THE CRAP SOUND OF VINYL

There’s a lot wrong with the world just now, so this grumble somehow feels very insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but still……

It’s now seven months since I retired from full-time employment, and with COVID playing havoc with my plans to see the world, I’ve instead stayed at home and devoted time and money to music, all of which has led me to painfully admit my anorak tendencies do actually extend to me being described, accurately, with an awful word.

Collector.

I’ll admit to it if, for no other reason that a chunk of my redundancy payment has been utilised to go out and find vinyl copies of some of my most cherished CDs.  It’s not that I’ve gone really daft as there are some prices I simply won’t pay – the two Paul Quinn & The Independent Group albums being prime examples – but I have been tempted by a few sellers on Discogs to pay decent sums of money for original pressings of albums such as Seamonsters by The Wedding Present, which I only highlight as at £40, it’s the most I’ve ever spent on a second-hand album unseen, trusting the description of the seller – and it proved to be well worth it as it was in Near Mint condition and the sound was way superior to the CD that I’ve had for nearly 30 years.

Talking of TWP – and this where I will finally get to the point highlighted in the title of today’s posting – I’ve long wanted a copy of Bizarro on vinyl, but there’s never really been a copy on-line that fully caught my attention in terms of asking price and condition.  Instead, I ended up picking up a brand-new re-press that was issued for National Album Day on 20 October 2020 at a cost of £20.  It was like the old days as I returned back home from the record shop, the heart beating that little bit quicker and the anticipation levels increasing with every step.  One of my all-time favourite albums…..on vinyl….at last.

It came, like so many others nowadays, shrinkwrapped, which meant that it was only when I took the vinyl out of the inner sleeve did I discover it was a fairly light piece of plastic.  I knew beforehand it wasn’t a heavy 180-gram press but it was still a surprise to find myself holding something so flimsy.

I placed it down carefully on the turntable and lifted the needle into the groove. The opening notes of Brassneck came out of the speakers.  And they came out very quietly.

This couldn’t be right could it?   Vinyl is supposed to be much superior to CD but this was an occasion when I had to turn the volume button up to ensure it could be heard.  There was also a further sense of disappointment as the sounds coming out of the speaker were nothing special – there was certainly no discernable differences in the bass or the treble.  All in all, it felt really cheap, especially when compared to what I has experience from the second-hand copy of Seamonsters.

And it’s not just Bizarro that I’ve had a poor experience with vinyl in recent weeks. Debut by Bjork was another disappointing piece of vinyl that sounded as it had just been transferred straight from the CD rather than from the original masters.  Likewise, the copy of Murder Ballads by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.  Oh, and just after typing all this up, I’ve come on to add that the album I’ve just listened to, Beautiful Ones 1992-2018, a newly released 2 x vinyl LP featuring twenty-one singles by Suede as another example of a record that is a shoddy cut/press requiring the volume button to be turned way up high.

Not every vinyl for CD replacement has turned out that way.  Paul’s Boutique by The Beasties Boys is a Rolls Royce of a cut with all sorts of things being experienced in a new way, and likewise the 3 x LP re-release of OK Computer in which Radiohead seemingly took direct control of the process and ensured the vinyl would benefit from being mastered and pressed to the highest standard.  It’s against the sound of those records that I judge any re-issued vinyl.

It’s not just the re-issues that are causing grief with a number of brand new albums also being poorly pressed, cut, or mastered.  One of my favourite albums of the year is The Prettiest Curse by Hinds but I’ve had to rely on the download copy to put on the i-pod as the vinyl version suffers from what feels like a very muffled sound, with few peaks or troughs when looked at through the Audacity programme which I use to convert vinyl to mp3 format for different purposes, including the blog.

There is, however, one different thing that’s even more annoying, and that’s taking a brand new record out of its shrink-wrap, knowing that this will be its first-ever play, and discovering it hisses, crackles or pops – or possibly even all three.  Such as this:-

mp3: Matt Berninger – Take Me Out Of Town

This is the second track on Side B of the new and very fine album by the frontman of The National.  It’s a beautifully produced record, with the deft touch of Booker T Jones bringing out a real richness in Matt’s voice.  It’s a slow-to-mid-paced album, one in which you get the feeling every single note matters, no matter how far back it has been put in the mix.  There were absolutely no issues when listening to Side A.  I didn’t initially pick anything up when listening to Side B but then again, its first track is one of the louder songs. I was horrified by the introductory crackles for song two, and more so from the fact they were louder at the end of the track.  And yup, they got increasingly worse through tracks 3-5.

I’ve had this happen quite a few times these past few months.  I do now give every brand new record a clean before but it doesn’t really help all that much.  One of the major bugbears is that I have tried to support independent record stores all across the UK in recent months and so a number of the purchases have been made online and delivered by post, meaning I can’t easily return them and so have to accept poorer quality than I wanted.

I did, however, buy the Matt Berninger album from a shop in Glasgow and I’ll be looking to return it for a replacement copy.  Wish me luck!

Incidentally, it’s not just albums I’m finding issues with.  My copy of the new and magnificent Arab Strap 7″ single isn’t all that great in terms of crackling all the way through,  but particularly at the end, and it was bought from what is regarded as Glasgow’s premier record store.  But I’m not taking it back as this particular store had a number of copies in which the sleeve was signed by Aidan and Malcolm – at least I’ve the consolation of it being one of those rare new pieces of vinyl which comes with a download.

I’ll stop there – there’s another post rattling around my head about how different sellers on Discogs choose to grade their vinyl.  I’ve had some very poor experiences on things that were supposed to be Very Good+ that turned out to be almost unplayable.  Having said that, the vast majority of transactions have been very satisfactory, with the occasional real gem landing in my lap from sellers who have been very conservative with their gradings.

Such as the two sides of this 7″:-

mp3: The Fall – Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul
mp3: The Fall – Fantastic Life

or this 12″:-

mp3: Close Lobsters – Let’s Make Some Plans
mp3: Close Lobsters – In Spite Of These Times
mp3: Close Lobsters – Get What They Deserve

Two pieces of vinyl which date from 1981 and 1987 respectively, with neither remotely showing their age in any shape or form, including the wonderfulness of the songs.

JC

14 thoughts on “THE CRAP SOUND OF VINYL

  1. Not just me then, just upgraded to new speakers and turntable and have also been underwhelmed by some recent vinyl purchases. Worst one recently was a brand new copy of Songs From Northern Britain, some awful surface noise.

  2. It really is hit or miss with vinyl these days, some real rank pressings coming out two of the three SAULT albums are pretty poor for example. I have had to send back 6 albums since the beginning of the year due to the vinyl being warped. I don’t think that the quality control is there these days. Also the crap heavy, scratchy paper inners combined with static has also meant that i have had to literally cut some records from their inners, with the price being paid there is no reason that a an anti-static inner shouldn’t be included and don’t get me started about lack of d/l codes.

    But my biggest gripe is fucking shrink wrap . . .? We never used to have it on our albums and there is absolutely no need for it, it just damages covers and I know that vinyl is not the most environmentally friendly as it is but covering it in stuff that just gets ripped off and binned is criminal.

    I try not to buy re-presses if I can get a vg ++ or near mint copy second hand of things.

  3. I must admit to feeling glad I still have all my old vinyl. The new stuff seems definitely inferior – I have a nice new Kind of Blue album which sounds like hell after half a dozen plays…. 😦

  4. Lie Dream was released in 1981 so that single is not quite as old as you thought. Still have my original 7″ and it still plays pretty well. Fall singles seemed to be good quality presses as my copy of Elastic Man is still in good nick too. Not that a little surface noise matters much with a Fall track. Have been listening to a lot of 80-85 era Fall lately and it really was an astonishing era of creativity.

  5. Cheers C

    Post duly corrected!!!

    To be fair, I’m finding that any vinyl I’ve always owned since the late 70s, and have taken reasonable care of in the interim, plays really well on the new turntable. Have enjoyed listening to my Associates records in particular….

  6. I think the quality issue has always been there. Records from the late 70s onwards got progressively worse as the high demand meant companies tried to maximise their profits by using poor quality materials and cutting them as thin as possible to get more copies out of them. I thinkwe might be seeing the same thing begin to happen now, especially with the constant slew of new so-called limited edition pressings where one month it’s on red vinyl, the next month it’s on yellow vinyl and then it’s on “traditional black” vinyl. It’s not so much a problem with brand new releases, but re-issues are often crap CD transfers.

    The shrink-wrap is a pain as it means record shops can’t inspect the quality of the vinyl before selling it. I have been warned about the possible quality of pressings before by my local stores (Diverse and Spillers) when they’ve noticed it, and I reckon it’s a ploy by the record companies to prevent unwanted returns.

    For the record (pun intended), I bought my copy of Bizarro from the band at a gig a few years ago. David Gedge duly signed it. It’s on heavy black vinyl and plays nice.

  7. There is some awful low quality vinyl swilling about cashing in on the boom. There were some terrible nice price represses in the 80’s too. OG pressings and Audiophile remasters are the way

  8. I feel like it was inevitable that once the industry got it’s buying public hooked on the “cool factor” of new vinyl, that the audiophile factor would be lost so the profit factor could prevail.
    Some of the issue in 2020 may be the fact that a good deal of vinyl production is still being done on aging machinery in Central Europe – one of the biggest is in the Bohemian Hills of Czechia and I have read that quality control there has suffered the last few years because of the ramp up of work they need to complete.
    It’s kind of odd to me that albums are now shrink wrapped worldwide. This has always (meaning as long as I’ve been alive) the norm in the USA. In fact, even the import record shops used to buy tons of clear vinyl sleeves to market their import albums because Americans have always been used to having that “protective” cover on albums. But this is 2020, how is all this throw away plastic possibly right?

  9. “This couldn’t be right could it? Vinyl is supposed to be much superior to CD…”

    Vinyl has *never* been “superior” to CD.

  10. I was off yesterday and Echorich beat me to it. I have a lot of thoughts on the matter. New vinyl is all over the place in quality. I dislike vinyl, so I rarely buy it new. I only buy things I “collect” [precious little, these days!] at a bare minimum, and the occasional [heaven help us] new release on vinyl only [as if to punish me].

    I guess much of this was down to the loss of technical information for the pressing of records over time. The equipment used to press records is old and had fallen into disuse. The people who knew how to make records when that was the only way to get sound to our ears, were gone, retired, or dead. The intricacies in the process may have been lost.

    Case in point: I recently bought two RSD clear vinyl releases. Both were Steven Wilson 2.0 remixes, ironically. The Ultravox “Sleepwalk clear 12” was a good pressing that came in an anti-static inner sleeve. I played it to digitize it and it sounded like a new, clean pressing as would have occurred at any time in the past. Comparatively, the Roxy Music debut album, also on clear vinyl, was stickered to indicate a pressing at the CZ Media pressing plant Echorich mentioned. It was a nightmare of surface noise and pops. Like buying a 40 year old record at VG- but it was straight from the shrink wrapped sleeve.

    Speaking of such, as an American, shrink wrapped records have been an annoyance all of my life. I’m sorry that now American standards have impacted those abroad as well. We all know that the polymer continues to contract and if not removed, will possibly end in the record inside the shrink wrapped sleeve being warped by the stuff that was ostensibly there to “protect” it. I remove the shrink wrap from every new post 80s record I buy, even though that will result in the disc no longer being considered “mint.”

    As discussed earlier, records imported into America in the 70s/80s, were usually placed in clear sleeves and taped shut. That was acceptable. Another mid-80s thing was to seal imports in loose shrink wrap, but not to use the heat gun on it to make it shrink and get very tight. If this was done now with records, it would be an improvement I could get behind as I could leave records I had no intention to ever play in what was “mint” condition if I wanted to eventually re-sell them. As I will most certainly do before my death [I hope].

    In the late 70s when the oil shortage affected the pressing of records, the labels reacted by re-using as much old vinyl as they could. Resulting in impacted sound as the old records [labels and all] were melted down for new discs. The labels represented impurities in the melted vinyl pellets used to press discs from, and the lack of “virgin vinyl’ resulted in a less pliable, inferior playing surface. PVC loses elasticity when thermoset repeatedly. After the oil crunch ceased, the new cost-cutting measures remained in place, naturally!

    By comparison, virgin vinyl, even at a normal 130g disc, more accurately adhered to the surface of the stamping master and sounded all the better for it! Records pressed in virgin vinyl were capable of sounding as good as records could at the time. Much more vivid than a non-virgin vinyl pressing. If a record was held up in front of a light source and it showed through the disc, that was an indication of virgin vinyl. Sometimes the LPs had “Quiex II” stickers on the covers indicating the brand name of a virgin vinyl manufacturer. Such discs have a dynamic range in excess of typical vinyl, and sound closer to CD quality, in terms of what they deliver to the cartridge.

    I buy a LOT of 30-40 year old vinyl, because that’s where my musical interests lie, and what I buy has usually never appeared on CD. I look at vinyl as the larval form of a CD. Vinyl I buy is ultimately destined to be digitized and carefully de-noised, and will hopefully end up on an archival gold CD-R.

    Things I hate about vinyl: surface noise, inner groove distortion mandating which songs appear in what order on the disc side, that eerie pre-echo where you will hear sound before it actually starts on vinyl, the cult of 180g vinyl – trust me, the thickness of the disc has little bearing on the sound if not the cost of the release, the fetishistic cleaning of the disc each time it leaves its sleeve, clicks and pops, treating the vinyl disc like the vulnerable, fragile entity that it is, turntable rumble, the reduced dynamic range, and most of all the fact that each time you play it, a knife [a.k.a. the stylus], destroys the playing surface.

    Thing I like about vinyl: it sometimes has songs I can’t get on a CD.

    Things I hate about CD: brickwall mastering.

    Things I like about CD: dynamic range to the limits of human hearing, lower price, longer playing times for compilations and archiving, non-destructive play, durability, portability, ease of playing, playing in car, smaller size, songs can be organized to any conceivable playback arc without inner groove distortion coming into it, any possible use of bass frequencies can happen without worrying if the stylus will jump a groove.

  11. PPM

    Thank you. That’s an incredibly articulate and well-reasoned comment, quite probably as long as anyone has ever left behind here in all the years.

    I might not agree 100% with you, but its appearance only serves to illustrate exactly what anon was saying the other day on their heartfelt post.

    This blog is always so much richer for the contributions of those who are part of an incredibly valued community.

    My own thoughts are veering towards not buying any re-presses albums on vinyl just for the sake of it, but to continue to scour the second hand market for what I really want. And if it’s means, say, paying the same for a mint second hand original as three or four new represses, then so be it. I’ve had my fingers burned too many times not from buying something on vinyl that gives me less pleasure than the CD copy already owned.

    But, as I said, there are some great examples out there where a repress or reissue has been good – I should also add that the Chemical Brothers vinyl box-set of Surrender has been an outstanding purchase. As too was the 25th Anniversary edition of Monster by R.E.M.

    I guess I’ll just have to read a few more reviews and look for when folk have said the quality is there….

  12. If the music will actually be listened to and there are other, older options, then yes. Follow the comments online and perhaps a vintage disc will be a better listen. The Steve Hoffman Music Forum is the first stop I’d make in ascertaining the quality of a pressing. Then the comments in Discogs for a release is probably the next best stop to make. With what I buy on vinyl, there’s usually not much choice. Either I am buying an old pressing that has not been reissued, or a new pressing that was never issued before. So I’m stuck with what I get.

  13. I’ll confess I can’t get too excited about whether vinyl is better than CD or vice versa.

    My reading is that a lot of teh original vinyl that I (still) own comes from an era in which labels were using an inferior product.

    But there are so many factors beyond just the format that affect the end result – perhaps most importantly mastering – even assuming you’re using comparable components in the hi-fi. I’d suggest that my CD player is better than the near 20 year old turntable so I’m firmly on the CD side at the moment.

    I have also found a number of records this year which have been mastered very quietly. Of course, loudness isn’t necessarily a good thing (taken to extremes it can be a very bad thing indeed) but we’ll not get into loudness wars!

    Does weight of vinyl actually affect the sound? I did see something a while ago which suggested that it was essentially a marketing ploy.

  14. I recollect a period when vinyl was pressed in Spain – late 80s, I think?
    The sound quality was so incredibly quiet it made listening to the otherwise good LPs a chore.

    Given the price of vinyl now I’d be peeved if my copy (allowing for some margin of error) wasn’t in tip top condition.

    I no longer have to worry about such things as I have nowhere to store additional vinyl. It’s CDs for me or a bigger house. CDs it is.

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