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October 19, 2017

The Vinyl and the Damage Done


Turntable tips for the vinyl afflicted

By David Lancon

(The following is a Public Service Announcement for those new to vinyl and for those long accustomed to vinyl culture)

You say you just blew the mortgage on that rarest of rare northern soul, psycho-billy, ska jazz ten-inch EP by the Barstool Brothers only to have the Fed Ex man leave the package on your porch, fully exposed to the San Fernando Valley sun on the hottest day of the summer, while you were at work. Oops. Brother, before you reach for your rifle, take a deep breath and remember, concerning vinyl, warps happen. So, do skips and scratches. But these encounters with vinyl distress does not mean all is lost. Here are some simple, cost effective, time efficient tips that’ll help you salvage a wrecked record. Best part, no special tools required.

Most of us in vinyl culture accept these imperfections to varying degrees, especially if they involve a steep discount in the price of an otherwise pricey record that we’ve been lusting after. When you open your still warm and freshly baked Barstool Brothers package and have your warped expectations confirmed, before panicking, try this. I have occasionally seen freshly warped vinyl return to perfect flatness simply by taking it out of the heat/sun while it’s still pliable and placing it in a cooler environment. Sometimes the vinyl gods take pity. But, let’s assume the worst, the vinyl gods are pissed and the fresh warp has “set” with the warped portions rising a quarter inch above the surface of the turntable platter. A classic “edge warp.” Now what? What a great time to get acquainted with your turntable’s tone arm!

Over the years, having gone through a few turntables and numerous warped/distressed records, I’ve noticed turntables with curved tone arms (Technics!) are much more forgiving for playing warped vinyl than straight tone arms. I’ve also noticed that many of my record customers, from novices to veteran vinyl collectors, are unacquainted with, or fearful of, adjusting their tone arm’s adjustable counter weight. Hey, it’s adjustable for a reason! Besides using the counter weight (located at the very back of the tone arm) to set your cartridges correct tracking weight, readjusting it is also extremely useful for playing warped LP’s. Is this the reason why the patent was granted for the “J. Baker Phonograph Tone Arm Assembly” with its novel adjustable counter weight in December of 1969? Who knows. Is recognition of this revolutionary invention long overdue? Seeing that it allows all us vinyl fiends the possibility of salvaging and enjoying what is often assumed to be a total loss, I’d say, make way for a National Tone Arm Celebration Day!

With most warped records, the counter weight will have to be rotated/moved so that the cartridge “tracks” heavier; instead of the tone arm jumping up and out of the groove every time it hits the warp, it will have a greater likelihood of “riding the warp” and staying in the record groove. Maybe. It all depends on the severity of the warp. Thankfully, for the majority of the warps I encounter, this counter weight adjustment saves the day. To make your tone arm track heavier, turn/adjust the counter weight so that you’re moving it towards the cartridge (towards you) a little at a time, until it’s able to play through the warp without skipping. You might have to settle for some “plays through” skipping until the cartridge passes through the warp zone. If you hear a “rumble” through the speakers that you’ve never heard before as you’re doing this, your cartridge tracking weight is at its maximum heaviness. To avoid damage to the rest of the record, be sure to readjust the counter weight to its normal tracking weight when you’ve reached the end of the warped track/tracks.

On rare occasions, the counter weight may have to be adjusted counter-intuitively, tracking lighter instead of heavier, to play through the warp. In the event of a steep, unplayable warp, just drop the needle until you find the sweet spot just outside the warp zone where the record plays normally and hope the defect was reflected in the purchase price.

Skips?! Now we go from fulcrum physics to the human anatomy portion of our distressed vinyl curriculum. Repeat “locked groove” skips or light “plays through” skips are always annoying, especially if you’re dancing, terribly annoying (locked groove) if encountered on your first make out with that sweetie you recently met at a concert. So, why am I staring at my thumb? Because at the end of it is a remarkably useful tool for attempting to fix skips on records… my readily available thumb nail! But before we begin, keep in mind that not all surface wear/scratches are created equally. Back in the days before audiophile pressings, it was common to stack up to six records on an automatic turn table’s spindle for consecutive playing. As each LP/45 dropped from its three-inch height to the still spinning LP surface below, the non-spinning surface of the record above rubs against the spinning record surface below, resulting in oh so light surface scratches with each drop. Multiple playings at house parties leads to a multitude of light surface scratches and the accompanying audible noise – the familiar snap, crackle, popping. Fortunately, an LP surface covered with hundreds of these very light surface scratches may look unplayable, but, lucky you, it probably won’t skip. And unless you’re re-enacting the Cheech and Chong meets Frankie and Annette pajama party scene in the 1980’s cult classic “Surfin’ Bong,” don’t even think of stacking you’re records even if you have this option.

Deep scratches, the ones
that get the attention of your thumb nail as you gently move it across a suspect scratch, are often sheep in wolf’s clothing. (Are the audiophiles amongst us getting nervous? You guys might want to skip this next turn table tip.) If your thumb nail “catches” on the scratch, it could be a problem… or not. If the scratch is ninety degrees perpendicular to the grooves, you’ll have better luck with this next field tip than if the scratch is forty-five degrees or, heaven help you, parallel to the grooves.

Assuming perpendicular, it’s helpful to make a reference mark with a white china marker in the dead wax (between the label and the record tracks) in line with the deep scratch, making it easier to remember its location. Now, just for kicks, set the needle just before the deep scratch and let it play. Does it play without skipping? Yes? Pet the sheep. No? It’s time to apply the thumb nail… gently, but firmly, rub it back and forth across the full length of the scratch. This will help take the steep edges off the scratch giving the stylus less reason to move over to the next groove as it spins. Try playing it again. Still skips? Try the thumb nail “rub across,” a bit more aggressively this time. Remember, it’s not like you have anything to lose if it’s already a skippy scratch. This doesn’t always work, but I have a fifty to seventy percent success rate removing light “plays through” skips to nasty, “locked groove” repeat skips just by using my thumb nail. I will gladly take those odds. However, for deep, or even light scratches running parallel or near parallel to the grooves, all bets are off. There is a less than thirty percent chance that the thumb nail rub will work. But if it succeeds in turning an annoying repeat skip into a less annoying “plays through” skip, count your blessings and enjoy the music.

The thumb nail is also an excellent choice for removing foreign substances from the surface of a used record. Remember that “Surfin’ Bong” Cheech and Chong pajama party by candle light re-enactment a couple paragraphs ago where the candle wax dripped on to the surface of Annette’s records just before Frankie’s house burned down? Of course, the records were the first things they grabbed as they ran out of the burning building… but, what they gonna do ‘bout the wax on the records? Rubbing semi-soft wax with your thumb nail most likely will only make it worse, spreading the wax into the adjacent grooves. Try this. Place the vinyl in a refrigerator or freezer for fifteen minutes, allowing the wax to harden then placing your thumb nail at the edge of the wax and giving it a little push… presto! Off goes the wax from the surface and the grooves. Just be sure not to put the record in a pizza box before placing it in the fridge as your re-enactment buddies may mistake for a licorice pizza and eat it.

Final turn table tips. It’s not a bad idea to invest in a spare cartridge/shell assembly with a sturdy stylus to switch out with your regular shell when playing distressed vinyl, saving valuable wear and tear on your good cartridge. Vinyl blemishes… the ones that look like crusty, oozing, canker sores on the surface of bad vinyl. No problem! It’s not unusual in the record manufacturing process for imperfections to get into the vinyl as it’s being pressed. It’s also not uncommon to see one, two or several small bumps or dips on a mint, never been played record. The canker sore/wart blemish is much less common, much scarier (but not contagious!) and great for winning bar bets. I’ve found that these unplayable looking wart blemishes play through and play great ninety percent of the time, but usually with some audible, telltale accompaniment. Dust ball build-ups on the stylus… you know it’s time to double down on your house cleaning if you encounter these on a regular basis. As the dust on the surface of the record gets stuck on the stylus, you’ll hear a deterioration in the sound through the speakers. Eventually, the dust ball gets big enough to lift the cartridge enabling it to skim across the surface of the LP towards the spindle post. Wheeeee! Regularly monitor your stylus for dust and remove accordingly. And if it’s a 1950’s, early 60’s dead mint 45 rpm record exhibiting a similar dust ball skim across the record’s surface… it’s most likely caused by a thin film of oil, compliments of a lazy pressing plant. It takes about three to four good, damp towel wipes to get the film off the surface enough to enjoy the music below. Just be sure to keep the damp towel away from the label of your mint 45!

Now that we’ve navigated our way through the maze of fixable vinyl hazards, always remember, none of these are as bad or un-fixable as the slow oxidation/degradation that is now happening to a lot of CD’s and DVD’s. Fortunately, there is no metal that can oxidize in vinyl, not even in “Heavy Metal” records.  And, according to the Smithsonian Institution, who knows a thing or two about archiving, vinyl is the most stable medium for audio recordings. Enjoy your records.

David Lancon has been firmly embedded in the recesses of the Southern California vinyl scene since the mid 90’s, curating and dispensing Akashic Records regularly at the monthly PCC, Rose Bowl and Orange County Record Show/swaps. Dig and be dug.


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