Get Smart: An Audio Engineer Talks Vinyl

by DGO Web Administrator

In the first of a three part series, Scott Smith of Scooter’s Place Studios, tells you what’s great about vinyl and … what’s not so great.

You grew up with vinyl. What do you love about it?That it was an experience. You had to participate. You were physically involved in the listening time. You took it out of its sleeve, put it onto the turntable, and then put the needle in the groove. If you wanted to listen to a song again, you had to move the tone arm. And, because of the limitations of the medium, there was only ever 10 to 12 minutes of music on one side, and so once you started that first cut, it wasn’t like you could start something else. “I’m going to go and cook dinner!” To listen to a record, you stopped everything and just listened. I think it made you listen differently. I have a love affair with vinyl because of it.

What makes a good turntable?It’s like anything else – the components, how it’s made and how it functions. Usually the more you pay, the better everything is. Sure, you could say, “Why would you ever pay X-amount?! The cheap one does the same thing! It spins! It has a needle and an arm!” Well yeah, but there’s a lot that goes into it to make it work, and then to make it work well.

What are some of those things? You’ve got belt-drive or magnetic drive mechanisms. Belts can stretch over time which cause wow and flutter, which just means that the music speeds up and slows down. Magnetic drive systems are more expensive to design but get up to speed better. The needle imparts different sounds because they’re made of different things. Cheap record players won’t have any tone adjustments, so the weight of the needle and how it wears, how it sits and how it glides will affect playback and sound quality. A cheap record player has a plastic arm and one angle and off it goes. Fancy turntables are designed to fit all sizes of discs, so they need the ability to alter angles to allow for proper playback. Think of a record like a river. The groove is the riverbed and the needle is the boat that floats down it. If your needle is too big, it won’t read the riverbed properly; you’ll miss things. Then there’re some basic concepts of physics that get in the way. The angle on the outside of the LP is different than the angle that sits on the inside of the LP. That’s why you get those adjustments on the nicer machines.

Are there limitations to audio on vinyl?There are and there aren’t. Vinyl is a physical medium. It relies upon itself as the carrier and the playback. An LP has physical surface noise that can’t be gotten rid of – the needle is touching the vinyl as it spins. You have to get the audio above that surface noise so that you can hear it. The really difficult part about vinyl is that any kind of wear – dust, physical touching, contaminants – is now in the way of the needle, which changes and alters the sound. So a little piece of dust has fallen into the groove and, using our river analogy, instead of floating, you’re jumping. You’ve missed stuff. That’s where the snap and pop sounds come from. Oils from skin create distortion. There are major physical drawbacks that you just can’t get away from. You could have the greatest turntable in the world, but if I used it to play a record that I didn’t take care of, it’d sound like crap.

Talk about grooves.To make a soft sound, you have a little teeny groove, and to make a loud sound, you have a deep groove. I can only get so loud before I cut right through the record itself. We want a loud record so that we get above the noise of the physical medium, but we can only get so loud before we actually ruin it. So the dynamic range has shrunk. We have this little window where we can’t get too loud or it doesn’t work anymore, and we can’t get too soft or the noise outweighs the sound. Music with a high dynamic range is the worst on vinyl. Classical music is a perfect example. Your loud part can only be so loud and then when things come down, you hear the physical record more loudly than the violinist. Stereo information is side to side, and our frequency content is how the groove shakes. The poor needle is going all kinds of directions. The physical limitation is that too wide a groove allows the needle to skip. You can only cut the groove so wide. That’s, at least partially, why all of the really important things – vocals, bass, kick drum – tend to get put right down the middle of a stereo recording. We don’t want it to get lost because of the limitations of the medium.

Tips for burgeoning vinyl-ist?Remember that it’s a physical medium and that when you use it, it’s going to wear out. You need to treat it as such. The equipment you play it on, how you handle it, it all affects the longevity of the physical product you bought. The nicer you treat it, the better equipment you play it on, the more you’ll be able to enjoy it.

Cyle Talley could listen to Scott Smith talk about audio engineering for days. If there’s something you’d like to GET SMART about, email him at: [email protected]

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