Sound quality on vinyl

Sound quality on vinyl

1968 annual: tiny portable player, discs on the floor, sticky fingers and probably dog hair and saliva on the surface.

If you start looking for old vinyl 45s, and LPs you’re buying stuff that might be forty, fifty or sixty years old. How’s it going to sound? The short answer is that it’s always a gamble unless you can hear the record in the shop. Vinyl has a physical, mechanical imprint of the sound wave in the grooves. Unlike CD or DVD, it won’t self-destruct. It can be played with relatively simple technology, not lasers and printed circuits. There used to be discs for kids that you could get a noise from with a sharpened pencil pulled along the groove (do not try this with collectable vinyl!)

Light surface scuffing (visible on this sixty-two year old copy of Billy Grammer’s original Gotta Travel On) looks unsightly but sometimes barely affects sound.

Why is it a gamble? If you look at the record and it’s deeply scratched, no chance. If it’s scuffed and the vinyl is dull, the chances are that it will sound bad. It should look clean and shiny. But that’s not enough. Cleaning fluids remove dust, dirt and static build up; special polish brings back shine and can leave quite rough records looking OK.

Then there’s skimming. Specialists can take off the top layer of a disc and polish the remainder. The result is a disc that looks mint. It’s bright and shiny. It will sound dreadful. However, skimming is a relatively time-consuming so an expensive process. I’d be very surprised to find it on any discs worth less than £100 in Rare Record Guide. I can’t think it really worth the effort below £100. A story:

Skimming ruins the sound. It’s done with the really expensive records, and they get away with it because in London especially, they have Far East collectors who buy vinyl as an investment, and it is highly unlikely they will ever be played. I was at a friend’s shop and he had a box of albums someone wanted to sell to him, and had left for him to price. We looked through together. The gem was Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. That’s rated at £700 in mint condition with blue text on the sleeve (first pressing), or £300 mint with white text. This was blue text. The seller had mentioned it specifically that he wanted £100 for it.  The in-store test record player wasn’t working, because yet again a customer had stolen the cartridge. The record was gleaming vinyl, spotless. There were a few spindle marks on the paper centre label though. My friend said he was going to pass on it. I asked why. He pointed out the sleeve, which was “excellent” rather than “mint.” No tears, no writing, but you could see it had been used and records taken in and out. He pointed out that it didn’t match the quality of the record, though it was still excellent. Also, the seller knew values, and so £100 was suspiciously cheap. He said it just “smelled” wrong to him, and he reckoned it was a skimmed record.

I’ve bought clean, shiny discs in good covers, got them home and found distortion and very loud surface noise. The records had been looked after well, but the original tone arm (carrying the cartridge and stylus) had not been looked after, or was cheap. Please note stylus … I heard someone refer to the “needle” on a £5000 deck in a hifi store. They got a dirty look. Actually, on early LPs, Columbia (USA) still used ‘needle,’ note the lifetimes of various types. They wore out.

Columbia Demonstration Record, undated, but early, circa 1950

On the other hand, I found a very grubby box of old singles in a charity shop … some are pictured on this site. Five for a pound, as they used to be ten years ago. The original sleeves were on them, though tatty. They all had ‘Sandra’ written on the sleeve. I looked, and there were spots of mould (stored in a garage, probably) and a lot of dust. I thought I’d risk a quid. I cleaned them up, using AM Record Cleaner, put them on the deck and they all sounded great. Almost no hiss or crackle. I raced back to the shop the next day to find someone else had picked up most of the rest, but I bought another ten. 45s, with larger grooves often withstand a little scuffing better than LPs.

SEE: Keep It Clean sub-section

So there is no substitute for listening first … but that would have been a waste of time with the dirty ones. They had to be cleaned. Tiny mould spots are very common. They come from tiny traces of the previous owners DNA … bodily fluids. I hope fervently that this just means sweaty fingers while handling them. A baby wipe or Dettol antibacterial wipe takes off mould. Then you need to clean it with water, then with record cleaner. Hi-fi enthusiasts will have fainted in horror at the Dettol wipe, but in fact it works with light mould, and many dealers use it.

Dansette Genuine Diamond Stylus 11’3d

Why were clean, shiny, unscratched ones distorted? Technical time. The tone arm carries a cartridge and a stylus. A worn stylus marked distortion into the groove. A chipped stylus wrecked the disc.

12’6d? I remember they were 10’6d in Woolworths.

Those early tone arms had a tracking weight of around three grams … that was the effective weight bearing down on the tiny diamond stylus. A modern turntable would be around 1.5 grams. An expensive audiophile one might be just one gram. The modern lighter arm will “hear” the effect of a previous three gram arm. That’s not too bad actually.

New Musical Express 14 June 1963

But there’s the curse of the penny. At parties, abandoned dancing would be interrupted when someone knocked into the record player, or even if feet shook the floor causing the stylus to jump. So the considerate host might Sellotape a halfpenny or even a penny to the tone arm, making it bear down more heavily and less likely to jump. And leaving the sound altered forever.

DJs were notorious for adding weight to avoid skips or jumps when playing records … some claim records were louder. BBC Radio turntables were set up to track at 3.5 grams, so that records wouldn’t jump on air. Jukeboxes regularly tracked at 3.5 grams. The modern turntable will “hear” all this past abuse in the groove. 

Quentin Tarantino is a vinyl fan, and insists on using vinyl records from his collection directly on the soundtrack of his movies. He says the hiss and odd crackle are part of the sound.

Goldmine, the American collectors’ magazine, and series of price guides has a rule of thumb which works:

• Records from the 1950s to around 1971 tend to play better than they look.
• Newer records (1971 to 1989) tend to play worse than they look.
• Post-2000 records are usually high grade vinyl, and well-pressed

Virtually all those 60s record players had autochangers, dropping discs on top of each other. Usually the notched ring around the label kept the surfaces apart, but not all labels had notched rings.

At times, you wonder which artists records are worn most badly, and if there’s a pattern. Duane Eddy London singles are normally very worn, but not scratched. That’s a tribute to the twangy guitar. They got played a lot, but were well-loved. Reggae singles are more often rough than not. It’s a combination of being played for dancing with a heavy stylus, but still jumping as the dancers gyrate; and a shaky hand moving the tone arm between puffs and wheezes. Young teen band discs are often in really bad condition. Think of how early teenagers keep their bedrooms. Film soundtracks of the lusher sort and modern jazz are usually in good nick. Some records are genuinely mint, but they’re usually ones which never sold and were remaindered.

Absolutely Free: The Mothers of Invention, Verve USA copy. This is well looked-after (by me), I’d say “Very Good” condition at least but even so you can see spindle marks and wear around the centre hole.

When you see a collector examining an expensive disc, they always look for spindle marks around the centre hole. Every time a record is placed on the spindle, there’s a chance of the spindle very slightly marking the label, unless you are obsessively careful. Too careful. The paper at the edge of the hole will also fray. Marks indicate how often a disc has been played – and of course it’s harder lining up a 12″ record than a 7″ one when placing it on the spindle. Of course if played many times on a hifi system with light tracking, it should still sound fine.

Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin, Atlantic 1969 with rare turquoise lettering

At Brighton Record Fair, I saw a German collector examining a turquoise lettering 1969 Led Zeppelin LP. This is believed to be the first pressing before they realized that vermilion looked better. Very few were pressed with the turquoise lettering, and they list at £1500 in Rare Record Guide 2020 in mint condition. He produced a magnifying glass with a UV light attached. I wandered away to other stalls. Over an hour later, I passed the stall again. He was still checking it. It is after all incredibly expensive. So much so that those with arcane knowledge would know whether the disc enclosed had always lived in that sleeve. Tracks must be credited to ‘Superhype Music’ and ‘Jewel Music’. It should be in a plain, but polylined inner sleeve.

Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin, Atlantic 1969, orange lettering.
The prices drops by £1300 to a mere £200 in mint nick.

At those prices, rogues might swop a near mint disc into a turquoise sleeve to replace a worn one. As a footnote, that was nearly ten years ago, and was then the only turquoise one I’d ever seen. I never saw another until 2019. In 2019, I saw FIVE of them. Guess what? All near mint too. I strongly suspect that someone has been pressing carefully aged bootlegs. Or “reproductions.” If I’m charitable, I might conclude that high prices were pulling real ones onto the market. Discogs (August 2020) lists the record at:

LOWEST: £100
MEDIAN: £885
HIGHEST: £1576

It has copies advertised on sale ranging from £1300 to £7000. The ones at £5500 and £7000 come from Russia. Which was just what I suspected about the five I saw in 2019.