Ever since there have been records, there have been pops and clicks. There are plenty of clean, high-quality records out there, both new and used, that play cleanly – while many other records are not quite as fortunate.
Dealing with noise can require taking a couple of measures. Cleaning records in a record vacuum or ultrasonic cleaner does help quite a bit, depending on the record, and should be the first step for serious collectors. Cleaning still doesn’t eliminate all of the noise, however – it is good for faint background noise and dirt-related crackles, but it still won’t do anything about groove damage in the form of scratches, or impurities embedded into the vinyl.
In this digital world we live in, why even bother with vinyl? First, there are hundreds of records I own that have never had a digital reissue, or were reissued on CD overseas for such a limited time that they are difficult and expensive to find and purchase. There are also records with mastering that is superior to any digital release. Also, 45 rpm singles or 12-inch singles often have versions of songs that have never seen the light of day in a digital format.
I may not be able to do anything about the lack of reissues. But, I can do something about the noise. I’ve been trying to do that for decades.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, two companies produced units that claimed to combat clicks and pops. KLH sold a unit designed by Burwen Research, the TNE 7000A Transient Noise Eliminator. SAE (Scientific Audio Electronics) had their own 5000A Impulse Noise Reduction System. It’s the latter unit that I owned. For the first few months of ownership it was a novelty, until I noticed that many of the transients on records were being clipped off even at lower settings, and the unit itself added a gauze over the high frequencies overall. It worked well for records that were beaten up and difficult to replace, but it wasn’t suited for everyday listening. I would use it to make cassettes for use in the car, where the cassettes’ limited fidelity and road noise would drown out many of the shortcomings of the unit.
In the mid-1990s I bought a computer with a rare (at the time) CD burner, and acquired a digital input card and the Waves Audio professional click and crackle filter plug-ins. I was able to make respectable-sounding CD-Rs for myself and friends. The Waves plugins worked better than the SAE 5000A but were not perfect either. The settings were fussy, and individual adjustments were often needed for separate parts of an individual track. They had their own artifacts, both in altered transients and in a change in the soundstage. More recent attempts with Izotope’s click and crackle filters produced similar artifacts.
Based on these past experiences, I was skeptical when I first heard of the initial crowdfunding campaign for the SweetVinyl SugarCube vinyl noise-reduction units. Here was yet another software-based approach to cleaning up clicks and pops (using dedicated hardware that incorporated the software), at a much higher price than anything I had used previously. Could it be “the one” that worked?
During a presentation at an AXPONA audio show a couple of years later, I finally got to hear first-hand how well it worked. SweetVinyl demonstrated how well a dollar-bin copy of Steely Dan’s Aja sounded when processed through the SugarCube. Prior to that, I listened to a quiet classical record playing on the same system, with the music coming from a nearly silent background. The software used in all the SugarCube systems is proprietary, and claims to leave the sound quality intact while removing certain types of noise from the vinyl, like clicks and pops. My initial impression after that demo was very favorable in that they had attained their goal.
Late last year the opportunity came up to get ahold of a barely-used SugarCube SC-1 Plus through an online auction at a substantial discount. As I write this, I’ve had it for about a month and am still in the process of learning how to use it properly. It’s not that it is a difficult unit to use, but learning the nuances of the different levels of click and pop reduction is very important in getting the most out of it.
The reasons I wanted the SC-1 Plus over other models in the company’s lineup were the unit’s coaxial digital output (which I send to my DAC), and its USB output that would allow me to record digitally to a computer. The SC-1 Plus and SC-2 Plus also have a newly-added SVNR (SweetVinyl Noise Reduction) feature which I have not yet explored; it is targeted to reducing surface noise on tapes and older records.
The SC-2 Plus adds the ability to record the audio to a USB storage device, complete with track splitting and metadata tagging. The SC-1 Mini and Mini/Phono (with phono stage) offer only the click and pop removal, and the SC-2 Mini and Mini/Phono add the recording functions. All SugarCubes can be remote-controlled using a web browser on any type of computer, or through an app on a smartphone or tablet, which duplicates the front panel controls. SVNR is accessed only through the web or app interface.
The SugarCube is typically placed between a phono stage and preamplifier, although it can also be inserted into a tape monitor or external processor loop. The unit has a high-quality relay inside that you can use to completely bypass the SugarCube electronically, so it is safe to leave it between your phono stage and preamp without any sonic degradation. The SugarCube connects to your home network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi in order to receive software updates and provide remote control features and, for the SC-2 units, to retrieve metadata from Discogs for tagging recorded tracks.
I plan on using the SugarCube for real-time music playback, and more importantly, for digitizing many of those unusual and rare recordings that I own so that I can play them outside of my main system. While I haven’t yet set up my audio computer for recording digitally yet, I have had a month to run the SugarCube through its paces and see how it works.
And I have to tell you, it works. Brilliantly!
This is by far the best noise reduction I have ever used on records. From faint ticks to large pops and clicks, the SugarCube is eliminating them and not leaving any artifacts behind! The one thing I am marveling at right now is how I am able to play some records I had given up on, including a couple of abysmal recent “Near-Mint” purchases that were in horrid condition.
Below are three samples of the SugarCube in action. The first is the Pete Jolly Trio track “Little Bird,” in something less than near-mint condition. While it can’t cure the groove wear and general noise, not to mention the weak pressing quality by MGM, it still removes a lot of sonic crud, and makes the album listenable. (Sorry for a slight bit of background hum/buzz – I am in the middle of a room refurbishing project and the system is set up temporarily to record these samples.)
The second is an album I’ve owned since 1975, new, and rarely played. The sparse instrumentation of this Los Indios Tabajaras album (a mid-1970s RCA reissue of their 1958 Sweet and Savage LP) helps show off the amount of noise that the SugarCube removes.
As a torture test, I came across an old record purchased by my mother back in the 50s. This old RCA Red Seal LP has seen better days. The outcome isn’t perfect (there is still a fair amount of background noise), but the transformation is remarkable! Now, we can hear the music.
Finally, here is a new Blue Note record from the Tone Poet series – Horace Silver’s Further Explorations. Like a few other recent Blue Notes I’ve owned, this one is typically noisy. There isn’t much to clean up here, but the SugarCube handles it nicely.
The A/D and D/A converters in the SugarCube are high quality, and I would challenge anyone to hear the difference between the sound of the analog input and the output after passing through the unit’s processing chain. “But it’s not analog anymore!” OK, I get it. Yet if I can’t hear the difference between the original or processed signal, does it really matter?
Where will the SugarCube not work? It will not get rid of certain types of “gritty” or “swooshing” low-level background noise, as you’d hear on a dirty record. It will not eliminate groove burn (groove wear), my primary reason for rejecting over half the used records I buy. Certain scuffs will also not be removed. But for removing any type of instantaneous transient noise, from louder clicks to minor ticks, it is very successful. Careful administration of the repair-level setting will ensure that musical transients (such as those found in percussive or electronic music) are not clipped off. It is the most unintrusive noise reduction system I have ever used, a credit to the proprietary software and high-quality electronics used inside the unit.
Rediscovering records in my collection, I’ve had a few good weeks of listening and am convinced that the SugarCube is staying in my system. As I have not yet set my system up for recording digitally, I will cover that aspect of the unit in a future Copper article. I will also be exploring the new SVNR (SweetVinyl Noise Reduction) feature once I figure out how to use it properly.
With that in mind, I need to step away from the keyboard and get back to spinning some more records!
Header image: SC-1 Plus in silver, from the SweetVinyl website.