How a Vinylphile Found His Groove, Part 1

How a Vinylphile Found His Groove, Part 1


Photos by Mike Harkins.

The Allure of Vinyl

There’s a certain allure to playing a vinyl record. It offers a different experience from playing a CD or streaming music. Could it be because a record is analogue by nature and thus more relatable to us? I can’t say for sure, but I can examine a CD all day and not see what I see in an LP in a minute. The information a CD contains is a series of numbers, which are meaningless to us humans and fathomable only to a specialized computer called a DAC. 

I can remember examining an LP from a very young age, trying to see how those tiny groove undulations could capture physical sound and transform it into music. Even a cursory look at the wriggling groove on a vinyl record shows that there is music engraved in there. Dynamics and multiple sound waves as well as repetitive percussion impacts all show up on that tiny groove. It’s mesmerizing to look at.

In the days that vinyl records were known simply as records, LPs, or 45s, most of us didn’t even know they were made of vinyl. And most 78s were not vinyl, as my brother Paul found out when he accidentally tried to flex grand-dad’s 78 rpm Vaughn Monroe record, Riders in the Sky, only to see it shatter to pieces. That was the first nice feature of vinyl records. They were less breakable than what came before.

I think to fully understand the allure of vinyl, one must become one with the disc itself. That may sound very Zen, but it’s true.

What’s In Your Groove?

An examination of a vinyl record physically and audibly allows some insight into what’s inside a groove. Note that I said the singular “groove” because there is just one groove on each side of a disc which spirals in towards the center as the record is played.

Photo 1: Fingerprinted new vinyl.
Photo 2: Microscope photo showing tiny particles inside a record groove (white line).

One can examine any record by eye and see that the undulations are indeed a facsimile of the audio signals recorded therein. Closer examination under magnification reveals even more. For example, I have never seen a completely clean record groove. Even record sleeves and cardboard record jackets are fraught with tiny particles which inevitably find their way onto the record surface, even on a brand-new LP. Photo 1 shows an example of a record I recently bought with its sleeve intact. There’s a fingerprint clearly visible near the label area, and it’s not mine. 

Photo 2 shows another area of the same recording, where we can see various particles. These may be innocuous, especially if they’re larger white ones, which are typically paper fibers. Some of the smaller ones might cause some noise upon playback, depending on what they are and if they’re stuck to the vinyl. Sometimes, even our skin cell flakes can end up on the record’s surface. The microscopic world on a vinyl record is full of unusual things. This photo shows the large land areas between successive groove tracks. I used my Puffin phono DSP preamp to determine the quality of the record based on surface noise content, mainly pops and ticks, which are impulse noises. The record itself is not hugely dynamic and it shows a somewhat low signal-to-noise ratio. Each LP side is given a score by the Puffin preamp comparable to a school grading system from A+ to F.  This particular recording scored B+ for each side, which is acceptable but not wonderful. I find that records scoring at least an A are the ones that are truly good quality, with a few exceptions.

Screenshot 1:  Screenshot of a waveform from a digitized audio clip showing a left-channel tick.

This recording on tan vinyl from a local label featured a singer with a guitar. There was nothing spectacular about the recording or performance. I expected more for its $30 price.

In recording this record into a digital format, one can see many hidden aspects of the music and noise content detected by the cartridge during playback. Screenshot 1 shows an image taken of a small audio clip from this recording. Here, one can easily see the music and noise detected during playback. Often, the noise is not audible if the signal is high enough. But on this recording were several areas where the noise was quite audible.

A Scottish Tale

On a recent trip to Scotland, a friend and I both purchased records at a Dundee record store. Two records were considered audiophile quality, with one labeled “45 rpm Audiophile Edition”. Both were also labeled as being made of 180-gram vinyl. The recordings included Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain”, which sold for ₤13 (US$ 16.36, CA$ 22.36) and was the 45 rpm recording, and Roxy Music’s “Flesh + Blood”, which was standard 33 1/3 rpm and sold for ₤30 (US$ 37.49, CA$ 51.60).

Photo 3: Dimple in an “audiophile” recording.

The Miles Davis recording at 45 rpm was a little over 15 minutes per side and, as such, had to be cut at a slightly lower volume level than at the slower 33 rpm speed. This was evident during playback as I had to increase the gain to maximum to properly record the album into FLAC format using VinylStudio software on my computer. Of course, increased gain also brings up the noise level, while decreasing the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of the record. This record had several problems, which should never happen on a so-called “audiophile” edition, even at a discount price.

Screenshot 2:  Noise corresponding to the dimple in photo 3.

My Puffin preamp scored it a C for side 1 and a B+ for side 2, but I would not be so generous with these grades. There were some clearly audible noise spikes on side 1, so severe that I would reject it (screenshot 3). There were also some low-frequency noises that were not detractors for the scoring but were quite audible. Upon inspection of the disc, it was obvious that there were some small dimples on side 1 that caused these noises. Photo 3 shows a clear picture of the largest of these dimples. Some were also found on side 2, but they were not as large or audible.

Screenshot 2 shows the audible effect of the largest of these dimples. Notice that its out-of-phase movement indicates vertical motion of the stylus as one would expect from a dimple. The origin of these defects is unknown to me, but there was an apparent flaw in the stamper or the process which caused this blue vinyl to dimple. The vinyl was said to be “HQ virgin vinyl” on the record’s jacket, but I found that under higher magnification, it contained several flaws.

Photo 4: Blue pigment particles embedded in the record.

Photo 4 shows some of the blue pigment pellets near the area of the large dimple. I have no idea if this “residue” is related to the imperfection or is just a stray artifact, but it is an indication that the vinyl was not well mixed with the blue pigment. Several tiny blobs of these dark blue particles are visible on both sides upon magnification.

This is concerning considering that even tiny imperfections in a record groove can be easily heard during playback. These examples show that not all vinyl comes in pristine condition from the factory. I had previously, through bench testing of brand-new records, determined that the failure rate for vinyl recordings straight from the manufacturer is on the order of 10%, and my experience with these two records would tend to support that estimate.

Screenshot 3:  Repetitive ticks in the right channel (lower trace) of the Miles Davis recording are evident on the screen and easily audible during playback.

That brings me to the good news. The ₤30 album by Roxy Music was much better. It scored an A on each side and showed little evidence of noise or strange anomalies like dimples. It was pressed on black vinyl, and was labeled as “half speed mastered”, which, in theory, should improve the sound. I can’t vouch for that, but to demonstrate the differences between these two albums, I have a click counter. That counter is part of the VinylStudio software I use to convert the music to a digital format. It is not foolproof, but it does give an idea of the amount of noise present on the vinyl’s surface.  

The Roxy Music recording registered 815 clicks, which were repaired by VinylStudio. In comparison, VinylStudio recorded 6658 ticks on the Miles Davis recording, which it also removed for digital conversion. Admittedly, some of these repairs were false, in that VinylStudio seems overly sensitive to some high frequency content. Still, most of these ticks were legitimate, as can be seen by looking at the displayed audio signal in screenshot 3.

If you’re wondering if I cleaned these records — a favorite pastime for most vinylphiles, myself included — prior to testing them, I didn’t. I simply used a carbon fiber brush to remove surface dirt or light dust. My argument for not precleaning new discs is this: When buying premium vinyl, why should I have to clean it? It seems to me that if it’s premium and requires cleaning, the manufacturer should clean it for me. It’s one reason why I’m paying a premium price for the record. But the second reason is that many of the defects found on these records would not benefit from any amount of cleaning. I doubt that the noise found on the Miles Davis album could be eliminated, as it was repetitive and probably due to a scratch on the surface since only one channel was affected. This corresponds to a flaw seen at the same place on the record’s radius, not dirt or debris. And cleaning would most certainly not remove the dimple noise from this record. It’s there and must be lived with. If I were still in Scotland, that recording would have been returned to the record store.


Photo 5: Scratched vinyl can never be repaired.

The dreaded scratch on a record is a fault that can’t be ignored. Even with very careful handling, it’s possible for an accident to happen causing a scratch or ding to one’s precious vinyl disc. My treasured Deutch Grammophon recording of Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suites 1 & 2” with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, suffered a scratch, resulting in a very audible pop recurring through many revolutions of the record at slightly less than 2 second intervals. Upon examination of the record, I found a straight-line scratch for which I have no explanation. No one other than I had played the recording, and yet, there it was (photo 5). It might have been handling damage on my part, or some other accident. I doubt it was caused by a cartridge stylus scratching across the record. The microscope photo looks more like a knife or razor blade cut across the groove. I’ll never know how it happened but, fortunately, I was able to remove the audibility of the scratch using VinylStudio from a digital capture, something that can’t be done with a standard turntable and phono stage. It now sounds flawless!

I bring this up to show that no matter how careful we are, accidental damage can occur. I found myself accidentally juggling a friend’s new album recently, only to have it land on the edge of my desk. I thought it might be damaged, but after careful inspection and playing the disc, there seemed to be no damage. I dodged the bullet that time, but it emphasizes the importance of careful record handling. The edge and label areas are the only places where bare clean hands should touch the record, and prompt removal of any contaminants should always be standard practice.

I realize that record playing setup and handling might sound like some sort of fetish or the onset of OCD behavior. I would bet that many vinylphiles are, in fact, somewhat “obsessive-compulsive”. I, for one, turn on my turntable every day whether I’ll play a record or not. It’s part of the satisfaction I get from vinyl. It makes me do things no other medium can. It’s just some of the fun in playing records!

Read How a Vinylphile Found His Groove, Part 2 here.

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