Cat Stevens – 200 Grams of Tea for the Tillerman
Dear Record Loving Audiophiles of Earth,
I’m afraid we have some bad news. [This was written back in 2011 when the record came out so it’s hard to imagine that what I am about to say is news to anyone at this stage of the game.] Regrettably we must inform you that the 2011 edition of Tea for the Tillerman pressed by Analogue Productions on Heavy Vinyl doesn’t sound very good. We know you were all hoping for the best. We also know that you must be very disappointed to hear this unwelcome news.
But the record is what it is, and what it is is not very good. Its specific shortcomings are many and will be considered at length in our review below.
Yes, we know, the folks over at Acoustic Sounds, in consultation with the late George Marino at Sterling Sound, supposedly with the real master tape in hand, and supposedly with access to the best mastering equipment money can buy, labored mightily, doing their level best to master and press the Definitive Audiophile Tea for the Tillerman on Vinyl of All Time.
It just didn’t come out very good, no matter what the reviewers say. And what do they say? Allow me to quote one.
…superbly dynamic, spacious and detailed…The attack of the pick on the guitar strings is astonishingly clean and detailed.
Depth is pronounced…
…the resolution of low level detail reveals a host of details that are either buried or glossed over on the other versions I’ve heard…
Uh-oh, wait a minute, here’s a blindingly red flag:
If you have the edition, you’ll find this similar in one way: there’s nothing “mellow” about the overall production and when the music gets loud (and Marino lets it get so) it can get a bit hard, but better that than to soften it and lose the clarity, focus and detail of this superb recording, especially in the quieter passages where the resolution of low level detail is astonishing.
More about that later.
Another fellow, this time a blogger writing under the heading “my vinyl review,” had this to say:
This latest pressing… has a decidedly leaner tonal balance than the UK pink Island, and favors the chiming highs and upper mids of the guitars over the lower frequencies. That said, the QRP’s bass is also tighter than what is heard on the other pressings. As with the UK pink, Stevens’ vocals are right up front in the mix on the QRP, but also gain an additional layer or two of complexity over the other issues. This new reissue… is simply the most dynamic, detailed version of this classic album that I’ve heard to date, with more of the vocal nuances, guitar flourishes, and bass string vibrations that audiophiles crave. The U.K. pink undoubtedly possesses a rounder overall sound — and some with particularly bright systems or a sensitivity to the hint of stridence or sibilance in the vocals, might appreciate the touch of tube compression found on the original U.K.
Hey, that’s what I heard too.
Some of what is quoted above does sound very much like the Acoustic Sounds QRP record I played.
For example, when they mention that it’s not “mellow,” that “it can get a bit hard,” that it has a “leaner tonal balance than the UK pink Island,” yes, I would agree with all of that.
But that only scratches the surface of its many faults.
What to Listen For
Let’s talk more about precisely what we listen for on the best copies of the album. Less than two months ago (07/2011) we put up a superb Hot Stamper pressing of the album, starting off our commentary with an overview of what we think makes a good TFTT:
This SUPER HOT copy has the kind of sound we look for in a great Cat Stevens record: immediacy in the vocals (so many copies are veiled and distant); natural tonal balance (most copies are either bright or dark; ones with the right balance are the exception, not the rule); good solid weight (so the piano and toms sound full and powerful); spaciousness (the best copies have studio ambience like you would not believe); and last but not least, TRANSPARENCY, the effect of being able to see INTO the soundfield all the way to the back, where there is plenty going on.
This is one of the few Super Hot copies we have put up on the site since well back in 2008. It takes many, many — way too many — copies to find one that sounds like this. When it does, you know it. It sure ain’t rocket science. Side two here is ALIVE with musical energy.
Let’s discuss these qualities vis a vis the QRP pressing one by one. We’ll even throw in a couple more at the end for good measure.
Vocal Immediacy or Presence
After carefully setting the VTA by ear, with plenty of trial and error for this Heavy Vinyl LP, we were shocked at how distant Cat’s voice is in the mix here. He’s singing from the back of the studio now? How on earth did he get all the way back there?
It reminds me of the awful MoFi Doors first album, which over the course of many years I came to understand, like so many MoFi remasterings, was badly sucked out in the middle of the midrange. For the life of me I cannot understand why anyone would want Cat’s (or Jim’s) voice to sound so recessed and distant, or how the mastering engineer would actually go about accomplishing such a task.
We randomly threw on one of the copies from our recent shootout and Cat’s voice jumped forward, front and center, exactly where he has been for the forty years or so I have been playing the album. Glad to know we weren’t losing our minds.
Natural Tonal Balance
It’s not natural, it’s LEAN and DARK. To be more specific, it’s thin in the lower mids and dark in the upper midrange presence area. I’m not even sure if the top is or isn’t right; when the voice is this wrong who cares? (It’s probably wrong though, based on the hundreds of Heavy Vinyl pressings I’ve played, and half-speed mastered records tend to be even worse.)
Maybe, it’s hard to know for sure. When the overall balance is dark like this, the weight of the piano and toms is out of balance with the rest of the soundfield. There’s not a clear, present vocal to sit on top of them in the mix, so everything may sound weighty, but it’s sure not supposed to. The weight of the piano, bass and drums are the foundation of the music — they hold everything else up. They can’t hold us something that is as dark and heavy as themselves.
None of these Heavy Vinyl reissues have the three-dimensional space of good originals. They all fail massively in this area. This new pressing is no different.
We’ve written again and again about what’s wrong with modern vinyl. Case in point: The DCC of Nick of Time.
It’s missing too much of the presence, intimacy, immediacy and transparency that we’ve discovered on our Hot Stamper copies. Like practically every Heavy Vinyl record pressed at RTI, there is a suffocating loss of ambience throughout, a kind of sterility to the sound. These remastered records just do not BREATHE like the real thing.
Apparently the new pressing plant Acoustic Sounds built has not solved this problem.
Dark, distant and hard, do we really need energy under these circumstances? That said, I don’t remember there being much on the record, not like the real thing anyway.
And I would like to add two more:
Giving the listener a sense of warmth and sweetness is what the analog pressings from the ’60s and ’70s do best. It’s one of the most important qualities that CDs to this day have not been able to get at all right. It’s the sound that we record lovers want our records to have. In fact it’s one of the main justifications I can see for the expense and hassle of analog. You can’t find that sound anywhere but on an old LP.
And try as you might, you won’t find a trace of that sound on any of these 200 grams of new vinyl. This pressing has NO sweetness and NO warmth. If your stereo can’t show you that then you have your work cut out for you in this hobby.
I didn’t hear much Tubey Magic on the new pressing either. To be fair, the average brown label A&M pressing usually doesn’t have much either, but it has some, and the best early pressings — A&M Browns, Pink or Sunray Islands — often have simply phenomenal amounts. It’s one of the hallmarks of the recording.
If a new pressing comes along without it — as well as many other qualities that the good originals are known for — one would have to call such a pressing a failure, wouldn’t one?
Indeed. Sonic Grade: F
P.S. Just ran across the following in an older listing. We’re nothing if not consistent here at Better Records.
And if you are ever tempted to pick up one of those recently remastered versions on heavy vinyl, don’t do it. There is simply no one alive today making records that sound like these good originals. Not to these ears anyway. We may choose to indulge ouselves in the audacity of hope, but reality has to set in sooner or later. After thirty years of trying, the modern mastering engineers of the world have nothing to show for their efforts but a pile of failures. The time to call it quits has come and gone. Let’s face facts: when it comes to Tea for the Tillerman, it’s the Real Thing or nothing.
One Last Thing
Borrowed from our introduction to The Blue Game.
Without a doubt we feel this will end up being the single most controversial stance we’ve ever taken. I predict that a great number of audiophiles are going to get really upset over our criticism of this new pressing. We are going to get emails like crazy asking us to explain what on earth could possibly be wrong with such a wonderful sounding LP. The writers of these emails will no doubt extoll its virtues relative to the other pressings they may have heard, and, finding no other reasonable explanation, they will feel impelled to question both the quality of our playback equipment and — yes, it’s true — even our ability to recognize a good record when it’s spinning right on our very own turntable.
Some of these individuals may actually be our customers. Obviously we don’t want them to be upset over our decision. We would much prefer to be honest and forthright; after all, it’s the hallmark of our operation. We’re the guys in this dodgy business that pride ourselves on giving it to you straight. Letting the chips fall where they may. Criticising the hell out of the naked emperors who write for the audiophile rags. Imploring you to listen critically for yourself and not to buy into the hype.
We’re those guys, the ones dedicated to finding you truly Better Records, not just the same old crap that other people want you to think are better records: the 180 gram remasters and Japanese pressings and References and Cheskys and TAS List titles and Stan Ricker half-speeds and Fragiles and For Dukes and Dafos’s and Morph the Cats, etc., etc.. Screw all that crap.
We’re those guys, never ones to shy away from controversy, especially if it actually fulfills some purpose, like getting you away from audiophile mediocrities and into some honest-to-goodness high-fidelity ANALOG sound.