Record shopping: Diving into the boxes and bins

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I have a local record fair/swap meet that occurs every month of the year except August and December. The venue it is held at has undergone some serious renovations and so to commemorate I’d thought I’d write about how I shop for records, used records in particular.

First though, I thought I’d show you the place I go ten months a year. It’s called “The Greater Orange County Record Show”. Dealers from all over the county come and bring boxes of records to sell and trade. There is literally something for everybody there. Of course every price point is also represented, one sees records for a dollar up to several hundreds of dollars, 99% is used records. I’ve been going to this for about 6 years or more. It’s a great way to spend a late Sunday morning. I usually come home with at least two records, I’ve come home with more. I’ve come home with nothing only two times. Yes, there are even bad record shopping days, rare though they may be. Even on a skunk day though one meets other enthusiasts or as has happened with me a few times lately, helping someone with info on cleaning records or how to evaluate them, etc. I may eventually do a short current video perhaps for this, but in the meantime here is one somebody made in 2012. The pic above is also old.

Ok, down to business I guess. I’m not talking about “collecting” records here. There is nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not my forte’. I’m more interested in adding music to my library to play and listen to. I’m in it for the music and sonics.

In today’s market most new records are expensive. Many start at around $25 to $30 for one record. I don’t care how you measure it, that is expensive. However, that is not to say it is without reason though. Records are far more expensive to manufacture today than they were up through the early 80s. Many record pressing machines have been in mothballs since the early 1980s, as have lathe cutters, etc. Record pressing machines are also self-destructive and maintenance requirements are high. Many fell into disrepair during the last 35 years, so anyone buying them has to do complete restorations before they can press the first record. The press it self may only cost $10,000 or $15,000, but the restoration is easily another $25,000, that’s each machine. Then there is the material cost to make records, which is higher now days.
When I first started buying records they could be had for around $1 to $3 for a new LP ($4 to $6 for a double) and single 45s where 50 cents on average. Those prices did eventually rise, but flash forward to the early 80s and new LPs still averaged $4 to $8 ($8 to $11 for a double) and single 45s were around $1 to $3.

Then CDs came along and the bottom dropped out for vinyl records for a while. One was hard-pressed to find new vinyl records, in any abundance at least.
Fast forward to today and the reverse is now the case. CDs are waning like falling off a cliff while vinyl is growing again in gargantuan proportions. In fact, most record shops no longer carry or even accept used CDs. It’s not that there is anything wrong with them 99% of time in terms of condition, it’s simply the fact that they do not sell nearly enough to warrant making space for them compared to vinyl now.

In my opinion, one of the more pleasurable and least expensive activities having to do with this hobby next to listening, is shopping for vinyl records. If you are looking to pick up records for your library for listening and enjoying, it doesn’t have to be expensive.

I still buy both used vinyl records and CDs (sometimes new CDs). Why do I do both? Well, in the case for CDs, there is the fact that used prices are so low they almost don’t register. If shopping used CDs on-line you will often pay more for shipping than what you paid for the CD (That’s still around $4 each, which is dirt cheap in my opinion). New CDs still hang around $9 to $10, which is still inexpensive. Another factor is that there are some recordings done for CD that will never be on vinyl. (You also don’t want a CD sourced vinyl record either). I also personally have a very small handful of recordings done in both vinyl and CD that just sound slightly better on CD to my ears, such as Rush for example. I can’t explain why it is like that, but it’s what my ears like for that particular artist.
There are also a small number of CDs out there that sound just as good as their vinyl counterparts. This is not the norm though. It’s all in the production and engineering, not to mention the CD player itself in small part.
That said, I have found that almost anything done on vinyl in the 50’s through even the early 80s does not sound good on CD in my opinion. In fact, often times the CD versions sound abrasive (for lack of a better word) to me.They tend to have a severe lack of dynamics in spite of the fact that they hold more data (this is due to compression and over-use of filters in mastering and production mostly) and they sound sterile or thin. For recordings from those eras (late 70s on back), I prefer to stick with vinyl.

First a little about pressings: This is the most challenging and hardest area to get familiar with. I’ve been at this activity of record shopping for years and I still have a great deal to learn in this area. I can’t look at a record’s matrix in the run-out grooves (aka dead wax) and decipher any of it on sight like analog master Michael Fremer can, not even close. It’s taken me a long time just to learn the little about labels I now know. I have a long way to go. I do know how to ID early pressings and the like at least. When I look for or at a pressing I’m  far more interested in the quality of sound rather than its monetary or perceived value. There are some pressings out there that were made long ago as well that are just not good for whatever reason. For instance, the United Artist pressings of Gordon Lightfoot are awful, I learned that the hard way.

Generally, the earlier pressings sound best because they were made from the original masters, but again it also depends on the house doing the pressings. This is an easy aspect to learn, but it can get confusing, because sometimes a certain place can either improve or go south at certain times. Generally speaking British pressings are one of the best and German pressings can also be very good. US pressings are a mixed bag though in that they are somewhat unreliable unlike the British or German, etc. pressings. For instance the old “Columbia 360 label or A&M records had very high standards. Warner Bro standards went in and out though. For instance, the old olive-green WB label usually meant a very good pressing while the WB label with the picture of a tree-lined street was pretty good sometimes and sometimes just OK. Then there are pressings from United Artist, K-Tel………
Oh, one thing here: There is no such thing as a “mint” pressing in used records. I’ve run across older records that were sealed, but it just means that somebody has a shrink-wrap machine and does not prove that the record is original pressing and mint (un-played).

It could also depend on the mastering engineer as well.
One of the fun aspects is that you never really know how a record will sound until you play it. It is just as possible to find that a seemingly nice early pressing sounds horrible while a later pressing of said record sounds fabulous.
In fact, being familiar with mastering engineers is where some research can really pay off. I’m still learning this myself. I’m learning who was good and how to identify them in the matrix. Sometimes the jacket will not list the mastering engineer in which case I look for the symbol or initials or sometimes full name in the matrix in the run-off groove. (See next page for record shopping tips)