All Schmutzed Up and I Don’t Know Why
It gets extremely cold in my apartment. Each winter, I curse and shiver and seal my windows with plastic and tape. The kitchen is coldest. I place a small electric heater on top of my refrigerator and turn it to high. I can hear the whirring sound from my living room, but it’s not loud enough to disturb my listening.
Of course, with the winter also comes dry air. Dry air is a real bitch. A few weeks back, right before Christmas, I started having big problems with static electricity. Every time I’d go to flip the side of an LP, I’d be shocked to near death. After awhile, I became afraid of reaching the end of a side. The needle would hit the run-out groove and I’d just sit there, shivering. “You flip it,” I’d say out loud. But no one would answer.
Luckily, this horrible static only lasted for a day or two. I thought the trouble was gone.
About a week ago, though, while listening to John Fahey’s Days Have Gone By, Vol.6, I thought I heard some distortion during a passage of music that had previously been exquisitely rendered. I ignored it and went to bed.
A few days later, the distortion was louder. I played Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, an album I know sounds good from beginning to end. I got halfway through “Two Weeks,” and I had to pull the needle from the record. Something was wrong. Distortion marred the jaunty keys and made the vocals nearly unlistenable. I played the Paper Hats’ Desert Canyon, an album loaded with detailed strumming and finger-picking and big, bold images that plant themselves firmly in your listening room, sure to impress any visitor. It sounded like shit. I played Low’s Secret Name, produced by Steve Albini and infused with space and power and delicacy. I could have cried.
My Rega was sick.
Could it be that the ‘table needed to be leveled? Could be. My entire apartment seemingly shifts three or four inches this way and that every night. Changes in weather send doorways, floorboards, and window frames screaming and cowering in cramped pain. Some mornings, I wake up and feel like I’m on a boat. I can barely walk to the bathroom without falling to one side of my slanted and enchanted apartment. So, I checked the level. It was fine, but I messed with it anyway. I ripped a Stereophile subscription card from a nearby issue, cut an inch-wide strip, and folded it in half two times. I stuck this beneath one of my Rega’s three rubber feet and said a little prayer.
Now the ‘table was level, but it still sounded like shit.
Could it be that the cartridge alignment was off? I dug out my Rega-supplied protractor and took a look. Seemed perfect to me. I didn’t mess with it. Could it be that the tracking force was wrong? The bias adjustment gone berserk? My handy-dandy Rega tip sheet tells me that all Rega cartridges track at 1.75g of tracking force. Well, that’s where my Elys was set, but I messed with it anyway. I gently pulled the bias slider until it was fully extended, setting the bias at zero. I carefully turned the tracking force control until it reached zero, too. I then began futzing with the counterweight. Screwing it towards the cartridge drops the tonearm down; screwing it away from the cartridge lifts the tonearm up. You’re supposed to do this until you get the shaft of the stylus to float just 1mm clear of an LP surface. Good luck with that.
I got it to a point I could live with, and I listened to a record. Sigh. I went to bed.
The next morning, I woke up knowingI mean, knowingwhat I had done wrong. I hadn’t marked the stylus at 1mm above the LP surface. I had set it at 1cm above the LP surface! Good grief. What a fool I am. Damn metric system. Guffaw, guffaw. I got to work and this time I did it right. And this time, my records still sounded like shit. WTF?
The only consistency to this misery was that the distortion occurred during loud, complex passages of music. For instance, I could listen to an entire side of Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages, which features mostly just voice and guitar, without a single problem. I could listen to parts of Veckatimest happily, but as soon as the drums and synths and worlds came crashing down, the distortion would come raging in. I could listen to Secret Name and fall in love, but just until the enormous bass kicks came stomping in. Bass kicks that should have sounded like a family of massive elephants trudging into my living room sounded only like so much Styrofoam and crumpled paper.
Desperate, I sent an e-mail to my friend, Michael Lavorgna. Could be schmutz, he suggested. Schmutz, I thought. Can schmutz on the stylus create this awful distortion during complex passages of music? Yup, he said.
It had occurred to me that my stylus could be dirty. I had given it a good swipe with Mobile Fidelity’s LP#9 stylus cleaner. And while I’m happy to use this product regularly, feeling that it prolongs the life of my Elys and maybe even makes my records sound better, it hadn’t really solved my distortion problem. But another thought came to mind: LP#9 comes with a small stylus cleaning brush. I’ve never used it because it seems rather rough. On this night, however, desperate as I was, I went for it.
I put a flashlight to my stylus and noticed all sorts of schmutz up in there. Strands of dust hung from my stylus and clawed out in so many directionslike tentacles, like snakes. Eek. Very carefullyI mean, extremely carefullyI swabbed the stylus with the itty-bitty brush, starting from the back and gently stroking forward. I did this three times and quit. I prayed. I sat down on my orange couch and played one of the problematic records.
I listened, scared.
A smile blossomed across my face and wrapped itself around my entire living room.
I sighed a sigh of happiness and relief.
I sent a round of breathless text messages to Michael. The first went at 8:33PM.
8:33PM: as of this moment, my system is sounding better than ever…two tracks in without a hiccup, plus greater resolution, detail, and impact…will try another track.
Go to bed now, ML advised.
8:48PM: i am now convinced that it was nothing but the schmutz. ha! thanks so much, dude.
Great, go to bed.
9:05PM: hmm…just hit a really demanding track and the distortion is present again…confounding!
I told you to go to bed, ML reminded me.
I took another look at the cartridge. What I saw was a bit of a shock: My cartridge, clean only moments ago, was filthy again. WTF?
Static, ML said.
Static. I reached for the Milty ZeroStat, a blue, gun-shaped device, and shot my record not once, but twice. Bam, bam! I listened again. The distortion was lessened, but still present. I took the little scary brush to my stylus with a couple more strokes, and, for good measure, blew hot air on the stylus, as if I were restarting a Nintendo game. The distortion was still there, but at least I was able to get through an entire LP side without wanting to die.
I went to bed.
So, dear readers, here’s what I need to know: How am I supposed to live with this shit? Got any tips? Am I supposed to listen to compact discs until spring? Why didn’t I have this problem last winter? Last winter, I had ML’s Rega P3 with a Denon DL-103 moving-coil cartridge. Are moving-magnet cartridges like my Elys more susceptible to these sorts of problems? Exactly what is happening, mechanically or spiritually or whatever, during those demanding passages of music that makes my cartridge get all schmutzed up? Should I move? Should I get a humidifier?
Please let me know. Thanks.