Welcome to the Sound Exchange reference guide about vinyl records. On these pages we will explore any and all topics that are relevant to the enjoyment of vinyl records and specifically to the main goal of understanding and enhancing your own Classic Vinyl Listening Experience.
Topics will include the history of vinyl records, record care, record collecting, the equipment necessary for a proper listening experience,as well as what it requires of the listener to fully enjoy the Classic Vinyl Listening Experience.
As I will define it, the Classic Vinyl Listening Experience began with the emergence of the 10” and 12”, 33 1/3 rpm, Long Play, Micro-Groove, Vinyl Record in 1948, and its smaller sibling, the 7” 45 rpm record, at about that same time.
I choose to start here because this is the technology that provided the two most important attributes of the listening experience that we seek: a sufficiently long playing time, and higher quality sound reproduction (High Fidelity).
The modern long play, micro-groove record brought to the market had a tremendous impact on artistic creativity.
Artists were now free to create music that could last 20 minutes or longer, rather than just fill out a three-minute single. And although classical music was never limited by time, virtually all “popular” music had to fit into four minutes or less to be commercially sale-able.
Let’s define what is meant by the term the modern vinyl record.
It has a relatively long playing time and does so while reproducing sound in what is called high fidelity.
High fidelity, or Hi-Fi for short, simply means that the device is capable of reproducing sound accurately throughout the full hearing range of the human ear, and does so realistically, i.e., without introducing significant quantities of noise or distortion.
That is not to say that every record meets this definition.
So let’s put all of this information in the form of a timeline:
So where does the sweet spot lie? Pick a time, all things considered, which you would say represented the pinnacle of the Classic Vinyl Listening Experience.
You could make a good argument for the 1950s and early 1960s, with the advent of the modern record, tube equipment, and the jazz and early rock n’ roll music of the time.
It would also be very easy to choose the early 1970s as a timeframe when affordable, high-quality electronics and high-quality vinyl records could be paired with some of the most outstanding music that was ever created.
And certainly an argument can be made for choosing today and what is currently available, if you have the money to buy the best of what the past 60 years has to offer.
So this becomes our challenge: to assemble the necessary equipment and a record library so that you can achieve the Classic Vinyl Listening Experience as you choose to define it, and then sit down and actively enjoy a “side” of your very favorite music.
Perhaps you have heard of the debate about which is better, vinyl records or CDs. This question can be reduced to studying their differences. When playing vinyl records you are typically listening to an analog representation of a musical performance. When playing a CD you are typically listening to a digital representation of a musical performance.
“Analog” sound is natural sound as it is created and heard in our daily lives. We hear analog sounds as smooth, continuous wave of air pressure pulses (vibrations).
This discussion begins with the creation of sound itself. Everything in nature that creates a sound creates an analog sound, which also happens to be the only kind of sound that we can hear. And don’t forget the importance of air because without air we have no sound. It is the air pressure pulses in the form of vibrations that allow our ears to hear sound.
Only in a studio using digital sound synthesis being directly recorded into a digital recorder is a digital sound actually created(but not heard). Even then you cannot actually hear it until it is converted to an analog sound and reproduced via a speaker.
Have you ever seen this displayed on a CD or a vinyl record?
“This is a pure digital recording”
Well let’s stop right there. First you must realize that a digital recording can be converted to analog for playback on vinyl, and that an analog recording can be converted to digital so it can be played back on a CD.
An analog recording doesn’t attempt to describe the sound as it simply records its input continuously, so it doesn’t have the sample size and sampling rate issues that digital has. But what it does introduce into the process is noise from the recording tape media itself.
First you must remember that the specification for CDs was developed way back in 1979. At that time the cost of electronics was quite high compared to what it is today, particularly as it relates to their speed.
The CD specification just barely covers the audio spectrum that the human ear can hear, that is, 20 cycles to 20,000 cycles per second. This represents the lowest and highest sounds that a typical ear can hear although many of us hear though a substantially narrower range, and a few of us can hear beyond this range.
The vinyl record is my preferred media for active listening to recordings made in the 1950s and into the 1980s.
As discussed earlier, analog recordings played back on vinyl records add a certain amount of their own “noise” to the listening experience. Some of this noise is not desirable such as the tics and pops associated with a record that is no longer in mint condition. But it also adds a certain “warmth” and “life” that is missing from CDs.
To help explain my opinions in that regard I have several analogies and examples:
Listening to vinyl as opposed to a CD is like looking at the paint on your car before and after you wax it. Vinyl sounds like a fresh wax job looks. It didn’t change the basic color but it enriches it making it fuller and more vibrant and full of life.
Another way of describing the difference between the sound of vinyl and the sound of CDs is to describe it in terms of visible and non-visible light rays;
Ultraviolet light is not visible to the human eye, but if you place an ultraviolet filter in front of your eyes you can see the difference made by removing ultraviolet light. I think of CDs as possessing a filter that does not allow all of the “colors” of the audio spectrum to be heard. Perhaps that is good, or perhaps it is bad, but it is different, and I prefer the full spectrum of sound that vinyl provides.
Here is one last way of describing the fuller, richer sound that vinyl provides;
The CD specification stops abruptly at 20,000 cycles per second (20 KHz) whereas vinyl can reach all the way up to 45 KHz and beyond. Sounds above 20 KHz are simply not present on a CD which is OK in itself since it is above the hearing range that most humans can hear. But that does not mean that the sounds above 20 KHz do not affect the sounds that are within the audible range. These higher tones can reflect tones back into the audible range. This has the effect of enriching the sound that we can hear.
An imperfect analogy is to take a pure 440 Hz tone and compare it to its equivalent primary pitch on a piano which is referred to as A-440 (A below middle C). A pure tone of 440 Hz is dull and lifeless. The same fundamental tone on a piano causes many other “sympathetic” tones to be heard and for harmonics of the 440 Hz string to be amplified or augmented by other strings on the piano. So these inaudible pure tones above 20 KHz that are present on a vinyl record do have an effect on what you hear when playing back a vinyl record by affecting or generating tones that are audible.
One last augmentation should be mentioned and that is the sound that you hear when playing music back through a tube based preamp and amplifier when compared to transistor based amplifiers. Again, it adds “color” to the sound which you either like or not, but I do.
Any discussion about music and sound reproduction will eventually make reference to how it is presented to the listener. Of course, it all began with monophonic, but over the years technology has provided more and more choices starting with stereophonic, followed by a host of multi-phonic formats like quadraphonic, Dolby 5.1 and 6.1. Monophonic (mono) has just one prerecorded channel. Stereophonic sound (stereo) has two distinct channels, left and right.
Regarding stereo recordings, when stereo first came out it was a brand new world and exactly how to represent a recording in a stereo format was very subjective. Artists and engineers had varying opinions as to how much stereo effect (directional effect) was appropriate. Consequently, many early stereo recordings sound very gimmick-y and unrealistic with too much differentiation between the left and right channels.
Beginning with the comparison of Mono and Stereo recordings, it was typical that both mono and stereo records were made from the late 1950s until around 1970 when they ceased production of mono records. While the records were created from the same performance that is not to say that they sound exactly the same.
Finally let me touch upon quadraphonic recordings as they appeared on vinyl records. There was no industry standard when it came to defining exactly what quadraphonic was, so many different types of quadraphonic techniques and their resulting consumer products appeared on the market.
This brings us to the record player, or should I say “turntable.” There is a difference between the two.
“For the record,” a record player is generally thought of as a turntable with a built-in amplifier and speaker(s). Portable units are typically record players.
A turntable is simply just that: a turning table to place the record on, and a pickup device (cartridge and stylus) that fits into the record groove, reads the information on the record, and generates a very small electrical signal to the preamp. (See forthcoming discussion about preamps.) The signal then travels on to the power amp for further amplification, and ultimately sound reproduction via speakers or headphones.
For our purposes regarding the Classic Vinyl Listening Experience, let’s assume that we are referring to a turntable that is capable of providing high fidelity sound reproduction.
Turntables are considered non-portable devices in that the more expensive and elaborate units require a fair degree of assembly time for setting them up properly and securing them in their place. In a word, turntables are intended to be instruments, but their quality can range from toy-like objects to high precision devices. The resulting sound reproduction ranges from horrible (cheapo-cheapo units) to exquisite (high quality units).
The phono cartridge contributes to unwanted noise as well. It is a sound transducer and can be thought of as a specialized type of microphone in that it picks up the vibrations from the stylus as it tracks the record groove and responds to its encoded vibrations.
Unfortunately it can also transmit the vibrations from any noise that it picks up. This includes your footsteps on a wooden floor or any noise including your voice! You can actually record your voice by talking very loudly and very closely to the phono cartridge.
So how do you know how good a turntable really is regardless of cost?
First, heavy is good! Next, turn the turntable on and have the platter spin. Then lift the stylus up from the record surface using the lifter and then slowly turn your amplifier up. The better the turntable the less noise you will hear.
Any noise that you do hear is coming from the turntable or possibly the preamp or amplifier.
To eliminate the amplifier and preamp, disconnect the turntable from the rest of the system, slowly turn up the amplifier and see what noise is left. Any noise that disappeared is due to the turntable. Of course nothing is quite that simple but it is a reasonable test.
Stereo equipment is one more significant variable that can greatly affect the Classic Vinyl Listening Experience. In addition to the quality issues surrounding turntables and preamps, amplifiers, receivers, and speakers also greatly affect overall quality of sound reproduction. It is worth reminding you that these variables affect all forms of music playback, including CDs and tape recordings.
When the discussion turns to the phono preamps (short for pre-amplifier) we are really getting down into minute details of the record groove in order to understand its role and its importance. It is essential that you understand the role of the phono preamp as it will affect the decisions that you will make about purchasing equipment and ultimately the pleasure derived from your “Classic Vinyl Listening Experience”.
Many amplifiers and receivers (a receiver is an AM/FM tuner and amplifier built in the same piece of equipment) have phono preamps built into them.
Like all components of a stereo system there are significant variations in quality in the preamps, which has significant effects on the quality of the playback of your records.
Preamps can be purchased as a separate stand-alone component for as little as $20 or you can spend $3000 or more! It should be obvious by now that aphono preampis really, really important for proper playback of vinyl records. So let’s discuss preamps for a while.
Always store your records in a cool, dry, dark environment in an upright position (never flat) that is high off the ground, and that provides some airflow around them.
Ideally each record would be stored in a polypropylene or Mylar plastic bag, with the record stored in its own poly inner sleeve outside of the record jacket. The closer that you can come to these ideals the longer your records should last, which can be a lifetime, or even become a family heirloom.
If you practice these guidelines on a daily basis and on a long term basis you will get the most possible enjoyment from your collection. You will come to learn that light scratches on good old vinyl is nothing to be overly concerned about and that with proper care and cleaning that they can actually come to sound better with repeated use.
Dirt and static electricity may cause good records to sound “scratchy”. A proper cleaning will remove dirt and static electricity from the vinyl. You may be very surprised to hear how good your records sound once cleaned. What you thought was noise caused by scratches may disappear.
An old or worn stylus will cause your records to sound bad or sound scratchy. This is because a worn stylus is getting down to the bottom of the record groove where there is no music. Understand that a stylus begins life shaped like an ellipse (rounded) and then wears down to a point and falls further down into the groove until it hits bottom. This is bad for your records. The music resides on the sides of the record groove and is where a new stylus (needle) sits while playing.
Wet cleaning of vinyl records is the best way if not the only way to really get them clean and to get them free of static electricity.
A mild household window cleaner does a nice job because it has all of the necessary chemical components to get your records clean. Let’s call that product “Windex” for simplicity, although not all Windex –like products are suitable.
I prefer to recommend the Vinegar based cleaners rather than the alcohol or ammonia based products as there is a commonly held suspicion that alcohol and ammonia can cause long term damage to vinyl (although I have never seen evidence of that).
Window cleaning solutions contain a surfactant, which is a chemical agent that breaks “surface tension” and allows the solution to really get down into the bottom of the grooves and therefore removes more dirt.
While many of the commercially available record cleaning solutions probably do a good job, it’s likely that they’re no better than a bottle of Windex… yet they cost a lot more!
Use plenty of solution and really get the record wet while being very, very careful to keep the solution off of the record label, as it will cause the paper label to “rise” or stain the label, etc, and it will never look like new again.
Apply the Cleaning Solution to a Cloth or Record Preener
The best way to apply the cleaning solution is to apply it to the cleaning device that you are going to use, such as a soft cloth, record preener (brush), etc. I recommend a very soft, clean cotton material such as a baby’s diaper (old school, washable type).
An old trick of “last resort” is to actually play a record while wet.
For reasons not fully understood (by me), doing this “quiets” the record substantially (removes the noise caused by scratches) seemingly without reducing fidelity. I recommend using only water without any chemical, as the chemical may cause harm to your stylus and cartridge. This trick is best used when trying to extract the best possible sound quality from an old, mostly worn out record when you are recording it. Expect your stylus to be dirty and in need of cleaning upon completion, which should be done immediately before it dries.
Really dirty old records will require several cleanings and playings before they yield their best sound reproduction.
If you are really serious about playing many old and dirty records you should consider getting a very sturdy stylus/cartridge such as the Stanton DJ series. These can stand up to the abuse of older, damaged records much better than the more expensive and sensitive stylus’.
I do not have an opinion regarding products that “treat” the surface of a record (such as “Last”), nor with cleaning products ( like Revirginizer) that are like a “face peel” for records because I have never used them myself, probably because I have not felt the need for them.
It doesn’t take very long searching the web to find dozens of articles about record cleaning using a variety of different methods and materials for cleaning vinyl records. Questions abound regarding the chemical cleaning agent, the type of brush, cloth, or machine to use for the best results.