How to minimise vinyl regret
In previous editions of this column, I’ve looked at everything related to the turntable. But now, Stephen Dawson turns his attention to the vinyl itself, looking at what users should buy, expectations and how to care for records.
Are you concerned, just a little, about the implications of that introduction? I said that your records will inevitably accumulate damage over time. So, before we get deeply into things, let’s explore that.
Last time I noted that your turntable stylus is diamond and the medium from which it is extracting music is vinyl. That’s effectively a type of plastic. Obviously, damage is inevitable. The goal is to minimise it.
I raise all this because whenever you’re reading about vinyl records and turntables and playback, there’s this odd silence about the elephant in the room: the actual lack of silence.
Records are delicate. They are damaged by playback. They are damaged by the ambient dust in your room which may descend to their surface and be ground into the groove as the stylus passes over that part of a track. Even a perfectly set up tonearm and cartridge, tracking at a low surface force, will over time gradually scrub some high-frequency detail from the track.
And records are damaged in the factory.
In 2016 HBO aired the first season of a drama called Vinyl, which was a fictionalised account of the American music industry, set around 1973. Despite being proposed by Mick Jagger and co-created with Martin Scorsese, it was cancelled after that first season. One scene from it was burned into my memory. It was taking place in a record-pressing plant. Two important characters were having a no-doubt important conversation when a record somehow fell to the ground. One of them picks it up, slips it into the cover and returns it to the product line.
I was buying records in 1973. Each one would cost me about three-quarters of my weekly income (earned from eight hours a week in Woolworths’ “parcel pickup”, a long-dead supermarket service).
The noises, clicks and ticks and sometimes almighty clunks, on new vinyl were particularly piercing to the teenage aspiring audiophile that I then was. I suspect a few came from records dropped onto the factory floor. Thousands of vinyl disks were pressed from inverse masters, and towards the end of a run that master could become pretty worn. Plus, there was dust in the factory, impurities in the vinyl and just general randomness in life. The first time I bought The Who’s Tommy, it was unplayably warped. The double album I have of Sky 2 – $9.99 I see from the price sticker – is entirely missing the Gavotte & Variations from Side 3, which was somehow replaced by a repeat of the Toccata from Side 4.
The net result was that a totally flaw-free record was rare indeed. Which is why I so enthusiastically embraced the CD when it appeared about ten years later.
And all that said, I still love the sound of vinyl. For some years I went without it though, when my quite expensive 1980s turntable developed a fatal illness.
Returning to vinyl in recent years, I guessed that LP quality ought to be better. After all, rather than catering to a mainstream mass market, record makers were at least pretending to serve enthusiasts. Records these days – 180g vinyl – are typically heavier than some of the paper-thin disks we had back then. And some are even split across four sides rather than two.
But, it turns out, the same noises remain. Sometimes it’s clear why. I bought The National double album, Trouble Will Find Me, and all four sides had a tiny gloop of glue on the tracks near the start. A bit of work mostly removed it, but the noise remains.
Laura Marling’s Short Movies had a very small number of significantly loud clicks. I’d forget that I was listening to vinyl for minutes and then be abruptly reminded. The otherwise amazing audiophile experience of Dirty Three’s Ocean Songs was interrupted by distracting clicks (for good measure, they somehow managed to print an entirely incorrect contents list on one of the labels).
And so on.
The vinyl secret that’s almost never mentioned in articles and reviews is those clicks and pops and such. So, be warned. When you play vinyl and you hear unwanted noises, you aren’t alone. It comes with the territory.
I’ve largely learned to listen through it to the music underneath.
What records to buy?
So, you’ve got a turntable, you’ve set it up as we’ve described to get the best results, and you’ve had your expectations appropriately dampened by the forgoing. Sorry about that. Now it’s time to acquire some records. Or, I guess, “content” as we say these days.
I am lucky enough to have kept a couple of hundred records, most fairly well cared for, over the decades. Not too lucky, though. I sold a bunch of them in the 1980s to finance CD purchases. Still, they made a good start when I returned to the format a few years ago.
But since then, I’ve added quite a few more records. And I have thoughts.
There are basically three kinds of records that you can buy: new music on new records, old music on new records and old music on old records.
New music has likely been digitally recorded and was likely primarily released on digital streaming or (if it’s a little older) on CD. No pure analogue there from the source to your loudspeakers, but that’s fine. Those albums I mentioned earlier – Marling, Nationals, Dirty Three – sound amazing (if you can listen through the occasional unwanted noises).
So how about old music on new vinyl? Here I’m thinking of re-issues of classic music from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. I have a few of those – for example, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Roxy Music’s debut album, Caravanserai by Santana, Abbey Road. All sound excellent, but there is always a caveat with these. How do you know that they are the same as what was originally released? The recent revelations that some Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs re-releases were sourced from Direct Stream Digital masters casts doubt on that. Were the re-releases cut from digital sources? Perhaps digital sources that had been processed. There are plenty of CDs that were released with dynamic range compression employed to allow a higher overall volume. Much of the charm of vinyl would be surrendered if those were the masters used.
The fact is, none of us know.
Of course, the best way to be certain that the music travelled entirely upon an analogue path from recording to your vinyl records is to buy the original album, which means old music on old records.
There’s a problem with that. Most old records are awful. The noise concerns I mentioned with new records also apply to old records, but there’s a lot more than that. Let’s say you spot a copy of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in a second-hand record store. You should be aware that all three of those albums were released fifty years ago this year. The record you spot may be an original pressing, or it may be one pressed a year or five later. But you must assume that it is half a century old.
And that means that it has accumulated, possibly, half a century’s worth of wear, tear and dirt.
Or it might be in amazingly good condition!
How can you tell? Well, you can’t. Some second-hand vinyl retailers use a scale in which they rate the quality of both the record and its sleeve. A “VG+” is supposed to be extremely good. Perhaps. But it’s certainly not as new.
The damage a record can suffer over the decades includes general wear and tear from lots of playback on decent equipment, harsher wear and tear from playback on old or poor equipment (for example, record players with ceramic cartridges and worn styluses tracking at 10g), surface or deeper scuffs and scratches from misuse, layers of embedded dust from being left exposed to a cigarette-smoke-filled loungeroom.
And so on.
Record cleaners can sometimes fix some of the dust and dirt issues. I’ve tested ones using ultrasound, ones using a wet solution with a vacuum cleaner, ones using a wet solution with air drying and one using a gloop that dries over the surface of the record and which you peel off, removing with it all the dirt. And while the proponents of each of these technologies claim theirs is the best, my before-and-after tests showed that all three worked, probably about equally as well as the others.
In any case, though, they can’t fix the other damage.
What to look for
When I’m buying second-hand vinyl, here’s what I look for.
I check whether the vinyl looks clean and undamaged. That’s an extremely low-resolution approximation of what you’ll hear, but if there are scuffs across the surface, fingerprints, splotches of stuff suggesting a spilled beer, or even some mould patches, that’s a good reason not to even take a chance.
But that’s not the first thing I look at. I lean away from popular music. They were records most likely to have been played to death. Instead, I look for records that I figure are likely to have either been owned by a music enthusiast or been rarely played.
Jazz is a good place to start. If you like it, of course. Classical can be good too, although be aware that I never once acquired a new LP of classical music, back in the day, without a greater number of clicks and pops than regular pop releases. And given that most classical music has quiet bits, in which those clicks and pops are even more objectionable, you’re taking a big chance.
Worse than surface noise is groove damage. This can be due to poorly tracking equipment, or gear that used a heavy tracking weight. It will be most obvious in loud bits of music towards the centre of the record.
All of this means that if you’re buying old music on old vinyl, you may have a low success rate. But if you find a retailer – most likely an online one – that is providing acceptable records labelled “VG+” or better, it might be a good idea to stick with them.
Just be prepared to be disappointed from time to time. I have now purchased three copies of the Sebastian Hardie album Four Moments in recent years, hoping for a good experience. Perhaps … the next time.