Saturday, February 11, 2012

Transcending the Grade: Don't Judge an LP by Its Surface

On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most damaged and 10 being the least, what is the lowest score you would assign a (used) LP you would consider buying, or playing on a regular basis? How much wear and tear is acceptable to you?

Would your answer change if you only had to play the record once, to capture a high-resolution digital scan, and you could eliminate many forms of wear in post-processing with software and skill? For me, it does.

[Image: "Scar Tissue," Daniel S. Friedman.]

Vinyl record grading is serious business, based on a variety of systems and scales. I was surprised to learn that Good is usually a euphemism for "bad." A record in Good condition "can be played on a turntable without skipping, but it will have significant surface noise and scratches." One has to move up a couple grades to Very Good Plus to get a record "that shows signs that it was played and handled by a previous owner who took good care of it."

Subjective opinion has ecomonic impact. A record graded in Very Good Plus condition is typically worth 50% of an equivalent copy in Mint condition. The value of the same title in Good condition drops to 10% or less.

Trouble is, grading systems only assess the quality of the install disc—the atoms. They cannot assess the quality of the digital music image that can be fused—the bits. Tools and technology exist to capture a near-mirror image of Mint vinyl. Good technique — much of it automated — can often elevate the merely Good to Very Good or better.

In the course of ephemeralizing my own LPs and processing titles for friends and family, I've seen and corrected many forms of surface abuse. Very little scares me now. And that enables me to approach less-than-pristine LP titles in bargain situations (e.g. estate sales) and think with confidence, "I probably can't make you a great [recording], but I know I can make you a better [recording]." (All That Jazz)

Ask youself again, how much wear and tear is acceptable?

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #18            

Artist: Elton John
Title: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Genre: Rock
Year: 1973
GYBR was Elton's John at his songwriting peak. Despite the age of the material, this title has only been in my dematerialized library for a couple months, purchased at an estate sale for $2. The physical LPs may only be in Good+ condition, but the bits extracted are Very Good indeed. I know it is possible to purchase a pristine 24-bit/96KHz FLAC download of GYBR, but this digital recording more accurately recreates the copy that was lost when my brother's basement flooded.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights resserved.


  1. How much LP wear and tear is acceptable? Please leave a comment.

  2. Clicks can be removed. Skipping grooves are a bit of a pain especially if the needle jumps forwards a groove. The real nuisances are the scrits and scrapes that occupy large amounts of time compared to the music waves.
    Best wishes,


  3. Noise of unknown origin is nearly impossible to remove. That said, I've only encountered a handful of completely unrecoverable tracks in the stacks of wax that have passed through my hand. Listeners can be very forgiving of flaws in very old material that would otherwise be inaccessible. Cheers!