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The Truth About Vinyl Records

Holmz

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... Take Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. The original analog master tape is almost 40 years old, so arguably an original ‘73 Blue Harvest release LP in good condition will currently hold more detail than the said master.
...

Confucius say, “Good student become better than master.”
 

Peterinvan

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I attended a listening session at my local high end retailer, where they were demoing Wilson Sasha (?) speakers and very expensive turntables, pre amps, amps and connectors. I would guess $150,000 worth of gear.

I was curious to see what the best vinyl could sound like. There were about 15 vinyl lovers, and some brought their best demo records to hear.

My bias: I gave up vinyl and CD years ago and listen to Tidal streaming (on decent gear). I kept my mouth shut as I suspected I was in the minority.

I was amazed at the 5 minute ritual one goes through to clean the record, and the needle, and trying to drop the needle on the start of the demo track. Then I was distracted by the snap-crackle-pop on the first album. The retailer said it had been played 3 or 4 times, and to expect some snaps.

The Wilsons sounded bright with great bass and overall SQ, but the retailer was playing at between 70 and 84 db (as per my iPhone app). I left after three tracks to avoid any further damage to my old ears.
 
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levimax

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I attended a listening session at my local high end retailer, where they were demoing Wilson Shasha (?) speakers and very expensive turntables, pre amps, amps and connectors. I would guess $150,000 worth of gear.

I was curious to see what the best vinyl could sound like. There were about 15 vinyl lovers, and some brought their best demo records to hear.

My bias: I gave up vinyl and CD years ago and listen to Tidal streaming (on decent gear). I kept my mouth shut as I suspected I was in the minority.

I was amazed at the 5 minute ritual one goes through to clean the record, and the needle, and trying to drop the needle on the start of the demo track. Then I was distracted by the snap-crackle-pop on the first album. The retailer said it had been played 3 or 4 times, and to expect some snaps.

The Wilsons sounded bright with great bass and overall SQ, but the retailer was playing at between 70 and 84 db (as per my iPhone app). I left after three tracks to avoid any further damage to my old ears.
Playing around with antique technology can take many different forms. I don't take vinyl SQ too seriously but do enjoy the "original" sound of some original pressings complete with some noise for a change of pace and some historical and artistic context to the music. I can grab an album from my collection and throw it on the TT and start playing music as fast or faster than using the clunky search function on my streaming app. I clean old albums when I get them if they are dirty but don't bother much after that unless they get dirty. Trying to get "perfect" sound from an LP would drive me crazy but for some it is part of the fun.... at least with vinyl you can have fun trying vs digital where SQ is what it is.
 

EarlessOldMan

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Having had the misfortune of hearing LPs produced in the US during the 1970s oil crisis, I can understand why some members have a VERY strong Pavlovian response to vinyl. If I was in their position, I'd likely have the same too. UK pressings are typically much better, often considered among the best in fact, so I haven't had to suffer the flaws of vinyl as much as our American friends.

This might explain much of someone like Sal's response to vinyl. He is certainly of the right age and from the right place to have experienced the worst of vinyl at a formative time in his life.
Ain't it the truth. So much '70s US vinyl sounds pretty bad. To me, a lot of it has a sort of "boxy" sound.

That poor quality has sent me back to records from the '50s and early '60s. I've been very impressed by the sound out of some of the Dot and Command disks that I have. Enoch Light had some kind of cheesy taste, but he could manage a recording. Same with Billy Vaughn.
 

atmasphere

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I'm guessing that the author hasn't spent a lot of time around an actual LP mastering operation as there is a bit of misinformation in the OP.
The process of creating a record begins with the mastering process on quarter inch tape.
For a master, 1/2" tape at 15 i.p.s. was considered the ideal format. 1/4" masters did happen but were always considered a bit of a compromise.
Great care must be taken to prepare the master recording to fit the requirements of the disc mastering process.
Really the care is up to the mastering engineer, not the people making the recording- their job was/is to secure the musical event as best they can.
Low frequencies up to 150hz should be kept mono
This statement is false. What's important is to minimize out of phase bass. Typically what is used (to save time) is a passive processor that senses out of phase bass information (which can knock the stylus out of the groove) and makes it mono only for the duration of the event (our processor had a cutoff frequency of 80Hz, keeping the mono bass in a region where its entirely reverberant in most rooms due to the wavelength). However, it should be noted this is really a time-saving thing (and really only a problem when there are multiple bass tracks recorded separately). If the engineer is allowed time to spend on the project, I found that you can find a way to deal with the out of phase bass by using a variety of techniques. One is to reduce the overall amplitude of the cut, since a dB might not seem like much to audibility, but a 1dB reduction in modulation can have a big effect on the cut (this is becase a 3dB reduction in cutter amplifier power will result in 1/2 the modulation in the groove). That and increasing the groove depth often gets around any need to use mono bass. To sort that out you have to make a few test cuts; we kept lacquers on hand that had short cuts on them for that purpose alone.
Attenuating these frequencies is important to avoid distortion on a record.
This statement is false. If there is a problem with silibance its usually due to poor EQ on the master tape or file. This was a common problem in the old days though (due to cruder styli of early cartridges) so there are HF limiters designed to halt such nonsense. If you are aware of a problem like that in the master recording a bit of EQ to calm it down will avoid the use of the limiters. You can of course save time by pushing the 'HF Limit' button, which does not roll off the audio.
Use compression to control any excessive dynamics. During a traditional mastering session, compression is used to control dynamics. This is done to balance the dynamics, avoid distortion, and allow for pushing the signal into a louder territory. When mastering for vinyl, controlling dynamics takes on a different and wholly unique purpose. If a metal master used for cutting a lacquer is too dynamic, then the greater amplitude will cause a significant cut into the lacquer. The significant cut can cause consumer-grade needles to jump out of place, and cause what is often referred to as a skipping record. With that said, greater amounts of compression or dynamic control may be needed to adequately prepare a master for the vinyl cutting process.
The limit of LP reproduction, as pointed out here, is in playback, not record. The cutter head can cut undistorted grooves no cartridge can track. But that is not the same as saying you have to compress the signal, although certainly you have to find where trouble spots might be and set levels accordingly. Compression is used as a time-saver, which can be read as a money saver since the engineer's time is really expensive ($500/hour is common).

One of the most notable and perhaps more interesting effects is how the shape of the vinyl record, eventually causes higher frequencies to be attenuated, the closer the needle gets toward the centre.
I find this to be one of the most common myths of LP reproduction. Its not a fault on the record side, its on the playback side. This myth came into being due to early stereo cartridges that simply didn't have the precision of modern cartridge styli. Anecdotally we used a Technics SL1200 in our mastering lab, equipped with a Grado Gold. It was intended as a 'typical playback' machine; if we could play a cut on it we knew the cut would be OK. It could reproduce 25KHz no worries (at 1mil modulation) just before the lead-out grooves. That is why I say this bit is probably older information that comes from studies done in the early 1960s or thereabouts (I've seen such articles referenced before on this account that proved to be from that era; there has been 40-60 years of evolution in cartridges and styli in that time...).
Opinions vary as to the actual frequency range of a vinyl LP. There are reports that they are capable of reproducing supersonic frequencies maybe as high as 100KHz. However, the high frequencies are a moot point as the RIAA preamp will only pass frequencies from 20Hz to 20KHz. The low end is less spectacular with a realistic threshold of around 24Hz.
Most of the info about the mastering lathe is correct but I have to address this comment as its really inaccurate. Our cutter system, the Westerex 3D with 1700 electronics, was bandwidth limited to roll off at 6dB/octave starting at 42KHz (which, due to RIAA pre-emphasis, meant that it went to 'flat'; a 'zero' was introduced). Of course CD-4 systems went a bit higher, but as you can imagine that was possible with only minor mods to existing systems. The Westerex 3D cutter was the first stereo head (introduced 1958) and later cutters such as the Neumann had wider bandwidth. The low frequency limit is well below 24Hz; that limit is described by the mechanical resonance of the playback apparatus! The Westerex cutter and its electronics had no problem doing well below 10Hz (we couldn't play it back but we could see the modulation on the 'scope easily enough).

So a realistic bandwidth of an LP is around 10Hz to around 40-50Hz. Is that bandwidth always used? Hardly- but mostly due to time saving issues, not because the LP couldn't do it and the microphones themselves usually don't have that kind of bandwidth anyway. FWIW most phono preamps made in the last 60 years have bandwidth well past a mere 20KHz!

The LP has the widest bandwidth of any analog audio format, and is wider than 16 bit Redbook which doesn't go past 19KHz as we all know.

WRT noise floor, as described on other threads, if the cutter is set up properly (angle, depth, 'tracking' force and temperature) then the cut it makes is very quiet; on lacquers (I don't have experience with DMM) quieter than any playback electronics. The surface noise comes in during the pressing process!

Analog Productions runs a pressing plant known as QRP. According to Chad (the owner, in a conversation I had with him), they took the time to damp their pressing machines to prevent vibration during the pressing process, in particular as the pressing is cooling. By doing so they have created LP surfaces that are nearly as quiet as the dead silence of the lacquers. Its pretty impressive to hear- we did a project through them that used a digital master. The LP tests we got back were so quiet that I wondered if there was something wrong with the phono preamp until the music erupted from the speakers. They typically don't get noise floors like that with a lot of their reissues simply because the master tapes are too noisy. The noise floor of our tests had to be very close to 80dB down based on it being quieter than the playback electronics, which were -75dB. Of course this takes no more room on the disc than if its got a poor noise floor since this is about the pressing quality and nothing else.

About 3 1/2 years ago the Appollodisc plant that produced 80% of the lacquers made worldwide burned to the ground. They do not appear to be rebuilding, at least not at the time I sold my lathe this last spring. It seemed a good time to get out. I've not looked back; digital is quite satisfying. But I did feel compelled to correct the more obvious errors in this otherwise informative post.
 

Sal1950

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Punter

Punter

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I'm guessing that the author hasn't spent a lot of time around an actual LP mastering operation as there is a bit of misinformation in the OP.

For a master, 1/2" tape at 15 i.p.s. was considered the ideal format. 1/4" masters did happen but were always considered a bit of a compromise.

Really the care is up to the mastering engineer, not the people making the recording- their job was/is to secure the musical event as best they can.
Thanks for the corrections atmasphere, I freely admit almost no close experience with vinyl mastering, my post was based on a bunch of internet research. Interesting that you played your lacquers, my info said "NO!" It's always great to get some first-hand info like this :)
 

atmasphere

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Thanks for the corrections atmasphere, I freely admit almost no close experience with vinyl mastering, my post was based on a bunch of internet research. Interesting that you played your lacquers, my info said "NO!" It's always great to get some first-hand info like this :)
Thanks!
In a mastering studio its commonplace to play lacquers, even ones that are going to press. You have to, in order to know if a tricky bit is going to work. Here's how you get away with it:

A lacquer for a 12" LP is actually 14" in diameter. Its made of a machined aluminum disc with the lacquer 'painted' on. Only one side is used for a pressing so two have to be cut to do one LP.

So when you are doing something tricky you have several options. One I mentioned in my prior post, which is to set aside a lacquer for test cuts. But you can do test cuts on the lacquer that is going to the pressing plant too. One obvious way is to do a test cut on the wrong side (the sides are marked BTW because one side is the quiet side). The other way is to do the test cut outside of the lead-in grooves. This can be easily played back by any tonearm. If you play around with these little tricks you can avoid compression, limiting, mono bass, overcuts and the like, using a source that might be the same as used for the digital release.

Lacquers are also available in 12" size, which are either used for 10" releases or as 'reference'. If the latter, the intention is a lathe cut that is meant to demo the intended LP cut. Such a reference can be sent to the producer or the like and might be good for about 10 plays before its shot. (A record store owner friend of mine (Earl Root, RIP) once found a trunk being sold in a trailer park in Indiana that was full of reference cuts from the 60s and 70s from famous artists like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. $50.00 was the asking price. Earl didn't have the heart to take the drunk owner to the cleaners like that- it was obvious the guy had no idea the worth! So Earl told him about Southby's in New York and how to sell the lacquers. The drunk rapidly became quite wealthy. Earl checked in on him 3 months later and the guy was dead from alcohol abuse. So much for taking someone to the cleaners...)

I found though that its best to get a source file (if the project is digital) that lacks the DSP that is commonly added to the digital master. This is because the file for the digital release typically has compression in it, so by getting rid of the DSP you can cut a better-sounding LP. Since the LP release won't be played in a car, you don't need any compression or limiting. Most people think that digital has greater dynamic range and that is true in theory, but most of the time its compressed, wheras if the LP mastering engineer did his homework, the LP release isn't. Most of the time the master file or tape simply doesn't have the dynamic range prior to the mastering step (whether digital or not) anyway (even if orchestral in nature) so compression in particular is really just a time saving thing.
 

RCAguy

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Analog and digital recordings sound different especially because of their different distortion mechanisms that were decades apart in era. Digital's artifacts are minimal unless in mastering and distribution of pop music played on low quality systems has entailed abusive level compression and intentional clipping.

Excluding two tape generations if not direct-to-disk, most vinyl distortion is a function of replay errors due to stylus shape, misalignments, cantilever-tonearm resonance, skating, poor frequency\phase response due to improper cartridge loading and inaccurate RIAA, etc. If users\installers optimized these, then vinyl replay still qualifies as "high-fidelity."

The best vinyl can be is already waiting in the groove, to be cleaned, scanned with the best stylus, tracked with an aligned tonearm, then properly amplified. Unlike digital, with "nothing serviceable inside," users are invited inside their turntables to make better sound, with the help of a good reference to know the science of the phonograph.

I've devoted much in the book to often overlooked low-distortion stylus choices, capacitive load (C-load) selection, adequate preamp headroom, and cartridge channel sensitivity balancing needed for best stereo soundstage and cancellation of vertical artifacts in mono, plus proper mono mixing that will not accentuate groove clicks & pops, as the unmodified PCB does. The preamp maker project plus the tonearm one and avoiding buying the wrong stylus would save the book's price many times over.
 

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