People 'n' Issues

Play vinyl records without breaking the bank

April 1st, 2016
As the vinyl comeback gains pace, the cost of going back in musical time can strike the wrong chord. JOEL KOPPING offers a vinyl primer for first-timers and returnees.
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Lots of people will tell you that vinyl records are making a comeback, and they are almost right.

I say “almost”, as vinyl records never went away. They were simply overshadowed by the glut of digital forms of media that were supposed to offer “perfect” reproduction of music.

Vinyl fans like myself continued listening to music off these plastic discs, niche manufacturers continued developing record players and allied components and, while the major record labels stopped pressing records, smaller companies continued making records.

It is somewhat surprising that, as the world has moved away from CD-based music and people integrate more and more into digital life styles – which, at face value, should push people even further away from analogue audio – more people are discovering that vinyl records are alive and well.

Perhaps being digitally connected and and having everything we need to look at or listen to available almost instantly and on almost any device, has cleared the mist or mysticism that obscured vinyl records. The more digital we become, the more clearly we are able to see how much fun it is looking at and listening to music delivered by pure analogue devices.

Listening to vinyl offers a different – not better or worse – experience when compared to listening to digital downloads or streamed music. Part of this difference is the process of playing a record. This process includes carefully removing a record from its sleeve, placing it on the platter of a turntable, giving the record a quick clean with an anti static brush and, finally, carefully lowering the stylus on to the spinning record.

Now there are two main reasons why people play records.

The first is that many prefer the sound of vinyl, and the second is that people want to convert old music that is not available any more into a digital format they can carry with them.

Here we look at how you can enjoy vinyl music or copy your old favourites into a digital form.

Before getting to what hardware and software you need to start your vinyl journey, I’m going to describe briefly how records and turntables work.

If one were to have a look at the grooves of a record under a microscope, you would see what looks like a mountain valley. The left and right sides of this valley contains the left and right channel music information. The stylus -or needle- of a cartridge which is attached to a tone arm, is literally dragged through this vinyl valley. As the stylus journeys through the valley, the small left and right and slight up and down motion of the stylus is converted into electrical signal. This signal is amplified into the music we listen to.

This process sounds pretty simple, but there is a little more to it.

What we need to realise is that the stylus does not know the difference between vibrations caused by tracking through the record grooves and vibrations caused by a rough running motor glued or screwed to a turntable chassis, or those caused by platter bearing that isn’t running smoothly. These noises can sound like  rumble and some older amplifiers were even equipped with a rumble filter.

Another issue that often rears its ugly head is that of speed stability. If the speed that the record plays at is too fast or too slow, the music will sound, naturally too fast or too slow. Even worse than this is when the speed of a turntable varies while playing music.

The next issue I want to talk about is, to me, the most important one.

This is called tracking force, and it is simply the weight that the diamond stylus exerts on the walls of the grooves of the record.  By the way a good rule of thumb is that the downward force of the stylus should be around two grams. If the tracking force is set too high, or if the diamond tip of the stylus is damaged, instead of riding the ridges in a record groove the diamond simply sand papers the grooves away. A record can be taken from new to unlistenable in as little as two or three plays. Of course if you’re converting music from vinyl to digital and the above is happening, you wont be recording the musical detail that is being worn away.

To ensure record grooves are not too wide, before music is copied to a record low frequency sounds are reduced in level and high frequencies are increased in level. This change in levels follows what is known as the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) curve. On playback and to ensure that we hear music as it was meant to be heard a device called a Phono Amplifier boosts low frequencies, reduces high frequencies and amplifies the extremely low level signals it receives from the cartridge. The better the Phono stage applies the correction, and the quieter its amplification stage is, the better the sound will be.

Some turntables have phono stages built in, some amplifiers have phono stages built in and there are lots of phono stages available at mild to wild prices.

No matter what your reason for wanting to get into vinyl again, what the above says is that pretty much every part of the vinyl replay chain is important. You can not expect to get good vinyl rips if the weight of the stylus is so high that it flattens the grooves it’s supposed to ride. You will not hear all the musical detail from a record if the motor vibrates the turntables chassis and these vibrations are picked up by the stylus.

Fortunately there are quite a number of inexpensive – this I admit is a relative term) and good sounding turntables on the market today.

I recommend, as a minimum starting point when looking at a prospective turntable, the following:

Can you set the tracking force (weight) of the stylus?

If you cant do this, you will never know if the down force is too high. We could assume that it’s correct, but do you want to test this on your records.

Can you replace the Stylus and/or the complete cartridge? If you can, are replacements available?

Styli are delicate and can easily be damaged, you don’t want to have to replace an entire turntable  because your three year old wanted to play.

The above I’m afraid already precludes much of the turntables available in mass retailers.

There are, however, quite a few DJ type turntables that are built well, do offer the capability of setting tracking force and sometimes even pitch- Speed- control.

Moving a step up you get to turntables manufactured by specialised audio companies.

Two Brands I can recommend are Rega and Project. Models from these brands start at reasonable prices, particularly considering their audio and build quality. Both are available through retailers nation wide.

A third option is buying second hand. There are quite a few people who have travelled the same path you’re on, and who’ve ripped their whole collection and now want to sell their turntable. A good second hand model will certainly beat a bad new one.

Remember that a good phono stage will make a difference and both the Brands mentioned earlier have models that offer both analogue and USB outputs. USB means that you can rip records directly from the player/phono stage to your PC.

One last thing to remember is to keep your records clean and handle them carefully. Dust, dirt and greasy finger marks will all add noise and help damage those delicate record grooves.

* For more information on vinyl and turntables, please contact me on joel.kopping@gmail.com

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