A Young Person’s Guide To Enjoying Vinyl Records

How to get the best from your vinyl - a beginner's guide

I cringe at the memory of a budding bedroom DJ, who, in an attempt to stop records from skipping, had placed a stack of coins on the end of the tonearms to both his decks.  My eyes water each time I recall the sound made by the turntable in a local record store, as it tortured records with a stylus that was never – ever – replaced.  I flinch at the thought of the audio feedback produced by a friend’s turntable that he insisted on perching on top of one of his loudspeakers.  I shudder when I recollect the damage caused to another friend’s records as he gleefully “cleaned” each one with copious quantities of a cheap, nasty and frankly toxic anti-static fluid.  I have witnessed a demonstration from a Linn dealer where the cartridge in the tonearm was badly misaligned.   I have winced at the sound of a high-end turntable where the owner was convinced that the lower the tracking force, the better his equipment would sound. 
Changing Times
The rapid evolution of technology has completely changed the way in which music is made.  Before it was possible to store and replay sound, performers and composers were free to produce works that were as long or short, loud or quiet as they chose.  With the arrival of audio recording, technology effectively prescribed a limit on playing times and range of volume.  For instance, a 7” 45rpm vinyl single – especially one that was intended to sound good on AM radio or a juke box – was likely to play for under three minutes whilst sounding consistently loud[i].  A long-playing LP was unlikely to play for longer than 15 minutes per side[ii]; meanwhile open reel tapes, cassettes, 8-tracks, MiniDiscs and CDs all came complete with various time and audio limitations. 

For the best part of fifty years, the predominant vehicle for the sale of recorded music was the vinyl record.  Despite being overtaken in popularity by cassettes, compact discs and digital files, vinyl records are making something of a return to the high street, living rooms and online retailer.

The renaissance of vinyl records as a playback medium is based partially on the inherent suggestion of superior sound quality, as well as the acknowledged pleasures of selecting, purchasing, owning and handling 7 and 12” records.  Whether one considers that compact discs, SACDs and lossless files sound better or worse than their vinyl counterparts, there is no doubt that in terms of sheer tangibility, LP records are the most fun.  And that’s before they are allowed anywhere near their required playback equipment, i.e. a turntable.

Those championing the rebirth of vinyl are often seem unaware of the know-how and financial investment required to extricate the best possible sound from a new and growing record collection.  Supermarkets, high street entertainment chains and even book shops are now offering quantities of shrink-wrapped LPs, pressed on 180g vinyl and wrapped in heavy card sleeves.  As often as not, stores now offer for sale cheap plastic turntables next to the stacks of albums.  Equipment that frequently masquerades as high fidelity whilst having the build quality of a child’s toy.  The ghastly track-skipping groove-scraping monstrosities of the 1970s and 80s are back, and are being marketed as quality audio equipment suitable for the replay of premium quality vinyl records. 

The paradox of expensive records being played on flimsy and destructive turntables is probably nothing new to seasoned audio buffs.  Those new to amassing collections of vinyl records might be grateful of a few tips as to how to get the most satisfying and accurate sound from a replay system that should have been eclipsed by technology altogether but, for reasons discussed elsewhere on this site and all over the internet, refuses to die. 

Sit down, young stranger.  Your record collection is about to sound that much better.

[i] I grew up believing what my father told me, that “any record is loud if you play it loud enough”.  In later years, I began to understand how music could be made to sound loud even though it really was not.  One of the best examples of such artificially induced volume is to be found on The Animals’ 1964 single House of The Rising Sun.  The extreme levels of audio compression employed by producer Mickie Most (and the disc cutting engineer) ensured that the record remains very audible at whatever level it is played at.  In short, it sounded great on the radio and juke box.  In later years, the loudness wars of FM Radio and digital music recording has produced a breed of hot-mastered records liquefied into a synthetic, cloying and grating top-40 sound.  Refer to this excellent Wikipedia article for further reading on this contentious topic.

[ii] The theoretical playing limit of the LP format was pushed back by the practice of groove cramming.  The deleterious effect on sound quality resulting from squashing LP grooves together (as required by extended playing times) is proportionate to the increased length of the record.  Dynamic range, bass response and overall volume are invariably reduced the longer a record becomes.  Todd Rundgren’s 1975 LP Initiation played for a value-packed 67 minutes, but sounded totally flat and squawky.  RCA Victor jammed the first three movements of Charles Munch’s 1958 recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony onto one side of an LP – which played for nearly 40 minutes.  Side two of Nigel Kennedy’s 1986 Bartok/Ellington LP dragged on for nearly 39 minutes, however the Direct Metal Mastering employed by EMI and Teldec allowed that the record was quite listenable - if not a revelation in sound.   Meanwhile, the May 2017 edition of Mojo magazine notes that Meat Loaf’s 1977 LP Bat Out of Hell was speeded up to accommodate all the songs on two sides of vinyl without suffering significant loss in audio quality.

That’s right.  You did just read that.  Every copy of Bat Out Of Hell – vinyl, CD, tape, minidisc - plays at the wrong speed.  He’s been revved up

The Dual 505 - one of greatest budget turntables

Equipment

As described above, avoid at all costs cheap plastic turntables.  The most common characteristics of such vinyl-destroying hardware is a flimsy moulded platter & plinth plus a one-piece pick-up cartridge and tonearm.  And a bargain price of £50 or less.  Such equipment will offer no adjustment for cartridge alignment, tracking weight or anti-skate bias.  As a simple guide, avoid anything where the platter is 10” across or less. 

As a bare minimum, aim for a good entry-level turntable, typically as manufactured by Pro-Ject or Rega.  A USB output is useful but not essential.  Many such turntables have cartridges installed at the factory (not to be confused with the ghastly moulded-in pick-ups of bargain basement decks).  Pro-Ject favour the fabulous Ortofon OM, Audio Technica unsurprisingly prefer their own cartridges.

Bear in mind that where a turntable has a factory-fitted pick-up, upgrading to a more expensive and better-sounding cartridge may not be possible. 

Buying second-hand is an option; however, read between the lines in the online auction listings (...it worked OK last time I turned it on…) and don’t be afraid to ask awkward questions. Have a good look at the photos – well-loved more often means well-hated.  Do not trust a second-hand stylus – be prepared to replace with new; and avoid buying a replica.  Your records deserve a brand-new genuine stylus.  They really do. 

One of the best value second-hand turntables is the Dual 505; a belt drive deck from the 80s and 90s that could out-perform far more expensive rivals.   There are of course, many others – and countless hi-fi forums online to wade through in your search for the best buy.  Extra funds allocated at this stage will be rewarded many times over - no amplifier or speaker can compensate for the inferior sound produced by a substandard/defective turntable and/or cartridge.  There is no silk purse to be made from a sow’s ear.
VLC interface
Some budget turntables are best left in the shop...

Buying and Collecting Vinyl Records

There are two distinct paths - either (a) spend a small fortune on brand-new 180g issues or reissues or (b) crate-dig your way to an affordable and probably, more interesting collection.  The disadvantages of buying expensive reissues is discussed elsewhere on this site – in brief, digital tapes are very likely to have been used as the source. Everything that one might find unpalatable about digital files i.e. hot mastering and a cold, brittle sound is very likely to have been transferred to the vinyl edition.  However, the quality of the pressing should be spot-on. 

A recent visit to a prestigious Oxford Street record store revealed that the cover art on the hundreds of reissued “classic” albums for sale was, invariably, taken from badly-scanned images, presumably lifted from original album covers.  Presumably, no-one could be bothered to locate the original lithography[i], instead relying on shoddy, blurred and washed-out facsimiles of the genuine article. 

You may therefore think twice before paying £20 for ELO’s Out Of The Blue when the CD copy is on sale for under £6.   Even more so when original copies of the LP are so easy to find[ii].

The disadvantage of buying second hand records – whether from house-clearance junk stores, online or high-end collectors specialists – is the principle of caveat emptor, or buyer beware.  The shiniest, cleanest-looking LP may sound dreadful once you get it home; short of asking for an instore preview, there’s no 100% method of establishing the audio quality of a record on first appearances.  Some kindly souls will post an audio rip of the album online, but this is comparatively rare.  A dirty and scratched LP is a giveaway – as is one with heavy groove damage; but a visually clean record does not always translate to a clean listen.  Help is at hand – see the section on record cleaning below[iii]

The choice of turntable and cartridge is paramount when collecting new or old records.  Delicate and fragile medium-to-high-end turntables are invariably allergic to playing dirty and badly worn records.  Solidly-built DJ turntables and cartridges can be largely insusceptible to playing grimy and decrepit records, but much of the fidelity may be filtered out or lost.  To solve this conundrum, I employ a Linn Sondek listening to new and ultra-clean records, and a Technics SL1210 for everything else.  More on this to come, plus some waffle on how to clean second-hand (and new) records

[i] In the late 1970s and early 80s; millions of cheap copies of LPs were imported to the UK from Portugal, Spain and Greece.  In addition to poor-quality vinyl and dreadful mastering, such albums all featured flimsy sleeves and badly photocopied artwork - in addition to having plastic bags as inner sleeves.  Amazingly, such records were not pirated copies – this was simply the standard to which LPs were manufactured in certain parts of Europe.  These albums were sold for £2.99 or less; which represented a saving of up to 50% on regular UK prices.   These “parallel imports” rarely turn up at car-boot sales, charity stores or second-hand shops, suggesting that large quantities of Portuguese/Spanish/Greek LPs are now buried deep within land-fill sites throughout the UK.

It is sad to report that today, British record companies seem content to use such tawdry artwork in the production of re-issued vinyl records.  This in no way detracts for the quality of the reissued vinyl records themselves, of course. Funds permitting, I shall, for a future article, perform a five-way (or more) comparison between original and reissued favourites. 

[ii] Shortly after the release of ELO’s double album Out Of The Blue in October 1977, the band’s US record label switched distribution and manufacture from United Artists to Columbia.  Millions of unsold UA copies were “cut out” (remaindered) and subsequently retailed for a third of the usual price.  The supply of the cut-out copies held up for about five years.  Many contributors to hi-fi forums ostensibly consider that the original American United Artist pressings represent the definitive vinyl edition. 

[iii] Danny Baker states in his first autobiography that when returning LPs borrowed from the local library, his father would apply a nice sheen of boot polish to the records, effectively masking any scratches that may have ensued during their loan

Cartridges and Preamps

Quality turntable cartridges, or pick-ups, are invariably of the magnetic or moving-coil design.  Ceramic (and crystal) pick-ups are generally not all that kind to records, requiring much heavier tracking weight (upwards of 5 grams).  Incidentally, ceramic cartridges are standard kit in modern throwaway plastic turntables (q.v.).  Whereas ceramic/crystal pick-ups produce relatively high outputs (c. 400mv); magnetic cartridges more typically deliver 4mv and moving coils even less than that.  Ceramic cartridges do not feature advanced stylus profiles i.e. elliptical/hyper elliptical or Shibita, rather they use standard spherical profiles.  One might as well play records with a blunt knitting needle. 

Hi-fi amplifiers once included the necessary pre-amplification (phono stage or pre-amp) to raise the low output of magnetic pick-ups to a level that could in turn be amplified to audible levels.  Meanwhile, moving coil pick-ups would require a separate offboard step-up device.  When vinyl and turntables (temporarily) disappeared from the high street, vinyl pre-amps were largely eliminated from hi-fi amplifiers – primarily as a cost saving exercise.   Those wishing to hook up a turntable were – and still are – obliged to buy a separate pre-amplifier.

This was a serendipitous turn of events, as in most cases an offboard phono stage will easily out-perform its integrated precursor. 

Due to the use of the R.I.A.A. curve in the production of vinyl records – to accommodate 15 minutes+ of music on one side of a 12” record - the disc cutting engineer will create space for the grooves by reducing the bass and boosting the treble frequencies, in line with an industry standard created by The Recording Industry Association of America.  A preamplifier should inversely correct this equalisation, producing a linear frequency response.  Unsurprisingly, some preamps do a better job of this than do others.

Furthermore, the R.I.A.A. curve is one of the major drawbacks in vinyl reproduction as, over time, standards have been challenged and modified[i].  There is no guarantee that a disc cutting engineer will strictly observe whatever version of the curve they are purportedly obliged to use.  That is to say, few agree on how such frequency-adjustment should really work; consequently, an older pressing might sound radically different (superior?) to a later version of the same record.  ( White hot stampers ?  Yeah, right.)  

One cannot over emphasize the importance of employing a high-quality preamp in a modern turntable-based audio system.   A good turntable and tonearm, a properly aligned pick-up cartridge – this will all go for nought if the preamp is not up to the job.  Many acceptable budget turntables now come complete with an integral phono stage, which can be seen as a convenient, if inflexible option. 

Spend as much as you can possibly afford on a phono stage.  The difference can be pronounced.  Really.  Conversely, a poor-quality phono stage will significantly downgrade the quality of signal produced by your turntable, and nothing that your amplifier or speakers can do will compensate for that. 

[i] 12” dance and reggae singles are often cut without reducing the bass frequencies as is required by the R.I.A.A.  On playback, a vinyl preamp will then emphasise the low end even further, resulting in a very impressive (overpowering?) bass response in dancehalls - as well as bedrooms


Cartridges and Preamps

Achieving the perfect geometry and tracking force of a diamond stylus is something of a dark art – every cartridge has a sweet spot whereby the music contained within the grooves of a record simply clicks into place.  Surface noise reduces dramatically, tracking error reduces or disappears altogether whilst stereo imagery becomes extremely focused.  And some cartridges have a bigger sweet spot than others.  My personal budget favourite – the Ortofon OM Pro – is far from being a high-end cartridge.  It costs less than £30 (or £60 for the plug-in version).  It sails through distortion and surface noise that would render a record unlistenable through any other pick-up.  Unsurprisingly, it is standard fitting in turntables at the BBC – even at Radio 3.  It should be noted that the Danish company Ortofon also manufacture record cutting lathes and perhaps understand better than most the nature and profile of a stereo vinyl groove.  The Ortofon OM Pro tracks at 3.5g; installed in a Technics SL1210 and coupled with a Graham Slee preamp, it gives my Linn Sondek LP12 a serious run for its money.  Purists are probably spluttering and guffawing as they read.  So sue me[i].

The OM is a very easy cartridge to set up.  And no, it’s comparatively high tracking force does not cause excessive wear to records.  Stay with me on this. 

The correct alignment of a cartridge is best performed with a specially-designed protractor tool – I use an MFSL Geo-Disc; it checks tone arm height and cartridge alignment to within thousands of an inch.  Other alignment tools are available.  But in all cases, considerable patience and nimble fingers are required. 

Tracking weight is crucial – the stylus has to make sufficient contact with the groove to produce an acceptable sound.  The louder a record, the more demanding a journey the stylus must take.  Insufficient tracking force means that the stylus will bounce around in (or even clear out of) the groove, creating unpleasant distortion known as tracking error.  The closer the tone arm gets to the centre of a record, the harder the job of the stylus becomes. 

In years gone by, really demanding recordings were intentionally kept away from the end of the side to avoid producing unnecessary distortion.  The vinyl version of The Sound Of Music film soundtrack featured a song order that did not follow the movie – Do Re Mi appeared halfway through side two, it should have been at the end of side 1. 

Thankfully, most modern day pick-ups are at generally capable of tracking modern vinyl records to a satisfactory degree; provided they are installed correctly into a sympathetic tonearm.  It should be noted that increasing the tracking force is not necessarily the answer to correcting tracking error.  Getting an LP to play properly means adjusting and readjusting pick-up and tone arm within several parameters – i.e. tracking weight, anti-skate force, cartridge alignment and tone arm height.  It also helps if the turntable is perfectly level, and that the cartridge type has been properly matched to the tonearm i.e. compliance, or the stiffness of the cantilever versus the mass of the tonearm.   As mentioned, all this is a dark art that may take a lifetime to master.  I have records that I thought would never play properly[ii] – years later; after tweaking and re-tweaking various tonearm and cartridge combinations, the detail and sonic accuracy of said LPs and singles at lasts shines through.

[i] At The BBC, I was often asked by listeners which turntable, arm and cartridge I used on air.   Many assumed that, due to the high quality of our broadcasts, records were played on an elaborate belt drive turntable/tangential arm/moving coil cartridge combination.  Whereas all vinyl was actually played on Technics SL-100 turntables and arms, fitted with Ortofon OM Pro cartridges, tracking at 3.5g. 

[ii] The following records in my collection represent the tracking-error abyss …

  • The Emotions – Best of My Love 7” single.  A wasps’ nest of a record, especially the complex harmonies in the final chorus
  • Heatwave – All You Do Is Dial.  The B-side to the 7” single Boogie Nights.  The incredible sibilants in the intricate backing vocals and Johnnie Wilder’s searing falsetto could make my Garrard SP25/Goldring G800 sound more like a dentist’s drill
  • Eagles - Hotel California.  Don Henley’s spiralling vocals at the end of The Last Resort could cause a vinyl distortion white-out
  • Georgie Fame – Leaving The City Behind.  The final track on side one of his debut album for Island records.  Often sounded as if Georgie had been miked up through a fuzz box
  • Nils Lofgren – Shine Silently.  The final track on side 1 of the 1979 LP Nils.  An audio snowstorm
  • Mark Murphy – Rah.  The LP closes with an acrobatic reading of Annie Ross’ lyric to Wardell Gray’s Twisted.  It is perhaps the best record that I know for testing tracking ability

The awesome Mobile Fidelity Geo-Disc catridge & tonearm alignment tool

A further note on tracking force

As discussed earlier in this article, there remains something of a delusion amongst vinyl buffs that the lower the applied weight on the stylus, the better quality of reproduction that shall be achieved.  Behind the counter of the record store, we used to receive numerous returns of “faulty” records from customers who would proudly declare that, “Well, my turntable tracks at only 0.5 grams so it’s very sensitive…much more so than the deck in this shop!”  Such customers – whose equipment was clearly allergic to the task of playing records – did not take kindly to the suggestion that it might be their equipment at fault and not the record[i].  In reality, insufficient force applied to a stylus will result in poor groove contact, excessive stylus & record wear and horrible levels of distortion. 

Indeed, there are cartridges that when combined with the right tone arm will track successfully at 1.0g or even less – but for such an elaborate set-up, one is moving into second mortgage territory.  For instance, the ADC XLM could track at 0.25 grams.  Or not – no-one could find a tone-arm that would allow it to.  I remember an advertisement for an Empire cartridge that went all the way down to 0.1g.  

Nobody breathe, I’m about to put a record on…

When setting tracking force, the easiest method is to start at the highest end of the manufacturer’s recommended tracking weight, and once the pick-up is properly aligned and the tone arm is at the correct height (etc.) experiment by working downwards, using increments of 0.1g.  If you have a hi-fi test record designed for setting tracking force, fine – otherwise select a handful of records and listen to the last track on either side.  Listen out for the level of high frequency response and amounts of distortion to intense and sibilant sounds i.e. loud piano chords, blaring trumpets, complex vocal arrangements.  The correct force is the point where inner-groove distortion is minimised (or eradicated) and the high frequency response is unaffected.  It’s a balancing act between the two – higher tracking force reduces high frequency response but improves groove contact and thus reduces tracking error.  You may wish to employ an electronic stylus weight scale, but it is easiest to trust one’s ears. 

Be prepared to increase tracking force on certain records, especially those you found in the second-hand bins.  There’s no crime in adding extra downforce if it makes the record more listenable and enjoyable.  

[i] All ex-record store staff will remember the audio hypochondriacs who would return records for the most trifling of reasons i.e. “There’s a tiny click between tracks 3 and 4 on side 2…you can barely hear it but could I just try (yet) another copy?”  In my experience, these were the same nit-pickers that complained and whined at the very idea of compact discs – an audio system that successfully eliminated the dreaded snap, crackle and pop.  And hiss, wow, flutter, rumble, tracking error.  But with the advent of CDs, they soon found something else to gripe about i.e. jitter, error correction, pre-emphasis…

Balancing a Tone Arm

I could describe this procedure at length, but it is easiest to follow the instructions on any number of YouTube videos. 

Here’s one now. 

Record Cleaning

Some consider the application of fluids of any kind to the surface of vinyl records to be one of the hi-fi deadly sins.  For years, however, record washing machines (such as that by Keith Monks) have been successfully restoring vinyl to pristine levels of cleanliness by the application and removal of cleaning fluids.   

An industry has grown up around the manufacturing and marketing of assorted record cleaning systems of varying cost and efficacy.  In addition, there are several home-made methods that some vinyl fans swear by.  For instance, painting the surface of a record with PVA (wood glue); and peeling off when dry.  The dried adhesive removes all traces of dirt and dust from the surface of the vinyl – a careless application of the glue will also remove part (or all!) of the label.  It’s an inexpensive, effective but slow and very messy process of cleaning records. 

If you can afford a fluid/vacuum based record cleaning machine, just buy one.  I use the Okki Nokki – the difference it makes to records (old and new) is nothing short of astonishing.  For £450, it has transformed my listening habits.  Inside 3 minutes, the Okki Nokki will renovate an LP from being an audio fry-up to something nothing short of pristine.  It will not, of course, cure a record of scratches nor groove damage – but the majority of distortion and noise produced by a vinyl record is dirt-related. 

For those without the means to buy a record cleaning machine, my cheap-and-simple method of cleaning vinyl is as follows: -

  1. Rinse record under cold tap
  2. Yes, the cold tap.  Distilled water is the posh option, but tap water works just fine
  3. Work the water into the grooves either using your fingers and/or a soft cloth
  4. Do not add detergent of any kind!
  5. Don’t worry about damage to the label from the water.  Most inks are oil based – in 40 years I have not damaged a record label using this method of cleaning
  6. Shake the record to remove excess water
  7. Gently dry the records & buff to a shine with a very soft cloth or tissue paper.  Aim to remove all water marks from the surface of the vinyl
  8. Now, play the record.  It will sound horrible but the dirt trapped in the groove will now be removed by your stylus
  9. Be prepared to clean your stylus halfway through the side, if not sooner!
  10. Now play it again.  Sounding better, eh?
  11. Play it a third time.  The record should by now sound as clean as new! 
  12. Don’t forget to clean your stylus at regular intervals – it will have been removing all sorts of dirt from deep within the grooves.

The process described above is, of course time consuming but ultimately worthwhile.  I arrived at this method after a lady friend accidentally spilled an entire port & lemon into my box of singles.  The covers did not survive; the records were returned to A1 condition and remain in my collection to this day.  Many of the records ripped for download elsewhere on this site were cleaned using this procedure. 

A good vinyl cleaning regime allows one to amass a huge number of great sounding albums starting at bargain basement prices - without too much fear of regret!  Furthermore, with s/h vinyl still available from 50p each, it's time to visit your local car boot sale and thrift store.

Tone arms

Most turntables can, with a bit of know-how, be fitted with different tone arms with a view to upgrading the sound and performance.  It’s not a task for the faint-hearted – unless you are very technically minded and quite handy with precision tools, and have a good understanding of geometry.  In most cases, it is best left to a qualified specialist or someone with considerable experience of removing/installing tone arms.    

This is not novice territory – however, a superior tone arm can make a tremendous difference to the sound of your turntable; such an improvement ought to be the aspiration of every vinyl fanatic (in addition to buying more elaborate cartridges, turntable stands, efficient LP storage solutions, turntable mats…)

Despair ye not

You’re a record collector now.  Everything described above is all part of the fun and mystique of listening to vinyl.  There is some terrific music contained within your record collection.  And there are millions of records awaiting discovery - you have the means to hear them like never before.  Ultimately, you will stop listening to records, and start hearing music.  There’s the difference.