My wife is blessed with the gift of teaching, which means that she is always in contact with a cast of eternally young men and women. She is also lucky enough to be able to teach her passion, Musicology, and hence, listening to music is one of the activities that her students have to engage in. Now mind you, she can be stern, and her listening list for any given class will run into many pages, yet she is fair, and will quite often assign a single movement of a symphony or a single act of an opera, just enough to make her point. A number of years ago, a student came to her in tears, overwhelmed by the amount of listening and how far behind she was falling. In the course of the conversation it became apparent that the student was listening to entire records as opposed to just the selections required. Light finally dawned on Marblehead and my wife realized what was going on, this poor girl had never seen a record and did not know how to navigate it. A quick training session set her right, and in that spirit, I offer this node.

A record, also called an LP for Long Playing is a grooved flat disc, usually made of vinyl that was the most popular form of music storage from roughly the 1910s, when it was first introduced to compete against the phonograph cylinder, through the mid 1980s when it was killed by the Compact Disc. The vinyl record is pretty much extinct now after having been the king of all media for most ot the twentieth century though it survives amongst collectors of audio arcana as well as audiophiles and turntablists. If it weren't for hip hop and scratching the medium would have disappeared into total obscurity.

Nowadays, the process of playing music and selecting tracks is all handled electronically and out of sight, the only mechanical activity being the placing of the CD on the drawer and the closing of said drawer. Even this mechanical motion has migrated to computers, but all portable devices have pretty much gone purely solid state like all smartphones. There is something wonderfully ritualistic about playing a record that I am afraid has been lost, so for all many of you, dear readers, who have never seen a record in the flesh, here are some basic instructions:

  1. Find a record player - Recently this has gotten easier . Go to your local big box electronic retailer and you will find several models of USB turntables, designed to connect to your computer for the purpose of digitizing your vinyl. However, it will be some atrocious plastic mostrosity that feels like it would fall apart if you ever tried to use it. My recommendation is that you perhaps spend a little treasure as well as a little blood and go to your friendly local specialty audio store, preferably one that carries a good selection of used equipment. There is a lot to buying a turntable but for starters, you should expect to spend US$300 minimum on a decent new turntable and cartridge (that is the pickup thingy that holds the needle at the end of the tonearm), slightly less for a used set. Used brands to look for include Dual and Thorens, I am lost when it comes to the newer brands, I am afraid, but talk to the retailer and listen up. If you are not going to play records on a consistent basis, seek out your local library's music room or go to your parents or grandparents house and skip to step five below.

  2. Connecting your turntable - Now that you have scored your turntable, you need to connect it to something. Besides the standard RCA jacks coming out of the back, there is a mysterious thin black cable. See, a turntable is not a standard line level device, it needs external preamplification to get it up to the two volt range that can then be amplified to drive speakers. You are going to need either a receiver or a preamp/amp combination to be able to listen to records. Many contemporary receivers eschew the traditional phono input, so if you have got one of those, you will also need a separate phono preamp which can normally be found at your local specialty electronics store (In the US that would be the Rat Shack). There are also two kinds of cartridges: moving magnet and moving coil. Most phono preamps can handle MM cartridges but very few can handle MC so I suggest that you RTFM before connecting everything up. Once you have all the pieces, you need to connect the RCA jacks and the ground wire (that is what the thin wire is for, leave it off and you'll get a nasty 60 hertz powerline hum in your music) to your preamp or receiver. An exception would be the USB turntables I mentioned, which will usually have a built in preamp with line level outputs.

  3. Adjusting your turntable - Though detailed instructions on adjusting your turntable are beyond the scope of this wu, there are two basics you need to know: Balancing the tonearm and Adjusting anti-skating. Beyond that you may also need to level the turntable, adjust the vertical tracking angle on the cartridge, azimuth and overhang.

  4. Clean your record - A record carries the music information in grooves pressed into the vinyl from a metal master that had its grooves engraved by a cutting needle that was being vibrated by the music. Upon playback, the needle reproduces the original vibrations as it is dragged along. You need to make sure that the records are free of dust as it will be picked up as signal by the needle and the needle will embedd it into the walls of the groove deteriorating the sound. The most common product is a brush with directional bristles and a special liquid made by a company called Discwasher. For very dirty records, a clean lint free cloth and a weak water and dishwashing liquid solution will work fine. There are also automated record cleaning machines that you can buy or use for a fee at your local used records emporium.

  5. Playing your record - Finally, ready? Carefully slip the record out of its protective sleeve unto your waiting hand, palm up, thumb outstreteched to catch the edge as your middle finger reaches for the record label. Holding the record with the sides of your hands carefully avoiding touching the grooves, place the record on the turntable platter. It is time now to select the speed (33 1/3rd RPMs for a standard 12 inch record), turn the motor on and wait for the platter to reach speed. As you look at the spinning record, you will see that it is divided into bands by sections where the grooves come apart and are not so close together. Each of those bands represents a track, be it a song or a movement. Count the number of bands corresponding to the number of the track you want to listen to, lower the volume of the receiver/amp and gently lower the needle in the shiny strip before your track. Raise the volume, sit back and enjoy. There is a peaceful magic to the gentle undulations of the tonearm over the spinning record as it adjusts to the imperfections of the record.

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