Vinyl and record players
Vinyl, a record, Vinyl record or is it a long-playing record? There are enough ways to name this type of media. But more importantly, how does it work? How do you use them? How expensive is it? And of course, how do you keep them in working condition, clean from dirt and prevent excessive wear?
There are a lot of questions you can ask about this type of media. Questions I will try to answer best on this page.
It is possible that the information and experiences I share are not always the best. A lot of people have different opinions about how you should handle vinyl, I'm just sharing my side of the story here...
1. How does a record work?
A gramophone record (that's what a record used to be called). works by means of grooves, these are pressed into the record and can be read by means of a needle. The grooves themselves, of course, contain the sound.
Under a microscope you can see that the walls consist of a wavy pattern, sound itself also works with waves moving in the air (you call this frequency), can you see the similarities already?
The walls are quite literally the music, but in a different form, you have to imagine that the needle here taps the walls at tremendous speed, causing it to vibrate. Or rather: it converts the waves of the wall into audible waves which we can hear.
The sound produced by the needle is still too soft to listen to, so it must be amplified. This can be done by using a horn, or by using an electrical (pre)amplifier. I will come back to sound amplifiers in another chapter.
The sound is soft because the grooves and stylus are very small, if you enlarge it by ten or a hundred times, you also amplify the sound by that factor. But this is of course impractical, the record should grow with it and at 30 cm they are big enough for an LP (Long-playing record)!
Image source: Link
It is important to keep your records clean to prevent unnecessary damage or loss of quality.
Your records wear out every time you play them. It's up to you to decide how many times you can play them before a record is worn out.
A record that is properly cleaned before use usually lasts longer. Cleaning a plate is discussed further in Chapter 6.
Image source: Link
A record is essentially inlaid with one long groove that spirals inwards from the outside, which is then traversed by the stylus. every movement the needle makes is the sound we hear, whether it be the shape of the wall or a small piece of dirt that the needle hits.
Now that we're so deep into the theory, it's a nice bonus to explain how Stereo is stored in vinyl. Stereo (for those who don't know yet) consists of two separate sound channels, which contain a recording of the same sound but recorded from two different positions.
Stereo is created by not only running the stylus along the walls of the groove, but also by moving the stylus up and down through different depths in the groove. The needle literally dances along to the music.
Yet stereo on a record is a bit more complicated than the simple description above. In this case, it is better to watch this video that goes into more detail.
end this chapter, put on a record and turn your volume down to 0, now
if you put your ear close to the needle you can hear the music being
vibrated from the needle, no electricity is involved!
Note: The first image in this chapter comes from this interesting video on Youtube.
2. Types of records and speeds.
of course there are different types of records, let's take a look at them.
Here we look at the most common (standard) type of plates, after all, the range is much larger than this. For example, on special editions they may be pressed with colored vinyl, or may have a complete image printed on them, the size or shape may differ, or the playback method may be different from normal.
In addition, you have the older type of record, better known under the names: 78 rpm record, bakelite record or shellac record. This type (the predecessor of the well-known vinyl record) is a type of media on its own, though is closely related to the vinyl record.
Each record is pressed for its own purpose, the fact that there are three common variants has to do with the content and purpose.
- An LP is basically a music album, and contains several songs per side. Sometimes an album is even split into several LP's if the entire album does not fit on a single record. In this case you may call it a double album, Triple album and so on.
- A Single says it by it's name and contains only a single song per side. The A-side often contains a popular song, on which the B-side often contains a less well-known song.
- A Maxi Single is an exceptional case, in fact it is a combination of the two above, with a single number pressed per side, but the record is the size of an LP. However, it can happen that a Maxi Single has several numbers per side. Often it is also the case that a Maxi Single contains not only the original song but also a remix of the same song.
But this does not fully explain why these three variants exist, for this we have to go back a bit in time.
- Long playing records used to be very expensive, not everyone could afford them, as an alternative you could choose to buy a single (popular) song from that album on a Single or Maxi Single, these were usually also a lot cheaper than buying of a complete album.
- Nevertheless, the Single itself exists for a completely different reason, these were mainly used in Jukeboxes. These were often placed in public like for instance a café or bar. To be used in a Jukebox, the hole in the middle must also be larger in size, which is why you will find a different larger hole in the middle on most Singles compared to the LP or Maxi Single.
To play a Single on a normal record player, you often need a special adapter that fits into the larger hole of the Single, the adapter has a smaller hole in the middle that fits onto the shaft of a record player. These adapters are generally supplied with the turntable itself.
- Finally, the Maxi Single is essentially the same as a Single but often contains a remix of a popular song, if a band or artist released an album where a single (or more) songs became very popular, the band or artist could choose to release these songs separately, often these songs were made longer by remixing them. If the listener was only interested in that one song, he or she does not have to buy the entire (expensive) album, but can opt for a (cheaper) Maxi Single. A Maxi Single usually contains the original song on side A and a remix on side B. Although it sometimes happens that both sides are a remix of the original.
A remix on a Maxi Single is also sometimes called a '12 Inch (remix)' which refers to the format of the Maxi Single.
To recognize which of the three types of plates you have in front of you, you can usually look at the sticker in the middle, but not everything is always shown here, look at the following details:
- You can recognize an LP by the blank parts between the grooves, this is the break between two songs.
- A Single is clearly smaller in size and usually (not always) has a larger hole in the middle.
- The Maxi Single has the same format as an LP but lacks the blank spaces between the grooves.
The different records are also played at different speeds.
The speed at which you play a record is expressed in revolutions or R.P.M. Rounds Per Minute. or simply add up how many times the record has spun in one minute. There are 4 different speeds known, but nowadays we only use two, these are 33 and 45 rpm. You set the speed according to the type of record you are going to play, the following about this:
You play an LP at a speed of 33 rpm.
A single of Maxi Single is usually played back at the speed of 45 rpm.
However, there are exceptions, especially if it is a Maxi Single, although most are played at 45 rpm, there are also variants that play at 33 rpm.
Finally, the other speeds (16 and 78 rpm) are mainly intended for older type records that are rarely used today, 16 rpm was common for records with spoken text such as audio books or spoken language courses. 78 rpm was common for the old 'bakelite/shellac' records.
Although 16 rpm are almost erased by time and not that note worthy, it is still worth mentioning the 78 rpm records.
A 78 rpm record is made of a completely different material than the usual vinyl. These records are made of a different type of material, usually referred to as bakelite or shellac. While vinyl is very flexible, shellac on the other hand is very fragile, you could compare it to glass or ceramic.
A 78 rpm record also needs a different type of needle to play it properly. Some players have the speed option to play these records but not the correct needle. In practice you can play these records with a needle that is intended for vinyl, but in this way you'll not only damage the record but also damage your needle.
The 78 rpm record itself can be compared to a Single, there is often only one song on each side. The 78 rpm record usually comes in three different formats:
Different formats of 78 rpm records side by side.
From large to small: 12 inch (30cm), 10 inch (25cm) and 7 inch (18cm).
Nowadays, 78 rpm records are no longer being made, although you can still find them regularly in thrift stores or possibly on the internet. The music on these records is often of lower quality, mainly because the material wears out faster and the records have been played many times over the years. A 78 rpm record that has rarely been played can still sound quite good.
Also, less music fits on such a record because the material does not allow to use smaller grooves as is the case with vinyl.
The difference between a 78 rpm record (left) and a vinyl record on the right, it is easy to see that the grooves of the vinyl record are smaller and closer together (so more music fits on a single record)
The same 78 rpm records with a vinyl record on the bottom right for comparison.
3. Record players
The record player goes by many different names: Gramophone player, Turntable, Pick-up or the name we use here 'record player'.
First of all, it is important to look at the record player model, because there is a very wide catalog of players to chose from. You can make a big distinction between old 'vintage' record players and new record players, I'll come back to the last segment later. First, let's look at the older models.
I personally prefer models from the 70s. Below are some examples of such players with images from the internet:
As you can probably see, I prefer record players in which wood and metal are incorporated. This is mainly because I really dislike plastic. Moreover, wood has a more warm appearance that is in stark contrast to the cold appearance of metal, a nice balance if you ask me. But this is not the main reason...
Players from the 70s are (in my opinion) the better players compared to their predecessors and descendants. It was also these years that vinyl was sold a lot with almost everyone listening to music through this type of media, you naturally would want the best in sound quality for this media so record players from this era are often made after it, with good sound and the possibility to adjust a player to get the best out of it.
This does not alter the fact that players from before and after that time are bad, the problem is rather that older players (especially electronically) were still in development, where newer players were often made cheaper for the masses, at the expense of the sound quality.
A simple search on Google actually shows how the appearance of players has changed through the years:
If you are going to look for a 'good' record player yourself, it is advisable to look at models from the mid 70s to late 80s. In the next chapter, we'll go into more detail about purchasing a record player.
Finally, everyone has their own taste, a record player that I detest I can be a true beauty in your eyes, my opinion and tips are in this case of course simple advice.
Now that we have some basic knowledge about different models of turntables it is time to look at the functions of a player, above is a photo of my current turntable. An Akai AP-306C.
First of all we have the actual turntable itself, it is also called the 'platter'. This is where the record rests on during playback. The mat on the turntable is of great importance.
The mat provides a stable surface, but more importantly ensures that the record does not slip too much during playback. To prevent slipping, these mats are often made of rubber or felt to ensure sufficient friction. With a rubber mat, the contact surface between the mat and plate is as small as possible, because a record must be able to slip slightly if necessary. furthermore, the minor contact surface prevents dust on the mat from sticking too to the record. A mat made of felt does have a full contact surface, felt holds dust better than rubber, so less sticks to the record.
A rubber and felt mat both have their advantages and disadvantages. Rubber has little slip which ensures stability during playback, but on felt a record can slip, which is especially important for DJ's (Disk jockeys) when they want to 'scratch' a record, the record is intentionally slipped to create the typical sound associated with scratching. With a rubber mat, scratching would have much less effect and can damage a record more quickly if it does not slip properly.
The other important part is of course the needle, which is incorporated in a 'cartridge', which in turn is attached to the arm of the record player. The arm is also called the 'Tonearm' and the needle is often called a 'Pickup Needle' or 'Stylus'.
The cartridge containing the needle can be removed from the arm, which is important since the needle wears out during use and therefore has to be replaced with a new one from time to time. First the following about this:
There are different types and materials from which a needle can be made, the most common is diamond or sapphire, but a needle can also be made out of ceramic. the difference is in the quality and price. Diamond or sapphire is of course more expensive than ceramic, but a ceramic needle wears much faster, sapphire is somewhere in between but is usually better than ceramic and therefor lasts longer. Diamond is the hardest of the three and has the longest life. Because ceramic needles are cheap, it often happens that a cheaper record player is equipped with such a needle as standard. It is preferable to exchange these as soon as possible for a sapphire or even better, a diamond needle. A weathered needle also damages the grooves of a record more quickly.
It is difficult to say how long a needle will last on average, when I do a quick search on the internet it is often stated that a good diamond needle lasts between 500 and 1000 playing hours. Needles made of other materials and/or cheaper materials only last a fraction of that time, think between 40 and 200 hours of playing.
Of course, it is impossible to keep track of how many hours a needle has played. It is best to listen to the sound quality, if your records start to sound less good (more noise or distortion) there is a chance that the needle needs to be replaced, of course you must be able to rule out that it is not the record or the player itself that sounds bad before you start looking for a new needle.
When asked if you can feel the wear on the needle itself, I unfortunately have to say no, the needle is so small that you can't feel the difference with your fingers, and it is also not wise to touch the needle with your fingers...
An important tip that I can give you though, if you buy a record player that comes with a needle, you should always replace it before you start using it extensively. Whether its a ceramic or diamond needle, you never know how long the needle has been used and if it is still in good shape.
We go one step further, because as mentioned before, there are also different shapes. For example, the point of the needle can be spherical, but it can also have an actual sharper point.
The difference in shape is also very decisive for the sound character. A convex/rounded stylus has less contact surface with the groove than a pointed stylus and therefore produces less sound and in turn a less rich sound reproduction. A sharper needle, on the other hand, has a more stable course because there is more contact with the grooves, this gives a higher sound reproduction, but the needle wears out faster because there is more friction between the walls of the needle and the grooves.
On the other hand, you can also go for a middle ground with an elliptical needle. You have more contact surface than with a convex needle, but at the same time slightly less wear than a sharper needle.
Are these all forms of needles? Certainly not! The choice is much wider than this.
But for further information about the materials and shapes of needles, it is better to refer to these web pages where they explain things in much more depth:
Link 1. This link concerns a PDF file of the brand Ortofon which is known for its needles. The information on this file is similar to the information I'm showing here (actually, I took most of my information from this file). They have more information on the subject than my description.
Link 2. This web page is somewhat similar to the first link but goes much deeper into the shapes of the needle, comparing many more shapes than you can ever imagine. The page in general could be called a blog, but despite its length it is very interesting and detailed. Full of close-ups of various needles and info about how they interact with the grooves.
On the right is a simple representation of a needle with an increasingly pointed shape, the green part is the contact surface between the needle and the groove of the record.
First of all, it is possible that not the entire needle consists of the same material.
A 'good' expensive stylus is more likely to be made of the same material, but a cheaper stylus (even if it is diamond) might be glued to a foot which is in turn attached to the cartridge. This has an effect on the sound quality, but should generally not reduce the lifespan much because the tip is still made of the same material, the needle is also cheaper if it is not a full diamond needle.
The image on the right shows the two variants in more detail.
A consists of a needle of the same material.
B consists of two different parts where the actual tip is attached to a metal part.
(The two images shown are almost a copy of the images on the first link).
[Info about 'moving magnet' and 'moving coil' here] #
Enough about needles, the record player has many more aspects that play an important role in playing your music 'correctly'.
A very important feature that can be found on almost every player is the speed control. This player can switch between 45 and 33 rpm.
This player also has two special features that you will see less often. The first: 'Quartz lock' means that the player sets itself to the correct speed, if you turn this function off, it is still possible to adjust the speed manually with a finer control, this is done via the rotary button on the right with which you control the Pitch.
A less common function on record players is the strobe. This light shines on the side of the platter where small notches can be seen. This allows you to read from the platter whether it is running at a correct and stable speed. It is best to show this function with the video below:
We are now going to look at the tone arm, but instead of the needle we now look at the other end of the arm, namely the counterweight.
If you have a decent record player, there is usually a counterweight behind the arm, which acts as an rotary dial.
The purpose of the counterweight is to control the pressure the stylus exerts on the record. Or rather how heavy the needle weighs at the end of the arm.
If the needle does not press hard enough into the grooves, you have a chance that it will jump over the grooves. But if the weight is too high, the needle will damage the grooves and of course itself, which you want to prevent.
So you want to adjust the counterweight in such a way that the above cases will not occur. The weight of the needle is expressed in grams, now the big question comes up:
What is the ideal needle weight?
It can be a difficult question to answer, as it depends on a number of factors...
- Firstly, it has to do with the type of needle you use, the manufacturer of the needle often indicates what the ideal weight of the needle should be.
- Secondly, the manufacturer of the record player often also gives indications about how heavy the needle should weigh, after all, it is this manufacturer who determines how the counterweight works, how far you can adjust it and whether there is a counterweight at all!
- Thirdly, there is the record itself, not every record may play perfectly at the same weight, one record sounds better with half a gram more, the other record skips a groove faster with half a gram less, especially the latter can occur if there are light scratches in the record, at these points the stylus is more likely to jump out of the groove and skip a groove (or several), a greater weight on the stylus reduces this chance, but as I said before it makes it more likely that the stylus will damage the record...
- Finally, there is a fourth factor, that is you! Opinions differ greatly when it comes to the weight of the stylus, one likes to lower the weight for a longer life of the record, the other might want to hear his music better and likes to put the weight a bit higher.
Anyway, those four points aside, how does this whole weight adjustment thing work?
It is important not to just rely on your gut feeling and start turning the counterweight without indication.
When adjusting the weight, you can use a special scale to read the weight of the needle. With this scale, set the needle to the weight indicated by the various manufacturers and how you would like the weight to be.
The actual adjustment of the weight is covered in chapter 5: Adjusting the turntable.
We will first look at the other functions on the record player.
Turntables sometimes also have an 'Anti Skating' or 'Bias Compensation' function, often implemented as a knob that you can turn.
What are Anti Skating and Bias Compensation? That's a question I asked myself when I first heard about it.
The name is a bit self-explanatory (if you understand what it means) with the words 'Anti Skating'. Although this function is handled automatically by some turntables, this player has a manual function.
Besides the weight of the needle, which in this case can be seen as a vertical aspect, Anti Skating or Bias Compensation is the adjustment for the horizontal aspect. As discussed earlier, the sound of a record is stored in both walls of the groove, which together makes the stereo sound. When you play a record, the groove, pulls the needle further to the center of the record. This basically means that the needle tends to be pushed against the outer wall which in turn would make the stereo sound stronger through one speaker(s). Fortunately, this is not too noticeable in practice, record players and the tone arm are partly built to prevent this, the arm where the needle rests is slightly curved (although this curvature has another additional reason).
In the case of my Anti Skating dial you set it to the weight you have set the needle to, when I refer to the manual for my player it says the following:
So in fact it is the manufacturer of the player (which is also the manufacturer of my needle) who advises me to keep a weight of 2 grams and to set the Anti Skating accordingly.
These settings can therefore be different on other types of players and types of needles. I must also admit that despite all the information I have given, I have never replaced my own (still original needle), not even after playing an unknown number of records... Since this player was built somewhere between 1978 and 1980, it could mean that the needle (if still original from the factory) is at least 42 years old in 2022...
Nevertheless, I must admit that the sound of my player (and therefore also the needle) is still crystal clear. So I dare to say that the needle that is in use now is not worn far enough to be replaced. Although I am thinking more often to finally get a new (better) needle. though, knowing that this will cost a lot prevents me from actually doing so and therefor I still use the same needle.
Again, it's clear that it is up to the user himself on how you want to use and set up your record player. In my case, it's the price that drives me to stick with the same needle and current settings.
In addition, my needle weight is not 2 grams, but 1.2 grams. The Anti Skating is therefore also set to 1. I think it is due to the stubbornness of man (that I too am guilty of) for not listening to what is advised, I do what feels good to me...
Anyway, enough about my own stubbornness. There is still more to a turntable that is worth mentioning.
In addition to all the special and important functions, there are still striking differences that distinguish record players from each other. My record player model is a so-called 'semi-automatic' type. For me this means that I have to prepare the needle above the record myself, the player does the lowering of the needle for me when I operate the lower switch. When the record is done playing, the arm goes back to its resting position on the stand. During playback, I can also choose to pause playing by flipping the top switch.
In addition to semi-automatic, there is also fully automatic and of course fully manual.
With fully automatic, it should in theory be enough to put on a record and press a button, after which the arm and player will do the rest on their own.
With manual, it is up to the user to bring the arm to the record and put the stylus in the groove and take it off themselves when they are done playing.
In addition, all three types also have differences in their own category, including:
- Automatically stop playback at the end of the record (may vary with manual players)
- The needle returns to the starting position at the end of the record (differs in semi-automatic players).
- Setting up the needle (differs with semi-automatic players).
- Starting the platter (differs for all three types of players).
- Recognizing different formats of records (differs with fully automatic players).
- Seeing different numbers on the record (also differs with automatic players).
In addition, there are more functions that can be different with the same types of turntables.
We've covered all the features on my turntable (and with it many other players), but what features haven't we covered yet that are worth mentioning?
[Update will follow shortly] #