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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

ShellacSavor, Part 1 : Introduction


After last years European Triode Festival, I stayed another day in Berlin. I visited my good friend Frank W. who introduced me to Shellac records. I never seriously listened to shellacs before so this was a first for me and it was a big surprise. Frank uses a Octal Preamplifier Mk1 and a 801A power amp which I built. His speakers are an enhanced version of the Rho from David Haigner. For Shellacs Frank uses a mono phono preamp.

Shellac recordings reproduced over a good system and with a suitable preamp which matches the recording EQ curves properly (more about this later) are very special. The reproduction has not much in common with todays expectations towards HiFi. No deep bass, no extended treble, not much resolution and horrible surface noise. But that midrange is pure magic. The emotional impact is simply overwhelming. Voices not only go under your skin, they touch your soul.

Being mono, Shellacs don't reproduce a soundstage between left and right, if played through a regular stereo system. But they can give a beautiful impression of depth and space which is more natural than the artificial space reproduced by many stereo records.

We spent the whole evening listening to a lot of Shellacs. Mostly Jazz records from the era between World War II and the introduction of vinyl. Frank characterised the sound of the Shellacs nicely in his  typical Berlin accent : 'dat jeht direkt auf de Pumpe, wa?'. Translated this means: 'this goes straight to the heart', but this does not get the twist of his Berlin slang, a more appropriate translation might be : 'this goes straight on da pump, huh?'.

I have heard and built a lot of systems and listend to different audio media during the last decades. It is difficult to impress me with something. But what Frank showed me opened a whole new world for me to explore. Of course this does not mean that I will switch to Shellac entirely. I will also not change the name of the blog to ShellacSavor. Vinyl will continue to be my main source and I am also not advert to digital. Shellac is a beautiful addition for a different kind of music reproduction. Thanks a lot to Frank for introducing me to the world of Shellac.

Frank had been asking me to build a dedicated phono preamp with some more EQ curves than the unit he has since a while. Now after I heard this it was clear for me that I have to design a proper phono stage with as many EQ settings as possible.

I already built a Phono preamp with variable EQ curves in 2011. But that preamp mostly only covered EQ settings for vinyl mono records, not for shellacs. So I started with researching the EQ settings used by various recording studios for their shellac pressings.

The basic shape of the equalisation needed is similar to that of vinyl records, it only varies in the corner frequencies. This is how a generic EQ in the reproduction looks like:

At a certain frequency, which defines the 'rumble shelf', the response starts to roll off. Attenuation then stops at the Turnover frequency and stays flat until the treble roll off point after which the response rolls off again. The Rumble shelf can extend up to 100Hz. For RIAA it is 50Hz. Some shellacs have been recorded without a rumble shelf. But still that frequency had to be set somewhere since the amplitude would otherwise rise to infinity when moving towards 0Hz. Typically that was around 15-20Hz.

Rumble shelf and Turnover frequency have usually been named by a 3 digit number, followed by a letter. The 3 digit number would indicate the turnover frequency. For different rumble shelfs letters have been assigned.

Some examples :

500R = 500Hz turnover, 50Hz rumble shelf (this is used for RIAA)
500N = 500Hz turnover, no rumble shelf (15Hz)
500C = 500Hz turnover, 100Hz rumble shelf
250N = 250Hz turnover, no rumble shelf

Most shellacs seem to have been recorded with no rumble shelf. I could find information about 4 rumble shelf settings used at the curing process:

N - None (15Hz)
R - 50Hz
B - 62,5Hz
C - 100Hz

I could find information about these turnover frequencies used : 200, 250, 300, 350, 400, 500, 630, 800.

Not each turnover frequency has been used with all the rumble shelf settings. In total I came across 12 combinations which have been used:

200N, 250N, 300N, 350N, 350C, 400N, 500N, 500R, 500B, 500C, 630N, 800N

It is apparent that there was a great variety in recording curves. Rumble shelf frequency spreading from 15Hz up to 100Hz and turnover frequencies spanning 2 Octaves from 200Hz up to 800Hz. That translates to differences of up two 12dB in the frequency region where the ear is the most sensitive. For serious shellac reproduction an adjustable equalisation is mandatory.

There was an equally wide spread in the high frequency EQ. This was not defined by the corner frequency at which the roll off starts but rather by the roll off in dB at 10kHz. I found indications of 12 different high frequency equalisation settings:

0dB (none, or flat), 5dB, 6dB, 8dB, 9dB, 10dB, 10.5dB, 12dB, 12.7dB, 13.7dB (same as RIAA), 16dB, 18dB.

Again a huge spread. A difference of 18dB at 10kHz for different records. Here it is even more apparent that a shellac would sound very wrong if the treble EQ is not done right. It could either be totally dull or annoyingly shrieking.

The EQ curve used for recording is specified by a combination of both, for example:

500R-13.7 (RIAA)
300N-16 (used by Columbia)
400N-0 (used by Telefunken)
500B-16 (NAB, NARTB)

For a more comprehensive list of EQ settings please see here.

Many different combinations had been in use. In order to implement a preamp which can reproduce all of them correctly, it makes sense to use two separate selector switches for rumble shelf/turnover and treble roll off. This way all the settings can be implemented with practical 12 position switches.
Of course such an implementation will allow combinations which had never been used, so the setting should be done according to a list as the one mentioned above. An advantage of such a dual switch set up is the possibility to also fine tune the sound and deliberately use a 'wrong' setting as a tone control. For example a roll off setting with less attenuation could be used to boost high frequencies a bit for dull sounding records or to attenuate it if it is too bright sounding.

Here is a sketch of the faceplate for the variable EQ preamplifier:

The circuit development and tube selection are underway. Stay tuned for updates about Shellac reproduction.

Best regards



  1. Hi Thomas,

    what a coincidence! Two months ago I discovered Shellacs as well. Actually it came along with my new HMV 102 portable gramophone. The reproduction of music of a pure mechanical system was overwhelming when I first listened to it. Even though a steel-needle isn't the best way to treat your records, it works the best with silent pre WWII recordings.
    But the whole magic of the midrange, as you said it, actually comes with the later recordings like Ella Fitzgeralds and Louis Armstrongs "Dream a little Dream" from 1950.
    I can't wait to hear it on a good system with an electronic pick-up.

    So... I am excited about your progress in "Shellac-music"!

    In diesem Sinne... Beste Jerüße 'us Berlin nach Jotwehdeh!

  2. Great entry! What is an appropriate needle and cartridge for playing shellacs? I was just gifted a bunch!

  3. Hi!

    I got a Ortofon SPU Mono CG65Di Mk2.
    You need a Mono Cartridge with round needle, 65um

    Vest regards


  4. You can also use a MM system and change the needle. In addition to a Ortofon I also use a Shure system (M95G) with shellac needle.

  5. Hallo Thomas,
    vielen Dank für diesen Beitrag und vor allem für Deinen Entschluss, einen solchen Entzerrer zu bauen. Die Idee, die Faszination der Vor-Vinyl-Ära mit einem modernen Gerätekonzept einzufangen und so wiederzugeben, wie sie wahrscheinlich selbst die Zeitgenossen, nicht vernehmen konnten, begeistert mich sehr. Nach meinen durchweg sehr angenehmen Erfahrungen mit Deinen Verstärkern bin ich mir ganz sicher, dass hier ein ebenso souveränes Gerät entstehen wird.
    Deinen Beschreibungen zur „Magie“ von Schellack-Aufnahmen ist nicht viel hinzuzufügen. Vielleicht nur noch folgendes:
    Direct-to-disc-Aufnahmen gelten bei Vinyl-Sammlern oft als besonderes highlight. Schellack-Aufnahmen sind es durchweg! Das Feeling ist somit unglaublich! Auf nicht wenigen Platten findet man sogar das genaue Aufnahmedatum.
    Von zahlreichen (leider schon vergessenen) Interpreten existieren fast ausschließlich Schellack-Aufnahmen, die später nachbearbeitet auf Vinyl oder CD erschienen sind. Wer das einmal vergleicht, stellt schnell fest. Es ist bei weitem nicht das Gleiche.
    Insofern geht es für mich bei diesem Entzerrer natürlich um ein hochwertiges technisches Konzept. Im gleichen Maße aber auch um ein kulturelles. Und so wächst die Vorfreude, demnächst Nellie Lutcher, Cab Calloway, Gene Krupa, den frühen Coleman Hawkins und viele andere auf die ihnen gebührende Weise im Wohnzimmer zu haben.
    Viele Grüße