RECORDS: DO IT YOURSELF?
I would like to start by reminding you that if you have any old family recordings
on disc, please have them transferred professionally before attempting to play
them. They are very fragile and easily damaged.
That said, collecting records can be fun and rewarding. I always enjoy perusing
the used records at a thrift store, hoping to find something in good playable
condition that hasn’t made it to Compact Disk.
If you haven’t cataloged your collection yet, now is the time because it would be
good to establish which material has already been produced on CD. Digitizing
the records you have will not necessarily produce sound files which sound better
than the commercially-produced CD's, so the decision to digitize them is yours. It
is, after all, good practice. This leaves you with the material that can’t be found on
CD; there is still a surprising amount left to be transferred to the digital realm.
Digitizing copyrighted material for your own use is legal (in the U.S.A.) so, all you
need is the equipment, the knowledge of how to use it, and the time to do it.
You will need a turntable, connected to a phono preamp, connected to an Analog
to Digital (A/D) converter, connected to a dedicated computer with dedicated
software for recording and creating (burning) CD’s. Entry level for the equipment
and software to do the job will run about $1500.00. If this sounds expensive,
consider that a restoration quality turntable by itself with an adequate selection of
cartridges and styli can cost about $3000.00.
Another possibility is to buy a turntable with a USB connection that connects
directly to your computer for digitizing records. The downside of these turntables
is that they tend to be one-size-fits-all players and won’t give you the best
possible transfer for every format. We had two of these turntables (different
brands) in our family that belonged to my children, who also enjoy searching thrift
stores for old records. We have discovered that the digitized sound quality
produced by these types of turntables is average at best. If it’s really important,
they bring it to Dad. If, however, you are mainly interested in creating
compressed MP3 files or making up some travel music for driving in the car, a
USB turntable may just do the job. Some of these models have analog outputs as
well as digital, and my son discovered that using the analog output with a
component setup as described above yields better results.
Records take their own special preparation in order to get the best performance.
This will involve cleaning (sometimes extensively) and careful examination before
the transfer process begins in order to select the proper stylus. There are several
methods and cleaning machines available. I would start with some reading at the
Library of Congress website:
I would also recommend that you consult
for a reasonably in- depth
description of how records work. Search the terms
and you’ll become reasonably
well educated regarding the whole process. There is some very good advice out
there on the internet. Check out my
page for additional resources. I have
assembled some simple
that are specific to records and analog tape
that may help as well.
As you may have already learned, the microgroove long-playing vinyl record was
first introduced in 1948. However, the 33-1/3 rpm long-playing record format was
first patented in 1931. This speed format had been used since the late 1920’s
when sound for motion pictures was introduced by the Warner brothers. This
consisted of discs mechanically synchronized to a film projector. This process
(and the discs) was called Vitaphone. The 33-1/3 speed format wasn’t well
received by the record- buying public when it was first introduced in the early
1930’s but became popular as a format for 16” diameter discs used for
transcribing radio broadcasts. These early versions of the 33-1/3 speed format
used the same groove width as 78 RPM discs. Both the early movie sound
(Vitaphone) and radio transcription disks were cut, one at a time, into
nitrocellouse lacquer coated blank discs and were designed for only a few plays.
Some of these disc types had a center of aluminum and some were glass. The
discs that were lacquer coated glass came into being during WWII as alumimum
was in short supply. If you own or come across any of these, please understand
that they are very, very delicate and can be easily damaged by incorrect
equipment or handling. On the subject of handling: DO NOT touch the surface of
any lacquer coated instantaneous disk with your bare hands. The moisture from
your skin can cause a chemical reaction that, over time, leaves a permanent
mark and can affect the playability of the disk. When handling any lacquer coated
disc, use cotton or rubber gloves to avoid direct contact with the surface of the
Microgroove Lp’s were monaural until 1957 when the Stereo Lp was introduced.
The question is often asked by those who enjoy collecting old Lp’s if it is OK to
play an old mono vinyl record with a stereo stylus. The short answer is yes, a
properly adjusted turntable with a stereo cartridge and stylus will not physically
damage a mono Lp, and, likewise, a properly adjusted mono stylus will not
damage a stereo Lp.
There are however, some trade-offs:
Playing a stereo record with a mono cartridge and stylus
The information on a stereo Lp is derived from the opposite sides of the grove
wall. The grooves are cut at 90 degrees (right angle), with the inner side of the
groove containing the Left Channel information and the outer groove wall
containing the Right Channel information. A monaural cartridge and stylus is
designed to only move laterally (side-to-side). So, the stereo information is
summed to mono. The balance of the original stereo mix can be altered by
possible phase cancellation of common signals on both sides of the groove wall.
Another, more common, effect of playing a stereo disc with a mono stylus is that
the (in phase) common information on both sides of the groove walls will sum and
increase dramatically in volume, causing an alteration of the intended mix of
instruments and vocals. This is most noticeable with vocals, drums and any
instruments originally placed in the center of a stereo mix. Another side effect that
can often be noticed is a lack of echo that was used in the original stereo mix,
because echo (reverberation) is random by nature and some of it will phase
cancel causing a comb filter effect. It all comes down to just how mono-
compatible the original mix was.
During my tenure as a Recording Engineer and Mixer, nearly all of the stereo
mixes destined for albums were mixed strictly for stereo listening, and mono
compatibility was often disregarded even though I always suggested that stereo
mixes be listened to in mono before final approval. Any singles derived from
albums were remixed for mono compatibility to be played on AM Radio and were
released on the 45 RPM format discs.
Playing a mono record with a stereo cartridge and stylus
Monaural Lp’s were recorded laterally (or horizontally). If you think of an
imaginary line in the center of the groove as you look down on it, each groove
wall has an equal part of the signal or waveform. So now, we’re going to play this
groove with a stylus designed to play each side of he groove separately. What
happens is that when the Left + Right information is played as mono (as it should
be), out of both channels of your stereo system, it will sound OK. I say OK
because any common information can be phase cancelled when played as mono
so the record may not sound quite as good as it would when played with a mono
cartridge. The random surface noise (clicks, pops, etc.) will play in stereo while
the mono mix is in the center of the sound field. If your stereo system has a mono
switch, use it when playing mono records on your stereo turntable and it will
phase cancel some of the surface noise. If you rotate your balance control from
side to side while playing a mono record on your stereo turntable you should
notice no difference in fidelity. It all depends on small differences in record wear,
stylus wear, manufacturing tolerances, etc.
The practice of retrieving the sound from Edison cylinders and obscure 78 RPM
records using a stereo cartridge and stylus, is well known among archivists. The
idea is to be able to use the best results from either channel. This process is
often used for those recordings which require a substantial amount of restoration.
Here is a link to an excellent representation of how the various styli track a record
I should point out that some early manufacture turntables and styli can damage a
disc by applying too much force or, at least, cause additional wear to an
otherwise playable record. These are usually the inexpensive types that often
have a “flip-over” cartridge to accommodate both Lp’s and 78 RPM records. More
often than not, these “one size fits all” players will be improperly adjusted for both
78 RPM Records
Commercially produced records of the 78 RPM era were often called “Shellacs”
because the discs were comprised of a mixture of ingredients that were bonded
together by shellac. The “mixture of ingredients” was generally a closely guarded
secret held by the various record companies.
Be very, very careful when handling these discs. They are
When cleaning these old discs, know the ingredients of any wet solution you plan
to use. Alcohol based solutions, for example, will damage this type of disc.
Very old 78 RPM records, manufactured around the beginning of the Twentieth
Century, will, as often as not, have to be speed corrected to obtain the correct
pitch of the music recording. This is because the developed standards were
loosely adhered to until about 1925. After that, the vast majority of 78 RPM
records produced in the US were actually recorded at 78.26 RPM, while the
majority of discs produced in Europe were recorded at 77.98 RPM. The reason is
that the electric motors (from the mid-1920’s onward) used to spin the platter for
disk cutting lathes and consumer record players were referenced to the power
line frequency, which is 60
in the US and 50Hz in Europe.
The standards for the manufacture of 78 RPM records regarding the
Record/Playback equalization were quite often different from one record
company to another until things were standardized in the late 1930’s.
This is the area that will involve the most research in order to properly play most
78 RPM records.
Instantaneous discs: Home Recordings
Once in a great while you may come across homemade disc recordings.
These records are often referred to as “instantaneous discs”. There were several
brands of record recording machines produced for the consumer market during
the 1930's and 40's. These one-off recordings were typically laminated with vinyl
over a composite (cardboard like) center layer, and some are (black) lacquer
applied to an aluminum disc. Many have not survived in playable condition.
Those that have are extremely delicate. During this same era there were some
disc recording machines in the local variety and department stores, and for 25
cents or so you could make a recording. During World War II, one could find
those record making machines in the local USO and they were popular for
sending voice letters overseas. The department store vending machines survived
into the 1950's in some areas of the USA and if you have any of these recordings
made by your relatives, I strongly suggest that you contact a professional to have
transfers made before attempting to play any of these types of disc. Know that
the same handling precautions apply as mentioned above for lacquer coated
I have digitized a number of these homemade discs. I’m perfecting a process to
flatten them and reduce the severity of the ridge-like cracks that tend to form over
time on the vinyl over composite variety. So far, I’ve been able to reduce the
physical problems by an average of 75%, which has made some discs playable
that would have otherwise been lost to time. I plan to eventually publish my
findings and describe the process which should be relatively easy to replicate.
If you have records made from the turn of the last century up to the early 50’s,
you will need a turntable that can accommodate the various sizes of discs and be
capable of a variable speed of at least plus or minus 20%. You will need a phono
preamp with separate equalization controls in order to achieve the proper
playback equalization. Additionally, I would recommend a selection of 78 RPM
styli in order get the best fit to the various groove types that were cut, and be able
to allow for groove wear.
In conclusion, in order to get the best possible fidelity from any record, it should
be played with the cartridge and stylus for which it was designed. Getting the best
out of your record collection does have a learning curve and you can get as
involved as you like. That's the fun of it!
© 2012 Corey Bailey
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