By Angela McLean and Talia Boettinger
As the saying goes, “everything old is new again.”
Case in point: vinyl records.
Halfway through 2018, Nielsen reported that in Canada, vinyl sales were up 25 per cent from the same halfway point in 2017. The week of Record Store Day (April 20-26) in 2018 alone saw a 96 per cent increase in vinyl sales compared to 2017. Whether it was collectors, vinyl enthusiasts or people just wanting to own a little piece of their favourite artist, it’s hard to ignore the steady climb of vinyl popularity.
This “vinyl resurgence” inspired RTA School of Media professor Michael Murphy to work with his advanced audio theory students on something the program hadn’t tackled in 25 years – playing around with vinyl production theory and technology.
But Murphy wanted to challenge his students to go one step further, encouraging them to make their own vinyl record.
Eden Lim, one of Murphy’s second-year students, recalls him entering the lecture hall for the first class, telling his students he wanted to do something with vinyl’s upward trend. Even with only a hint of knowledge about what was to come, it didn’t take long for students – including Lim herself – to take on the task with gusto.
With that, The Resurgence was born.
“We realized this was the first time RTA had the opportunity to do this, so it would be great to be the pioneers of this,” Caroline Zhu, a third-year RTA student, says. She was one of the handful of students in the class to volunteer, and be selected, for the project.
“I’ve never seen such enthusiasm from students in my life,” Murphy says. “It looks like it will catch, stick, and I think we’re gonna put it in (the curriculum) from this year forward, until we see things changing.”
Though there was a possibility for the students to be “guinea pigs” on a trial run, there was no denying it was a unique and perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to apply their knowledge to something tangible and meaningful and make industry connections. As Murphy puts it, the project was in true, hands-on Ryerson fashion from the start.
Throughout the process, Murphy himself took a very hands-off approach to the project, guiding the students to make a vinyl that they could all be proud of.
The end product is a compilation meant to showcase the various talents within the program – from vocalists, to instrumentalists, to background producers, mixers and more.
The class put out a call to all RTA students and alumni to submit their work for consideration for the record. The mixing team, including Zhu, was tasked with finding a feel for the record.
“You have the individual songs, but the layer above that [was] we were creating a vinyl record,” says Ethan Horbay, a second-year RTA student and one of the mixers for the record. “We wanted it to be a piece in itself. We wanted to send the flow through the whole record.”
Horbay says the final sound is mostly ambient and chill, with some staple jazz pieces and some gritty punk that “made its way in there.” Ram in the Rye regulars Love Wagon contributed to the record, as well as vocalist Heather Ngo, who used the platform to share a song about “the unconventional way [she] coped with being sexually assaulted.”
On the production side of things, the team had support from a leading Toronto-area pressing plant – Microforum – to bring the vision to life.
“They were so supportive and they kind of embraced us as their apprentices,” Lim says.
With the record now out of their hands, final pressing of the 300-or-so copies is set to be finished at the end of May, with a launch party to follow. Any proceeds made will go to Covenant House, a non-profit organization providing services to homeless and runaway youth.
Early in the process, students got a tour of the Microforum plant with vinyl consultant Siobhán Tynan. She was able to get a feel for the students’ engagement with vinyl.
“Working on this record with these Ryerson students was definitely an eye-opener for me,” Tynan says. “From my survey on our plant tour, 90 per cent of the students appeared to proudly own a turntable, and a few shared a good story of their family turntable being passed down, like their rite of passage.”
However, this raises the question as to why vinyl has seen such a resurgence in recent time, especially with new technology emerging every day.
“This is a question that we’ve been asking ourselves all semester,” Lim admits.
In her first-year music history class, Lim wrote a paper about vinyl and found multiple articles indicating that vinyl was coming back – some said that it never died in the first place. In many ways, Murphy’s project became a full circle moment for her research.
The answer to the original question, however, might not be so complicated.
“Digital music is overwhelming,” Horbay says. “There’s so much everywhere. When you pick up a vinyl, everything is right there. You just have to put it on. It really changes how you listen.”
The students said being able to actually hold the music – to turn it over in their hands – seems to have a lot to do with vinyl’s comeback. It provides an escape from the screens that most people use to listen to music these days.
“With your phone, with something like Spotify, sometimes I don’t get into the music, so I start skipping every song. But with vinyl, you don’t really do that. I feel like I tend to listen to it more carefully,” Zhu says.
There is also the factor of sound quality. The mixing and mastering team says digital compression can often take away from the rawness of analogue sound. If music is to be considered a language of its own – being able to convey and carry emotions and vulnerabilities – it can make all the difference for the sound to be able to reflect that.
Patrick Remy-Danziger, a second-year RTA student who worked on the legal team for the record, says he found himself rediscovering music and music production throughout the semester.
“Since there’s such a huge focus on mixing and mastering, you get a different sound. With digital, you don’t have to care, you just have to make sure it’s loud enough to hear on the radio. We lost a lot of mixing techniques because people were just trying to make it loud,” he says.
“I think for us who grew up with digital and iPods and MP3, we’re so used to hearing perfect sound – like, perfected sound,” Lim says. “If you listen to vinyl, you know it sounds much warmer and it’s so intimate.”
Its intimacy is similar to that of classical music – one of Murphy’s favourite styles.
“For me [what’s special about vinyl] is about recreating that experience in the concert hall,” he says.
He says there might even be a hint of nostalgia mixed in as well. For the older generation, it’s a throwback to the good old days. For the younger generation, it’s a way to connect to a past they otherwise have no experience with.
“I don’t know what vinyl is going to look like in a couple years, but it’s still a symbol for us of the past that we might be trying to get back to since our lives are so digital,” Horbay says.
Some industry experts agree.
Microforum vice-president Noble Musa believes owning vinyl comes with a special sense of “pride” for music lovers.
“As entertainment is moving more and more to the cloud, having a stake in one’s music is more important than ever,” he explains. “Owning a record and a record player requires more care and diligence, which translates directly to pride of ownership.”
In other words, going to a record store and searching for or discovering a musical gem in the racks – or taking a chance on a random record and coming to find out you actually love it – is incomparable to clicking a button or two on your laptop to find a new song or artist.
“There is a direct correlation between the rise of streaming services and the resurgence of vinyl,” Musa says. “Streaming is the fast and convenient way to consume music – I like to compare it to fast food – but, every once in a while, it is nice to have that fine dining experience, which vinyl provides.”
Murphy has a vinyl-as-food analogy of his own.
“[Vinyl]’s a little bit like the organic foodies who buy organic food not just because it’s pesticide free, but they find that the whole chain of production just cares for the quality of the food,” he says. “In other words, you can get a lettuce that’s organic and not only will it not have any pesticides but people are saying, you know what, this has been better taken care of, it just tastes better.”
There’s also an essence of street value to the vinyl resurgence. “Trendy” stores like Urban Outfitters now sell new and old vinyl records for upwards of $30 apiece – a far cry from the dollar-priced finds at thrift shops or dedicated record stores like Kops Records on Queen St. West, and Sonic Boom on Spadina.
“We see this in every decade, from retro fashion styles coined as ‘vintage’ – followed by a hefty price tag – to now the ‘proud-to-own’ feeling each time you buy a record,” Tynan says. “And some records do indeed come with that hefty price tag.”
But many students and experts alike don’t fear that vinyl getting in “the wrong hands” – people who want vinyl just to display and not to play, for example – will affect its resurgence or make it lose its re-found “cool factor.” If anything, they say, it will help introduce the technology and its qualities to a whole new audience. As they all say, there’s a lot to be loved – and to learn – when it comes to vinyl.
“I collect vinyl records, I’m passionate about it, so this [project] was the perfect chance for me to see how to mix songs on vinyl,” Zhu says. “It was also a great way to meet people in class, some people I hadn’t really talked to. But through this project, we really started talking to each other.”
It appears music does bring people together, as they say.