Month: May 2015

Striving for Orchestral Clarity

sibelfinla_2336

The original RCA Living Stereo pressings we played in our 2014 shootout were not competitive with the best Deccas and London reissues.

Original is better? In our experience with Finlandia, not so much.

 

 

 

 

sibelfinla_1505_spaThe record you see to your left is yet another wonderful example of what the much-lauded Decca recording engineers were able to capture on analog tape all those years ago. The 1961 master has been transferred brilliantly using “modern” cutting equipment (from the early-’70s, not the low-rez junk they’re forced to make do with these days), giving you, the listener, sound that only the best of both worlds can offer.
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Finding the Rare Pressing with an Actual Top End

weathheavyIt 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.

Our Track Commentary below has lots of What To Listen For (WTLF) advice to help you evaluate the copies you have on hand.
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Good Sound As Late As 1979?!

b-52sWho knew that good sounding records were still being recorded in 1979?

Candy-O comes to mind, but the B-52s’ first album has virtually none of the grit and Roy Thomas Baker heavy-processing of that one, and a lot more tubey magic to boot — when you get a pressing like this of course.

Both of these sides are superb, with the kind of huge, spacious soundstage and amazingly rich, full-bodied tonality that earned this recording its place in our Top 100. Talk about jumpin’ out of the speakers! Every instrument is clear and present, laid out right there in the listening room.

The Best of ’79

This recording reminded me of a really good Don Landee / Ted Templeman production, the kind you hear on JT or Simple Dreams or the better Doobie Brothers albums. Everything is laid out clearly: there’s a space created for every part of the frequency spectrum from the lowest lows to the highest highs, with nothing crowding or interfering with anything else. The production is professional, clean, clear and REAL sounding everywhere you look.

Chris Blackwell of Island Records produced the album, recorded it in Nassau, with engineering by a fellow named Robert Ash, whose work I was not familiar with. Turns out he’s worked with none other than Rhett Davies and Eno, two individuals we have nothing but the utmost respect for. Ash did a great job on this album. Until we hear something better we would have to say this is the Best Sounding Album of 1979.

Tubey Magic in 1979? Somehow they managed to pull it off!

What to Listen For

The toy piano Fred Schneider plays on Dance This Mess Around. It’s at the back of the stage, placed at about 10 o’clock in the soundfield. On most copies it sounds more like a glockenspiel than a toy piano; the best copies bring out the unique qualities of the instrument. Music has been written for it and classical concerts performed on it, can you imagine? And Fred plays it in concert (or used to anyway).

 

Leaner and Cleaner Won’t Cut It

littllastMusically The Last Record Album is one of our favorite Little Feat releases, and the recording has many excellent qualities. Prime among them is amazing bass; the bass goes REALLY deep in places (Long Distance Love) and it’s punchy and rich throughout the album.

The problem has always been an overly smooth top end, combined with congestion, smear, and a serious lack of presence. The good news is that if you clean enough copies with the advanced cleaning techniques we’ve developed, and you make enough improvements to your stereo, room, etc., with the right copy you can actually get this album to sound clear AND rich.

This is one of those copies, both clear and rich. It’s one of the best we have ever heard.

Whose Fault Is It?

Most copies of this album are shockingly dull and compressed. On such copies the band itself sounds bored, as if they lack conviction in their own songs.

But it’s not their fault. Whose fault it is is never easy to fathom; bad mastering, bad tapes, bad vinyl, bad something else — whatever it is, that thick, lifeless sound turns this powerfully emotional music into a major snooze-fest. It’s positively criminal but it happens all the time. It’s the reason we have to go through a pile of copies to find one that sounds like this.
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The Bloated Cello Sound Audiophiles Seem to Love

whereby the lower frequencies are boosted relative to the linear response of the microphone from a greater distance.

brittencelloBoth 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.)
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A Psych Masterpiece

spirispiri_1501_1284488363This is one of our favorite albums here at Better Records, and a true ’60s Psych Pop Masterpiece! The sound can be amazing as well, although you’d never know that listening to the average pressing. This copy gives you wall to wall width and layered studio depth like you will not believe, the kind of space you hear on engineering classics like Dark Side of the Moon and A Space in Time.

Fired Up

Want a glimpse into the kind of energy the band was generating in the studio? Drop the needle on Fresh Garbage, the opening track, and you will hear this band come alive in a way you probably never imagined you’d ever hear them. It’s positively startling how immediate and lively the sound is here.

This is the band at their best, fired up and ready to show the world that The Doors are not the only SoCal rock band who have innovative ideas about rock music and the performing chops to pull them off, not to mention the studio wizards who managed to get it all down on tape with State-of-the-Art ’60s Rock sound quality.

The Doors Vs. Spirit

If I had to choose between The Doors’ first album and Spirit’s, say for a nice drive up the coast with the top down, no contest, Spirit would get the nod (not to take anything away from The Doors mind you). I had the album on 8 Track back in high school and played it to death. Doing this shootout, hearing the album sound so good after so many years, was nothing less than a THRILL. (I went right up to Amazon and bought a CD for the car. Might just take a drive up the coast.)
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Light, Medium or Heavy on the Congas?

stevetease_congamania_1227123333During the shootout for this record a while back we made a very important discovery, a seemingly obvious one but one that nevertheless had eluded us for the past twenty plus years (so how obvious could it have been?). It became clear, for the first time, what accounts for the wide disparity in ENERGY and DRIVE from one copy to the next. We can sum it up for you in one five letter word, and that word is conga.

The congas are what drive the high-energy songs, songs like Tuesday’s Dead and Changes IV. Here is how we stumbled upon their critically important contribution.

We were listening to one of the better copies during a recent shootout. The first track on side one, The Wind, was especially gorgeous; Cat and his acoustic guitar were right there in the room with us. The transparency, tonal neutrality, presence and all the rest were just superb. Then came time to move to the other test track on side one, which is Changes IV, one of the higher energy songs we like to play.

But the energy we expected to hear was nowhere to be found. The powerful rhythmic drive of the best copies of the album just wasn’t happening. The more we listened the more it became clear that the congas were not doing what they normally do. The midbass to lower midrange area of the LP lacked energy, weight and power, and this prevented the song from coming to LIFE the way the truly Hot Stampers can and do.

Big Speakers

For twenty years Tuesday’s Dead has been one of my favorite tracks for demonstrating what The Big Speaker Sound is all about. Now I think I better understand why. Big speakers are the only way to reproduce the physical size and tremendous energy of the congas (and other drums of course) that play such a big part in driving the rhythmic energy of the song.
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It’s Records Like This…

warnewell_debunk_7009…that make audiophiles the laughing stocks of the music world they too often appear to be (our customers and at least some of you reading this excepted).

Jennifer Warnes – The Well

Sonic Grade: F

A Hall of Shame pressing from Cisco / Impex.

Some of the worst sound I have ever heard in my life, worse than The Hunter even, and that’s saying something!

If this kind of crap is what audiophiles choose to play then they deserve all the derision heaped upon them.

We’re glad we no longer offer embarrassments such as The Well, although we did, many years ago. In our defense we would simply offer up this old maxim: de gustibus non est disputandum.

Our old slogan was Records for Audiophiles, Not Audiophile Records, but we also followed this business rule: Give the Customer What He Wants.

If this is your thing, more power to you, but you may suspect you are on the wrong site. We sell real music, with much better sound than anything ever pressed on Heavy Vinyl.

 

The Vintage Sound of The Genius After Hours

charlgeniusProof 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.

Side One

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!

Side Two

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!

More Ray Charles