Diminishing Returns in Audio?

More Sergio Mendes

More Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66

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Diminishing returns? Sez who? In our opinion, it’s another Old and Pernicious Myth.

I often read this comment in audio magazines regarding the piece of equipment under review, as if to say that we are so close to audio perfection that a gain of a few percent is the most we can hope for from this or that new megabuck amp or speaker. In my experience the exact opposite is true. 

There are HUGE improvements to be made on a regular basis, even without spending all that much money (keeping in mind that this is not exactly a poor man’s hobby).

If you are actively involved in seeking out better equipment, trying new things, and tweaking the hell out of your system as much as time and patience permit, I think an improvement of 10-25% per year in perceived sound quality is not an unreasonable expectation.

The Hallographs, for example, can easily make a system improvement of that magnitude. I have heard it happen on a number of occasions. Is the system twice as good with the addition of the Hallographs? Technically, no. Is it twice as enjoyable? Is it twice as musically involving? Absolutely. Was the system fine before? Of course. Could you even listen to it after removing the Hallographs from the room? Not in a million years.

A similar situation occurred recently with the Magic Pillows you may have read about on the site. I was over at a friend’s house and putting his amps on the pillows made a night and day improvement. Same equipment, same records and CDs, night and day more musically satisfying sound. For practically no money. I’ve heard the same thing happen in other systems, so this is no fluke. It can be done.

What specifically needs to be changed in a given system no one can really know. All you can do is take your best shot and hope for a good result. There is simply no alternative to the ‘hard” work of experimentation and critical evaluation. The results of these experiments cannot be predicted with much accuracy. But one thing I can guarantee you: if you don’t change at least something in your system, you can be sure it will never sound any better than it does today.

Stumbling on the Truth

Of course the same principle applies to records. A while back I stumbled upon two pressings that really changed my understanding of the recordings themselves. One was an original copy of Sweet Baby James. The sound was so tonally perfect I could hardly believe what I was hearing. This stamper was so hot it was on fire! No copy in my experience had ever gotten it this right. It was a singular thrill. I was still thinking about it weeks later.

The other amazing LP was a copy of Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66’s first album, with a side two that murdered my best copy. We’re talking here about an album that I have literally been collecting for over 20 years. An album that I have auditioned more than 50 pressings of, maybe even 100. An album that I would have said I know what the best stampers are and that’s that.

But I would have been dead wrong. This stamper for side two takes this familiar recording to a level heretofore unimagined by me. It not only had more smoothness that my best copy — a chronic problem with this title, as they are often tizzy and aggressive — but there was quite a bit more ambience than ever before. Normally brighter records appear to have more ambience, as ambience is heard mostly in the treble region. Here we have a copy with “less’ treble (actually more correct treble) that gives us more ambience. More ambience that I have ever heard. A lot more.

And with ambience comes resolution. For the first time ever I can clearly make out the Portuguese words the female vocalists are singing. I still don’t know what they mean, but I can clearly hear the words. Portuguese is a language that is often pronounced with a slur: all the sounds seem to run together. That’s the way I always heard it on this album, so I assumed that’s the way it was always going to sound. Wrong. This pressing showed me a recording I never knew existed — until last week. This is a perfect example of the thrill one can only get through record collecting. There’s nothing like it.

Actually that’s not true. There is something like it: Making your stereo sound better. Then all your records become unfamiliar – in a good way.


Further Reading

…along these lines can be found below. 

We have 70+ Audio Exercises you can try at home for fun and profit.

We have a section for Audio Advice of all kinds.

And finally we’ll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.

Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.

Discography

1966 Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66

The Brasil ’66 debut album on A&M opens with a bang–“Mas Que Nada” was, and still is, one of Mendes’ finest recordings. Using a sparse combination of female vocalists, drums, piano, bass and percussion, this album was Brasil ’66 at its leanest. “One Note Samba/Spanish Flea” cleverly combines two popular songs, one of Bossa Nova fame, the other straight out of the Tijuana Brass catalog. Henry Mancini’s “Lujon” (from the excellent Mr. Lucky Goes Latin album) is given vocals and retitled “Slow Hot Wind”. “O Pato” and “Agua De Beber” cover a couple more tracks from the popular Brazilian repertoire, and the American popular scene is represented by “Going Out Of My Head” and “Day Tripper”. One of the more interesting tunes here is “Berimbau”, based on a Brazilian chant. (Interesting tidbit: “Mas Que Nada” has been misspelled, in perpetuity, as “Mais Que Nada” on Brasil 66 albums!)

1967 Equinox

This sophomore effort of Brasil ’66 covers a lot of the same ground as the first album. Most notable is the addition of guitarist John Pisano, from the Tijuana Brass. There are more excellent arrangements; the standouts are “Triste”, “Chove Chuva” and “Night and Day.”

1967 Look Around

Comprised of the same musicians as the first two Brasil ’66 album, there are a few new twists. The most prominent are the two Lani Hall showcases, “Like A Lover” and “So Many Stars”, both lightly sprinkled with strings. Other favorites include “Roda”, “Batucada”, the title track and the distinctly Mendes arrangement of “With A Little Help From My Friends”.

1968 Fool on the Hill

This album presents a second version of Brasil ’66, including the excellent Brazilian musicians Rubens Bassini, Sebastiao Neto and Dom Um Romao. The string arrangements were written by Dave Grusin. What’s different is the direction in which the music on this album took. Turning from pop music influences, these songs reflect more of the Brazilian heritage of the musicians, and are more adventurous as a result. The most-recognized arrangements from this album would be the two cover versions: “Fool On The Hill” and “Scarborough Fair”. In case you’re wondering what kind of “hill” the “fools” on the cover are sitting on, on the original LP gatefold jacket, take a closer look!

1969 Crystal Illusions

After the upbeat Fool On The Hill, Crystal Illusions seems quiet in comparison with such easygoing fare as “Viola” and “Song of No Regrets”. Milton Nascimento makes an excellent contribution with “Empty Faces”, and “Pretty World” has to be one of the most cheerful songs Brasil ’66 ever recorded. The album’s centerpiece is the pensive title track.

1969 Ye-Me-Le

“There are special moments, like the hypnotic “Masquerade” (no relation to the Leon Russell/George Benson hit), Sergio Mihanovich’s haunting “Some Time Ago,” and another winning treatment of a Beatles tune, “Norwegian Wood,” where Mendes cuts loose a killer solo on electric piano (believe it or not, the 45 rpm single version features more of that solo than the LP).”

1970 Stillness

A radical departure from anything that had gone before, Stillness remains the one album that Brasil ’66 fans either love or hate. Most complaints about it center on the fact that the familiar bossa sound of the earlier records was now mostly gone. Nonetheless, Stillness is arguably one of the most fluid albums of Mendes’ career. It takes its cue from the work of many of the singer/songwriters of the day (Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, etc.), with thoughtful lyrics and often delicate arrangements. It is a almost a concept album, with the theme expressed in the title song — the words of which are even printed on the front cover — and an outdoorsy, peaceful feeling running through many of the other lyrics. Stillness is also Lani Hall’s final album with Mendes; she left the group during these sessions and was replaced by Gracinha Leporace, who does lead vocals on several songs.

Standout tracks include “Chelsea Morning” and “Viramundo,” both of which contain traces of the earlier Brasil ’66 sound; “Righteous Life” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” both of which reflect the mood of late ’60s America through their lyrics; and the very pretty “Sometimes in Winter,” featuring an elegant orchestral arrangement by Dick Hazard.