Archive for the ‘Records’ Category

I know what you’re thinking… Where has John been all year? Why have we not seen any new posts? Why haven’t we seen any new images? Why haven’t we seen any spectacular new videos? First, thank you for wondering (even if the wondering is really just me typing in italics), and second, I’ve been busy, of course! Busy doing what? You know, busy, which is why I’m writing a post subtitled “a quick 2015 update.” So here goes!

Getting clean and organized!

Looking around my studio as the calendar flipped from the old year to the new I came to the realization that… wow, my studio was a mess!

My messy studio

My messy studio

Boxes and bags, cables and extension cords, crates of records, trash, litter, and dust, dust, dust! How could an artist with a mild case of OCD work under such chaotic conditions?!?! Worse, I was beginning to notice that many of the most cherished toys were just plain dirty after years of handling and open air storage.

The Wind-up Dreams "toy store"

The Wind-up Dreams “toy store”

Sure, it was nice to have all of these fun things on displays, and visitors to my studio loved to browse the visual treats on display in “the toy store,” but this came at a price, and the inevitable question, “How do you dust all of that?” Well, I didn’t. I just sort of dusted off things as they were selected to appear in my photos. Plus, I was completely out of room and it wasn’t always easy to find the figure I was looking for. And so I decided to “close” the toy store, and spend the early part of January organizing and cleaning every single piece of retrograde ephemera on the shelves. Battalions of army men! Jungles of exotic animals! A congress of presidents and a bandstand of Beatles! One by one everything was plucked from its place and carefully scrubbed with soap and a soft toothbrush.

Cleanliness is next to kewpieness

Cleanliness is next to kewpieness

Next, to avoid a similar future fate befalling my kewpie, monks, and finger puppet nuns, every piece was organized and stored in plastic lunch containers. Yes — Jesus, Buddhas, and devils to go! Leftovers of the holiest variety! One bin for astronauts, another for nesting dolls. Hearts, brains and assorted other body parts together in an organic stew, while robots reigned supreme in an air tight container of their very own. Super fragile hand painted pieces — my presidents, football players, and collection of Marx “bathing beauties” — were boxed, labeled, and shelved. The results?

Every good kid put their toys away at the end of the day

Every good kid put their toys away at the end of the day

While perhaps not as visually inviting at my previous “5 Levels of Wind-up Dreams Hell”, the new shelf arrangement is far more efficient for actually creating my art. Plus, I can always crack open a corner and out they all come to play and create mischief before the eye of my camera! Next up was to replace the black milk crates you see in the top photo which I have been using to store all of my cheesy vintage vinyl albums. The crates are actually a really great storage solution for LPs: perfect sizes, stackable, and portable. The emphasis, however, is on “storage” as they are not particularly convenient for browsing album covers.

Quick admonition I don’t actually browse through the albums in my collection, flipping from one to the next in search of the perfect cover art to provide the background for a new piece of art. I long ago digitized all of my album art, so I usually do my browsing from the bright colorful screen of my iMac.

Ikea Kallax shelving for my records

Ikea Kallax shelving for my records

If you’re not going to ever actually use your records, yes, by all means, put them in crates and stack them to your heart’s content. But if you need to find a particular record, and it happens to be buried with crates above, and to the left and right, prepare yourself for torturous pain. A full crate of records is not exactly light, and milk crates tend to enjoy taking a bite out of stray fingers and knuckles as those interlocking jaws of plastic snap with bone crunching force. I replaced my faithful black plastic crates with a pair of much more aesthetically pleasing Kallax storage units from Ikea. They’re just the right size for LPs, and now I can find my alphabetically arranged records by simply browsing the spines. Nice, huh? And that’s going to do it for part one of what will be either a three or four part post on bringing my blog up to the present. In the next installment I’m going to write about how I took seven years of studio experience and tossed it out the window to completely start fresh with how I setup and shoot my images. Sounds scary, don’t it? It was, I assure you! Look for Part Two very soon!

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March already? Far too much time has passed between posts, but I’ve been hard at work on a new photograph and video to share.

Cha Cha Cha Cha Cha Cha — Pedro Garcia, 1958

Cha Cha Cha Cha Cha Cha — Pedro Garcia, 1958

Way back in 2012 I made an attempt at creating a photo built around a super cool album cover that featured a slinky masked dancer cavorting about beneath a cascade of streamers and balloons (seen to the right). After staging and shooting the photo, the images lingered in my computer, and as I prepped for my 2013 summer show at the Pannikin in La Jolla, I simply abandoned what I’d shot. Oh, sure, I could show you the unfinished work here and now, but the OCD in me would probably try to make a diamond from a pigs ear and I’d spend weeks and weeks trying to at least make the failed composition look presentable. Instead, let’s jump right to the brand new photo — which I like!

Madame Paparazzi's wicked danse of seductive transformation

Madame Paparazzi’s wicked danse of seductive transformation

I actually took over 30 shots of this staging, then constructed the final image from the 7 best images, layering portions of each photo one atop the next to achieve deep focus throughout the final piece.

I tend to be easily distracted while working on my creative pursuits, so rather than snap the photos, sort through the candidate images, and plow through with all the necessary image adjustments, I ended up creating a video for the photo before I actually completed the photo (and, yes, that is possible in the world of Wind-up Dreams & Vinyl Nightmares). The frames for the animation were taken while I was deconstructing the stage set, and then reassembled into a free flowing pan’n’scan video using a whole bunch of software: Aperture, GraphicConverter, iDraw, and a new (to me) slideshow package called FotoMagico that allowed me to create deeper zooms than I’d used in previous animations. Nice piece of software worth checking out!

In an ideal world making one of these videos would be really simple: I’d come up with an idea, I’d choose some music, I’d shoot all the frames, and — voila! — there I’d have a finished video! Remember, though, that I begin with the finished photo, and, therefore, the last frame in the animation. The trick, then, is to conceive of the story in reverse, and begin taking things away from the scene in an order that will make some logical narrative sense once everything is reordered to run from start to finish. Oh, and without a sense of the audio that will be used.

This is… tricky.

Ah! But luckily, not impossible, and even when mistakes are made (for instance, removing objects out of order or completely reconsidering the storyboard during post production) software makes nearly anything possible.

Let’s take a look!

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Custom designed DIY album covers

Custom designed DIY album covers

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my art that I like record albums. I’ve been collecting records since my earliest days of college and they became a natural fit when I began taking photographs of cool things like records, books and toys. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that one of my many “someday” projects would be a set of limited edition prints packaged in a real album cover. How cool would that be?!?!

(No, sorry, no such print set is being announced in this post. But… someday!)

Future plans aside, I recently did have the opportunity to create my own record album cover, and it came out great! So today I’m sharing my experience in a “how to” tutorial for others who may be so inspired to create their own record album packaging.

The Background

Years ago, I sent out an elaborate Christmas card package, which I dubbed, “It’s a Copyright Infringement Christmas!” The package included an 8 1/2 x 11″ card and a 110 minute cassette mix tape of the coolest Christmas music imaginable — Detroit Junior, James Brown, various Motown greats, etc.  I printed all the cassette labels and inserts on a (rare, for the time) color printer, and filled the envelopes with glitter, broken cassette shells, and tangles of audio tape pulled from the destroyed cassettes. The star, though, was the music, as everyone loved the selections I made (said the former college disc jockey with much modesty).

As the years have passed, with cassette players giving way to CD players and iTunes, fewer and fewer people have been able to listen to their hand-picked Christmas collection, but EVERY year since I’ve been encouraged by family and friends to make a new version. “If you ever copy Copyright Infringement Christmas to CD,” they would hopefully plead, “you’ll never have to give me another thing!”

Promising rewards aside, dubbing the collection to CD has always been something I’ve wanted to do, but year after year the project has been pushed way, way off onto a back burner without the time to do the project right — whatever that meant, as I had no idea how I could better the original package by just dumping the music onto CD.

I then realized that I’d made the original tape in 1992, and 2012 would be the 20th anniversary, so…

I  did it!

Where the original had filled both sides of a 110 minute cassette — 55 minutes per side — in the CD era I’d be able to fit 80 minutes of music per disc. Bonus tracks could be at play!

CDs? Dude. No one uses CDs. It’s all about streaming and downloads.

Well, yes, I thought about producing the 2012 version of my illegal Christmas compilation on a USB flash drive, but:

  1. A couple of the recipients (most notably, my parents) don’t use iTunes, iPhones or iPods, and would not know an MP3 from a hole in the ground.
  2. Handing someone a flash drive and saying “Merry Christmas” seemed like a hollow offering.

My plan, then, was to produce a set of 4 CDs. The first two would reproduce the 55 minute A and B sides of the original cassette, while the last two would be loaded to the digital gills with newly discovered (and equally cool) bonus tracks. The discs would be packaged inside an LP-size album jacket, with the CDs mounted on a full color cardboard insert. Rounding out the package would be a limited edition Christmas-themed print suited to the copyright infringing nature of the music.

Got it? Good! Let’s go to work!

Geography of an album cover

In order to design my album cover I first had to figure out how an album cover is constructed. Those of us who grew up around records have the basics: an LP is about 12″ in diameter and fits into a square cardboard sleeve that’s a little bit large. Easy! Take two pictures, glue ’em together, and — voila! — album cover!

Not so fast!

Careful attention to how an album cover is actually laid out and constructed will provide a guideline for generating a design template that can be used for applying art to the front and back covers, as well as the spine you’ll see on the edge when the album is stored on a shelf. Using this template, the cover can be printed on a single sheet of paper, then cut, folded and glued to produce the final sleeve.

Template of an album cover

Template of an album cover

The template for designing an album cover is shown above. Note that the image to appear on the front of the cover is on the right, while the back cover image is on the left. Designed in this manner, if you were facing the album in a sales bin, the spine would be on the left and the record (or in my case, CD tray) would slide out from the right. Virtually all album covers are designed in this way to be consistent and prevent dust from sifting down into the record jacket.

On occasion you’ll see variations on this design, with the jacket opening on the top, or the position of the front and back covers swapped. Usually, these are design mistakes that are sometimes corrected in later pressings of an LP.

The dimensions you see above are as follows:

  • The front and back covers are typically 12 ¾” tall and wide.
  • The top and bottom tabs you see on the back cover are folded over and affixed to the reverse side of the front cover. I chose to use 1″ high tabs, which seemed like a good size to get a good firm seal between the two covers.
  • Plus… the spine. Read on!

Does a record album have to have a spine? Well, no, not really. Vinyl records aren’t very thick and a 12″ LP will usually fit fairly easily into a simple spine-less (ha, ha ha) 12 ¾” sleeve. But that would be boring! After all, don’t we want to see the sideways title of our album when it sits on a shelf squeezed between other records? Sure we do!

Spine detail

Spine detail

So, between the front and back covers we also need to provide a bit of space for the spine, and the spine needs to be wide enough to accommodate whatever we plan to put inside the jacket. For an album that holds a single vinyl LP, the spine is usually 1/8″, varying slightly higher when the packaging also includes a booklet or other inserts. For my project the album needed to hold a CD tray, a limited edition print, and a very thin sheet of protective bubble wrap. I estimated that a spine of 3/16″ would be sufficient.

The image above and to the right is a detail of the spine measurements for my album cover. It is important to understand that an album cover is actually a box construction. So, if we provide a 3/16″ spine running up and down between the front and back covers, we must also provide a  3/16″ margin between the cover and the tabs, effectively forming the “sides” of the box we’re going to construct. The spine and the top margin are illustrated in the diagram.

Color note!
It’s worth noting that I chose to color the tabs dark gray, even though they were to be glued to the reverse side of the front cover. I used the color change as a visual clue when folding the tabs, and the dark gray color was close enough to the margin color (which in turn matched the front color) so as not to be visually distracting if the construction of the “box” was not precise.

Software note!
I used iDraw on my iMac to layout and design the cover you see above. Nice piece of software!

Printing the cover

Once the cover art had been designed it was time to print. Recall that we’re going to be printing everything — front, back, spine, margins and tabs — on a single sheet of paper. How big does that paper need to be? Adding up all the dimensions…

Height = 12 ¾” + 1″ + 3/16″ + 1″ = 14 15/16″
Width = 12 ¾” + 3/16″ + 12 ¾” = 25 11/16″

20 x 30" prints  on Kodak Endura photographic paper

20 x 30″ prints on Kodak Endura photographic paper

Okay, the total dimensions of a flattened album cover are roughly 15 x 26″, and that means we need to print on a big 20 x 30″ sheet of paper — 16 x 30″ if that odd size is offered by your favorite lab. While I suppose it would have been most preferable to print on lightweight cardboard to mimic the stiffness of commercial record jackets, I didn’t have that option, so instead decided to print my covers as 20 x 30″ glossy enlargements through my regular lab, myphotopipe.com on professional grade Kodak Endura paper.

Whoa! 20 x 30″ photo prints? Isn’t that, uh, kind of expensive?

Yes, it is. Making your own album covers is fun and amazing, but definitely not cheap!

Constructing the record album

Once the prints arrived (and after a few days of allowing them to lay flat), I used an X-acto knife and metal L-square to trim away the excess paper, as illustrated in the photo below.

Trimmed cover ready to be folded

Trimmed cover ready to be folded

On the right is the spine and the front cover, while the back cover, tabs, and top/bottom margins are on the left. Constructing the record album was then simply a matter of making the proper folds and gluing the tabs in place. I found it helpful to make my folds in a set order, with the printed side of the paper face down, and using the edge of the L-square as a sturdy guide to insure that the creases would be straight and square. In all, you’ll need to make 6 sharp, square folds:

  1. Left edge of the front cover where it meets the right side of the spine.
  2. Left edge of the spine where it meets the right edge of the back cover.
  3. Bottom edge of the top tab where it meets the top edge of the top margin.
  4. Bottom edge of the top margin where it meets the top of the back cover.
  5. Top edge of the bottom tab where it meets the bottom edge of the bottom margin.
  6. Top edge of the bottom margin where it meets the bottom of the back cover.

Photo paper is not generally meant to be folded, so — with a ruler or square edge in place along the crease line — go slow, and gently ease the paper up against the edge of your ruler or square edge, using pressure where you want the crease to form. Once a crease is in place along the entire width of where you want to make the fold, remove the straight edge, fold along the crease, and gradually apply pressure until you have a firm, sharp fold that is able to stand up on its own. Remember — photo paper will fight back!

After folds have been made

After folds have been made

Belated trimming tip!
Note in the photo above that the tabs, which were originally designed to be square, have been tapered slightly. This extra bit of trimming is done to allow greater flexibility while gluing, and will prevent any excess paper from from sticking out beyond the edge of the cover.

Ready to be glued!

Ready to be glued!

All that remains is to glue the front cover onto the folded tabs. I used rubber cement for this job, as it doesn’t bubble, provides a good solid bond, and is very forgiving and easily removed should you “over glue.” The tricky part of gluing the tabs is that the tabs are actually inside the cover and sit suspended in air at a height equal to the width of the spine. Yes, this is only an eighth of an inch (or, three 16ths, in my case), but still enough space to prevent a solid seal — especially at the edges — between the tabs and the cover. To workaround this problem I found magazines of the appropriate thickness that could be placed inside the cover and beneath the folded tabs to provide a solid surface upon which the cover and tabs could be glued with sufficient pressure. The magazines also made it easier to “square up” the corners where the cover, spine and top/bottom margins all meet. Once the glue had been applied, and leaving the magazines in place, books were used to weigh down the construction until the rubber cement had completely set.

That’s all there is to it!

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Time moves quickly in the world of Wind-up Dreams, and where I’ve had a host of posts planned around my springtime trip to Los Angeles, it’s suddenly summer and almost July, and does it really make sense to write up a review for a couple of concerts I attended back in April? No, of course not!

Ah! But that now long ago trip north did yield a pair of fairly amazing vintage finds that have found a life together and forever in a brand new photo and video animation. Where some may direct their travels to resorts, tourist destinations, and upscale shopping districts, I’m a bit more adventurous, wandering into odd little shops, swap meets, or tiny indy record stores where (my kind of) treasure surely awaits. One such store is Permanent Records, a fantastic little record store on the main drag in Eagle Rock with an incredibly diverse selection of new and used vinyl, plus a very knowledgeable staff with great taste in all kinds of music.

“Lazy Rhapsody” Lou Busch and his Piano Orchestra, 1957

In the stacks at Permanent Records I found Lazy Rhapsody, an album released by Lou Busch and his Piano Orchestra (imagine the stage required for that!) in the late 1950s. The record had loooooong been included on my Records Want List, a comprehensive spreadsheet I’ve maintained for many years to track the album covers I see on various vintage vinyl websites that have good potential as background subject matter for my photos. The best are those covers with a glamorous gal of the 50’s gazing off into negative space where my devious mind can construct an alternate universe for her to contemplate, and—for obvious reasons (I mean, just look at it!)—Lazy Rhapsody was VERY high on my want list!

Vintage books have made several memorable appearance in my photos, and I’m always on the lookout for old texts with unusual titles or fancy gold lettering on the spine. The day before my trip to Permanent Records I discovered the Cosmopolitan Book Shop, a jam packed used bookstore on Melrose Avenue, east of La Brea. Wow! Inventory, inventory, inventory… Floor to ceiling and wall to wall. It would take days to fully appreciate their stock, and I basically found the store while filling 10 minutes before heading off to  other locales. Luckily, it took only 9 minutes to spot an absolutely incredible vintage book! Crazy title—gold on the spine. Yay!

“The Influence of Women… and its cure” John Erskine, 1936

To the left is The Influence of Women… and its cure by John Erskine, a non-fiction book published in 1936 as a call to attention to men across the land that, basically, this whole business of (gasp!) gender equality could screw up the good deal that men had enjoyed since the beginning of recorded time. Oh, the horror! Inside is a stern text bemoaning the perils of women’s rights, the outlandish notion that women could be teachers, and that men have sadly allowed their wives to control the purse strings of family wealth. I’m convinced that I could leverage the book into a career as a standup comic by merely taking to the stage and, in a serious and knowing tone, recite passages to my delighted and far more liberated audience.

Best, though, is the inscription inside the front cover:

To Roy,
with best wishes,
from Lea — 1936

 What a lovely gift! Doesn’t it make you wonder about Roy and Lea? Was Lea a strong independent woman sending Roy a message? Or was she subserviently giving Roy a gift that in present day would have been on his Amazon wish list? In any case, The Influence of Women seemed like it would be perfect as a treatment in one of my photos.

I ended up combining both of these LA finds in a new photo and video. Behold!

Malcolm was never a popular boy, until he won The Irish Sweepstakes

This was actually a very simple photo, as it involved only a single background image and very few foreground elements, whereas most of my recent work has involved much more elaborate staging. Still, building the narrative and getting the overall composition right took a fair amount of time.

Added bonus… As I’ve done with many of my recent photos, I created a video animation of the photo during deconstruction of the set! For the video I tried to imaging why Tuxedo Guy might be surrounded by all those women, and tried to find music that would sort of carry the story—though from the perspective of the women, rather than the perspective of Tuxedo Guy. Many songs were auditioned; none of them worked. And then I recalled a number one hit from 1970 that ruled the airwaves to such a heavy-rotation extent that, now, decades later, there remain people suffering from the annoying effects of an “earworm” as this invasive slice of bubbly pop drivel continually spins inside their heads. Not daring to use the original and perhaps risk the peril of worldwide audio infection, I chose a harder edge 1991 cover version from Voice Of The Beehive.


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Last year, in the wake of a very successful and joyous celebration of Record Store Day, I wrote a summary of my adventures and exploits as I cruised around San Diego county in search of RSD exclusives. Once again, it’s time for my review, if for no better reason than to stave off the inevitable onset of Post Record Store Day Depression.

This year, I have two words that perfectly sum up this holiest of vinyl holidays:

Jayne Mansfield

What’s that? You don’t recall seeing Jayne Mansfield’s name on any of the lists of Record Store Day releases? Well, no, there sadly wasn’t a big, buxom, box set of 12″ Jayne Mansfield covers on 180 gram virgin vinyl (though, I challenge any specialty label to produce such a set!), but as I made my way into Record City on 6th Avenue in San Diego, I spotted an enticing sign just inside the door:

Record City — San Diego, CA

Well, well! Record City happens to have an excellent selection of vintage vinyl in pretty much every category you can imagine: Rock, Jazz, Blues, and all those obscure genres that happen to be a goldmine for use in my fine art photos—Vocals, Lounge, and Pop. So, after scooping up a treasure trove of brand new Records Store Day releases (which we’ll survey a bit later), I ventured off to the long aisles of waiting vinyl to begin the hunt.

Music To Remember, 1956, with Jayne Mansfield on the cover

And almost immediately, I spotted a 10″ LP with the unmistakable allure of Jayne Mansfield on the cover. Jayne was regularly featured on album covers during the 50’s and early 60’s—usually leaning forward in an oh-so suggestive way to better… uh…. Well, she leaned forward. A lot. But on this album cover, she was leaning back. And not just leaning back; she was leaning back and COVERED all the way up to her chin! Had I stumbled across a Jayne Mansfield album of Christian hymns?!?! No. Just a simple compilation of sentimental instrumental selections, so you get Jayne relaxing on a sofa wearing a frilly pink nightgown (of course suggestive in its own right).

20% off? Are you kidding? While my other Record Store Day finds and freebies will make my turntable gleefully happy for weeks to come, those slabs of rare vinyl pale in comparison to Music To Remember, which is now safely tucked away into my stacks of vintage vinyl to someday live a second life in the background of a new photograph.

In the next installment I’ll tell you about my Record Store Day shopping experiences at two of San Diego’s finest music stores, and regale you with boastful tales of exclusive new music, sampler CDs, and custom giveaway bags. Until then, enjoy these images of the used vinyl I found at Record City.

And don’t forget… only only 362 days until Record Store Day 2013!!

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I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t post new blog entries anywhere near as frequently as I would like. Ideally, I’d be blogging on a daily basis, sharing news about new photos and videos, art exhibits, great books, cool records, and posting articles that dive deep into my creative process. Trouble is… I have a difficult time churning out prose without laboring over every word, sentence and paragraph. Plus, just to make matters a little worse, I can’t… stop… writing. Simple topics—hey! I like this record!—turn into exhaustive (but still, of course, interesting) accounts worthy of a short chapter in a book.

Yes, it’s a problem, but now… a solution!

RIP Jonathan Frid—the “real” Barnabas Collins!

I now have a super cool Tumblr account where, throughout the day, you can find quick and interesting posts from me and the merry minions at Wind-up Dreams Central. Everything we post is, of course, Super Cool. Take, for instance this scary photo of the recently departed Jonathan Frid. Oh, sure… I could have dedicated a 4,000 or 5,000 word blog post on Dark Shadows (and, come to think of it, I may do that), but I could spend a week or more in Creative Writing Hell in an effort to produce a Pulitzer caliber post on campy daytime horror. Instead, as quickly as a vampire could sink his teeth into an alabaster neck… there it is on:

Vintage Vinyl

My official Tumblr site!

While the Tumblr focuses on cool vinyl records, in recent days we’ve also made posts on awesome art, vintage advertising, weird toys, pulp novels, and outer space.

I hope you enjoy this foray into more frequent sharing of interesting things, and if YOU have a Tumblr, don’t be shy… feel free to reblog any of the images you find on Vintage Vinyl. We’re scouring the universe for cool finds to share with our followers, so let us know about your interesting finds!

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It’s no secret—I’m a collector.

I like filling my house with things I find visually appealing: art, toys, vintage radios, books, record albums, religious artifacts, and more. Before you envision a floor-to-rafters disaster of claustrophobic madness, allow me to interject that all my collections are tastefully displayed throughout my home as part of the natural living environment. So, you don’t walk into The Penguin Room or find walls of glass display cases filled with porcelain frogs.

Full Disclosure
Okay, I do have a whole room of CDs, but that’s more a storage issue than it is an obsessive desire to turn my home into a museum. And, yeah, I do have all my robots crowded together atop a vintage bar, but doesn’t it make sense to display them there when a giclee of Mark Ryden’s Princess Sputnik hangs right above?

My preference for displaying collectables is to instead spread things around so that visitors are greeted with pleasant surprises as they move from room to room. So, in my kitchen you might find a bright red Philco radio from the 1950s, while the bedroom features a vintage Bendix from the decade prior. Each fits the decor of that room and allows individual pieces to standout and shine.

Classic Silvertone circa 1962. This one is in my bedroom.

Amongst my mélange is a collection of vintage record players that dot each room like bass notes on a rock’n’roll score. Reminders, no matter where I choose to spend my time, that music is always close and a very big part of my life. Note, by the way, my rather deliberate use of “record player” as opposed to “turntable,” which otherwise carries far more sophistication and glamor than the nostalgic pieces I choose to collect. The pieces in my collection were never intended to reproduce sophisticated music in lush auditory waves of perfectly balanced tones. No! These were audio workhorses meant to blast horrific sound through gravel-pitched grills that would shake the table, rock the floors and crumble your neighbor’s walls! Equipment that could be grabbed by the handle, hauled into the trunk of a car, and plugged into any waiting outlet for an instant party!

These are RECORD PLAYERS, dammit!

My collection leans heavily towards record players that would have been used by kids and teens—or maybe a renegade DJ on the go. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Decorated on all sides with alphabet block illustrations

To the left is a very early piece made by PAL, probably in the 1940’s, and—from the case illustrations—is obviously intended for very small children. I found this record player ages ago on eBay and it took YEARS to air out the rancid smell of cigarette smoke. If this wonderful piece could talk, I’m sure it would tell caustic tales of emphysema and the dangers of second hand smoke. I imagine a sour faced mom wearing slippers and a dingy bathrobe, angrily beating at a bowl of eggs on a formica counter, as an unfiltered Camel hangs from her lip dangling ash above her child’s breakfast. “Get in here and eat before I smack you!” she hacks. “And quit with that noise! You’ll go deaf!

Tonearm pickup with built-in speaker

This wonderful piece only plays 78 RPM discs and “features” a speaker built right into the tonearm, and a needle that more closely resembles a small finishing nail than it does anything meant to gently coax beautiful music from the delicate grooves of a record. Ah! Music as soft and dulcet as the graceful treble clef embossed on the side. Pretty cool, but let’s take a closer look at that needle…

Close-up of the "stylus" (better suited for excavating vast caverns of bedrock)

Yikes! Something tells me that records didn’t last much longer than a single play before that single groove of glorious music was worn down to a wide gully of scratchy sound. And, remember, that steel-tipped bad boy is part of a “toy” targeted to 4 and 5 year olds. Kids were so much more resilient back in the day! So what if their record player was capable of puncturing flesh? And bone? (Whiny modern day parents…)

Newcomb EDT-12 CP in my library

In most rooms of my house you’ll find a record player on display, somewhere. Some are tucked into corners, some act as doorstops, and others function as pieces of mid-century industrial art. Take, for example, the record player on the right. It’s displayed atop a plant stand beneath a painting by Los Angeles artist Gary Baseman (and beside a shelf of vintage books and curios). I found this record player while on a business trip to San Antonio and knew it had to be mine, because:

  • It’s small
  • It’s portable
  • It’s yellow!

Best of all, there is a serial number and other bits of bureaucratic etching on the top surface identifying the record player as belonging to the San Antonio Independent School District. How cool! Real, authentic elementary school AV equipment! And where better place to display AV equipment than in my library, right?

This is a four-speed player (16, 33, 45, and 78 rpm) with a generously sized speaker built-in beneath the platter and tonearm. Underneath are little springy feet that absorb vibrations and prevent skipping. I believe this dates back to the mid 1970’s and it’s made like a tank, no doubt anticipating the clumsy roughhousing of pimply-face electronics geeks racing AV carts down the corridors of the local elementary school. It has a snap-on cover and I got it back to San Diego as my carry-on luggage on the flight back home.

Yes, it works! (And... it's yellow!)

So, if I have a AV-issue record player in the library, what do I have in the dining room? A jukebox, of course! And not just any jukebox like those fancy Wurlitzers that trend followers drool over because of the name, the bubble lights, and the Cadillac-reputation of the Wurlitzer as an icon of 1950 “cool.” But let’s face it, the Wurlitzer was a “country club” jukebox, made to fill time at the club when the band was on a 15 minute break. It played nice, safe, acceptable music for nice, safe, acceptable people in the community.

Rock-ola Super Rocket — the coolest jukebox ever

My jukebox is a 1951 Rock-Ola Super Rocket, the best jukebox ever because it inspired the design of Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet. You weren’t going to find a Rock-Ola at the country club. Nor were you going to find one in a fine restaurant or the lounge of a respectable hotel. The Rock-Ola lived in pool halls, bars, bowling alleys, and juke joints. Anywhere dangerous music might be heard, there you’d find a Rock-Ola. The jukebox in the basement of the Delta house in Animal House was a Rock-Ola, fer christsake!

I picked up my Rock-Ola in Portland and it plays 78’s using two styluses mounted to the tonearm: one right-side-up to play the A-side, and one upside-down (with the record spinning in the opposite direction) to play the B-side. The machine is in fairly excellent condition, with the exception of two small star-like cracks on the see-through dome, which I suspect (or perhaps hope) are scars from a bar room brawl; punches and pool cues flying through the air as Bobby Fuller Four sings a lament of fighting the law (and, alas, the law won).

The Voice of Music 210 — made in the USA in 1953

Also occupying space in the dining room is the record player you see to the left—a beautiful little portable phonograph manufactured by the Voice of Music Corporation in 1953. I featured this record player in one of my fine art photographs, Red discovers there is more to life than living in a house made of straw, and have twice included it in large installations that demonstrate the three dimensional aspect of my work.

There are a few others scattered around the house. Some that work, and others that could use a bit of an audio tuneup. Click through the slideshow below to see more of these relics that double as accents of vintage home decor!

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Okay, so I think most people who know me are well aware that my favorite album of all time is London Calling by The Clash, rated as such for no better reason than it simply is the greatest album ever recorded in any universe known to humankind. There. That was easy; no question about it.

So what’s second on the list I’ve never actually taken the time to sit down and pencil out on the back of an envelope? Hmmm… Maybe something by Bruce Springsteen? Prince? David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Beatles or Pixies?


I gave this decision about 12 seconds of thought and quickly came to the conclusion that Ian Hunter’s 1979 slab of insanely great audio—You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic—is my second favorite album of all time.

You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic – Ian Hunter, 1979

Okay, full disclosure. I was motivated to arrive at this conclusion upon purchasing the 30th Anniversary Edition of Schizophrenic in a deluxe two CD set, and listening to the album all the way through for the first time since… When? College? In any case, I supposed you might judge my sudden proclamation of Greatness (with a capitol G) as being just a little less than thoroughly debated.

What?!?! Wait a minute. Second favorite? Of all time? When you haven’t even listened to the album in countless decades?

Well, yeah (and thank you for assuming that it’s been “countless decades” since I was in college).

And just why have you not listened to the album in all this time if you claim it ranks soooo highly on your list of all time favorites? What did you do? Forget it exists? Huh? Tell me that Blogger Guy!

Good question. Indeed, way back when I had the album on vinyl and (as was the case for every album in my cherished record collection) dutifully transferred the music to cassette tape on first play so as to not expose my precious vinyl to any unnecessary wear and tear. Horrors to have the grooves of my records touched by a diamond stylus more than once!

Me? Paranoid? Nah…
Let us quickly note that this first playing of the record took place with the volume of my stereo set to zero so as not to introduce any sonic vibration into my listening environment. So, basically, all of my many hundreds of vinyl records have been played exactly once. And, since the volume was set to zero… I’ve never actually heard any of my vinyl playing.

You do realize what a dichotomy it is to be soooo ultra paranoid about preserving the surface and sound quality of your records when you are transferring the music to AN INFERIOR FORMAT, right?!?!?

Yes, I do. Don’t bug me. I embrace my peculiar ways! Besides, I had very, very nice tape decks, and always used metal particle tapes. Now, will you please quiet down and let me get on with writing about Ian Hunter’s incredibly great album? Thank you.

But first, a retraction…
It’s not exactly true that all of my vinyl has been played exactly once. There are many LPs—especially live albums—that I’d haul into school during my disc jockey days at KCPR, San Luis Obispo. Though the station boasted a really great record library, mine was better. As such, my Play Only Once rule, was occasionally broken for the sake of Radio Excellence.

With Schizophrenic safely on cassette tape, I had the luxury of portability; something we take for granted in today’s digital age. Way back when, this was a really big deal. I could listen at home, pop the tape into my Sony Walkman, and keep the album in almost constant rotation on the tape deck in my car. When records gave way to CDs I told myself that I’d only buy CDs of music I didn’t already have, reasoning that I could still listen to cassettes (and car stereos with CD players were priced at princely sums). That promise didn’t last long, and today most of my vinyl has been supplanted by CDs (with all 60,000-plus songs now committed to the digital domain of iTunes).

Welcome To The Club — Ian Hunter, 1980

I have a big chunk of the Ian Hunter catalog on CD, but You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic somehow slipped through the cracks. With as many CDs as I own, I probably just naturally assumed that I already had such an important disc. Or maybe when in an Ian Hunter mood my mouse would dial-up his totally terrific double live LP from 1980, Welcome To The Club, which includes spirited live versions of many of Schizophrenic’s songs played in front of an enthusiastic crowd at LA’s Roxy Theater.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that it finally dawned on me that You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic is not, in fact, included in my gigantic hoard of compact discs. This sin was immediately rectified with the purchase of the aforementioned 30th Anniversary Edition, which expands the original LP with a nice collection of bonus tracks, PLUS a second disc filled with live recordings from the tour that supported the album’s original release. Yay!! Yeah, I already have most of these live recordings on concert tapes I’ve obtained through the years, but the sound quality of the CD is amazing, and it’s much more satisfying to hear Ian scream a choice obscenity during Mott The Hoople’s “All The Way From Memphis,” than the radio-friendly Beeeeep! that mired my previous recording.

Okay, this History Of Recorded Music Formats is nice and all, and I’ve read this far, but isn’t it about time you actually tell us why you like this particular album?

Well, first of all, it’s Ian Hunter, and Ian was the lead singer and de factor leader of Mott The Hoople. Points for that! The album also features the guitar work of Mick Ronson. You know… the guy from David Bowie’s Spider of Mars who was responsible for all the insane guitar craziness of tracks like “Jean Genie,” “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust.” Add to that the rhythm section of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band: drummer Max Weinberg, bassist Gary Tallent, and keyboardist Roy Bittan, who—oh yeah—had previously provided piano for David Bowie on Station To Station. Max, Gary and Roy had just completed Springsteen’s epic Darkness tour, and provide the drive and backbone to every track on Schizophrenic.

By the way, did I mention yet that John Cale (he of the Velvet Underground) plays keyboards on one of Schizophrenic’s cornerstone tracks?

And, just to keep the namedropping ball rolling…! The album also features background vocals from Ellen Foley (the woman with the huge voice on Meatloaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”) who was the subject of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” while dating Mick Jones of The Clash. Mick went on to produce Ian Hunter’s next studio album, Short Back ‘n Sides, and appeared in a memorable scene in Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy, alongside his girlfriend and three-quarters of The Clash, credited, simply, as “Street Scum.” You’ll also find Blue Oyster Cult’s Eric Bloom contributing backing vocals to the album, and right at the bottom of the liner notes on the back cover of the original vinyl 12″, Ian offers “Thanks to Bruce Springsteen.”

Ah! But can potentially great list of credits for an album suffer the same level of utter disappointment as so many star-filled Hollywood Holiday Blockbusters (i.e. New Years Eve, Valentines Day and any film where “big names” are shuffled in and out of cameo laden scenes like aces from a magician’s deck of cards)?

In this case, yes! The album holds up exceptionally well over the 30-plus years since its original release. The songs are well-crafted, and filled with excellent hooks and crisp playing. Standout tracks include “Just Another Night,” “Cleveland Rocks,” “Standing In My Light” and “Ships,” which Barry Manilow had the good taste to cover and take to the top ten—even though his interpretation was insipid, smarmy, and filled with enough rancid cheese to drive audiences across the globe into fits of auditory lactose intolerance.

So sorry about that…

And since I can’t come to you, live and in person, to properly eradicate the scourge of Barry Manilow from your brain with steel wool and Liquid Plummer, let me instead offer up vintage Ian Hunter from Cleveland’s Agora Ballroom during the summer of 1979 performing “Just Another Night” with Ellen Foley guesting on background vocals. The audio of this track (in much better quality!) is included on the live bonus disc that comes with the 30th anniversary set.

And, from the very same show (and, again, included on the 30th anniversary release), it’s “Cleveland Rocks” in, of course, Cleveland. Three! Four!

Ian Hunter is now, shockingly, 72 years old (!) an age I almost refuse to accept! He’s still touring and recording, most recently completing a 2011 fall tour of the northeastern US.

Man Overboard — Ian Hunter, 2009

In 2009 he released the nifty Man Overboard, but be on the lookout for Live At Rockpalast, a vintage recording from the vaults released this past year on CD and DVD, capturing a 1980 performance from Germany.

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French Pastry - Eddie Barclay & His Orchestra

Who here likes vintage album covers? Okay, basically, everyone! Vintage records are cool! They’re big! They’re bold! They’re colorful! But best of all, they often feature wholesome looking gals of decades past acting as naughty and provocative as the standards of the day would bear. What’s not to like?

Collecting Vinyl

To the right is one such vintage album find, French Pastry by Eddie Barclay & His Orchestra, released by Mercury Records in 1958. Yes, that’s 53 years ago! Sadly, they just don’t release covers like this anymore, and the world is surely a sadder place. Once upon a time, record and department stores were filled with beautifully cheesy covers like French Pastry, printed in all their 12″ square glory on glossy cardboard sleeves. But today—with most music sold digitally or on compact disk—all you get is a teeny tiny jpeg or a skimpy little booklet crammed into a 5″ plastic case. Still, visual treasures of the past wait patiently in thrift shops and garage sales, in dusty attics and dingy basements. Vinyl collecting is on the rise as new generations of music fans discover the undeniable appeal of LP album covers.

Web sites dedicated to vintage vinyl collecting can be found all over the web with more blogs popping up all the time sharing the best, wildest and most exotic that vinyl has to offer. My own humble collection is shared on several sites, with galleries available on Facebook, Flickr, and MobileMe.

Where do all these images come from? Is there a vast database somewhere akin to Amazon or the iTunes Store where seemingly every album cover ever released is available for download? Nope. You won’t find French Pastry in iTunes and the image that appears on Amazon falls into the “don’t do this” category we’ll discuss in a moment. In fact, some of the very best strange-but-true garage sale finds can’t be found anywhere on the web. So… if you plan on sharing your cover collection with the world, it’s up to you to create a decently postable image that can be shown off with pride!

Ideally, the task of digitizing your vinyl treasures would be as simple as laying your album covers onto a scanner bed to capture the spectacular artwork. Unfortunately, as very few commercial scanners feature a platen that will accommodate the 12″ horizontal and vertical dimensions of a record album, your next best bet is to set up a makeshift Album Cover Photo Studio and shoot photos of your collection. We’re not talking anything fancy: no light tents, fancy soft lights or expensive gear. Just a few simple tips and techniques using a point’n’shoot camera to take photos every bit as nice as the covers themselves.

A little diversionary history

I began photographing my LP collection a couple of years ago as a means of building a database of images I could quickly reference when planning new photos. As many of you know, my fine art work uses vintage LPs, books, and other printed material as backdrops for the three dimensional scenes I build and photograph. With my LPs stored in iPhoto, I’m able to open the Record Covers album, and leisurely flip through hundreds of covers as I consider whatever narrative theme I next wish to explore. This is a lot easier than flipping through crate after crate of poly-bagged record albums that line one wall of my studio.

Over the past couple of years I’ve shot close to 500 images of album covers, and (for the most part) the images I’ve captured look pretty great. Oh, sure, not every cover I’ve snapped is picture perfect (and I do plan on going back someday and correcting those anomalies), but the standards for snapping a nice web-friendly picture of an album cover is somewhat below MOMA-quality photography. The “good-enough” bar you set for your record collection will be up to you.

Learning from the mistakes of the masses

Record leaned against the wall with evil flash on

To get started, let’s learn a little from a set of photos that don’t at all do justice to the great cover imagery they mean to capture. When I see photos like these I imagine the son or daughter of a vinyl aficionado liquidating dad’s lovingly cared for collection, one album at a time, as if they were snow globes at a Waikiki giftshop. To the right is a photo typical of internet auction sites, where cover art photography often takes on the feel of a slipshod assembly line: set ’em up, snap the shutter, next! Here, the record is propped up on a table and leaning against a wall, with the photo shot standing a couple of feet away. Let’s see how low this shot scores on the entirely arbitrary Bad Album Photo Scale:

  1. The flash is reflected off the glossy cover. -200 points
  2. The perspective is way off. Aren’t album covers supposed to be square? -1000 points
  3. The text is very difficult to read. -50 points
  4. The final photo isn’t cropped. -25 points
Our grand total of -1275 is atrocious! Here’s another example of what not to do…

Record laying on the floor, with evil flash on

For some reason, people think they can take a good photo of an album cover if they lay the cover flat on the ground and shoot it from overhead. Actually, that’s not a bad idea, but neither is it a good idea. Unless you have a super fancy tripod that provides for overhead shots, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to hold the camera still at a perfect 90° angle. Plus, just think of how ridiculous you’ll look straddling over the record shooting down between your legs. And even with the aforementioned super fancy tripod, the camera (unless your lens is also super fancy) is likely going to be too close to the record to avoid excessive optical distortion like the dreaded barrel effect.

Again, as with the previous Don’t Do This shot, the flash is turned on, just to reinforce that you should definitely not use a flash when photographing album covers.

Perspective hell! (but at least the flash bounces away)

A variation of the flat-on-the-floor technique is the flat-on-the-table technique, see to the right. News alert! Getting the lens perpendicular to the surface is even more difficult when leaning forward over a table, so most aspiring album photogs end up standing beside the table and shooting down at an angle of roughly 60°. I call this the Star Trek Opening Credits effect. Some auction sellers try to pretty-up the flat-on-the table technique with their own variations: flat-on-the-bed or flat-on-an-ugly-quilt. But they fool no one!

One more, shall we?

Uh... does your white balance match your lighting?

Ooooo… look! It’s picnic time at the Home for Jaundiced Swingers! Just like you don’t want yellow pictures of real people, you don’t want yellow pictures of the ultra hip people on your incredibly cool record albums. Let this photo be a reminder to match your white balance to your lighting. Use whatever tricks you have up your sleeve: gray cards, controlled lighting, camera presets… just don’t post yellow people to the web!

Some What not to do Rules

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned from all the really bad photos:

  1. Do not use a flash.
  2. Don’t shoot from an angle that alters the record’s dimensions.
  3. Don’t place the camera too close to the album cover.
  4. Did I mention not to use a flash?

Setting up your own Album Cover Studio

Finally! We’re now ready to begin talking about “how to take decent photos of record albums” (and thank you for reading this far). And guess what? It’s really not that hard! All you have to do is keep the camera steady, set it far enough from the album to avoid optical distortion, and aim right at the very center of the cover. Easy, right? Maybe so, but hopefully the tips below will prove useful in improving the quality of your shots.

First… determine where you’re going to be taking your album cover photos. A formal studio with a light tent and special lighting is nice, but not really necessary. In fact, I rarely use my studio when photographing records; it’s just too much trouble to pull out the light tent, the floodlights, the high-tech space-age tripod, the “nice” camera, etc….  Here’s what to look for when choosing a place to take album cover photos:

  • Good light. Make that really good light.
  • A table or level surface that’s up, off the ground.
  • Enough space in front for a tripod and “distortion elimination distance” (4 to 6 feet is good).

DIY "cover studio" in my sunroom with lots of natural light

I use the sunroom off my bedroom (formerly, an open balcony when my house was first built 80+ years ago) for my Album Cover Studio. This is a perfect spot for shooting album covers, as I get lots of natural light and have a low bookshelf that’s just the right height for setting up covers and shooting them with my Canon SD1000.

My setup is to the left. In the background is the main work area, where each cover is placed and photographed. I’m very fortunate to have a large window over the bookcase that faces due west. There is also a bank of windows to the right, so I usually shoot covers mid morning when the sun is directly over the house and not yet spilling in through the windows. With so much bright natural light coming into the room I’m able to use the auto white balance setting on my point’n’shoot, and rarely have to make white balance adjustments in post processing. The arrangement is also nice, as there is space to the left for a stack of yet-to-be-photographed records, and it’s quick and easy to move records from the stack to the “stage” and off to the right to be “re-sleeved” and filed away.

If you can’t use natural light, select a room with as much artificial light as possible, and remember to set the white balance on your rig accordingly.

What you’ll need

First… use a tripod. A tripod will keep your camera steady and, moreover, guarantee that every shot you take is aimed at the exact same point. As you can see above, once the work area and tripod is set, album covers can easily be shuffled in and out of the “studio” without having to recompose every shot. Point. Focus. Click. Guess what? You’ve built a very large scanner! And as long as each cover is placed in the exact same spot, you’ll get a perfect photo every time.
Note: Don’t feel like you have to go all crazy on the tripod. Again, we’re taking simple pictures. I leave my pro tripod in the studio, and instead use a simple, 20 buck tripod with a built in level that I retired from my fine art work a couple of years back. Why? Because it’s easier to fold up and carry to the spot I use as a makeshift album cover studio, and I’m not ultra paranoid about vibrations when photographing album covers.

Next, let’s take a closer look at the work area.

Black mats used to reduce glare (for some covers... but not all!)

I use a pair of black mats to act as a backdrop (Hey! You could use a large grey card to later calibrate the white balance! How about that?) and base. The base mat serves two purposes: one, there is a hash marked on the left side to indicate where the edge of each album is to be placed, and; two, it eliminates reflections from glossy covers.

Though you can’t see it in the photo, the background mat is propped up using a standard metal library bookend, which also serves to hold the cover as vertical as possible. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at balancing album covers a hair’s breadth from the tipping point, but here’s a nice tip for insuring that your covers remain vertical: use a second bookend placed near the right edge of the album and secure the cover with a paperclip placed just inside the back cover, like so:

Paper clip inside back cover to hold album as vertical as possible

Setting the album cover at a nice 90° vertical angle is essential to eliminating many of the perspective problems we saw in the set of “bad cover shots.” Up and down perspective becomes skewed as your camera moves below or above the album’s vertical centerline, while left and right skewing is introduced as the camera moves right or left of the horizontal center. Basically, you want your lens to be square to the very center of the album cover, which in most cases is 12 ³⁄₈ inches square. Think you can eyeball these dimensions? Don’t kid yourself! The eye and the brain are funny things that frequently agree on matters of perspective. But until you get your carefully eyeballed photos before the rigid constraints of the Straighten and Crop tools on your computer, you don’t really know how bad we are at judging fine angles and distances. Compounding this unfortunate human reality, the closer your camera stands to a square, flat object, the more pronounced seemingly minor miscalculations will appear in the resulting image.

Luckily, we have marvelous inventions like rulers, tape measures and T-squares to assist our lying eyes.

Setting the tripod height

Most covers are 12¼" high. Center of cover is at half this height.

We can find the vertical center of a typical cover by placing an album at the edge of our workspace, and measuring the distance from the floor to the top of the cover. Then, simply subtract half the cover height and you have the distance from the floor to the center of your lens. In the example above:

40 ⁵⁄₈” — 6 ¹⁄₈”  =  34 ½”

So, in this example, the height of my tripod—from floor to the midpoint of my camera lens—is measured out to be exactly 34 ½ inches.

Hey, wait a second…. Didn’t you earlier say that album covers are 12 ³⁄₈” square? How come you’re using 6 ¹⁄₈” , which would be half of 12 ¼ inches?

Well, yes, I did, that is the correct standard, but in practice you’ll find that most older covers seem to be 12 ¼” square. Perhaps they shrink… like grandparents. Besides, do you really want to deal with 16ths of an inch after halving the height?

Finding the horizontal center

Determining the horizontal center of the album is again very simple. The center will be half the width of the album, measured from the left edge. Again, assuming a width of 12 ¼ inches, the horizontal center will be  6 ¹⁄₈ inches from the left edge. So, with an album in place on the “stage,” measure 6 ¹⁄₈ inches from the left edge of the album, set a mark on the base mat, and align the tripod so that the camera lens is centered on this mark. Easier said than done, since we haven’t yet talked about the distance between the album cover and the tripod. For now, just note the center mark and place the tripod as close to the album cover as possible with the lens aligned with the center mark.

Note: If you’re using a camera that supports auto focusing points, you can get really fancy by placing rubber bands around a test album at the horizontal and vertical middles. Where the rubber bands cross is the absolute center of the album cover. Move the tripod horizontally from left to right while keeping the camera perpendicular to the album cover (do not swivel the tripod head, as this will alter left/right perspective), and use the center autofocus point as a guide for finding the point at which the rubber bands cross. When the autofocus point is dead center over the crossing point—bam!—you’ve found the horizontal center of the album cover.

Setting the distance from the camera to the cover

Remember, close is generally “not good.”

How can that be? Close is always good! Look at this fantastic photo I took of a bee pollenating this sexy flower!

Close may be good for the amorous ways of nature, but it introduces lots of problems when photographing square images. Imagine, for a second, that you have super wide angle lens and place your camera one inch away from the center of the record album.

Great! See? It’s just like bee porn!

Ah, you may be one inch from the center, but geometry tells us that you’re now also 6 inches from the edges, and 8 inches from the corners. Good luck with that. Next, think about all those street-level photos you see of buildings, where vertical walls seem to shoot off at diagonals towards the corners of the picture frame. Yet, buildings shot from a distance appear as they rectangularly should. From closeup, the angle between the camera and the building’s edges is very wide, approaching 90° as you’re about to press that expensive lens to the granite facade. As you pull the camera back, the angle becomes increasingly small, approaching zero as the building fades off into the horizon.

The same holds true for album covers. As you pull the camera back from the center point, the angle to the edges and corners becomes smaller and smaller, and the picture you take will become, well, more album-like, with straight edges and nice 90° corners.

The same effect is achieved by increasing the focal length. But don’t go too crazy; there’s no need to slap on your telephoto and shoot your album covers from half a block away. Depending on your camera and lens, a focal length of around 17 to 20mm should work great. On my Canon SD1000, I zoom to 3x, which is the optical limit for my camera before going into digital. This works out to a focal length of 17.4mm.

Note: You definitely don’t want to use digital zoom when photographing album covers, or pretty much anything else except for spy surveillance photos that are intentionally all pixelated and blurry to raise “reasonable doubt” when you present your “clandestine mob meeting” photos in court. Digital zoom is evil; it’s like taking an jpeg of an postage stamp and blowing it up to the size of a building.

3x zoom with the tripod close to the cover

Getting back to our example, turn on live display mode and zoom to a reasonable focal length (as above, the 3x level for my SD1000). Initially, the LCD display will be filled with a zoomed portion of the album’s center. Slowly pull the tripod back along the horizontal center line, being careful to keep the camera parallel to the plane of the album cover. If one side of the tripod scoots back a little more than the other, so too does that side of your lens, and you’ll be introducing left/right perspective skew. You can see this effect through the LCD display: the album may be horizontally centered in the frame, but the top and bottom edges on one side will appear slightly taller than the edges on the opposite side. Isn’t geometry fun? (Or, frustrating?)

Note: Feel free to use a T-square, a fancy laser level, equal lengths of string, or whatever other trick you may have up your sleeve to remain on the centerline. I use the seam between the boards of my hardwood floors, which are perpendicular to the bookshelf workspace.

3x zoom (17.4mm focal length) several feet away

Pull back far enough for the entire cover to be visible on the LCD display. Unless you have a very steady hand (and have made absolutely precise 16th of an inch measurements), you’ll invariably introduce a little bit of left/right skewing to the image in the LCD. No big deal. If the right edge looks a little taller than the left, then the right side of the lens is a little closer to the cover than the left.

You could correct this problem by nudging the right side of the tripod back just a hair, but once you start fiddling with the tripod you’ll soon find yourself in a frustrating battle of left/right overcorrection.

A better solution is to make these final fine adjustments to the album cover itself. It’s much easier to move the right side of the cover back a smidgen, than it is to move the tripod—especially if the album cover is being supported by a moveable object (like a bookend) as opposed to a wall or window.

Finally! Let’s take a picture!

This is the easy part. The camera is far enough away to reduce distortion, it’s at the right height, and the lens is pointing at the very center of the album cover. But before you shoot that vinyl envy photo, carefully check the LCD for any unwanted glare or reflections. Some of the very best album covers frequently sport high gloss covers that will produce glare or reflect light in unwanted ways. You could eliminate glare with a circular polarizing filter (and I will applaud your dedication), but remember—we’re leaving all the fancy equipment in the studio, and you’re unlikely to have a filter available for your point’n’shoot. I typically eliminate unwanted sources of light by shadowing glare spots with additional black mats or cardboard card. Or (since I use natural light), I just wait until a time when the sun is in a different spot in the sky.

My cover photos are all shot in Manual mode with the flash turned off, and I pretty much allow the camera to do everything else, though I sometimes increase the exposure time if the light is lower than desired. We’re shooting on a tripod so we have the luxury of longer exposures. Your particular lighting conditions will certainly dictate the camera settings. Just remember to turn off the built-in flash!

Post processing

Click! We have a picture.

Cropping the photo

Above is the captured photo—black mats and all—in iPhoto’s full screen editing mode. Depending on how well you were able to level your camera and keep it square to the cover, you may wish to apply a small amount of straightening so that text and vertical images aren’t tilting out of control. Luckily, in the example above, the lines appear to be pretty true.

Next, use the Crop tool to edit out everything but the cover, as illustrated above. Don’t worry about cropping your image absolutely square; few album covers measure precisely 12 ³⁄₈ inches along every side. The best you can hope to do is keep every corner of the Crop tool inside the dimensions of the album cover. In any case, the final, cropped image will be reasonably close to square.

Note: When cropping covers like the one above, where the original image has been pasted just inside the edges of the cardboard sleeve leaving a border around the image, you may find that the edges of the crop tool will cut into that border, resulting in thin slanted “slivers” around an otherwise square album cover. In these cases I simple crop inside the border, leaving a nice, square, full bleed image.

That’s it! All that’s left to do is apply image adjustments to your heart’s content. Now, get out there and get your cool cover collection up on the web!

Questions? Comments? Let’s here your tricks and techniques!

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Today, for the first time in many years, I was able to indulge myself in a great pleasure. I listened to a vinyl LP on a high end audio system. Cue sighs of pleasure and rapt enjoyment.

Once upon a time, back in the day when matters of quality over convenience were actually important, I suppose I could have been classified an audio snob. My stereo was the envy of everyone in my dorm.  It was the centerpiece of my first apartment.  I bought LPs imported from Japan pressed on the heaviest virgin vinyl, which I diligently cleaned before each playing. I owned an anti-static ion gun to ward off lint and other contaminants. On first listen, new albums were meticulously archived to costly metal particle tape to best preserve my audio investment, and all of my music was played  through speakers that would make any recording engineer proud.

Yes, that's a Japanese pressing of "London Calling" signed by Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon

It was an effort to play a record; something you “did” with a purpose — “I’m going to listen to records,” which entailed flipping through the large colorful cover in your collection (each a work of art in their own right) looking for just the proper selection, pulling the sleeve from the cover, sliding the record from the sleeve, and carefully cueing up the vinyl on your record player. Waiting, then, for the music to begin after the outer groove has completed a few scratchy revolutions. Playing music was almost a personal accomplishment, and you had the feeling that you had a role in making this glorious sound fill your room.

Way back when, audio equipment didn’t come built into your computer, and wasn’t purchased at Walmart, Target, or Costco. There were all kinds of places to buy stereo components: Pacific Stereo, Leo’s Stereo, Mad Jack’s…  Audio stores popped up in malls, hi-fi shops were scattered all over town, and — if you risked the ads found in the backs of audiophile magazines (there were once many!) — discounted audio equipment could be yours (sales tax free!) from retailers all across the country. Selecting audio equipment was a serious endeavor on the same scale as shopping for a new car. Research was required. Experts were consulted. Listening trips were scheduled. Each component was selected, matched, and integrated to provide the ultimate listening experience.

Then came compact discs. A job with superhuman demands. A 60,000-plus song iTunes library.

Ah, convenience! I could call up any song at any time with just the click of a button. Stream playlists from my office to the living room. Pause. Duplicate. Rewind. Yay!

Trouble is… for the most part, the audio quality of the music I was listening to was every bit as poor as it was convenient. Basically, the sound was “good enough” for the circumstances — listening at work, in a coffee shop, on the run. Busy, busy busy! Music to mask the rest of the day, no matter how thin and muddy that music might sound. How sad.

Yeah, yeah… I know, you don’t have to listen to digital music through substandard audio gear, but — let’s be honest — that’s how most people listen to music in our Brave New World of audio infidelity.

But let’s get back to the present and my blissful experience of listening to an actual record album…

About a year ago I left that “job with superhuman demands” and decided to embark on a career as an artist and writer. No longer would I be stuck in an office or a lab; I’d be free to listen to music in the comfort of my own home. For the most part, I split my work day between my upstairs office and the photography studio I’ve built in the guesthouse outside. Luckily, the quality of the audio produce by my iMac is surprisingly good (better, even, than “acceptable”). So, while I’m adjusting photos, working on videos, dashing off an email, or writing blog entries about classic audio, my ears are happy. Audio in the studio, however, has been another matter. Yes, I was able to get music into the studio via wifi from the iMac, but the equipment there to amplify and actually play the music was… woeful. And given that music is an essential part of my creative process… it suddenly became abundantly clear that my home was due for a complete Home Audio Makeover.

Bear in mind that I use the term “makeover” in the most literal sense. I’m not one to rush off to a high end audio shop (few that there may be left standing) and solve my problem by plunking down thousands of dollars on brand new equipment. Nay! Not when I have perfectly (?) good equipment sitting around the house gathering dust. So what if this equipment dates back to my college days and (in some cases) has not been powered on since the Clinton administration? Audio quality is one thing, but aesthetics is quite another, and — let’s face it — all this old equipmnet just looks completely COOL!! I could restore it! Rebuild it! Bring my audio equipment back to life!

Sansui G5000 Stereo Receiver

First on the agenda would be the stereo receiver I’d purchased as a college freshman — a Sansui G5000. The receiver is beautiful! Wooden case, brushed aluminum and glass… a wide, backlit tuning dial and glowing LED’s that look awesome in a dark room. Just the thing for listening to music in my bedroom. Alas, this wonderful piece of vintage audio had long ago been boxed and pirated away to the attic; the victim of newer technology when I “upgraded” to NAD separates (which are really great audio components, but visually have all the warmth of a Stanley Kubrick film).

To my great and immense pleasure, after hauling the box down from the attic and plugging everything in… it still worked! Yay! However, the FM tuner wasn’t at all accurate, consistently sticking on a local station that brought great offense to my ears, and — horrors! — the magical, twinkling lights were NOT working! Clearly, this was not acceptable. My beloved analog receiver deserved better.  Like a vintage automobile found in a dusty garage, it cried for restoration.

Unfortunately, audio repair in 2011 is not as simple as dropping your equipment off at the local high end audio retailer. Few repair shops exist, and most “repairs” amount to swapping out soulless printed circuit boards. I would need to find a true audio technician. A Leonardo Da Vinci of electronics. A Jonas Salk of capacitors and resistors. Luckily, in San Diego, such master technicians exist in a small shop called Classic Audio Repair in North Park along Adams Avenue. Each time I’ve been to the shop there has been a line of audiophiles waiting patiently for the doors to open at 10:45 (yes, 10:45 — not 10:30, not 11 o’clock), each lugging tube amps, turntables and speaker cones in hopes that their vintage piece of retro audio equipment can live a better life.

Does this scream "Hi Fi" or does this scream "Hi Fi"?!?!

The shop owner, Fred, liked my Sansui receiver and deemed it “a superior piece of equipment” before launching into a exacting soliloquy offering his opinion of the sad state of today’s stereo components. Two weeks later, my beloved receiver was back in my hands with the tuner spinning smoothly, the lights glowing bright, all the pushbuttons and knobs clicking just as I’d remembered in college.

I setup the receiver on a table in my bedroom along with a pair of exceptionally nice (and very affordable) Energy RC10 bookshelf speakers that deliver crisp, full sound — not that I’m actually delivering crisp, full sound to the speakers… to be honest, I’m mostly using the receiver to listen to the radio while I read, or to play music streamed to an Apple Airport Express from the iMac in the next room. Not super hi fidelity, but music played by a real stereo component instead of a box better suited to crunching numbers and browsing the web. Kind of the musical equivalent of burning real wooden logs in a fireplace, as opposed to flipping a switch and watching a blue flame of burning gas flickering over ceramic “logs.”

A real, live turntable. It plays "records". Really, really well.

Two weeks ago I took another piece of vintage college-days equipment into Classic Audio Repair: my Technics SL-1700 MKII direct drive turntable with an ADC cartridge. The turntable hasn’t worked for years, as the ON button had jammed and the mechanism that lifts the tonearm at the end of a record had quit working. The cartridge also needed a new  stylus, as the needle had been bent from my habit to “back cue” records from my days working as a college DJ (yay, KCPR!).

Unfortunately, as Fred explained, the automatic tonearm cueing function on these units had a tendency to wear out over time, and replacement mechanisms had long ago been discontinued. That said, he would be able to disable the automated cueing behavior and essentially convert the turntable to function manually.


Yes! This means that I have to place the record on the mat, physically lift the tonearm, move it over the record, and carefully set the needle down onto the grooves. At the end of the record, I have to listen to that beautiful end-of-the-record scritch, scratch of the inner groove, and lift the tonearm back to its resting point. Playing recorded music doesn’t get any more retro and hands on than that, and I love it!

And today the work was completed.

JBL 4311 Studio Monitors - the Holy Grail of speakers

I brought my trusty turntable home and set it up in the living room where the audio equipment is hidden inside a dilapidated green cabinet that looks as if it was rescued from a Burmese rainforest. That’s also where I keep the aforementioned NAD amp and tuner, along with a Sony CD player from the very dawn of the digital age, and miscellaneous other equipment that would be completely foreign to anyone born after 1990. The equipment from this room is connected to a pair of what quite possibly may be the best speakers known to man: JBL 4311 Studio Monitors in gorgeous mahogany cabinets. “Back in the day” these were the must-have speakers for every recording studio in the world. Radio stations used them in their sound rooms. Pete Towshend owns them and recently went to extraordinarily great lengths to recover his when they were stolen. JBL 4311s are like a one-of-a-kind vintage guitar or a pair of well broken-in running shoes. Once they are right, they are right, and there is simply no replacing them.

So that’s what I had at my fingertips this afternoon when I sat down in my living room with a stack of Record Day purchases to “listen to records”, something people just don’t really do anymore. More people should. It’s really fun. And music sounds so much more alive and “real” when a needle is gently settled into a groove and played through a a nice system in a big room.

I think I might open a record store. Wouldn’t that be fun?

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