I’m a big supporter of vinyl and not just because I’m a DJ. Even if I hung my headphones up tomorrow, I’d still be hitting up record stores for my music. As convenient as it is to just download an mp3, I still prefer a physical thing that I can hold and read the liner notes or look at the artwork.
Unfortunately, over the past decade, record stores have been on a steady decline and fewer artists and labels are offering vinyl copies of their releases. The only way to counter that trend is to increase sales and to that end I hope to get you, an all digital purveyor of music, to cross over into the analog world.
This will be a guide to getting into the wide world of wax; the pros and cons of vinyl, what gear you need and where to get it, how to store and take care of your collection, and where to buy your records. In the interest of getting more people into vinyl at the lowest possible cost, this is geared towards the casual listener and not the audiophile (a person who has sex with audio waves). I’m aware there is better equipment than what I’m talking about and I’m not going into frequency ranges or tubes or any technical minutiae. I’m keeping this as simple as possible.
So read on and come over to the dark side (or picture disc side if you’re into that sort of thing.
Lets start with the pros and cons of vinyl.
- Sound quality. Vinyl is an analog source which means that every frequency present at the original recording will be there on the vinyl copy. When music is converted to digital, there must be compression which means that in order to keep file sizes down, chunks of the sound spectrum will be cut from the bottom and high ends. The higher the bit rate, the less you lose but you will lose some frequencies no matter what. And even though an mp3 says it’s 320 kbps (kilobits per second) that doesn’t necessarily make it true. Especially if you’re pirating your music. A lot of people are under the false assumption that you can upconvert mp3s. A 128 kbps song will always sound like a 128 kbps song no matter how you save it. Once you lose frequencies by converting, there’s no going back.
- A Physical Copy. I love having a physical connection to my music. There’s little I enjoy more than putting a needle in the groove and sitting back with a drink and poring over the liner notes and enjoying the artwork. If you’re a fan of art or graphic design, there’s a wealth of amazing work on records throughout the years. The liner notes can provide a wealth of information that can lead you to new artists and labels or just give you a better understanding of the trends of the music industry and pop culture. When you buy vinyl you’re not just getting the music, you’re getting a work of art and historical artifact.
- Exclusivity. There’s a lot of music out there. Around 10 million songs on the iTunes Store alone. Those 10 millions songs comprise some of the most popular recordings over the past century, however, there are still excellent albums that have never been made available on mp3 or even CD. They only exist on vinyl. That’s just albums, there’s no accounting for the tens of thousands of 7-inch singles that contain rare b-sides from famous artists or limited run singles recorded in garages by excellent soul groups or punk bands or virtuoso instrumentalists that just never made it big. All that stuff is just sitting in cardboard boxes at record stores for 25 cents a record. Vinyl versions of new releases also tend to include exclusive tracks not available digitally or on CD.
- Best of Both Worlds. Just about every new album that comes out on vinyl now has a code included that you can use to download a free digital version. It’s also very easy to convert your vinyl to digital with the newer gear and software that’s on the market now.
looks a lot cooler than this:
- Space. Records do take up a lot of space. Even a small collection of 25-50 records is going to take up a few shelves or a corner of a room (or the whole room). There’s simply no way around it, if you buy records you need a place to put them. I’ll go over storage later but if you’re just starting out, start small. Just buy your favorites and see where you’re willing to go with your collection.
- Moving. Moving with records is awful. Average weight of a record is probably around 200-400 grams including the sleeve. Put it all in a bag which usually hold 40-50 records and you’re weighing in around 20-30 pounds a bag. If you only have 40 or 50 records, that’s not bad. If you’re into the 500-1000 range, you’re in for a bad time when you move.
- Fragility. Vinyl’s easy to break, warp, scratch or stain. If you don’t store it well and take care of it, a record can become useless very quickly or at least lose value. I will say they’re far sturdier than CDs and if you want to cut down the amount of time it’s seeing use, you can digitize but that’s a topic for another day.
- Digging: Don’t Do It
Now if you’ve decided that you still want to buy vinyl let’s talk about what you need. Any vinyl setup requires at least three things outside of speakers/headphones which I’m assuming you have:
- Phono preamp
I’d reccommend reading this post real quick where I went over equipment before we go on.
I’ll give the basics in case you didn’t click that link…
(Note: For full disclosure, you should know that if you click any of the Amazon links and purchase something after, it helps me out through their associate program. If you can, try to buy this gear at your local record or non-big box music or DJ shop or from a dedicated website like Turntable Lab)
A turntable has a much lower signal than a line signal (CD, Tape, 1/8 inch iPod cable, etc). To fix that you need extra amplification to match a line signal which is where a phono preamp comes in. It’s a small piece of electronics that you hook your table up to and it amplifies the sound and adds RIAA equlization to the signal, then the preamp is hooked up to your speakers or stereo system. If you have an older or more expensive sound system, there may already be a phono input. Look on the back of your receiver for an RCA input marked “Phono” and a small screw near it for the ground wire.
I personally use the ART USB Phono plus, it’s cheap and has a wide array of output options so I can use it in multiple places in my house…my studio, my living room, traveling with my laptop. There are certainly much higher quality ones out there and more technology to get into like moving magnet, moving coil, tubes, etc. but for your basic listener, keep it simple.
There’s two types of turntable; belt drive and direct drive. For DJs, this is an important distinction but for home listening its not a big issue. There’s a lot of technical issues to think about but this is a basic guide so I it simple. Both drives will do the job of spinning the record.
As far as features, the bare minimum you want is the ability to play at 33 1/3 and 45 rpm. This should be standard. You don’t really need pitch shift, reverse play, straight tone arm or any other bells and whistles that come on turntables made for dj’ing.
There’s a few entry level tables right now that come with built in preamps like the Audio-Technica LP60 or USB connections like the Ion Profile or Numark TTUSB or portable tables like the Vestax Handytrax, Ion iPTUSB or Crosley tables. Keep in mind that these tables will have inferior sound quality. The more electronics you cram into the body of a table, you’re having to make sacrifices somewhere. Personally, I had a Numark TTUSB but traded it for a Handytrax…same basic sound quality but more versatility since I can use it for digging. Neither sound amazing but they get the job done.
You can go two routes once you get past entry level: DJ tables or Audiophile tables. If you think there’s any chance you’ll ever DJ, get a Technics 1200 (any version). Unmatched resale value and durability and even though Panasonic has quit producing new models its still easy to get parts and upgrades from sites like KABUSA. Even if you just want it for listening you can get a used one then upgrade the hell out of it as time goes on (new tonearm, external power, isolating feet).
In the audiophile realm don’t expect it to be any cheaper. Prices can get insane…like $15,000 insane. I’m gonna stick with the beginner audiophile tables. Pro-ject, Music Hall and Rega are probably the best bang for your buck tables to look at if you want better quality than what you could get at a department store.
There’s also the Audio-Technica LP120 which combines a lot of features of the DJ and audiophile tables. In terms of build, it’s almost exactly the same as the Technics 1200 but it has a greater pitch range, reverse play and, according to some reviews, greater torque then the 1200. It also has a selectable internal preamp and a USB output. It runs about half the price of a 1200. I haven’t personally used one but it is on my list to purchase soon as a listening/sampling table and maybe a backup DJ table if it can stand up to the abuse.
The stylus is the needle that touches the record, attached to a cartridge that mounts to a headshell that connects to your turntable. Check my equipment guide for more details but just know that if you’re only listening and you’re not an audiophile whatever comes with the turntable you buy will be fine. If you want a little higher quality, the Shure M97xE is a good choice at a reasonable price but there are thousands of cartridges out there and it won’t hurt to do your research. Best brands to look at are Shure, Ortofon, Grado, Audio-Technica and Stanton.
Where to Buy Vinyl
Now that you have your gear, you need music to put on it. Your number one place to look should be your local, independent record store. There’s no replacement for a knowledgeable staff, vast inventory and the opportunity to support a local business. Other physical options are thrift stores, garage and yard sales, record swap meets and flea markets. They might not be the first place you look but there’s always the chance of a hidden gem.
Online, I like Turntable Lab, Juno Records and eBay. They’ve been around a long time, always get new stock and in the case of eBay, you can find anything. Always try to buy from vendors that specialize in vinyl and know how to ship it to ensure it reaches you in good condition.
For more info, check my Digging guide.
Like I said earlier, vinyl can be delicate. You need to store it and care for it properly.
The classic way to store records is a milk crate stolen from the back of you local grocery store (or elementary school in my case). I don’t even know if milk is delivered in crates anymore so that may or may not be an option. These days you can find plenty of specially designed record crates on Amazon or vintage and homemade ones on Etsy. Those are good if you have a small collection of 50-100 records. Past that, you’re going to need some serious shelving. My favorite option
is the Ikea Expedit series which have storage areas that are perfecrly suited to vinyl and its cheap. However, you should take extra measures to secure them to make sure they can support the weight of vinyl; super glue where surfaces meet, metal corner supports, nailing plywood on the back (also keeps records from pushing through the back) and anchoring the shelf to the wall.
In terms of exactly where in the house your records are stored, you want to avoid any source of heat. That means no where near a vent, heater or in direct sunlight. Moisture is another enemy of vinyl so keep it out of rooms that are prone to leaking, flooding or humidity. Water damage can completely wreck a record so keep an eye out for that.
Whenever you’re storing vinyl, make sure it’s stored vertically and in a paper
sleeve at the very least (paper, cardboard and outer plastic sleeve for the important ones). Don’t stack your vinyl for long periods. Records are the thickest and heaviest in the center so stacking can cause bottom records to warp.
The biggest threat to vinyl outside of water and heat is dust. If you’ve ever heard an old record that has a lot of pops and clicks, that’s due to dust. Sometimes not in the obvious way you think which is surface dust that you can wipe off with your shirt. Remember that a record is just a chunk of wax that builds up a static charge with grooves all over it. Therefore, not only does dust get sucked to it like a vacuum, it can easily get inside those grooves if not carefully cleaned. Once it’s in there and gets embedded, it can do serious damage to the groove over time or to your needle. Since its so easy to get stuck in there, you need some special tools to clean it out.
You have three basic types of cleaner; just an anti-static brush or cloth, a cleaning brush with cleaner fluid and a vacuum. For the anti-static brush, the Audioquest has been popular for years but there are others. For a brush/fluid combo the RCA RD1006 Discwasher kit with D4 fluid used to be great but D4 changed their
formula years ago and it simply hasn’t been the same since. The brush is good but the fluid doesn’t really do the trick. I still keep it in my record bag due to the portability of the brush having a hole in it for the fluid. At home, I mainly use the Audio-Technica AT6012 kit which does a great job of picking up dust.
The most effective way to get dust out of your records is a vinyl vacuum. The cheapest is around $170 and it goes up to a couple thousand from there. If you don’t want to shell out that kind of cash you could try getting a vacuum from a thrift store, some wood and an online guide and try to build your own.
Whatever you use to clean your vinyl, give your records at least a quick clean every time you take them out and before you put them up. Also, when putting the paper sleeve inside the outer cardboard sleeve, it’s best to put it in with the opening of the paper sleeve facing an edge of the outer sleeve. This forces you to take the record and sleeve all the way out to listen but prevents extra dust from getting in there.
You also need to keep your needle and and tables clean. Get a decent stylus cleaning brush and give it a pass between records and keep a dust cover on your decks. If there’s dust anywhere near your vinyl, it’ll get attracted to the surface by static charge so limit the dust nearby as much as possible.
One other cleaning thing that wouldn’t be a bad idea is a DeOxit pen. There’s a lot of connections between the needle and your speaker and the DeOxit pen does a good job of keeping those connections clean and in working order. I keep one in my DJ bag all the time.
Well, that’s it. If you have more questions feel free to ask. I hope I’ve helped convert at least a couple people out there. Happy digging.