Our Love With Vinyl

It all began towards the end of June when we were required to relocate our personal effects in storage from five units to one big unit with the same combined gross floor area on the same level in the same building. Amongst the prized collection are scores of vinyl records mixed up with laser discs aka LD.  They had been gathering dust even before they were put to storage and I couldn’t recall when it was the last time I played them on a record player. Out of fear that they might suffer further disgrace in the relocation, we decided to take them home before the operation, and to find out for ourselves whether they are still serviceable.

Now, for the record and the benefit of the younger readers, a vinyl record or simply vinyl or record, the proper name for which is a gramophone record, is an analog sound storage medium in the form of a flat polyvinyl chloride disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove, which normally starts near the periphery and ends near the centre of the disc. It was the primary medium used for music production until late in the 20th century and had the largest market share even when new formats such as compact cassettes were mass-marketed. Then digital media in the form of compact discs (CD) became popular; and by the late 1980s CDs had overtaken vinyl records in market share. By 1991, vinyl records had left the mainstream sound industry, which though still being produced were used mainly by disc jockeys and amongst a niche market of audiophiles.

Back to home, I did not have the luxury of owning a record player and hence vinyl records when I was young. We were always moving, for economic reasons; and record players and records were not exactly cheap. I began listening to music on records regularly in Rosita’s home, and I acquired my first record player when we got married in 1976.  Then the children arrived when diapers and other stuff acquired priorities. Even more significantly, other media had come in fast and in great varieties. There were cassettes, CDs, video tapes, first VHS then Betamax, LDs, MDs; and karaoke became rather popular. But I kept a record player all these years, even though I did not use it that often, except between 1995 and 2003. We moved back to Baguio Villa on my retirement in 2003 and spent a small fortune to upgrade all the audio and visual equipment, including buying a new turntable and so on. We even designed a sturdy corner table with a spacious hollow to place all the records we had. My planning horizon was to stay there for eight to ten years, but then things did not always work out as planned. The result was that this new record player was not used much, except for a few times. When we were designing the layouts of Mei Foo, we had a difficult time explaining to the designer what a record player looked like. The twenty something guy had never seen one in his life or learnt how it operated. In the end, the fitters had to come back a few times to re-fit that part of the wall unit so that the turntable could be put to use.

Fast track to earlier this month, Su decided to put the turntable to the test. It won’t move initially. It had not been made to move for too long, I believe. Through trial and error, we managed to make it move and produce sounds on a vinyl. Then one speaker seemed not to be working; and after more tests and experiments, and in consultation with Su’s father who is very knowledgeable in electronic devices and turntables, we concluded that the turntable needed to be overhauled. First, the drive belt needs to be replaced – this we achieved with the help of a friend and his friend in UK. Then, I called up the vendor who supplied me the turntable in 2003. I am still on his good books; and he referred me to a specialist technician.

Eric Lo arrived on a Sunday afternoon with a full knapsack and a carry bag. His business card suggests that he is an audiophile and a gramophone specialist, and he has it printed on the card in Chinese saying shamelessly that he knows nothing but is keenly enthused in music and vinyl. His knapsack is full of calibration equipment, electronic gadgets and test phonographs. He ran exhaustive tests on the turntable and finally narrowed down the defective parts to the wiring or connections inside the turntable arm, implying that he could not fix up the fault in situ. He suggested I took the turntable to the vendor whom he visits frequently. In the hour or so he was with us, he volunteered a lot of information on vinyl listening and management; and Su was all ears.

It took another week or ten days before we saw the turntable again. Eric took it apart, oiled the bearings, and replaced the severely oxidized cartridge tags which had led to the symptoms. He tested the turntable at his place and took it to the vendor for further testing before we took it home.

The next major operation was to clean the discs. We cleaned a few and tested them. Not bad; not bad at all – the sound generated was unmistakably concert-like, so that it was worth the efforts.

Su took advantage of the weekends and the two typhoons to clean more discs; and in the meantime, quite accidentally and fortuitously, a friend gave away her collection which she had intended to ask a junk collector to dispose of eventually. There must be over 60 discs of various genres, ranging from the early 60s western classical music to the early revolutionary music from China she inherited from her late parents, mainly her father, mixed with the discs she and her brother acquired over the years, featuring light classics, musicals and pop songs of their era. As Su cleaned them one by one, using the antiseptic tissues we saved from flights and restaurants, it was déjà vu and a journey back in time. Each disc brought back different memories, for Su and for me, usually separately and very often differently. Some discs were not so playable, but the sound qualities tended to improve, sometimes dramatically, after repeated cleanings. We were careful not to play the same disc within a few hours, which would have caused irreparable damage to the disc. In practice, Su would set aside the cleaned discs and put them in clean or new plastic holders which we purchased from a shop in Wanchai last week, again on the recommendation of our vendor.

We now have over 100 discs, not all playable and quite a few yet to be cleaned. Su has plans to hold mini concerts with good food and wine and cheese for selected groups of friends, starting with the friend who gave us her collection unconditionally.

Before I sign off, let me share with you that we bought some new discs at the Wanchai shop where we acquired new disc holders. Newly bought discs are often not immediately playable without cleaning, because they were not pressed or manufactured yesterday or recently. One Mahler record we bought for example was made into vinyl in 1998 through digital recording initially. Su had to clean them a couple of times before it displayed playable qualities. Once again, we learned new tricks in the process, for example, these vinyl come with few MP3 recordings downloadable  from the internet through a password on a piece of paper slipped inside the vinyl jacket. All rather interesting.

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