Deep In the Groove

You may have seen some headlines recently about the resurgence of sales of vinyl records. If you are skeptical about this new (old) trend, that is plainly reasonable. It is old. My previous blog post was all about using new cloud based websites to listen to and explore digital music and my current blog post is all about listening to vinyl records, in so far as how to read visual information from the record and use the Internet to help you make more discerning purchases of records.  I hope to assist music lovers who might argue that they – for whatever reason – feel a little underwhelmed by the digital music that is now so readily and ubiquitously available to them.

Let us be clear. Not all releases on vinyl sound more or less the same. The process of record disc mastering is so critical that it can make a great album or single sound muddy, pale or GREAT depending on how well the mastering process was done.  In the music industry, a skilled engineer is responsible for making the master tape (as in the case of analog) or the master file (as in the case of digital) sound as good as possible (think of “the master” in this sense as the final, assembled draft of a recording). Then finally a mastering engineer is responsible for making the master disc (from which the vinyl records are made from) sound as good as possible. So how can a consumer identify the mastering information about the vinyl record they are considering buying? Answer: by looking at the matrix information on the “deadwax” of the record - then looking up that information online. The deadwax is that part of the record where the grooves run out and right before the inner label begins. A stamped matrix code appears in the deadwax indicating when and at what plant the record was pressed.

Many collectors particularly look for matrix information indicating that a record is a “first pressing”. The idea behind this is that as a master disc is used to make copies of records, those copies made further along in the process are less likely to resemble the master disc just from physical wear to the master disc naturally over time (record sellers on eBay often mention “ first press!” in their advertisements). To find out as much as you can from the matrix information, I advise you to simply type in the code into Google along with the album name.  In the search results you are very likely to see a link to your record on the Discogs website – a website providing a great deal about specific releases of records, tapes and digital audio discs. Below is information about a Beatles record I own that I just did a search of in Google by typing out the matrix code and band name. As you can see here the record was made in Sweden in 1973.

Sometimes there is information directly in the deadwax identifying the mastering engineer. Some of the best-sounding records I own were mastered by an audio engineer named Robert Ludwig (known in his industry as “the king“). He used an identifier of “R.L.” in the deadwax of records that he mastered. So if you notice initials or a peculiar “drawing” in the deadwax information on your record, those are personal identifiers made by the mastering engineer. Google that information. It might be a pressing made by an ace mastering engineer. For example, here is a link to an audio related forum discussing records mastered by Robert Ludwig and how great they are.

Where the record was pressed can also be of importance. For example, some people only collect records made in Japan because of the incredible level of quality control that was employed in the disc production process there. You can find out quickly where a record was manufactured by the code –the catalog number – printed on the inner label of the record. If you look up an album title on the website Discogs, you will find a web page listing every catalog number for each release of the record, the country it corresponds to and what year. One thing to keep in mind is that even Japanese pressings of records might not sound the best as they may have been cut from a master tape that was a copy of a copy – not the ultimate original source (these items can sound a little lifeless). Try to look up forum information to know which record pressing sounds the best – you cannot always guess and be right. I have found these discussions to be remarkably spot-on in finding great sounding pressings of records.

Buyer beware. There are many new reissues of records that have been made from a digital file instead of the original analog – the master tape. This does not bother some people but I do not know why that is, as in theory they should get better sound just from buying the digital file itself (which avoids some distortion caused by the mechanical process of a stylus dragging across a spinning record). How can you find out if a vinyl reissue is made from a digital file or is “all analog”? You need to read up on the press release information about the record. If there is no info about how the record was made – assume it is from a digital source. Do a Google search with terms like “all analog” and the title. You will find some forum discussion about this issue and will be able to make an informed decision.

I thought I would conclude this post with my own justification for buying records. While I cannot speak for others about why they do so, for me listening to vinyl is deeply about sound quality. Listening to an analog version of an older piece of music that was recorded on analog tape in the first place – the sound quality is almost eerie in its natural realism. In this digital age, it feels like a unique listening experience. And it sometimes makes me feel like I have momentarily time traveled to the past. That said, I really hope digital fidelity gets so good that it can capture that degree of realism sooner than later as it is a lot more convenient to use.  Until then I will still keep spinning records at home – it is alleged that is what Steve Jobs did.

- Jay O.


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