Last Updated: November 25, 2019
The Vinyl Inspector: what to look for examining a vinyl record.
We all hope that the old vinyl records we buy will be perfect, but the reality is that, with the passage of fifty years, in the hands of many owners, vinyl has often been handled carelessly, and played on a particular piece of equipment that raised significantly the risk of damage: the ’60s portable record player. Dealers reckon as much as 80% of records sold in the Fifties and Sixties have been filtered out of the market as unsaleable today. Of the remaining 20%, many are still less than perfect, and the perfect left long ago for collectors in Japan
Records sold on-line are graded often only visually, and grading interpretation can differ widely. Some sellers optimistically over-grade, others cautiously under-grade. Remember, when an Ebay seller says they do not accept returns, a record “not as described” entitles you to return, irrespective of their no-return policy.
New/mint is not a guarantee of perfection. Pressing vinyl is something of a lost art: new reissues can have surface noise, due to defects in modern manufacture. “Mint” and sealed record can be less-than perfect. Vintage records can look in excellent condition but be noisy due to use of impure vinyl, and old cost-cutting practice with some plants. Records in “mint” condition sell at a large premium. You will need to make a judgement about vinyl defects, and your personal price-to-condition tolerance.
Some people find groove-wear unbearable, others find it barely noticeable. Scratches with duration of more than three or four revs I consider unlistenable, others seem more tolerant: “it’s vinyl!” .Some DJs even simulate scratches to make a retro mix sound more “authentic”. Crackle can be tolerable if the music is loud and on top. Some records are so rare a copy in perfect condition does not exist. Some records – especially early heavy vinyl (180-240gm) , can have a virtual skating rink of surface imperfections and still sound great, as the groove wall runs deeper than the scratched surface.
These tips what to look for, to help you make your own judgement, and improve your success rate as a buyer or seller of vintage vinyl.
How to examine vinyl
View records critically under bright hard light which casts shadows – direct sunlight or under a strong lamp – tilting to catch reflections which reveal defects in the vinyl surface. Dim room-light can give a false impression of quality: soft, diffused light masks problems, as every Hollywood film star knows. The most revealing light is small directional LED. In a shop, ask if you can take the record to the window.
Examine the record methodically and slowly on both sides looking for breaks in light reflection to highlight scratches and other faults. Some records can be superficially perfect, but a faults can be very small, isolated in a tiny area of just a couple of grooves.
Anything that looks like surface damage, trace gently with fingertip to determine whether it can be felt.
Pay special attention to:
- The start of the first track on each side, where the first needle drop occurs and where damage is most likely to occur, clicks, pops, greasy fingerprints which attract dust and grit. The first four or five revolutions may be worse than the rest of the record.
- The presence of fine “hairlines”. These fine scuffs are very common, and are caused by records not being returned to their protective sleeves after play, rubbing against other materials. On a heavy pressing (180gm+) these will probably not sound, but on a thin record with a shallow groove cut, occasionally they do. I have seen modern DJ-owned records that have been ruined by disrespectful spinning handling.
- The area immediately around the spindle hole, look for spindle marks. Expect a tracery of fine marks left by the listener mounting the record on the spindle, that bruised the paper label. This indicates how frequently the record has been played. More marks indicates a well-loved record with greater risk of damage from frequent playing. It happily may confirm this record was hardly ever played.
- Any needle scratches which can be seen and felt, which are probably the main reason for rejecting a record.
Radiogram and record player arms in the 1950’s tracked at 8 gm up to 20 gm (compared to the modern 2 gm or less) and scratched vinyl deep if the tonearm was jogged. Portable record players were particularly problematic, being inherently unstable. Scratches should 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 repeating pop.
The growth of hobby- hifi in the late Sixties and Seventies, with light weight tone-arms, considerably reduced risk of scratching, but the damage may already have been done by previous owners. Look for
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
“Tramlines“. Scratches in the direction of the groove rather than across it, the hardest to spot and the most damaging, as they will often cause the stylus to follow the direction of the scratch not the groove, cause a jump or needle stick and permanent repeating groove, requiring manual intervention. I’ve had only a couple of these but one was on a $200 record. I photo-magnified it, and you can see the point of stylus impact where the stylus will skip grooves. Play grading is the only way to really check a record for this, but few sellers are willing to sit through 40 minutes to check every record. It is cheaper to let the buyer check, and offer a refund if it occurs..
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 prominent click on each rev. A scratched record should not be offered without an unambiguous warning. “Has a couple of marks” is not an honest 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 Trio piece can destroy the aesthetic experience of the Village Vanguard performance.
Warped disc due to improper flat rather than vertical storage, often in proximity to a source of heat. Some tonearms will still track the groove faithfully despite being lifted up and down, others will fly off and skip on the fall.
Polythene transfer. Patterned moire-reflections on the vinyl surface most noticeable on the vinyl runout area. Caused by polythene-lined inner sleeves popular in the ’60s which, over time, bonded polythene to the vinyl. It is impervious to record cleaning, it is very nasty, and can transfer plastic contaminant permanently onto your precious stylus-tip due to heat generated at the point of stylus/vinyl contact, impairing its tracking ability. Any record with polythene transfer should be rejected. It is not worth the potential damage.
Small bumps in the vinyl surface usually described as “pressing faults”. Common in some American pressings, usually the result of imperfectly dry labels during pressing. Any moisture present in the paper converts to steam which impedes perfect vinyl fill. Mostly these blemishes don’t affect play, though they can look alarming but rarely can cause a needle skip.
Recycled vinyl, unscrupulously added to the original vinyl compound at some pressing plants, causes continuous hiss during playback. Recycled vinyl contains fragments of paper from labels and other contaminants. The hiss is generated by the stylus striking the detritus and reading it as sound. The hiss will continue between tracks, since it is a property of the vinyl itself. It can vary from just a slight background hiss to one which is highly intrusive.
Adding used vinyl was a known cost-cutting/ profit boosting practice or some cases criminal “rogue suppliers” which affected just a few plants the early ’60s. Vinyl cost was a significant factor in pressing costs, and business-minded label owners were struggling to make money. New Jazz label of Prestige is notorious for using “cheaper” pressing plants. I have not come across it in any other labels, many of whom boast “virgin vinyl” meaning they knew. Some record dealers will feign ignorance – the vinyl may well “look” perfect, and they will say they are not aware of the problem.
Recycled vinyl can be detected visually by careful inspection of the run-out groove area. With regular vinyl, this area is a smooth and shiny reflective surface. If recycled vinyl is present, this area will have a slightly milky quality, though apparently smooth, thousands of very tiny specks of paper fragments will break up the otherwise flat reflective nature of the surface.
Public or College Library, stamp on the label or cover indicating property of a meaning many different listeners and record players – increased risk of play with needle in poor condition. Impecunious students rarely replaced their stylus.
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.
Modern DJ copy – tendency to throw discs one on top of the other after play, no time to return them to their sleeve, causing directional fine hairline scuffing, can look like a skating rink.
Defects found mainly only by playing:
Groove wear caused by ancient heavy tracking arms and/or worn stylus, especially towards the centre of the record. Can be difficult if not impossible to detect visually, but cause the deterioration and distortion in sound. Some collectors are more averse to groove wear than scratches
Imperfectly centered spindle hole, causing Wow and flutter. Drives some people crazy, others, not so much. I don’t think this can be detected by visual examination.
Buyers Caution! 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, my Paypal transfer: you can look at it but you can’t spend it until I have played the record. I understand the reason for the disclaimer for relatively inexpensive records but it should not be accompanied by a “no returns” policy. Basically, the seller is leaving the play testing to you. Fair enough, if it doesn’t pass, I return it.
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 of virgin-status
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 re-cellophane record covers. To be fair, I have recently seen some 60s sealed shrink records purchased in the US from Discogs sellers, and I can attest that not one had ever been played, judged by the complete absence of spindle marks. They were indeed mint. However there had been considerable argument over a Columbia label unseen inside the cover. Was it a six-eye, a two-eye, or a common “Columbia-all-round red? Price difference is may be six-fold, Seller couldn’t say without opening it, which immediately diminished its value. Eventually he relented, and it was the common modern reissue label. Expensive way to find out.
The solution is: “in shrink, opened only to confirm label, guaranteed unplayed“.
Recently I saw someone selling a “Test Pressing – Sealed“. The other “come-on” you see is “storage find“, implying un-played for many decades. Good one, eh? In my opinion, collectors with a fetish for still-sealed records should seek professional help. It’s vinyl. A few imperfections are “normal”.
Don’t be put off vinyl as a result!
Vinyl remains the best music information storage medium today: infinitely resolvable analogue. Vintage vinyl – from around 1956 to 1985 – has the best possible musical character available. Analogue end to end, recorded with valve microphones, on magnetic tape, mastered on an analogue lathe, nothing digital in the pathway, and played back through valve-based equipment, it easily outshines digital sources. It not only avoids digital degradation, it circumvents the most harmful aspect of modern musical delivery, the dilemma of “infinite choice” and the playlist. Put a hand-held device in most peoples hands, and they are incapable of stopping themselves pushing buttons, in the search for something better that they more want to listen to.