Advice – What to Listen For – Transparency

Paul Simon – Graceland – What to Think When the New Version Is Completely Unrecognizable?

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Sonic Grade: F

A Hall of Shame Pressing and another Heavy Vinyl LP debunked.

Where did this thick, dull, bloated, opaque turd come from? Having played at least 50 copies of the album over the last ten years, I can honestly say I have never heard one that sounded very much like this new version (maybe some record club copy we picked up by accident did, can’t say it never happened).

Can that possibly be a good thing?

Well, in favor of that proposition I guess you could say it sounds less like a CD now. On the other side of the ledger, it now sounds a great deal more like a bad LP.

We listen to piles of pressings of Graceland regularly. We know what the album generally sounds like, the range from bad to good, and we know what qualities the very best copies must have in order to win one of our shootouts.

Above all the one thing Graceland has going for it sonically is CLARITY. It can be open and spacious, tonally correct, with punchy, tight bass and present, breathy vocals. The best of the best copies have all these qualities, but the one quality any good copy must have is clarity, because that’s what’s good about the sound of the record. Without clarity the music doesn’t even work.

The new version has been “fixed”. It got rid of all that pesky grit and grain and CD-like sound from the original digital mix by heavy-handedly equalizing them away.

Cut the top, cut the upper mids, boost the lower mids and upper bass and voila – now it’s what Graceland would have sounded like had it been all analog from the start, AAA baby!

Or at least analog for those who don’t know what good analog sounds like. (more…)

The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet – Critical Listening Exercise

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For (WTLF).

Want a good test for Transparency and Resolution? Try this one. There is a sound on this album’s side one that’s unlike any I can recall hearing before. Listen to No Expectations and see if you don’t hear something quite strange going on in the general area of the left rear of the studio. It took me a while to figure out what it was, and on the bad British pressings and all of the domestic copies you can hardly hear it all. 

You should be able to hear it provided:

  • You have a good copy of the record.
  • You cleaned it properly.
  • You played it on high quality equipment in a good room, and
  • You listened to it critically.

You really need all four. It’s what this commentary is all about. (more…)

Sketches Of Spain on Six Eye in Stereo

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1960 – It Was a Very Good Year

When you get a Hot Stamper like this one the sound is truly MAGICAL. (AMG has that dead right in their review.) Tons of ambience, Tubey Magic all over the place; let’s face it, this is one of those famous Columbia recordings that shows just how good the Columbia engineers were back then. The sound is lively but never strained. Davis’s horn has breath and bite just like the real thing. What more can you ask for?

We Was Wrong in the Past About HP and Six Eye Labels

In previous commentary we had written:

Harry Pearson added this record to his TAS List of Super Discs a few years back, not exactly a tough call it seems to us. Who can’t hear that this is an amazing sounding recording?

Of course you can be quite sure that he would have been listening exclusively to the earliest pressings on the Six Eye label. Which simply means that he probably never heard a copy with the clarity, transparency and freedom from distortion that these later label pressings offer.

The Six Eyes are full of Tubey Magic, don’t get me wrong; Davis’s trumpet can be and usually is wonderful sounding. It’s everything else that tends to suffer, especially the strings, which are shrill and smeary on most copies, Six Eyes, 360s and Red Labels included.

Over the course of the last few years we’ve come to appreciate just how good the right Six Eye stereo pressing can sound.

In fact, the two copies earning the highest grades were both original stereo pressings. Other pressings did well, but none did as well as the originals. This has never been our experience with Kind of Blue by the way. The later pressings have always done the best job of communicating the music on that album. (more…)

Listening in Depth to Fingers – Airto’s Masterpiece

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This is without a doubt the BEST ALBUM the man ever made. On top of that, this copy really has the kind of sound we look for, with an open, fully extended top end that gives all the elements of this complex music room to breathe.

We Love Fingers

Fingers is one of our all time favorite records, a Desert Island disc to be sure. I’ve been playing this album for more than thirty years and it just keeps getting better and better. Truthfully it’s the only Airto record I like. I can’t stand Dafos, and most of the other Airto titles leave me cold. I think a lot of the credit for the brilliance of this album has to go to the Fattoruso brothers, who play keyboards, drums, and take part in the large vocal groupings that sing along with Airto.

At times this record really sounds like what it is: a bunch of guys in a big room beating the hell out of their drums and singing at the the top of their lungs. You gotta give RVG credit for capturing so much of that energy on tape and transferring that energy onto a slab of vinyl. (Of course this assumes that the record in question actually does have the energy of the best copies. It’s also hard to know who or what is to blame when it doesn’t, since even the good stampers sound mediocre most of the time. Bad vinyl, worn out stampers, poor pressing cycle, it could be practically anything.) (more…)

The Piano Stylings of Carole King – Tapestry

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One quality that we had no trouble recognizing on the better copies was TRANSPARENCY. The more transparent copies made it possible to hear through the mix to Carole’s piano, which is usually placed toward the back of the mix. There it serves to underpin the music, playing more of a supporting role than a leading one, very unlike the piano on a Joni Mitchell album for example. 

The best copies let you easily follow Carole’s playing all the way through every song, from start to finish, no matter how quiet her part or how far back in the mix she may be placed.

If the pressing has a thinner sound obviously it becomes easier to pick up on the percussive nature of the instrument and “see” it more clearly. However, a thin piano tone on this album is the kiss of death. The best copies allow you to hear the full range of notes — including those played with the left hand — and for that you need both richness and transparency.

This is a tricky balancing act; rarely in our experience do any two copies find precisely the same balance throughout an entire side. (more…)

Elton John – Madman Across The Water Is Lush

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  • An outstanding copy of Madman with Double Plus (A++) sound from the first note to the last
  • A ridiculously tough album to find with the right sound and reasonably quiet surfaces – which is why we so rarely have them on the site
  • The last of the classic albums Elton recorded at Trident, the best of which have more Tubey Magic than anything that came after
  • 4 1/2 stars on Allmusic: “The record remains an ambitious and rewarding work, and John never attained its darkly introspective atmosphere again.”

This Madman is guaranteed to blow your mind.

The amount of effort that went into the recording of this album is comparable to that of the engineers and producers of bands like Supertramp, Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, The Beatles (of course) and far too many others to list. This is some of the best high production value rock music of the ’70s. (more…)

Botnick and Levine Knocked This One Out of the Park

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The music is of course wonderful, but what separates Sergio from practically all of his ’60s contemporaries is the AMAZING SOUND of his recordings. Like their debut, this one was engineered by the team of Bruce Botnick and Larry Levine. Botnick is of course the man behind the superb recordings of The Doors, Love and others too numerous to mention. 

Levine is no slouch either, having engineered one of the best sounding albums on the planet, Sergio Mendes’ Stillness.

Just play the group’s amazing versions of Watch What Happens, Night and Day, or Jobim’s Wave to hear the Mendes Magic that makes us swoon. For audiophiles it just doesn’t get any better. (Well, almost. Stillness is still the Ultimate, on the level of a Dark Side of the Moon or Tea for the Tillerman, but Equinox is right up there with it.) (more…)

John Barleycorn Must Die – Listen for Winwood’s Left Hand

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For.

We learned something new a few years back about John Barleycorn while playing an especially TRANSPARENT copy. This pressing made it clear — really, for the first time — exactly what Winwood was doing with his left hand on the piano during the song Glad.

There are two musical figures that alternate: one involving the lower notes, which tend to be blurry, obscured and murky on most pressings, followed by two, the right-handed higher notes, which are usually much more clear and audible in the mix.

Only the very best copies let us “see” the bass notes of the piano so clearly and correctly. Next time you’re in the mood to compare different pressings of Barleycorn, pay special attention to the lower notes of the piano on Glad. It is our contention, backed by mountains of evidence, that no two copies of the album will get that piano to sound the same. (It will also help if you have large dynamic speakers with which to do the test.)

What to Listen For (WTLF) – Side Two

The toughest test on side two is the first track. Getting the voices right is practically impossible. If the voices are full, smooth, yet breathy and clear, you have that rare copy that actually gets the midrange right. Not many do. (more…)

Another Audio Myth Exploded – Large Tulips, Small Tulips – What Do Tulips Have to Do with Anything?

Tchaikovsky / Piano Concerto #1 / Richter / Karajan
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The original Large Tulip early pressings are the best on this record, right?

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Nope. It’s just another Record Myth, as explained in the commentary for our recent Hot Stamper 2-pack. That pair of pressings was all the proof we required to back up our contention that either label can be the best on this classic DG recording. Original is better? Again, not so much. Original can be better fits more with our experience.

To pull off this kind of Mind Boggling sound from start to finish we combined an amazing side one on the Large Tulips label with an amazing side two on the Small Tulips label. And what a finish — side two earned a grade of A+++, being a full step above even our hottest other side two, and we played a lot of copies, more than a dozen in fact. (more…)

The Awful Sound of the Heavy Vinyl Reissues Doug Sax Mastered in the ’90s

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Longstanding customers know that we have been relentlessly critical of most audiophile LPs for years, especially in the case of these Analogue Productions releases from back in the early ’90s. A well-known reviewer loved them, I hated them, and he and I haven’t seen eye to eye on much since.

Newflash!

Just dug up part of my old commentary discussing the faults with the orginal series that Doug Sax cut for Acoustic Sounds. Check it out!

In the listing for the OJC pressing of Way Out West we wrote:

Guaranteed better than any 33 rpm 180 gram version ever made, or your money back! (Of course I’m referring to a certain pressing from the early ’90s mastered by Doug Sax, which is a textbook example of murky, tubby, flabby sound. (Too many bad tubes in the chain? Who knows?)

This OJC version also has its problems, but at least the shortcomings of the OJC are tolerable. Who can sit through a pressing that’s so thick and lifeless it communicates none of the player’s love for the music? If you have midrangy bad transistor equipment, go with the 180 gram version (at twice the price). If you have good equipment, go with this one.

The following commentary comes from our catalog from the mid- to late-’90s, back when I could still find great jazz records like Alternate Takes. Note also that the AP records were in print at the time. (more…)