Audiophile Archive and Grading Services (AAGS) is a vinyl record-grading and archiving company. They clean, inspect and grade records, certify their grading and record a high-resolution digital audio backup, among other services.
Frank Doris: First, please explain to the readers what AAGS does.
Andrew Hoffman: Our flagship service is to grade and certify valuable records as a third party. We grade the records both visually and audibly, resulting in a final grade called the “AAGS Index Score” (a term we’ve trademarked). We also offer subscriptions to an ultrasonic cleaning service, autograph authentication, repair and cleaning services, and high-quality digital transfers.
I got into hi-fi and audiophile listening as a teenager. I have been a gear head ever since. Looking for good-sounding pressings and better sound has always been my aim; however, it had always remained a hobby. I started my audio career being formally trained by Panasonic, Sony, and JVC as an electronics technician for broadcast television video equipment. My job was to take beat up and worn-out field equipment and completely restore them to like new condition. I would perform modifications including firmware updates, making them even better than they were before they came in.
It was a great business to be in because I was able to exercise my electronic and mechanical “muscles” and see the direct results of my work. I loved it. I moved into sales and consultation after tape technology became obsolete and started designing and installing TV studios. At the same time, I have always been into music, was in a few bands, and worked with the bands in recording studios and did some independent recordings as well.
Then all of those worlds collided after I was ripped off one too many times by private sellers of vinyl records. One record had the wrong disc inside. Another time, the seller had a drastically different opinion of what VG+ condition meant than I did. I looked around for a grading company for vinyl records so that I could have the sellers send the records to them to be graded before I bought them. I couldn’t find one. So, I started developing the business model and in 2019 founded Audiophile Archive & Grading Services.
FD: Can you explain your grading system and process? I understand you grade everything – the record, the cover, everything. And how would you compare your record grading to the Goldmine grading system, which has been adopted as an industry standard?
AH: We actually use the Goldmine grading system to influence our grading parameters. However, when you see a Goldmine-graded record being sold, you either see, for example, a “VG+” grading for the record as a whole, or “VG sleeve, VG+ media,” a separate grading for the sleeve and the disc. Still, there was so much information that was being left out. How does the record actually sound? Does the record include all the original inserts? Posters? Promotional stickers? With this in mind we created the AAGS Index by developing a proprietary algorithm that takes all the elements from each record including visual and audible parameters and outputs the AAGS Index Score™. We have a proprietary program that has been made with our unique grading algorithm. We enter in all of the features of the record, and it tells us what the score is.An AAGS grading certificate.
The best score you can receive on the AAGS Index scale is 10. To put the score into context with Goldmine grades, 7.50 – 9.50 is approximately (VG+) – (NM-). More information is explained on our blog. We provide a certificate also includes details about the pressing, the mastering engineer, and which pressing it is, among other items of interest.
FD: I noticed you grade sealed records. How do you do that?
AH: Believe it or not, re-sealing records has been done. So, I verify that the sealed shrink wrap is original. I also inspect the quality of the outer sleeve. For example, it is possible to purchase a sealed record with a VG+ sleeve as a result of handling wear.
FD: Can you explain your cleaning process?
AH: We use the Degritter ultrasonic cleaner. We chose it because it is a touch-free solution and because it operates at a modulated frequency in the range of 120kHz that is ideal for cleaning the grooves in records and for not damaging them. It is also quieter so it is easier having multiple machines running at the same time. We run the record through two cycles; one with soap, the second with clean water to rinse the record. Both cycles have an ultrasonic cleaning process, and at the end of the rinse cycle the Degritter machine uses forced air to dry the record. Immediately when the drying cycle is finished, we put the record in a brand new Mobile Fidelity Original Master Record inner sleeve.
FD: Are there people who subscribe to your cleaning service only, and don’t use the record grading service?
AH: Yes. They’re mostly people who love the results of ultrasonic cleaning machines but who cannot afford them. They’ll sign up for our subscriptions. It’s for this reason that we are planning on making ultrasonic cleaning subscriptions available for resale for record stores. However, we have customers that take advantage of both the cleaning and the record grading service.
FD: How do you do the high-resolution digital transfers? What turntable setup do you use, and what kind of D/A conversion?
AH: We use the SugarCube SC-2 from Sweet Vinyl for the analog-to-digital conversion and if the customer wants it, we’ll use the SC-2 to de-click the recording. [The SC-2 MODEL offers a selectable amount of click and pop removal – Ed.] We have found that the quality is excellent, and the workflow is scalable as our work volume continues to increase. We employ a Rega Planar 6 turntable with all of the upgrades and a Rega Ania moving coil cartridge for vinyl playback. We needed a setup that would offer the quality that our customers demand and that is cost effective to duplicate as we buy additional units.
FD: How do you repair damaged sleeves and warped records?
AH: We use standard record flatteners that are on the market. With sleeve repair, we have a cleaner that is safe to use on record sleeves that wipes away dirt and mold spores. A lot of the time, what seems to visually be a permanent stain ends up being some dirt that we can carefully clean off, restoring the sleeve and making it grade higher. We also have processes for repairing sleeves that have separated because of weak glue or that have torn due to impact. With any repairs, the record doesn’t grade as high as a record that is original; however, they grade much higher than if the sleeve was left in poor condition.
FD: What do the services cost, and what is your turnaround time to the customer after receiving their records?
AH: Our grading and certification is $35 per LP (up to a double LP set). Grading sealed records of any kind is $20 per record; grading 7-inch 45 RPM singles costs $29 each. Ultrasonic cleaning is $10 if you would like to just send in one record. If you would like a subscription, we offer five records per month at $25, and 25 records per month at $100. For our subscriptions we offer free shipping and packaging as part of the subscription cost.
Autograph authentication is $25. If we need more time for any service we will provide an estimate for additional time needed at a rate of $25 per hour.
For digital transfers/mastering, it is $25 per hour and before doing the transfer we will provide an estimate based on the project.
Right now we are on a 30-day backlog and with COVID-19, everything is a bit slower, including the mail.
FD: Do you have people helping you, or are you the sole person behind everything?
AH: Right now it is just me and my lovely wife Emily. However, if things keep growing like they have been, we will have to expand. But that is a good thing!
FD: Before you started AAGS, you mentioned that you were burned in buying records that were worse than described. (I think every record collector has had this experience.) Were any of those records rare and valuable?
AH: I can’t recall all of them but yes. It happened enough that I lost enough trust in sellers at shows and online that I began to have less fun collecting. That is why I started the company. I figured that was the only way to instill trust back to the market, while also enhancing the market for highly-collectable records.
FD: Have you encountered skepticism? For example, customers who don’t agree with your grading of a particular record, or people who think you charge too much, or anything else?
AH: I get skeptics all the time. No one so far has disagreed with how I grade the records. However, what I hear the most is, “I can grade records myself.” My response is always, “I’m not you,” and this basic concept is what keeps me in business. What collectors and resellers are starting to understand is that a record that has been professionally graded and certified is actually more valuable on multiple levels. You can charge more for it because it’s been ultrasonically cleaned, played the whole way through, and verified to sound the way it has been graded to sound.
The certificate that accompanies the record includes the record pressing matrix codes, and research on the particulars of the pressing. The record is given a serial number and is permanently logged into the AAGS database. The owner or whoever buys the record can contact us and confirm that the certification is authentic. This goes a long way in terms of instilling trust in the buyer and bolsters confidence to the seller. When someone uses our service, they “get it.” As the word gets out it will demystify our services for the masses. But we are blessed with our success so far.
FD: What is the most valuable record you’ve ever graded or cleaned?
AH: It would have to be a UK first pressing of the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole, Columbia Records catalog number SAX 2329. It was a beautiful copy, much better than any other example that I had been able to find before.Symphonie Espagnole, Columbia Records catalog number SAX 2329.
FD: You started AAGS in 2019. How has business been since then?
AH: The first year was slow. From what we can tell we’re the first to market using this business model and as my answer to your previous question indicated, there were many skeptics. Then things started picking up and as the word got around, we’ve experienced dramatic growth, especially within the last six months.
FD: Are your customers mostly private individuals, or do you also do work for used-record stores and dealers?
AH: Our customer base is mostly private collectors and record store owners. We have worked with auctioneers to certify valuable records in preparation of the auction. We also have a customer base of record labels that require transfers from old records, when the master tapes and safety tapes no longer exist. We transfer these to hi-res digital and clean up any noise while maintaining tonal quality. At special request, we will use some techniques to separate drums, vocals, bass, and other musical elements from the original stereo mix and make minor tweaks to “modernize” the mix and provide mastering to individual elements, to fix any tonal imperfections so that the remix sounds more modern. For example, if the vocals are harsh, we can sweeten up just the vocals, then mix everything back down. We don’t go crazy though.
FD: Have you exhibited at audio or record shows? If not, is this something you might consider once it’s safe to do so?
AH: We exhibited at the Austin Record Convention in 2019. It was very successful. We came back with a bunch of work. We had dealers handing over their more valuable records to be cleaned and graded. We brought one of our Degritter machines and offered ultrasonic cleaning for those attending and charged a small fee. We had a great time and look forward to doing that again once it is safe. We would like to also get involved in exhibiting at some audiophile shows.
FD: How are you dealing with doing business since the pandemic?
AH: All of our business is online, so we have been fine. We are taking all precautions to ensure that we are safe when accepting packages from customers and are sure to disinfect all packaged contents before they go out to our customers. The delays in USPS have been difficult for us and for our customers. However, all has been good; slow, but good. We are taking some steps to change our process to have faster throughput and turnaround times.
FD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AH: We are in the process of producing an encapsulation “slab” for those collectable records that you want to preserve. So keep checking back for updates. Also coming is 1/4-inch reel-to-reel tape grading and transfers.