Advice – What to Listen For – Grit and Grain

Jennifer Warnes – Famous Blue Raincoat

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  • A Demo Disc quality pressing of this longtime audiophile favorite, with stunning Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound on side two – exceptionally quiet vinyl too, as quiet as we can find them
  • Turn this one up good and loud (which you can do when the sound is right) and you’ll have a living, breathing Jennifer Warnes standing right between your speakers
  • The space, resolution, and clarity here are wonderful – for evidence just look to the rosiny texture on the string arrangement of the Song of Bernadette
  • 4 1/2 stars: “The high point may have been the Warnes-Cohen duet on “Joan of Arc,” but the album was consistently impressive.”

We’re big fans of this album here at Better Records. It’s the only thing Jennifer Warnes ever did that we would consider a Must Own recording or Desert Island Disc. In my humble opinion it’s both.

This copy showed us the Famous Blue Raincoat Magic we know and love. The drums are big and punchy with plenty of WHOMP and the sound of skins being THWACKED. Jennifer’s voice is clear and breathy. If you know the record well you will surely be amazed at just how good this music can sound on a pressing as hot as this one.

With a Shootout Winning side two, these songs are guaranteed to sound dramatically better than you ever imagined they would:

Ain’t No Cure for Love Coming Back to You Song of Bernadette A Singer Must Die Came So Far for Beauty

So well recorded you could demo your system with most of these tracks! (more…)

Paul Simon – There Goes Rhymin’ Simon

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  • An outstanding copy of Simon’s second solo album, with solid Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • The sound is big, warm and full-bodied – it’s present and clear, never harsh or gritty the way so many are
  • Great songs including Kodachrome, Loves Me Like a Rock, Was a Sunny Day (and you probably know most of the other 7)
  • 5 stars: “Retaining the buoyant musical feel of Paul Simon, but employing a more produced sound, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon found Paul Simon writing and performing with assurance and venturing into soulful and R&B-oriented music.”

Most pressings don’t have anywhere near this kind of openness and transparency — and they don’t have this kind of richness or warmth either. It’s a real treat to hear these great songs finally get the sound they deserve.

On most pressings, Simon’s voice is a spitty, gritty mess — sure it’s present, but where is the sweetness and warmth? Well, as a copy like this proves, more of those qualities made it to the tape than you might think. (more…)

Linda Ronstadt / Heart Like A Wheel – Truly a Country Rock Masterpiece

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  • With Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades or close to them, this copy was giving us KILLER sound for Linda Ronstadt’s Best Album
  • Both sides here are rich, full-bodied and warm, with harmonically rich guitars and real immediacy to Linda’s heartfelt vocals
  • A Must Own Classic, the best album Ms Ronstadt ever made, and a True Country Rock Masterpiece virtually without peer
  • 5 stars: “What really makes HLAW a breakthrough is the inventive arrangements that producer Peter Asher, Ronstadt, and the studio musicians have developed. …[they] help turn Heart Like a Wheel into a veritable catalog of Californian soft rock, and it stands as a landmark of ’70s mainstream pop/rock.”

I’ve been playing HLAW since the year it came out, roughly 46 years by my calculation, and I can tell you it is no easy task to find this kind of smooth, sweet, analog sound on the album. Folks, we heard it for ourselves: the Heart Like A Wheel magic is here on practically every song.

Pay special attention to Andrew Gold’s Abbey Road-ish guitars heard throughout the album. He is all over this record, playing piano, guitar, percussion and singing in the background. If anybody deserves credit besides Linda for the success of HLAW, it’s Andrew Gold.

A key test on either side was to listen to all the multi-tracked guitars and see how easy it was to separate each of them out in the mix. Most of the time they are just one big jangly blur. The best copies let you hear how many guitars there are and what each of them is doing. (more…)

Bob Seger – Night Moves – Our Shootout Winner from 2012

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  • A KILLER vintage pressing with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound throughout for Bob Seger’s breakthrough album (the 8th time’s the charm)
  • A big step up over every other copy we heard – richer, fuller, more dynamic, more lively and just plain more fun
  • Knock the album if you like, but there’s no denying it’s one of Seger’s best and certainly a ’70s classic – every song’s a hit, and deservedly so
  • 5 stars: “One of the universally acknowledged high points of late-’70s rock & roll. And, because of his passion and craft, it remains a thoroughly terrific record years later.”

It’s not easy to find good pressings of this album — it took us plenty of fruitless shootouts before we figured anything out. Most copies out there are thin and dry, which is no way to hear these classic ’70s tracks. We brought in copy after copy that made us think, “I swear this sounds better on the radio!”

Finally, after pulling together a ton of copies from different eras, we started to realize that there were indeed vinyl pressings of Night Moves that sounded right… but they are few and far between, the exception and not the rule so to speak. This copy is one of the better ones we played in our most recent shootout, no question about it.

Knock this album if you like, but there’s no denying it’s one of Seger’s best and certainly a ’70s classic. It may not have the audiophile appeal of Tea For The Tillerman, but it’s a blast when it sounds this good. (more…)

Paul Simon – Still Crazy After All These Years – Our Four Plus Winner

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  • This KILLER pressing earned Shootout Winning QUADRUPLE Plus (A++++) sound on the first side and Triple Plus (A+++) sound on the first
  • The immediacy of the vocals is striking, putting a living, breathing Paul Simon right between your speakers
  • An extremely tough album to find with the kind of big, spacious, Tubey Magical sound this pressing offers
  • Clean, clear and open are nice qualities to have, but the richer, smoother, more natural sounding copies are the ones that win our shootouts
  • 4 1/2 stars: “…he was never more in tune with his audience: Still Crazy topped the charts, spawned four Top 40 hits, and won Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Vocal Performance.

Please note: we award the Four Plus A++++ grade so rarely that we don’t have a graphic for it in our system to use in the grading scale shown above. So the side one here shows up on the chart as A+++, but when you hear this copy you will know why we gave it a fourth plus! (more…)

Creedence Clearwater Revival – “I’ve listened to it numerous times and it just does not have that sound stage I was expecting.”

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A customer recently contacted us after making his first purchase and being disappointed with the White Hot Stamper pressing we had sent him.

Hi,

Wondered who I can talk to about this record that I purchased. I’ve listened to it numerous times and it just does not have that sound stage I was expecting.

I am not looking for a refund. In fact, I refuse a refund. However, I would appreciate the opportunity to speak to someone about the factors that make this a “White Hot Pressing.”

I’m sure you need to understand what amplifier, speakers, setting, etc. I am using. Without Going into the details, I have a McIntosh amplifier and Focal 936 speakers. I know how much of a difference equipment makes in the sound of a record.

I love to hear amazing records, some of which I have in original pressings I purchased when they were released and can truly feel it when there is something special about the record. This one does not seem to have it to me, but I am interested in finding and purchasing one from you that gives that amazing feeling.

Please let me know if there is someone I can speak to about finding that record.

Thank you,
Sanjay

I replied with an overwhelming amount of information (and opinions!) designed to help Sanjay understand more about records, as follows:

Sanjay,

Tom here. Let me see if I can help.

The first thing I would need to know is what version of the album do you have that you think sounds better, or, if not better, comparable?

[He had no other pressing, not surprising as our White Hot copies are almost impossible to beat.]

Assuming you don’t have a better copy — we would be very surprised if you did — we would say that it’s likely there are two factors at play:

White Hot does not mean amazing Demo Disc sound. It means the best sound we can find for this recording, relative to the others we play. In other words, the best there is within the limitations of the recording.

We can’t fix the recording, we can only find you the best available pressing. If you were expecting more, something along the lines of Dark Side of the Moon, then I understand your disappointment.

For the band’s first album, we wrote:

It’s unlikely you will be demonstrating your system with this record, but you may find yourself enjoying the hell out of it for what it is — an early example of Roots Rock that still holds up today.

For Green River we wrote:

Green River isn’t ever going to be a knockout demo disc, but a copy like this allows you to enjoy the music as it was recorded. Most copies are so dull, grainy and lifeless that someone would have to wake you at the end of a side!

We have a section for great sounding recordings, it’s this one:

https://www.better-records.com/product.aspx?pf_id=top100

There are no CCR records in this section and never will be.

The second point I would make is that some records are much more difficult to reproduce than others, and require the right equipment to do them justice.   In the listing for your record, under one of the tabs, you can find all of this.

The story of our recent shootouts is what real Progress in Audio is all about.

Many copies were gritty, some were congested in the louder sections, some never got big, some were thin and lacking the lovely analog richness of the best — we heard plenty of copies whose faults were obvious when played against two top sides such as these. The best copies no longer to seem to have the problems we used to hear all the time.

Of course the reason I hadn’t heard the congestion and grittiness in the recording is that two things changed. One, we found better copies of the record to play — probably, can’t say for sure, but let’s assume we did, and, Two, we’ve made lots of improvements to the stereo since the last time we did the shootout.

You have to get around to doing regular shootouts for any given record in order to find out how far you’ve come, or if you’ve come any distance at all. Fortunately for us the improvements, regardless of what they might be or when they might have occurred, were incontrovertible. The album was now playing at a much, much higher level.

It’s yet more evidence supporting the possibility, indeed the importance, of taking full advantage of the Revolutions in Audio of the last ten or twenty years.

Who’s to Blame?

It’s natural to blame sonic shortcomings on the recording; everyone does it, including us.

But in this case We Was Wrong. The congestion and distortion we’d gotten used to are no longer a problem on the best copies. We’ve worked diligently on every aspect of record cleaning and reproduction, and now there’s no doubt that we can get these vintage Creedence records to play at a much higher level than we could before.

This is why we keep experimenting, keep tweaking and keep searching for the best sounding pressings, and why we encourage you to do the same.

A word of caution: Unless your system is firing on all cylinders, even our hottest Hot Stamper copies — the Super Hot and White Hot pressings with the biggest, most dynamic, clearest, and least distorted sound — can have problems . Your system should be thoroughly warmed up, your electricity should be clean and cooking, you’ve got to be using the right room treatments, and we also highly recommend using a demagnetizer such as the Walker Talisman on the record, your cables (power, interconnect and speaker) as well as the individual drivers of your speakers.

This is a record that’s going to demand a lot from the listener, and we want to make sure that you feel you’re up to the challenge. If you don’t mind putting in a little hard work, here’s a record that will reward your time and effort many times over, and probably teach you a thing or two about tweaking your gear in the process (especially your VTA adjustment, just to pick an obvious area most audiophiles neglect).

High-Ranking

This recording ranks high on our Difficulty of Reproduction Scale. Do not attempt to play it using any but the best equipment.

It took a long time to get to the point where we could clean the record properly, twenty years or so, and about the same amount of time to get the stereo to the level it needed to be, involving, you guessed it, many of the Revolutionary Changes in Audio we tout so obsessively. It’s not easy to find a pressing with the low end whomp factor, midrange energy and overall dynamic power that this music needs, and it takes one helluva stereo to play one too.

If you have the kind of big system that a record like this demands, when you drop the needle on the best of our Hot Stamper pressings, you are going to hear some amazing sound .

{He sent me a picture of the speaker he uses, the Focal 936. It has 3 6.5 inch woofers.]

I would not want to play a CCR record with the speaker you have. It is doubtful it can move enough air to get the weight of the music right.

We discuss our system and why a CCR record would sound right on our big speakers here:

https://www.better-records.com/product.aspx?pf_id=stereo

On my blog I have a section for:

RECORDS THAT SOUND BEST ON BIG SPEAKERS AT LOUD LEVELS

https://ontherecord.co/category/records-that-sound-best-this-way/records-that-sound-best-on-big-speakers-at-loud-levels/

with 300+ entries at this point, including all the CCR albums.

This is a lot to digest, but after 40 years of audio experience and record collecting, I have learned a few things, and the above information is my attempt to help others with what I have learned:

https://www.better-records.com/product.aspx?pf_id=expert

Please take the time to read all the information I have sent, as well as as much of the following as you can, probably best spread out over the course of a few weeks:

https://www.better-records.com/dept.aspx?dept_id=14-006-016

If you would like specific recommendations about records you are interested in that we think would sound good on your stereo, we are happy to point you in the right direction.

Best, TP

(more…)

Paul Simon – Graceland

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame and a record that ranks high on our Difficulty of Reproduction Scale.

Super transparent and hi-res with no attendant sacrifice in low end or fullness, this is about as tonally balanced as Graceland gets. The top end is more delicate and extended, which was not true for most of the copies we played.

There’s a much more pleasant smoothness here, standing in sharp contrast to the typically grainy, spitty copy, with more weight down low and more presence to Simon’s vocals.

We listen to piles of pressings of Graceland regularly. We know the range of sound on the album, what constitutes good, better and best, and we know precisely what qualities the premier copy must have in order to win one of our shootouts.

Above all the thing Graceland has going for it sonically is CLARITY. It has many other good qualities as well: It can be open and spacious, tonally correct, with punchy, tight bass and present, breathy vocals.

The better copies have all these qualities to some degree, but the one quality a good copy must have is clarity, because that’s what’s especially good about the sound of the record.

Without clarity the music doesn’t work. The shortest definition of a Hot Stamper is that it’s the pressing where the music works. You can be sure that any Hot Stamper copy on our site has at least that going for it. (more…)

Listening in Depth to Heart Like a Wheel

 

Click on the link below to pull up the many reviews and commentaries we’ve written, as well as Hot Stamper copies that are currently available on the site.

Heart Like a Wheel

and click on this link to the

Classic Tracks

entry for the album to read about it in real  depth

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Heart Like a Wheel.

A key test on either side was to listen to all the multi-tracked guitars and see how easy it was to separate each of them out in the mix. Most of the time they are just one big jangly blur. The best copies let you hear how many guitars there are and what each of them is doing.

Pay special attention to Andrew Gold’s Abbey Road-ish guitars heard throughout the album. He is all over this record, playing piano, guitar, percussion and singing in the background. If anybody deserves credit besides Linda for the success of HLAW, it’s Andrew Gold. (more…)

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Willy and the Poor Boys

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  • Both sides earned Triple Plus (A+++) grades, a huge step up over every other copy in our shootout – exceptionally quiet vinyl too 
  • Whatever you do, don’t waste your money on the awful Heavy Vinyl remasters of CCR’s albums that Acoustic Sounds commissioned – they are so wrong it will make your head ache
  • Features Down On The Corner, Fortunate Son, Midnight Special and more
  • 5 stars: “[A] fun record, perhaps the breeziest album CCR ever made. Fogerty’s rage remains, blazing to the forefront on “Fortunate Son,” a working-class protest song that cuts harder than any of the explicit Vietnam protest songs of the era, one of the reasons that it hasn’t aged where its peers have. Also, there’s that unbridled vocal from Fogerty and the ferocious playing on CCR…”

(more…)

Jellyfish’s Bellybutton – DMM Mastering and Small Sample Sizes

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The problem with the typical copy of this record is gritty, grainy, grungy sound — not the kind that’s on the master tape, the kind that’s added during the mastering and pressing of the record. When that crap goes away, as it so clearly does on side one of the copy we played recently, it lets you see just how good sounding this record can be. And that means REALLY good sounding.

While during the shootout I had completely forgotten that all the domestic pressings of Bellybutton are direct metal mastered. (The import pressings are clearly made from copy tapes and are to be avoided.) It was only afterwards, when looking for stamper variations, that I noticed the DMM in the dead wax .

On most copies the CD-like opacity and grunge would naturally be attributed to the Direct Metal Mastering process; that’s the conventional wisdom, so those with a small data sample (in most cases the size of that data sample will be no more than one) could be forgiven for reaching such a conclusion. Based on our findings, it turns out to be completely erroneous.

The bad pressings do indeed sound more like CDs. The better pressings do not. All are DMM, so the conventional wisdom, a term of disparagement here at Better Records to start with, again shows how little probative value it actually brings to the discussion.

We would love to hear a version of the album that was not Direct Metal Mastered, just for comparisons sake. That unfortunately is an experiment that cannot be run. What we can do is play the CDs — I have several, the earliest ones being the best — and note that they are clearly grungier and grittier sounding than the better LP pressings. Some of that sound is on the Master Tape, how much we will probably never know.

Spilt Milk, their second album, is one of my top two or three personal favorites of all time, right up there with Ambrosia’s first and The White Album. (more…)