– Rich Capeless, March 6, 2018
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.
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 when all vinyl LPs were at risk of permanent damage caused by improper use of playback equipment in 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? Many setups of the ’50s and ’60s incorporated high-mass tonearms with low (vertical) compliance cartridges tracking at 4-5 grams, and while this type of configuration in and of itself does not appear to be a major cause of groove wear, that leaves worn styli and vintage mono cartridges with low horizontal compliance as prime suspects. Excessive play is also a potential cause, but once I started reading about the quick-to-wear sapphire styli and poor horizontal compliance of mono cartridges from that period, it made sense why I had never heard this type of noise on more current rock and hip hop LPs.
Fortunately, advances in vinyl playback technology during the mid to late ’60s included increases in both horizontal compliance and stylus life. Learning this made me suspicious that instances of excessive wear might be lower for jazz records pressed in the time period following this technological progress. I have acquired numerous vintage represses 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 early days of high fidelity playback and the higher number of instances of groove wear I have encountered 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 distant past:
Johnny Coles, “So Sweet My Little Girl” (Original 1964 mono pressing of Little Johnny C.)
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.
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 back to the dawn of hi-fi.
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 ‘50s and ‘60s in tact, it’s quite likely that it traveled the remaining distance to us today safely as a result of the technological improvements that followed. 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.
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.