Help in reducing distortion from old mono records.

I listen to some old historical classical recordings now and then and I recently picked up an old London LP in excellent condition from the early to mid 50's of Ernest Ansermet conducting Stravinsky.

I usually only buy the newer reissue LPs or CDs of these historical recordings because they don't distort nearly as bad as the originals, but being a big Ansermet fan and not having this recording, and knowing that these old London monos are really hard to find in this conditon, I couldn't resist.

The Fire Bird Suite on side A plays beautifully, but the Symphony of Psalms on side b, which is a choral work, distorts badly even at lower volumes. I've noticed that voices on Choral music distorts easily on these old mono records, and to a lesser extent on old stereo ones as well. I couldn't have asked for a better copy, so I know it's not the condition of the record causing this as I've heard this problem before on other records, even unplayed, still sealed ones.

What can I do to help reduce the distortion? Any stylus recommendations? Would getting a good quality mono only cartridge help? I've never owned a really high end turntable, but I've owned Rega and Project in the past and still suffered from excessive distortion on old records.

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Ditto the Stravinsky conducting the Firebird. I think the later Columbia pressing of the complete Firebird in the 3-record box (with Rite, etc) is very good, and smoother sounding than the latest CD reissue (which contains some distortion in the loud parts).

One has to ask, why do we put ourselves through all this agony, but then I was listening to an old mono version of Ansermet doing Debussy's Jeux this morning (after I gave it a good cleaning) and the sound was really nice...though I had to listen through a bit of surface noise here and there.

I got a new cartridge about a month ago, and it has improved my tracking of "problem" records noticeably. But not all of them. And there is still some end-of-side distortion. But the good Lps sound warmer and easier to listen to than most of the corresponding CDs (to my ear). And a really good record tracks beautifully (like the Arrau Debussy on under-rated label, in my book).
Amen to all that. Please allow me to take a moment to suggest two Firebird's I've enjoyed thorougly: Stravinsky's own, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in pretty decent Columbia sound, (I've tried every incarnation and the best IMHO is the one included with the Franklin Mint 100 Greatest Recordings). Stravinsky never lets the orchestra or the listener forget the ballet's avian roots, even in the finale. The other I always reach for is Dutoit's on London digital lp. His is simply the most perfumed and exotic, esp in the first half. I know everyone raves about the Dorati on Mercury, and while the Infernal Dance is, *wow*; the rest isn't as magical as the above. Luckily both can be had for around $2.
Thanks for the info JDaniel13,

I agree that some pressings of LP's, even identical ones, can be very different from others. Just like some bottles of the same wine can be different, and just like wine, it does make it frustrating when you come across a bad one but also very rewarding and fun when you get a great one!

I recently picked up a still sealed London stereo LP of Ansermet conducting Hayden, Mozart and Schumann (not too much luck with the London/Ansermet LP's lately huh?) and it too had a couple of spots of distortion and even mistracked in one area. It was bad out of the box!

Such is the minefield that one has to occasionally put up with when buying these types of LP's. I can understand why some would rather have the newer reissue LP's, or just buy the CD. They are much more consistent.

Fortunately, I only paid $1.00 for the mono Ansermet LP and only $10.00 for the stereo one. I wouldn't risk any big bucks on LP's like this unless I trusted the dealer and he had a good return policy. At least I can still listen to the great performance of The Fire Bird suite on side 1, and if I ever find another pressing of this that plays fine all the way around, I have a NM cover to slip it into!

The problem is that I had to learn this stuff myself the hard way. There is a lot of misleading info out there from fanatically biased LP lovers, who will always blame the equipment, the amount of money one spends on it, the cleaning method used, etc., as the reason for poor sound. When in reality, the LP just sounds plain bad.
Regarding "tube-cut," I'm only talking about sound-quality, the lp's have a "glow," supposedly imparted by the tubes, that later Lp's do not. (My point was that, the last released *may* be the least played.) This was just an aside, had nothing to do with the topic. (There were three tube-cut releases of Furtwangler's Mono EMI Tristan: the first, in six separate lp covers, then a 6 lp box set, and finally a 5 lp "Everyman Opera Series" box set) I obsess over this performance, and have had the best of luck with the last mentioned.)

And yes, I meant inner groove damage, which causes a type of inner groove distortion. Your description and curiosity reminded me of my own concerns when I first stumbled across the issue. I, too, was curious as to why a hugely complex orchestral passage--closer to the end of the record mind you--did *not* have damage, while a relatively quiet but sudden vocal passage toward the beginning of the record *did.* IMHO, vocal, piano, and choral, sometimes even loud solo flute, are the first to go bad.

It bothered me a lot the first time I came across such damage. I called my stereo guru and had him try different realignments, etc. The "cure" came when I stumbled upon the exact same record, which played perfectly, or--when I've found reviews from ages ago about a certain records which complain about the exact same passage; that they were cut too hot, or--I acquired the reel to reel or CD and discovered the distortion was in the master tape.

I would throw away the lp and move on. There is no one pressing that is alike, and one can never know how an lp was previously handled, which makes the exploration fun but also frustrating.
Hello JDaniel13,

When you said inner groove damage did you mean inner groove distortion? That's normal to some degree on LP's as it gets closer to the end grooves but it should be barely noticeable if at all. The distortion on the Ansermet LP I'm talking about is so bad in spots on the choral piece that it sounds like it's audibly cracking up.

Also, I don't see what difference it would make whether an LP was tube-cut or not in a physical sense as far as groove damage was concerned, and weren't most LP's from the fifties tube-cut? I know that most home audio and TV's were still tube up to the early sixties.

I think it's simply inner groove damage, which in my experience is much more prevalent on choral, vocal and piano recordings; not just the old mono ones, but also lp's from the late 70's when light tracking force was all the rage. It is not suprising to me at all that an all orchestral piece has none, even if played more. My stereo guru says that people used to align their mono carts at the edge of the record, rather than with the usual null points.

I returned a $300 mono Furtwangler Tristan because of inner groove distortion, even though the records looked perfect. That was uncomfortable. I love mono Classical opera, so I zero in on the very last tube-cut editions, which have that great tube sound. It's your best chance at the least damaged monos, IMHO. Of course, you've got how many stereo releases from '58 to '89 to choose from? : )
To Johnss and Electroid,

I know that playing a record with a bad stylus can damage the grooves, but The Fire Bird suite on side 1 of the record in question plays fine. It's the choral piece on side 2 that distorts, as I stated in my thread.

I suppose it's possible only one side of this LP could have been damaged, but it seems unlikely. The Fire Bird suite was a more popular piece then the Choral one on side 2, and thus would have been more likely played than the other one. If the stylus was bad enough to cause that much damage to side 2, then that would indicate that The Fire Bird suite was probably never played at all.

I've noticed that massed Choral voices or high sopranos distort on a lot of these old records, and the problem isn't limited just to old monos but some of the first generation stereo ones as well, although to a lesser extent. Could there have been that many people out there with bad stylus' playing them?

Other than the possibility of groove damage, I've come to the conclusion that there are probably two causes for this problem.

1. The modern turntables and stylus' we use today simply cannot track these LP's properly. A turntable with a higher mass tone arm and a high quality mono cartridge may be needed, but what kind of turntable/cartridge and where do you get them?

2. That these records are just plain lousy. The technology used in the cutting of these old LPs simply wasn't good enough to record high frequencies properly, and nobody in their right mind and with ears to hear should be telling us that these things sound better than their more modern reissues, LP or CD.

What do you think? I think it's some of number one with some of number 2 thrown in also. After all, there are plenty of great sounding reissues out there taken from vintage LP's, so there must be a way to make them sound good.

I'm just trying to find out how!
I've gotten interested in some of the old mono classical records and noticed the same thing, occasionally. In 2 instances, I got 2nd copies of the same record, and found that the 2nd copy played much better. I talked to a couple of experienced dealers in old records, who were of the same view as Johnss--that the distorted-sounding records had probably been played with a problematic stylus years ago. But they also advised as does Electroid that if you're really serious about the old mono records, it pays to get a mono cartridge and stylus. I don't have room for one myself now, but it's on my list.
Chris, its possible the copy you bought was played by its previous owner who had a table and cart that did not track well, adn likely damaged the grooves. If that is the case, then your best bet is to look for another copy.

One thing you can try is to take your record cleaning solution and cut it 50% with Distilled water. Mix it well and let it soak for a few hours on the offending side. You'll have to come back every 10 min to add more fluid to keep the surface wet. After an hour or two of this use your VPI or nitty gritty to vacuum off the fluid. Let the record sit flat for a few days, then give it a play. This process will remove the junk from the groove walls that has been ground in, and may reduce the distortion somewhat. If you are referring to the Ansermet performance on London, I have the same London LP, and do not have the distortion issues mentioned.


get a mono cart w/ the correct stylus for the type of record you are playing.

Chris 383 : From your description , I suggest the issue maybe the speed set at the time the recording was pressed coupled with the fact that your record player does not allow for sufficient adjustment for speed variance. Many older Lps were not speed synk'ed to the standards of today. Perhaps that is why this recording is in such good condition (unplayable) . Should you have a friend that has an fully adjustable speed controller or a friendly audio dealer that has one set-up with a turntable give that a try . A few slight twists of the speed adjustment could straighten out the sound or not. Chances are the problem is in the pressing . All the best