Lessons Learned from Record Shootouts

Art Pepper / Today – Which Is Better: Phil DeLancie Digital or George Horn Analog?

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[This commentary was written many years ago.]

 

We’ve wanted to do Art Pepper Today for more than a decade, but the original Galaxy pressings were just too thick and dark to earn anything approaching a top sonic grade. Thirty years ago on a very different system I had one and liked it a lot, but there was no way I could get past the opaque sound I was now hearing on the more than half-dozen originals piled in front of me.

So, almost in desperation we tried an OJC reissue from the ’90s. You know, the ones that all the audiophiles on the web will tell you to steer clear of because it had been mastered by Phil DeLancie and might be sourced from digital tapes.

Or digitally remastered, or somehow was infected with something digital somehow.

Well, immediately the sound opened up dramatically, with presence, space, clarity and top end extension we simply could not hear on the originals. Moreover, the good news was that the richness and solidity of the originals was every bit as good. Some of the originals were less murky and veiled than others, so we culled the worst of them for trade and put the rest into the shootout with all the OJCs we could get our hands on.

Now, it’s indisputable that Phil DeLancie is credited on the jacket, but I see George Horn’s writing in the dead wax of the actual record, so I really have no way of knowing whether Mr Delancie in fact had anything to do with the copies I was auditioning. They don’t sound digital to me, they’re just like other good George Horn-mastered records I’ve heard from this period.

And of course we here at Better Records never put much stock in what record jackets say; the commentary on the jackets rarely has much to do with the sound of the records inside them in our experience.

And, one more surprise awaited us as we were plowing through our pile of copies. When we got to side two we found that the sound of the Galaxy originals was often competitive with the best of the OJCs. Which means that there’s a good probability that some of the original pressings I tossed for having bad sound on side one had very good, perhaps even shootout winning sound on side two.

This is a lesson I hope to take to heart in the future. I know very well that the sound of side one is independent of side two, but somehow in this case I let my prejudice against the first side color my thinking about the second. Of all the people who should know better…

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…)

We Was Wrong About The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour (Circa 1985-90)

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This is a VERY old and somewhat embarrassing commentary about how We Was Wrong

This German pressing has dramatically different sound than that found on other Hot Stamper pressings of MMT we’ve had on the site. I used to be convinced that its sound was clearly superior to the regular German MMT LPs.

Back in the late ’80s and into the ’90s this was the pressing that I was certain blew them all out of the water.

We know better now. We call this version the “Too Hot” Stamper pressing — the upper mids and top end are much too boosted to be enjoyable on top quality equipment.

It does have some positive qualities though. It has substantially deeper bass than any other version; in fact, it has some of the deepest bass you will ever hear on a pop recording. It can literally rattle the room when Paul goes down deep on Baby You’re A Rich Man.

It also uses a slightly different mix on some tracks and is mastered differently in terms of levels. The level change is most obvious at the beginning of Strawberry Fields, where it starts out very quietly and gets louder after a short while, unlike all other versions which start out pretty much at the same level. The effect is pleasing, you can even say powerful, but probably not what The Beatles intended, as no other copy I’ve ever heard utilizes the same quiet opening. An unknown mastering engineer made the choice, probably because he didn’t like all the tape hiss at the opening when few instruments were playing loud enough to mask it.

With this mix the record is now more of a hi-fi spectacular — great for demonstrations but not the last word in natural sound.

Oliver Nelson and RVG – Mastering Better than the Master?

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The sound is tonally correct, Tubey Magical and above all natural. The timbre of each and every instrument is right and it doesn’t take a pair of golden ears to hear it. So high-resolution too. If you love ’50s and ’60s jazz you cannot go wrong here.

For those record lovers who still cling to the idea that the originals are better, this pressing will hopefully set you straight.

Yes, we can all agree that Rudy Van Gelder recorded it, brilliantly as a matter of fact. Shouldn’t he be the most natural choice to transfer the tape to disc, knowing, as we must assume he does, exactly what to fix and what to leave alone in the mix?

Maybe he should be; it’s a point worth arguing.

But ideas such as this are only of value once they have been tested empirically and found to be true.

We tested this very proposition in our recent shootout, as well as in previous ones of course. It is our contention, based on the experience of hearing quite a number of copies over the years, that Rudy did not cut the original record as well as he should have. For those of you who would like to know who did, we proudly offer this copy to make the case.

Three words say it all: Hearing is believing.

(And if you own any modern Heavy Vinyl reissue we would love for you to be able to appreciate all the musical information that you’ve been missing when playing it. I remember the one from the ’90s on Impulse being nothing special, and the Speakers Corner pressing in the 2000s if memory serves was passable at best.) (more…)

This Is the Kind of Thing You Notice When You Play Dozens 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. (more…)

A Guide to Finding Hot Stampers: The More Mistakes the Better, Part Three

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“The essence of success is that it is never necessary to think of a new idea oneself. It is far better to wait until somebody else does it, and then to copy him in every detail, except his mistakes.” ~Aubrey Menen

Indeed, if only that were practical. Our approach to Hot Stampers and How to Find Them is certainly a revolutionary new idea, and undoubtedly the only way of discovering records with superior sound quality.

But even if we were to publish all of our secrets, the stamper numbers and labels and countries of origin of all the best pressings we’ve ever played, every last one, that would still not be the answer, for the simple reason that no two records sound the same.

As long as that’s true, either we have to play a pile of records to find the best sounding ones, or you do. There is no other way to do it.

But at the very least, with commentaries such as this one, we hope we can be helpful in pointing the analog record lover in the right direction. Follow us. What we do can work for anyone — anyone who’s willing to make mistakes that is.

Joni Mitchell Blue – Play The Game, Not the Album

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises, one we created all the way back in 2007. If you want to learn more about doing your own shootouts this listing has lots of good advice.

In 2007 we mentioned to our customers that we would not be carrying the new 180 gram Rhino pressing of Blue. We noted:

Since Kevin and Steve are friends of mine I won’t belabor its shortcomings. Let’s just say I think you can do better.

Down the road when we’ve had a chance to do a shootout amongst all our best copies, we will be offering something more to our liking. I recommend instead — and this is coming from a die-hard LP guy, someone who disconnected his home CD player over two years ago and only plays the damn things in the car — that you pick yourself up a nice used copy of the gold CD Hoffman mastered for DCC. It’s wonderful.

Some people are already upset with us over this decision, actually going so far as to question our motives, if not our sanity. Without a doubt we feel this will end up being the single most controversial stance we’ve ever taken. I predict that a great number of audiophiles are going to get really upset over our criticism of this new pressing. We are going to get emails like crazy asking us to explain what on earth could possibly be wrong with such a wonderful sounding LP. The writers of these emails will no doubt extoll its virtues relative to the other pressings they may have heard, and, finding no other reasonable explanation, these writers will feel impelled to question both the quality of our playback equipment and — yes, it’s true — even our ability to recognize a good record when it’s spinning right on our very own turntable. (more…)

Supertramp – Crisis? What Crisis? – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.  

TWO AMAZING SIDES, including an A+++ SIDE ONE! It’s not the A&M Half Speed, and it’s not a British pressing either. It’s domestic folks, your standard plain-as-day A&M pressing, and we’re as shocked as you are. Hearing this copy (as well as an amazing Brit; they can be every bit as good, in their own way of course) was a THRILL, a thrill that’s a step up in “thrillingness” over our previous favorite pressing, the Half Speed.

The best of the best domestics and Brits are bigger, livelier, punchier, more clear and just more REAL than the audiophile pressing…

…something we knew had to be the case if ever a properly mastered non-Half Speed could be found. And now it has. Let the rejoicing begin! (more…)

Frank Sinatra – The Concert Sinatra – Our Shootout Winner from 2010

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.

This stereo pressing has SUPER HOT stamper sound on both sides, which means it was one of the best copies in our recent shootout, the first we’ve done since 2006 (!).

Folks, when we say that clean, good sounding Sinatra records are hard to come by, we are not kidding. It took us five years to find enough copies of this title to do a proper shootout. In that time an awful lot of bad LPs passed passed through our hands: the monos (never heard a good one), the reissues (ditto), imports, and, most commonly, original stereo pressings in beat-to-death condition. People loved Sinatra and played his records until the grooves were gone.

This album ranks right up there with the best of the Reprise era musically; recorded in 1963, Sinatra was still in his prime.

For audiophiles, the amount of effort that went into the recording, effort that actually paid off, is what will impress the most about The Concert Sinatra. The 73 musicians you see stretched out across the soundstage at Samual Goldwyn Studios behind Sinatra will give you some idea of the size and scope of the sound. With 24 mics feeding 8 tracks of 35MM recording film, this was the sonic equivalent of Gone With the Wind. No expense or effort was spared.

Fortunately for those of us who are still playing records forty-odd years on, this special project took place before the advent of the transistor, which means that all the Tubey Magic of the singer and his all-encompassing orchestra was captured on the “tape”.

Ah, but how much of that sound made it to the record itself, that’s always the rub with records isn’t it?

In this case, plenty. There may be a touch of smear (you can most easily hear it in the strings) but the sound is so RICH and Tubey Magical that you will barely be aware it. Your attention should instead be focused on the superb feel the man has for this music.

One thing to pay special attention to, especially if you have other copies of the album, is that Sinatra’s voice on both sides of this pressing always sounds natural even at its loudest. There is no strain or hardness. That, among many other things, is what separates the best copies from the also-rans (and, of course, all the reissues, which tend to have gritty, harsh vocals which quickly get unbearably edgy in the louder parts). (more…)

Steely Dan – A Killer Can’t Buy a Thrill (and Some Lessons We Learned)

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From the moment the needle hit the groove on side one, we were treated to some of the best sound we’ve ever heard for this album.

Both sides have an incredibly tight and punchy bottom end, with the kind of energy and WHOMP that brings this music to life! The soundfield is BIG, WIDE, and OPEN, with a three-dimensional quality that we didn’t hear on other copies. The top end is silky sweet — just listen to the cymbals on Do It Again.

Dirty Work sounds superb here — rich and sweet mids, breathy brass, and lots of texture to the vocals. Often this track sounds dull and dubby, but it’s actually just a case of the mix being smoother than most of the other songs on the album. If this track sounds smooth, and the other songs sound right, the tonality is correct for the whole side, because that’s what the best copies sound like.

Flip the record over and the good times begin all over again. Elliot Randall’s guitar on Reeling In The Years has the meaty texture and uncanny presence to take the song to an entirely new level. Fire In The Hole is exceptionally dynamic with real weight to the piano, and the double tracked vocals on Turn That Heartbeat Over Again sound rich and poppy the way they should.

Combine two sides this good and press them on fairly quiet vinyl and you have yourself an LP that’s practically a FLUKE. (more…)