Tech Rap Special Edition: Celebrating Vinyl
A good deal of effort goes into these Tech Rap articles, so I usually only write one per month. However, since Record Store Day falls on August 29th this year, a second Tech Rap installment for August is in order. In light of the upcoming holiday, we dedicate this issue to Record Store Day, shining a small light on the world’s smallest record player, spotlighting a company that releases new 78 RPM records, reviewing new records by Paris Hilton and Bobbi, and pointing out several Internet radio stations associated with vinyl. Fire up your Como Audio Turntable and take a spin on the vinyl side with this month’s Tech Rap Special Edition!
About Record Store Day
Normality was put on hold when COVID-19 hit like a punch to the gut. Almost nothing escaped the new normal and Record Store Day was no exception. “RSD” as it has affectionately become known was postponed this year from April 20 to June 20, and then again to August 29. Massachusetts residents get an extra bonus because as it so happens, RSD falls on the state’s sales tax holiday. If you live in Mass. you can buy a stack of wax and not pay any tax. Sorry, I could not resist that rhyme. As in the past, special, limited edition vinyl titles will be released in honor of RSD. It is a day for vinyl geeks to rejoice. If you have not gotten your vinyl on yet, it is never too late to get into the groove, and you will have two more opportunities on September 26 and again on October 24, COVID-permitting. It is a holiday so nice it is celebrated thrice. Okay, I will stop with the rhymes.
Links are provided at the end of this article including one for Record Store Day allowing you to punch in your zip code and see a list of record stores near you that participate. According to a survey by Discogs and VinylHub, in2017 there were 1,482 record stores in the USA, more than any other country. Rounding out the remaining top 5 were England, Germany, France, and Canada. With many businesses on life support in this age of the coronavirus, your local record store could use your support now more than ever.
Trivia: Record Store Day is celebrated internationally but originated in the USA in 2008.
When I was a college student in Boston oh so many years ago, I would often walk to the massive Tower Records to have a browse, and then turn the corner onto Newbury Street, to the considerably more compact (but also more reasonably priced) Newbury Comics. In fact, shortly after Tower Records opened in Boston, I vividly recall seeing a sign in the front window of that Newbury Comics store that read “Don’t pay Towering prices!” As a student accumulating tuition debt, I appreciated any bargains I could find. All these years later I still buy music from Newbury Comics (which outlasted Tower Records), and though I am no longer a student, I appreciate a bargain nonetheless. I love that they have limited edition colored vinyl and exclusive autographed titles. I recently pre-ordered an autographed copy of Katy Perry’s Smile and purchased an autographed copy of Norah Jones’ new Pick Me Up Off the Floor, which was named “Recording of the Month” in the September issue of Stereophile Magazine. Stereophile’s Dan Ouellette called it “an 11-tune masterpiece.”
In addition to their website, Newbury Comics has almost thirty brick and mortar locations spread across MA, NH, CT, RI, ME, and NY, a few of which even sell used records.
I connected with Newbury Comics’ Director of Brand Engagement, Carl Mellow, via email:
PS: For anyone not in the know, what is Record Store Day (“RSD”) all about?
CM: “Record Store Day Is an annual event that celebrates the culture of Independent Record Stores. Special limited-edition Vinyl releases and promotional products are made exclusively for the day and are sold only at participating stores. Due to COVID, this year’s RSD releases will be spread out over multiple dates, starting on August 29.”
PS: Are most of your Newbury Comics stores open following the COVID closure?
CM: “Our New York stores finally opened up, so, at the moment, all stores are open.”
PS: Are there any RSD releases this month that are particularly noteworthy?
CM: “We expect great demand for My Chemical Romance – Life on the Murder Scene, Gorillaz – G-Sides & D-Sides (two separate releases), Tyler, the Creator – Cherry Bomb., The Doors – Soft Parade Stripped, The Replacements – Complete Inconcerated, The Cure – Bloodflowers, The Who – A Quick Live One, Pink Floyd – Arnold Layne (live) 7″, Billie Eilish – Live at Third Man, John Lennon – Instant Karma 7″, Paul McCartney – McCartney (50th Anniversary), Post Malone – Hollywood’s Bleeding, U2 – 11 O’Clock Tick Tock, and Roger Water – The Wall Live in Berlin.”
PS: What percentage of your sales does vinyl account for (pre-COVID)?
CM: “For the calendar year 2019, vinyl was 12% of our sales.”
PS: What is the origin of the Newbury Comics name?
CM: “Our first store was on Newbury Street in Boston, and, at the time, we mainly sold comics!”
PS: Do you personally own any records? What’s your favorite?
CM: “I do. A bunch! My favorite is a Newbury Comics’ exclusive version of the soundtrack to ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’, because it was a thrill for me to put out a release featuring my favorite artist, David Sylvian.”
Trivia: Newbury Comics was founded in 1978 by two MIT students.
“According to a survey by Discogs and VinylHub, in 2017 there were 1,482 record stores in the USA, more than any other country.“
Billboard’s Top 10
Here is a look back at the top ten charting vinyl records of 2019 as reported by Billboard. Interestingly, most of the titles are reissues.
- The Beatles: Abbey Road
- Queen: Greatest Hits
- Guardians of The Galaxy: Awesome mix Vol 1 (soundtrack)
- Billie Eilish: When We Fall Sleep, Where Do We Go?
- Pink Floyd: Dark Side of The Moon
- Michael Jackson: Thriller
- Queen: Bohemian Rhapsody (soundtrack)
- Bob Marley: Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and The Wailers
- Fleetwood Mac: Rumors
- Prince: Purple Rain (soundtrack)
The World’s Smallest Record Player
Most audiophiles might not want to admit it, but we are all kids at heart when it comes to music. In 1967, Poynter Products came out with the battery-powered Mighty Tiny Record Player, “the world’s smallest record player.” Along with the Mighty Tiny, Don Poynter also invented such novelties as whiskey-flavored toothpaste (containing 3% alcohol!) offered in Bourbon and Scotch variants, the Jayne Mansfield-shaped hot water bottle, and “The Adams Family” mechanical coin box which reportedly sold over 14 million units. I donned my detective’s fedora and hunted down Don Poynter like a bloodhound tracking a scent. This article was posted before I received a response to my snail-mail letter, but much to my delight, a week later I received a hand written reply including Poynter’s phone number. Now 95, hard of hearing, and living in a retirement home, I rang Poynter up with my questions. He was very generous with his time and had many great stories to tell. I have updated this article with a transcription of the Mighty Tiny portion of my interview:
PS: What can you tell me about Mighty Tiny Records?
DP: “[Andy Williams’] brother went into producing records and so on. I had him do all the songs. We had three [records] that went with the [Might Tiny] and then we had a total of 36 that went on a card. We had a full orchestra in Dallas. We went there, of course, because there was no union at that time. But at any rate, they thought, ‘My God, at 39 records, we’re going to be here a month’ (laughs). And we did it all in two days. It was so much fun. We had Hawaiian music, cowboy music, you name it.”
PS: Did any of the recordings have singers?
DP: “No, we had no singers. This [was] strictly music. We had Irish, we had Hawaiian, we had cowboy music, you name it, but it was no voices. It was all orchestra.”
PS: This sounds like it was expensive.
DP: “No, actually it was pretty good because at that time…all the musicians were on an hourly basis.”
PS: What gave you the idea for the Mighty Tiny Record Player?
DP: (laughs) “That’s my life! I had to think of new things all the time. Since the Talking Toilet was so popular- we sold those for at least fifteen years, I said, ‘Gee, why don’t we change it so little kids could use it?’ It had to be very simple so when they opened it, they put a record in, they closed it. You already have one so you know what it’s like.”
PS: How many models did you invent altogether?
DP: “Oh, probably close to one hundred. I’d have to count them up and I’m not about to do that (laughs)!”
Despite its talking toilet origins, with its cover closed, the Mighty Tiny looked more like something Dr. McCoy might have produced during an episode of Star Trek before declaring, “He’s dead, Jim.” Offered in at least 4 different colors, this little plastic, belt-driven wonder actually played proprietary, single-sided, 2” Mighty Tiny Records that were made in Japan. There was no space for a label in the center, so each record had a number stamped into the backside of the plastic that corresponded to a particular album cover, which is how each record title was identified. In 1967 a four pack of records would have set you back a whopping thirty-eight cents. Today, these twenty-second, fifty-plus year-old recordings sell used on eBay for $10-15 apiece! Each recording was made exclusively for the Mighty Tiny and the Might Tiny music catalog extended to almost forty diverse titles including Arab Desert Dance, Start to Hula, Square Dance Hootenanny, German Folk Polka, African Drums, Mexican Hat Dance, and Sax in A Hurry (a curious title considering the tender age of the intended audience). Granted, this was not the kind of music that would comprise the average child’s desert island disc list, but I am amazed at the effort put into supporting this little toy. Add-on’s included a table top record holder, a portable record case, and even a pack of replacement steel styli for fifty cents.
The Mighty Tiny was not just small in size…it also was not all that big on sound. The tiny, top-mounted monophonic speaker was about as enjoyable as a Yoko Ono record…played backwards. The original two-page user manual claimed the sound quality improved “after a number of records are played.”
“With its cover closed, the Mighty Tiny looked more like something Dr. McCoy might have produced during an episode of Star Trek before declaring, ‘He’s dead, Jim‘”.
The sound was not the only thing that was bare-boned. There was no on/off button…the Mighty Tiny automatically played whenever the lid was closed and switched off when the lid was opened. There was no volume control, no headphone jack, and its speed was all over the place. But young children did not care about those details.
During our interview, Poynter told me he sold a half million Mighty Tiny’s in the USA and 300,000 in Canada. Give Poynter Products points for trying to get children interested in audio at an early age. In 1983, Poynter did it again by coming out with the world’s smallest Victrola. It also was made in Japan, was battery powered, actually played the six small records it came with (at 78 RPM), and sounded equally bad, but this one had an on/off switch.
Trivia: Many people unknowingly use the terms “record player” and “turntable” interchangeably, but in reality, they are not the same. A record player has a built-in amplifier and speaker(s), whereas a turntable must be connected to something that has an amplifier and speakers to be able to hear it (hint- like a Como Audio music system!).
The Teeny Tiny
From the Might Tiny go to the Teeny Tiny, made by Running Press which makes other miniature miracles like Desktop Bocce Ball, Desktop Surfing, and Wacky Waving Inflatable Tube Guy. This delightfully diminutive turntable measures just 2.75” x 3.25” x 1.5” and includes a working tinted dust cover and a tone arm and platter that move. Unlike the Mighty Tiny, this much more conventional looking model does not actually play the three small “records” it comes with. However, it does play music stored in its memory, powered by a tiny battery (included). The Product Manager side of me observed small metal discs recessed in the underside of each record and I was curious how they communicated to the record player which of three thirty second music files to play. I tracked down Frank Sipala, Running Press’ Production Manager, for an explanation: “The discs on the bottom of the records are magnets and they are placed at different locations that correspond to a special type of sensor, called a Hall effect sensor, within the turntable.” The Teeny Tiny does not play recordings of actual songs, presumably so Running Press can avoid having to pay music royalties or licensing fees.
The packaging says the Teeny Tiny is perfect for audiophiles and collectors, but the mono sound is low-fi. To be fair, for less than $13 including shipping, you should not expect Como Audio sound quality. In addition to the three “records” and a sheet of record label stickers, a little (what else?) thirty-two-page booklet is included describing the company’s ten favorite rock albums as well as some interesting music-related trivia.
I got creative and crafted my own miniature Como Audio paper slip mat as shown in my picture. And I connected with a gal on Etsy to have her design a handful of very detailed, custom mini-album covers that look great next to the Teeny Tiny. Now, if only somebody made a miniature wooden record crate…
Trivia: What is the world’s most expensive turntable? AV Designhaus’ Derenville VPM 2010-1 retails for $650,000. It features air suspension feet, a Corian plinth, dual motors, and a record scanner for manual track selection and random track playback.
New 78 RPM Records
Part of the reason I love writing Tech Rap is the ability to bring you new and different sounds like Rivermont Records. This small boutique label out of Lynchburg, VA releases new and reissue vintage jazz recordings, many of which are limited editions with only a few hundred pressings. What is so different about that? Some of their records playback at 78 RPM speed, yet are designed to play on a standard turntable with a normal stylus, not a Victrola or other antique, non-electric, hand-cranked player.
Though other factors are involved, theoretically, the faster the playback speed, the better the sound quality. The big drawback is not much music can fit on a 10” record spinning at 78 RPM. However, Rivermon’ts “microgroove” technology allows up to eight minutes of music per side, more than double the maximum time of original 10” records.
Founded by Bryan Wright in 2003, Rivermont Records (named after a historic neighborhood in Wright’s hometown) specializes in traditional jazz, rag time, and hot dance music (i.e. music of the 1920’s and 30’s). Wright has been collecting 78 RPM records for most of his life, is an instructor at the University of Pittsburg, a pianist, musicologist, recording artist, and has a PhD, so he really knows his onions.
In addition to their hotsy-totsy records (some of which do play at 33 1/3 speed), Rivermont sells MP3 downloads and CDs. In the case of their CDs, most of them time out well over sixty minutes, include up to 40-page booklets packed with extensively researched liner notes, and when it comes to their reissues, are newly restored from original masters. Liner notes for one of their CDs actually earned a Grammy Nomination. In many cases their reissued music appears on CD for the first time. Despite all this, Rivermont’s offerings do not require a lot of mazuma.
I purchased the Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra’s hilarious interpretations of the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive and a-Ha’s Take Me On, both sung by William Edwards and limited to 1,000 pressings. I do not know if the songs on this 45 RPM single were deliberately meant to be a gasser, but to hear these classic 70’s and 80’s hits with such a retro arrangement will blow your wig. The PRS Orchestra, however, is no joke. The Washington Post called them the “premier American ragtime ensemble.” Rivermont says of the Orchestra’s That International Rag/Knockout Drops 78 RPM LP, “The audiophile quality of the recording is a marvel in itself; this record would make an excellent demonstration disc for any high-end system…”
If you are an Oliver Twist considering buying any of Rivermont’s 78 RPM records and you own the Como Audio Turntable, you should know our Turntable includes a separate belt that supports 78 RPM speed. If you prefer some of Rivermont’s excellent CDs, consider playing them back on the equally excellent Como Audio Musica. Better yet, a Musica paired with the Como Audio Turntable makes for a hi-fi system that is the bee’s knees. But since this Tech Rap special edition concerns vinyl, let us return to the topic at hand…
Trivia: Rivermont’s most difficult title to produce was “Live from Buenos Aires”. All of the microphones and equipment had to be transported from the USA to Argentina. The band was only allowed thirty minutes to setup and one of the boom microphone stands fell into the piano during recording! Needless to say, that track was not included.
Paris Hilton, Paris: Real Gone Music, RGM-0973
From the woman who made small dogs a fashion accessory, pioneered celebrity reality TV, and was famous for being famous, Paris by Paris Hilton was her first and only studio album. This one hit wonder was released on CD in 2006 by Warner Brothers and was never issued on vinyl. It was originally to be titled Screwed and then Paris is Burning, but was finally assigned the over-the-top name, Paris. Though not a RSD release, the music-loving folks at Real Gone Music pressed it on maroon-blonde marbled vinyl with an eye-catching gatefold cover. Urban Outfitters licensed their own limited gold-colored vinyl edition. Personally, I would have pressed it on blonde-colored vinyl with black streaks, as in dirty blonde.
Gordon Anderson, Co-President of Real Gone Music, took time out to respond to my quick queries:
PS: How did this vinyl release come about? Was it difficult to hammer out the licensing agreement?
GA: “One of our staff members, Jeremy Sobotor, suggested it. It was not difficult to license but it was expensive. We received more criticism and catcalls from our customers on this release than any other we have done.”
PS: Has Paris Hilton herself made any comment about it?
GA: “No, but her office has bought some.”
PS: Was it newly remastered, and if so, by whom/where?
GA: “Lacquer was cut from hi-res two-track album files.”
PS: How many copies is Paris limited to?
GA: “It’s not but it probably will not be re-pressed.”
PS: Can you tell me anything about the Urban Outfitters gold-colored version?
GA: “Limited to 2,000 copies. It was selling very well for them until the pandemic.”
Regardless of what you may think of Paris Hilton the star, the pop/R&B/Reggae-tinged songs on this record are actually pretty decent. Allmusic called Paris “more fun than anything released by Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson, and a lot fresher, too.” The album peaked at number six on the Billboard charts and it spawned three singles that summer: Stars Are Blind, Turn It Up, and Nothing in This World. Hilton worked with a dozen different music producers and wrote about half of the songs on the eleven-track album. Stars Are Blind is my favorite cut: “I can make it nice and naughty / Be the devil and angel, too / Got a heart and soul and body /Let’s see what this love can do.” The lyrics to Fightin’ Over Me are classic Paris: “Maybe ’cause I’m hot / Hot today / And I’m so, so, so sexy / All the boys / All the silly boys / They want to fight over me.” She closes out her album, appropriately enough, with her own cover version of Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? If you have ever fantasized about Hilton rocking your world, drop your needle on Paris. Now that’s hot!
Trivia: In 2007, Hilton successfully trademarked her catchphrase, “That’s Hot”. Three years later she sued Hallmark Greeting Cards for using her image as a waitress holding a plate of food with the caption “That’s hot!”. Details of the settlement were not made public, but it is generally assumed Hilton walked away with much more than just a tip.
Bobbi, Un Jour: V2 Records, VVNL38011
In May’s Tech Rap: Recommended CDs, Part 1, I recommended a CD by a great Dutch female pop music trio called Zazi. Although Zazi is still together, one the members, Margriet Planting, just released her debut Solo album, Un Jour (“One Day”), under the name of her alter ego, Bobbi. Planting speaks several languages fluently, is a multi-instrumentalist, sings, and models professionally. As with Paris, Un Jour is not a Record Store Day release, but I mention it since it is unique and is certainly RSD-worthy.
The vocals on Un Jour, as the title suggests, are in French, but that should not dissuade you from checking it out. It is available on pink vinyl and as a digital download, but there are no USA resellers so it is not easy to source. I bought my copy from a reseller over in Germany.
Recorded in The Netherlands with authentic musical instruments from the sixties and seventies, Un Jour features Margriet Planting on vocals and Omnichord, Denis Benarrosh on drums, Nicolas Fiszman on guitar, Romain Bly on horns, keyboardist Reyn Ouwehand, and the Quinetique String Quartet. The twelve tracks take their inspiration from Donna Summer, Danger Mouse, and Portishead, among others. With Un Jour, Bobbi gives you a rare, private invitation into her boudoir, singing songs about love, lust, and intimacy. Slice open the shrink wrap and out slides pink-colored virgin vinyl. Prepare to be musically seduced. In light of the theme, the French language is more than appropriate. Alas, I do not speak French (I signed up for it in high school but was assigned Spanish instead), but when it comes to music, language is only a barrier if you make it one.
All of the tracks embody a 1960’s kind of vibe, with some more 60’s spiced than others. My favorite tracks include the first single off of the album, Dons Mon Lit (“In My Bed”), Insecticide, Papillon d Amor (“Butterfly of Love”), Oh (released as the third single at the end of May), and the politically incorrect Baise Moi (sorry, you will have to translate this last title on your own).
Get Un Jour, turn your Como Audio Turntable on, and then let Bobbi turn you on. For my part, I would love to fly away with Bobbi in her vintage flying machine. Volons!
The Como Audio Bluetooth Turntable
In need of a high-quality playback device for all of that glorious vinyl you are going to invest in on RSD on August 26, September 26, and October 24? Keep Como Audio’s Bluetooth Turntable in the front of your mind. Its real wood hickory or walnut veneer, or piano high gloss black or white plinth, will assimilate nicely with your existing Como Audio music system, comes with a pre-mounted and balanced Ortofon OM10 cartridge, and will connect wirelessly via Bluetooth or with the included quality audio cable if you are of the old school tradition. Its plug and play design make it one of the easiest turntables on the market to use. There is no need to align or balance the cartridge or set the tracking force…just slip the belt over the sub-platter, position the main platter, plug it in, pair and connect the Bluetooth (or connect the audio cable), and away you go. Adding to the ease of use is a 33 1/3 & 45 RPM dedicated electronic speed button (a separate included belt allows for 78 RPM speed). If you have multiple Como Audio music systems grouped, you can stream your records to all of them without any latency and hear them throughout your home. Cool! Ya think?
The Como Audio Turntable is currently rated 5 out of 5 stars on Amazon and just this month was awarded the VIP Award for Turntables by respected consumer electronics industry magazine TWICE. Mymac.com said our Turntable “provides high-quality build, great fidelity audio, and some other tricks up its sleeve for a fantastic price”, while Forbes said it was “a beauty of a turntable with premium quality components, a sleek and modern design, the ability to stream vinyl tracks wirelessly…” With its wireless Bluetooth, integrated phono pre-amp, and dedicated phono output, it will also play nice with almost any non-Como Audio hi-fi system.
Trivia: The Como Audio Turntable is made in the Czech Republic and is a custom model born out of a collaboration between Como Audio and Pro-ject.
Vinyl vis-à-vis Internet Radio
Let us pivot for a moment to Internet radio as it relates to vinyl. You will find several Internet stations that pay homage to vinyl. Give a listen to SomaFM’s Seven Inch Soul (160 kbps, MP3: San Francisco), playing original soul 45 rpm singles from the extensive collection of DJ Dion “The Watts” Garcia. Non-commercial Vinyl Voyage Radio (64 kbps, AAC: Canada) airs specialty shows dedicated to K-Tel Records, Frank Sinatra, and Mix Tapes. 45 Radio UK (97 kbps, AAC: UK) specializes in oldies and solid gold hits. Also try on Radio Vinyl (99 kbps, AAC) for size. Radio Turntable (128 kbps, MP3: Germany) plays techno/dance music and I assume the station’s name was inspired by professional DJs. Vintage FM (128 kbps, MP3: Australia), “the music you grew up with”, plays music that came out before the 1980’s and only those songs that were originally released on vinyl. To tune any of these stations on your Como Audio music system in Internet radio mode, go to Station list > Stations > Search stations > Enter the name of the station. If you like the station you can save it to a preset or to My Favorites if you have registered on the free portal.
Happy Record Store Day to one and all. If you already subscribe to the virtues of vinyl, why not buy a new record for a friend and let them hear what they have been missing? And while you are at it, let them know about Como Audio’s Tech Rap so they can discover more ways to enjoy the music.
Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio as V.P. of Product Development in 2016. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also writes for his own blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at email@example.com
Tech Rap: Happy Birthday, Phonograph