What got you interested in going vinyl?
The most obvious for most people is just plain love of music. Attached to that, the increasing desire to listen to really good music.
I bet you went to a concert by your favorite artists or someone new but turned out to be pretty wonderful. You thought: I’ve just got to hear that at home.
Maybe you know somebody who has a spiffy home setup. They had you over and you heard the music and their enthusiasm was catching. You want to get that better sound at your place.
For certain, you went to a party where they played some hip hop and you witnessed DJ scrubbing (scratching) for the first time. What a cool thing, if you have not experienced it before.
A major influence, possibly subliminal is parents. Or, even, grandparents. In some homes, these older folks are always talking about “the good old days” and how something is missing from today’s rhythms, even though the scientific know-how is supposed to be better.
You have a nice collection and pretty good equipment for your (now getting old) CDs, and even (believe it!) audiotapes. You want to expand beyond what you already have in mp3. Time to add some platters, so you’ve got an acoustic setup from stem to stern. You want to have everything in your audiovisual home theater.
If you are a rarer bird, you might have already acquired a special interest in vintage and retro music. You sallied through downtown one day and came upon a true vintage vinyl record store and got hooked on what better recordings have to offer you.
Getting To Know Phonograph Records
For this article, we are going to assume you are new at this, and need to take it from the bottom of the knowledge bin. If you are really knowledgeable, you could probably write this article, and then some. We’ll include some starter references for resources for more info.
Are You A Casual Collector Or Already More Serious?
Deciding how devoted you are to all this could be your first decision. More likely, you can and should just “get your feet wet” casually. Thus, in the process, you’ll see if you are interested enough for a serious collection. What’s the significance: time, effort, money investment involved.
Choosing Old Or New For Purchase
The variety includes:
- Vintage (originals) – new and used
You can buy real vintage vinyl records (the first ones available) or new ones of old artists (reissues) or new musicians’ efforts. The former are likely to be secondhand (used), though there are pricey collector’s originals to be had for some investment.
Here’s an example from among the valuable vinyl records that you probably can relate to, since there are few who don’t like the visionary performer Bob Dylan. A mint copy of the 1963 album “The Freesheelin’ Bob Dylan”, has sold for in the thousands of dollars. But, don’t just rush to purchase the first one you run into! It’s a very particular issue that garnered that financial love!
Mostly you’ll be on the lookout for these ancient discs just because, rather than for the elusive promise of monetary riches to be had. That is real richness, of course.
Did you notice that older issues (1960s) seem thicker and sturdier than later recordings (1970s and 1980s)? Interesting story, we read about how the energy crises in those days resulted in flimsier models being produced!
With the turn of our new century, vinyl came back. Slowly at first from its essential demise in the 1990s. And in a stuttering fashion, often limited by the fact that major companies stopped making them years before, and now lacked the equipment, materials, and updated methods to pursue them quickly enough.
In the last few years reissues (meaning new physical records) of old artists have become available. We’re living at a time that there are some cheap and poorly made ones coming on the market at the same time as really good quality well-mastered versions.
Right now, it may be best to stick with major labels. Avoid records that started out as CDs or other digital files. It’s easy to make that mistake, but it’s what we are trying to get away from.
Most likely, as you are new, you will be looking for new recordings of recent artists like you can get currently as CDs or digital downloads.
You may not be choosing your first time around.
Someone who loves them and loves you (!) may have gifted you with new recordings.
While rummaging in the attic you found a box full of dusty originals that your family elders forgot up there a few (or many) years ago.
Or you were in a second-hand bookstore and noted a tilting stack of old albums in tattered sleeves on the bottom row on a back shelf. Or you are a weekend frequenter of garage sales.
Instead, maybe you’ve been going by that intriguing vintage record store, and finally could not resist stopping in. We can’t compare the aroma with a bakery you might be going past and be drawn to enter … but at least these are not immediately consumable and forgettable!
What Types And Sizes Are Available
Sizes of records are given by 2 types of measurements: diameter in inches and rpm (speed in revolutions per minute).
You will hear or read about 3 diameters: 12-inch, 10-inch, and 7-inch.
You will hear or read about 3 speeds: 33 1/3, 45, and 78 rpm.
How do they match up? You really only need to know about 1 or 2 of them:
Long Play (LPs) are 12-inch, 33 1/3 rpm.
Single Play (SPs) are 7-inch, 45 rpm.
What about 10-inch, 78 rpm? 78 rpm discs were the most common as early as in the 1920s, well before vinyl (polyvinyl chloride) became the standard for phonograph (also called gramophone) records in the 1950s. At 10 inches, and made with shellac, they could hold about 3 minutes of recorded sound. They were also considered to be Single Play. Long Play was made possible with the advent of polyvinyl chloride, and the 78 format declined during the 1950s phase of vinyl records history.
LPs hold up to 30 minutes. While LPs and SPs (45 rpm) were competing formats in the 1950s and even into the 1960s, LPs won out in popularity a long time ago.
If you know only about 12-inch, 33 1/3 rpm LPs, that is just fine.
Of course, as with all complex subjects, especially ones that showed competing technological advances over years and decades, there are a lot more details you can learn if you are interested.
How Are They Made?
We were curious too. It’s a fascinating applied science. Amateurs do get into making their own, but at this point, we definitely suggest going with the professionals.
How To Make Vinyl Records
Here’s a good video summary from CNET for an introduction:
This Is How Vinyl Records Are Made
How Grooved Record Surfaces Carry Sound And Music
This is also a more specialized subject, depending upon how deeply you want to get into it. Here is a quick reference to get you started into understanding how they do it.
Buying Your First Albums
Firstly, you need to be aware of what you are actually purchasing. Get to know the difference between the commonly discussed words and features.
When determining to buy your first albums, you can get tripped up in the verbiage. What does the word “vintage” mean when used referring to records?
This term can be used to indicate that the piece is old. The record was made a long time ago. You are probably buying this at a used store of some sort unless an older relative or friend had it at home and is giving it to you. Great friend! Great gift.
Technically vintage should mean that any item (not just phonograph playing records) was made at least 20 years ago. Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted number of years, but that number of years is most commonly used.
Contrast this with “antique” things; they should have been made at least 100 years ago. That number of years can vary with the type of object, but since the one we are interested in is basically less than a century, we don’t have to worry much about this detail.
“Classic” is another word you hear sometimes. Luckily it is not used in our sphere as much as it is used in reference to automobiles.
Note: don’t try to compare the years and usage of the terms with other things, such as wine, cars, clothing. They don’t match up well.
Occasionally, people will shortcut the words and use “vintage” for modern or newly manufactured records. What they really mean is “vintage style“. These may be exact reissues of albums from yesteryear. Often the accompanying sleeves or containers are copycats or use type, design styles, or colors reminiscent of the earlier eras.
Also, “retro“: This is a pretty vague term, but is likely to be found as a loose synonym for this group (vintage style).
Our Suggestions For A Couple Of The Best Vinyl Albums To Start You Off
Start your collecting by indulging in a couple of masterworks, one reissued and the other a new work.
Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour: Copenhagen, March 24, 1960.
If you are inexperienced with American jazz of the middle of the last century, now is your chance to get with it. This is a collaboration of 2 wonders that at first you might have thought wouldn’t work well together.
Miles Davis, born in Alton, Illinois, was fabled for his mild trumpet melodies. John Coltrane, born in Hamlet, North Carolina, for his really high energy tenor saxophone. Besides their solos and work with others, they collaborated during the later 1950s. This album is their last together. It is part of the Miles David Bootleg Series. The modern issue was in 2018 by Sony Legacy.
Here is a version of 1 of the tunes in the set, as uploaded to YouTube. It is “On Green Dolphin Street”, played live in Copenhagen at 1 of several concerts.
“On Green Dolphin Street”, Live In Copenhagen, 1960
New Release Destined For Greatness
Jack White, Lazaretto, 2014.
If you don’t know his work yet, learn that Jack White is a superb electric guitarist, singer, songster, and Grammy Award winner. He was born in Detroit, Michigan. He has collaborated with other artists crossing numerous genres: rock, country, blues, alternative, punk.
We are featuring this particular Jack White vinyl, his Lazaretto album, because of its uniqueness as part of the resurgence of interest in records. It was released by his Third Man Records label. This work held the record for most sales in the first week of any since 1991!
“High Ball Stepper”, 2014 (Lazaretto Album Track)
Yes, we think the video is a little weird too. But all videos online are, aren’t they? The music is to be listened to, don’t mind the visuals. Natch, the audio on this video is nothing compared with the real thing. That’s why you need to consider getting the vinyl production!
Care And Maintenance of Your Records
Sometimes we hear so much about how these items are prone to scratches and damage that we are afraid to play them. I suppose an exception might be if you have the ultimate collector’s item, and have it just to buy and sell in perfect condition, then you would want to never use it. However, we are talking about real value vinyl: do use it. A little record wear over time is expected.
Don’t get paranoid about every noise and hiss that it produces when played. Recall that is part of the charm: they are not completely quiet. For that, get a CD or downloadable digital file!
Do not throw them on the floor, and don’t step on them. Whenever possible, check that you don’t have food and dirt on your hands before handling. And, hold them only by the edges. Your fingers have natural oils on them so don’t put your fingers on the surface of the platter.
Before you play one, first inspect it for dust and wear.
How To Clean Vinyl Records
- Brush (Step 1)
- Clean (Step 2)
- Store (Step 3)
Step 1: Brush Off Before Each Use
You can employ a little vinyl record brush, of soft bristles or velvet fabric before playing, especially if you have (accidentally, of course) left the treasures on the upholstery to gather little bits of dust and stuff.
The technique for this: have the disc turning on the turntable. Place the brush perpendicular to the direction of movement, gently holding it there as the disc turns.
Note: some object to using the turntable in this cleaning step, because pressure could retard the motor. So be sure to use your brush only lightly and gently. Alternatively, place your disc flat on a cardboard or cloth during this procedure.
Step 2: Use Liquid Cleaner Carefully
You would have to be extremely compulsive to do this each time, though some do!
You can purchase dedicated cleaning fluids. But for an average day’s work, we like best simply using distilled water. Here is a way that works well:
- Wash and rinse your hands well using a mild liquid soap.
- Take the record to the sink and place it on a cotton towel to rest.
- Slosh or lightly spray the distilled water over each side of the disc. Don’t soak.
- Use your fingers to gently rub the water into the grooves to clean them out.
- Flow more of the water over it to rinse it off. Don’t put the record directly under the faucet. Flow from a water bottle or your hands.
- At this point, it’s helpful if you have something like a drying dish rack handy. (The common kind you use for your dishes, made of wood or soft plastic coated. Lean the record on it to dry. Be sure there is enough of an angle (not too flat) so the water drains off and doesn’t pool.
- Let dry in indirect sunlight, such as indoor average lighting. Direct hot sunlight can easily warp. You can assist the drying by patting with a soft cotton or microfiber cloth.
- When dry, use a second, anti-static brush in a movement similar to Step 1 (above).
This method is good for cleaning vinyl records that are old or new. Be careful of getting much liquid on the labels, which can damage the paper.
For really dirty circumstances, resort to adding a small amount of the liquid you use for your hand dishwashing to Step 3 (above). Do not use other cleaners or agents that are not specifically labeled for our current purpose.
Here’s a good video that demonstrates one of the best ways to clean vinyl records that are pretty dirty, whether vintage or modern:
How To Clean Vinyl Records By Washing Safely
Note he does not use a brush first; the disc is too yucky for that to be useful. It is a simple way using light finger scrub, Dawn dish detergent, and air drying on a dish rack in the kitchen. The only fault I see is the danger to your paper label; that is a given with this method.
Washing like this is not recommended as an everyday procedure, but just once in a while, or if the noise the disc gives off during playing seems to be increasing.
If you don’t leave the record lying about naked, and handle it with clean hands, doing like this occasionally may be all you need.
Controversial, but probably best to avoid is using isopropyl alcohol as a cleaning liquid (in commercial products or as part of DIY concoctions) since after a few uses it might diminish the original vinyl coating.
There are record washing machines. It is going to be a luxury item if you are just getting started. Also, the usual pros and cons. We’ll discuss them another time.
Step 3: Storing Well Is Important
Each one came in a sturdy album cover, right? That was part of the charm of the purchase: that gorgeous artwork and lively verbiage. Put them back in those covers; do not discard that cardboard!
Inner Plastic Sleeves Are Essential
You may be confused by the 2 types of plastic sleeves that are commonly used to encase your album pieces. First is the most needed inner record sleeve. This piece belongs inside the cardboard cover. (Note: the “sleeve” terms may be confusing even more because the cardboard album cover is often called a sleeve, too!)
The record probably came to you with an inner paper sleeve. Unless you have found or purchased it secondhand, in which case, this may have been lost in the meantime. It’s fine to use what you’ve got for now.
But over time, consider moving on to polypropylene. You can find these pretty cheaply. Depending on the cost you feel is okay with your budget, try to get the thicker (3 mm) ones because they are more durable and easier to get on. These will also usually be anti-static.
Hint: slide into the cardboard cover so that the opening of the inner package is away from the open end of the cardboard, for maximum dust resistance.
Outer Plastic Sleeves Are Options
Whether to have also an outer sleeve, depends on the value and interest you put on the album cover. We think you will want to preserve it, too. As we’ve mentioned before, the artwork in many instances is worth having in itself. Even if that is not the case, it is amazingly true that even good thick cardboard somehow wears, dings on the edges, and separates along the side more than you might expect.
If you are going for this, which we suggest, do get only the thicker (3 mm) type and get the ones that have a flap. Check if the flap has adhesive because you will want to avoid catching it on the record itself.
High Environmental Temperatures Can Be Deadly
Optimum temperature is low room temperature. Avoid very high degrees. Truly they won’t melt unless temperatures of 200 degrees Fahrenheit are reached. You think you are out of danger, right? Not so in an automobile.
Suffice it to say: don’t leave them in your car. Just like with your pets and significant (and insignificant) others.
At the other end of the temperature spectrum, there is pretty good resistance to low temperatures. Until you reach freezing: then the material becomes brittle and is prone to cracking.
Always Stand Them Up
Keep them vertical. The most common cause of warping is not a high temperature. It is keeping them stored horizontally, usually done in a stack.
Boxing And Shelving: An Array Of Possibilities Given Your Space And Decor
We hesitate to encourage you to purchase expensive wooden or other furniture when you are just getting started in this. The hobby can involve so much. You need to be sure it is what you want. So when you just have a few, it’s ok to put them in a sturdy vinyl record crate, stand, or cardboard box.
Particleboard or wood would be better for your record stand. See what you’ve got in the house at this time that might be suitable or easily adapted for vinyl record display.
Hopefully, this container can stand flat on a wooden floor, or better yet, non-flexible shelf, such as in your bookcase. We see a lot on the floor, but we cringe as we envision dust bunnies and real bunnies (ie., kitties and doggies) close by.
Similar devices you might have around already are wine crates or book boxes. Just remember to stack them vertically. Insert a flat book end or row of books next to them to keep them upright.
Be sure these leave a little loose space so the records are not squeezed or under pressure either from the top or sides.
In general, arranged vertically in a group, a record collection will weigh about 35 pounds for a foot-long. It is why it is best to put them in a solid container, the best scenario is wood. Or at least to have the bottom solid as wood.
When you have collected (gotten up to) a few, it can become unwieldy to keep them all nicely upright and with the ideal slight separation. If possible, have a divider every 4 – 6 inches apart.
Try not to store discs of different diameters side by side. That makes it really difficult to afford them good separation and the desired look.
Do not place anything on top of your row of discs! I know you just want to leave your sweater there for a minute … No, don’t do it. One thing leads to another, you forget there’s something valuable and bendable underneath, and in a little while, you’ve got coats, groceries, books … crushing …
We’ll get into a proper discussion of more elaborate shelving arrangements and record furniture in another post.
Record Players And Equipment
A most important part of achieving the best sound is not only the plastic platters themselves, but on what you play your records: the turntable, stylus, and such. Those are the subjects of another post.
Suffice it to say at this point: you don’t have to have the most expensive turntable setup to maintain your discs in fine shape and to have a good audio experience. Since vinyl has come back there are good choices and alternatives.
Before You Go
Want to connect more deeply to the vinyl music culture, both pre-digital and newly arisen? Take a look at a book, Why Vinyl Matters, written by pop culture author Jennifer Otter Bickerdike.
Be sure to read our introductory post on the history of recordings and players (also called gramophones).
We also have some posts with a discussion of record player system parts, ideas on how to choose your first modern phonograph, and reviews of the turntables we favor for folks just starting out to play vinyl.