HiFi System Setup, Operation, and Care: Recording Care and Preservation

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Considering that retrieving the music from the recording is the entire purpose of this whole complicated business of high-end audio, one of the most important aspects of setup and operation is the recording itself. How well this is maintained establishes the maximum level of quality the entire system can attain. If the recording is worn, scratched, warped, or suffering any other damage, the system will inevitably register this.

Recordings are the universal storage medium for the human musical experience. Yet we tend to treat these parts of our history as just so much plastic. This is like regarding paintings as so many square feet of canvas daubed with pigment, photographs as pieces of paper coated with a microscopic layer of silver. If we accept that recordings are the museum of our musical heritage, then all of us are the keepers of the archives. (Americans, incidentally, buy nearly half the world’s recordings.)

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Unfortunately, you cannot expect to be able to replace your recordings when they become worn out from poor care. Not everything is kept in print. But even beyond this, the master tapes are slowly but inexorably aging, fading, sometimes even getting lost. The recording companies appear to have little more than a perfunctory interest in pre serving them (the companies can always produce a “remake” of the Beatles’ songs, another interpretation of Reiner’ s Beethoven’s Fifth). But once the originals are gone, they’re gone forever. Before too long, a pristine version of a very good pressing will be better than the faded master and will become the reference for future generations. re-mastering to CD is not the answer—the transfer from analog to digital results in sonic degradation; digital master tapes store even worse than analog tapes; CDs themselves, regardless of all claims, are far from impervious to misuse.

Recordings, including CDs, are fragile and must be handled with care. Caring for your recordings is like performing your daily ablutions. The problems that eventually develop from, say, failing to brush your teeth are far greater than the momentary inconvenience of keeping them clean. So the best way to preserve recordings is not to abuse them in the first place—once they’ve been dirtied, you’ve created a problem that need never have been. Even when the damage can’t be seen, it can be easily heard. But a modicum of care will preserve a collection worth handing on to your children and grandchildren.

LPs, CDs, and cassettes are each in their own way equally fragile. The most basic care demands that the recording, regardless of format, should go directly from jacket to player and then back to the jacket with minimum exposure to dust and other forms of abuse. Always keep recordings in their protective wrappers when not actually being played. When handling, keep your fingers off! This includes CDs, however much they’re advertised as also making great Frisbees. Store all recordings away from heat, out of the sun, and protected from dust. Keep the player clean, whether turntable and stylus, tape heads, or CD drawer, and your music will play for years.

LPs

LPs are no more delicate, finicky, or harder to maintain than other recording formats. And there’s a lot you can do to preserve them—LPs have been around long enough for a lot of information to have been collected on their long-term care. Cassettes, on the other hand, are much more limited in how much they can be protected against tape fading or mechanical problems like the reel mechanism inside the case wearing out. CDs are only recently being recognized as needing care at all, so there is little information on maximizing their lifespan.

Store albums vertically. Do NOT stack records one on top of the other. Unless you keep them precisely lined up, one record will be sit ting slightly off-center from the next and they will warp. Warps are not easily flattened. The weight of the records alone will grind the ubiquitous dust particles into the vinyl, causing pops and ticks.

Store them upright, close together so they support each other but not tightly squashed like canned sardines. Preferably store them in a closed shelf to cut down on dust. Or keep them in covered record boxes. The tops lift off and you can see the full jackets as you flip through them, as in a record store, rather than having to peer crablike at the spines. If they are stored on shelving, dividers should be spaced about every 6 inches or so to prevent the records from all leaning to one side and ending up warped.

Store them well away from sun and other sources of heat, in a dry place, away from dust, and away from the kitchen. Cooking oils, furnace fumes, cigarette smoke, pollution, and dust will harm any recording.

Inner sleeves are essential. The paper sleeves that most albums come in are very handy for writing up laundry and shopping lists but NOT for LPs. They release as much paper dust as they protect against external sources of dust. Use the “rice paper” or poly sleeve, as sold Discwasher, or else buy high-clarity polyethylene sleeves— these are inert.

LAST Record Preservative

Playing a record has the unfortunate side effect of also wearing it out. After even just a few plays, some of the high-frequency information is lost and surface noise starts to increase. In addition, wear defects appear not as a linear function of the number of plays but as an exponential function. With a vertical tracking force of 1 gram, the pres sure of the stylus tip on the vinyl is anywhere from around 30,000 to 70,000 pounds psi., depending on the stylus shape. As the stylus traces the groove, several hundred degrees of thermal heat are generated and the surface of the groove walls actually becomes semiliquid. The passage of the stylus over the groove walls produces a shock wave. When a shock wave hits slight imperfections in the vinyl (which are all too common), vinyl fragments will be literally blown off the groove, leaving behind a “pothole” often of craterlike proportions to the stylus. The flying vinyl fragments will gouge the groove walls, or become heat and pressure welded to the walls, setting up the potential for further damage.

Every pit, pothole, microcrack, or piece of pressure-welded debris becomes the site of a whole new set of wear on the stylus’s next round. So what started out as a minimal imperfection before playing has now been aggravated into a pop, click, or other auditory assault. Each successive play worsens the potholes and so increases surface noise.

While keeping both record and stylus clean is essential in minimizing the damage, this alone cannot eliminate it because defects in the vinyl itself are as much a cause as dirt and dust. Enter LAST (Liquid Archival Sound Treatment), brainchild of Dr. Ed Catalano and Walter E. Davies, which is claimed to be a record preserver and distortion reducer. A number of people have come to agree with its claims and it is used by museums, radio stations, archivists, and anyone else who cares about preserving records.

First slip the record into the inner sleeve, then the inner sleeve LAST is not a coating or film that lies on the surface of the record (these can attract dust and dirt and also interfere with the stylus’s ac curate tracing of the groove wall). Nor is it a lubricant—self lubricating like Teflon, it is very slippery, yet nothing comes between the record and the stylus. The slipperiness reduces wear on both groove and stylus, extending the life of both. LAST does not alter the character of the vinyl itself, but modifies the molecular bonding structure—it increases cohesiveness so that shock waves cannot as easily shatter the integrity of the vinyl. It also stabilizes the vinyl and retards breakdown by ultraviolet light. LAST is supposed to last for 200 plays or ten years (whichever comes first). Much more detailed discussions of LAST are found in JAR Journal, no. 5, and in literature from the company.

One hesitates a lot before applying any substance to a record — museums are filled with horror stories of misapplications made in all good faith to preserve an object, until 20 years later the damage finally shows up. However, many serious record collectors and preservers now use LAST on our most-played and most-precious LPs. Some will use it only on old records that have become worn — LAST can help to rejuvenate them. It actually can improve the sound of even a new record, but its greatest attraction is its claim to reduce wear. The LAST company has LPs that were treated over 8 years ago and have been played over 400 times with no increase in noise. Usually the first dozen plays alone of an untreated record cause an audible increase in noise and loss of the high frequencies.

As Walt Davies puts it, “The entire acoustical heritage of all of the world’s cultures is stored on a medium which is subject to wear and environmental degradation. It is possible to protect and extract the information without measurable wear.” Hooray!

Inside the jacket. Slip it in slowly, don’t jam it in by force—you will add microscratches to the record surface. Slip it in so the open edge of the inner sleeve is to either the spine or top edge of the jacket, leaving a closed edge facing the opening of the jacket. Again, every little bit helps to keep the dust out. Do NOT place the open side of the inner sleeve so that it faces down to the bottom of the jacket—when you come to pull it out again, the record will end up on the floor!

Discard the album’s shrink-wrapped outer sleeve and replace it with a loose plastic sleeve. There are two problems with shrink wrap:

If stretched on tight enough, it may actually warp the record (a problem to watch for when buying); and it generates static electricity, attracting dust like a magnet. The outer sleeve provides one more dust barrier if you put it on so it closes the open edge and also protects the often-beautiful artwork. A number of jackets have become valued collector’s items.

If you collect duplicates of your records or have a backlog of ones you have not yet listened to, do NOT leave them sealed. At least slit open the shrink wrap and preferably discard it, replacing it with an outer sleeve. Sealed records have a strong likelihood of warping.

CASSETTE TAPES

Cassette tapes self-destruct far more quickly than LPs or CDs. A half- dozen or so passes across the tape heads and the highs begin to drop off as the oxides flake away. The oxide dust building up on the tape heads and on the guides and pulleys contains a lot of the music. The tape heads also demagnetize the tape a little more each time it’s played and so the noise builds up and the highs go away. As the magnetization builds up on the heads, this too partially erases the higher frequencies, taking away still more of the music. Your tapes soon sound dull and lifeless. It is essential to demagnetize the heads each time the deck is turned on to ensure even mid-fl results over the long term. The turn-on and turn-off transients of most recorders immediately magnetize the heads enough to take the machine out of spec. The entire tape path, not just the tape heads, should also be regularly demagnetized.

Just as with LPs, dust is a major enemy of cassette sound quality and longevity. Dust collects on the cassette tape, on the tape heads, capstan, and pinch roller, and on the edges of the tape guides. Dust deposits can scratch the highly polished surface of the tape heads, foul the transport mechanism, and in relatively short order destroy your tapes.

Unfortunately, cassettes deteriorate not only when played but even when stored and stored properly (unlike LPs, whose shelf life, properly stored, is indefinite). High frequencies become duller, the overall sound warmer and more veiled. Audible pre-echo can develop—the music on one section of tape prints through to the adjacent section of tape and so one hears both the current music and the upcoming section.

Cassettes must be stored away from heat, dust, dirt, and moisture. These can deform the tape transport mechanism inside the cassette shell and cause the tape edges to curl. The result is garbled sound and tape jamming.

Tapes stored after a fast wind tend to have uneven stresses and sometimes uneven edges that protrude and can become damaged. Normal speed tends to be much smoother, resulting in more even tension and edge alignment on the tape. This is why many pros store their open- reel tapes “tails out” rather than rewinding before putting them away. It is a good practice for cassette tapes also. Certainly try to avoid fast winding.

Tapes should also be stored at least several feet away from magnetic fields, including your speakers and any equipment with power transformers or motors. Like LPs, they are best stored vertically.

Tape itself cannot be cleaned. So keep the deck clean and demagnetized to prevent adding to dirt on the tape.

Prerecorded tapes are usually less good than what you can make for yourself at home. The tape of a disc won’t be as good as the disc itself but still is likely to be better than the prerecorded version.

COMPACT DISCS

Compacts discs are “open sandwiches,” as Walt Davies describes them. On the label side, which is where all the information is recorded, they are protected by only a thin acrylic shield. A scratch on this side and information has been wiped out that no error correction circuit can recreate, however much it may compensate. This is another of the strengths of LPs: Even a worn record, its grooves as smoothed away as the Appalachian Mountains, can, when properly cleaned and played with a deep-groove stylus like a micro-linear, still provide a deep emotional experience. A damaged compact disc, on the other hand, loses the in formation outright and irretrievably. NOTHING can restore it. CDs, sold as impervious to damage in contrast to vinyl and tape, are in fact vulnerable.

Before loading the CD in the player, always inspect its underside, which is part of the optical system. If it has any micro-scratches, these can refract the light—like fine sandpaper scraped over a mirror. Error correction may “cover them up” but at the cost of nasty distortion. In addition, if there are any specks of dust, and these become transferred to the hub on which the CD is supported, then any CD will load slightly crooked until the dust specks are removed. Access to the hub for cleaning is very difficult unless you have one of the discontinued top-loading machines.

Regardless of anything you have heard, CDs cannot be used as Frisbees or coasters, nor can they survive anything other than delicate handling. Dirty CDs may be rejected from loading, will definitely sound worse as error correction attempts to compensate for fingerprints, and may sound really bad as error correction gets overloaded. If your player’s sound quality has deteriorated, it may simply be because the cleanliness of your discs has deteriorated.

Immediately after playing, return the CD to its “jewel case” hard plastic box. If it only has a cardboard sleeve and no box, it is quite vulnerable to dust and should be treated especially carefully. Handle it only by its edges.

Clean CDs regularly and often. Cleaning should be performed not in the LP’s rotational direction but radially, like the spokes of a wheel extending from the center out to the edges. Nitty Gritty has a machine that will do this for you. Believe it or not, it has been reported that, like LPs, even brand-new CDs sound better if you clean them before playing.

Microscratches can be polished out with LAST CD cleaner, which also leaves the surface so slippery that fingers inadvertently applied won’t leave prints (don’t therefore think you can get away with fingering the CDs). Never use alcohol as a cleaner, as this causes fogging and hazing on any polycarbonate material. Walt Davies also recommends Brillianize as an alternative to LAST CD cleaner.

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Updated: Friday, 2016-05-13 19:18 PST