The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CVI: Warped
This story begins as many stories do, with a young woman who just wanted to hear LP's from her two favorite performers--Bob Marley and Sublime--played on a quality turntable. Her father had a decent record collection but alas, no turntable, and she was wondering if it was worth it to buy something new. I, of course, play the part of the crusty old audiophile friend who just happens to own one of them quality turntables. I made the mistake, of course, of inviting this woman and her fiancé to listen to my reference system while not actually owning a single Bob Marley or Sublime LP.
I didn't see it as a big problem at the time. MFSL pressings of Bob Marley's Exodus are still floating around at only slightly inflated prices, and much of Sublime's catalog has been remastered and reissued on LP over the last year. I chose the latter option since my local record store, The Sound Garden, had plenty of the reissued titles in stock. Last April when I exhibited at AXPONA, I visited my good friend Knut Skogrand of Skogrand Cables in his room and he wound up playing the new Sublime LP's for me on an insanely expensive system and I was floored by the sound quality.
“These are my homeboys!" I yelled to Knut over the music.
He appeared confused, probably since this wasn't a popular term back in his native Norway. “Homeboys?"
“I'm from Garden Grove," I told him, and suddenly he understood. He picked up the needle on his very expensive turntable and, with a huge knowing smile on his face, he cued up the song “Garden Grove," which so happens to be track one, side one of the eponymous third album. It was time for more of Knut's excellent whiskey. We drank and listened.
Back at The Sound Garden, I decided on Sublime's 1992 debut album, 40oz. to Freedom. I was hoping to get that self-titled 1996 album because that's the one with all the hits on it, but they were sold out. They had two copies of 40oz, and that was it. So I grabbed one, took it home and tried it out on the home system. There was a huge, unsettling problem from the get-go.
The album was warped.
It was warped so badly that the needle wouldn't stay in the groove. I could see the obvious and angry wobble from the LP edge as the platter spun and it reminded me of a dangerous amusement park ride operated by drunken carnies. Now this is certainly not the fault of the record store--LP's can get warped while stored at the record plant, during shipment or because some goober customer mishandled it in the store before sheepishly placing it back in the bins. And to its credit, the store gave me a swift refund (after taking the LP out and playing it on an ultra-cheap Audio-Technica USB turntable). It felt weird to do that, however. It seems like it's been decades since I've had to deal with a warped record.
Back when I was a teenager in the '70's, I remember warped records being quite common. That's probably because we were all clumsy, uncaring oafs, and new records only cost a few bucks each. We left bare, vulnerable LP's sitting unprotected on the shag carpet in our bedroom for weeks on end. We drove around with a cardboard box of LP's in the trunk of our cars--in the summer. When we were told that LP's should always be stored vertically, we shrugged our shoulders and said “oops."
But there's a point in every record collector's life when the following words are spoken: “I should start taking better care of my records." Maybe it's the excessive record noise, or maybe it's the ring wear on the album covers. Maybe it's the warping. Once I started to store my records properly, and once I bought a record cleaning machine, I had few problems with newly purchased LP's. Seeing this grotesquely warped record and the sight of my $2500 Transfiguration Axia cartridge bouncing up and down on it made me realize that warped records are still out there, and they are psychotic needle killers.
So how do you fix a warped record? I've already offered you my preferred option--getting a refund. But that obviously doesn't work for albums that are less than brand new, or warped due to user negligence. In the old days, we had a few homebrew solutions that worked, but with very mixed results. There was the old oven method, for instance, where you placed a warped LP on a cookie sheet and heated it some unspecified temperature for an unspecified amount of time. The only problem was that if you baked the LP for too long, or at too high of a temperature, you'd melt the grooves and the music would be lost forever.
I did experiment with one old-fashioned de-warping method that worked quite well--the one time that I actually tried it, that is. You place the LP between two panes of glass--the thicker and heavier the better--and you place this glass-and-vinyl sandwich out in the sun for a few minutes. Again, the length of time will be inexact and will depend upon the outside temperature, and I suppose someone has developed a very specific equation where x is the thickness of the vinyl, y is the size of the warp, z is the temp and some random Greek letter equals the exact time in the sun. Maybe you want to Google that before proceeding. All I can say is that I did it once, it worked really well, and it was probably all luck and caution that I did work. I AM NOT RECOMMENDING THIS METHOD TO ANYONE, so spare me the angry emails and the lawsuits.
One de-warping method that is simple and effective and safe is the use of record clamps and record weights. Most audiophiles know all about record clamps and have probably owned at least one. Record clamps fit over the spindle and help to flatten out an LP while it plays. Some record clamps are fairly heavy (and are therefore referred to as weights) and can be extremely effective for warped records--as long as the motor on your turntable can still maintain exact speed with the extra mass you've just added. I've used a heavy record weight on a belt-drive turntable with a small motor and no electronic speed control, and it did slow down the platter. All my favorite female singers suddenly sounded just like my favorite male singers.
Some record clamps, however, are lightweight and can be used with simple belt-drive turntables. I use the Clearaudio Clever Clamp, aka the Souther Clever Clamp, which is just an acrylic disk that fits tightly over the spindle. It weighs next to nothing and probably won't straighten out wildly warped LP's, but it works on almost everything else. A few years ago I bought the 45rpm multi-LP set of Willie Nelson's Stardust from Classic Records, and each LP was warped like a bowl--probably since only one side of each LP was stamped with grooves (that's my theory, anyway). This amazing-sounding album wouldn't play for than two or three minutes into the side before skipping. The Clever Clamp eliminated the problem.
There are many, many record clamps on the market, and most of them claim to be better than every other clamp and weight on the market for some reason or another. Some are made from rare materials and machined with incredibly tight tolerances. That means they're expensive. The Clever Clamp is about $30, which is indeed a lot of money for a piece of clear plastic, but I have seen quite a few clamps that go for several hundred or even several thousand dollars each.
Finally, you have the Furutech DF-2 LP Flattener. It's sort of the last word when it comes to warped LP's--and at $3100, it should be. But that's sort of missing the point.
The DF-2 is the only foolproof way to completely flatten warped records without damaging them. I've had experience with the earlier version (the DFV-1) and found it to work flawlessly every time. The DF-2 looks like one of those big laundry irons you see in prison movies, only sized appropriately for 12" LP's. You lift the lid, put the warped record on the platter, close the lids and push a button or two. After a carefully-controlled round of heating and cooling cycles, which typically last between 1.5 and 2.5 hours, the LP comes out perfectly flat.
Furutech is careful not to guarantee that every LP will be restored 100%. Badly warped records may be beyond help, and thinner LP's under 120g are not recommended. But for serious record collectors, the DF-2 is clearly a no-brainer--as long as you have that $3100.
That's where the audiophile community comes in. I'm sure that Furutech sells plenty of LP flatteners to single, well-heeled audiophiles. But I also know that plenty of DF-2s are sold to groups of vinyl loving friends who go in together on the cost. I've seen local audiophile societies and clubs purchase machines with membership dues, and members take turns using the machines. Plenty of high-end audio dealers and upscale record stores have also purchased DF-2s--in addition to ultrasonic record cleaning machines and even Furutech's controversial but effective LP demagnetizer--and they'll charge a reasonable fee to fix your music for you. Those dealers are worth searching out.
Warped records, like scratched-up records, are one of the main reasons why so many people abandoned vinyl in the '80's and the ‘90's. But if you drew a Venn diagram of all those people who left, and all the people who didn't take care of their records properly, you'd probably see a huge overlap. Storing your records vertically is the first step against warps.
So whatever happened with 40oz. to Freedom? The Clever Clamp got me through the audition, the young woman and her fiancée were mightily impressed, and I returned the LP afterward and got a copy of Yes' Fragile, the new remastered version from Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman. It was perfectly flat, sounded great and took me back to the time when you could stick an LP in the oven, forget about it, and then later ask “Can someone give me a lift to Tower Records? I gotta replace my dad's copy of DSOTM, stat."
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