Groove Wear: The Elephant in the Record Store

March 30, 2015 /
Although I have been collecting records of all types for close to twenty years now, I have been a persistent collector of vintage jazz records for the last five. While I’ve managed to hunt down some original pressings in that time, I’ve often had to settle for reissues. The hobby has proved rewarding but also challenging, and if I have any wisdom to share with collectors at this juncture it’s this: Beware, the phantom menace that is groove wear.

Mistracking

Before I started collecting vintage jazz LPs, my collection consisted entirely of records with origins dating back no further than the late ’60s. Little did I know there was a time before low-mass tone arms, diamond-tip styli and high-compliance cartridges when all vinyl LPs were at risk of permanent damage inflicted by the inferior consumer playback equipment of the 1950s and early 1960s. This inconvenient truth became apparent after only a few purchases as a novice collector of vintage jazz records. This first batch of LPs were not in the greatest shape visually, but pops and ticks weren’t the real issue. All the records had this fuzzy sound to them that I had never heard before. I didn’t understand what I was hearing, so I began looking for an explanation.

I soon learned that this type of distortion is caused by a phenomenon called mistracking, which is likely to occur on any part of a worn record where the groove has extreme modulations, including any combination of dynamic peaks, upper-midrange frequencies, and envelopes with fast attack times (for jazz, brass and pianos especially). Mistracking is also common at the innermost part of each side where the modulations are packed together tighter than at the outer edge (for more information on inner groove distortion, see this helpful Hydrogen Audio thread).

What causes groove wear?

If mistracking is caused by groove wear, what causes groove wear? The high tracking forces of consumer-grade turntables in the ’50s and ’60s wreaked havoc on the earliest microgroove LPs. While most of today’s cartridges have recommended tracking forces under 2 grams, carts in those days were known to track over 5 grams. Worn styli and cartridges with inadequate compliance also contributed to misshapen grooves. Excessive play is suspect as well, but once I started reading about the high-mass tone arms, quick-to-wear sapphire styli and poor horizontal compliance (yes, horizontal) of mono cartridges from that period, it instantly became clear why I had never heard this type of noise on my more current rock and hip hop LPs.

Fortunately, important advances in vinyl playback technology during the mid to late ’60s included a decline in the average recommended tracking force for cartridges and increases in both cartridge compliance and stylus life. Learning this made me suspicious that instances of excessive wear might be lower for jazz records pressed in the aftermath of this technological revolution. I have acquired numerous reissues since, and though surface noise seems no more or less common, audible mistracking has been quite rare. Though there could be other unidentified factors involved, at the very least this suggests that there is a connection between the inferior playback equipment of the ’50s and early ’60s and the higher number of occurrences of groove wear with original pressings of classic jazz LPs.

What does groove wear sound like?

‘Fuzzy’ is a good word to describe it. ‘Crackly’ is another, but it’s not to be mistaken with the crackle caused by surface marks; crackling caused by groove wear is more apparent during dynamic bursts corresponding with louder moments in the program. If you’ve never been able to identify groove wear by ear or you’re having a hard time imagining what it might sound like, I have included an audio comparison here. Upon listening it’s not hard to hear the damage done in hi-fi’s dark and distant past:

Johnny Coles, “So Sweet My Little Girl” (Original 1964 mono pressing of Little Johnny C.)

Unworn Copy:

Worn Copy:

What Does Groove Wear Look Like?

Though it doesn’t seem to be an exact science, groove wear can manifest as clusters of miniature greyish lines running with the grain of a record’s grooves. At a distance, this can cause a record to look slightly dull, as if it has lost some of its original glossy finish. But even if you know what to look for it can still be tough to spot.

Below are photos provided by Cohearent Audio vinyl mastering engineer Kevin Gray comparing the grooves of worn and unworn copies of the same title from the same pressing run. As pointed out by Gray, you should be able to see the regular presence of wear on the upper part of each groove wall in the photo to the right. This is where a heavy, perhaps worn vintage stylus 25 micrometers or more in diameter would have plowed through the intricate twists and turn of the record’s groove walls.

worn-clean-bn-comparison-web

Grooves without (left) and with (right) wear

worn-clean-bn-zoom-comparison-web

Grooves with and without wear (photos optimized with filters for added emphasis) –
notice the thicker black area of the groove on the left representing smooth walls versus
the greyish, spotted area of the groove on the right indicating rough, worn surfaces

Mastering and the Prevention (or Promotion) of Groove Wear

Vinyl mastering engineers have a difficult job. They are expected to cut a record with great signal-to-noise ratio, but at the same time the record should not be prone to mistracking. In the heyday of high fidelity vinyl playback, many studios played it safe, cutting their records at a moderate volume. Since the dynamic peaks of these LPs are less extreme, groove wear is less likely to settle in. However, pops and ticks are then more likely to overpower the music as marks collect on the record’s surface over time. I have found that vintage jazz records cut by labels like Columbia, Atlantic, and EmArcy generally fall into this category.

On the other end of the spectrum, some mastering engineers worked to obtain a superior signal-to-noise ratio and took more risks in the process. They applied heavier doses of compression and cut their records as hot as possible without causing skips. This allowed the music to easily overpower surface noise, but the tradeoff was that over time the record would be more prone to wear. Rudy Van Gelder, the darling of vintage jazz collectors everywhere, was the most infamous proponent of this technique. He is also responsible for hundreds of the most collectible classic jazz LPs released on labels like Blue Note, Prestige, New Jazz, and Impulse. So while the higher amplitudes of Van Gelder’s masters will usually dominate pops and ticks, these records are also more likely to have excessive wear dating all the way back to hi-fi’s stone age.

Ironically, this approach to mastering is probably one of the major reasons why Van Gelder originally won over so many industry types. The technique’s benefits were immediately apparent, and his mastering work would have been the toast of the New York bop scene. The only problem is now we’re stuck with a bunch of fuzzy-sounding records.

The truth can be bittersweet, but all hope is not lost for collectors of Blue Note and Prestige originals. If a record was properly cared for and made it through the tumultuous hi-fi tornado of the ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s quite likely that it traveled the remaining distance to us today safely thanks to all the wonderful technological improvements since. Vintage jazz records of this elite class may be few and far between, but I have found that they do exist, albeit in small numbers.

“Vintage Jazz Records Sound Better Than They Look”

There appears to be a popular sentiment in the jazz collecting community that vintage jazz records sound better than they look. While I have found this to be true in a few rare instances where a hotly-mastered record was scuffed up but surprisingly free from wear, I have come across many more instances in which the opposite is true, where records virtually free from surface marks are concealing the distorted scars of yesteryear.

Why don’t the majority of sellers address the phenomenon of groove wear in their auction descriptions? It could be because most sellers simply don’t play grade and groove wear is more difficult to identify on sight than surface marks. It also might be because groove wear is more prominent near the center of a record (think inner groove distortion), and even if a seller play grades they may only give a quick listen to the beginning of each side.

Yet another possible reason why groove wear’s existence is on the hush might be because most listeners may not even notice it. In its mildest form, distortion from wear will only be audible to the most discerning of ears at the end of each side, and when it does pop up it will only be audible intermittently during louder moments in the music. This contrasts with the regular popping and clicking of surface noise. Keeping in mind that groove wear is much less common with records pressed after around 1970 might then explain why many people’s ears seem to be more accustomed to the consistent crackle caused by marks on a record’s surface.

Conclusion

Groove wear has proven to be one of the greatest obstacles this hobby has to offer. What kind of preemptive action can an informed collector take to avoid ending up with these pesky records? Unfortunately, most online sellers don’t play grade, and it’s difficult for the untrained eye to see groove wear. As far as styli go, a modern 18-micrometer (0.7-mil) stylus can help reduce distortion by avoiding the upper edges of a groove’s walls, but in several experiments I’ve conducted with a variety of styli I was disappointed to find that the symptoms of wear remain mostly incurable. Though it’s no guarantee, I’d say that the best way to avoid groove wear is to only bid on records with high grades (VG++, EX, NM, M-) and to only buy records in person that retain their original glossy finish.

For one reason or another I’ve found that the majority of hobbyists rarely bring up the topic of groove wear despite its regular presence amongst original pressings from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. In this sense, groove wear truly is the elephant in the record store. I am simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by this, yet I encourage collectors to push on in search of those diamonds in the rough, those hard-to-find, amazing-sounding vintage LPs that make all our efforts worthwhile.

  • Kristian K

    The use of a correct mono cartridge is A and O for good sound quality of old mono records. Much groove noise that you may hear by playing with a stereo cartridge will disappear when played when a mono cartridge. And the sound on these old originals when in prime condition is fabulous.

    • I agree with all of the above, Kristian. I mean, listen to how fantastic that near mint copy of Tokyo Blues sounds! I find that a stereo cartridge summed to mono also does a good job of reducing distortion from wear. I have, however, not yet found an instance where summing or using a mono cart was successful at eliminating all distortion on a word record. I have plans to address the topic of modern mono playback in a future article that focuses on cartridge options, which will include audio clips of examples from research I have conducted. Thanks for the footnotes.

  • Dig in Japan

    This is really excellent stuff, Rich. As someone who owns a lot of Japanese reissues I found the discussion of how this problem relates to the choice engineers were faced with in terms of signal-to-noise ratio particularly interesting. When those records suffer even the slightest nicks you’re really going to hear them.

    I just listened to those Blue Train rips again and the problem is even worse than I originally thought after comparing them to the Horace Silver one hosted here. Though the distortion peaks during the Fuller solo and at the end of the track, it is actually apparent throughout (Lazy Bird). Please feel free to use that rip as a further example.

    Great post.

  • Detroit digs

    Great topic. I have found that groove wear can also be identified by the presence of “waves” in the groove pattern when holding the record at an angle to a light source. For me, groove wear results in greatly distorted highs, rather than crackles. And, I have come across this wavy groove wear in records that were otherwise clean and shiny. If I see waves, I shy away.

  • Shaft

    Hi all,
    Listening to the sound clips my opinion is that the bad one really hasn’t what I call typical Groove Wear. Sure there are som crackle and constant background noise but the thing with Groove wear for me at least is that the instruments high notes “break up” – not that they are “covered in noise.” In the excellent text you mention trumpet and piano and that is my experience too.
    Buying vintage jazz records can indeed be troublesome. I think half of my EX or better grade purchases go bad. Discussions with seller about grading, sending back or refunds. All to avoid bad feedback for the seller. To try and avoid som of this I’ve started to PM the sellers befor an auction and ask about potential problem like surface noise and groove wear. If the don’t answer or state that there are some problems I stay away.
    I don’t understand sellers that sell big $$$ LPs and don’t even bother to play grade. Is it really so hard. When I get the LP it takes me 1 minute to establish if the LP is OK. First a strong light check and the just play some parts of the LP. Not so hard.

    • Thanks for your comments! Since I published this article I have questioned my choice of sound clips. I believe the distortion is audible in the clip I posted but it’s also a noisy record in general so I agree that it’s not the best example. Make no mistake about it though, I have plenty of other examples (unfortunately). I think I’ll go ahead and switch up the clips…a record with less surface noise would be ideal.

    • Okay, check out the new clips!

      • Anders Wallinder

        Yep even though I hate the sound of groove distortion I must say that’s more like it 😉

  • woody_f

    When I started collecting jazz at the flea markets in the 90’s I was finding a fair number of records from the 50’s that had different levels of groove distortion from bad or worn stylists. An audiophile neighbor of mine gave me several different phono cartridges with different size and shaped stylists. Depending on it’s shape the stylist rides on a small area on the side of the groove. Most of the lps I was finding at that time had only had one owner so if they had groove damage it was from the same bad stylist. The trick was to choose a stylist who’s shape would ride above or below the damaged area. It was a great learning experience but overall not very practical.

  • Cristian

    Time for an unfounded, poorly researched comment 🙂

    I live in Germany and I buy a lot of old jazz records here and what I found out is the fact that most used German pressings I buy (sometimes dating back to 1956) mostly sound great and have little groove wear, while most US copies I come across are terribly worn and/or scratched. And almost every time I come across old records in record store, my findings get confirmed. I wonder if there is a cultural/historical meaning behind this. I know that LPs were a rarer commodity in Germany compared to the US, especially during the 1950s and 1960s. So maybe those that DID buy LPs also tended to take more care of them. Which still doesn’t explain why there is so little wear on those records despite the heavy arms… Who knows?

  • AZDiver

    Excellent article and explanation, thank you! After picking up an original pressing of Grateful Dead’s American Beauty in overall great condition, I was a bit disappointed to find groove wear in the inner track. I hoped it would just be dirt, but it’s still there after spin-cleaning the record.

    I’m arriving at the conclusion that it might simply not be worth investing in sought-after copies of original pressings. For the same $20 I paid for this album, I could buy the reissue and enjoy phenomenal sound. For me, sound is more important than collector’s value, so I’m starting to think I should look for reissues wherever possible rather than trying to hunt down original pressings.