Decibel Dungeon


Introduction

There's quite a choice of media when it comes to hi-fi, although most of us will probably only use two or three. Here is a list of the ones that I can think off:
  • Record cylinders
  • 78 RPM records
  • Modern vinyl LP's
  • Vinyl 'singles' & EP's
  • 1/4 inch magnetic tape
  • Cassette tape
  • Video tape
  • Cartridge tape
  • Magnetic disk
  • CD, DVD, DVD audio, SACD
  • Minidisc

I use CD, vinyl and cassette tape, and over the years have built up quite a collection of all three. This represents quite an investment in both time and money so I reckon it's worth making sure that I look after it. Sadly, for many people, these items are just something that you buy, use (or abuse) and throw away when they no longer perform satisfactorily or the content has lost its appeal. If you are serious enough about hi-fi to spend your time on the DIY approach, you will also want to make sure that your media, whatever it is, is in the best possible condition to optimise the sound coming from your 'speakers.
You will see from the following that there is quite a bit you can do (or have done) to improve even the so-called perfect sound of a humble CD. And LP's respond particularly well to some loving care and attention.
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Caring for vinyl

I'm only going to give some basics for looking after your vinyl collection. Most people still using vinyl are aware of the importance of looking after it and there are a few good places on the internet to get full details of how to clean records. So here are the basics:
  • Store all records in a vertical position - never horizontally, piled on top of each other.
  • Always put the record back in its sleeve immediately after you have played it. Place the sleeved record in the outer sleeve with the opening of the inner-sleeve opposite to the mouth of the 'outer'.
  • Store records in a cool dry environment away from heat and direct sunlight.
  • Use a microfibre cloth or brush to clean the record each time you play it.
  • If a record needs further cleaning, find a safe and recommended method.
  • When using a wet cleaning method make sure that the labels are protected.
  • If you intend to clean a lot of records consider getting a record cleaning machine (or building one).
  • ALWAYS let records dry out completely after any wet cleaning before you play them.
  • Keep your stylus in good condition and use the correct tracking force.
The problem of static has long been a cause of concern to audiophiles. The theory is that a surface charged with static electricity attracts dust. Various items are available to (supposedly) cure the problem, amongst them a device known as a 'Zerostat pistol'. Before you rush off and buy one, you should read a little more about the subject here . If you still want to try one, they are available in the UK from Goldring Products. You can email them here.
Other ways of coping with static involve special liquids, cloths and brushes. For examples of these items visit Mantra Audio.
Do not be tempted to use a household cleaning product containing an anti-static agent. Most of these products also contain silicone which should never go anywhere near hi-fi equipment or anything connected with it.
If you have a lot of records, a record cleaning machine will make good sense. Unfortunately, these cleaning machines are usually quite expensive, putting off many vinyl users from trying them. One good way to own a cleaning machine is to take the DIY route and build one from a kit. One of the better known machines (in the UK) is made by Moth and sold through British Audio Products online. Wisely, the machine is also offered in kit form with full support for those that want to build one at almost half the cost of the ready-built version.
For much more comprehensive information on the subject of looking after vinyl, go to the excellent Arts & Media site. (Plenty of information and loadsa links) Another good read on all aspects of record care can be found at the Library of Congress record care site.

TIP - if you do want to test out a cleaning method that you are unsure of, there is no need to experiment with any of your treasured records; there is no shortage of Des O'Conner LP's in the charity shops!

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Caring for CD's

Despite the hype which surrounded the birth of CD back in the early 1980's, they are just as vulnerable to damage as records. Given their high price (particularly here in the UK) it makes sense to look after them just as carefully. Here are some do's and don't's:
  • Only handle CD's with clean hands and fingers
  • When not playing them, keep CD's in the cases and don't leave the case around where they can get damaged
  • Keep CD's away from sources of heat, including strong sunlight
  • Don't write on any part of the disk with spirit based ink

All the above are pretty obvious but you may not know that CD's can benefit from washing, just like records.
There is a theory that a CD has a thin film of wax on its surface. This wax is from the mould which stamped out the CD and facilitates the releasing of the mould from the CD. There are more than a few sources of 'magic' liquids which are sold to remove this wax and clean the CD at the same time. Their prices range from fairly expensive to extortionate and I'll never be convinced that they do the job any better than domestic washing up liquid.
Here's the method I use for cleaning CD's which works well enough.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before you begin.
  • Hold the CD in one hand and apply a small amount of washing up liquid to the playing surface.
  • Using your forefinger, rub the liquid into the playing surface of the CD using a radial movement.

Radial motion
Always rub in a radial direction

  • After a few minutes, rinse the CD under a cold water tap. Continue to use your finger as before until all traces of detergent have disappeared.
  • Place the CD on a clean paper kitchen towel while you dry your hands.
  • Use more paper towelling to gently mop up the dampness on the CD and then use some soft tissue to lightly polish it (again using a radial motion).
  • Don't play the CD until it is quite dry.
I have found that some CD's respond more to cleaning than others but it won't do any harm to clean them anyway.
Static electricity is said to have a detrimental effect on the sound quality of CD's. If this worries you, refer back to the 'static' comments in the section of vinyl care.
If you have any CD's with a scratch or mark which causes them not to play properly, you may be able to rectify matters by 'polishing' out the blemish. This is not a 100% cure but can often rescue an otherwise unplayable track.
First clean the CD using the method above. When it is dry, use a soft tissue or cloth with either toothpaste or a metal polish such as 'Brasso', and very gently rub over the blemish. (Don't forget to use a radial movement for the rubbing) If the CD still won't play you could try repeating the polishing process. Note that toothpaste leaves a matte glaze on the surface of the CD but this does not seem to impair the sound quality.

TIP - unlike records, CD's should be stacked horizontally. This doesn't make any difference to their condition or sound quality but it should prevent you getting neck ache trying to read the covers!

I have not yet owned or used any of the newer disk formats like DVD or SACD so cannot comment on whether any of the above information on CD's pertains to them.
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Blank Cd's and recording

These days, most people do some sort of recording on to blank Cd's. As with every other aspect of hi-fi, the choice of blank media is hotly debated. Rather than go into detail here, I suggest visiting the CDR FAQ site where this subject is discussed at length. There is also a lot of advice on recording to CD, whether you are just copying another CD or transferring LP's or cassettes to CD.
For copying from CD, I recommend the Exact Audio Copy software which you can read more about on the EAC site. For burning to disk, try the Feurio software.
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Caring for tapes and cassettes

There's less you can do to rejuvenate any of the tape formats so careful storage and usage is maybe even more important.
Keep any tape media in a dust-free container which should be stored in a cool dry place. Never put them near to a strong magnet (like the ones in your 'speakers).
It may be possible to rescue a damaged or jammed cassette tape by transferring the tape to another cassette. This is quite a tricky job but not impossible given some time and patience.
Broken tape can usually be 'spliced' back together using a special adhesive tape to secure the join.

TIP - A stereo video recorder can produce very high quality sound and the tapes run for up to four hours. This makes them ideal for recording radio programmes like the excellent 'Bob Harris' show which goes out for three hours late on Saturday nights.

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Caring for other formats

I have not yet owned or used any of the newer disk formats like DVD or SACD so cannot comment on whether any of the above information on CD's pertains to them.
As regards the older recording formats, 78 RPM records, record cylinders and magnetic disks, I am not qualified to offer advice. As some of these older items may have some value to collectors I suggest it may be wise not to mess around with them unless you know what you are doing.
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Buying secondhand

One reason why we DIY is to save money so I thought a few words on how to save on media wouldn't go amiss.
When I recently completed my turntable project, I was aware that I didn't have that many albums to play on it and wanted to expand my collection. Fortunately, I wasn't looking at 15+ prices (as I would have done for new CD's) because there is an amazing amount of secondhand vinyl available.
Anyone who hasn't bought vinyl secondhand, may wonder if it is worth bothering with as regards their sound quality. What do they sound like after someone else has used or abused them for 30 or 40 years?
Obviously quality varies enormously and there are some bad examples but there are a lot of very well preserved albums as well. I've been amazed at the quality of some I have bought. And at the sort of price that you can pick these up for, typically pence rather than pounds, you are not risking very much to find out if an album is still worth playing.
When buying a record, remove it from its sleeve and (in good light) check for any scratches or marks. Fingerprints and dust are OK as they are quite easily removed later. Stay clear of warped examples, they can play havoc with your turntable. Have a look at the sleeve, it will usually tell you how well (or badly) the album has been looked after. It really isn't too difficult to pick out the 'wheat from the chaff'.
Of course, you can also go to specialist suppliers and pay a lot of money for 'collectors items' like Beatles albums. If you are lucky you may even find these gems for considerably less at 'boot sales' or charity shops.
Buying secondhand vinyl is a subject on its own and much has been written about it. I'll just say that apart from the sheer enjoyment of the music, it's also great fun hunting down the bargains and rediscovering albums that you may have owned many years ago.
You can also purchase CD's secondhand, although their prices seem to be generally higher than vinyl. Whatever your choice, buying good used media is a viable way to build an interesting and extensive collection of music to play on your hi-fi.
One final thought on the subject of 'cheap' music to play through your cherished hi-fi. If you own a radio tuner, you have an almost unlimited source of material for those times when you just can't find the 'right' album to put on!
Worm Here's' a pointer to some secondhand record sources .
And a UK source here.
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