Cat Stevens on 2 Heavy Vinyl 45 RPM Discs, Part 2 – Is This the Truest Tillerman of Them All?

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Cat Stevens / Tea for the Tillerman on Two 200 Gram Discs Cut at 45 RPM

If you haven’t read Part 1 of this story, please click here.

Back to our real story. I listened to my good original pressing. I call it White Hot at least!

Then I put the new pressing on the table, set the SDS for 45 RPM, and got the volume just right. I proceeded to carefully adjust the VTA by ear, going up and down with the arm until the sound was right, which is simply standard operating procedure for every record we audition.

These are my actual notes for But I Might Die Tonight.

This is what I heard as the song worked its way through the various sections, in real time.  The first thing I heard at the start was Zero Tubey Magic for the first verse. One of the last things I heard at the end was No Real Space. Space is what you hear at the end for the big piano and drums finish.

Let’s take it line by line. First up:

Zero Tubey Magic

I didn’t hear much Tubey Magic on the new pressing. The best early pressings — domestic A&M Browns, Pink or Sunray UK Islands — often have simply phenomenal amounts of the stuff. It’s a hallmark of the recording.

If a new pressing comes along without it, that’s a problem. I guess that George Marino‘s cutting system at Sterling could probably do some things well, but it sure doesn’t seem to be able get the sound of tubes right. His 33 RPM cutting had no Tubey Magic, and this one has no Tubey Magic. If I had hired him to cut a record for me and it came out sounding like this, I would find somebody else to cut records for me.

He’s dead now, rest in peace. I would doubt that anyone at Sterling has a better cutting system, and therefore no one should expect any records that have been mastered there to sound very good.

Vocal Is Clear, Clean and Dry

This is the sound you sometimes get with modern, super-clean transistor cutting equipment. It’s low distortion, like a CD is low distortion. We don’t think we should have to put up with dry vocals on records when the good pressings we have been playing all our lives have noticeably richer vocals.

Not rich like Dream With Dean, nothing is that rich, but rich and full-bodied the way the good pressings of this album always make them sound.

Bass Boost

I hear this problem on practically every Heavy Vinyl record I play these days. There are reviews coming for Jimmy Page’s recut of Led Zeppelin II (a rave, can you believe it?) and Chris Bellman’s recut of Brothers in Arms (also quite good), but both of them have boosted deep bass, making the kick drum kick more than it should.

If I were to reverse-engineer the system that played this record in order to find out what speaker they were using, my guess would be a speaker that rolls off the deep bass about 1 to 2 db.

Our speaker makes the deep bass on Tillerman sound just right. Zep II and Brothers in Arms as well. It draws attention to the boosted bass on the recuts and makes their shortcomings in this area obvious. The engineers who made these modern records may be pandering to audiophiles with systems that do not reproduce low octaves well — I would not put it past them — but we heard if for what it is: wrong.

Top OK

Surprisingly, the upper mids and highs are fine on the new pressing. The old Marino 33 cut was dark in the upper mids. Maybe Mr Marino saw that his previous cutting was in error and made the effort to fix it this time around. Who knows?

All Transistors

As discussed in the review for Marino’s 33 RPM cut. This is not the right sound for this album! We delved into the topic of Warmth last time around, and bad transistor equipment often lacks warmth. Some audiophiles like the warm sound they get from tubes. We like warmth too, but over the years we have lucked into transistor equipment that has just the right amount of it, not too much and not too little. In 2011, about Marino’s first crack at Tillerman, we wrote:

Giving the listener a sense of warmth and sweetness is what the analog pressings from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s do best. It’s one of the most important qualities that CDs have really never been able to get 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 LP, the older the better.

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 definitely have your work cut out for you in this hobby.

No Real Space

I also said this about his 33 RPM pressing:

None of these Heavy Vinyl reissues have the three-dimensional space of the good originals. They all fail massively in this area. This new pressing is no different.

This is not quite true, the two records I mention above that I will be reviewing soon both had fairly spacious sound. Not all the space, but most of the space. This one really lacks the depth and width of the stage you hear on the real Pink Label. It’s a big room they are recording in and you really get a sense of how big it is on the best pressings. On the new one, some, but not nearly as much as what is actually there.

Thick and Opaque

A chronic problem with these Heavy Vinyl recuts: they consistently lack transparency.

If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.

You do not hear into the new Tillerman like you can with an old pressing. But to know that you have to have a transparent, open, clear, resolving stereo system, and those are apparently not that easy to come by. If they were more common these Heavy Vinyl records would be correctly seen as the second-rate and third-rate mediocrities-at-best that they are in most cases, and they would be much less popular. But the fact that they are so popular tells us that audiophiles like them, and if audiophiles like them, then their playback systems just cannot be very good.

When I was getting serious about audio in the ’70s, electrostatic and screen-type speakers were quite common. Back in those days the one thing these kinds of speakers had going for them over other kinds of speakers was that they were transparent. They were wrong in almost every way a speaker can be wrong, but transparency was their forte and it fooled a lot of people into thinking this was a good approach to reproducing music.

Fortunately for me, in those days I liked Loud Rock Music, so screens were never an option for me. As an aside, I once heard the giant Magnaplanar 1D system — a series of screens which stretched all the way across a wall and was about 7 feet tall to boot — try to play a favorite Peter Frampton record of mine in an audio showroom. I’ll never forget being flabbergasted at how completely it failed to do any justice to the man’s music.

They were great on chorale records but chorale music has never been my thing. I went instead with the big dynamic RTR 280DR’s they were selling because that speaker could really rock.

Summing Up

Tea for the Tillerman is more than a record of a guy with a guitar singing and playing folksongs. It’s mostly that, but it does have a few tracks that are a great deal bigger and more powerful than the quieter acoustic songs that make up the bulk of the album. On a few tracks it’s a Big Production Folk Rock Record that contains some of the most powerful music Cat Stevens ever wrote. I don’t think he ever put more energy into any single piece of music than he did for the two minutes But I Might Die Tonight takes from beginning to end.

I have spent most of my life trying to build a system (equipment, room, etc.) that can play a record like Tea for the Tillerman and have it sound like live music, like Cat Stevens and band are in the room with me. Hearing it sound as it good as it does on the best carefully cleaned UK pressings has made all the time and effort I put into this hobby pay off in a way I never imagined when I first started out more than 45 years ago.

If I had never heard a good vintage pressing of the album, if all I had to play was this 45 RPM recut, I would still consider it an amazing piece of music with very good sound.

But once you’ve heard it sound as good as it does on the best vintage pressings, domestic or British, it’s very difficult to tolerate the shortcomings of this particular recut.  So much of what is good about the sound simply cannot be found on the new record, and of course the earlier version George Marino cut was even more lacking in these same areas, especially with respect to presence and correct tonal balance.

Grading the Album

So what should the Sonic Grade for a record such as this be?

I think it’s best to look at it this way. Tillerman is an amazingly well-recorded album, so well-recorded  that a great many audiophiles are going to want to overlook its shortcomings (to be clear, that small subset of the audiophile community that can hear its shortcomings) and give it a fairly good grade.

But that strikes me as unfair, and for a very simple reason. You have other options. And fortunately for you, dear reader, those options do not require that you spend many hundreds of dollars for one of our Hot Stamper pressings.

Most pressings on the A&M brown label, the ones cut by Lee Hulko and only the ones cut by him, are going to be more natural and more musical sounding than this new recut. They are going to sound much more right. This assumes you have a decent record cleaning machine and are using the Walker record cleaning fluids. If the first one of these vintage pressings you run across doesn’t do the trick, try a couple more.  One of them should show you a more relaxed, balanced recording than the AP pressing.

The same would be true for the British pressings. The earliest stampers are 3U/3U, again cut by Lee Hulko, and those, all the way up to 6U or 7U, as long as they have LH in the dead wax, should be clearly more enjoyable.

If you don’t adjust your VTA for every record, if you don’t know how to clean your records properly, if you don’t do a lot of the things we explain how to do on this very blog to get the best playback from your records, well, then, who is to say what you will hear when you do this little shootout for yourself.

But if you can find a way to do the basics right, the new pressing will lose to most any good original or early reissue, from here or across the pond. That means the grade has to be below average, below “C.”

It’s not quite a complete failure the way the earlier Marino cutting was, which was an “F” anyway you cared to slice it.

So let’s go with “D.”

Some additional advice: if you have a somewhat lean and clean sounding system, the new pressing would be a real mess, a thin, hard “F,” since it already has too much of that sound baked into it.

If you have an exceptionally tubey system, especially of the Vintage variety, old Marantz or MacIntosh or something else from the ’50s and ’60s, say, your electronics can supply some of the Tubey Magic that’s lacking on the new pressing, and for you the new recut might be a “C,” perhaps even better.

We don’t think that’s a good way to pursue audio. We’ve spent more than 40 years trying to get our stereo out of the way of the music we play. We couldn’t do the kind of work we do otherwise.

Ruthless accuracy is not for everybody of course. We don’t even recommend it, since you then have to play nothing but top quality records, and those are hard to come by. We think reasonably accurate with some forgiveness is a good way to go for most record-loving audiophiles who want to enjoy their collections, not be tortured by them.

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 ourselves 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.

More Reviews and Commentaries for Tea for the Tillerman

Our Revolutions in Audio Commentary (As Promised)


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