Vinyl records were made obsolete by CDs, but I still find pleasure in them. Much of my interest is based on nostalgia for my youth and for times before I was born and for a more mechanical, less electronic age when people rode trains, wrote with fountain pens, and typed on typewriters, but I also appreciate records for themselves. I like the cover art and liner notes, and I like watching a needle in the groove as a record hypnotically spins round and round. Playing records involves a hard needle pressing into soft vinyl, and they are susceptible to the elements, so they need special care. But first, some background.
The first long-play records (LPs) were made in 1948. LPs are made from a
combination of vinyl acetate and vinyl chloride — polystyrene was often
used for 45 rpm 7-inch singles — with carbon black, chemical
stabilizers, and lubricants added. A superior quality record contains
virgin vinyl, which, some people believe, produces less background noise
because it is made from new, not recycled, material.
The grooves are in reality one groove one-third to one-half mile long,
changing in depth and width hundreds of times per inch, giving an
appearance, when magnified, of a canyon in the Southwest. Grooves gave
rise in the jazz community to “in the groove,” “groovin’” and “groovy,”
later picked up the rock ’n’ roll generation.
On a monaural record, the needle vibrates from side to side and on
stereo from side to side and up and down, producing weak electric waves.
A 100 Hz signal requires 200 movements of the stylus per second, and
20,000 Hz requires 40,000 movements per second.
The needle, made of diamond or sapphire, is mounted in the pickup
cartridge, and a crystal or magnet in the cartridge produces electric
current. A monaural cartridge produces one set of waves and a stereo two
sets. The cartridge sends the weak signal to the amplifier, which
contains two amplifiers for stereo, where the preamplifier strengthens
the waves, which are modified by tone and volume controls. The power
amplifier makes the waves strong enough to operate the speakers.
High fidelity sound reproduces sound with the greatest possible
faithfulness. Its three requirements: it must reproduce every musical
tone that can be heard in a concert hall, it must reproduce loud tones
as clearly as soft ones, and it should produce no noise of its own.
The first stereo LPs were made in 1958, creating a demand for stereo
hi-fi equipment. Two microphones placed apart made sound more realistic,
giving separation and thus dimension to the sound. Speakers must also
be placed apart, at least five feet, and pointed in the same direction
to reproduce that sound. Four-channel stereo was invented in 1969 but
never caught on. If the speakers are placed properly and the balance set
to the middle, the sound seems to come from between the speakers.
Because a diamond needle is attacking relatively soft vinyl, the needle
distorts the groove while playing. Some audiophiles say that the first
few plays permanently distort the groove, and the record should be
recorded during the first play. The record should be allowed to recover
for at least two hours before being played again.
Records should be handled by the edges and labels, using a non-abrasive
material with no lint, such as soft plastic or rubber. They should
always be kept in sleeves, with the opening at the top to reduce dust
and to prevent the record from falling out of the jacket.
Records should be stored upright because leaning can warp them. Monaural
records may be played on stereo equipment, but stereo records should
not be played on monaural equipment because monaural needles are wider. I
returned several records in high school, thinking they had skips,
because I played them on my portable monaural record player. Shrink wrap
should be removed because it can shrink more and warp the record.
Dust, lint, dirt, hair, skin oil, food, and tobacco smoke can
accumulate in the grooves and can be ground in by the needle. Records
should be cleaned before every play with a buffer and a spray cleaner,
such as an alcohol-based antistatic spray. If both sides are extra
dirty, a record should be more thoroughly cleaned on a plastic or rubber
mat before being placed on the turntable to avoid damage to the motor.
The cleaning fluid should set for about 20 seconds to lift
contaminants, and as much fluid as possible should be removed while
cleaning to remove the dirt it has picked up.
The turntable mat should be cleaned periodically, and the needle should
be cleaned with a brush or lightly with the buffer. Blowing on a record
may remove dust and bigger particles but can add contaminants. The dust
cover should always be closed, and groovin’ cats (the feline type)
should be discouraged from jumping on it during play.