It has been our experience that the copies with high frequency extension and the clarity, space and percussive energy that results from it are consistently the best sounding. You may have read elsewhere on the site that what separates many of the best Columbia LPs from their competition is an open, extended top end. For some reason Columbia, more than most labels, had a habit of making slightly dull records. Dull does not work for this album.
When the highs on the record are right, it all comes together. Unfortunately, most copies don’t have those highs. There’s more to it than that of course: some copies lack bass, some are a bit grainy and gritty sounding — the normal problems associated with vinyl records are all here.
But when you have good highs you are about 80 to 85% of the way toward a Hot Stamper. Complete the picture with bass, dynamics, etc. (and a big speaker system) and there’s a good chance the sound will blow your mind.
whereby the lower frequencies are boosted relative to the linear response of the microphone from a greater distance.
Both sides of this promo London Blueback pressing of piano and cello music have SUPERB sound. If you’re a fan of the cello, the piano, or chamber works in general, you will have a hard time finding a better sounding recording than this.
Notice especially that there is practically no smear on the piano — the notes are clear, with their transients fully intact, something one rarely hears anywhere but in the live setting. The tonality of the piano is also correct from top to bottom.
But the real surprise here is how unusually natural the cello sounds — more like the real instrument and less like the typical recording of it.
Normally when recording the cello the microphones are placed fairly close to the instrument. This often results in what’s known as the “proximity effect”, which simply describes a boost in the lower frequencies relative to the more linear response of the microphone when placed at a distance.
The famous Starker cello recordings on Mercury — you know the ones, the originals and even the reissues sell for hundreds and hundreds of dollars — suffer from this effect, which audiophiles seem to prefer. (The Mercury heavy vinyl reissues, at least the ones I played, were ridiculously fat and bloated in the bottom. Audiophiles did not seem to mind much, judging by the apparently strong sales and the rave reviews I read. Bass shy systems, and that means most of the systems owned by audiophiles, probably benefited from the bass boost. Systems with lots of large woofers — at least in our case — would of course make the sound of these pressings positively unbearable. That indeed was our experience.)
Proof positive that there is nothing wrong with remastering vintage recordings if you know what you’re doing. These sessions from 1956 (left off of an album that Allmusic liked a whole lot less than this one) were remastered in 1985 and the sound — on the better copies mind you — is correct from top to bottom.
What It Doesn’t Sound Like
The highest compliment I can pay a copy such as this is that it doesn’t sound like a modern record. It sounds like a very high quality mono jazz record from the ’50s or ’60s. Unlike modern recuts it doesn’t sound EQ’d in any way. It doesn’t lack ambience the way modern records do. It sounds musical and natural the way modern records almost never do.
If not for the fairly quiet vinyl you would never know it’s not a vintage record. The only originals we had to play against it were too noisy and worn to evaluate critically. They sounded full, but dark and dull and somewhat opaque (hey, there’s that modern remastered sound we’ve all been hearing for years!).
And although it is obviously a budget reissue, it sure doesn’t sound cheap to these ears.
Tender Loving Care?
Was it remastered with great care, or did the engineer just thread up the tape on a high-quality, properly calibrated deck and say “Nice, sounds good, let her rip.”? Either “explanation” works for me, because I really don’t care who made the record or how much work they put into it. In the case of The Genius After Hours it seems they found the real master tape and just did their job right, the way mastering engineers — well, some of them anyway — had been doing for decades.
A scant ten years later Bernie Grundman, a true Hall of Famer, started cutting for Classic Records and ruined practically every tape handed to him. Our explanation? We don’t have one! We played the records and reported our findings. We sold the ones we thought sounded good to us and didn’t bother with the rest.
Just like we’re doing now. The biggest difference here is that we are evaluating a single copy, with these specific qualities, and guaranteeing that you either love it or you get your money back.
Big and clear with a very solid piano and all its harmonic overtones. What piano recording from 1956 sounds like this? None that I know of. And it’s Ray Charles at the keys!
The exceptionally dynamic brass that comes jumping out of the soundfield is nonetheless warm and full – what a great sound!
There’s much more space here than on most copies, making it sound less mono.
One More Thing
The first copy of the album I got my hands on and needle-dropped blew me away with its big, clear, solid mono sound. Close to a year later when we had enough copies to do this shootout, sure enough it won. That rarely happens — in a big pile of records there’s almost always something better than whatever we’ve heard — but it happened this time.
Imagine if I had played one of the bad sounding or noisy ones to start with. It’s unlikely I would have been motivated to pursue the title and consequently the shootout we just did would have never happened. Lucky for us all that that first copy was so good!