Needle Drops - Tools & Techniques

vinyl
#1

Since there are a good few vinyl listeners active here, and some just adding LP-replay capabilities to their rigs, I thought it might be a good idea to start a thread for discussing Needle Drops, how to go about them, and the tools and techniques that are available/can be employed when making them.

What is a Needle Drop?

A Needle Drop, in this case, is simply a digital recording of an LP.

What is involved in making a Needle Drop?

At a minimum you’ll require a turntable, an analog-to-digital converter (ADC), and a means to record the output of the ADC - which might be a dedicated recorder or a computer (or similar) and sound recording/editing software.

Depending on the turntable, ADC and software used, you may also need a phono-preamp/stage. And dedicated digital recorders typically have ADCs built-in.

With those things in place, you play the record while feeding the output of the turntable, or your phono-stage into your ADC/recorder and capture it with the recorder or via your computer and software. Once done, if desired, you can process the audio to “de-click/de-pop” it, split up the recording into individual tracks, add suitable metadata and/or convert the data to an appropriate replay format (be that MP3, AAC, FLAC etc.).

Advanced Options

In most cases your turntable or phono-stage will provide an output at line-level with RIAA EQ already applied. This allows for direct recording of the output. In some cases it can be advantageous to use a phono-stage with defeatable RIAA EQ, or a simple line-amp, and capture the raw output from the LP without applying RIAA EQ and then apply the necessary equalization in software.

Note that you will have to apply some kind of EQ to a raw recording otherwise it will almost completely lack bass and have an extreme excess of treble.

Typically this approach is most interesting when using high-end, purpose-specific, vinyl recording solutions that have their own built-in LP EQ options. It is most generally encountered when doing Needle Drops of older material that was pressed from a master using a curve other than the “standard” RIAA EQ curve. Some hardware phono-stages also allow for applying different EQ curves to deal with such pressings (e.q. Parks’ Audio Puffin and iFi Micro iPhono).

Initial Recordings/Capture

Most ADCs and recording tools will allow you to perform your capture, or recording, at different quality levels. It is quite common, if not actually necessary, to do such capture at higher bit-depths and sample rates than you ordinarily intend to use for replay - and then keep those raw captures around in case you want to process them differently in the future.

Personally I tend to capture in PCM format at 24-bit/192 kHz, do any and all editing at that level, and then convert down to 24-bit/96 kHz FLAC for actual replay. That way, if better de-click/pop options become available it’s a quick re-run through my processing chain to take advantage of it, without having to re-record the LP from scratch.

Processing the Capture

This can involve doing software-based RIAA EQ (etc.), marking up the recording with metadata and track start/stop points, performing various noise-reducing operations, and actually generating individual music files for replay elsewhere (some people choose not to split up the tracks and just play “sides” as they were recorded).l

There are lots of ways to do this, ranging from manual editing in a free, general purpose, audio editing tool, such as Audacity (which works on Windows, macOS and Linux), to specialty tools - specifically built to do Needle Drops - like Vinyl Studio or Pure Vinyl.

Specialty software will generally have more appropriate built-in de-click/de-pop and other noise processing than general purpose software, both for automatic processing as well as manual adjustment.

Commonly, these tools allow you to do non-destructive editing such that when they get updated, you can simply re-run them, and the settings/edits you made, over the original captures and output new files in a single, quick, operation.

There are also a number of tools specifically for automatically de-clicking/popping a recording, such as the Click Repair tools. Using these generally makes for a less automated processing step, but often yields better, and faster, net results.

If you’ve chosen to split the Needle Drop up into individual tracks, then the specialty tools have track-timing/splitting look-up databases behind them that make the process much faster/easier, as well as allowing mostly-automated application of metadata, album art and so on.

Playback

This is either done using your normal audio chain/player from the converted files, as tracks, or can be played back in the editing tools from the original source capture - often with the noise-elimination processing being applied in real-time. The former is probably the most common, but those who like to listen to LPs “as an album” often opt for the latter.

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#2

My personal Needle Drop process and toolset is as follows …

First, I clean the LP I’m doing using a VPI 16.5 Record Cleaning Machine. I remove static build-up with a Zerostat, and then it is placed on the table and brushed with a Hunt EDA MK 6 record brush. The record is played once to check for issues, and also to allow the stylus to “clean” the groove as well. The record is then re-brushed, the stylus recleaned, and the LP recorded. The LP is then put into a clean anti-static liner and returned to the original sleeve and jacket.

I use the turntable in my speaker rig for doing needle drops. This feeds the moving coil input on the latest Linn Akurate DSM. The Akurate DSM has its own high-quality ADC built-in and after digitizing its phono-input applies the RIAA EQ curve internally via software. That is then made available at both the analog and digital outputs of the Akurate DSM.

I do my recording in the digital domain, taking a 24-bit/192kHz S/PDIF feed from the Akurate DSM and capturing using a Tascam DR-100 MK3 in bit-bucket mode (it just records the digital stream, so isn’t using its internal ADC) to standard SD cards.

I capture one-side per file, and at 24/192 that typically yields about a 2GB file. I keep this “raw capture” even after processing, to allow for re-processing in the event that better software/algorithms are developed.

To actually process the files, first I run Click Repair over the entire side, on relatively unaggressive settings and keeping the protection options enabled.

Then I create a new album in Vinyl Studio and import all the sides for that album. I select the closest matching album from the various databases supported (Discogs etc.) to pre-load the most appropriate metadata, album art and track-split/timing information. This is rarely perfect, but usually only requires small manual adjustments to start/stop points – and Vinyl Studio makes that process quick and visual, usually only taking a couple of minutes.

If no metadata exists for the album, then doing all of the input and track-marking generally takes about a minute per track.

We’re almost done at this point …

The final “editing” step involves running Vinyl Studio’s automatic de-click/de-pop routines, which are non-destructive (they do not change the source material), and do a before/after comparison to make sure that the pitch and brass protection functions are preserving the “bite” of such thing. And then if there are any issues that the automatic processing can’t handle, I will use the built-in manual editor to patch those spots; this is a fairly rare occurrence.

And lastly, I output the album as a series of tracks at 24-bit/96 kHz FLAC. Vinyl Studio takes proper care of this conversion, and will also take care of any necessary dithering if you convert to a lower bit-depth.

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#3

Not to be confused with intentionally distorted recordings that are meant to sound like bad needle drops or seriously damaged source material. Examples include:

The Sugarcubes - Birthday

Pink Martini - Que Sera Sera

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#4

Folks, the first paragraph or two is very important. If you are planning on capturing the record’s sound, make sure the record is clean. Like everything else, there are expen$$ive and cheap ways to do this.

Personally, I like the Spin Clean products for reasonably - priced cleaning. I use distilled water, and have a bunch of their towles. Spin Clean is reliable, and I find you are much less likely to mis-handle the records when you use something like this.

If you keep your records for replay, I also suggest getting some premium inner sleeves to replace the paper ones. Much better for your records.

The Zerostat or an anti-static brush is also useful.

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#5

I quite like the Spin Clean … it is very cost effective especially if one pays attention to the state of the cleaning bath and doesn’t go mad trying to clean dozens of really dirty LPs without changing it out. It should be considered a minimum requirement, though if you’re not the impatient type delivers results very close to those of more fiddly RCMs.

The various vacuum record-cleaning machines have a bit of “technique” involved in getting the best from them. Which takes a few tries to get down properly. They’re also very noisy, large, heavy and ABSOLUTELY requires some kind of anti-static treatment after the cleaning!

In the end I found they were worth it, but to get the best out of them required using a three-pass approach. The first being a simple surfactant/wetting agent laced pass, then a pass with a detergent or solvent based fluid and finally a “rinse” with a pure, ionized, fluid. And then a pass with the Zerostat.

Once I move the next block of LPs here from the UK I expect I’ll switch to an ultrasonic cleaner, but we’ll see.

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#6

I’m also an amateur needledropper. Nice to see a thread like this. I’ll “me three” the importance of clean records, though I’m not using a VPI or Zerostat (really should grab one, though). Instead, it’s just the following gear:

Distilled water
SpinClean
Drying rack

I also have the Audio Intelligent 3-step solutions (which I wish were much cheaper than they are) to use on grimy records or stuff I get used from the local shop, but a quick “spin” with some distilled water and the subsequent drying can be accomplished in no time flat. As stated above, keeping your records clean is key to a good needledrop. Keeping the stylus/needle clean falls right behind it.

For transfers, I removed the built-in phono stage from my Audio Technica LP120 and soldered in a pair of RCAs (just cannibalized an AmazonBasics cable) and new ground lead, which gets fed out to an ART USB Phono Plus. From there, I send USB into my desktop and use VinylStudio for the recording process. A little ClickRepair follows (usually on a very low setting, one Reverse pass, one Forward), and then it goes right back into VinylStudio for identifying the track breaks and export.

Realistically, I have about enough patience to do one, maybe two needledrops a day. While Vinyl Studio and ClickRepair are more than worth their asking price, they’re tools just like any other and require time and attention to do it right. Luckily, VinylStudio’s adjustments are non-destructive and can be undone later if you’re not happy with the results. Be comfortable that you may not get all of the pops and clicks out…just focus on the outliers or you’ll end up entirely sucking the life out of your recordings (been there, done that). If you’ve got a bottomless budget or access to the tools, iZotope’s RX is FANTASTIC for repairing needledrops.

Feel free to ask any other questions; chances are I’ve made enough mistakes to keep you from doing the same.

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