All collectors are a bit obsessive, it comes with the territory. Modern psycho-babble refers to it as OCD; Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. We like to compile sets of things, count them, put them in order, and then go get more. Of all the types of collectors though, those who collect vinyl records, especially those who still do it today, are among the most obsessive.
It’s not a closed world anymore though. Today we can go online and check out the forums and YouTube postings of some of the most eccentric collectors and get a glimpse of an alternate reality. They’ll talk endlessly about how to file, clean or apply a coating of wood glue to records.
On VinylFanatics.com for instance you can learn about Pete Hutchinson, a UK collector of obvious means who collects many different styles of music but found his classical collecting was costing him the most at about £40,000 a year (that’s $62,000 CDN). He decided to start his own label but, being a bit obsessive, everything had to be done exactly right. He purchased and restored vintage recording and record making equipment (all tubes, no transistors allowed) and even insisted that the album cover artwork could not be digital or scanned – original photographs are reproduced on vintage printing equipment. He’s put out several releases on his Electric Recording Company label but his masterpiece is a re-issue of a rare Mozart box set from 1956; a collection of the composer's complete Parisian work on seven discs, directed by Fernand Oubradous, complete with the booklet which itself took a year to produce. The retail price is £2,495, or $3,877 Canadian. He’s sold 43 as of this writing (August, 2013). Order yours at www. theelectricrecordingco.com.
Most vinyl collectors are more limited in their scope; they concentrate on filing and cleaning their prized possessions. There are forums where people spend hours - hours – discussing the best way to file. Should you go strictly alphabetical, by label, by genre or by year? All have their drawbacks it seems, alphabetical means you are putting records that should not be together on the same shelf. File Andy Williams beside Hank Williams? No. What about artists who record for several labels, who transcend genres and record for decades? How will you ever find the record you want? The discussion rages on.
Cleaning your records is another big problem. Virtually all vinyl records have dirt and static that affects how they sound. Cleaning will always improve them, but what is the best method? There are cleaning machines; some are fairly inexpensive but the one that works best, the Keith Monks Cleaning Machine, can set you back about $5,000.
If you search YouTube you’ll find dozens of alternatives. One popular method is to use a steam cleaner. Really, I’m not making this up. Apparently it’s best to use it in combination with a cleaning machine to distribute fluids. Afterwards you need to remove the static build-up using a de-ionizer (current retail price: $599.00).
It’s also on YouTube that you’ll find the best methods of spreading wood glue on your records. This, believe it or not, is generally accepted as the best way to clean records without spending a fortune. It actually works because wood glue is made from polyvinyl acetate and won’t stick to vinyl or plastic. You spread a film of glue over the entire playing surface (Titebond II is the brand of choice), let it dry thoroughly, and then carefully peel it off, taking all the dirt and crud with it. One guy on YouTube tried it on a 78; he was half way through his demonstration when he suddenly realized 78s are not made of vinyl. It seemed to work anyway.
OK so you’ve got them cleaned and filed, what about fixing scratches? There are lots of postings about that too though a large number are tongue-in-cheek. There is at least on guy though who quite seriously suggests sandpaper. It has to be super-fine grit, 1500 at least and you have to be very gentle and apply pressure evenly but he insists his method, when done right, will remove the raised bumps of vinyl that are outside the groove but are audible. This will work to repair minor scratches caused by a needle sliding across the record but even he admits, deep scratches that damage the inside of the groove cannot be repaired.
You might notice in all this that discussions by vinyl junkies revolve around acquiring, storing, cleaning and filing their records, not about listening to them. Sometimes the medium gets in the way of the message.
I come from a generation of collectors who bought old records because that was the best way to learn music history. Back in the day, Top 40 radio played the same 40 records over and over again. For every hit record played on the radio there’s about a thousand more you never hear in mainstream media but are just as good or better. To find them you’d had to comb the second hand stores, cut-out bins and garage sales. You would often buy a record on spec, not knowing anything about it, just take it home and play it to see if you like it. Some people still do that today but many “serious” collectors couldn’t possibly listen to the thousands of records they have accumulated.
The truth is; digital music is easier to file, store, and listen to even if it doesn’t sound as good as analogue. Actually you’d be surprised how good it can sound with the right playback equipment.
Don’t get me wrong; I love vinyl records, in fact I prefer shellac 78s and I’ve spent many an hour cleaning and filing them. I encourage people to discover vintage music on vinyl but it should be all about the music. Any way you can get it and hear it is good.