At first glance, Sounds Good appears to be just another of Taipei’s many well-decorated coffee shops, offering warm lighting and industrial undertones.
However, start taking a good look around and it quickly becomes evident that music, rather than coffee, embodies the shop’s soul.
Stacked against one of the shop’s walls is a gramophone.
However, it is not the typical vintage decoration that has long outlived its utility, as it is in perfect working condition. It comes complete with a special needle to play near-extinct 78 revolutions-per-minute shellac records, which in the 1950s and 1960s gave way to traditional vinyl records.
An impressive “cassette wall” extends down to a cozy basement listening area, or the “veg-out area,” as shop owner Lin Pei-ju (林珮如) calls it, which gives way to a central wall highlighting vinyl records.
A nearby turntable is constantly spinning, making indisputably clear the shop’s preferred medium for music.
Lin’s eyes sparkled with passion as she sat down to talk about her journey into the vinyl world.
She held up one of her most treasured titles, a first pressing of Dan Dan You Qing (淡淡幽情), a 1983 album by the late iconic Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng (鄧麗君), and pulled a booklet from the album cover’s sleeve.
“See how pretty these are? Even to this day, these [styles] are not out of fashion,” she said.
In fact, there has been a vinyl resurgence in the past 15 years, after the records were marginalized for years by CDs and, later, digital tracks, that has provided the impetus for Lin’s shop.
Lin credits the revival in part to vinyl’s inherent intangibles.
“What’s really fascinating about vinyl albums is that they’re captivating just by how they look ... and the process you have to go through — turning on different pieces of equipment, putting the record on the turntable,” she said.
“The brain has to process more than just sound. It’s an experience that engages all your senses... It makes you cherish the sound that you hear,” she said.
That said, the intoxicating sound that all vinyl lovers trumpet remains the records’ main attribute.
To Lin, a well-mastered record has more dimensionality, a wider soundstage and greater dynamics compared with digital files played on a computer or mobile phone.
“While digital sources such as Spotify Premium or YouTube Premium sound good, the sound to me is somewhat pasteurized and in the air. Vinyl sounds very down to earth, as if someone is throwing musical notes at you, one note at a time,” she said.
The difference reflects the different operating principles of playback systems, she said.
“One is a simulation done by a stream of zeros and ones, one is produced by a stylus touching grooves,” she said.
As with many audiophiles, Lin is obsessed with the pursuit of a “live” sound, which in her mind can only be realized in records cut at the scene of the action.
Examples she gave include Flamenco Fever, released on the M & K Realtime Records label, and the original soundtrack of The Legend of 1900.
“Direct-cut vinyl is all about realism. You can hear the atmosphere and environment, even footsteps sending vibrations through the floorboards,” she said.
It was this desire for “real” sounds that drove Lin into hardcore vinyl collector territory.
In a room next to Sounds Good’s basement listening area, a Japan-made vinyl-cutting lathe exuding an industrial feel sits on a table with a mixing console and a microphone. It is there to custom-cut 7-inch vinyl records for customers to preserve the sounds of their lives.
All that is needed is an audio recording that can be fed into the mixing console or live audio signals that can be picked up by the microphone. The cutting lathe picks up the sound waves and cuts personalized vinyl records on the spot.
Sounds Good occasionally turns into an intimate live music venue, said Ho Ma-dan (何瑪丹), the shop’s music director.
Last year, the Hong Foundation teamed up with Sounds Good on several occasions to promote the vinyl reissue of Chen Da and His Songs (陳達和他的歌) by Chen Da (陳達), whose song Remembering (思想起) is textbook material for folk songs with lyrics in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) originating in Pingtung County’s Hengchun Township (恆春).
Other events included a music-themed book club hosted by Ho that featured musical selections from Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s popular 1987 novel Norwegian Wood.
The activities are well-aligned with Lin’s vision for her shop as a repository and promoter of music from the early 20th century to the present day, and the vastness of its collection has attracted many customers to revisit their youth.
As Lin and her staff are always on the lookout for new, interesting sounds, she recently added a release from K-pop girl group Blackpink to the shop’s collection on a young customer’s recommendation.
Lin sees the shop also as a refuge from the responsibilities of daily life — a mission that emerged at the height of Taiwan’s first COVID-19 wave.
“Some customers had family members that passed on. They told me that if they hadn’t found an outlet in this place, they probably would have had a breakdown,” she said.
“That’s why many customers like to veg out in the basement listening area and don’t want to leave,” she said. “It always brings a smile to my face seeing them fall asleep while listening to music.”
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