How a Vinylphile Found His Groove, Part 2

How a Vinylphile Found His Groove, Part 2

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Photos by Mike Harkins except top photo by Kevin from Pixabay.

Read the first part of “How a Vinylphile Found His Groove” here.

Hearing pops and ticks from an unknown source is a dead giveaway that the source is vinyl. But there are other noises that can come from a vinyl record. Here are a few:

Background noise: Even brand-new records can have background noise that may be difficult to hear on most loudspeakers due to the listening room’s ambient noise, but will be audible through good pair of headphones. This requires some careful listening to the intertrack (the silent groove between tracks) or in the quieter parts of a recording.

Production noise: Some noise artifacts are not the fault of vinyl itself, but rather from something originating from the recording space or electronics. For example, Lyn Stanley’s recording of “Live at Bernie’s” has intertrack noise, which I attribute to the live recording venue and possibly to air handlers or some other environmental factor. The vinyl quality is quite good, with the exception of a few minor ticks. 

I also found a Nina Simone album, Pastel Blues, with a very annoying hum on one of its tracks, “Be My Husband”. This was also not caused by the vinyl medium itself, but some 60Hz ground loop hum that must have seeped in during the recording process. I was able to remove the hum by filtering it out of the recording using VinylStudio’s hum filter. The album is otherwise clean-sounding.

Screenshot 1: Intertrack noise on a vinyl “audiophile” recording
Screenshot 2: Intertrack noise on a vinyl “audiophile” recording with some added crackle in the right channel

Vinyl tracking noise: Screenshot 1 shows some intertrack noise on a brand-new “audiophile” recording of Linda Ronstadt’s album, “Simple Dreams”. The screenshot also shows an intertrack tick in the right channel. I should point out that the noise, except for the tick, is barely audible at normal listening levels. But it’s there, nonetheless. And I can’t tell for certain if this noise is a vinyl artifact or if it came from the master tape. 

Screenshot 2 is intertrack noise found on the audiophile recording of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. Here, again, we find intertrack noise combining a rumble-like sound with a crackling sound resulting in multiple pops appearing in the same area on the record.

Record wear: I don’t think it’s necessary to state more than the obvious here, and that’s that record wear results in audible distortion.

Holy “Groove Echo”, Batman!

Groove Echo: Inherent in some vinyl recordings, this artifact is caused by the sound of an adjacent groove track overlapping the previously laid down one due to their close proximity. A 1971 AES paper reported that groove echo affected succeeding tracks, but I’m not sure that’s true since it seems intuitively more likely that a succeeding track’s sound would override that of the previously cut track. Some vinyl echo effects are actually the result of tape print-through, which is similar in nature to groove echo in that print-through happens when a tape signal is imprinted on to the adjacent layer of tape while the tape is rolled up while in storage. It’s rare, however, that disc masters are at fault.

Screenshot 3: A noise artifact caused by interference from an adjacent groove track on a record. Note that the noise is one revolution preceding the loud cymbal crash in the adjacent track.
Photo 1: Obvious interference (circled areas) with adjacent groove tracks, a couple of which caused extraneous noise when played with a Microline stylus.

I encountered a case of groove echo gone woefully awry, when I accidentally came across a 45-rpm recording that had some obvious noise in the last half of the disc. At first, I thought I was hearing things. But no, it was there, as evidenced by screenshot 3. The record was the B side of the single “Love’s Theme” by Barry White’s 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra. The tune is “Sweet Moments”, and if you examine the groove, it seems to be cut quite deeply compared to most other records. In fact, many of the land areas between grooves seem almost non-existent. Could this have caused the dreaded groove echo, or something worse? What I heard went way beyond groove echo. It was a raspy impulse noise, as seen on the left side of screenshot 3. In the last portion of the record, the music is limited to a few drum and cymbal crashes and a slow rhythmic beat. Looking at the microscope image (photo 1), one can easily see the groove interference, one of which is reflected in screenshot 3. I initially suspected that the noise I experienced might be caused by my new Hana ML cartridge with its Microline stylus, since more of the groove wall is in contact with the stylus edge, thus causing any groove interference to become noticeable. So, I took this same record to a friend’s house, where he played it with his Audio Technica VM520EB cartridge, which employs an elliptical stylus. Sure enough, the noise was no longer present, but there seemed to be distortion in a cymbal crash. I concluded that the mastering engineer must not have heard the noise when he listened to the “mother” disc with an elliptical stylus, since Microline styli weren’t available when this recording was made in 1973, and using one would’ve revealed the defects.

What to make of all this? Only that technological improvements, even in the analogue world, can sometimes produce undesired side-effects. The more modern Microline stylus tip is an improvement over the age-old elliptical one, but this little experiment showed that it can reveal sonic flaws that would otherwise go unnoticed by the listener. Luckily, “Sweet Moments” is one track almost no one would intentionally listen to—it’s that bad. But I would be curious to know if anyone else has detected similar recording flaws which may not have been audible to the mastering engineer but do show up during playback.

Revelations

The old phrase “caveat emptor” comes to mind when it comes to buying vinyl records. For the most part, brand-new records are quite good. But here are some things to keep in mind as you venture out to the record store, record exchange, online store, or used record bin.

  • If buying new vinyl, be sure you can return it. Imperfections in the molded plastic are usually not visible to the naked eye, but in some cases they are. If you see a defect in the record, you’ll most likely hear it. Return it for an exchange or refund.
  • Don’t take for granted that a record labelled “audiophile” will be at the quality level you’d expect from that term.
  • Will all that dirt on your record cause audible noise? Absolutely not! Most particles are loose debris, such as dust particles, paper fibers, etc., which can easily be moved out of the way as the stylus is tracking the groove. They produce practically no noise unless they’re bonded to the record, in which case washing your record can remove them. Of course, large amounts of debris can collect on the stylus and cause distortion, so it’s a good idea to regularly remove dust and lint from the record and stylus, using brushes designed for that purpose.
  • Coloured vinyl offers no audible improvement over traditional black vinyl and can sound worse in some cases.
  • Be wary when buying used vinyl. Dirt and fingerprints can be cleaned from a record, but damage and wear are permanent. Ask your dealer if there is a return policy for used records. I doubt you can return those bought from the discount bin, but if you are paying $10 or more for a record, it makes sense that you should be able to return it. If a dealer inspects a record with the naked eye and declares it in good condition, be suspicious. Often, such records are much noisier than a cursory inspection can reveal.
  • If buying online, most stores have a return policy. Usually, if a record turns out defective, the store won’t want it returned and will send you a replacement. 
  • Don’t expect perfection. I have never heard a vinyl record completely free of pops or ticks. The good ones still have a very good sound-noise-ratio (SNR) and few objectionable noises, i.e. low-level noise that is drowned out by the glorious music coming from that wonderful vinyl groove. 
  • What about record cleaning and treatment products? Some seem a bit extreme, such as the recommendation I read online to use WD-40 as a cleaning solution. I doubt this would harm your records, but I have no personal experience trying it and I doubt I ever will. I would be interested in feedback from those who have used record treatment products. Can they really remove pops and ticks or other noises?

Groovin’

What’s in your groove? Maybe more than you expected in terms of defects, noise, or aberrations. So let’s be sure we get good quality vinyl by holding the manufacturers and distributors accountable. These discs aren’t cheap.

By no means do I contend that vinyl is the only way to get good sound. Obviously, there are several digital sources, from CDs to streaming to FLAC, WAV or AIFF files that all support at least the potential for good quality audio without the drawbacks of vinyl reproduction. 

But let’s finally admit it. Vinyl records seem here to stay. They may even be getting more popular, if only for the things that make them uniquely appealing: their size, their collectability, the need to care for them and keep them clean, the playback ritual associated with them, the need to have a good playback system that won’t harm them, their jacket artwork and liner notes, their analogue sound. Many consider the vinyl record a superior format for many reasons, which is why it maintains its popularity despite years of technological improvement in digital audio. There’s just nothing like it. Enjoy!

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