Inspecting Used Vinyl

I’ve found you can get great LP’s on a budget if you’re meticulous about inspecting them. Here’s how I go about it.

Pull LP’s without inspecting them. Flip and pull, flip and pull. Inspecting quality while you’re digging is strictly amateursville; it means others can’t flip the bin while you’re peeping at wax. You’ll inspect your finds later and do a much better job. Plus if the bins are popular you’ll get through them quicker and grab the good stuff before others do. It just looks badass to pull a big stack of cool titles after barely looking at them. (Downside: if you’re at a record store people may think you work there.)

If there are multiple copies of a title you want, be sure to grab all of them! Each one you grab raises the likelihood that you’ll get a good one.

Set up shop. Look up and find the brightest, most intense light you can find, then plop down right under it and go through your stack. If all the light’s the same, look for a quiet part of the store and do your inspection there. If you’re at a swap or yard sale, plop down on the ground crosslegged with your stack in front of you. Relax, this will take a few minutes.

Unsleeve the record. Pay attention to orientation and condition of the innersleeve. If the mouth of the innersleeve is facing out, same direction as the jacket’s mouth, that’s common but not ideal (means the record’s been pulled in and out a lot, both by owners and shoppers). If the mouth is up, “locking” the record in the sleeve, that’s better, suggesting the last owner was conscientious. If there are no seam rips on the innersleeve in the common 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions, the record has probably not been played much, which is great. If the innersleeve clings to the record slightly as you pull it out, that indicates the record hasn’t been pulled out much and is fairly dust-free.

If there is no innersleeve, that’s unfortunate; the record has likely been abused by the lack of protection. Still you can find records in fine shape even without innersleeves maybe 5% of the time. Not sure how this is possible but it is. (Consider borrowing a generic innersleeve from another record in the bins to protect your find.)

First impressions. Even before you look for scratches, pay attention to the luster of the record: does it look beautiful, with the iridescence of the grooves giving a sense of depth, kind of like “space tape” laser-etched foil? If so, this is very promising, and could mean a M- album. (A worn album will look flat, “dead,” or greyish.) Even better is to see a record with tiny paper “hairs” clinging to it, by-products of manufacturing the innersleeve. These are only present the first few times a record’s removed from a sleeve and are soon dusted off or blown away. This is rare, but thrilling when it happens. Little hairs, woo-hoo!

Dirty records. The first thing you’ll usually see before scratches is dust or dirt clinging to the record. Assuming you have a good cleaner such as a Spin Clean or VPI, this shouldn’t be a problem. But note that some dirty patches can conceal micro-scratches beneath. Also, what look like dirt spots can sometimes be little scratch zones, where grit has rubbed against the same small area, creating nasty squiggles. If in doubt about whether a record can be cleaned, put a few drops of water from your water bottle onto a fingertip and rub the record, drying it with the hem of your shirt. (Some desperate souls might use saliva, but not me. Hardly ever.)

Gimme a disc with hair. Sometimes what appear to be scratches can be hairs, usually pet but also human I guess. I’m always happy to find these hairy albums, because the hairs can fool record buyers into thinking the disc is thrashed when it may be in great shape, and they’ll price it cheaply.

Look for scratches. The nasty, noisy “deal-breaker” gouges will be obvious at first glance. (But don’t discard the LP yet, some may be scuffs; see below.) Less obvious will be the myriad mini- or micro-scratches present on most used records. Orient your record so the bright light source above you is blocked out by the label, and all scratches will become blindingly apparent. In ambient lighting conditions (most common), just keep shifting the record’s orientation until you see some scratches. (Redditor e-cow suggests using a mini Maglite flashlight at a 45-degree angle to highlight worn groove surfaces; light from directly above can tend to illuminate the untouched groove bottoms rather than the angled play surfaces.)

Keep a cynical frame of mind; I always tend to think, “Look how clean this is!” and have to force myself to be critical by saying, “Look how scratchy this is!” Sometimes out loud. I get weird looks. Whatever.

Check the edges. Since that’s where the stylus hits first, a lot of damage to LP’s can happen in the first half-minute of a side. Pull the record ALL the way out of the sleeve, not just 90% of the way, and check the perimeter carefully. Too often do I put the needle on what I thought was a “perfect” copy to hear some confounded clicking.

Touch me, baby. The old record collector’s axiom “if you feel it, you’ll hear it” is pretty reliable (but not quite foolproof). Run your finger across any questionable gouges. If your fingertip doesn’t feel it, your stylus may not either. (It may take a few trials to calibrate your fingertip vs. stylus sensitivity, though.)

Crossing the rubicon. Does a scratch cross the banding between tracks? This is helpful. Does the scratch actually cut into the dead wax, or does it disappear and pick up where the music grooves resume? If the latter, the scratch may not be deep enough to cause problems.

Scratches that skip. By far the worst scratches are the ones that run diagonally, almost parallel to the grooves. These camouflaged gouges are the ones most likely to make your needle skip ahead or play the same few notes over and over. These lateral nasties are the “black ice” of used vinyl, hard to see and deadly when you hit ‘em. Keep your eyes peeled.

Scratches or scuffs? Not all marks on records are audible (in everyday listening on average equipment). If you see a mark that’s wider than the point of a pin, you may be in luck; it could be a very shallow scuff instead of a scratch. Scuffs can be anywhere from 1/16” to 1/2 “. Scuffs may look awful but are seldom as problematic as scratches. (I bought a cheap copy of Thriller in apparently great shape and was horrified to find what looked like a screwdriver gouge across one track. But I couldn’t hear it in playback. Lucky!)

I’m always happy to find scuffed records in the cheapo bins, figuring buyers thought these were unplayable and discarded them.

When to be a bitch about scratches. Know your music. Music with sustained tones or quiet dynamics, such as acoustic folk, ambient, or classical, will sound terrible with even minor scratches in them, so be picky. Conversely, the volume and percussion of a loud rock or funk album will mask the scratches better. Also, consider the album side duration. Longer sides over 22 minutes (such as K-Tel compilations) will be microgrooved and cut pretty shallow, so almost any visible scratch will be audible. Conversely, short LP sides, especially those from the 1960’s, will be cut very deep, so visible scratches might not be heard. (I have a thrashed copy of More of the Monkees on Colgems that looks awful but sounds just fine.)

Look for warps. I should do this with every record I buy, but few turn out to be warped, so I don’t. Sometimes the records will just feel wrong or look distorted, so check ‘em out if they do. To inspect, hold the record at eye level and look laterally across the surface, from the near edge to the spindle hole. If the far edge “waves” above or below the surface, you’ve probably got a warp. Rotate the record 90° and try again. (Note that some very thin vinyl pressings, such as RCA Dynaflex from the 1970’s, will droop a bit while being inspected, so don’t be too hasty with these.)

Check for heat damage. Some records that have been exposed to heat will exhibit damage, usually just along one edge. This is not merely cosmetic; it will cause a nasty “whooshing” sound when playing, so avoid. Look for a “foamy” or pockmarked texture along one edge and extending an inch or two towards the middle. Usually this will be accompanied by minor warping or fluting along that edge. This isn’t too common but it’s definitely out there, so be vigilant.

If possible, give it a spin. Though this is a guide on visual evaluation, there’s no substitute for dropping the needle on suspect vinyl. If you go to swaps or yard sales a lot, bring your portable, battery-operated turntable or consider buying one. Don’t forget the headphones! If you’re in a good used record store, they’ll have listening stations with turntables for you to use, so definitely take advantage. Note problematic areas—“end of track 2 and middle of track 5”—and listen to those in particular. Always listen to every record you’re considering buying. Some that look scratch-free may have still been played to death.

About covers. Cover grading is its own art and one I tend to ignore; as long as there’s a jacket I’m happy. Be aware that torn or split jackets can be nicely repaired with acid-free tape. I wouldn’t do this with any high-value records, but for dollar-bin beater albums, why not.

Throw the bad ones back. It can be heartbreaking to put a beloved album that’s not up to snuff back in the bins, but it has to be done. (Still smarting over that thrashed dollar copy of Pink Floyd’s “A Nice Pair.”) I usually say something like, “This great album deserves better,” and then bid the title adieu: “We’ll meet again, my friend, on some other day.”

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