Adventures in Vinyl

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Category: Curator Curator

May 2022

Let’s talk about vinyl.

I’ll begin by saying that you can call them records or LPs (which stands for “long player” or “long-playing”), but never “vinyls.” Vinyl is what’s used to make LPs, and vinyl as a general description for records that are pressed out of that material is fine. I’ve been buying records for more than 50 years, but I’ve never called them “vinyls.” I collect vinyl, but I have 4000 LPs. Or maybe 5000. . . .

Of course, preferring to call them records or LPs is probably just an arbitrary choice. We called them albums when I was a kid, and that term came from the days when the records themselves were pressed from shellac compounds and averaged about five minutes a side. If you wanted to hear work of any length, whether by Beethoven or Ellington, it had to be pressed over several sides and on more than one record. The resulting disc set was gathered together in a bound, hardcover “album,” analogous to a photo album.

Records

I still use the word “album” to describe any collection of music gathered under one title, whether I’m reviewing a CD, LP, or digital download.

The first music I bought was pressed on singles, one song on each side of a 7″, 45-rpm record. I bought a number of 45s when I was a kid, and I wish I could claim I always had good taste. I’m sure I owned records by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, but, hey, I was only 11. I also bought “Classical Gas,” by Mason Williams, and “Casino Royale,” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. I still like those tunes, but the coolest record I had was a copy of “Do Your Thing” by The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. I was 12 by the time I bought it, and maybe I had got hipper.

That was in 1968, the year I bought my first LP. My purchase disproves the idea that I had gotten more sophisticated in my musical tastes. It was a budget-bin find called The Return of the Red Baron, by The Royal Guardsmen. The Guardsmen, despite what their name suggests, were not part of the British Invasion. They were from Ocala, Florida, and had had a hit single in 1966: “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.” The band’s follow-up hit was my album’s title track, and the LP included covers of “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man,” both popular tunes by the Spencer Davis Group. I played that album a lot.

The Return of the Red Baron meant something to me at the time, but soon faded from my affections when I bought Best of Cream, a 1969 compilation by the great British blues-rock band. I loved the photo of the band on the back cover and memorized the credits listed there. I played the record repeatedly, and didn’t care that Cream had split by the time I bought it. I knew every note of every song. When one song ended, I knew which one came next, and what the opening note would be.

Other albums followed. I was a Grand Funk Railroad fan, unaware until I started reading Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy that the band was scorned by critics. Those magazines brought other bands to my attention, and I picked up records by The Who, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, and many others. I was living in a small town when I began collecting in earnest, but there was a college bookstore within walking distance of my house and a big Quonset hut store out on the highway that was the town’s version of Walmart. I bought my cherished copy of The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East there.

I started buying jazz LPs when I was about 16, and got more serious about collecting jazz when I started college, although I still bought rock and soul records. Rock musicians often paid tribute to jazz artists, and Rolling Stone ran columns by its cofounder, the great jazz critic Ralph Gleason. My jazz collecting was haphazard, but I had read enough to have some idea what I should get. I was lucky that Fantasy Records, whose holdings at that time included Prestige Records and Riverside Records, among other labels, was issuing two-record sets. The Wes Montgomery sets I bought were all from his Riverside years and are some of the jazz guitarist’s best recordings.

I bought records by Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa in the ’70s, grabbed new wave and punk records in the ’80s, got into Springsteen and Tom Waits, and kept buying jazz, blues, and soul albums. I even picked up the occasional classical LP. By the time Philips and Sony introduced the compact disc in 1982, I was closing in on 700 to 800 records.

Records

It took a while for CD players to make their way into the marketplace, and it wasn’t until 1986 that I heard one demoed at a stereo shop. I hated it. A factory rep was playing Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life and the music sounded cold and clinical on CD. I had the LP, and even though the recording was digital (I didn’t know that at the time), I vastly preferred how it sounded on vinyl. “I’m two songs in and I’m getting a headache,” I told the rep, who was appalled.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t like other formats. I exchanged high-quality cassette tapes of out-of-print jazz and soul LPs with my friends. I knew I was missing some of the first-generation punch of the LP, but I still enjoyed the music I was hearing on those tapes. The music flowed in a way that CDs couldn’t match. When people told me CDs would make vinyl records obsolete, I scoffed. I remembered hearing that quadrophonic sound was going to be the next big thing.

I bought my first CD player a year later when The Beatles’ recordings made their first digital appearance. It was a Marantz player, champagne gold, and it sounded pretty good, as long as the CD itself was mastered well. By the end of the 1980s, record stores were removing LPs from their stock to make more room for CDs. Every article I read told me vinyl was dead, so I believed what I heard. For a few years, I kept my old styli when I bought new ones—better to play records with a worn stylus than to have none at all, if they stopped making them.

A funny thing happened, though. Records didn’t go away. I kept stumbling on record shops that sold used vinyl and still carried new pressings. Every town with a college seemed to have a record shop. I hit yard sales and Goodwill and Salvation Army stores and grabbed records that people got rid of as they dumped their vinyl. I paid a buck apiece for records in many genres, including classical music, and saw my collection continue to grow.

Then the internet came along, and quickly grew to be an avenue of commerce. I could buy vinyl from online dealers, and from regular folks on eBay who discovered they could sell their LPs and make a few bucks instead of giving them away for free. In time, Discogs.com, established in 2000, developed into an even better, easier-to-use source for buying vinyl from individual sellers as well as dealers. It’s also a great place to find info about LPs, such as alternative pressing dates and other facts.

Some people who made audio gear were smart enough to keep their faith in vinyl. VPI Industries, established by Sheila and Harry Weisfeld in 1978, continued to come up with innovative turntable designs, and in Austria, Heinz Lichtenegger took a leap of faith in 1991 by starting Pro-Ject Audio Systems. With factories in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the company has expanded to make turntables at various price points, as well as an entire line of audio equipment. Since the late 1990s, Roy Hall’s Music Hall Audio has been marketing turntables that the company manufactures at Pro-Ject’s plant in the Czech Republic. Rega Research, established in the UK in 1973, has been successfully making and selling turntables throughout the boom years of the CD.

Turntable

Some manufacturers, such as Sony, Denon, and others, scaled back their turntable lines or eliminated them altogether. A lot of companies that made cartridges, however, soldiered on and even introduced new lines or redesigned existing ones. Ortofon, Audio-Technica, Grado Labs, and Denon, to name just a few, are still going strong, and Shure might now be wondering if ending its line of phono cartridges was the smart thing to do.

Vinyl sales stayed steady but unspectacular throughout the ’90s and into the first decade of the 2000s. Many still believed that vinyl was dead or, at best, a novelty product. In 2008, record sales began a burst of growth that continues to this day. In 2021, vinyl sales in the US alone were 41.7 million LPs, accounting for just over half of all physical media—an increase of more than 50 percent over the previous year. I can’t find reliable numbers for worldwide sales, but 80 million units would seem a reasonable estimate. Even with the appearance of new pressing plants all over the world, production is having trouble keeping up with demand.

CD playback has improved to the point where it is highly enjoyable. I bought an NAD C 368 integrated amplifier-DAC a little more than a year ago for my second setup, which is in my living room, and the DAC in the amp sounds so great that I played nothing but CDs for the first week I owned it. It’s so good that I bought the MDC BluOS module for it so I could stream digital music in high resolution. But I still play vinyl for 70 percent of my listening time.

Here are a couple of things I think are important to know about LPs.

Vinyl needs to be cleaned

Seems obvious, right? Until some point in the ’90s, cleaning meant, to me, using a Discwasher brush before each play. I would put a few drops of cleaning fluid on the brush, clean the record, and everything was good. In the early ’90s, I started reading about vacuum cleaning machines that did a more thorough job. They were expensive, but VPI Industries and Nitty Gritty had introduced affordable ones—still somewhat costly, at several hundred dollars—in the early 1980s.

A few years earlier, I had read an article about Record-Rama, a store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that had the largest private record collection in the US. As well as selling records, the store made tape copies of rare, out-of-print LPs. Record-Rama advertised a product in their brochure called the Spin-Clean, and I bought one in ’91 or ’92 because a vacuum cleaning machine was a little rich for me.

Spin-Clean

The Spin-Clean is still in production, has been well reviewed by various audio magazines, and is available at many online dealers. It consists of a reservoir that you fill with water to a line marked inside the unit, two felt pads that slide in at the midpoint on either side, and two rollers that can be adjusted to clean LPs, 78s, or 45s. You pour a proprietary fluid onto the felt pads, slide the record between them, and rotate it a few times in both directions. Dry the record with a lint-free towel, and your record is absolutely clean.

After cleaning LPs I had listened to many times, I was stunned by the reduction in the noise floor. At less than 100 bucks, the Spin-Clean is highly effective and one of the best deals in audio. In fact, it works so well that when I bought a vacuum record cleaner—a KAB, for just under $200—I ended up using the Spin-Clean first and then vacuuming off the liquid with the KAB. For a short time, I had abandoned the Spin-Clean for vacuum cleaning alone. One day, after not being able to get all the crud from a copy of Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, I used the Spin-Clean and vacuumed off the liquid with the KAB and found that all the dirt embedded in the grooves, along with the noise it caused, was gone.

Vacuum cleaning machines are now available at various price points, from $200 to thousands of dollars, but they all work on the same principle. Some machines spread cleaning liquid on the record and use both brushes and a vacuum to lift off the impurities. With less expensive machines, you apply the fluid manually and spread it around with a supplied brush, which lifts the dirt out of the grooves. Some machines have a wand that you move over the LP to vacuum the liquid off; with others, you flip the record over, and the suction comes through a slot in the machine to complete the cleaning.

Vacuum

Some of my friends own more expensive and sophisticated vacuum machines. When I’ve used them, I’ve found them to be about as effective as my KAB. As vacuum cleaners increase in cost, you get convenience and ease of use.

Ultrasonic cleaners have been causing some buzz in the vinyl world, but they’re pretty expensive. I’m starting to see models for around $200, but since most run over $2000, I’m skeptical at this point that a unit costing that much less can do a comparable job.

It’s a good idea to keep a brush and cleaning fluid—something like the Discwasher I mentioned earlier—near your turntable to use each time you play a record. It takes static and dust off the record and helps to keep your stylus clean. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab makes one, but there are others. There are many cleaning fluids available for brush or vacuum cleaning. Check reviews on audio sites, try a few, and see what works best for you.

A record doesn’t have to be in perfect condition to be enjoyable

Take this claim with as many grains of salt as you see fit. When I started buying records, I didn’t have a good turntable, so I wasn’t getting the most out of my records anyway. I bought a light-tracking ’table around 1976, but vinyl in the US at that time was often dicey. The energy crisis became an excuse to use recycled vinyl, and records were already a little noisy when you pulled them out of the cover and started playing them.

Record quality, whether due to audio production factors or manufacturing, is affected by history and geography. A Japanese or German pressing from the 1970s will sound different from an American pressing of the same album. Mastering choices were often different in other countries, and many manufacturers outside the US continued to use virgin vinyl. With the first LP pressed in Japan I bought, the big difference I noticed was how quiet it was. I heard silence when I dropped the needle.

Modern vinyl pressings are probably the best and quietest ever; at least as silent as those Japanese pressings, and often better. Dead-quiet vinyl is a great thing and the best way to enjoy the glories of LPs. Still, some records are worth hearing as they were originally mastered and pressed, and they aren’t always pristine.

Ella Fitzgerald

If, like me, you’ve picked up LPs at garage sales and Goodwill stores—and even at reputable used-record shops—you’ll find vinyl that is perfectly listenable and enjoyable but has some flaws. I am willing to tolerate a light click here and there in order to enjoy music as it was originally released. I have a 1985 Verve Records three-CD set of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook. Several years ago, my wife gave me a used copy of the original five-LP set from 1959. Verve pressings from that era were often badly made, but my copy just has some groove noise—probably from being played on a bad turntable.

I can accept that noise in order to hear music that was probably recorded, mixed, and mastered using tube gear. I have the CD copy if I want to hear the music without noise. The old LPs give me something I can’t really describe to someone used to digital perfection—a feeling of being transported to 1959, when Fitzgerald’s voice, singing those tunes, first reached people’s ears in their own homes.

I have mono pressings of Please Please Me and With The Beatles on Parlophone, and I have the all-analog reissues on vinyl that Apple Records released in 2012. The reissues are quiet and sound terrific. They sound very much like the originals, but I get the sense of being at the birth of something new when I play the older copies. They’re in reasonable condition, but they could perhaps be quieter. They probably rate VG, while the other early Parlophone Beatles albums I have are in VG+ condition. I enjoy listening to all of them.

Please Please Me

Having brought up the subject of the condition of records, let me pass on some guidelines for buying used LPs. The ratings I’ll explain here come from Goldmine magazine, which long ago created a used-record rating system most reliable dealers follow.

If you have no tolerance for background noise of any kind, stick with a Mint Minus (M-) rating or buy new, sealed vinyl. Although Goldmine doesn’t make this distinction, I believe that Mint should mean still sealed. As far as I’m concerned, a record that has been played even once is M-.

An album rated Very Good Plus (VG+) has been played, but presumably on a high quality, light-tracking turntable. Any noise during playback should be barely audible and not distracting. The LP might show some light scratches that often come from sliding it in and out of the inner sleeve.

If an album is rated Very Good (VG), it will have some groove wear you can hear and some audible but intermittent scratches. If the scratches or groove wear are audible throughout, the album is Good, and, to me, not worth wasting my time listening to it. The noise is too prominent to let me enjoy the music.

If I really care about a record, I want it to be M- or VG+. I’ll put up with a VG record if the music is recorded loud and does not vary much in dynamic range. For me, some rock albums are fine at a VG rating, but I like jazz and classical LPs to be at least VG+.

Don’t count on sellers knowing what these ratings actually mean. Make sure you can return the album if it is not as the seller presented it in the listing. I’ve bought a few LPs from sellers who said an album is VG+, only to play it and find it’s Good at best. Discogs.com and eBay have a five-star rating system for sellers, and you should be able to see if they have a history of describing albums accurately and backing up their products.

I have a few other thoughts about vinyl, but this is a good start. Perhaps I’ll write an article that explains how to store records properly, and another listing some currently available LPs that I consider to be essential listening. Actually, for that last one, check out my monthly reviews on sister-site SoundStage! Ultra for pressings that will make your listening life richer.

. . . Joseph Taylor
josepht@soundstagenetwork.com