Kessler Column: The Vinyl Revival

One insight, after visiting a recent spate of analogue-laden hi-fi shows, was enough to turn any Baby Boomer sullen with thoughts of mortality: the current (and huge) revival in interest in the black vinyl record is due in no small part to new-born LP lovers too young to possess any experience of record care and handling methods.

You might like to think that the vinyl revival is down to solidarity amongst old-fart, pro-analogue audiophiles, but there aren’t enough of us to account for the sales made by Sundazed for their magnificent LPs, or the tens of thousands of budget turntables sold by Pro-Ject. And how many 50-year-olds are buying hip-hop garage mixes on 12in vinyl singles, which keep pressing plants on 16-hour shifts?

No, we have to turn to a wave of music lovers whose initial awareness of recorded material owes more to MP3 and CDs than it does to the 12in record. In some ways, they are the 21st Century equivalent of a modern car enthusiast who suddenly finds himself in possession of a vehicle with a starting handle.

To those of us who grew up in the years before CD arrived, record care is something mundane but crucial, behavioral patterns so basic that we take them for granted. Moreover, we arrogantly assume that everyone knows how to put a record on the platter and lower the stylus, just as we all know how to flush a toilet or open a door. But think about it: record handling isn’t as “day to day” as opening a door. It isn’t a mandatory part of base existence.

“Regular” people who still use LPs don’t handle records with care. They treat them like the (fictional) idiot in a current speaker ad, with her jazz LPs splayed out on the floor, out of their sleeves. Instead, record care is more of a skill or a talent or even an instinct of great import only to audiophiles and record collectors, more analogous to the way Italians seem simply to know how to appreciate food, or how the French exhibit innate and wholly unjustifiable arrogance and unbridled egocentricity.

Am I exaggerating? Do any of you above the age of 35 actually remember being taught how to hold a record, how to clean off dust, how to balance a tonearm, how to clean a stylus? Probably not, just as you don’t remember learning to walk, speak, or hold a knife and fork…but, on the occasion of acquiring your first record player, you probably did know how to take that record from the sleeve in a non-destructive manner. I’m certain my father taught me how NOT to ruin records, but I don’t remember when he did so, which words he used, what demonstration he undertook.

One suspects that today’s 12-35-year-olds, who are captivated with vinyl for whatever reason, will either turn to parents or older siblings, or, in the case of the brave, will plunge headfirst into fitting an arm and cartridge as I did when I bought my first “separates” system.

In many cases, because the inspiration to “go vinyl” is acid/hip-hop/scratch singles, or a budding career as a deejay, or simply being seen with “cool” vinyl, record care will not be an issue. They’ll simply treat records the way they treat everything else: without respect, as something disposable. The under-35s I saw at hi-fi shows during 2002, though, were not reverse-baseball-cap Beavises but budding audiophiles – vastly outnumbered I’m sure by Beavises, but they are high-end audio’s next generation, and we should nurture and encourage them.

Someone really must produce a modern pamphlet, a booklet on the basics of record usage and care. How to play them, how to maintain a turntable and cartridge, how to salvage worn or dirty second-hand discs, how to store them, how to align a cartridge, how to examine a stylus. (Are you listening, Mr. Harley?)

Because a 25- or 30-year-old coming fresh to vinyl probably knows only the no-brainer convenience of CD, it would be tragic if the more hands-on nature of LPs proved to be off-putting, and that first major scratch or tick sent them into fits of dismay. But I kinda doubt that will happen.

For the most part, I think these “late adopters” are charmed as much by the retro appeal, the funky sleeves, and the manual labor of records as they are by the sound. (And none of them will deny that a turntable looks a whole helluva lot cooler than any CD player, bar the Oracle or the Barclay. Which look more like turntables than CD players.)

What this new generation of vinyl users has which beats the our “old ways” hands down is access to the kind of accessories and set-up tools which simply didn’t exist when vinyl was the dominant format. So much thought has gone into maintaining and extending the finite life of records, in the post-CD era, that we’re now able to buy goodies which we couldn’t even imagine back in 1982. And which should make the novices’ lives easier.

True, I then used (and still cherish) the deliciously accurate, analogue-dial’d Technics SH-50P1 Stylus Pressure Gauge – now a collector’s item – but is it a match for the ClearAudio Exact? This $400 gauge, with digital read-out and accuracy to 1/10th of a gram, is the easiest I’ve ever used. It may not look as funky as the Technics, being all Teutonically efficient and Bauhaus minimalist, but it does a more repeatable and dependable job.

A low-profile slab which looks like the gauges jewellers use to weigh diamonds, the Exact is so straightforward that you don’t have to worry whether or not you calibrated it properly, or if the room temperature is affecting it. And if you’d rather buy British, then Len Gregory, the Cartridge Man, has a digital stylus gauge, too, shaped like a 4in record puck, with an LP-thick platform on which you lower the stylus. Said to be accurate to a 50th of a gram, it sells for a mere $299.

Both ClearAudio and Len Gregory also provide set-up discs which spare you the need to scour used record bins for clean copies of circa-1975 test LPs. To the best of my knowledge, all of the classic test LPs are out of print; full marks to Gregory for working with the UK magazine Hi-Fi News to produce the Hi-Fi News Analogue Test LP, now in a second edition wryly sub-titled “The Producer’s Cut”.

This gem contains a set-up template for correct cartridge overhang, a sheet of instructions with an article by the great John Crabbe (who invented the hanging-weight anti-skate device) and a battery of test tones which cover channel identification and balance, tracking ability, residual system noise, cartridge alignment and more. The notes are so comprehensive, in fact, that they obviate the need for a booklet on record care. (Er, sorry, Robert.)

ClearAudio’s disc complements the HFN LP, and it’s especially desirable if you’re the sort who seeks out a second opinion when visiting a doctor. The company, which – after all – is first and foremost a turntable, arm, and cartridge manufacturer – has cleverly combined a series of tests into the $150 Speed Strobodisc.

In addition to serving as a precise strobe disc for correct speed adjustment, it also features a recorded groove for measuring noise, a groove which provides random noise for breaking in a cartridge, facility for setting correct anti-skating and – unique to ClearAudio – a way to compensate for the friction caused by vinyl-against-diamond and its effect on true speed. This is accomplished with a 300Hz test which requires the company’s SpeedLight 300Hz laser at $100.

And I remember using a table lamp and a cardboard strobe disc…

Although most arms come with their own set-up devices – only an arrogant fool would question the devices supplied with an SME arm – ClearAudio also produces the Cartridge Alignment Gauge for $150, made from aluminum, with a precision engraved strike plate and sliding cross-member for setting spindle-to-pivot distance. The cross-member is calibrated in millimetres for dialing in effective tonearm length, and it’s said to be ideal for all pivoted arms, especially those 9-10in length arms such as the Graham, the Rega, and many others.

These tools deal only with one small part of record playback. The round-up barely scratches the surface, so to speak, but it’s a reminder of why audio hobbyists always preferred vinyl to CD: the toys were cooler. Whole columns could be devoted to record clamps, replacement mats such as the ever-astonishing RingMat, cleaning machines, too many fluids to list, sleeves, storage racks, cartridge demagnetizers, stylus cleaners, anti-static guns, carbon fibre brushes, and more.

Of course, there are devices which have survived from the First Vinyl Epoch, and newcomers on their way to full-blown vinyl addict status will eventually discover the delights of VPI’s record cleaning machine and rice paper inner sleeves, as well as forgotten classics which turn up now and again on eBay. All of a sudden, your GeoDisc and your Zerostat pistol and even your Cecil Watts DustBug have monetary worth. But you’ll only get my Technics stylus pressure gauge when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

(The Absolute Sound, 2002)