When you think about it, the rising popularity of vinyl is a bit of a paradox. The time we live in is one of convenient, one click, plug-and-play technology, while the act of listening to a vinyl record is a slow, somewhat labor intensive process. Regardless of what factors may be influencing this shift, I am happy to see there are still some things in life we feel are worth a little effort and time, regardless of having other easier options. But, since our brains have been reprogrammed for the ease of touchscreen technology and voice command software, we feel it may be beneficial to share some of the basics of vinyl care and listening for anyone considering picking up this most rewarding of hobbies. After all, there is a huge gap between the heyday of vinyl and this world of mp3s and streaming services. So, with the modest knowledge we have, we hope we can help you on this journey, to perhaps save you from damaged records, misunderstanding equipment and any possible frustrations leading to you abandoning this potentially rewarding experience all together.
There are many names used for Vinyl Records (THE PLURAL OF VINYL IS VINYL), such as LPs, Albums, 33s, 45s, 78s, Records, Wax, Acetate, Pressings, Singles, Eps, 7″s, 12″s, 10″s, Platters, Phonographs, Discs and other names that escape me at the moment. We’ll unpack as much of this as is necessary, but most important are the 3 main formats, which are 33s, 45s and 78s. These numbers refer to the speed AT which the vinyl rotates, or RPM (Rotations Per Minute).
This is the most common speed for full length or EP (Extended Play) records. This speed is most commonly found on 12″ vinyl. You will sometimes see full length albums that play at 45RPM on 12″ vinyl. This is done for the sound quality benefits of a faster playing record, however it is somewhat rare because less music will fit on the record, often requiring two or more records being pressed for what could normally fit on one record.
Aside from the occasional 12″ full length recording, this speed is most commonly used for 7″ singles. 7″ records will typically have two songs, sometimes 3 or 4, with an “A” side and a “B” Side, also known as B/W (Backed With). The “B” Side is often a non-album track, where the “A” Side is typically considered the “single” from the full length album. This isn’t always the case, but traditionally this is what 7″ 45s have been used for.
These are usually pressed with older recordings, mostly made to be played on older windup phonographs like the old victrolas (the ones with the big horns). These players were invented sometime around the early 1900s and used into the 40s and 50s, but became less popular with the invention of electrically powered and amplified record players. Since the older 78s were amplified only through vibrations traveling through a resonator and horn, the faster speed was necessary to achieve a loud enough volume. With the invention of electronic amplification, you could then play at slower speeds, allowing recording artists to fit more music onto one record. In fact, the word “album” comes from the books or “albums” of single song record that was necessary to have a complete “albums” worth of music from an artist. These would typically have 4 or more records in each book. When they started fitting all the songs onto one record, they just kept the “album” name.
Vinyl isn’t plug-and-play, like your phone, computer or hand held device. You will most likely need several components to listen to your vinyl. Like all things in life, the more thought and attention you give to these components, the more you’ll get back from your records.
To get the most out of your record listening experience, you will be best served by these three items: A) record player B) receiver C) speakers. Most likely, these items are going to be big and heavy, but like the anchor of a ship, they will serve to keep you firmly planted, not allowing you to get swept away by the wave of distractions in our day to day lives.
In this section, we will break down the basic kinds of record players, receivers and speakers, so you know what to look for when you start to put your system together.
Standard Analog Record Player:
This is the most common type of record player. It simply converts vibrations from the grooves on your record into an electrical signal, through the needle and a magnetic “pickup.” This signal is very weak and needs the aid of an amplifier to achieve a playable volume. We’ll get into that a bit more later.
All In One Record Player:
This includes record players that have speakers with volume and sometimes tone control built in. These are commonly made to be compact in size and will sometimes include other media players, such as cassette, 8 track and even CD players. The sound quality of these is not always the best, especially in the newer models. However, they do serve a purpose, providing a way to listen to records in a smaller setting like a dorm room or office. They are also great for first time listeners. There are older “all-in-one” record players that are more like full size furniture pieces, but these are really just separate components built into one giant unit. Not exactly the same thing.
Record Player with Built-in Pre-amp:
These are record players that don’t need an any extra amplification. They still need amplification, just not any more than a CD player or your computer would need. You can basically plug this record player into any powered audio source. If you have a receiver with a CD or Aux input, this will work. You can also plug this record player into powered computer speakers. These will not work with just headphones, unless the headphones are also powered. These are very versatile and fit for upgrading components.
As I touched on earlier, the receiver amplifies the signal sent by the record player. If you are using an analog record player, you will need a receiver with a “phono” input. Sometime around the 90s, they sort of stopped putting “phono” inputs on receivers, thinking everyone was just going to switch to CDs and never look back. But, you can still find a few newer models with phono inputs. If you buy a receiver without a phono input that you plan to play an analog record player through, you can purchase a pre-amp separately. This is commonly a small box with a power source, an RCA input, ground, and an RCA output. If you plug your player into this, you can then plug into a CD, Aux or any available input on your receiver. Now, as we touched on earlier, a record player with a built in pre-amp does not need the external pre-amp. Just switch it from phono to line and you’re good to go…that is, assuming you have your receiver hooked up to speakers.
That’s right! You need to have speakers to listen to records! Speakers are pretty straight forward, but can also pose their own challenges. We’ll go over the two most common types you’ll most likely be working with, which are powered and unpowered.
These are speakers that do not have a power source and will need to be played through an amplifier. It’s easy to tell if your speakers are unpowered, as they will not have a power plug. They will commonly have two ports for speaker cables. These will either be for RCA cables or speaker wire. There are many different types of speaker wire ports. The best way to know if it requires straight speaker wire is if it’s not an RCA port. Simple as that!
These are your computer speakers or powered studio monitors. These are speakers that have a power source and do not require an amplifier and will usually work with your music playing device plugged right in. However, with an analog record player, you will still need either a phono amplifier or a phono preamp to play through powered speakers. Any record player with a built in pre-amp will work by just plugging it in to the speakers.
With all of this equipment, I would suggest doing some research before you plug anything in. You are dealing with electricity, exposed wires and old gear. You can easily damage something or yourself if you don’t fully understand how to hook it up. It’s not too complicated, but it’s different, depending on what you have. It’s just good to be educated.
Although they may appear to be, vinyl records are not 100% solid objects. They are quite susceptible to the elements; mostly gravity, heat, time and hard surfaces.
If you search for an answer as to what temperature vinyl warps, you will likely not find a single right answer. So, as I tell any customers when they ask how long their records will be ok in their car…”as little time as possible.” You can, of course, take measures to protect your records, such as putting them in a bag, keeping them out of the sun, running the air conditioner, but I would urge you to think of your vinyl as a beloved pet or child. If they are in your car, it would probably be best to not forget about them and make sure they are safe and comfortable at all times.
Vinyl does something that we call “sweating.” This refers to its tendency to travel in the direction of the earths gravitational pull, most commonly referred to as “down.” Now, like actual sweating, this is greatly exacerbated by the element of heat, but even in a climate controlled room, vinyl will still tend to want to travel a bit south. There are two main things that you can do to avoid this potentially hazardous tendency. First, store your records upright and as upright as possible. While you don’t want your records to be packed tightly, side by side, you should try to keep them at a 90° angle to the surface they are on. Second, and this should go without saying, you should listen to your records! Records love to be taken out of their sleeves and put on players and rotated back into their sleeves and shifted around, here and there. They don’t like to sit on your shelf, ignored, or worse yet, left in a garage. Show them some love every now and then! This will ensure that the forces of gravity will not take hold for too long.
Beauty would not be so appreciated if not for the ephemeral nature of life. Like all things in life, vinyl ages, and with age, it looses a little luster. However, like life, we can slow this aging process and squeeze more than a few lifetimes worth of enjoyment out of our collections. Much like our human bodies, this is done by taking time with your vinyl, being mindful of your movements and trying to keep it clear from all the gross things in the world. Keeping your record and your needle clean will ensure a much longer life for your records. We would also recommend changing your needle every once in a while. You’ll get a different answer from different people on how often to change your needle, but if you’re playing your records on a regular basis, I wouldn’t go any longer than a year before changing your needle.
Other Hard Surfaces:
If you want to see your vinyl keep its quality and be appreciated for generations to come, the only things that should ever touch your records are the sleeve it’s stored in, the cloth, brush and solution you clean it with, and the needle it’s played through. Your fingers should only touch the very outer rim and inner label of your records. Think of it like a painting. The reason we’re not allowed to touch classic works of art is because our fingers leave oils that degrade the original work of art. Think of the groves on your record as all the instruments, musicians, recording engineers and expensive recording equipment used to make the album. I’m sure they wouldn’t want you touching any of that stuff. So hands off!
90% of this answer is, of course, subjective to your taste in music. But, we would like to give you a few pointers to ensure that you end up with a quality collection. As fun as it may be to have a wall full of records, we are more impressed by a finely curated collection with only the absolute essentials to your particular taste. But if you’re all about quantity over quality, knock yourself out! If you want to avoid lifting boxes and boxes of records you’ve never listened to every time you move, here’s a few pointers.
Thrift Store Records:
It’s important to be adventurous with music. But great adventures need financial backing, and if you’re spending your money on every scratched thrift store record with a silly title, you might be missing out on some real gems. So the only advice I could give here is to set some goals for yourself when shopping for cheap thrift store records. Maybe give yourself one purchase based on the cover, one classical, one big band, one classic rock, one wild card and however many you want of the good stuff. It’s easy to be excited for the unknowns, but if they are in a thrift store; chances are they’re not super rare and probably not super amazing.
Yard Sale Box-O-Records:
This is always tempting. You find a box of records at a yard sale and you ask “how much.” The proprietor then responds “$10 for the whole box!” This is always a good time to stop and breathe. The goal here is to get YOUR money’s worth. No, you are not going to buy this box for $10 and then flip it for $50. The goal is to come away with at least 10 records that you know you’ll want. So find those records, check the condition, and if they’re good to go….offer them $10 for those ten records and walk away. If they insist you take the whole thing, do it, because they probably just want them out of their lives, and they just sold you 10 awesome records for a buck a piece. So you kind of owe them that much. The record gods will be pleased with your act of kindness.
Record stores are typically going to price records at or around what they are worth, so it’s a little easier to make wise decisions, but it’s still a good idea to be prepared. If you have a particular record in mind, then by all means, go for that record. However, if a record store doesn’t have it, don’t get upset with the store. You have to remember that you are participating in a ritual that is over 100 years old. It is nothing like finding music you want on the internet. Some things you have to work for, so never be afraid to ask an employee if they have that record or if they can get it. If it’s something super rare, it’s going to go to the person who wants it most, so you’ll just have to keep hitting those record stores. This is why it’s good to also walk in with an open mind. Consider your trip to the record store your time to meditate. As you browse the aisles, take note of the things you are familiar with and the things you are not familiar with. If it’s a well curated record store, hopefully you won’t have to sift through too many uninteresting albums. Get to know their collection, all the while keeping your own collection in mind.
Your experience with records is not confined to your home. This is part of the beauty of any great hobby. There aren’t many things that encourage us to go out into the world and interact with people and our surroundings. Take pride in the fact that you are participating in a ritual that some of the most creative minds are part of, but never forget that you will always have more to learn. We all started out not knowing anything about vinyl. Your knowledge doesn’t make you any better than anyone else. It simply means you have more to share with others. It’s ok to have things you like and don’t like, but those things belong to you. You’re welcome to share them, but never expect anyone to feel a certain way about the things you appreciate and never put anyone down if they don’t feel the same way. We’ve seen too many people discouraged to buy music because someone knocked their taste. Don’t feel threatened if you feel like you don’t know enough about music or records or gear. There are plenty of people who are willing to share their knowledge because they understand that music is the one language we all speak, and it’s a great feeling to learn new ways of communicating with others.
We hope this will help make a little more sense of the complicated world of vinyl records. Of course, we are always happy to speak to you in person when you have any questions, or if you’re looking to start or upgrade your collection or system.