The Needle and the Damage Done

Friends don't share needles.I still love vinyl. There are some albums that flat out sound BEST on the spinning black disk and though they take up a shit load of space, and I do cringe at the thought of hauling them box-by-box during my next move, I love them still.

While I mainly buy old albums on vinyl, I still pick up the occasional new release as well. When the sonic stars align and I hear a certain quality that begs for analog playback, I jump. Recent purchases include Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on Hill and later, New Moon (the sound of which forced me to go back and buy XO). When news broke that the White Stripes’ were going to extremes to ensure the most pristine analog representation for Icky Thump, it seemed criminal to listen to over-compressed digital stand-ins.

Most recently I picked up The M’s Future Women, and herein lies my lament. My used copy of this record was clearly previously owned by someone who is killing perfectly good records with a poorly balanced tonearm and a dull needle. The result is a static-y shadow of what sounds like a pretty sweet album and I’m left debating whether to jeopordize my own system in order to hear it.

Full disclosure here: I have known the drummer for The M’s for more than ten years. We went to college together and he engineered the lost EP for my beloved Sinatras. One of the first reviews I ever wrote for this site was a less than flattering look at of the predecessor to The M’s, Sanoponic. So it was with great pleasure, and some relief, that I heard the Kinks-inspired chop of The M’s. I may be a little late to the party here, but when I saw the 180 gram audiophile release of their sophomore album in the used bin, I couldn’t resist.

I should be clear that I am NOT an active audiophile. Yes, I love music and purity of sound, but I can’t afford the investment required for true audiophile ranking. That said, I have a decent turntable and receiver and my vintage albums ring out in glorious noise with every spin. So imagine my disappointment when the “s” sounds and cymbal crashes of what seems to be a fine record dissolved into distorted hum.

The problem is sibilance and it didn’t have to happen to this record.

Sibilance (from Sweetwater Music Instruments and Pro Sound)

Sibilance refers to the high frequency components of certain vocal sounds, especially “s” and “sh”. Sibilance lives in the 5 to 10 kHz frequency range, and can cause problems if over-emphasized in a recording. While it is possible to use a graphic or parametric EQ to correct for sibilance, this is often an unsatisfactory approach. Often the overall track will begin to sound dull before the sibilance is corrected. A better solution is to use a dedicated de-esser, or use an EQ in the sidechain input on a compressor to perform de-essing (see “sidechain” in the inSync Word For The Day archives for more on this). Since a de-esser dynamically corrects for sibilance (only processes where necessary), the resulting track will sound much more natural.

Because vinyl records are instruments of friction—in that the grooves in the vinyl spin beneath the needle and create the vibrations that are transmitted through the receiver—they are particularly susceptible to too much force and mishandling can result in simbalance in an otherwise perfectly recorded album. In other words, if your tone arm is weighted incorrectly you’re ruining your records. Too much weight will flatten your needle and widen the grooves, leading to degraded sound.

So here are a few tips to save you (and me, when I buy your used shit after your next move) a lot of heartache:

To start, the fine folks at Turntable Basics say, “first calibrate the mass to zero. Dial the counterweight away from the pivot point until the tonearm floats perfectly level, with the stylus at the level of the record’s playing surface. Hold the counterweight still and set the dial at zero. Then, spin the counterweight in until the dial reads the mass specified by the cartridge manufacturer. Normal audiophile cartridges typically track at 1.0 to 1.5 grams; club DJ cartridges can range from 3 to 5 grams; and 78 rpm styli should be weighted at 3 grams. But these are general guidelines. Follow the manufacturer’s specification. Running the tracking weight too light can be as bad, or worse, than running it too heavy.”

You can also just follow the manufacturer’s recommendation, which is generally included with the installation documentation. Most track between one and three grams.

If you want to be especially precise, you can use commercial gadgets like the Shure stylus force gage, the Geo-disk, a good protractor, and above all, the Cart-Align, which uses a very precise etched plastic mirror for cantilever alignment.

You’ll also want to check anti-skating settings, tracking angle, cartridge angle and the tonearm height. Refer to the user’s manual for best settings.

All of this comes too late for me and Future Women, of course. It’s not that I have no options, I can adjust my own system to bear down on the record, which will reduce some of the offending noise but at the expense of both my needle and the record itself, which may now actually be gone, gone…the damage done.

Image provided by romanlily on Flickr.

One thought on “The Needle and the Damage Done”

  1. i had know idea there was a name for this “ssss” sound…ive found that the mark robinson and flin flon releases on vinyl are riddled with this annoyance…it might also be mark robinson being clever on the production end of things….he is the king of lock grooves and all….but neil j from flipside assured me that destroyed vinyl wont have a negative impact on your needle…..but a crap ass needle will eat your records alive….keep em fresh….

    my favorite trick for setting your anti-skating is simple….float a cd in the middle of your platter…place your tone arm on the cd….watch which way it pulls and adjust it so it floats…swaying neither left nor right….of course if you have an automatic return on your table….youre SOL….

    its little articles like this that keep me coming back to y’alls site…thanks derek….

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