High Fidelity: DVDs, sweep record help improve vinyl sound

By  Todd Whitesel

In this edition of High Fidelity, we’ll look at two DVDs devoted to vinyl and vinyl playback and then an LP to tweak any turntable and cartridge’s performance. There’s always something new to discover about the greatest music format of them all!

“It’s A Vinyl World, After All”
(Analog Forever): If you’re looking for a complete primer on record history, making, cutting, mastering, engineering and collecting, you’ll find it on Michael Fremer’s DVD “It’s A Vinyl World, After All.” Fremer — Stereophile magazine’s senior contributing editor and vinyl fanatic — delves into the fascinating and complicated world of records in an exhaustive three-hour foray into all things vinyl. You’ll also learn the basics about record care, storage and cleaning, taken here to levels most of us are not familiar with.

Fremer takes us behind the scenes at two record-pressing plants: Pallas in Diepolz, Germany; and Record Technology in Camarillo, Calif., where the mystery of how records are made is revealed. From plating lacquers all the way to final packaging and shrink wrapping, you get the inside scoop on all processes. Record pressing is part science and part art, and interviews with Pallas’ CEO Holger Neumann and Record Technology’s owner Don MacInnis reveal the inherent challenges in producing quality vinyl.

We get to be a fly on the wall for a mastering session with renowned sound engineers Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray, as the pair work on cutting a lacquer for a Blue Note jazz reissue. It’s fascinating to listen to the debate about minute sound differences that may or may not make the remaster.

Lastly, Fremer is a record collector — big time. The walls within his home are lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves. Each houses hundreds of LPs, and there’s still not enough room, with even more records scattered about. Fremer is an audiophile, but he’s also a kid at heart and collects records for the same silly reasons that we all do. Maybe you’re into kitschy album art or records with a boy-meets-girl theme or actors believing they can sing. Well, Fremer joyfully explains the myriad ways and reasons to collect. His ultimate point — beyond the LP usually bettering the CD for sound — is that some of the most curious and collectible records will likely never be reproduced on CD. If you want it, you’ll have to buy the vinyl version. And it’s that 12-inch platter, with the sleeve and jacket that feels so good in the hand and all the little extras, from stickers to posters to lyric sheets, that made Fremer and so many others fall in love with records and hold onto them with fierce devotion.

“21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer’s Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up” (Analog Forever): “21st Century Vinyl” is a step-by-step guide on how to set up a turntable, from putting the platter on to installing and aligning the cartridge, to adjusting anti-skating, azimuth and tracking force. As Fremer notes, this isn’t the most exciting subject, but it’s extremely important. If you were asked to set up a new turntable for a friend, could you do it? After watching this DVD, you’ll be able to tackle such a job with confidence.

Fremer demonstrates the proper set-up for three common turntables: Pro-Ject RM-5, Rega P5 and a VPI Scoutmaster. Each requires a slightly different approach, and it’s worth watching the processes for all three. Doing so really helped clarify the more technical matters and left me with a greater understanding of what a turntable, cartridge and stylus are designed to do when optimally installed.

But the DVD is more than just a class on such matters. Also included is an in-depth interview with Sterling Sound’s senior mastering engineer George Marino, who ably answers the most technical questions in a way that non-engineers can understand. Marino’s knowledge is deep, and with more than 30 years experience working on records from artists including the Allman Brothers, Buddy Guy, Don McLean, Kiss, Iron Maiden and Stevie Wonder, it’s hard to think of anyone better suited to shed light on the record-making process.

There’s a lot to take in from both of these DVDs, and after watching them I had an even greater appreciation for my records. Even knowing the science behind them, I’m still amazed that a piece of round vinyl can be made to play back music with great sound. Yes, it is a vinyl world, after all.

• • • • •

Cardas Audio (www.cardas.com) is a manufacturer best known for audio and video cables, offering everything from interconnects to headphones. But that’s just part of Cardas’ mission. The company also offers a 180-gram Frequency Sweep and Burn-In Record designed for “system set-up, diagnostics and maintenance.” It includes a variety of frequency sweeps, vocal channel identification, polarity checks and white-noise grooves. According to Cardas, the frequency sweeps “ultrasonically clean the cartridge stylus and degauss the entire system.” Degaussing is another term for demagnetizing or eliminating unwanted magnetic fields.

Side 1 is cut at 45 rpm and includes three tracks: two are frequency sweeps; the other is music, the Tom Loncaric Band covering Fats Waller’s “I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling.”

Side 2 is for burn-in and designed for playback at 33 rpm. This side features left, right and two-channel checks, polarity checks, and sound checks using a B-flat piano note and a set of hollow sticks being played to demonstrate different spatial and directional cues. There are also three bands of pink noise that hold a stylus in place. Used in conjunction with the “sync label” on the LP, users can check turntable platter speed and ensure it’s running correctly.

Cardas founder George Cardas offered these observations and suggestions about getting the most from the LP:

• The most important tools on this record are the Side 1 frequency sweeps. These are the degaussing tracks 1 and 2. Simply play one of these tracks through your system at a low, normal level and it will degauss the cartridge and the rest of the system, plus clean the stylus ultrasonically. When played, the tracks progress from low frequencies at a high relative amplitude, to high frequencies at a low level. This is a complete degaussing process and an ultrasonic cleaning of the stylus at the same time.

You may hear clicks and pops in the high-frequency section after use. This is caused by the accumulation of junk which has fallen off the stylus during ultrasonic cleaning. Clean the record to remove the debris.

Some parts require more frequent degaussing than others … There should be an audible difference after you play the frequency sweeps. I run the sweeper at least once a week.

• The sweeps are also useful as room-tuning tools for setting up wall and ceiling treatments. Room reflection points, as well as other anomalies in the system, cause the image to shift with rising frequency. Simply sit in the hot spot and play the sweep at a low level. The image should be centered and stable in a well-focused room. You can ignore changes in volume which are caused by comb filtering. Hard reflection points in the room can cause a shifting in focus, so padding these points will help stabilize the image. Hold a piece of foam rubber at arm’s length and block the sound from suspected reflecting points. When you think you have located the trouble spots, cover them with suitable damping materials.

• An interesting speaker set-up trick is to listen to the low-frequency, out-of-phase tones while sitting in the listening position. The note should cancel completely if speakers are positioned symmetrically. Try both tones and pick the one that works best for your room. Playing this tone while in the null point, at the hot spot, may also allow you to pick out strange noises and rattles in the system. Sorting out the exact cause of these anomalies is up to you.

• The higher-frequency tones must be measured in order to be compared. You can use these if you have setup machines and other ways of measuring. If you have an oscilloscope, a triangle wave should have straight sides if all is right.

• The voice announcements (Tracks 1a-1d on Side 2) are for determining proper channels and centering the sound. They were recorded in a small booth and can be compared with the spatial qualities of Tracks 1f and 1g.

• The continuous pink-noise grooves at the end of Side 2 (Tracks 2-4) are concentric grooves, not normal spirals. The stylus will stay in the grove until lifted out. Use these with discretion to break in a new cartridge, but only after it is properly set up. Part of this break-in process is the adjustment of the final azimuth. I can’t determine the length of break-in time for your system, but I feel an hour would be close to the mark. Save your cartridge for music!

• If the system is out of relative phase, you will have to determine where one channel is reversed. It will often be one of the speaker connections or one of the cartridge connections. Usually the offending connection can be found by visual inspection. If the output of the out-of-phase locked grooves (Side 2, Track 3) are combined, they should null. This can be used as an azimuth check.

• The 1/2-inch wide unmodulated plateaus on Side 2 are for checking cartridge alignment and tone-arm bias. On level tables, properly adjusted arms will track slowly inward on the plateau.

• The sync label is used to determine the rotational speed of the platter. The label has four concentric rings of short white lines to measure both 33.333 and 45 RPM. One set is for 60-cycle AC in the U.S., and the second set is for international 50-cycle use. If you view the label under a standard incandescent or florescent lamp, the stroboscopic effect of the light will make the appropriate lines on the label appear to stand still when the speed is correct.

Per Cardas’ suggestion, I played the frequency-sweep tracks about once a week and found that it works as advertised. Records played after cartridge demagnetizing and stylus cleaning sound more open and immediate, with better separation of instruments. Coupled with clean records, it’s an easy and effective way to get the most sound from the grooves.

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