Another in our series of Random Thoughts and observations on recording-related issues.
Hot Stampers are all about finding those rare and very special pressings that manage to represent the master tape at its best.
Notice I did not say ACCURATELY represent the master tape, because the master tape may have faults that need to be corrected, and the only way to do that is in the mastering phase. I can tell you without fear of contradiction that fidelity to the master tape should never be, and rarely is, the goal of the mastering engineer.
Which, as a practical matter, means that flat transfers are usually a mistake.
Chesky is famous for boasting that their early remasterings of the Living Stereo catalog were flat transfers. They sure sound flat all right. If there is a more clueless bunch of audiophiles on the planet than the people running Chesky you would have a hard time proving it to me. But I digress.
Whether we like or dislike the presentation of any given recording is of course a matter of taste. When listening we constantly make judgments about the way we think the recording at any moment “ought” to sound, based on what we like or don’t like about the sound of recordings in general and how our stereos deal with them.
Naturally, audiophiles listen for different qualities in a recording and ascribe to these different qualities higher and lower values based on their personal taste. While doing our Hot Stamper shootouts, we — being audiophiles — do the same. Through our commentaries we try to communicate as accurately as possible the special qualities of the pressings we heard and what they meant to us.
So what are we listening for (WTLF) on Zuma, specifically? Two qualities above all others.
First off, correct tonality is critically important. For an audiophile this should go without saying. It is virtually (virtually but not quite) the sine qua non of reproduced sound.
Dynamics and Energy
We prize dynamics and the overall energetic quality of recordings more than transparency, Tubey Magic, sweetness and other audiophile favorites, even though we think those are very important qualities in a record. For us a transparent, sweet, lifeless record is no fun, hence our emphasis on energy and dynamics (and our disdain for Heavy Vinyl, which in our experience almost always lacks energy, along with lots of other things of course).
We like the Big Speaker sound — the kind of sound that, when at the right level, makes you feel like you’re in the presence of live music. That means the sound must be dynamic, immediate and full-range. Small speakers, screens and their ilk can do some nice things, but they can’t move much air, so for us they fail to convey a true sense of the power and energy, the “liveness”, of a recording the way dynamic drivers can (assuming of course the drivers are big enough and you have enough of them).
Room treatments play a vitally important role here of course. Untreated or poorly treated listening rooms constantly fight the speakers’ efforts to play louder without distortion. The room is the bottleneck, yet because the problem is not correctly identified, nothing is done to solve it. (I was heavily into audio for twenty years before I figured this out.)
Music has the power to take you out of the world you know and place you in a world of its own making. How it can do that nobody knows. Whatever Neil tapped into to make it happen on Danger Bird, he succeeded completely. If you’re in the right frame of mind, in the right environment, with everything working audio-wise, a minute into this song you will no longer be sitting in your comfy audio chair. You won’t really know where you are, and that’s exactly the best place to be. You’re in Neil’s world now, the world he created for you with his song.
To accomplish this feat the sound has to be right. As always, this is the rub. If you’re an audiophile these transcendent experiences tend to be prompted by very high quality recordings, the kind that let you forget you’re listening to a recording at all. So many recordings do the reverse: they call attention to their shortcomings. When that happens the effect of losing oneself in the music quickly becomes hopelessly difficult, if not impossible.
Of course I’m using the word “recording” inaccurately here. We don’t really know what the recording sounds like. All we have are pressings, and the sad fact of the matter is that most recordings are ruined in the mastering and pressing phases. How else to explain how a Hot Stamper pressing like this can sound so amazing, yet the average copy sounds so, well, average? Which brings us to the sound of Zuma.
Zuma has a kind of garage band sonic purity that makes practically any other studio album you own sound phony in comparison. This is clearly a bunch of guys playing together live in a room, a room which happens to be a studio but could just as easily have been somebody’s garage. It has exactly that kind of loose feel; there’s a sense of real communication between the players. Much like great jazz musicians, they’re completely in tune with each other. Drop the needle on any song at random and you can tell right away that these guys are comfortable playing together. They’ve known each other for a long, long time. This is a real band; this ain’t no Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Super Group. (Neil is famous for saying CSN&Y were never a band, more like four guys each trying to do their own thing.)
Raw and Real Sound
The sound is as raw as it is real. It’s as far from Deja Vu as you can get — except for the one song on Deja Vu that really does sound like a band playing live in the studio: Almost Cut My Hair. Over the decades (four and counting) it has slowly become my favorite CSNY track, mostly because they really do rock like a LIVE BAND. If you love THAT SOUND as much as we do, you will absolutely love Zuma.
The whole album has that sound — good news for us audiophiles. The even better news is that Zuma is a better recording, and it’s better in every way — rock solid bass (the kind that all the best Neil Young records seem to have); explosive dynamics; superb transparency; extended highs; some of the best sounding drums and guitars you’ve ever heard; clear, correct, unprocessed, lifelike vocals and choruses — I could go on, but I’m guessing you get the picture. This is it folks. For grungy guitar rock it just doesn’t get any better than Zuma.