Static all the way

In an age of digital recording and pristine sound quality, a record player brings a sense of authenticity to music.

Last year on Christmas Eve, I operated – for the first time in maybe 15 years – a record player. It's a technological relic in a time when you can store 10,000 songs on a device that fits in your pocket.

As I waited for shrimp to bake in the oven, carols poured out of the boombox in my parents' kitchen. They were crisp recordings from some Christmas compilation on compact disc. The songs were the same ones I'd been hearing on the radio during the weeks leading up to the holiday. I was in the mood, though, to hear the Beach Boys sing "The Man With All the Toys" and "Little Saint Nick," and those songs were not on the disc. Briefly, I felt frustrated. Then I remembered: My parents had the album.

The album.

My parents' record collection includes Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, Kenny Rogers, ABBA, Neil Diamond, and the soundtrack to "Grease." I soon located the Beach Boys Christmas album and pulled the vinyl record out of its cardboard sleeve, examining the grooves in which the needle rests, so different from the reflective chrome underside of a CD.

As I moved to place the record on the phonograph in my parents' living room, my mother asked, "Do you know how to turn that on?" She could see I was hesitating.

But I remembered quickly – after all, my first music purchases were records. I pulled the arm from its place beside the turntable and put the needle on the record. From the speaker poured a deep shoosh, which indicated that the first song was coming.

There was some anticipation – I had to wait about 10 seconds – and then, "The Man With All the Toys" played, static and all. With a CD player in my car and as part of my computer and an MP3 player I wear when exercising, I had forgotten what audio static sounded like. It provided a certain authenticity to the recording. The voices weren't perfect, the record wobbled a bit, and that's what I liked about it. It was flawed technology, but it was also honest.

That night, I thought about the evolution of the music industry during my lifetime. There's, of course, the technical side of it: vinyl and 8-tracks giving way to cassette tapes, which compact discs replaced. Now, CDs seem outdated, too, with tiny digital files taking up seemingly imperceptible megabytes of memory. I remember when the Walkman headset was cutting edge.

I am old enough to remember the TV programs "American Bandstand," the heyday of the infamous and sometimes provocative "Soul Train," and Casey Kasem's "America's Top 10." You got the sense that music was celebrated at such basic levels then. It was promoted and disseminated differently, for sure.

In these days of proliferating digital music devices and warnings about explicit lyrics, it felt nostalgic to use my parents' record player. Hearing the static interfere with the music was a magical – if unfamiliar – sound. Next year in the spirit of the season, I hope to continue the tradition.

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