When using the medium of vinyl, one can't really expect a perfect listening experience fresh off the bat due to the possible presence of audio deterrents. Such deterrents may come in the form o surface noise, non-fill, distortion, or dish-warped records. Some may argue that such things are natural as they're to be expected when listening to music on vinyl, while others would rather prefer to make the most out of their listening experience without such deterrents.
In this Vinyl 101 Entry, we'll be discussing what exactly these deterrents are, how they can be remedied, along with how they can be best avoided to prevent such things from ruining your listening experience.
#1: Surface Noise
When hearing the term "surface noise", it's usually used to describe the pops, clicks, whooshing sounds, and hisses that might sound distracting when listening to your music on vinyl. Sometimes this noise is encountered right upon spinning the record upon your first listen, while it can also happen when you're playing a record that you haven't used nor cleaned after a long period of time.
The presence of surface noise can be due to an accumulation of too much dust or debris on your record or on your stylus, poor turntable quality, or the use of a worn-out stylus that needs to be retired. The noticeable difference in poor quality turntables as compared to those on the medium-higher end range vary significantly, as those of poorer quality are more prone to getting affected by surface noise.
Because of the surface noise on one's record, it's important to always clean your records to avoid such build-up, and to ensure that your gear (both turntable and stylus) are in great working condition when playing your record. Listener's shouldn't forget to at least give their records a clean with an anti-static brush before use, and to check if the stylus is clear of any dirt or dust build-up.
With the issue of non-fill, the source of this problem is rooted on the molten part of the vinyl. The issue is often due to an error from the pressing plant, usually happening when the record doesn’t pour properly or it when it starts to harden too early, making the machines unable to cut the groove properly.Because of that error, it ends up resulting in poor sound quality a “shooshing” noise, or a scratchy sound—particularly in the outer regions or first tracks on each side of the record. In some cases, if the record is held in the right light, it’s possible to see the area affected by the non-fill on the record. Some would describe it's appearance like a "string of pearls" that has gentle waving across one side of the record.
The presence of non-fill is unfortunately almost impossible to remedy, considering that it's a pressing issue that affects the grooves. As the grooves are what hold the sound recording, non-fill affects this because the grooves do not become deep enough to contain the music being pressed onto the record. Such issues are not caused by poor mixing or mastering of the music for vinyl, rather it comes from the poor quality control at the pressing plant who manufactured the record.
With distortion (also known more specifically as inner-groove distortion), it's found as an audible deterioration in sound quality that is most noticeable when playing tracks at the end of each side. Sometimes, this is the product of a design flaw which is caused by the progressive reduction of a linear resolution as the record progresses per side. In layman's terms, it can be simplified by saying that the there is too much music pressed onto the side–wherein the wavelengths and audio quality become shorter and more compressed. It eventually leads to more condensed grooves that become harder for the stylus to track properly as it plays
Distortion is more likely to occur with records pressed at higher recorded volumes, especially if there's a lot of high frequency energy (like heavy bass) on the record. The attempts of mastering engineers to mitigate or avoid the presence of the end-of-side distortion often result in the pressing of quieter songs with just a moderate amount of bass, and lower high-frequency energy towards to end of each side.In fact, most mastering engineers actually try to impose a limit or restrictions with regards to the playing time of a record in each side.
That's why in order to maximize the audio quality of a record in high fidelity, it's recommended that an album would be pressed over two discs to avoid the issues of inner-groove distortion for records. Some collectors would actually complain about the hassle of having only 3 songs per side, or less than 5 songs per record, but there is really a much greater purpose for why the tracks are divided that way––which is to preserve the best sound quality possible in a vinyl record.
Although it's actually a pressing error to begin with, some efforts made by collectors to mitigate end-of-side distortion include purposefully misaligning the cartridge to improve inner-groove tracking at the expense of outer grooves, however, this method will always be a compromise with no one-size-fits-all solution.
#4: Dish-Warped Records
Warped vinyl records are always a pain to see, especially when opening up a brand new record. In some cases, the warp can be light to mild (and easily fixable)––but extreme cases would include the dish-warped appearance. Like its name, the term dish warp describes when the center of the record warps outward, giving it the appearance of a bowl. With such extreme cases of warping, the stylus rides to the center and it will track at an absurd angle, running roughshod over one primary side of the groove.
Playing records on dish-warped records is almost impossible, and if attempted for long periods of time, it could severely damage your stylus if put in such extreme conditions. The music will most likely skip as it rides the warped grooves, making for an unlistenable experience. Possible causes for this would be exposure to extreme heat temperature, or extreme pressure put upon the top or bottom of the record. This is why it's recommended that records are kept in cool & dry areas away from too much Sun, because leaving it for even 30 minutes would cause some almost irreversible damage to the record.
HOW TO PREVENT SUCH ISSUES AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE:
- Holding/touching the records by the grooves! Can cause mild to severe scratches and add foreign contaminants to the vinyl itself.
- Stacking too much records on top of one another in a vertical manner. Can cause mild to severe warping, especially for those under.
- Exposing your records to too much heat or humidity! Extreme temperatures can cause records to warp at a very fast rate.
- Recklessly moving the stylus around the record, such as knocking over the tonearm only to have the stylus jump across multiple points in the record. Can cause mild to severe scratches that may leave physical appearance and music playback.
- Dropping your records. Whether it be high or short distances, records are still somewhat fragile and may get scratched thru such drops.
- Always clean the record before playing, along with the equipment of your set-up. Cleaning them can make a difference for the better for playback!
- Equip and invest in quality cleaning & maintenance materials for your records. Whether it be the brushes, cleaning fluids, or proper inner & outer sleeves––maintenance goes a long way in the long run!
- Be mindful when handling your records! Don't multitask as it opens up the avenue for making mistakes or mishandling your records!