This is a very difficult record to find with proper mastering (and good vinyl, ouch!). It seems that all of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s albums are that way. The average domestic pressing rarely even hints at how well recorded this band really was (and the imports are even worse — we’ve never heard one that didn’t sound dubby, veiled and compressed).
In my experience not even one out of ten LPs sounds right; I put the figure at one out of twenty. Most of them are shrill, dull, grainy, flat, opaque, harsh and in varying degrees suffer from every other mastering and pressing malady known to man.
But the best ones have some tracks in superb sound. When you hear the Hot Stampers for records like this you will simply be AMAZED. If you’ve ever heard a really good If Only I Could Remember My Name, an album that CAN be found with proper mastering, that should give you some idea of how good the first two albums can sound.
When you get a good copy of this album, this song sounds like it was lifted right off of a Hot Stamper copy of Deja Vu itself. It’s so rich and Tubey Magical you’d swear it couldn’t get any better. Huge amounts of deep bass. Acoustic guitars that ring for days. Midrange magic to die for. Not many of them sound this way, unfortunately.
If I could indulge in some more MoFi and Half-Speed bashing for a moment, the bass “solo” at the end of this song is a great test for bass definition. The notes are relatively high, and it’s easy for them to sound blurred and wooly. The MoFi, like virtually all Half-Speed mastered records, has a problem with bass definition. If you own the MoFi, listen for how clearly defined the notes are at the end of this track. Then play any other copy, either of So Far or Deja Vu. It’s a pretty safe bet that the bass will be much more articulate. I know how bad the MOFI is in this respect. Rarely do “normal” records have bass that bad.
Stephen Barncard Does It Again
Listen to this song and compare it to anything on the Barncard-engineered first solo LP by David Crosby. That is the sound of Barncard’s engineering — open, spacious, rich, sweet; tons of deep bass; absolutely no trace of phony eq on vocals; acoustic guitars that ring for days — the man is a GENIUS. Thank god he was involved with music of this quality. If only more of the LP pressings did a better job of revealing the exquisite beauty of the recordings themselves. (I suppose that burden must be carried by the few Hot Stamper copies we can dig up.)
This is a wonderful song that has a lot of energy in the midrange and upper midrange area which is difficult to get right. Just today (4/25/05) I was playing around with VTA, and this song showed me EXACTLY how to get the VTA right.
VTA is all about balance. The reason this song is so good for adjusting VTA is that the guitar at the opening is a little smooth and the harmony vocals that come in after the intro can be a little bright. Finding the balance between these two elements is key to getting the VTA adjusted properly.
When the arm is too far down in the back, the guitar at the opening will lose its transparency and become dull and thick. Too high in the back and the vocals sound thin and shrill, especially when the boys all really push their harmony parts. The slightest change in VTA will noticeably affect that balance and allow you to tune it in just right.
To be successful, however, there are also other conditions that need to be met. The system has to be sounding right, which in my world means good electricity, so make sure you do this in the evening or on a weekend when the electricity is better.
That’s the easy part. The hard part is that you need a good pressing of this song, and those don’t grow on trees. The vast majority of CSN’s first album and the vast majority of So Far’s are junk. Trying to get them to sound right is impossible, because they weren’t mastered right in the first place. But if you’re one of the lucky few who has a good pressing of Helplessly Hoping, try tweaking your VTA adjustment and see if you aren’t able to dial it in even better than before.
Since the Classic heavy vinyl version is also excellent, it too can be used to set VTA. But of course you are setting VTA for a thicker record, which means you will need to note where the setting is for thick and thin vinyl respectively and make sure that the VTA is correct for each.
As good as the Classic Record is, the guitar at the opening of Helplessly Hoping tells you everything you need to know about what’s missing. The guitar on the Hot Stamper domestic copies has a transparency that cannot be found on Classic’s version. The Classic gets the tonal balance right, but their guitar doesn’t have the subtlety and harmonic resolution of the real thing.
(I’m laboring mightily to avoid the word detail, since many audiophiles like bright, phony sound because of all the wonderful “details” it allows them to hear in the music. The MoFi guys and the CD guys usually fall into this trap. Get the sound tonally balanced first, then see how much detail you have left. Detail can never be the end-all and be-all of audio. Those who think it is usually have systems that make my head hurt.)
But most people will never know what they’re missing on Helplessly Hoping, because they will never have an amazing sounding copy of this song. The hot copies are just too rare.
Note that only the best of the best copies can get this song right. Even a “good” pressing can be beaten by the Classic. The Classic 200 gram pressing is fairly sweet and present in the midrange, with less strain in the loud harmonies. A White Hot or Super Hot Stamper will of course positively decimate anything Classic ever did. It would be no contest, take my word for it. Better yet, don’t take my word for it, or anybody else’s for that matter; buy a Hot Stamper and hear it for yourself!
Teach Your Children
This is a tough one; very few copies of So Far reveal how good sounding this song can be. On most copies this song is distorted and congested. But on the best copies it has many of the same qualities as Almost Cut My Hair from Deja Vu. We wrote:
This is the one and only time when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young actually sounds like a rock and roll band. Supposedly (according to Stephen Barncard) this was recorded live in the studio. It sure sounds like it. The amount of energy this band stirs up on this track exceeds all the energy of the first album put together.
And the reason this is such a tough test is because it has to be mastered perfectly in order to make you want to turn it up as loud as your stereo will play. This song is not for sipping wine and smoking cigars. This is a song that demands to be played at realistic volume levels on big speakers. Nothing less will do.
Find the Cost of Freedom
The best copies of So Far have DEMO DISC QUALITY SOUND on this track. You could say everything that needs to be said about the beauty of analog with this one track alone. It’s not even two minutes long, but it’s two really wonderful minutes of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at the height of their powers.
The voices should sound as sweet and as silky as any CSN three part harmony you have ever heard. This song rivals Helplessly Hoping for vocal blend. Good pressings of this song have midrange magic to die for.
As this is the last track on side one, closest to the inner groove, most copies are going to have some trace of tracking distortion (or even cutting distortion). The better your arm and cartridge, the less this should present a problem for you. (My Dynavector 17dx/ Triplanar combo tracks the best copies perfectly.) For most weekend warrior audiophiles, it’s never going to vanish completely.
Anti-Skate Testing Too!
That having been said, this track is a wonderful test for anti-skate adjustment. With the anti-skate set right there should be less harmonic distortion in the voices. A correct setting will also bring out dynamics in the vocals as well.
Of course, the problem is, if you start playing this song again and again and making small adjustments to the anti-skate, you’re probably going to end up damaging the track. So find a cheap used copy to play with, not one of these wonderful Hot Stampers.
Here’s how you can tell when you have a good pressing of side two: you want to TURN IT UP AND ROCK OUT! CSN didn’t really rock much — Almost Cut My Hair is where they got it all together and lifted off into outer space — but this song gets going pretty good and ranks second in their Real Rock Song pantheon. Properly mastered copies with low distortion and lots of bass make you want to turn it up good and loud and sing along at the top of your lungs!
On the best copies, there is a prodigious amount of DEEP DEEP bass. I’m guessing it’s something in the 20-25 cycle range. It’s the kind of bass that you often hear in another room, wherever your deepest bass tends to go.
Note the raw distortion in that opening guitar — if your copy is fully present, not smeared and dull, that guitar will sound amazing. It’s a key test for the side; if that guitar doesn’t cut it, you won’t like what follows.
On the best copies, Neil Young’s voice will sound clear, present and completely free of artificiality, with lovely ambience around both his voice and the guitars. Also, only the best copies will get the background vocals in the chorus right; they can have a wonderfully smooth and silky quality.
Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
What’s magical about Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young? Their voices of course. It’s not a trick question. They revolutionized rock music with their genius for harmony. The above four songs must sound believable on their voices or they will have no value whatsoever.
A CSN record with bad midrange — like most of them — is a worthless record. Why do we have such animus for the Classic pressing of Deja Vu? It RUINS their voices! If you can’t hear that — Hello Michael Fremer — what on earth are you listening for?
The Midrange Test
What to listen for:
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 like Find the Cost of Freedom on side one and Woodstock on side two.
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. Almost all 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.
The first album on Classic Records is quite good. I give it a B. It’s as sweet and tonally correct as any Classic Record ever made. You can do better but the vast majority of the time you are going to do a lot worse. Classic also did Deja Vu, but the less said about that one the better. It earned a very different grade: F.
However, if you made the mistake of buying the Classic Records version, a Hot Stamper version of this record will show you what you are missing on tracks like Deja Vu, Helpless and Woodstock. The difference is night and day.