Back to Black or Vinyl Revisited

A cautionary tale for boys of all ages

Sound is energy transmitted as pressure waves in the air. (Noise may conveniently be described as sound in the wrong place, just as dirt is matter in the wrong place.) If we wish to hear – or enjoy – a sound again, or to hear it when we were not present when it was made, it must be recorded and reproduced. Since these waves of pressure are continuously variable, it is attractive philosophically, if in practice naïve, to wish to make the recording and replay it in analogue form: attractive because the continuously variable waveform will remain as such throughout its’ pathway from instrument to ear, naïve because the process will not be without distortion. The idea of ‘digitising’ a waveform is emotionally unattractive to anyone who has ever ridden a bicycle down a flight of steps – a quantised waveform is a flight of steps, however small, an analogue wave is a slope.

I grew up with music in the home, at school, in the Church and the concert hall, as listener and as performer. At home we had no television but sang and played or struck a variety of instruments and sometimes each other, which no doubt made us the close family we are today. (I have spoken to my sister several times since we left home and she always sends me a Christmas card.) Listening, we progressed from wireless to radiogram to ‘separates’ and thus enjoyed – for the time – high quality sound reproduction, mostly on long-playing records, with a leavening of ‘78s’: these something of a misnomer as recording speed varied quite a bit. Perfect pitch could be a blessing if the turntable had a fully-variable or fine-adjustment on the speed, otherwise a curse. With 78s the ‘Fi’ may not have been ‘Hi’ but some performances were peerless. Enjoyment of music and musical education need not demand perfection in reproduction, though a close approximation can help.

As a teenager, I built my own amplifiers and loudspeaker cabinets, doubling the effort eventually produced Stereo, a little later, stereo with both channels in-phase, which was quite an improvement! The source was always microgroove records and part of the fun of listening lay in the setting up of the turntable and - particularly – the arm and cartridge. Getting it right was science, art and craft, with final arbitration by ear. End of side, where the linear speed of the groove past the stylus is lowest and the radius of the groove smallest was always the most exciting: would it track well? These simple pleasures are unknown to those who have only known the less tactile ‘plug and pray’.

For the last couple of decades, I too, have plugged and prayed. CD and FM wireless supplanted the L.P. (by now the ‘album’, unconscious parody of the 78 era, when a long musical work came on many discs in a book, literally an album) and cassette tape. My records were played less as more CDs were bought. At first, CDs seemed over-bright, even harsh in the upper registers, but we marvelled at the clarity, the lack of surface noise and clicks, the lack of anxiety at the end of the side. When the first-born became ambulant it seemed wise to move the turntable somewhere out of reach of inquisitive fingers. Somewhere high. The highest place was the loft.

While the children grew past the stage of fingers everywhere, past posting sandwiches into the video-recorder to the stage of programming the video-recorder with greater facility than their parents, we steadily bought CDs. Favourite L.P.’s were bought again on the new medium – they didn’t sound quite the same as we remembered, somehow ‘thinner’, ‘edgier’, less full: skimmed milk compared with full cream. The record industry responded with new/old releases ‘digitally re-mastered from the original tapes’ or with other, less precise indications of enhanced listening pleasure, so we dutifully bought them again. We assured ourselves that, being quite grown-up now, our taste had improved, expectations had improved and the old recordings perhaps had not been so fine. Whatever the aural equivalent of rose-tinted hindsight may be, we assumed that we had it.

Eventually, curiosity got the upper hand. The old recordings had enjoyed a good rest and I still owned two turntables, the music room could be rendered safe by closing the doors, my new amplifier had a ‘phono stage’ – special order at extra cost – so it should be used. Turntables back in the 20th century, before MP3, had followings as fierce and devoted as football supporters, with different makers having passionate followers. In the intervening years many well-known companies had folded: paradoxically their supporters became more passionate. In my (limited) experience the same has not happened in football. Perhaps Accrington Stanley still has a devoted supporters’ club, but if so they are remarkably quiet about it. My turntables had been regarded in their time as ‘first-division’ (from Swindon, an off-shoot of the Royal jewellers) and second-division (Swiss, therefore inherently suspect in the British mind despite our predilection for Swiss watches). Reading the Hi-Fi literature then and now I found that the well-known Glaswegian team clung to the top of the Premier League, with worthy opponents, but amazingly the elderly Swindon product was now highly regarded, particularly after physiotherapy, especially if remedial surgery were performed. (The Swiss confection has a smaller following but is popular in France, I understand).

The turntables were exhumed, dusted, disassembled, cleaned, lubricated, reassembled and reanimated, cartridges checked, styli cleaned and examined, reinstalled. Tracking angles were adjusted, playing weights set, reset, the original handbooks consulted and all settings checked again. This was the Hi-Fi of happy memory – no records actually played, but lots of play-time with precision engineering. Very similar to old car ownership where no-one drives anywhere but energy and time are expended, money spent and pleasure obtained. The main difference in these past-times is that one takes place with big machines in the cold and damp, the other with small ones in centrally heated comfort. The comfort is relative as time is still spent crawling in the floor looking for dropped components and Hi-Fi ones tend to be smaller than automotive but less oily.

Now for the next step: connection! Anyone who has set up a turntable will admit that this is a moment of anxiety – one may be quite confident about the signal path (though, with fine wires from cartridge to arm-base and a change of wire and connector before the amplifier, this confidence is often misplaced) but there is the danger, expectation even, of Hum. Hum to one degree or another was generally accepted by many in the times when valves and vinyl were the norm. At very high gain, in a quiet room, hum and hiss will usually be audible today. What was unacceptable then and now is the loud hum usually caused by an earth (or ground) loop.

When all parts of an audio system share a common earth (ground), all earths are at the same potential. When they are earthed in different places, there will be small potential differences between them and current will flow. For line-level signals a few microvolts may go undetected by your ears, where the signal level is only a handful of millivolts at most, it will not. After connecting the turntable, only switch on the amplifier at the minimum volume setting and advance it slowly.

I ignored my own advice on this and was rewarded by a hum, which woke the dog.

Hours of remedial work checking all the earths, remaking connections, disconnecting them again, re-making them somewhere else followed and the game was replayed until disillusion set in and the professionals consulted. A small modification to the input stage of the amplifier followed by – silence. Just a little hiss and enough hum to reassure one that there was something connected if the gain was turned right up.

Perhaps the time had come to play a record.

The children were separated from the television, which seems to have a considerable force-field attracting the young, and informed that they were to experience true Hi-Fi, real analogue sound from the Golden Age before digital corruption. They were advised that stillness was required, that with a tracking-force of a gramme-and-a-bit even breathing was best avoided and they prepared themselves for enlightenment.

It sounded terrible.

Everything was checked again, another happily-remembered disc carefully cleaned and cued.

It sounded just as terrible.

The pull of the television can only be resisted for so long and the audience followed its force, while after a period of reflection I found another preamplifier (first division in vinyl’s’ heyday) and tried again. It sounded better, but the audience was reduced to one-and-a-dog.

Over the next few days, many experiments were made. Two different arms, four different cartridges, three different amplifiers – you can do the mathematics for yourself, I will happily lend you the slide rule, (or eight-figure log tables if you prefer to be accurate). Comparative recordings were made. On CD, which you may feel misses the point, but was convenient. The apparatus was returned to base, checked scrupulously and declared fit for its purpose, except that some fool had switched the moving-magnet switch to moving coil. This fool apologised and all was well.

Perhaps it was time to listen to another record, alone.

The quality of sound this time was a great improvement and over a period of time I was able to enjoy many discs from my old collection. I also ventured out to buy more. Many record shops stock vinyl as it is very popular with Disc Jockeys still – easier mixing, better ‘scratching’, but most of the records available were not to my taste. A good range of classical, jazz and rock is also available from specialist dealers (at specialist prices) on heavy ‘virgin vinyl’ (an interesting choice of words for those of us who thought vinyl was used to reproduce music, not its-self), but I found that another good source of discs was the Charity shop. Many High Street charity shops have some LPs; a few have large collections in good condition. I do not propose to tell you where my favourite one is as I have enough competition already, but I have found some treasures from discarded collections there

It is generally true to say that good LPs, well reproduced, give a very good quality of sound and the performances may be peerless. Great old recordings have often been re-issued on CD, but many seem to have lost something in transfer. Dennis Brain recordings on CD are very good indeed, but somehow a record pressed in the last year of his life feels slightly closer to the original recording. The Rolling Stones early recordings on CD seem flat and lacking fire – on vinyl there is a sense of danger (possibly anxiety about miss-tracking, probably better dynamic range) although in my experience it is difficult to listen to the Stones in a comfortable (bourgeois?) room. Central heating, soft lights and cushions, Persian carpets are somehow not right – the emotion that went with the music was different in student squalor with joss sticks in the centre hole of the record (I didn’t, some did) and the ready availability of ‘Class A’ (in those days 4th schedule) drugs two doors away. Though I didn’t ‘do’ them either. Eric Clapton is credited with saying that “it’s hard to play the Blues with a million pounds in the bank” and although I’m not so fortunate as Clapton, either financially or as a musician, the same sentiment could be extended to listening, too.

There are other problems with ‘legacy’ vinyl. Apart from the scratches (the click is only a millisecond, the real damage is anticipating it coming round again in 1,7101 seconds time) there is a problem with record wear. You may well find some pristine records in your collection: they were the ones you didn’t like much when you bought them, so they didn’t get played. Your taste may have changed, if not you won’t like them much now, either. Furthermore, your favourite records may have had favourite passages: these will be heavily worn, while the rest of the disc is fine. You may also be reminded why you were persuaded to adopt CD in the first place: not all vinyl is from the ‘golden age’. After the first oil crisis LPs became quite thin and more prone to surface noise and warping. The record companies assured us that vinyl was in short supply and that economies must be made (though not in the price of the record), but strangely the 12 inch single made its’ first appearance at about the same time.

In my own home, vinyl has found a place again. It replaces neither CD nor radio, but has much value in rehabilitating a collection of old performances. So has compact cassette – but that is another story.

Conclusions

If you are considering installing a turntable, whether for the first time or not, whether out of curiosity or conviction, SAFETY IS YOUR FIRST CONSIDERATION. If you are using an old turntable, the wiring is as old as the rest of it. You would not use the wiring in an old house without having it checked: your turntable deserves the same attention.

You may have offers of help from knowledgeable friends in choosing and setting up your turntable. If you have read the tale above you may conclude that the setting up can be fraught. During this process you may conclude that your friend is less knowledgeable than you thought. You or they may well decide to conclude the friendship.

If you decide to set the turntable up yourself, make sure that everything is unplugged, that you have the tools required and the skills to use them and that you have a place to work. Small items bounce unpredictably when dropped! If you take medication for high blood pressure, tremor or anger management, make sure that has been taken and absorbed. Alcohol can come later – you do not need to be disinhibited, you will become quite emotional enough when things go wrong.

In the last resort, skilled help is readily available. It is quite possible to obtain a first-rate – though second-hand – knowledge of the gentle art of playing vinyl by the simple expedient of paying for it.

The best recordings on vinyl, played with properly adjusted equipment of adequate quality can bring great pleasure, particularly on those occasions when the performance transcends the medium. Sadly, as with CD, MD, Cassette and all the other media, many indifferent recordings were made and released. Just because the disc is from the Golden Age there is no certainty of golden quality. The same stages of performance, recording, mixing, mastering and manufacture of the final product can have faults in all the recorded media.

I would not put anyone off a return to vinyl or playing it for the first time. I would simply counsel that its’ enthusiasts, like any enthusiast, can exaggerate the virtues - many though they are – and may underplay the problems. There are, of course, many fine performances on LP, which can be enjoyed in no other way.

By Dr A.P.S.Kimberley, M.B.,B.S.,F.F.A.R.C.S.,F.R.C.A.,M.R.I.