CRAS AES Presents the Vinyl Clinic

For our 2nd event of February, the CRAS AES Student Chapter presented the Vinyl Clinic with Gerald Schoenherr, a CRAS instructor who is well known by the students. AES clinics are free events CRAS hosts to provide unique extracurricular education for our students. For this event, Mr. Schoenherr brought his own vinyl record players and record collection to showcase the sound of some classic records to the students.

To start his presentation, Mr. Schoenherr played a vinyl record by Al Jolson. This was an older vinyl from the 1920s era. Al Jolson is a seminal figure in the audio world, being at the forefront of many important historical events including starring in The Jazz Singer, the first movie with recorded sound. 

Mr. Schoenherr explained that Thomas Edison was the first to create a predecessor of the vinyl player – the phonograph. The phonograph was the first foray into audio recording, followed by the gramophone, invented by Emile Berliner in 1887. Around this time, audio recording was not yet considered to be viable for entertainment purposes since the length of the recordings available at the time was incredibly short.

At first, recordings were accomplished on cylinders and were completely acoustically based, compelling the industry to find a new way to record. Companies started to experiment with other materials like shellac, as opposed to vinyl. Also, during the early days of record playing there were different sizes and speed variables for each record. In order to playback older records, Mr. Schoenherr explained that the stylus on the turntable would have to match the record’s specific size and speed.

He then introduced us to the practice of electrical recording for vinyl records. Through electromagnetic induction, recordings are made using the vibration of the needle on the groove of the vinyl. In 1957, the first stereo record was introduced, which uses two separate coils to create two signals for stereo playback. All previous records were solely mono as no physical invention had yet been created to allow for stereo recording.

Mr. Schoenherr then went on to explain the mastering process for records. Mastering is the last step in finishing a recording, where the final tweaks are made to adjust the sound of a record to some the same on various playback devices. A prime example of how this process works is based on waveform theory. Since low frequencies are larger waveforms, they create larger grooves in the record as opposed to higher frequencies and smaller grooves. In order to alleviate this problem and create an easy standard to follow so that groove sizes would not be too large or small, the RIAA Equalization Curve was set as the standard. This established a decibel-to-frequency related curve. Low frequencies are cut before being etched on the record, while higher frequencies are boosted. In order to recall the lows in playback, Mr. Schoenherr explained that a “phono preamp” was required. This preamp re-boosted the low end of the record to the original level of the recording.

Lastly, Mr. Schoenherr covered the topic on everyone’s minds: do vinyl records sound better than CDs? Mr. Schoenherr used Iggy Pop’s “Search and Destroy” to showcase some interesting differences. He explained how during the time of CDs, re-mastering was often done with extremely heavy compression, a side effect of the “loudness wars” of the 1990s. Records were re-mastered for CD playback and fell victim to over-compression. This process limited the dynamic range of the songs and ended up having a very detrimental effect on the sound quality, which we were able to visually see in the waveforms.

At the end of the presentation, Mr. Schoenherr opened up the floor for questions and discussion. After a brief discussion and a few questions were answered, students who brought their own records were allowed to participate and play their records on the turntables that were available. Special thanks to Gerald Schoenherr for taking his time to share his passion and knowledge about the history of vinyl.