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.

Earth, Wind and Fire; life and guidance

foto_20190111_100904Over the year-end I read the Maurice White, Herb Powell penned autobiography, “My Life With Earth, Wind & Fire”. It was both an interesting read, and revelatory.

While my early teens were heavily influenced by David Bowie, my late teens and in some respects the rest of my life was heavily influenced by the sound, and especially the mystical guidance that seemed to be coming from the group, led by it’s founder and bandleader, Maurice White.

White’s spiritual approach gave endorsement to my own uncomfortableness with my Christian upbringing and doubt that a single “God” existed. I never met White, but in the way you idolize someone, I thought I knew him through his music. I didn’t at all.

The book itself covers all the key phases of his life, and especially the struggles and troubles he wanted people to know about. His youth in Memphis was shocking. Yes, I guessed it wouldn’t be good, as a black kid in Memphis in the 40’s and early 50’s but it was worse than a white kid from England born in the 50’s could imagine. In many ways, I assume the events described, meant that Maurice spent much of his life searching for meaning, and examining ways to find context for what had happened to him.

As well as his long path through music until he hit success with Earth, Wind & Fire, the books chronicles Whites, obvious to me, struggles with commitment and identity. We all need stories in our lives to make sense of them, to understand  why you are, who you are, and the book covers Whites journey to understand his stories. Notwithstanding all that Whites’ story really had some great commentary and lessons on surviving in the music business.

Rocks Back Pages has a revealing and frank interview with Maurice, by Cliff White, from I assume London during the 1979 tour, which I attended. RBP also has a list of articles which contains some useful background.

Surprisingly, NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), doesn’t seem to have an interview with Maurice, but it does have interviews with Verdine White, Ralph Johnson, and Larry Dunn, all of which are really interesting and add great context.

ewf tatooI came to Earth, Wind & Fire in 1974, via Ramsey Lewis Sun Goddess album in 1974 and then their Open Our Eyes album, and shortly afterwards, That’s The Way of the World.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I saw them live, but in the “long, hot” UK Summer of ’76, I stopped one afternoon in Dunstable to get a drink. We’d been out at the disused quarry on the A5, practising motocross. I was riding my Honda XL125.

Nextdoor to the corner store/newsagents I’d stopped at, was a tattoo parlour. Back in the 70’s tattoos were not the fashion items they are today, my dad had a traditional, simple knife and heart tattoo on his left arm, but few people I knew did. I walked in, hand drew the logo that I’d seen on EWF albums, and asked for a tattoo. Not only had the tattoo artist not seen the shape/sign before, I had no idea what it was.

These days of course, with the pervasive internet, you’d just google and look up tattoos on pinterest and see what you can find. Of course these days I know it’s the astrological sign for Jupiter.

Like many, my interest in EWF faded in the Mid 80’s as the group fragmented, and the focus drifted. As I work to digitize my entire vinyl collection though, I’ve once again found their tight music, soaring vocals, and inspiring lyrics a great launching point for many parts of my own story, which started on the 23rd night of September. Kalimba.

Music (was my first love)

was the title of a great John Miles track from a 1976 John Miles album called Rebel. R-1785293-1295199568.jpeg[1]Strangely although I loved that track, it was one of the many I for the most part gave away, or sold for next to nothing in the Spring of 1983 when I moved to New York. I can remember to this day renting an estate car for the day and loading up the vinyl I wasn’t going to keep, and driving down to Kentish Town in London and offloading it all at some used record shop.

Of the some 2,000 albums I have now, I’ve been working through the general soul, jazz, dance, and disco albums from A-Z, over the last 2-years. I’ve learned a lot, and often go back and remaster favorite albums.

Remastering music, often involves compromises, since we’ll never hear the music as clearly as the musicians and engineers did at the time of recording. Not only don’t we have the instruments in front of us, we don’t have the same range of speakers. Even the music on standard commercial CDs is encoded at 16 bits, versus 24-bit recording in the studio.

Still, I think I’ve finally made a breakthrough. I’ve always recorded at 4800hz, 24-bit, but finally I did an album today that’s as good a the same album on ripped from the CD version at 24/4800.

 

What is old is new again

One of the things I’ve had most fun with since going into “semi-retirement” or as I call it, retired-until-further-notice (RUFN), is being able to spend time getting back to the music and sound editing that I so much enjoyed at the end of the 1970’s.

MixES on tape 70’s stylE

Back then, doing dance music mixes, for they were true mixes using the technology available to me then, meant recording a series of tracks from vinyl albums and vinyl 7-inch and 12-inch vinyl to a cassette. Reel to Reel tape would have been easier, but wasn’t affordable. I would then play a track from vinyl, recording it to a cassette, with the other cassette which contained the first set of recorded tracks queued up on another player. Good times, I have a couple of mixes left from then on cassettes labelled Gone Single 1 to 3 and will post them online when I can.

In essence, I’d have to record every second track before starting to record the mix. That really didn’t make for much spontaneity, and mistakes mostly meant starting over. Still I enjoyed it, and used to record either the left or right of a stereo recording, and play that into the start of another track, beat matching as best I could, then stop the recording and restart with the complete stereo mix.

Getting the band back TOGETHER

It’s been fun getting all my vinyl back together, adding to it from my Cousin Bills Jazz/Funk/90’s stuff, a couple of crates of early 2000’s ex-DJ vinyls, and the equipment that I’ve collected over the last few years, including a Sony dual cassette deck, a Panasonic 8-track player, and the trusty Philips reel-to-reel tape deck along with a Music hall MMF 2.2 turntable.

8-Track veRSUS Cassette

Digitizing Miroslav Vitous Magical Shepherd album, from 8-track was an interesting exercise. I understand why they never really caught on, especially once cassettes became a thing. At least and some of the other 8-tracks I have, tracks are often split across the 8-track.

Unlike cassettes which are a length of tape, which has 4-tracks, two tracks per side, and you play one side, the tape collects on a single spool, and then you turn the cassette over, and run the tape across the head back on to the original spool. 8-Tracks are a continuous loop of tape, wide enough to hold 8-tracks, 2-tracks per loop. So what happens is you start the 8-track, the head plays two tracks of the eight, then when the loop gets back to the start, the tape is moved and the head plays the next two tracks and so on.

What that means practically is that the 8-track tape is never at the start, and never at the end. It also means the loop of tape is a fixed length, if the track is longer than the loop, it is split onto the next 2-tracks and there is a break in the middle. Any album had to be divided into 4 roughly equal programs.

In the UK home players were not a thing, the only place you could get 8-track players was in-car entertainmentinment. They were available both as factory fitted, and aftermarket installs. There is a great overview and intro to 8-tracks here.

I have fond memories of driving to photography jobs with Pete Ward of the Hemel Hempstead Gazette in his VW bug with a built-in 8-track player, playing mostly the Carpenters. It was a surprise when I learned that you could get your own blank 8-tracks, and then record onto them. Who knew?

Cassette Digitisation

I found a few cassettes that we’d recorded in the early 1980’s and used them to send back to family in the UK instead of writing letters. The quality wasn’t bad. We have some  Type III Ferrichrome / Ferro-chrome Audio Cassettes that were recorded on professional equipment. Compared to 8-track and even reel-to-reel tapes, the quality when digitised is pretty great. Here is an intro to one of the cassettes

The addition of Dolby Noise Reduction meant that the background hiss and other noises often associated with tape recording was gone forever, leaving the clarity heard in this example.

Back to Vinyl

Most of my time though has been digitising vinyl. I’ve developed a fairly painless process to clean vinyl, record it, and clean up, tag and save the digital files. I keep most of the vinyl as MP3. Yes, I know that has restrictions, but for the most part I can live with it for the convinience of streaming music around the house. I keep the raw .WAV files for everything I record, so I can always go back and go through the cleanup and tagging process again.

Favorite albums are saved in FLAC format including any live performance albums on the CTI/KUDU label.

My objective is later this year to produce mixes from the numerous performances of CTI/KUDU label. There are loads of professionally released albums engineered by the late Rudy van Gelder who for me was as important influence as, say, Giorgio Moroder. They contain many brilliant tracks, and sublime live solos, and deserve a wider hearing.

I’ll post another blog on the actual digitisation process I use later, but for now, what’s old is new again.