Every now and again an audio-centric person on social media raises the specter of hatred towards the much beleaguered — and simultaneously much loved — form of long playing records commonly referred to as simply “colored vinyl.” These are LP records which are molded out of colorful variants of the vinyl plastic formula other than black (which itself is a color added in to the basic non-colorized formulations). Sometimes they are standard weight, other times they are 180-grams heavy and even more.
Some of you who are new to collecting records often ask me “why all the hatred toward colored vinyl?” I thought I’d take some time to share some stream-of-consciousness thoughts and reflections (ie. shorthand for this isn’t tightly edited!)
It’s complicated, as they say…
In Part I of Yes… No… Maybe… we looked at so called “virgin” vinyl and explored some nuance between opaque and translucent colored variants. If you missed that part, please click here to catch up.
Here in Part 2 we’ll look at multi-color and picture disc variants and then offer a list of some good sounding and good looking colored vinyl albums you may want to keep an eye out for….
Multi-color splatter vinyl can be problematic, especially when there are too many colors or the manufacturer’s mix clear with opaque colors. Don’t get me wrong, I think they look super cool. However, because of the combination of an opaque color in a bed of clear or other transparent vinyl, surface noise seems to be mostly inevitable.
This was very apparent in my recent purchase of a deluxe edition of the A Charlie Brown Christmas TV soundtrack (“snowball” limited edition, click here to read that review). Yet oddly enough, the beautiful orange / yellow splatter edition of the new Jazz Dispensary release Orange Sunset sounded just fine (click here for that review). While it is hard to make a definitive statement, based on these experience my gut instinct tells me that — again, perhaps — if the whole splatter process is done with opaque colors it can work OK.
One of the worst splatter colored vinyl albums I own is also one of the coolest looking: an import by Roxette’s Per Gessle’s other band (Gyllene Tider) which a friend gave me. It was so noisy it was sounding bad on his mid-century Zenith console stereo’s automatic changer! They sent him a new copy so he gave me the old one. Looks super cool in its rich red with black and white and gray striations, but…well… it is perhaps one rhinestone too many… This one actually has some pits in it which apparently was a problem that came up in this pressing plant’s process with these different colors
Yet… I have a tri-color deluxe edition by indie rock legends Sebadoh and it sounds fine (but it is not splatter) so that is a curious. It has the disc broken up into thirds of red, blue and yellow.
Picture discs are typically the worst! But they too have a cool history worth noting too dating back to the early 1930s! Seriously, check the picture of the incredibly rare Paul Whiteman picture disc I picked up (for free!) at an estate sale earlier this year (it spins at 33 1/3 RPM, 20 years before the LP format was finalized!). An amazing piece of music history, apparently RCA was experimenting with bringing out a long playing format just as The Great Depression was kicking in, so the format never had a chance to kick in. So, any long playing albums from that period are rare — and promotional albums like this one are rarer still!
But I digress… recently I’ve been surprised how good some picture discs sounded, especially when compared to noisy messes like the original Curved Air picture disc from 1970 (widely considered the first rock music era picture disc).
Two recent picture disc albums I have reviewed were pressed overseas and were generally thicker than other picture discs I’ve seen and owned before (save for that Paul Whiteman disc!).
So perhaps they are using more clear vinyl over the picture image and thus enabling a better quality pressing? I don’t know. They still weren’t perfect but they weren’t unlistenable, I’ll put it that way. Actually, they sounded quite good! Click here to read about David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World picture disc and here for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Cheap Vinyl, Sloppy Pressings, Non-Fill and Other Problems
Just because a record is on black vinyl doesn’t guarantee it will be quiet. Cheaper and recycled black vinyl can be noisy. Poor pressing plants that don’t pay attention to details frequently deliver non-color LPs that are just as riddled with pops and other anomalies. Heck, I’ve even had “nice” (and not cheap!) 180-gram audiophile pressings from good labels and made at prestigious plants, peppered with pops and “pfffffst” due to non-fill issues.
All this said, should colored vinyl go away? No way, says this man who still hopes to issue a colored vinyl pressing of his old band’s last album (recorded in a hybrid analog / digital mix at The Plant Studios in Sausalito!)!
The thing about colored vinyl that many audiophiles seem to have forgotten — or perhaps never really cared about — is that it is FUN! And, for a younger audience just getting into vinyl fun is a big part of the experience, not just sitting and listening in a light-controlled, optimized tech cave reveling over transparency, soundstage and such.
I’ve met fans of colored vinyl out in the wilds of record collecting and while combing the racks at places like Amoeba Music. People enjoy colored vinyl records and they don’t particularly worry so much about the noise floor issues and such. The color variant add a visual appeal to the record playing process, something with which the digital streaming services haven’t been able to really compete..
If you are playing things on a newer entry level record player — or even a retro-hip mid-century modern console stereo — the pressing quality is indeed generally less of an issue.
For my Audiophile and “industry” friends out there reading this (and perhaps grumbling a bit), one other thing to consider about colored vinyl: if it turns out that colored vinyl is the “trojan horse” that gets a new generation back into music, actively listening to whole albums and aspiring toward better sound quality than MP3s, Spotify and YouTube, isn’t that a good thing? I think so!
It presents a fresh opportunity to sell-in and excite a new generation of listeners to the joys of collecting and owning pre-recorded music in a physical form.
I think its a win win scenario for everyone.
That said, there ARE some good sounding colored vinyl pressings out there. By no means definitive, these are just some current favorites, mostly-opaque colored vinyl pressings which sound real good and may be fairly easy to find. Click on any underlined/highlighted titles here to jump to reviews I may have done on them:
Nickel Creek’s This Side, Why Should The Fire Die? and their self titled debut (Craft Recordings)
The Beatles, The White Album (UK edition on Apple Records circa 1978)
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (oddly enough, its a Sony Legacy, Music On Vinyl version, 180-gram)
The Helio Sequence, Negotiations (Sub Pop Records)
Flaming Lips, At War With The Mystics (Warner Brothers Records)
Lou Barlow,EMOH (Merge Records / Newbury Comics)
Various Artists, Orange Sunset (Jazz Dispensary/Craft Recordings/Vinyl Me Please)
Bernard Purdie, Purdie Good, Jazz Dispensary (Jazz Dispensary/Craft Recordings/Vinyl Me Please)
Television, Live at the Old Waldorf (Rhino Records, Record Store Day edition)
Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks, Orange Crate Art (Omnivore Recordings)
The Police, Synchronicity (A&M Records, Quiex vinyl)
Jerry Garcia, Reflections
Jerry Garcia, Compliments of Garcia
Elton John, Madman Across The Water (UK edition on DJM Records)
Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection (UK edition on DJM Records)
What are some of your favorite colored vinyl releases that sound as good as they look? Let us know below in the comments section.