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 a good time to do it. If you
have any records that are duplicated on an audio CD, digitizing the record will
not necessarily produce better sounding files than the commercially-produced
CD. So, the decision to digitize them is yours. After all, it is 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 US) so, all you need is the equipment,
the knowledge of how to use it, and the time to do it.
To do this, you will need a turntable, connected to a phono preamp that has the
correct equalization curves for what you are transferring, 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 at least $2500.00. If this sounds expensive,
consider that a restoration quality turntable with an adequate selection of
cartridges and styli can cost $15,000.00 or more. Here is a link to a review of
some budget turntables;
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 have had two of these turntables (different
brands) in our family that belonged to our 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 capable
turntable may just do the job. Some of these models have analog outputs as well
as digital and our son discovered that using the analog output with a component
setup yields better results.
Records take their own special preparation in order to get the best performance.
This will involve careful examination and cleaning (sometimes extensively)
before you select the proper stylus in order to get the best possible playback or
transfer. There are several methods and cleaning machines available. When it
comes to selecting the best stylus, use your ears as the final judge. Because of
groove wear, I have sometimes made three transfers of the same side for
78RPM records: Above the wear pattern, At the wear pattern (in the groove, as
they say) and below the wear pattern, closer to the bottom of the groove.
The three transfers gives me all of the possible choices. Sometimes, after
playing an entire side, I will want to try it again with a different stylus or cartridge
to possibly improve things. This is why a through cleaning is
The same will apply
if you are a listener and are only interested in playing
records for your own enjoyment.
There is some good reading at the Library of Congress recorded sound website:
I would also recommend that you consult
for a reasonably in-depth
description of how records work. Search the internet. Some search suggestions:
There is some
very good advice on the internet, but be careful. Often, what seems like good
advice is actually someone’s opinion. Look for good science and well established
procedures. Check out my
page for additional resources. I have assembled
and one is specific to records that may help.
Do all of that and you’ll become reasonably well educated regarding the whole
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. The speed format had been used since the
late 1920’s when sound for motion pictures was introduced by the Warner
Brothers. They consisted of discs that were 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 as people were already set up for 78 RPM. However, it
became popular as a format for discs used for transcribing radio broadcasts from
the late 1920’s into the 1950’s. The very first transcriptions rotated at 78 RPM.
Then, the 33-1/3 speed format was adopted by radio stations for recording
because it allowed for more time.
Electrical transcriptions 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 a Nitrocellouse lacquer coated blank disc 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 over glass came into being during
WWII as aluminum 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
or broken by incorrect handling or equipment. On the subject of handling;
DO NOT touch the surface of any lacquer coated instantaneous disk with your
bare hands. The moisture and oils 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 disc. Some radio transcription disks
were manufactured as vinyl discs for distribution to many radio stations.
Microgroove LP’s, introduced in 1948, 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, likewise, a properly adjusted mono stylus will not damage a
stereo LP. However, there are 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 (a 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 common information on both sides of the groove walls will sum and increase
in volume, causing an alteration of the intended blend 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
reduction of the echo that was inherent 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 mix was.
This is assuming that the mono cartridge has enough compliance (springiness)
to play a stereo record which, most do. The other thing is, that a stylus designed
to play a mono record will typically have a larger tip diameter so, it may ride a bit
higher in the groove which, can cause more noise.
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
typically released on the 45 RPM format discs. However, many 45 RPM records
for commercial release are stereo and when used by DJ’s, it leaves it up to them
to perform the mono compilation.
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 canceled 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. This is because the
left over dust specs will wind on one groove wall. 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 a representation of how the various styli track a record groove:
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
formats. I often refer to these units as ‘record wreckers.’
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
brittle and easy to break. 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. Many of those discs were vertical cut which, refers
to a sound recording technique that utilized variations in the depth of the groove
on a cylinder or disc. Records produced before the electrical era (about 1925)
were recorded acoustically and are often called ‘Acoustics.’ 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.
Before that, is the era that will involve the most research in order to properly play
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, 40's and into the early 1950's. These one-off recordings were
typically laminated with vinyl over a composite, cardboard like, center layer and
some are (typically, black) lacquer applied to a metal disc. Many have not
survived in playable condition. Those that have, are extremely delicate and rare.
During this same era there were some disc recording machines in the local
variety and department stores, and for 5 to 25 cents or so, you could make a
recording. During World War II, one could usually find those record making
machines in the local USO and they were popular for sending voice letters
The department store vending machines survived into the 1950's in some areas
of the US. 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 discs. Know that the same handling precautions
apply as mentioned another
for lacquer coated discs.
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 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. The process which should be
relatively easy to replicate. I have written an article on the subject which, is
If you have records made from the turn of the last century up to the early 1950’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 (tone) 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 on a good quality turntable with the proper stylus. A good cleaning is
not only important, but absolutely necessary if you are to get the best playback.
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!
© Corey Bailey Audio Engineering
DO IT YOURSELF?
BAKING AUDIO TAPE
REPAIRING A BROKEN 78
FLATTENING A RECORD
A Little About Sound
Optimizing your PC
Packing Records for Shipment
People I have Known
Playing Records Wet
Playing a Wire Recording
Saving Your Family Video
The Ken Slater Tapes
Tubes vs Transistors
What Type of Wire?
Your Digital Data is at Risk