What to look for examining a vinyl record – The Vinyl Inspector
We hope the vinyl records we buy will be perfect. The 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 – the portable record player. Probably 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.
Records sold on-line are usually 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 policy.
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, can have a virtual skating rink of surface imperfections and still sound great.
These hints what to look for, to help you make your own judgement.
Examine the vinyl
Normal dim room-light is not revealing of condition. View records critically in bright natural sunlight light or under a strong lamp, tilting to catch reflections which reveal any defects in the vinyl surface. In a shop, ask if you can take the record to the window. Examine the record methodically and slowly, as 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.
- The start of the first track on each side is 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, 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. On a heavy pressing (160gm+) these will probably not sound, but on a thin record with a shallow groove cut, occasionally they do.
- Spindle marks. 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 . 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. 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.
- 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, known as ” 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, epically towards the centre of the record. Can be dificult to detect visually, but you will hear the deterioration and distortion 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
- Wow and flutter, due to an imperfectly centered spindle hole. Drives some people crazy, others, not so much.
- 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, impairing its tracking ability. Any record with polythene transfer should be rejected.
- Pressing faults, common in American pressings, typified by small bumps in the vinyl surface. Probably the result of imperfectly dry labels during pressing – any moisture converts to steam which impedes perfect vinyl fill. Mostly these blemishes don’t affect play, though they can look alarming and, rarely, 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 mainly only by playing:
Continuous surface noise (hiss) due to recycled vinyl having been added into the original vinyl compound. 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 which affected just a few jazz labels – the early ’60s New Jazz label of Prestige is notorious, as was briefly some Prestige pressings. Prestige and New Jazz should always be treated with suspicion. I have not come across it in any other labels. Some dealers 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 will break up the otherwise reflective nature of the surface
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 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 Trio piece can be very intrusive.
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.
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.