Vinyl the perfect archive medium?

As I continue to digitize my entire 2,000+ album collection, I’m constantly amazed by the quality and durability of Vinyl recordings.IMG_20190308_100641

It’s true that I have the really poor quality stuff yet to come, as part of a dj lot of 90’s trance/techno 12-inch singles, some without covers, and many that were sat in damp or wet conditions. The general usability of vinyl is amazing. Have a listen to this sample from Quincy Jones first album, the track is called: A Sleepin’ Bee

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Quincy Jones, recorded in 1956, probably pressed 1957.

The album is “This is how I feel about jazz“. It was recorded in 1956 exactly 1-year before I was born. It’s a mono recording, and this sample was taken from the album I own, a first pressing. admittedly I’ve cleaned and digitally enhanced the recording I made of the album. You can see pictures of the album and the actual vinyl on the entry in discogs via the link above.

I have working players and readers for most media that I’ve ever worked with and owned. I don’t have working computer tape drives, the sort that we used on mainframes from the 60’s to the early 2000s, or the modern versions. Nor do I have an IBM Mass Storage System for a couple of the cartridges I own. Also missing from my collection is a Videocassette Player(VCR). Although I could get one, I have no interest in collecting video tapes. “Videos” as they became known are perhap the worst example of home tape use(more on this later).

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Reel-to-Reel Tape

I do have two working reel-to-reel tape decks; a working dual cassette recorder/player; an 8-track player/recorder; a diskette drive: numerous CD, DVD drives and players; heck I even have a videodisc. All those formats though have their problems. Anything based on magnetic media, which would include tapes, cassettes and 8-tracks, as well as diskettes, can easily be ruined by putting them near or on top of something with a strong motor which destroys the magnetic encoding.

They also suffer from read errors. Almost anything that uses tape, uses a rubber or silicone wheel to move the tape. They often usually need a form of tension to hold them in the right place to pass over the head in order to be read. The wheels are destined to either attract dirt, or worse, cleaning with the incorrect fluid, which causes the material on the wheel to become “sticky” or decompose, which causes the tape to stick to it and jam. Tape itself is also prone to decomposition, and wear. It’s not unusual to pick up old cassette or reel-to-reel tapes that have the magnetic material flaking off.

Early “floppy” discs if stored correctly, are still useable, but since they have such small amounts of digital storage, really have no practical use. Yes, you can still get 3.5-inch diskettes and a drive, and the drivers are still embedded in Windows 10. The same can’t be said for 5 1/4-inch and 8-inch¬†floppy discs. Again, these have so little space they are of no practical use today.

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CD, DVD, Laserdisc

Once we moved to laser based read/write heads and optical discs, a whole new era of problems opened-up. CD’s sold as the perfect solution and virtually indestructible, but in practise, they were so convenient they are used everywhere, and the surface quickly became scratched. While they can be re-polished and even re-surfaced, the problem with anything digital is that you depend on the error recovery built into the drive, and if it cannot read the data, and as explained in this video, be error corrected, the optical disc data just can’t be read. If the drive won’t read it, you can’t get at the data in order to correct it.

I have a eight professionally produced and manufactured DVD’s from the early 2000’s that are on triathlon training. I decided it was time to see if they could be sold on ebay. Before listing them, I decided to play each one and ensure it was OK. The oldest of the DVD’s wouldn’t read on the external drive I use for my laptop, no matter what I tried, including simple repairs. It does play in a dedicated blu-ray DVD player. Frustrating.

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The rough end of my collection – 90’s DJ vinyl

However, vinyl records always play, even if only poorly. Records suffer from four types of problems, each of which can be corrected, either digitally, or physically.

The first is surface noise and clicks. Basic surface noise is easily removed provided you can find a section of the record that has noise and no music or sound. You simply sample the noise and tell the software, in my case, the excellent open source Audacity, to remove all noise as sampled. Clicks can also be removed, sometime just by software, other times by digitally editing the wave form, for the very small time period, reducing the amplification to the point where the click isn’t heard.

Second, jumps. Where a record is scratched, if the scratch is deep enough, instead of the stylus gliding along the track, the scratch causes the stylus to jump one more more tracks. You can’t physically correct these, but given a digital copy, you can replace the bits. Small, identical sections, for example a few seconds from a chorus and can be cut and pasted over the original jump section. If that’s not possible, again, you can adjust the amplification to make the jump almost unnoticeable.

When listening to music tracks, unlike processing digital data, or watching digital TV, at least in my experience, the faint sound of a jump is often missed as you are immediately processing/hearing the sound that follows.

Third are warps. A significant warp or bend in a record requires careful heat treatment. I’ve had hit and miss with this, but on the couple of albums I’ve tried, I was able to heat and flatten the vinyl to the point where it was playable, and then required time to digitally correct the sound defects. Given the availability of cheap vinyl records on @discogs and ebay, it’s often worth just buying another copy.

If you do decide to go down this route, you’ll need to carefully heat with a hairdryer, and then be prepared to weight in down with a heavy weight that is totally flat, like gym weights. Also it requires only very little heat and a lot of weight and, and time. I’ve taken two plus hours and yes, I’ve ruined a few by overheating, which causes the grooves to collapse. The warp will be gone, but so is the groove.

The final form of damage is a crack in the vinyl. Success here depends on the original type of record. Shellac 78’s are easily glueable these days. It requires care and any seepage above the surface must be removed. It’s common the hear a loud pop as the needle passes over the crack on each revolution. The pops can be removed digitally. And, yes, I do have a number of 78’s.

Repairing singles/45’s if they have one crack, is often not necessary. 45’s tend to be thinner vinyl, you can place the record on the turntable, and assuming you have a felt or cork matt, gently push down on both sides of the crack and then play it and remove the pops digitally. Albums and singles can be glued. It’s better if you can, to glue just the edges and allow the capillary effect to get some of the glue into the actual crack.

And that’s it. Apart from a couple of records that I failed to fix the warp on, I’ve never had a vinyl record I couldn’t make a passable digital copy of. If you are interested in some ideas of how to physically recover, restore, rescue vinyl records, John Manship from the UK has some great tips.

I have no plan to sell my vinyl when finished. They’ll just sit there in the corner of the living room, looking great, and a perfect archive. You can follow my vinyl to digital journey here, on twitter.

Oh, one more thing. The ease of use and creation of CD’s also lead to massive counterfeit operations, and so while you might have thought that all the piracy action was online in digital files, it wasn’t. This case from 2018 year shows, one of the top sellers of CD’s on Amazon, was in fact selling fakes. You can read about it here or watch the news report here. So CD’s are easy to use, perhaps a little too easy!

And yes, there was a period where bootleg vinyl records were common, less so today but still worth taking great care if you are buying rare records.