Tales Of Woe And Analog-To-Digital Conversion: Turntable Edition

Since appearing on Retronauts for the second time, I’ve discovered that a few people hold me in high regard as an audio expert/audiophile. I don’t know if that’s a fair portrayal of me and my expertise regarding audio equipment, but that sure is nice of people to think so. But on nights like tonight I feel like they sure as hell shouldn’t.

I tend to get a little obsessive about my turntable when things aren’t going right. Well, to quote an ex, I get “kind of scary and weird.” And I suppose that this instance is no exception.

Quick background, I record 90% of what I listen to onto my PC for future listening. I’m not an analog purist, not by any stretch of the imagination. I view the convenience of digital music as a godsend, and I don’t know what I would do without a customized selection of my favorite albums at my fingertips at any given time.

Anyways, I’ve long given up on making my vinyl rips sound CD perfect. That’s nearly impossible. Even with my dope turntable, great needle, clean records, and a suite of audio editing programs, imperfections will make their way through. That’s just the nature of the beast. Some records just sound bad.

But I can tell when an imperfection is more than a bad record, and when something is amiss with my setup. Such was the case this month. I began to notice a recurring distortion effect in a few of my recordings. It’s hard to explain, it was like my levels were getting blown out or I was recording them underwater. Often, the problem would only last for a second or so though, so I tried to just let it go.

Spoiler, I can never let it go.

Last week, I bought a re-issue of Music For Heavenly Bodies, an curiosity of the late 50s featuring the first ever recordings of the electro-theremin (Google it). I love this kind of stuff and I was really stoked to hearing it. Unfortunately it sounded like hot garbage. The occasional distortion effect that was a minor nuisance on other records was overbearing here. It made the album unlistenable. I took out my cartridge, cleaned the needle, readjusted all the turntable settings, hooked it all back up and gave it a second go.

It sounded even worse.

In these situations, it’s very hard to pin down exactly what the problem is. The best thing to do is to start by eliminating the easiest points of failure. I knew it wasn’t my speakers, the audio problem was noticeable on my headphones as well as my desktop monitors. I could check that off the list. And I knew I wasn’t calibrating my turntable wrong. I didn’t change anything, and even if I did, I double-checked it once the problem reared its head. I also checked all the cables that could be removed and replaced.

With those points of failure removed from the equation, that still left quite a few possibilities, including.

  • A bad needle/cartridge
  • A bad headshell
  • A bad tonearm
  • A bad connection in my turntable
  • A bad connection from my turntable to my pre-amp
  • A bad pre-amp

I thought I would start from the earliest (and easiest to replace) link on the chain; the needle/cartridge. Thankfully for me, I live in Tokyo, so I can literally walk to a store that sells high-quality turntable gear in less than 20 minutes (although I took the train because fuck it’s hot outside).

With a heavy sigh I decided it was time to retire my Audio Technica 120EB (which I replaced the needle for on a yearly basis) and pick up a Shure M44G. It’s a needle that’s marketed to DJs, but I knew it had a good reputation as a “budget” needle for audio geeks like myself. Also, the local store was selling them pre-mounted to a brand name Technics headshell so I couldn’t beat that offer. Mounting headshells is hell on earth for me. My hands are very big. Those screws are very small.

I snag it, go home, hook it up, and calibrate the turntable. Popped on Purple Rain. Sounded good. Popped on Music For Heavenly Bodies. Sounded like hot garbage. Switched back to the old needle. Re-calibrated the turntable. Played Heavenly Bodies again. Sounded great. My head exploded. Played another record. It sounded like garbage. Head exploded again.

This was not going well. Swapped back to the new needle. Double-checked every single setting I could. Used a blank record to calibrate my anti-skate. Found a quiet record to make fine-tune adjustments to reduce sibilance (aka hissy “s” sounds). Even went as far as to re-adjust the tonearm height. Cleaned the needle. Popped on Music For Heavenly Bodies.

Sounds heavenly.

Did I fix it? I have no fucking clue. None in the least. In fact, I still made some changes after that. Playing Purple Rain, I noticed excessive hiss in Prince’s “dearly beloved” opener. Throwing the suggested settings to the wind, I adjusted the tracking force until it was nearly gone. I’m now rocking this Shure M44G at nearly 2.0g tracking force, a full half a gram higher than the recommended maximum. But it sounds better and I only play most of my records once so I think that’s okay. Right now I’m listening to my brand-new limited edition colored Force Awakens soundtrack with it and it sounds absolutely marvelous, but I’m sure I’ll change my mind one I hear a rock record without enough treble, a dance track without enough bass, or even the slightest amount of surface noise or static that I feel is unacceptable. It’s a never-ending struggle to silence my nagging doubts and settle for “good enough for now.”

Pretty Star Wars vinyl is pretty

I’m sharing my woes here for a few reasons. One is to just vent. The other is to remind the people out there that if you want your vinyl to sound good, especially good enough to rip and listen to on your iPod – it’s not a fucking cakewalk. This shit is time-consuming and expensive on good days, and inscrutably frustrating on the bad days.

But even I have to be honest with myself. When it all comes together, when the records sound perfect, and I’m recording to my computer some obscure soundtrack, 12″ single or Japanese prog rock album that I can’t wait to share with my few loyal readers, well, nothing feels better.

But seriously though, CDs are great don’t let anyone steer you clear of CDs. Vinyl is a dick sometimes.


One Response to Tales Of Woe And Analog-To-Digital Conversion: Turntable Edition

  • C Anderson says:

    Not an expert either, but it sounds like it might have been the vta. According to this article, early stereo records were cut at 15 degrees which would explain why heavenly bodies sounded bad at first and not the later stereo records cut at 20 degrees. The cantilever on your cartridge might also have sagged contributing to the problems which is why switching might have helped. I know some people mark settings on their tonearm for vta and vtf for different record thicknesses so they can change settings easier. Hope this helps! I can’t comment myself; I don’t have a turntable with adjustable vta yet.


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