Advice – What to Listen for – Track by Track

The Trick with Katy Lied Is…

Dear Reader,

We have just recently moved our record business to our new Shopify store. None of the links to the old site will work anymore. We apologize for the inconvenience and hope to be able to rectify the situation soon. For now please check out Better Records, Mach II, home of the ultimate vinyl pressing, the White Hot Stamper.

Tom Port – Better Records

katy lied

The Trick with Katy Lied Is to find the right balance between richness, sweetness and clarity.

Take three or four Katy Lied pressings, clean them up and play just one or two of the tracks we discuss below. You won’t find any two copies that get those tracks to sound the same. We do our shootouts with up to a dozen copies at a time and no two sound the same to us.

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This is a very tough record to reproduce — everything has to be working at its best to even begin to get this complex music to sound the way it should. But if you’ve done your homework and your system is really cooking, you are in for the time of your Steely Dan life.

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Black Friday

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The Band – The Band

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  • With superb Double Plus (A++) sonic grades or BETTER on both sides, this is an outstanding copy of an absolutely essential album
  • Big bass, rich meaty guitars and smooth silky vocals make this a Band album like you have never heard before
  • Not only is the sound superb, but both sides here play Mint Minus Minus, about as quiet as we can find them
  • 5 stars: “As had been true of the first album, it was the Band’s sound that stood out the most… The arrangements were simultaneously loose and assured, giving the songs a timeless appeal…”

The lucky person who takes this record home is in for quite a shock. This very pressing is proof positive that this album is much better recorded than the audiophile community gives it credit for being. How could anyone judge the sound of the record without a great copy such as this one to play?

This vintage pressing has no trace of phony sound from top to bottom. It’s raw and real in a way that makes most pop records sound processed and wrong. These two sides have plenty of the qualities we look for in an album by The Band. Energy, presence, transparency, Tubey Magic… you name it, you will find it here. Its biggest strength — and the biggest strength of the album as a whole — is its wonderful, natural midrange.

And the bass is HUGE. On the best copies it always is.

Drop the needle on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down or King Harvest Has Surely Come and get ready for some serious Analog Magic. This is a Band album like you have never heard before. (more…)

Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Emerson, Lake & Palmer

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  • This vintage Island Pink Rim import pressing boasts outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish – exceptionally QUIET vinyl too
  • Spacious, rich and dynamic, with especially smooth, present vocals – this is what we love about Eddie Offord’s work here
  • ANALOG at its Tubey Magical finest – you’ll never play a CD that sounds this good as long as you live
  • Lucky Man and Take A Pebble on this copy have Demo Disc Quality Sound like you won’t believe
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Lively, ambitious, almost entirely successful debut album… [which] showcased the group at its least pretentious and most musicianly …there isn’t much excess, and there is a lot of impressive musicianship here.”

If you’ve got the system to play this one loud enough, with the low end weight and energy it requires, you are in for a treat. The organ that opens side two will rattle the foundation of your house if you’re not careful. This music really needs that kind of megawatt reproduction to make sense. This is bombastic prog that wants desperately to rock your world. At moderate levels it just sounds overblown and silly. At loud levels, it actually will rock your world.

This UK Island pink rim import pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records rarely even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. 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. (more…)

Steely Dan – Listening in Depth to Pretzel Logic

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It’s positively criminal the way this amazingly well-recorded music sounds on the typical LP. And how can you possibly be expected to appreciate the music when it sounds like that?

The reason we audiophiles go through the trouble of owning and tweaking our temperamental equipment is we know how hard it is to appreciate good music which sounds bad. Bad sound is a barrier to understanding and enjoyment, to us audiophiles anyway.

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Rikki Don’t Lose That Number

By far the biggest hit on this album and one of the biggest for the band, it’s also one of the clearest indicators of Hot Stamper Sound. The Horace Silver inspired intro is at its best when you can easily hear the acoustic guitar in the left channel doubling the piano. On most copies it’s blurry and dull, which causes it to get lost in the mix. Transparent copies pull it out in the open where it belongs.

That’s the first test, but the real test for this track is how well the (surprisingly) DYNAMIC chorus is handled. On a properly mastered and pressed copy, Fagen’s singing in the chorus is powerful and very present. He is RIGHT THERE, full of energy and drive, challenging the rest of the band to keep up with him. And they do! The best copies demonstrate what a lively group of musicians he has backing him on this track. (If you know anything about Steely Dan’s recordings, you know the guys in these sessions are the best of the best.)

Check out the big floor tom that gets smacked right before the first chorus. On the best copies the whomp factor is off the scale.

Shocking as it may seem, most copies of this album are DOA on this track. They’re severely compressed — they never come to life, they never get LOUD. The result? Fagen and the band sound bored. And that feeling is contagious.

Of course most audiophiles have no idea how dynamic this recording is because they’ve never heard a good pressing. Only a handful of the copies we played had truly powerful dynamics. These are Pretzel Logics with far more life than I ever dreamed possible. Hey, who knew?

(As an aside, back in 1976 I had my fifty favorite albums professionally cleaned on a KMAL record cleaning machine at the stereo store I worked at. They would give you a custom record sleeve along with the cleaning, and sure enough I found my original Pretzel Logic with its KMAL sleeve. My copy was pretty good but no Hot Stamper.)

So, yes, it really did take us thirty years to find the best copy!

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James Taylor / JT – Listening in Depth

Musically this is one of Taylor’s best. Every track is good and many are wonderful. There are five or six James Taylor records that are Desert Island Discs for me. I know they probably wouldn’t let me take six of the same artists’ records to my island, but I would hope they would make an exception for James Taylor, because his albums really do set a standard that few other singer/songwriters’s albums can meet.

Start with Sweet Baby James, the first album (which we can’t find for you because only the British ones sound good and they are just to hard to find in clean condition) and JT. The next group to pursue would contain Mud Slide Slim, One Man Dog and Dad Loves His Work, and then maybe Flag.

As audiophiles we all know that sound and music are inseparable. After dropping the needle on a dozen or so copies, all originals by the way, you KNOW when the music is working its magic and when it’s not. As with any pop album there are always some songs that sound better than others, but when you find yourself marvelling at how well-written and well-produced a song is, you know that the sound is doing what it needs to do. It’s communicating the Musical Values of the material.

The most important of all these Musical Values is ENERGY, and boy do the best copies have it


In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Your Smiling Face

Our favorite test track for side one. The best copies have bass and drums that are hard to beat!

There We Are
Honey Don’t Leave L.A.

One of the toughest tests for side one is the sax solo in this song. You want the sax to be breathy and full with just the right amount of bite. If it doesn’t have enough bite, the sound is going to be overly smooth elsewhere.

Another Grey Morning

You’ll almost always be battling at least a bit of surface noise on this quiet track. On the best copies the sound will be tubey-magical, with plenty of warmth, richness, and sweetness.

Bartender’s Blues
Secret O’ Life

Side Two (more…)

Jethro Tull / Stand Up – Listening Track by Track




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TRACK LISTING

Side One

A New Day Yesterday

This is one of my favorite Jethro Tull songs of all time. (This and To Cry You a Song from Benefit are pretty darn hard to beat.) Clive Bunker’s drumming is incredibly energetic; it drives the song to levels few bands could ever hope to reach. It reminds me of the kind of all-out ASSAULT on the skins you hear in the work of Dave Grohl and John Bonham. Bunker is a highly underrated player; his bandmates Barre and Cornick don’t get the respect they deserve either, for reasons that I’ll never understand. They’re about as good as it gets in my book.

Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square
Bourée
Back to the Family
Look Into the Sun

Another favorite track.

Side Two

Nothing Is Easy

Watch your volume on this track! It starts out quietly, but it gets VERY loud toward the end. If you’ve set your volume properly for side one, don’t change it for side two.

Fat Man

Amazingly spacious, transparent and open on the best pressings.

We Used to Know

I love the way this song starts out quietly and builds to a tremendous crescendo of sound. Dynamics like these are rarely found on pop records.

Reasons for Waiting

On copies of this record that lack bass, this song will have NO bass.

For a Thousand Mothers

In General

It’s very common for pressings of Stand Up to lack bass or highs, and more often than not both are lacking. The bass-shy ones tend to be more transparent and open sounding — of course, that’s the sound you get when you take out the bass. (90 plus percent of all the audiophile stereos I’ve ever heard were bass shy, no doubt for precisely that very reason: less bass equals more detail, more openness and more transparency. Go to any stereo store or audiophile show and notice how bright the sound is. Another good reason not to go to those shows, and we rarely do.) (more…)

Our Difficulty of Reproduction Scale

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We’ve mentioned how difficult some records are to reproduce: how the Revolutions in Audio of the last decade or two have profoundly changed the ability of the seriously dedicated audiophile to get records that never sounded good before to come to life musically in a way previously understood to be impossible.

This is one of those records. But you have to have done your homework if you want to play a record like this, as the commentary below explains.

’60s Sound

The problem here is the sound. It’s got a bit of that tinny ’60s pop production sound — too much upper midrange, not enough lower midrange and a slightly aggressive quality when things get loud. Still, it’s quite a bit better than recordings by, say, The Byrds or Jefferson Airplane from the era, and I have no trouble playing and enjoying those records, so…

I can also tell you that if you have a modest system this record is just going to sound like crap. It sounded like crap for years in my system, even when I thought I had a good one. Vinyl playback has come a long way in the last five or ten years and if you’ve participated in some of the revolutionary changes that I talk about elsewhere on the site, you should hear some pretty respectable sound. Otherwise, I would pass.

On the Difficulty of Reproduction scale, this record scores fairly high. You need lots of tubey magic and freedom from distortion, the kind of sound I rarely hear on any but the most heavily tweaked systems. The kind of systems that guys like me have been slaving over for thirty years. If you’re a Weekend Warrior when it comes to stereo, this is not the record for you. (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…)

This Is the Kind of Thing You Notice When You Play Scores of Copies of the Same Album

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If you have a copy or two laying around, there is a very good chance that side two will be noticeably thinner and brighter than side one. That has been our experience anyway, and we’ve been playing batches of this album for well over a decade. To find a copy with a rich side two is rare indeed.

Most copies lack the top end extension that makes the sound sweet, opens it up and puts air around every instrument. It makes the high hat silky, not spitty or gritty. It lets you hear all the harmonics of the guitars and mandolins that feature so prominently in the mixes.

If you’re looking for a big production pop record that jumps out of your speakers, is full of TUBEY MAGIC, and has consistently good music, look no further.

Until I picked up one of these nice originals I had no idea how amazing the record could sound. For an early ’70s multi-track pop recording it’s about as good as it gets. It’s rich, sweet, open, natural, smooth most of the time — in short, it’s got all the stuff audiophiles like you and me LOVE. (more…)

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV

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  • A stunning copy that is absolutely guaranteed to rock your world like no other – QUADRUPLE Plus (A++++) on side one and Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) on side two 
  • Insane Rock and Roll ENERGY like nothing you have ever heard – the sound is exceptionally full-bodied, smooth and solid, making it possible to get the volume up good and high where it belongs
  • So many immortal rockers on one album: Black Dog, Rock & Roll, Stairway, When the Levee Breaks, and more, sounding better than you’ve ever heard them
  • 5 stars: “Encompassing heavy metal, folk, pure rock & roll, and blues, Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album is a monolithic record, defining not only Led Zeppelin but the sound and style of ’70s hard rock.”

*Stairway to Heaven has the usual ticky intro.

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. We rarely find records with this kind of sound, just a few times a year at most — this is the only one on the site at this time.

Side one shows up on the chart as A+++, but when you hear it you will know why we gave it that fourth plus!

It is a positive THRILL to hear this record rock the way it was meant to. If you have big speakers and the power to drive them, your neighbors are going to be very upset with you when you play this copy at the listening levels it was meant to be heard.

You better be ready to rock because this copy has the ENERGY and WHOMP that will make you want to. Zep IV demands loud volumes, but practically any copy will punish you harshly if you try to play it at anything even approaching live levels. I never met John Bonham, and it’s probably too late now, but I imagine he would feel seriously disrespected if he found out people were playing his music at the polite listening levels audiophiles seem to prefer. The term “hi-fidelity” loses its meaning if the instruments are playing at impossibly low levels. If the instruments could never be heard that way live, where is the fidelity? (more…)