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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 14
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Give Me Your Homeless, Your Tired, Your Noisy Records
by Myles B. Astor

 

Late last year, I gave a lecture on training athletes (and it certainly applies to buying vintage LPs) entitled, "Uncertainty is the Rule!" The bottom line: despite what Robert Levi wrote in "Foolproof Ways to Buy Excellent LPs" (Issue 13 of Positive Feedback Online, see www.positive-feedback.com/Issue13/records.htm), there's no guaranteed system for finding vintage records with absolutely dead silent surfaces. For that matter, the vast majority of used albums have some surface noise—that depends in part upon the genre. Classical LP lovers tended to keep the records in better shape than jazz aficionados who in turn took greater care of their babies than did rock 'n rollers. If quiet vinyl or instant gratification are what matter, then read no further and buy all the new releases from today's leading audiophile labels.

So Much for Perfect Sound

Differences aside for the moment, Robert and I do agree upon two points. First, digital rarely lives up to its promised dynamic range (or more importantly, dynamic shadings). One of the most poignant examples of this dynamic conundrum is the 1959 RCA Living Stereo recording of Reiner conducting The Pines of Rome (JMCXR-0008). Now this criticism is not meant to disparage the excellent XRCD series; based on past experience, however, I didn't expect that the CD would match, forget surpass, the original vinyl issue—save for dynamic range. Just to bring everyone up to speed, a little interesting background history of this highly desirable recording. Soon after the album hit the store shelves, RCA yanked the first and original 1S pressing of Pines of Rome because purchasers complained their 'tables couldn't track the record. To meet the public's demands, RCA replaced the 1S pressing with a dynamically compressed version.

Did the JVC reissue capture the incredibly wide dynamic range of the original 1S stamper (and what I heard on the original master tape!)? In short, no. On neither the Sony SCD-1 SACD player nor the Altis digital playback system did the XRCD remotely approach the dynamics of the original 1S pressing–much less the 10S stamper. Why? What happened during the remastering process? Was it the source tape used for the remastering? Quite possibly. Despite repeated inquiries, JVC never revealed whether they use the original tapes, or safeties, or dupes for their remasterings. (Remember, most labels won't allow these precious original master tapes out of their sight, much less transported to another city, state or country.) No matter how well done, each analog tape generation results in a loss of information and increased tape hiss.

Next, analog, warts and all, is still to my ears, the superior music playback medium (OK, I'll concede that the original 7½ ips, in-line heads reel-to-reel tapes were better, but that format unfortunately lasted about as long as 8-track, in part to price and in part to the tapes containing less music than the LPs. The initiated should also bear in mind that the sound of these reel-to-reel tapes greatly depends upon choice of tape deck!).

Why does analog remain the medium of choice for many audiophiles? There are as many reasons as there are brands of speakers on the market. It is interesting, however, to note the close relationship between analog lovers and die-hard tube fanatics. Jim Lesurf recently observed a similar linkage in his article entitled "Now Hear This" (HFN, April 2004, p. 72-77). In the course of discussing human hearing, Lesurf hypothesized, "Could it be that sometimes the distortions introduced by old valve amp designs or vinyl LP alter perception and enhance the ability to hear?" While Lesurf admits this is sheer speculation, his question is not without biological precedent. There are many examples of situations where our body uses both positive and negative feedback regulation to regulate processes such as gene expression (for instance, gene transcription is controlled not only by the activity of a second gene, but also by another gene's absence such as occurs with tumor suppressor oncogenes) or muscle growth (inhibitory myostatins vs. anabolic hormones such as IGF-1, testosterone, etc.).

Another very interesting article on human musical perception entitled "Music in Your Head" recently appeared in Scientific American, Mind, p. 24-31, 2004. The author Eckart Altenmüller presented compelling evidence on how individual-to-individual differences (known in athletic training as the principle of individualization) preclude, or make extremely difficult, any sweeping generalizations about human hearing as a whole.

Analog CPR in a Digital World

Without question, companies still in the LP game deserve commendation for remaining true to the cause. Without their continued dedication and effort, analog would be nothing more than just a pleasant memory for most audiophiles. Among these companies' accomplishments are:

  • Keeping the analog medium afloat—and even recruiting new analog devotees;

  • Producing high quality, affordably priced LPs;

  • Reissuing recordings of both older and current artists;

  • Continuing to investigate ways of producing better sounding analog discs, including single-sided LPs, 45-rpm releases, improving the electronics in the mastering chain, etc.;

  • Uncovering many wonderful treasures hidden away in the recording companies' vaults.

Unfortunately the reissues I've heard don't equal the original release's sound quality (I'm hoping Analogue Productions 45 rpm jazz series will prove the exception to the rule—but I haven't been able to compare them head-to-head with the originals yet). In some cases, the reissues sound good until they go up head-to-head against the originals. Then the differences rear their ugly head. To my ears, most reissues suffer from a loss of hall ambience, altered frequency balance and decreased harmonic integrity, particularly in the ever-so critical midrange.

Explanations abound to explain the sonic differences between the original and reissued LPs. Among the suggestions are tape aging effects (that differs from brand-to-brand), storage (some master tapes have been ruined or ugh, lost or stolen over the intervening years!), difficulty in finding high quality lacquers for cutting masters (several years ago nitrocellulose drew the attention of the EPA), whether or not tubes were in the remastering process (many early stereo recordings were recorded and mastered with tube electronics) and the effect of compression (yes, these engineers used compression and gain riding). In addition, many of the reissued three-track master tapes sound as if the middle track was mixed in at too high a level. Consequently, the soundstage perspective is much closer—it's like RCAs are being transformed into Mercurys.

Many audiophiles don't realize that over the years, labels experimented with and used (with varying degrees of success) different brands of recording tape. For instance, RCA started out using Ampex for their stereo master tapes. Then some corporate whiz kid decided that RCA's engineers must record with their own house brand of tape. That experiment, according to the recording engineers who worked at RCA at that time, was an unmitigated disaster. This corporate-based experiment lasted roughly a year or so, before RCA switched back to the original Ampex tape. So it's very likely that recordings made during that time on RCA tape are in poorer shape—or sound poorer—than the Ampex recorded sessions. (For those interested in the subject of recording tape, see the seminal article many years ago by Tam Henderson in TAS.)

The take-home message? Buy the original disc is sound quality is paramount. However, a good copy of the most desirable recordings is going to cost you dearly–and the shape of the disc is by no means guaranteed. Thus if it's quiet surfaces that you're after, then reissues are a better route. (Or as many do, buy the reissue and keep looking for a reasonably priced copy of the original!)

Compounding Playback Variables 

It's important before delving into the pros and cons of sourcing these highly sought after albums from the Golden Era of stereo recordings, to question some of Robert's assertations. Specifically, I'm referring to his insinuation that newest generation of phono sections and cartridges reveal greater amounts of vinyl surface noise. (I'm somewhat surprised, given Robert's sensitivity to surface noise, that he didn't complain about the presence of tape hiss on these early stereo recordings.) That's far from my experience. In fact—depending on the equipment—newer analog 'tables, arms, phono sections and cartridges actually give new life to "defective" or noisy LPs.

To begin with, perceived surface noise is in part traceable to whether one uses solid-state or tube equipment. Many moons ago, Harry Pearson, writing in The Absolute Sound, observed (I'm paraphrasing him since that particular issue of TAS lies in storage) that "tubes decode noise differently than solid-state." This extremely astute observation, though written years ago, still remains valid. For whatever the reason, solid-state electronics, unlike tubes, exacerbate record surface noise.

The next "X surface factor" is the cartridge/arm combination. To outfit the 'table with a pivoted or linear tracking arm—that is the question! I've experience with both approaches and both have their plusses and minuses (despite the overwhelming theoretical advantages offered by a linear arm). One thing that I observed is that many albums that were unplayable or downright unlistenable using pivoted arms, were given a new lease on life with linear tracking, air bearing arms such as the ET, Rockport or Air Tangent.

Newer, modern arms also deal better with the energy arising from the stylus/record groove interface. (Longer arms also offer reduced VTA variation with record warps.) Modern arms typically have several, smaller, low amplitude resonant peaks in contrast to older arms, single, large resonance point. The newer approach reduces antiphase signals that exaggerate surface noise—not to mention degrade dynamic range.

Rather than revealing more record noise, today's exotic stylus profiles generally make LPs sound quieter (though albums played with mono cartridges that used higher tracking forces, seem on the whole irreparably harmed). One plausible explanation for this phenomena is that older cartridges were typically outfitted with conical styli that rode higher in the record groove. New stereo cartridge styli have far, far smaller profiles and sit deeper in the groove, possibly contacting unplayed, virgin groove surfaces. Of course, one down side to modern exotic stylus shapes is their susceptibility to VTA (Technical note: I am going to use VTA when referring to VTA/SRA).

A discussion of the importance of VTA and its impact upon surface noise was perhaps Robert's most important oversight. No matter what you've read (especially from a few "Flat Earthers" on the other side of the Atlantic), having a fully adjustable arm (adjustable VTA, azimuth, overhang) is an absolute necessity with today's latest breed of cartridges! Don't laugh since there are some highly rated arms that lack overhang and azimuth provisions (I understand their rationale but don't buy for a moment into their philosophy). That's just poor design in my book.

How many times have your heard your audiophile "music lover" friends complain about having to adjust VTA for every record. (For me, it's a toss up between this line or "I don't want to get big" from female athletic training clients.) The sad thing is many don't either—and they don't retrieve all the information present in the record groove. After all, high-end audio is about retrieving the last 10% or 15% of musical information off the vinyl discs—not unlike getting that last couple of percent of performance from elite level athletes. Present day arms make VTA adjustment practically painless and reproducible—as well as maintaining arm rigidity and overhang. More to the point, and Robert's comments lead me to raise this point, exaggerated pops, tics and surface noise, are one of most obvious tell tale signs of an incorrect VTA setting.

There's simply no denying the facts! Don't even think about critically appraising and comparing LPs without compensating for VTA variations among records. Nor does setting the arm height based on the thickness of a "representative" disc cut the mustard either. Older LPs were cut using practically every possible VTA under the sun—making owning an arm with reproducible VTA paramount. And yes, records, less so the modern variety, vary in thickness from the outside to the inside of the LP, also adding another variable to the VTA equation. With fewer places pressing LPs nowadays, record VTAs are somewhat more "standardized"—save that today's albums come in an assortment of weights ranging from 150 to 200 or so grams (one may also have noticed that in many cases, earlier pressing of vintage LPs tended to be thicker and heavier—and we're not just referring to "Dynawarp"). Darn. Of course this variation in thickness changes VTA. So VTA adjustment is simply not an option when buying a new arm.

On the quasi-hardware front, Robert stressed, "owning a VPI 16.5 (record cleaning machine) is a minimum investment for the LP hobby." While I personally own the aforementioned product, Robert seems to have dismissed out-of-hand all other record cleaning methods, such as the Disc Doctor cleaning system. Many knowledgeable collectors, audiophiles and reviewers alike have praised this product—not to mention the fact that is a cheaper alternative to the VPI. (There are many methods for cleaning LPs and I refer readers to Michael Fremer's recent review on the subject of LP cleaning on his website, www.musicangle.com.)

Sadly, despite a vinylphile's best-laid plans, records eventually become noisy. One of the biggest problems is that dust and dirt particles are trapped between the hard 'table platters and the disc (either clamped or vacuum based), and in the long run add pops and tics to the sound. Other factors that increase or predispose the LP to developing surface noise include dust ground/welded into the grooves during playback, the type of vinyl used in pressing, cartridge alignment and tracking force and cartridge mistracking. So the question that begs asking is how productive is it to worry about LP surface noise?

Lastly, Robert seems shocked that new LPs benefit from a quick wash, rinse and dry cycle—something that I noted many years ago in a survey of record cleaning fluids appearing in the now long defunct magazine Sounds Like… (Believe it or not, there are actually more record cleaning fluids on the market now than 15 years ago.) It's not a major secret, however, that cleaning new LPs removes any residual mold release compounds from the record grooves. These are chemicals in the vinyl ingot or sprayed on the stamper to facilitate vinyl spreading and release from the LP press. These compounds interfere with the stylus properly tracing the record groove on the micrometer level. The catch, though, is that mold release compounds are extremely difficult to remove and require either special cleaning solutions or several passes through a record cleaning machine using a fluid with high alcohol content. Unfortunately, the most efficient cleaning fluid was withdrawn from the market several years ago because it contained environmental unfriendly chemicals.

Maximizing the Odds in Your Favor

How much would a foolproof system for buying perfect vintage LPs be worth? If I had my druthers, I'd market the process and make as much money as did Mod Squad partners McCormack and Fleming did on Tiptoes.

In contrast to what Robert writes, buying sealed vintage LPs far from ensures pristine surfaces or a new record. Unscrupulous stores in those days (look up the old Sam Goody scandal—and I know at least one person who worked in another Village NY record store at that time who told me about the shrink wrapping machines in the back of their store) weren't above resealing defective LPs. Many of these albums have been passed down through the years as "new." Believe me, I've found a few over time. That aside, quality control was severely lacking back then. Warps, severely off-center discs, cheap or—horror of all horrors—reground vinyl, were maladies often encountered right out of the jacket. (Of course, this is a major argument for purchasing new, audiophile discs.) Many sealed LPs are actually later pressings (all things being equal, the earlier the record pressing, the better the sound). Finally, many, not all, vintage box sets, are actually later pressings of the original single LP release.

So what useful advice and insights can I contribute to the discussion on finding mint or near-mint used LPs? All serious record collectors must have a copy of Mikrokosmos' Labelography (www.mikrokosmos.com). Contained in these elegant binders are close to everything you wanted to know about every classical musical label but were afraid to ask. Pictures of each company's album labels. Country code. Color code. Chronological age. Many used record dealers have adopted Mikrokosmos' simple coding system.

Truth be told, there's no magical advice other than hard work and networking when it comes to maximizing the likelihood of hitting pay dirt with LPs. I consider myself extremely lucky to have begun collecting many years ago (I can thank Sid Marks for that)—and I don't know if I'd even be in high-end audio if all I listened to were CDs. Finding these LPs from what many consider to be the Golden Age of Recording is much more difficult today than it was when I started in the late '70s—and when digital first reared its ugly head. Back then, you could tell someone, "digital is perfect and sell me your LPs." Those sources have dried-up, as have many stores that sold LPs.

It's sad that most of the used record stores have disappeared across the NY/Tri-State area—and I'm sure the situation is no different across the US. The remaining stores are much smarter nowadays. The best discs don't even make it to store shelves anymore; instead these record dealers prefer putting them up for auction on EBay. I have never bought off EBay, in part because the prices are so inflated. My advice for anymore buying albums through Ebay or the 'Net is to check the seller's reputation carefully. I have some friends who have gotten poorly packed LPs, etc. If you do decide to use eBay, you'll want to take care that shills aren't bidding the prices up on the records. It happens.

Bear in mind when pickings are slim, you never know where, when, or how you'll hit that mother lode! On vacation. On a business trip. Visiting a friend. Walking around the city or town. Check to see when or if local radio stations have LP sales. All it takes is one hit!

Some of my biggest finds have come in the most unexpected places. My mother-of-all-finds came several years ago after meeting someone selling a few records on the street; this out-of-work Manhattan School of Music singer turned out to have an apartment crammed full of boxes of LPs. My eyes literally popped out of my head when I walked in the front door. The final tally read about 800 or so albums at $3/pop.

Sometimes, despite desperately wanting a title, the album just is beyond help. Sometimes, you have to buy a couple of copies to find one that is "quiet." Sometimes you have to buy a couple of copies to get the best or earliest "pressing." (Keep in mind though that record wear usually out shadows whether or not the LP is an early pressing.) Then you can recoup your investment by selling the rejects to friends who then can repeat the same process. Garage sales and newspaper ads are not the source for albums of yesteryear. I've found the best source nowadays is networking; let friends, co-workers, etc., know that you're an audiophile and vinyl lover. Talk up your love of music. It eventually happens that someone will be looking for a home for their cherished LPs.

Next, deal with reputable dealers that offer return policies. Too often, stores (and individuals') grading policies are far more lenient than my own. For example, several years ago I bought some highly desirable, "mint" discs from Grandma's Attic in South Carolina. When the albums arrived, none of the records was remotely mint or playable. The worst record was so far off center that I thought the stylus would snap off; another album had 13, yes thirteen bubbles on side B. Hardly mint! Where one bubble left off, the next began. The owner gave me a hard time telling me the albums were better than his copy. But I did finally get my money refunded.

Another suggestion is get away from buying only those albums on people's "Records To Die For" or "Recommended" lists. Try experimenting with some of those budget dollar or two LPs. Believe me there's a world of outstanding LPs out there that reviewers don't know about. One trick is to check who's the recording engineer listed on the album credits. You might luck out and find that one of your favorite recording engineers moonlighted on the side. In the end, the costs all average out.

So, if surface noise drives you to drink, stick with the safe route. Buy reissues—or better yet, CDs, DVDs or SACDs (that's what they're good for). But if you're a true dyed-in-the-wool audiophile who will only settle for the absolute best, then hunt down the original vintage discs (with an open mind about the fact that some reissues may sound better). On the other hand, there are some highly sought after discs that I've been hunting for many years and have yet to find. In this case, I'll buy the reissue because I want the recording, but I'll continue on the quest for the Holy Grail.

 

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