Number one: Too many instruments and voices jammed into too little space in the upper midrange.
When the tonality is shifted-up, even slightly, or there is too much compression, there will be too many elements — voices, guitars, drums — vying for space in the upper part of the midrange, causing congestion and a loss of clarity. This is especially noticeable on songs with loud choruses.
With the more solid sounding copies, the lower mids are full and rich; above them, the next “level up” so to speak, there’s plenty of space in which to fit all the instruments and voices comfortably, not piling them one on top of another as is often the case. Consequently, the upper midrange area does not get overloaded and overwhelmed with musical information.
Number Two: edgy vocals, which is related to Number One above. Most copies have at least some edge to the vocals — the boys want to really belt it out in the choruses, and they do — but the best copies keep the edge under control, without sounding compressed, dark, dull or smeary.
The highest quality equipment, on the hottest Hot Stamper copies, will play the loudest and most difficult to reproduce passages with virtually no edge, grit or grain, even at very loud levels
Tracks two and three on side one were our favorite test tracks. Plat track three to hear how correct, smooth and sweet the midrange is.
Shooting Out the Tough Ones
Styx albums always make for tough shootouts. Like Yes, a comparably radio-friendly Pop Prog band, their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to recording makes it difficult to translate their complex sounds to disc, vinyl or otherwise. Everything has to be tuned up and on the money before we can even hope to get the record sounding right. (Careful VTA adjustment could not be more critical in this respect.)
If we’re not hearing the sound we want, we keep messing with the adjustments until we do. There is no getting around sweating the details when sitting down to test a complex recording such as this. If you can’t stand the tweaking tedium, get out of the kitchen (or listening room as the case may be). Obsessing over every aspect of record reproduction is what we do for a living. Styx’s recordings require us to be at the top of our game, both in terms of reproducing their albums as well as evaluating the merits of individual pressings.
When you love it, it’s not work, it’s fun. Tedious, occasionally exasperating fun.
Size and Space
One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.
Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.
We often have to go back and downgrade the copies that we were initially impressed with in light of such a standout pressing. Who knew the recording could be that huge, spacious and three dimensional? We sure didn’t, not until we played the copy that had those qualities, and that copy might have been number 8 or 9 in the rotation.
Think about it: if you had only seven copies, you might not have ever gotten to hear a copy that sounded that open and clear. And how many even dedicated audiophiles would have more than one of two clean vintage pressings with which to do a shootout? These kinds of records are expensive and hard to come by in good shape. Believe us, we know whereof we speak when it comes to getting hold of vintage pressings of Classic Rock albums.
One further point needs to be made: most of the time these very special pressings just plain rock harder. When you hear a copy do what this copy can, it’s an entirely different – and dare I say unforgettable — listening experience.
Great White Hope
Sing for the Day
Lords of the Ring
Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)
Queen of Spades
Pieces of Eight
Styx’s feisty, straightforward brand of album rock is represented best by “Blue Collar Man” from 1978’s Pieces of Eight, an invigorating keyboard and guitar rush — hard and heavy, yet curved by Tommy Shaw’s emphasized vocals. Reaching number 21, with the frolicking romp of “Renegade” edging in at number 16 only six months later, Pieces of Eight maintained their strength as a front-running FM radio group.
Even though these two tracks were both mainstream singles, the rest of the album includes tracks that rekindle some of Styx’s early progressive rock sound, only cleaner. Tracks like “Sing for the Day,” “Lords of the Ring,” and “Aku-Aku” all contain slightly more complex instrumental foundations, and are lyrically reminiscent of the material from albums like The Serpent Is Rising or Man of Miracles, but not as intricate or instrumentally convoluted. While the writing may stray slightly from what Styx provided on The Grand Illusion, Pieces of Eight kept their established rock formula in tact quite firmly.