Guitarist Steve Vai explains his lasting love affair with vinyl records

By Jeb Wright

Fast-fingered guitar wizard Steve Vai is in a long-term, committed relationship with vinyl records. He’s so passionate about the format, he’s made it a point to put out his releases on vinyl. Vai offers up on the scoop on his “The Story of Light” trilogy, as well as his favorite recent record shop find.

GOLDMINE: This was a hard interview to schedule. You’re staying up all night and sleeping all day. Is that a creative thing, or just how you live?
STEVE VAI: It is not something I do normally; it’s rare. When I have a lot of work to do, I work at night because it is quiet. I get into my own little world.

GM: You are releasing your new album in vinyl. Tell me why.
SV: There is something very romantic about vinyl. It is a kickback to your youth. You get the vinyl album, and you get the album artwork. I used to just stare at album covers all day long. They you would get something like “Led Zeppelin III,” and I would listen to the album and play with the wheel; it was great.

Steve Vai

Steve Vai doesn’t consider himself to be an active record collector, but he does have a nice collection of vinyl. “I don’t go look for rare stuff. I just like to buy stuff that I like. The rarest records I own are some of the ones that I owned when I was a teenager; I still have them all,” he said. “I will go out and buy vinyl because I get a nostalgic kick from it.” Publicity photo.

GM: It really is sad that we have lost the art of the album cover. Jazz records would have so many liner notes that it was like reading a short book. The music would be over before you were finished!
SV: It was a nice experience. Now, you don’t get anything other than the download. And that’s okay, but it is a different listening experience. Years ago, I had my old turntable around, and my two boys were younger then. My one son, whose name is Fire, found the turntable and he didn’t know what it was. I told him what it was and ended up getting him a turntable. He got all of my records out and he would just listen to records all day; it was really great. I gave him all of my old Zappa records and we put one of them on and immediately there was just a different quality to it. There was such clarity and richness.

GM: My daughter, Cassidy, is 24, and she wanted a turntable a few years ago for Christmas, because she started listening to records.
SV: My wife bought me a really nice turntable, because I had a really crappy one. I wasn’t listening to vinyl much then, but when she got me the really nice turntable, I started listening to records again, and then I went shopping for records. It really is a lot of fun.

SteveVai_StoryOfLightGM: “The Story of Light” is a trilogy, so are all of the parts on vinyl?
SV: I never ran vinyl on “Real Illusions,” because that was with Sony, and they were not going to release it on vinyl. “Alive in an Ultra World” I released on vinyl, and of course, this one. When everything is done with this trilogy, I would love to release it on vinyl, but I will have to get the rights from Sony.

GM: “The Story of Light” was released as a double LP on 180-gram vinyl. You went all out.   
SV: Vinyl has a quality to it and a texture. Like anything else that is mass produced, companies have figured out ways to do things less expensively, as if you save a nickel, here and there, it adds up. The quality of the vinyl is based on its weight, as I understand it. The best quality for carving is 180 gram. The way the stylus carves into the lacquer, you can carve deeper. When you do that, you get better frequency response.

How an LP really works is rather bizarre. The vibrations are cut into the vinyl, and you make these masters. The quality of your listening experience is not the cables or the turntables; it’s the stylus. If you have a crappy turntable, but you a have a really good diamond-head stylus — you can spend a fortune on a really good stylus — then you will have a much better frequency response.

GM: You are very intimate with both the digital and CD version of “The Story of Light,” and now the vinyl; do you hear a big difference?
SV: More than hearing a difference, you feel a difference, and I find that very interesting. Way back, when CDs were becoming popular and vinyl was taking a back seat, I was doing a lot of research, because I wanted to make the best product I could, and part of that is using the best gear that I could find.

So much of that is subjective, but I had a very interesting conversation with Bernie Grundman, who was telling me that they had done an experiment where they took several hundred people and they played them music that was done in analog, and then they played them the same thing, but the whole process was digital. They did this for two different groups. One group listened to the vinyl, and one listened to the digital. I am paraphrasing, but the people who listened to the digital had a higher level of agitation. The people who were listening to the vinyl had a more calming listening experience. Now, I don’t know what that means when compared to today’s digital world, as this is when digital was first coming out.

When I listen to “The Story of Light,” there is a difference you can hear, in that the CD is obviously a little cleaner and crisper, but the vinyl has a warmth and a rounded-off fatness, so to speak. It is sort of the difference between getting into a warm bath or getting into a cold bath.

GM: You have worked with Bernie for some time.
SV: I have been working with him since the second David Lee Roth record, “Skyscraper.” In this project, Bernie was telling me how more and more people were doing vinyl. Through the years, I would go into his mastering lab, and in the beginning, he would do everything on vinyl, as there was no digital. When he mastered “Passion and Warfare,” that was on vinyl. He had the lathe set up and everything. Through the years, it started getting dustier, and it was taking a back seat. When the resurgence started happening, he broke it out and spiffed up his gear. We did a promo video where we showed his lathe carving the lacquer.

GM: Tell me why you chose to master this at 45 RPM.
SV: The faster the speed, the better frequency response you get. The slower the speed, the more information has to go across the stylus in a shorter distance. When you cut at a quicker speed, you get a better frequency response.

Steve Vai publicity photo

Steve Vai — who was nicknamed “Stunt Guitarist” and “Little Italian Virtuouso” by his onetime boss, known musical perfectionist Frank Zappa — loves the way well-made vinyl records sound. His pet peeve? When labels forsake sound quality simply for the sake of issuing a record on vinyl to capitalize on a trend. Publicity photo.

GM: I like that you didn’t just throw this out on vinyl, as some companies are doing. You’re interested in the whole package.
SV: I don’t need to worry about the economics so much. What is really exciting to me is to follow that lead that takes you to the best quality that you can get. Granted, my records don’t sell millions of records, but it is nice to create something that is the best that you can do. I will make an analogy, but I don’t want to sound pretentious: Van Gogh was an interesting case. He was poor, and he was a little crazy, but when he painted, he always used the best canvas and the best paint that was available at the time. It was really expensive back then, but he just couldn’t use anything else. Today, his works are treasures for us. I take the Van Gogh approach — not that I think that the future of my work will be as important as Van Gogh’s, but it is nice to go the extra yard.

GM: People who collect these new vinyl releases want that great sound, but they also want a great package. “The Story of Light” has a gatefold jacket and an eight-page booklet.
SV: It is a fun process, and I know what it was like. People who lived the experience of listening to music know how exciting it is when one of your favorite artists is getting ready to release a new product. I remember, as a kid, just waiting and waiting for an album to come out, and then you get the album, and you open it up, and the more there was, the better. I don’t know if it is because I’m not a kid anymore, but I kind of lost that thrill. Well, if Tom Waits releases a record, then I get a little bit excited. There are CDs that I get excited about, and I buy them, or I go download them. Like I said, there is something romantic about buying vinyl.

A lot of companies, what they do in order to get on the vinyl bandwagon is really kind of a tragedy. They take a CD — you’ve got to understand, that even back when records were converted to CDs — the labels would take the master, either the vinyl masters, or if they had a conscience, then they would take the master tape, and convert it to digital. The converters that were used during the beginning of the digital era were not as good as they are today.

They would make these digital masters, and then what they would do is burn the masters to CD. A lot of people believe that the CD is a one-to-one match to the master, but that is not necessarily the case. Bernie could write a book about it, as he explained it all to me. So, you get these CDs that have a lot of errors in them. They are converted at sh**ty bit rates with sh**ty converters.

When the vinyl resurgence hit, a lot of times, they would just take the CD and use it as a master to burn a vinyl, which completely defeats the purpose of what vinyl is good for, just in order to sell a record. If any of my records were released on vinyl on Sony, that would probably be the case. When they made a vinyl release for “Sex and Religion,” that probably was the case, as I didn’t have any control over that.

For “The Story of Light,” I wanted to do my best. I did record the record digitally, as I don’t use tapes these days when I am recording. The digital converters I use are state of the art. When I mastered for the CD, I mastered digitally. When I was mixing the record, I mixed to digital, but I also mixed to analog. I have half-inch analog tapes mixed specially for vinyl. I brought those tapes to Bernie. The record is actually mastered from an analog tape.

GM: Do you care if you sell 500 or 5 million copies of this?
SV: It would certainly be great to sell 5 million, but if I sell 500, I am OK. To make one of these LPs is very expensive, not including the extra cost of mastering to analog, or mastering to vinyl, which is very expensive, but the package is also very expensive. You have the artwork, the booklet and the expense that is the 180- gram record. It costs me $13 to $15 per record. It has to be sold at a level to where I at least make back what I have into it; I don’t want to lose money on each record. And it is nice to put a couple of bucks in my pocket.

We did a run of a couple of thousand, and they sold out before they even shipped. I don’t think I am going to make any more. I made a couple of bucks, but I also made a product that I think people will really like. My fan base is very solid, but it is not very big.

You’ve got different levels. I can tour and go anyplace in the world and do great, but when it comes to when I release a CD, it is different. I pretty much know how many I am going to sell. It is really a nice place to be, because I know what I can expect. For every artist, there is a hardcore following, which for me is a couple of thousand people, which is really good. They are interested in getting anything that I do. I did it for them, but I can’t see that I’d sell a lot more. This way it is in demand among them, and it kind of creates a mystique.

GM: Are you a music collector, or do you have a music collection?
SV: I don’t really collect, but I do have a nice little collection. I don’t go look for rare stuff. I just like to buy stuff that I like. The rarest records I own are some of the ones that I owned when I was a teenager; I still have them all.

I will go out and buy vinyl because I get a nostalgic kick from it …  I was just in Holland, and there was this great, funky, cool record shop, and I bought this huge box set of the Velvet Underground. It was, like, $200, but I love it.

The only thing I collect, as a hobby, is hot sauce. I don’t even have a lot of rare guitars. I don’t collect them, but I do have some, because I only buy guitars that I like. The guitars that I play are the Ibanez JEM’s, as I designed them, and they are very suited for me. I do like Stratocasters and Les Pauls, so I have a couple. I have a few Strats. The idea of spending $300,000 on a ’59 Burst Les Paul is not on my radar. I wouldn’t even buy them if I had the money. I am not attached to things like that.

GM: Any last words?
SV: I want to say that I really like Goldmine. I pick it up whenever I see it, and I get nostalgic with it. It is really good. It is a great magazine. GM

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