Saturday, July 05, 2008

Adventures in Analog

As much as I treasure my vinyl, dealing with it has been, at times, equal parts joy and frustration. Storing it, playing it properly, ripping it properly, all of it has been a real slow, gradual, trial-and-error process for me. With all the intricacies surrounding it, it's no wonder there's such a cult around the vinyl experience.

As far as my own experience goes, one of the downsides that came after getting my first decent stereo system some seven years ago was how it seemed to highlight all the weaknesses of the old, cheap turntable setup that I had. Every record seemed to pick up this unusual quality where the song at the start of the record would sound great, with the sound quality of each track in sounding progressively worse, until the track at the very end of the side would sound so harsh and muddy, it was almost unlistenable at times. Used to drive me almost insane at times.. I would later found out that the term for this was called "inner groove distortion." Even though different types of cartridges, tinkering with some of the other elements of a turntable setup (tonearm, alignment, tracking force etc..), along with different factors in the mastering process of each record play major factors in it's severity, it's nevertheless something that's inherent to all vinyl, to varying degrees, from what I've gathered..

Three years ago, with my cheap $5.00 Sears brand garage sale turntable on it's last legs, I had broke down (literally, I was nearly broke afterwards) and bought myself a much better turntable - a Technics SL-1600 - still an oldie, but a major improvement (not the one pictured above, FYI) along with a new Shure M97xE cartridge, which I had payed around $100 US on eBay for, thinking that would solve the inner groove distortion issue. It came highly, even universally recommended as a close second to the discontinued Shure V15VxMR, apparently the tracking granddaddy of moving magnet cartridges. Although an improvement, it never really solved the problem completely.. Eventually, I had just come to accept it as analogue annoyance, a chronic listening fatigue, if you will. Recently, after listening through my old Soulseek downloads, I had become discouraged hearing other peoples' rips of albums that I had also ripped and wondering why the other rips had little to no distortion, where mine had tons. At that moment, I had gotten tired of it and ended up taking a chance on the Audio-Technica AT440MLa cartridge based largely on one review that I had come across of it's earlier model. I've had it now for about a week an a half and I can't believe how much the distortion (at least to my amateur ears) has been reduced, to the point where it seems practically non-existent on most of my records, many of which the old Shure cart had a hard time tracking. Let's just say that because of this, I've lost many hours of sleep from luxuriating in my vinyl these past couple of weeks.. I don't think listening to my records has ever been this pleasurable, or even this much of a revelation..

At this point, I feel like re-ripping the previous Disco Delivery post along with some of the others in the archives if/when I have some time. The awful distortion on my rips of the Cissy Houston album on the last Disco Delivery installment was one of the reasons why I had held off a little bit before posting it.

I payed around the same price for the Audio-Technica as I did for the Shure ($100 US), so consider the AT440MLa a relatively low cost alternative for anyone out there looking for a solution..




Anonymous said...

Sometimes the distortion is on the record, and is permanent due to it being played too many times on cheap turntables. The key to getting rid of inner groove distortion is cartridge alignment. They sell measurement devices (they have a specific name, which I forgot) that will help you get the precise angle down.

For me, it's just something I've learned to accept. I notice it most easily with 45s.

Edgardo said...

I don't understand too much, but I think that problem you talking about is due by the arm of the turntable and not by the needle. The turntables with tangencial arm have not this error.
I hope you understand my "basic" english.
Regards and thanks for the music you post!

VinylMiser said...

Ahh, excellent choice for a cartridge. My Audio Technica AT-PL120 turntable
came with an ATP-2 (single moving magnetic) cartridge so, I haven't experienced the extremes of distortion you mentioned. Still, I've been considering this very cartridge as a replacement, strictly on the ground of it's smaller stylus size and hence, greater frequency response. Besides, an extra moving magnet would only improve the tracking. This is probably the best choice (vs. money) you could have made in addressing the "Inner Groove Distortion" subject. There are advocates on both sides of the fence who'll defend the "straight" vs. "S-shaped" tonearm issue. P.S. Don't forget to apply the precise "tracking force" as recommemded by the manufacturer (I believe it's 1.4 gms optimal). Still, check to make sure. Good Luck with your new cartridge.

Lady Blacktronika said...

I'd just written this whole little thing about thanking you for your dedication. So here's something to just say thank for your dedication. LOL Thanks for bring all these new old and rare tracks. Love ya.

Anonymous said...

Informative as ever !!!

I also didn't pay much attention to distortion in the past - I'm just happy to rip my vinyls and play a CD-R with 85 [12in mixes] as opposed to putting on one song after another on the turntable.

Thanks for the [always] great info.
You know - I'm a fan !!!


wever said...

you don't know but i'm a fan too! thanx for posting this info!!!!

greetings from somebody who learns so much from you.

PS: are you going to re-rip (so ... re-up!!!) all your stuff O_O ???!?!??!?
i must get ready then!

Anonymous said...

I have been trying to rip all my records also, I have been doing it for five years or better now and not even quarter way finished. I have a turntable hooked to my receiver then from a tape output to my computer's line in I record using Audacity.
Good luck on your problem of getting better recordings. You got me scratching my head what is the cause, the only thing I can think of is the needle is getting dusty as the record plays

soulbrotha said...


Is everything alright? You have been M.I.A for a little while now. I hope all is well. Please let your readers know that you are safe and sound.

Lady Blacktronika said...

Yes been wondering where you been too.

Anonymous said...

YOU SAVED MY LIFE! I found your article searching google. I've heard that AT440MLa cures inner groove distortion problem before but because of you I decided to buy it definitely. The difference in my setup betweend Audio Technica AT440MLa and Sumiko Pearl is big! AT440MLa is even better on records that are little bit worn and sound bad on Sumiko Pearl. The one thing I miss about Sumiko is its sound. It was warmer but I'm becoming used to AT440MLa sound. It tracks high frequencies with a great CLARITY - no awful sibilants!

I don't believe that great arm, even tangential cures everything. When you have too wide stylus it will never track the tight inner grooves properly(last songs on your side). But stylus which has special shape and is really thin fits the groove nicely and tracks everything almost perfectly.

Anonymous said...

What's goin on.....Marsha Hunt

The other side of midnight

Anonymous said...

Tommy what's going on?????? We miss your posts :(((

soulbrotha said...

Yeah, now I am REALLY worried!

Does anybody have anyway of contacting him???

Lady Blacktronika said...

Yeah I know. I wonder where he's been.

Tommy said...

Sorry everyone for the prolonged absence. It's a long story, a mix of boredom, vacations, and other not so pleasant interferences. I have a few things I'm working on for the blog. They should be up very soon.. Again, sorry for leaving everyone hanging.

Lady Blacktronika said...

Glad you're back and well.

soulbrotha said...


Tommy said...

Okebulani Woman and Soulbrotha - thanks! :) To all the above commenters who replied on the turntable/cartridge issue, thanks for the contributions! Also to Anonymous on August 15th, glad I could help!

Lady Blacktronika said...

You know I just got my first turntable in over 15 years and I need help. Its a USB turntable and I guess I'm not used to vinyl so I don't know if all the popping etc is normal. I wonder if I should get a more high end needle.

I forgot about the hassles and the joys of vinyl. Prior to this I just collected records for the covers. LOL. I downloaded all my music to listen to, or bought cds. But disco on CD is no fun.

Tommy said...

Hey Okebulani Woman,

Yeah, there's something special about vinyl. Physically watching the needle track the grooves and hearing the sound come out while looking at the album cover; it's a much more intimate listening experience than CDs, mp3s or iPods.

Anyway, I replied to your thread on Deep & Dusty about the cleaning, but as far as needles go, if you're just listening and archiving, I highly recommend a needle like the AT440MLa. I'm not really familiar with DJ cartridges, they don't archive as well as well as the audiophile cartridges, but they'll probably de-emphasize the surface noise a little more.

Good luck with it! :)

Lady Blacktronika said...

Thanks so much. I'll check it out.

Anonymous said...

I am relatively a vinyl newbie, and I had never had this inner groove problem prior to purchasing the new GNR record. There are up to 4 guitars, synths, orchestra, piano and high vocals on the songs on the inner groove, and I was getting this distortion big time. After reading your blog, it got me to do some research on this cart and decided to pick it up today. No more inner groove distortion!! I get what people are saying about the "brightness", as I also like a more "warm" sound. But what good is warm sound when it is half distortion? I do hope the brightness tones down a bit after some break in as some reviewers have said.

Thanks for the info!

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