There are many reasons to love vinyl records. After all, when at their best, they sound great, they look beautiful, and they truly add something extra to the whole listening experience. However, while the resurgence in consumer interest for vinyl records is undoubtedly something to celebrate, there is a growing concern within the vinyl community surrounding quality control. In a world where music is essentially free, and vinyl is sold as a premium product and experience, this is a worrying trend that needs addressing.
Here are some of the most common faults to watch out for:
If your record wasn’t stored correctly during production or at the retail store, your new vinyl might arrive warped. Very minor warping is unlikely to cause much of problem. However, in extreme cases, a warped record may skip or produce tracking errors. Some collectors will attempt to fix warped records using a variety of methods. One such approach is to place the warped vinyl between two pieces of glass and apply heat using an oven. Whether or not this works is debatable, as some folks will rightly point out the risk of damage to the playable grooves. Either way, if your new record arrives warped, you should send it back. Sadly, due to some retailers stacking new records in horizontal piles, warped discs are more common than you’d think.
Bubbles on the Record Surface
I see this problem far too often with new vinyl records. These are little bubbles or dimples on the record surface that are visible to the naked eye and usually result in a loud bassy thud as the stylus runs through them. These imperfections are undoubtedly a pressing error; I’ve heard all kinds of explanations as to what causes them, from air getting caught by the stamper to there being insufficient release agent used during pressing. Whatever the cause, you should seek a refund or replacement if you notice these on any new record purchases.
A record pressed off-center – meaning the spindle hole is not central to the grooves stamped on the vinyl – is perhaps the worst culprit of them all. This glaring pressing error will result in small speed discrepancies as the disc spin causing audible wow and flutter pitch drift. You’ll hear it loud and clear on longer, more drawn out notes or chords.
Sadly, if one record is off-center, the whole batch is normally off, meaning that any replacement record will almost certainly have the exact same problem. The only way to fix the problem is to crudely widen the spindle hole with a knife, and then manually center the record each time you play it. A record clamp will help you secure the disc in place. To say this is less than ideal would be an understatement. In my experience, it’s usually best to return the record unless you’re particularly determined to make it work.
(The video below is an extreme example, but demonstrates the problem very clearly).
Excessive Surface Noise
Surface noise on brand new wax is another common complaint. In many circumstances, you should be able to fix this one yourself by wet cleaning the vinyl, either by hand or using a record cleaning machine. In fact, as a matter of good practice, I wet clean all my new vinyl before the first play. In many cases, new records come contaminated straight from the factory and usually benefit from a light clean. If wet cleaning doesn’t clear things up, you could have a bad pressing. Arguably, you can put some surface noise down as just the nature of the beast, but heavy surface noise on a new record is clearly unacceptable. How much is too much? Well, that depends on who you ask.
Parallel to this issue, there is much debate about the color of vinyl records and how this affects the sound quality. In my humble opinion, there is little difference in quality between black, white, clear, red, or any other color of vinyl for that matter. And while the jury may still be out on that one, most seem to agree picture discs typically sound worse than standard black or colored vinyl. These full color printed discs make great collector’s items, but unfortunately suffer from additional surface noise caused by the full-sized label applied on top of the standard vinyl disc.
The Bottom Line: Supply & Demand
Demand for new vinyl records outstripping supply is a common theme when the topic of quality control rears its ugly head. And while some pressing plants are clearly better than others, there is a general feeling that many well-meaning pressing plants are running flat-out to meet demand.
New record plants have opened in recent years, but there is still a feeling among vinyl fans that quality control remains a big problem. We must get the number of bad pressings down if we’re to continue seeing year-on-year vinyl sales growth, and this can only come from further investment in the manufacturing process, and with it, more competition. Until that happens, the best thing you can do as a vinyl consumer is vote with your feet. Don’t put up with poor quality; send a clear message to the industry at large and return a record if it’s faulty.