than larger more established companies. 2016 is Yarlung’s 10th Anniversary, so we are not only small, but relatively young (and don’t know better yet!)

      The Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society gave Yarlung the Humanitarian Award last December in recognition of the nonprofit work we do (and I can promise you it is VERY nonprofit) on behalf of young musicians and composers. Robert Harley, editor in chief of “The Absolute Sound” was at the gala and award presentation and asked me to turn my napkin note scribbles into full sentences for him to put online. If you are interested in how we do what we do, here is the article: goo.gl/N7mEzL

      Reply
  2. Leslie

    Really engaging and interesting article. I have really enjoyed your CD and hope to some day listen to your music on Vinyl. Alas, I left behind my Vinyl collection too. I caught my husband loading it into the back of the car to go to the Goodwill and did not protest; I should have!

    Reply
  3. Bob Attiyeh

    Note from producer Bob Attiyeh:

    Jim refers to early reviews of this recording in his wonderful article. Enjoy thoughts from Andrew Quint reviewing for “The Absolute Sound” (goo.gl/7Rer8P), Stephen Greenbank writing for “Music Web” in the UK (goo.gl/mQVsD3) and Uwe Krusch writing for “Pizzicato” in Luxembourg (goo.gl/WROfLO).

    Working with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and musicians of this caliber (Color Field Quartet, soprano Laura Strickling and pianist Thomas Sauer) and making recordings in great concert halls like Samueli Theater at Segerstrom Center for the Arts did mean that Jim and our team at Yarlung had to raise a lot of money for this project. Every penny and every phone call was worth it! I would like to especially thank our executive producers and major underwriters for these releases: Helen and J Schlichting for the CD and general recording, Elliot Midwood for vinyl of Jim’s String Quartet, Doug Weaver for Times Alone, and Sally Swab Austin & Bradford L Austin for Jim’s Violin Concerto conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. My hearty thanks to our team of musicians and underwriters who made this possible.

    –Bob Attiyeh

    Reply

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