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Fixing skips in phonograph records

I suppose I ought to get my instructions for fixing record skips up on the web before the old-fashioned things - LPs, 45s and 78s - are forgotten completely. I wrote the first draft of this in 1985 (it's now Dec 2002), so you can see I've been dragging my feet a while. I recently performed a whole slew of successful skip-fixing operations, and that provided the spark, I guess. One old record had a bad scratch (it wun't me!) that caused 20 or more skips - and I zapped every one of them. Plays fine now. I did a web search to make sure I'm not telling everybody something they already know. It doesn't seem that anyone else has come up with the following solution - even though the editor of Goldmine threw it back in my face in 1985, saying, "we've already dealt with this subject..."

The first step is to identify the problem spot. Replay the segment of the recording with the skip several times, carefully observing the orientation of the label and how far into the record the needle is when the skip occurs. Take the record off the turntable, turn it to the above-noted orientation and examine the spot where the needle would have been. You must make a definite, visual identification of the problem spot, or else there's no hope. I usually find that the problem spot is an inch or so "upstream", that is, clockwise around the record, from where I would have guessed based on the orientation of the label at the instant of the "pop". In other words, when I think I hear the pop, the record has already moved on a bit. (I view the needle as moving "downstream" in the groove.)

If you're lucky, the skip was caused by a little piece of petrified crud, and you can just scrape it off with your fingernail. I don't mean to insult anybody's intelligence, but there might be people who figure, "a skip's a skip - nothing you can do about it."

Ok, so what if the skip is the result of severely gouged vinyl? The figure below shows how scratches can cause forward or backward skips by directing the stylus toward a neighboring groove. Note that scratches that make a small angle with respect to the grooves (I know there's only one groove on the side of a record, so don't bite my head off in an email) are very likely to cause skips, whereas a more perpendicular one may cause no problems at all.

               Record grooves, with 2 scratches

                   | | | | | | | | | | | |                     
                   | | | | | | | | | | | |  Record            ^
                   | | | | | | | | | | / |  turns             |
                   | \ | | | | | | | / | |   this             |
 <-- center hole   | | \ | | | | | / | | |   way     OR,   Think of
                   | | | \ | | | / | | | |    |             stylus
                   | | | | | | / | | | | |    |             moving
                   | | | | | | | | | | | |    v            this way.
                   | | | | | | | | | | | |    

You can see that the longer scratch to the right would tend to cause backward skips; the shorter scratch to the left would cause forward skips. Let's look at the same picture again, but with some strategic points labeled.

               Record grooves, with 2 scratches

                   | | | | | | | | | | | |                     
                   | | | | | | | | | | | |  Record            ^
                   | | | | | | | | | | / |  turns             |
                   | \ B | | | | | D / | |   this             |
 <-- center hole   | | \ | | | | | / | | |   way     OR,   Think of
                   | | A \ | | | / C | | |    |             stylus
                   | | | | | | / | | | | |    |             moving
                   | | | | | | | | | | | |    v            this way.
                   | | | | | | | | | | | |    

What we need to do is to open up the path from A to B in the one scratch, and the path from C to D in the other, assuming those are the grooves where the actual skips occur. This requires a specialized tool called a straight pin. You can get one by buying a dress shirt. Kidding aside, I've found that a straight pin works better than any sewing needle - for me, at least. My skip-fixin' pin has a tab of masking tape folded on itself up at the head end, making a sort of flag. This makes it easier to hold and keep track of.

What NOT to do is scrape the pin from A to B (or C to D) since it will follow the same route as the phonograph stylus and only make the skip more ingrained. The correct method, then, is to open up the path backwards, from B to A (and D to C). Here is my technique.

Rotate the record 180 degrees from the orientation shown in the above diagrams and place it on a table top under good lighting. Make sure the back of the record is protected, and drape some sort of protective cloth over the record to the right of the scratch.

               Record rotated 180 degrees

                             /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\
    | | | | | | | | | | | |  \  
    | | | | | | | | | | | |  /     
    | | | | | / | | | | | |  \     
    | | | C / | | | \ A | |  /     
    | | | / | | | | | \ | |  \         (center hole) -->
    | | / D | | | | | B \ |  /     
    | / | | | | | | | | | |  \     
    | | | | | | | | | | | |  /     
    | | | | | | | | | | | |  \  
                             \/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/
   Grooves, and 2 scratches        Protective cloth

With your right hand resting on the protective cloth, hold the pin in your right hand and touch down gently at point B. Drag the pin point straight through the scratch toward A. I emphasize the word "drag" - the pin point is not for poking, scraping or digging at the vinyl. You must lean the head of the pin forward, causing the point to trail behind. I'd estimate that I hold the pin at about a 45 degree angle from the vertical.

The total path of the pin is only a few millimeters, just enough to span the scratch. As I begin to drag the pin from point B, I increase the pressure slightly (to maybe an ounce or so?), and then decrease the pressure as I lift off gently at point A.

Repeat the process several times, hitting this and the surrounding 2 or 3 grooves several times each. You will be able to feel if your motion is perfectly straight, and not yanked to a neighboring groove as you move the pin. (In the rare case of vinyl deformed badly enough to pull your pin off-track, just work at it a little harder, adding enough force to keep it on-track from B to A.)

The exact same technique works on both forward and backward skips. To fix our forward skip, drag the pin away from you from point D to point C. In both cases, what you are doing is sort of like opening up the mouth of a cave or canyon that somehow got closed off.

I have the advantage(?) of being extremely near-sighted, so I can see the grooves almost as if I'm looking through a microscope. I suppose others may find a good quality magnifying glass very helpful.

When you're done, you will have a tiny rectangular patch of record surface where the pin has been dragged through every groove, and (to emphasize) in the opposite direction to which the phonograph stylus moves. I promise this will not add any perceptible surface noise to the record. If you have trouble believing that, experiment on a record you don't care about, especially on a clean, skip-free spot. If the scratch gives rise to loud, sharp pops along its length, even where it's not causing skips, you can expect much more subdued pops where you've operated. This is a good reason for working along an extended stretch of the scratch, rather than just at the precise spot where you think the skip is.

I feel that my success rate in permanently eliminating skips using this technique is well over 90 percent; actually, I can't remember the last time I was defeated by a skip. And, I hate to bring this up, but I have a friend who says nuts to giving all my ideas away for free on the internet; I should charge people for them. She has a point, I guess, so please send me 2 cents for every skip you fix using the above method.

Notes:

1. In the rare case when you really cannot make a certain, visual identification of the skip spot, try this. As the record is playing and coming up on the skip spot, pull the power plug so it grinds to a halt. Manually move the stylus back a few grooves and turn the turntable by hand. Slow down as you approach the skip spot and try to stop completely the moment you hear the skip. This is not so easy, because everything sounds so growly, but hopefully you can key off of the pop. Before lifting the stylus off the record, put a toothpick on the disc showing exactly where the stylus stopped. Look very closely upstream (clockwise) from that point an inch or two to find the skip spot.

2. If a record skips or has unacceptable surface noise because it's just plain dirty and cruddy (generally from good-intentioned cleanings, I suspect) or moldy (alas, I have seen this), don't despair - just wash it. I use a tub of hot tap water, dish-washing liquid and a shaving brush with nice, long, soft bristles. I work up a good lather on the record, and go around and around it in both directions. I submerse the whole thing. Don't worry about the label; it's very hardy, and never shows any adverse effects from the dunking. Then I rinse the disc off under cold tap water, shake off whatever water will come off, pat the flipside dry, put it on the turntable, and play it - still wet! So far as I can tell, this hasn't harmed my stylus or cartridge. The idea is, if there are still impurities in the water, they are floating about and not causing pops. No matter what technique I use to dry the record, some particulates are determined to stick back to the record surface. I can attest to some amazing improvements in the sound quality of old records after a good dish-washing like this. And after going to all this trouble - which isn't so much, really - maybe you should record this best possible playback to compact disc. Then you can retire or toss the record.

Nov 2006 update: I am now finding I hear little or no improvement playing records wet, whether using slightly soapy water, alcohol, WD-40, or even special record cleaning solutions such as by Nitty Gritty. I have no idea what's changed to make the difference. Was there a solar flare or something that set and "finalized" any and all foreign matter in vinyl record grooves? Not only that, but I've been finding that in many cases, even if a washing gets rids of a few clicks, there's a new background hiss or swish added. It's as if the washing removes the "sheen" from the vinyl. But I swear the former successes were not my imagination. I have spent hours searching the web for expert advice on playing records wet, but with very little to show for it.

All this had me so despondent that I turned to declicking software in my transfers to cd. I had sworn I would never do such a thing to the music, but - surprise, surprise! - the declicking software does an unbelievable job! If it harms the music at all, I can't hear it. What amazes me is how it doesn't seem to reduce or eliminate things like percussion in general and, more specifically, sharp drum cracks like rim shots; ticking of clocks; typewriter clacking; explosions; etc. - all of which I have on records. I use the GoldWave pop/click filter set at 3000, what they call the "Passive" setting. (I accidently ran it at the "Default" setting, 1000, once, and heard some completely unacceptable distortion of the music.)

3. Another Nov 2006 addendum: Obviously, there must be sophisticated ways to stitch a skipping record back together using sound editing programs nowadays. I don't know what the experts would do, but here is something quite easy that uses only the most basic sound editing skills.

I record my records to a cd recorder; I think most people send the signal directly into their computer. No matter. Throughout the following process, just let the analog to digital transfer run uninterrupted.

As the record is playing and the skip point is reached, lift the needle a few grooves back to some point shortly before the skip. Then apply a very light sideways pressure to the tone arm in the opposite direction of the skip to get the needle to follow the groove. I dangle a toothpick very lightly from my fingers against the headshell. If you fail, just repeat the process as many times as is needed, varying the pressure until you finally guide the needle through the skip point. It doesn't matter how many times you mess up, once you've got, you've got it. Then, just let the record play out. Afterwards, it's a simple job to cut out all the extraneous material to get a seamless recording. I use the free version of WavePad to do this, and I assure you, I barely know what I'm doing.

Notice you don't have to do your surgery exactly on the skip point; it could be at a convenient point just prior to the skip, after a moment of silence, say. (I don't mean you have to pray over this.) For instance, if the skip was in the middle of John singing "Strawberry", and the beginning of the word "Strawberry" is very easy to see in the waveform, you might slice out everything from the beginning point of the first "Strawberry" to the corresponding point of the final, successful "Strawberry". This will have a big pop in it for the time being, of course, and you may handle that however you handle pops. Perhaps you want to keep it as a souvenir of your successful operation?


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