My feelings about technical specs are well known. I could not give a rat’s arse about the numbers that are usually proffered in press releases and splashed across web pages, and prefer to use my eyes, ears, and hands to inform me if something is… right. But some people live for this stuff, and make their buying decisions only if the numbers are in the range that ignites their GAS.
Wow and flutter specifications definitely fall into this category. You’ve almost certainly heard of them, some of you may have a vague idea of what they mean (the clue is in the name), while others will know exactly what they mean, probably have sophisticated measuring equipment, and religiously measure their equipment to make sure they stay calibrated. I’d warrant that most of you don’t fall into the last category, so here’s an over-simplified explanation:
Just say wow… and again… and again. That should be enough to give you the basic idea. Essentially wow is a once per revolution fluctuation in rotational speed. If your turntable sucks (I have yet to come across one so bad though), wow will manifest itself clearly as undulation pitch changes when listening to continuous tones. It’ll sound like the chorus of this. Such Kate.
Imagine wow as a sine wave. Now superimpose that smooth up and down wave with another sine wave. That’s flutter. It’s most likely not as smooth as that, and is dependent on all manner of things. This impacts on music on a different level, and can change the sound of an instrument (strings and wind instruments for example). If you’ve listened to a piece of music on diverse systems and it just sounds different — that’s possibly flutter at play.
That’s painting broad strokes that will doubtlessly get some of you posting thesis level rebuttals. And to simplify it even further, wow and flutter is largely lumped together into one overall number, and for DJ turntables that number is always under 0.2%, and ideally 0.1%. For the record, Technics 1200s rate at 0.01%, a number that lends to their stellar reputation, and is the rated spec of new Reloop turntables too.
Now… to get a controversial statement out of the way — conversations with clever people whose opinion I trust inform me that from a DJ perspective, wow and flutter doesn’t matter. If you can’t hold a mix on a decent DJ turntable, it’s likely to be down to issues like bad pressings or inherent musical pitch changes. Or frankly a need to practice more.
But it is generally agreed that a wow and flutter specification that’s closer to zero does speak to the quality of the motor and ergo the turntable itself. It also enhances the feel good factor necessary to drop serious coin on a record player.
But it’s not just about the quality of the mechanics. Imagine if you will that music used to be recorded to reel to reel. And if that machine was in poor condition, then the source recording could have wow and flutter before you’ve even got to a dodgy pressing plant and started playing that off-centre and warped vinyl on a truly battered turntable. It’s a confluence of shitty processes that conspire to make your music sound even shittier. I would imagine that things are a tad tighter these days.
Let’s not forget the environmental variables too. An unstable mains power supply has an effect. And if you live in an area (like I do) that’s prone to power cuts and subsequent surges, these all impact on your equipment and over time will degrade the operational effectiveness of your turntables. It’s a small amount of course, but all these variables smashing into poorly produced vinyl compound to make for a potential car crash of a playing and listening experience.
MEASURING IN THE MOBILE AGE
Being the contrary bastard that I am, when it was clear that people actually fixated on the numbers and weaponised them in comments, I set about learning more about this stuff, and finding ways to measure turntable wow and flutter. I needed to be armed and ready to fend off the attack from people smarter than myself.
Now there are a number of ways to measure wow and flutter. You can buy expensive meters on eBay and $700 software/vinyl packages that go someway beyond delivering a number around the 0.1% mark. But I discovered iOS apps that would apparently do the same thing for a fraction of the cost.
The first was the Dr Feickert PlatterSpeed app which used in conjunction with the accompanying 7″ test vinyl would deliver wow and flutter reading just by holding your phone in the air and picking up the audio. iOS 11 and vinyl production issues saw this discontinued not long after I bought it. Bugger.
More recently, I’ve discovered RPM, an app that uses the iPhone’s accelerometer and measure platter speed just by laying your phone on the platter and pressing play. I like this approach as it removes potential pressing issues and measures the platter directly without audio at all.
Finally Turntabulator is a fun app that in its quirky way tells you the accuracy of your turntable. It doesn’t deliver wow and flutter figures, but watching your iPhone spin on the platter while keeping the 33.34% readout absolutely steady is fun.
These methods however depend on the effectiveness of the iPhone’s speaker to pick up live audio, and the accelerometer being placed just so on the platter. But what if there was another way, one that was more accessible to a huge number of DJs?
AN APP TO READ DVS TIME CODE…
…control signal, noisemap… call it what you will. But that high pitched whine emanating from your turntable is the thing that pulls digital audio kicking and screaming from your laptop, ironically while screaming into your laptop. It is a continuous tone, carefully calibrated to run for the full side of of piece of vinyl running at 33 or 45 rpm.
Traditionally, 3K is the desired resolution of the sine wave that’s used for wow and flutter measurement. And you have to suffer said high pitched whine for a good 30 seconds to get a solid measuring sample.
My idea is to play 1 or 2K control signal straight into your mobile device or desktop, have it do the analogue to digital conversion directly, and then via quick maths and clever stuff, programatically deliver the wow and flutter numbers back to your screen without having to suffer the annoying tone in your ears. And there’s actually no reason why a regular 3K sine wave record couldn’t be used either. As long as the app knows the input source and has been coded to deal with it, then it should work.
Now having asked some of those smarter people, this is more than possible. Serato does this measurement and recently made it into a feature in Serato DJ 1.9.6. And I’m led to believe that Traktor has done this for a very long time too. So wow and flutter correction is done in some DVS software anyway, thus making it possible to deliver those important numbers back to those who really want them. There’s nothing stopping them adding this as a few numbers in the interface right away.
BUT WHY DO IT AT ALL?
Three reasons spring to mind:
- It’s a good way to check that your turntables are in good shape.
- You can make sure that those new turntables with amazing specs measure up to the hype.
- Because you can. It’s reassuring to have the power of audiophile dark arts at your disposal.
There’s also a fourth, and that’s to make some money. Mercenary I know, but if the idea works, then it has value. I know because I have paid good money for such an app. Done right, it’s a great diagnostic tool, but it’s also possible to create a database that can feature all kinds of turntables. This could be used to create a definite list of turntables along with their quoted and real wow and flutter specs.
I’m sure that I know people who could knock up a barebones version in reasonably quickly. But a more polished version is the one that has the real commercial value. For the right price, I’m convinced that thousands of people would buy this, DJs and audiophiles alike. An entry level version could have a basic test and forget operation, and perhaps a slightly more expensive pro version that keeps a history of different turntables, compare against other users, and the ability to share the results.
If anyone is interested in the app side, hit me up. I’d love to work on such a thing from a design, usability and branding perspective. I think there’s a genuinely useful and commercially viable tool just waiting to be made here.
One last thing — if, inspired by this post, you go ahead and add it to your software, or make an app of your own, a little credit would be welcome. It’s what keeps people coming up with new features.
WOULD YOU BUY IT?
While I know a commercial app maker who didn’t see any commercial value in it, I definitely do and would a few quid for the basic version, and maybe a tenner for the full version. The question is, would you?