Record Store Day 2017–has it outlived its usefulness?

Record Store Day started as a special day for people to visit their record stores and celebrate the independents who rely on our business.  It provides a good boost in revenue to the stores, and a boost in morale to those who have participated.

It is the Black Friday/feeding frenzy mentality that has ruined it.

The last time I participated was two years ago.  The “experience” dealt with standing in line before we were even allowed into the store.  (Really?)  Then, being directed single-file through the store, past all of the bins containing the Record Store Day exclusive titles.  (Seriously?)  You dare not step out of line, for fear of losing out on some rarity.  The checkout line started right at the cash register…then snaked its way towards the rear of the store, then returned to the front.  And of course, absolutely no returns, once you’ve checked out.

Forget browsing the used bins, or the bins of non-RSD releases.  Packed like sardines in the store, there was no way to easily browse without getting bumped into or dirty looks thrown your way.  I quit after one row of bins.

I can’t blame the stores.  Who I do blame are the record companies.  Having a dozen or so exclusive titles made it fun.  This year’s list shows nearly five hundred titles.  And those titles underscore the massive problem that RSD has become.  Take a look.  Demonstrate to me where most of these are not “bottom scrapings.”  Find a way to throw a famous artist’s or band’s name onto a vinyl, and the labels will do it.  We have a few reissues of lesser titles or hits packages.  There are some live gigs, sourced from unknown places like radio broadcasts.  Outtakes and demos.  Even a frickin’ Africa-shaped picture disc from Toto.  Yes, seriously.

Translation?  Classic money grab.

And the genres on the list are not encouraging.  Disliking much (but not all) of the stale late 60s and 70s classic rock as I do, and not caring for a lot of the bitter alt-rock out there, that does not leave much at all for anyone else.  Not all record store fans buy such a narrow focus of music!  For jazz titles, we have some other long-lost Bill Evans title that, like the last “long-lost” Bill Evans release, could have remained unreleased.  (I bought the digital high-res version and rarely play it.)  And another Jaco LP of some kind…yeah, good, Jaco sells, he’s a tragic figure, whatever.  Classical?  Unless it’s buried in a soundtrack album, you won’t find a single title here.  The same with anything outside the narrow confines of what the labels seem to think a typical record store shopper is.  For someone without musical tunnelvision as myself, RSD really serves no purpose.

Pricing is another issue.  Sure, the store offered a nice discount for the titles, but the one 45 RPM single I was somewhat interested in was priced at nine dollars.  I don’t care how “limited edition” it is, nine bucks ain’t happening.   Shame on the label for gouging.  It is no secret that you can easily go online a few months later once the hype has died down, and find many of these titles at normal prices, and readily available.

What I also don’t understand is why we need 500 more titles on vinyl.  There are already hundreds on my want list in brand new 180 gram pressings that I will never have the money to afford, or time to listen to.  Why not just beef up stock on what is already in circulation, and offer a discount on it?  If I knew I could get 15-20% off on some well-made Mobile Fidelity or Analogue Productions titles, I would be there, picking up all I could.  And consider this–given the lack of pressing plant capacity at the present time, devoting all of these resources to 500 marginal titles just takes away resources from the titles we really are after.

I considered myself “done” after my last RSD experience.  Yet the onslaught continues.  Is there a solution?  What I believe will happen is that people are going to burn out from the barrage of truly marginal titles being released each year (I think this year’s list is the worst of any I have seen), and the price tag that goes with them.  It will all implode on itself as stores discover a lot of it doesn’t sell.  Shoppers are going to reach a breaking point.  Unsold inventory hurts the bottom line.

Record Store Day really needs to return to its roots–give people a day to support and celebrate these great independent dealers.  Only this time, don’t invite the record labels to participate.

So…it’s Grammy season again…

I can remember a time that I used to get excited about the Grammy awards.  Yet today, I am at least a couple of decades beyond caring, and have absolutely no desire to sit through one of those interminable broadcasts.

Being a musical person, shouldn’t I be caring about things like this?  Well, OK.  Yes, it is an award of prestige to those who receive it, and it does go out to many who deserve some sort of recognition.

Thing is, after all of my years of having been around for it, I realize it for what it is: a popularity contest among industry insiders.  Nothing more.  It does not award talent–just look at a few of the wet noodles who have been nominated and won throughout the years, while deserving others barely get a nod.  It does not award sales–that is what Billboard’s annual awards used to celebrate.

Instead, it is partly a day for industry celebration.  It is also a spectacle that the television network can sell ad space on.  And as I’m sure will happen this year, some celebrities who can’t keep their mouths shut will leave some political turds in the Grammy punch bowl along the way.  (Look at the trainwreck that the Golden Globes were this year, where celebs couldn’t keep their personal butt-hurt to themselves.)

It also doesn’t help that the Grammy presentation itself has shoved many of the awards away from prime time viewing, presenting them prior to the televised portion of the awards show.  In essence, both snubbing and trivializing (even insulting) those artists who deserve more than a footnote in the grand scheme of things.

No, I’m done.  I’ve been done with the Grammys for years.  Watch it this Sunday if you must.  For me, it just takes away precious time from enjoying just about anything else in life.  I wish the nominees well, but they will have to celebrate without me.

The case for (or against) reel tapes

Being a long-time music collector, there are often times I am trying to locate a specific album, but come up empty.  You know the deal.  You buy a record online and find the grading to be just a little bit overstated (that VG- record on your turntable doesn’t quite reach the listed NM grading).  Or you find one locally that looks to be in perfect condition, yet ends up playing with a lot of groove burn.  And of course, this sometimes happens to be a title that was never released digitally, so finding anything acceptable is a frustrating exercise.

It is in cases like these that I have turned to buying the very occasional reel tape.  I have had luck finding a couple of “hole fillers” in the collection, but I certainly do not consider mass-duplicated reels as the be-all, end-all of recording formats.  Mass-duplicated tape is reproduced at high speed, on what I would call “general purpose” tape stock.  In other words, those reels of UD35-180 you’ve recorded yourself are far, far better than the bulk product the duplicators used.

Now, about collecting those tapes.  On the plus side, they do not suffer groove wear, surface noise or scratches.

Sadly, that’s it.

For the negatives, there are many.

First of all, how were they stored?  Magnetic tapes are prone to a lot of mishandling in storage.  In a damp environment, tapes can get mildewed.  In dry climates, the tape can actually become very brittle.  (I owned a couple of reels where the tape would break the moment I engaged the play button.)  And sure, maybe Grandpa stored his reels in his console speaker…fine, except that speaker magnet was only a few inches away, erasing some of the music.  SO at WORST, your SOUND faded IN and OUT with EACH revoLUTION of THE reel.  Or the reel could have dulled entirely.  With records, you can easily see scratches, warpage and dirt.  With tape?  You gamble.  Looks are deceiving.

Then, consider the tape stock and stability. The cheap tape stock used by mass duplicators was not known for performance, although some were better than others (RCA’s tape comes to mind).  Lesser tapes could also have issues with the adhesive binders, meaning the oxide may wear off quicker than on other, more stable formulations.

Now, about the sound.  On a good day, you might find frequency response solid up to 8kHz, maybe 10kHz on a good day, and background noise rather high.  While some claim they can no longer hear well over 10kHz and it doesn’t matter, think again–the transient attacks (of percussion instruments in particular) suffer and the music loses its impact due to that “softening” of the sound.  Worse are the tapes duplicated at 3-3/4 inches per second.  Very poor quality indeed.  Then, hide that loss of high frequency information to the veil that the excessive background noise covers the music in, and you can get a picture of how the sound is altered through the process of mass duplication.

Finally, the tape sent from the label to the duplication facility was not always of the best quality–at best it would be a copy of the master, but often they were two, three or more generations away.  So the tapes started off with a bad source to begin with.  Consider, also, how many times the master was played back or duplicated to be used as a source for the duplication system.  Consider the wear on the tape, and the speed it had to be used at in the duplicator.  It’s definitely not the gentle environment you would find at home.

In essence, the problems with mass duplication were not limited only to reels–8-tracks and cassettes suffer similarly.  Given that cassettes ran at a very slow 1-7/8 inches per second, it was through a lot of technical advancements that allowed engineers to coax better sound out of them (narrower head gaps, high-bias formulations, etc.).  But even there, cassettes still had that “blurred” quality compared to a clean vinyl record.

Tapes recorded by the end user tend to sound much better, as do tapes that are copied 1:1 in real time.  They still do not sound like the master, but they will beat any mass duplicated tape by a long shot.

Tapes are still collectible due to rarity and the perceived sonic benefits, but I personally do not consider them to be worth spending a lot on, given the variables.  If like me, you’ve found certain albums elusive in any other format, a reel may be worth the gamble.  Otherwise, I would still choose a clean vinyl pressing over the tape.

Adding Convenient Audio Streaming Using Chromecast

I have been running an Oppo BDP-105 for a couple of years now as my sole digital playback in my main system. There are times I have wanted to use this system for general streaming playback, but did not have an easy way to do so.  In most cases, I prefer not to turn on the attached HDTV just to switch to, say, Pandora streaming.

The 105 has switchable inputs–you can select from the front or rear HDMI jacks, as well as an optical or coaxial digital input, or the USB input.  This allows you to use the player as a DAC.

Enter the Chromecast. I had an original CC laying around as it did not work with either of the TVs in the house. I plugged it into the rear HDMI input of the 105, and selected the rear HDMI input, and immediately got the CC background on the TV.  With more recent versions of the apps on my tablet or phone, there is a Cast icon (pictured at right), and I am happy to find out that the few streaming apps I use (primarily Pandora, TuneIn Radio and Tidal) all support the Cast feature natively.

The nice part is that I can switch inputs on the 105 simply by tapping the “Input” button on the remote, then the number “3” on the keypad, to switch to the rear HDMI input.  To go back to the main player, “Input” + “1” gets me there.  Thanks to Oppo having their Media Control App, I don’t even need line-of-sight capabilities–I can switch inputs anywhere I can reach my network from the tablet or phone.

I could also connect a Chromecast Audio using that unit’s built-in optical digital Toslink output, and it works just as easily with Cast.

Have you found other clever uses for the Chromecast, or other unique ways to get streaming audio to your DAC? Have questions about this setup? Let us know over in the forum!

AXPONA 2016 Coverage

This year is my first AXPONA (Audio Expo North America) experience.   Held at the Westin O’Hare in Rosemont IL (a suburb of Chicago), AXPONA brings together over 100 rooms of audio equipment manufacturers, representatives and dealers where visitors can informally audition hundreds of different pieces of equipment set up in various systems.  Imagine a bunch of audio nuts taking over half of a high-rise hotel, and you’ve got it!

Given the price of audiophile equipment, why would anyone want to attend?  There are a few good reasons.  First, it gives the attendee a good idea of what the current state of audio technology is.  Which types of components are popular these days?  Which brands are breaking new ground?  What is coming in the future?

Second, as mentioned above, it gives attendees the chance to hear many different systems by hundreds of manufacturers, both the well-known and well-estalished companies as well as new upstarts, or companies re-entering the marketplace.  If you hear something you really like, you are likely going to make a contact with a retailer at the show, or find a retailer in your own area that can sell you the equipment and support it.

Third:  education.  For 2016 there are at least eight formal seminars scheduled.  The most famous of those is Michael Fremer’s turntable setup seminar.  Bob Hodas will be providing a seminar on room optimization.  There will be panels on digital audio, reel-to-reel tape, and a “legends of audio” panel as well.

The fourth reason–who doesn’t like a bargain?  In the Marketplace area, many well-known retailers set up tables and sell products, often at a discount.  It is a good way to see, hands-on, products you have only seen in pictures.  You can talk to the staff, ask questions, and some will cut a deal if you buy a lot of product, or if you arrive very late on closing day when they are packing up.  (Why pack it up when you can sell it?)

Finally, shows such as this one are great social events.  You get to attend with friends.  You meet others you’ve communicated with over the years.  You get to speak with many of the people who sell these products for a living (including those you may have contacted through mail order or online sales), and even a few of the product designers themselves put in an appearance.

AXPONA is open to the public, and is growing with each passing year.  For this part of the country, it is the only major audiophile show we have.

I won’t feature everything I’ve seen, but I will point out some highlights in this series of posts, and try to give some of our readers who may not have attended an audio show a feel for what attending is like.


Crosley C10 turntable review

Analog Planet has finally issued a review on the Crosley C10 turntable.

Verdict:  it’s basically a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, which is a solid entry-level turntable.  It ships with an Ortofon OM-10 cartridge already installed, and setup is reduced to installing the counterweight and adjusting it.

My recommendation for an immediate upgrade would be to replace the OM-10 with perhaps a Nagaoka MP-200 or Audio Technical 440ML (if you have a way to tame its brightness through loading), or other good MM cart.

The bonus is that it might introduce some unfortunate Crosley novelty turntable owners to quality playback, and encourage them to upgrade and hear what vinyl really should sound like…unless their cheap record players haven’t destroyed their records.  It also sells through more traditional retail channels, making it easier for buyers to purchase.  Being a Pro-Ject means that many of the upgrades should work with it, including an upgrade to the acrylic platter which many observe creates a not-so-subtle improvement in sound quality.


The ultrasonic recipe

These are some observations of my current ultrasonic method.  Subject to change, as always.

  1. Ultrasonic bath uses a mix of diluted Tergitol and isopropyl alcohol.  I have not measured exact amounts yet.
  2. Filtered tap water for the ultrasonic is plenty good enough. Instapure R5 filtering is what I use; R8 is even better.
  3. Temperature between 35-40°C seems to work just fine.
  4. Cycles run about six minutes per rotation of the records.  I do at least two cycles, sometimes three for really grimy records.
  5. The rinse stage includes flooding the record surface with purified water (Aquafina is just fine) and vacuuming it off.
  6. Records air dry for a few minutes.  (This is so any remaining droplets around the edge and label will evaporate. The grooves are already dry.)
  7. Cleaned records go into new archival  record sleeves.

Running a 12 minute cycle is about perfect–it allows ample time to rinse, vacuum and sleeve three records, and load up the pucks with another three records to clean.

I only clean in stretches of one hour.  That is the duty cycle for the record vac and the ultrasonic bath.

This results in 15 records cleaned per hour.


Ultrasonic record cleaning–first impressions

I have so far had pretty good luck with ultrasonic cleaning.  I will do a more thorough writeup, but for now, I will give a few impressions.  I am still experimenting the cleaning solutions, timing in the ultrasonic bath, and methods of rinsing and vacuuming.

I recently bought an RCA Shaded Dog classical record that was VPI cleaned by the seller, and I was less than impressed.  In fact, it was downright noisy.  The other record from the same seller had less noise, but still more than I wanted to hear.  The ultrasonic did its trick–the first record still had a little noise, but most of it was gone.   Sadly, the sound is rather dulled, a victim of groove wear.  The second record, though, sounds fantastic–it plays back with only a few ticks or pops, and I feel some of those are from inadequate vacuum power.

Other records are a mixed lot.  A few that were already considered goners did not improve at all.  One is an MCA pressing of Jack DeJohnett’s Parallel Realities, and I have a feeling it is just a really bad, lousy pressing.  It shows hardly a scratch, but it sounds as though it was used as home plate in a Little League game.

I recleaned many that I had vacuumed earlier.  It made a little difference, and all for the better.  I bought five LPs at an estate sale, which the owner had handled with his greasy mitts.  Some of the fingerprints actually looked as though they were etched in the records.  I gave them some stiff cleaning, but the impressions still remained.

After their trip through the ultrasonic for 18 minutes with a stronger cleaning solution, I no longer see them.  The Dionne Warwick plays back as good as it ever will, and I have yet to spin Sinatra at The Sands to see how it improved.

I put my 45RPM Elvis 24 Karat Hits on the ultrasonic.  I have two copies of this (through a fluke occurrence).  Due to one of the records being slightly off-center, and some being a little more noisy than others, I Frankensteined one good set out of them, and a lesser set that I keep around as a loaner, a tester, or a set I can travel with.

I put this second, noisier set through the ultrasonic/vacuum routine, and now it plays back with maybe one or two minor ticks per track, with an even more silent background.  So, this even works on new records; pressing plants are not exactly a clean environment.

I also cleaned up some sealed Dynaflex records I had purchased several months ago.  They were mildewed, so they were quarantined from the rest of the collection.  First, I gave them a spraydown and soak with some Vinyl-Zyme.  After applying and vacuuming on both sides, the records went into the last run of a batch of water/cleaner in the ultrasonic.  Both records now look spotless.  There is a bit of noise left over from the pressing but otherwise, they play exactly like they would have when new.

I will report more results as I go, but overall I would say on average that ultrasonic cleaning has surpassed other methods I have tried to fully clean records, and this is the only one that has had the ability to reach inside the tiny grooves and work that crud out of them.  Felt applicators only smear water around the surface.  My old VPI record brush uses bristles that are too fat to fit inside the grooves.

I am not impressed with the Chinese ultrasonic cleaner I bought, and I am realizing I need a better vacuum.  For the former, I will likely be returning it.  For the latter, my budget does not allow for a top of the line vacuum, but I have already sourced parts to build my own with the same suction as the top vacuum systems out there.  (It’s easy once you find out which vacuum motor they use.)


QRP struggles with the center

I have to admit I am nearly at wit’s end with this issue.

For the past few years, I have stepped up buying new 180g and 200g vinyl releases.  I have quickly found out which labels or pressing plants I can trust, and those which give me pause.

Case in point is anything that QRP presses.  On average, I would say that one in four records pressed by QRP that I have personally bought have been off-center.  This was something I expected back in the 70s and 80s when records were $5 each and mass produced.  The latest was the Stevie Ray Vaughan Texas Hurricane box set.  Two of the six records are off center.  Shameful, especially for what they are charging for it.  My bog common Epic pressings might not sound so good, but they were cheap.  And, on center.  The last three Rush reissues faced the same fate: two of the three were off center, one so badly off center that I had to turn it off after two tracks.

Seriously, QRP?

The good QRPs I have are often extremely well done.  Yet with others, the pressing is good but the damned record is not on center.  I’ve not been plagued by noise or warpage issues some other listeners have had.

What is so hard to grasp about this concept?  Others seem to have no issue with it.  I’ve only had one off-center RTI record (cheerfully replaced by Rhino), and all the rest have been dead accurate.  Music On Vinyl may not always have the best sources, but pressing quality has been exemplary, and every single record is on center.  Pallas, same story there–dead accurate.  Even the shoddy records coming out of GZ Vinyl are at least on center (although very poorly handled–most I get are audibly scuffed or scratched from factory mishandling).

Why is QRP struggling with this?

Relate your own QRP centering issues in our forum.  Since complaint seem to fall on deaf ears (and I bury Amazon under a pile of returned records), raising awareness might wake up the powers that be.  Myself, I’ve curtailed buying

Review: Herb Alpert’s “Fandango” in High Res

FandangoLate last year, the Herb Alpert Presents label issued a large number of Herb Alpert’s titles (both with and without the Tijuana Brass) digitally, including high-resolution 24-bit, 88kHz files available from HDTracks and Acoustic Sounds.  Restoration work was done by Randy Badazz (Alpert), and mastering by the great Bernie Grundman.

I have heard at least a dozen of the high-res titles at this point, and the best praise I can give them is that they faithfully reproduce what is on the master tapes.  Now, are these master tapes perfect?  No.  If you consider that the tapes for some of the popular Tijuana Brass albums were used dozens of times, stored for over 40 (if not over 50) years, and suffering the effects of tape degradation, it’s no wonder that there are small imperfections here and there.

To be honest, this is perfectly acceptable.  We are being offered a rare glimpse of how the actual tapes sound, the high-res files bringing us as close to the original analog format as possible in the digital format.

Fandango has long been a fan favorite title.  Recorded in Mexico City, the tracks all have a nice Latin jazz feel to them.  “Route 101” and “Push and Pull” were radio hits here in the Motor City.  In a few ways, Alpert’s style is reminiscent of the old Tijuana Brass days, but the musical style is firmly rooted in 1980s Mexico.  This album was the fourth in a string of successful albums, which began with his chart-topping “Rise” from 1979.

What strikes me right away is how much this title in high-res reminds me of my vinyl copy of the album (which I have owned since the week of release).  There is a nice warmth and clarity to the sound which I have never heard in digital form–the CD versions always seemed to have a bright, annoying edge to them.  Kudos to Randy Badazz for the fine work on the restoration, and for Bernie putting his finishing touches on the final files.

A caveat for music shoppers–for official releases of Herb Alpert’s recordings, the sole label releasing his recordings worldwide is Herb Alpert Presents. Thanks to the market being flooded with dubiously sourced CD and vinyl releases, we now have to make this distinction so shoppers are not misled into purchasing an unauthorized product.