Put the needle on the record.

Photographer: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Analog Is Back From the Future

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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Forget hoverboards, fridges that talk to the Internet, and self-driving cars. Three of the most popular items at this month's annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas -- a cine camera, a record turntable and a new Polaroid snapper -- suggest there's a back-from-the-future movement gaining ground that reflects a growing fatigue with the virtual world of digital products, and a renewed enthusiasm for the old-fashioned analog experience.

It's a debate that rages in my house. My partner sniffs books as she opens them; she says it conjures up memories of childhood library visits that promised to make all of the world's knowledge and literary entertainment available. For her, the latest adventures of Bridget Jones in paperback, have all of the evocative power of Proust's madeleine cakes. Me, I've owned a Kindle since they first became available almost a decade ago; I can't remember the last time I bought an actual physical book.

It's the same with music. I consigned my CDs to posterity as soon as I'd spent the hours required to load them into iTunes and transfer them to an iPod; my partner's record collection sits on a shelf, sacrosanct even though neglected. But in Vegas, Panasonic revealed a revamped Technics SL-1200 direct drive turntable -- a record player that disappeared in 2010, and yet was so vital to the rise of the superstar DJ that the London Science Museum has a pair on display.

Panasonic says the move is a response to the so-called vinyl revival; Japanese electronics behemoth Sony also made a record player the star of its Las Vegas display. Sales of shiny black discs climbed by an annual 56 percent in the U.K. last year, according to the British Phonographic Industry (whose name looks far less archaic now), echoing a U.S. trend that the Nielsen research organization suggests has been accelerating in recent years:

Source: Nielsen

A penchant for old-school analog gear has been prevalent in music recording for years; YouTube is full of films featuring Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters boasting about an ancient Neve mixing desk he rescued. And even though the recording equipment my own band uses is all digital, we recently bought a little computer program that emulates the tape machine used by the Beatles in Abbey Road studios for vocals -- and it's awesome. The Panasonic move suggests the listening side of the music business is increasingly heading into the past, lured by what the company calls "the uniquely warm sound quality of analogue vinyl discs."

There may also be something to be said about the architecture of the listening experience with records versus downloads. I spent a happy hour listening to an Amazon-generated playlist called Best Prime Pop or somesuch. I can't recall the title of a single track it played, whereas I still remember every lyric to the first album I bought -- "Tonic for the Troops" by Bob Geldof's Boomtown Rats -- and I don't think that's just an age thing. David Bowie, who died this week, predicted way back in 2002 that music would become a utility "like running water or electricity." That seems to sum up streaming music services like Spotify.

It's not just sound that's hearkening backward. Vision is also having a digital backlash, with Polaroid deciding the ubiquity of mobile phones with built-in cameras leaves room for a $99 self-printing camera it calls the Snap. Wired magazine called it the "the cutest, most fun toy at CES." It seems people taking selfies are willing to wait the minute or so it takes for the chemicals to do their thing before the camera spits out a photo you can hold in your hand.

Kodak, for its part, is billing its Super 8 cine camera as an "Analog Renaissance," and for once the marketing department might not be guilty of hyperbole. "There are some moments that digital just can't deliver because it doesn't have the incomparable depth and beauty of film," it says. The revival comes more than three decades after Kodak abandoned the format.

An impressive parade of A-list filmmakers extoll the virtues of Super 8, ranging from Steven Spielberg to Christopher Nolan. But it's Quentin Tarantino who makes a compelling argument for why even amateurs might favor film over digital, arguing from a technical and aesthetic perspective rather than pure nostalgia:

When you’re filming something on film you aren’t recording movement, you’re taking a series of still pictures and when shown at 24 frames per second through a light bulb, THAT creates the illusion of movement. That illusion is connected to the magic of making movies.

For some people, cracking the spine on a book or listening for the crackle of the needle as it drops on to the spinning vinyl platter will always be irreplaceable. Maybe for the rest of us, a better marriage of analog and digital is the future. Sony's turntable lets you rip your vinyl discs to create audiophile-quality digital files. A prototype of the Kodak camera features a separate LCD display that lets you watch footage while you're filming. And Polaroid plans a more expensive version of its Snap that can connect to your phone to become a portable photo printer.

Me, I'm sticking with digital -- and conveniently ignoring that my favorite Christmas gift this year was a gorgeous New York Times travel book published by Taschen, bound in a cloth cover that's a tactile delight no Kindle download can replicate.

(In fifth paragraph, corrects the name of Dave Grohl's band to the Foo Fighters.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net