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Revitalizing VR and Vinyl

The turn of the year always makes us look back on the last 12 months, whether due to planning for the year ahead or just singing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve.

The turn of the year always makes us look back on the last 12 months, whether due to planning for the year ahead or just singing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve. This year, however, it seems like we’re looking a bit further back than usual in the audio world, as inspiration for the future is definitely being drawn from the past. There’s always been some of that going on, particularly on the recording side with so many manufacturers and software developers rethinking classic pieces of gear, but we’re now also seeing it with two technologies that the general public left for dead in the Nineties—virtual reality and vinyl records.

Clive Young
While the concept of virtual reality has been around for decades, it first truly gained the public’s attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s, thanks to VR pioneer Jaron Lanier and his company VPL Research. Headlines trumpeted the coming virtual future, but only a few products came out back then—mostly toys and video games compromised by the processing power of the times. Compounding the problem was Hollywood, which started pumping out wretched sci-fi movies about VR that raised the public’s expectations far too high in an era where the height of personal computing was Windows 3.0.

So virtual reality faded from view, but of course, it never really went away, and in 2014, VR catapulted back into the public eye when Facebook dropped $2 billion to buy startup Oculus VR. Since then, Sony has announced its PlayStation VR headset, and both it and Oculus VR’s first product, The Oculus Rift, are due out this year. Meanwhile, Google has gotten into the act, too, with its Cardboard platform which turns a smartphone into a VR headset with the help of a D.I.Y. ViewMaster-like headset made of, you guessed it, cardboard.

This time around, pro audio will be a key factor in making the virtual experience work, according to Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Oculus VR, who said as much during his keynote address at the recent AES Convention in New York. Since then, the buzz about VR in pro audio circles has only grown, as reflected in this issue’s coverage of the annual SMPTE Technical Conference and Exhibition, and the AES Los Angeles Section’s recent Virtual Reality for Consumer Media event, both of which explored how to approach audio creation for VR media.

If VR turns out to be the comeback technology of 2016, the revitalized tech of 2015 was certainly the vinyl record. Vinyl has made a spectacular return in recent years, but last year sent it over the top, as 9 million records were sold in the U.S. during the first half of 2015—an increase of 52 percent over the first six months of 2014 that also generated far more revenue than ad-supported streaming during that same time ($221.8 million vs. $162.7 million). The caveat, however, is that all those records were produced by a handful of pressing plants, all running finicky, decades-old machinery. New record presses haven’t been built since the 1980s and the cost of creating new ones has been seen as prohibitively expensive in the face of what may be a short-lived popularity, so vinyl’s upswing has left plants with months-long backlogs on order fulfillment, even as they work 24/7.

Answering the call is German startup Newbilt Machinery GmbH. and its U.S. partner, Record Products of America in Hamden, CT, which began shipping new presses in December at roughly $100,000 apiece. According to Newbilt, the presses sport “historically proven designs that work,” but also include advancements in electronic, hydraulic and control systems expected in modern manufacturing environments. Certainly Newbilt has gotten one high-profile endorsement: Former White Stripes frontman Jack White purchased eight presses which he expects to have running by Spring in a 10,000-square-foot plant behind his newly opened Third Man Records store in Detroit, MI.

Whether VR and vinyl can overcome their pasts and cement themselves as part of modern media consumption remains to be seen, but their resurgences—and what they might mean for pro audio in the future—are fascinating.