Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments

What We Think We Know about Peter Gabriel’s Brilliant So Album from 1986

More Peter Gabriel

Hot Stamper Pressings of So Available Now

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Here is a copy of So with the Big and Bold Peter Gabriel sound we love. If you want your Art Rock to actually rock (as well as be arty), this is the copy for you.

It’s not a perfect recording by any means, but when it sounds this good you can just forget its shortcomings and marvel at how consistently good the material and the production are.

No Mean Feat

It’s exceptionally hard to find good sounding copies of this album, as you can read about below. With a digital recording such as this, the margin for mastering error is very slim. Most copies just aren’t worth the vinyl they’re pressed on. They can sound harsh, gritty, grainy, edgy, and thin.

We did a shootout years ago that taught us a few things. The most surprising finding? The Brit copy I had in my own collection sucked — how about that! As a rule, I like the Brit pressings best for PG, but that rule got broken after playing all these domestic copies, some of which really sound good, clearly better than the average Brit.

Recording Issues

This is a digital recording, and most of the time it is BRIGHT, SPITTY and GRAINY like a typical digital recording, which plays right into our prejudices. After hearing a bad copy, what audiophile wouldn’t conclude that all copies will have these bad qualities? After all, it’s digital. It can’t be fixed simply by putting it on vinyl.

Ah, but that’s where logic breaks down. Proper mastering can ameliorate many if not most of a recording’s shortcomings. When we say Hot Stampers, we are talking about high-quality mastering doing exactly that.

Mass Produced Plastic Problems

But of course the mastering is only one part of the puzzle. I have multiple copies with the same stampers. Some of them are terrible, some of them are wonderful — you just can’t rely on the numbers to guide you with a piece of mass-produced plastic like this. You have no choice but to play the record to know what it sounds like. (And that’s a good thing. Keeps you honest. There’s no “cheating” when you have nothing to go by but the sound.)

This album sold in the millions. They stamped it out until the metalwork was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Those badly pressed copies are not going to have any high-frequency extension, which leaves them with all the harsh upper mids sticking out of the mix to peel the paint in your living room and make your ears bleed. (more…)

Two Reviews of Child Is Father to the Man – Fremer Vs. Better Records – You Be the Judge

More Blood, Sweat and Tears

Reviews and Commentaries for Blood, Sweat and Tears

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In 2010 MF reviewed both the Sundazed and Speakers Corner Heavy Vinyl pressings of the album. I think his review is mistaken on a number of counts, and mostly unhelpful. The commentary below will discuss his errors in detail, in the hopes that you, dear reader, will not make the same mistakes yourself. 

He talks about his history with the album for a while, and then notes:

Anyway, the original “360 Sound” edition of this record sounds fantastic. It’s a high quality Columbia studio recording, with vivid harmonics, impressive transparency and dynamics, shimmering highs and tight extended bass. The soundstage is expansive and the images tightly presented. I’m not sure it can get much better than the original given how well-pressed Columbia records were in those days, especially if you have a clean original.

We, however, seem to hold precisely the opposite view. I quote from our review:

Why did it take us so long [to do a Hot Stamper shootout]? Let me ask you this: have you ever played this album? The average copy of this record is a sonic MESS. Even the best copies have problems.

We then go on to discuss in detail what most copies do wrong and what to listen for in order to find a copy that gets it right. (More on that later.) (more…)

The Rolling Stones / Out of Our Heads – Mono or Reprocessed Stereo?

More Rolling Stones

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On this London LP, even though it says the record is electronically re-processed into stereo, the songs we heard on side one were dead mono.

So much for believing what you read on album covers. (more…)

Led Zeppelin – The One Test that a Top Copy Must Pass

More Led Zeppelin

Yet Another Record that Sounds Better on Big Speakers at Loud Levels

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In our review for this album we debunked the Classic Records pressing using a very simple test which you may want to try at home.

The test we stumbled upon is actually quite an easy one to use — a copy that makes you want to turn up the volume is likely to be a winner. The Classic does not pass that test.

We threw one on and just couldn’t deal with the edgy vocals and upper-midrange boost. We wanted to turn down the volume as quickly as we could get our hands on the knob. As far as we’re concerned there’s no substitute for The Real Thing. As hard as it is to find great sounding copies of this album, it’s even harder for us to sit through a sub-par version like the Classic.

And boy were our faces red. We used to think the Classic version was pretty decent, but the best originals SLAUGHTER it! We had never done a shootout for this album before 2007. We didn’t feel up to the challenge, because the typical pressing tends to be miserable — gritty, grainy, hard sounding, with congested mids, dull up top, and on and on.

But once we did, the Classic crashed and burned, along with 90% of the other copies we played.

Try the Turn Up the Volume Test and see if your copy makes the grade or makes you want to turn it right back down. I’m guessing the latter, unless you were lucky enough to get one of our Hot Stampers from the last shootout. There sure weren’t enough to go around.


FURTHER READING

Records that sound best this way:

Mono or Stereo? Both Can Be Good

Mono or Stereo? Mono! 

Mono or Stereo? Stereo! 

Records that Sound Best on the Right Domestic Pressing 

Records that Sound Best on the Right Early Pressing 

Records that Sound Best on the Right Import Pressing 

Records that Sound Best on the Right Reissue Pressing 

The Said and the Unsaid – The Firebird on Mercury

More on The Firebird

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

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For our recent shootout of The Firebird we had three minty, potentially hot copies of the Mercury with Dorati, as well as our noisy ref. (We have a noisy reference copy for just about every major title by now. We have been doing these shootouts for a very long time. After thirty years in the record business we have accumulated a World Class collection of great sounding records that just too noisy to sell.)

We had one FR pressing and two of the later pressings with the lighter label, the ones that most often come with Philips M2 stampers.
This is how we described the winner:

So clear and ALIVE. Transparent, with huge hall space extending wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Zero compression.

Lifelike, immediate, front row center sound like few records you have ever heard.

Rich, sweet strings, especially for a Mercury. This side really gets quiet in places, a sure sign that all the dynamics of the master tape were protected in the mastering of this copy.

What we didn’t say — and what we never say in the listings — is what the second tier copies didn’t do as well as the shootout winner. (more…)

Chicago II – The Poster Boy for Bad Planning in the Studio

More Chicago

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Another in our ongoing series of Random Thoughts on issues concerning music and recordings.

There is one major problem with the sound of this album — too many overdubs, meaning too many generations of tape on too many instruments. There are easily three and four generations of tape on some of the tracks, probably more, all causing compression and a loss of transient information. When the drums sound like cardboard boxes being hit with wet noodles it’s because they recorded them early on and then bounced their tracks down to another track and then bounced that track down to another track until what’s left sounds like an cassette tape you made of a song playing on the radio. Yes, it’s that bad.

Side four tells the story. Side four on most copies is almost always the best sounding side. It’s also the side with the simplest arrangements, which means it probably has the fewest overdubs. The second track on side four is an obvious example. It’s mostly just bass, drums, flute, vocal and guitar, sonic elements which would more or less fit on the eight tracks of their eight track tape recorder.

Listen to how real and immediate the sound is. You don’t hear that sound on the rest of the album because the rest of the album has multiple horn overdubs, multiple vocal overdubs and all kinds of percussion overdubs everywhere you look. Foreigner used 48 tracks to record Dirty White Boy. Chicago had eight to record their much more complex arrangements.

The result? They found themselves running out of tracks over and over again, resulting in reductions and further reductions, piling losses upon losses. This album is the poster boy for bad planning in the studio. (more…)

Chicago – Chicago VII

More Chicago

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  • This outstanding pressing boasts nearly Triple Plus (A+++) soundor close to it on all FOUR sides – just shy of our Shootout Winner
  • These pressings have real depth to the soundfield, full-bodied, present vocals, and lovely analog warmth
  • Happy Man, (I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long and Wishing You Were Here (with Beach Boys backing vox) are the big hits here
  • “It was Peter Cetera who made the biggest strides on Chicago VII, composing his two most impressive songs thus far, Happy Man and “Wishing You Were Here” (#11), a lush ballad (signs of the future) that features three of The Beach Boys on backing vocals and which became a big hit in late 1974.”

(more…)

Tweaking and Tuning Can Improve Your Critical Listening Skills

Making Audio Progress

Since we play all kinds of records, all day, practically every day as part of our regular shootout regimen, tweaking and tuning are much easier for us to do than they would be for most audiophiles. As I have told many in this hobby over the years, if you don’t do the work, the only person who doesn’t get to hear better sound is you. I can come home to my good sounding stereo — I’ve put in the work — but you’re stuck listening to all the problems you haven’t solved, right?

Learning How to Listen

There’s no problem with an untweaked stereo or an untreated room as long as you don’t mind mediocre sound. If you actually want good sound, you have to learn how to tweak your stereo and you have to learn how to treat your room. Neither one can be ignored. You have to learn how to do both.

And doing both is what teaches you how to listen, which is a skill that’s very hard to acquire any other way. This explains why so many audiophiles have such poor listening skills. They simply never developed them because they never needed them. Think about it: Listening to music for enjoyment requires the exercise of no skills whatsoever.

Such is obviously not the case with tweaking. Tweaking your system requires that you listen carefully and critically in order to make the fine judgments that are essential to making progress. Progress in audio from tweaking often occurs in small, almost imperceptible increments.

Being so subtle, these changes force you as a listener to concentrate, to focus your attention, to bring to bear all your critical listening skills.

Naturally, these skills, like any skills, having simply been exercised, start to improve, and continue to improve as you continue to exercise them.

Going About It

Everybody knows that practicing and challenging yourself will make you better at whatever you are trying to do. But where have you ever seen those concepts applied to bettering your own audio skills (other than on this web site)? Just how would you go about challenging yourself as an audiophile?

Easy.

Tweaking and experimenting with room treatments is one sure way.

Playing ten copies of the same album back to back and making notes about the sound of each side is another.

Adjusting the turntable sixty six different ways and seeing what the effect is on scores of different records works too.

All these things taught me a lot.

No amount of reading or advice was remotely as helpful as just getting down and messing around with anything and everything in my listening room.

As Van Morrison said: “No guru, no method, no teacher.”

Whomp Factor on Little Queen – Testing with Love Alive – Parts One and Two

More Heart

More Women Who Rock
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Heart’s Little Queen has long been a favorite Test Disc. It works especially well as a test for something we here at Better Records like to call Whomp — the energy found at the low end of the frequency spectrum. Some call it slam, we prefer whomp.

The commentary is here to help guide you as you make changes to your system, insuring that you end up with more whomp without sacrificing equally important qualities found in the midrange and top end of your system.

Reality Check Parts One and Two

Take the song Love Alive.

The beginning section is chock full of lovely and quite subtle details (such as the autoharp and tabla) that seem to lose their magic on most systems. The autoharp is rich and chimey, and the tabla has some real low end extension. The recorders and flutes that join them are breathy and sweet, while the acoustic guitars heard throughout display all the tubey-magical harmonic richness found on our favorite Hot Stamper recordings, from the Eagles first album to Teaser and the Firecat. These qualities easily get lost in the sauce if you’re listening to the average copy, or the typical audiophile stereo. That’s Part One of the test — the opening. (more…)

Good Audio Advice and Critical Listening Skills

[This is an updated version of a commentary written in 2009.]

The latest Mapleshade catalog (Spring 09) has, along with hundreds of recommendations, this little piece of audio advice that caught my eye:

For much improved bass and huge soundstage, put your listening chair or sofa right against the wall behind you. Move your speakers in to 5’ in front of you and 7’ or more apart. No room treatments will yield this much bass improvement.

I literally had to read through it a couple of times to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating. But every time I read it, it still said the same thing, so I know I can’t have been dreaming. This is crazy talk. What the hell is wrong with these people?

Well, it’s not all crazy. There is actually a factually true statement at the end of that paragraph. Yes, it is true that no room treatments will yield as much bass as sitting up against a wall. But why stop there? Bass, regardless of its source, immediately seeks out the corners of the room. That’s where the most bass will always be: where the room boundaries are. If you want to hear the maximum amount of bass your speakers are producing, put your head in the corner of the room down at the floor, where three boundaries intersect. Like the sound now? Getting enough bass are ya?

Along the same lines, for a “huge soundstage” try putting one speaker at one end of the room and the other speaker at the opposite end. Why stop at seven feet? My listening room is twenty feet deep; I can get a soundstage that’s twenty feet across without any problem at all.

I would just have to be dumb enough to think that doing such a thing would be a good idea.

Fellow audiophiles and music lovers, it is not. Let’s talk about why. (more…)