What to look for examining a vinyl record – The Vinyl Inspector
We hope the vinyl records we want will be perfect, but the sad reality is that with the passage of fifty years, passing through the hands of many owners, vinyl has often been handled carelessly, and played on equipment that raised the risk of damage with each play. Probably as many as 80-90% of records sold in the Fifties and Sixties have been filtered out by dealers as unsaleable today. Of the remaining 10-20% in acceptable condiition, many are still less than perfect.
Unless you are able to afford the massive premium charged for those in excellent/near mint condition, you will need to make a judgement about vinyl defects present, and your personal price-to-condition tolerance.These hints are to help you make that judgement.
View records critically in good natural light, tilting to catch reflections which reveal any defects in the vinyl surface.
- The start of the first track on each side is where the needle drop occurs with most frequency and is where damage is most likely to occur, causing cause clicks and pops. It is also where greasy fingerprints encouraged collection of dust and grit. The first four or five revs may be worse than the rest of the record, and will benefit most from use of a proper record cleaning machine.
- You may see a swathe of scuffs – fine hairline surface scratches – caused by records not being returned to their protective sleeves, and rubbing against other materials. Usually these will not sound, but occasionally they do.
- The area immediately around the spindle hole indicates how frequently the record has been played. Expect a tracery of fine marks left by the listener mounting the record on the spindle.More marks indicates a well-loved record with greater risk of damage from frequent playing. Marks across the entire width of the label indicates an owner with poor hand to eye co-ordination.
- Needle scratches, which can be felt with fingertip and/or fingernail. If you can feel it, you will most certainly hear it. If you can’t feel it, it will most likely either be inaudible, or at worst cause a soft pop. Radiogram and record player arms in the 1950′s tracked at 8gm or more (compared to the modern 2gm or less) and scratched deep if the tonearm was jogged. The growth of hobby- hifi in the late Sixties and Seventies considerably reduced risk of scratching, but the damage may already have been done by previous owners.
- Skate marks across the grooves of the record caused by it sliding onto the spindle due to careless handling. Quite common, looks bad, but most older record player spindles had a smooth rounded top which bruised the surface of the groove but had no effect on the music engraved on the wall of the groove
- Scratches in the direction of the groove rather than across it, known as “tramlines“. The hardest to spot and the most damaging, as they frequently cause a needle stick and permanent repeating groove, requiring manual intervention
- Groove wear, caused by ancient heavy tracking arms and/or worn stylus. Can be dificult to detect visually, but you will hear the deterioration in sound. Some collectors are more averse to groove wear than scratches
- Warped disc due to improper flat rather than vertical storage, often in proximity to a source of heat.
- Greyish mottled discoloring of the vinyl surface, where polythene-lined paper sleeves popular in the Sixties over the decades caused the vinyl to “sweat”
- Pressing faults, common in American pressings, typified but small bumps in the vinyl surface. Mostly these don’t affect play, though they can look alarming and, infrequently, can cause a needle skip.
- A stamp on the label or cover indicating property of a Public or College Library, meaning many different listeners and record players – increased risk of play with needle in poor condition. One record I saw had “Property of Camden Library” in large raised letters heat-embossed in the runout, which would immediately damage the first needle to hit it.
- Radio station copy – Audition and Promo copy can be good news, but some radio station DJs under broadcast pressure had no time to return records to sleeves and it may have received rough handling.
Defects found only by playing: – a heavy needle drop on just one point, surface noise, which may be due to addition of recycled vinyl to reduce the cost of vinylite, general surface noise which may or may not be reduced by cleaning.
Buyers Caution: “Marks” or “Scratches”?
Having fallen victim to the ambiguous “marks” description (it was over a half inch long audible scratch of about twenty to thirty revs) I recommend challenging any use of the term “marks” . A “surface mark” may look bad but should not sound or affect play: superficial spindle scuffs, non-injurious falls are common sources of marks and generally harmless. A needle “scratch” however is a specific type of mark which can be felt with the finger tip or finger nail, will be heard with a prominaent click on each rev. A scratched record should not be offered without an unambiguous warning. “Has a couple of marks” is not a good enough description. Duration of scratch may be across the full 20 minutes or just a couple of revs. Always ask. Brief scratches in a busy recording won’t matter much, but through a poignant Bill Evans/ Scott Lafaro piece will reduce you to tears.
Records graded by only visual inspection
“I am selling this car but I haven’t time to check if it drives OK. I have just looked at and it looks OK.
Sellers often claim they haven’t the time to play grade and issue a disclaimer that the grading is based on visual inspection only. OK, so then is my Paypal transfer: you can look but you can’t spend it until I have played the record. Happy?
Test pressing, audition copy, dj copy, or radio station library copy, often stamped on the label or rear of the jacket. Likely to have been played only a small number of times, on professional equipment, by people experienced in handling records, and correctly stored. No guarantee later owners didn’t abuse it, but these desirable copies circulated often only in the collector community, who respected their records.
“Sealed” is no guarantee…
The ultimate tease, pot luck, or mystery gamble. It suggests no-one in fifty years has played it. Hmmm Record stores often had equipment to reseal record covers. Not impossible to reseal any record. Recently I saw someone selling a “Test Pressing – Sealed” (How was the pressing? No idea…!). Over to you.