Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

A Random Walk Through Heavy Vinyl

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Heavy Vinyl Production And the Unpredictability of Random Processes

Those in the business of producing the highest quality remastered recordings on LP are crashing smack into a problem endemic to the manufacturing of the vinyl record — randomness.

Record producers can control many of the processes (variables) that go into the making of a high quality record. But they cannot control all of them. The word for such a situation, one with random, uncontrollable aspects, is “stochastic.”

Taking the liberty to paraphrase Wikipedia liberally, we would explain it this way.

A stochastic, or random, process, is the counterpart to a deterministic process. Instead of dealing with only one possible way the process might develop over time, in a stochastic or random process there is some indeterminacy described by probability distributions. This means that even if the initial condition or starting point is known, there are many possibilities the process might go to, but some paths may be more probable and others less so.

In other words, although some of the variables can be controlled, there will always be some element of randomness that makes the final result predictable within limits, but not predictable precisely.

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If you only collect original pressings, you’ll likely end up with a collection full of mediocrities

Why would you want a first pressing if it didn’t sound as good as a vintage reissue? Or any other pressing for that matter?

Here is an even better question for those who self-identify as audiophiles: If a later pressing sounded better than an original, why would that make any difference in your desire to buy it? If you’re an audiophile, don’t you want the best sound?

If you buy records principally to collect original pressings, you will end up with one mediocre sounding collection of records, that I can tell you without fear of contradiction. (The formula goes like this: Average pressing, original or otherwise = average sound.) (more…)

Brewer & Shipley – Tarkio – Do All the Robert Ludwig Mastered Copies Have Hot Stampers?

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Even though all the original Pink Label pressings are mastered by Robert Ludwig, they have a marked tendency to be dull, thick and opaque. The sound is just too smooth. The best copies however have the top end and the transparency to let you hear all the guitar and vocal harmonics, surrounded by the large acoustic of the studio.

This time around we discovered something new: one specific stamper that seemed to be the only one with the potential for an extended top end. This special stamper did not always fare well; some copies with it were mediocre. We have always found this to be the way with the “right” stampers; they often let us down and sometimes they really let us down hard.

But this stamper, when it was right, had an extension on the top that no other copy could match. (The Robert Ludwig mastered Band second albums are the same way. Most have no top but boy, when they do, the magic you hear is phenomenal.) (more…)

The Worst Mistake You Can Make in Record Collecting

 Assuming you are looking for top quality sound.

(If you are a record collector who doesn’t care about the sound and is just looking for music to play, you are on the wrong site.)

Do you know many audiophiles who own multiple copies of the same album? How many of them are still hunting around for more? I’ve been buying duplicate copies of my favorite albums for decades, but I’m obsessive about sound. Fortunately for me, with the advent of Better Records in 1987 I’ve had an outlet for the second- and third-rate pressings I chose not to keep (all my audiophile pressing for example). 

A few audiophile friends have multiple copies, but most audiophiles I know usually stop after one, at most two or three.

At least they know not to make the worst mistake of them all: buying an audiophile pressing and figuring that that’s the one to keep, tossing out their vintage pressings, or never bothering to buy vintage pressings in the first place.

Hearing Is Believing

Those of you who take the time to read our Hot Stamper commentary, whether you buy any of our special pressings or not, no doubt know better. At least I hope you do.

The only way to understand this Hot Stamper thing is to hear it for yourself, and that means having multiple copies of your favorite albums, cleaning them all up and shooting them all out on a good stereo.

Nobody, but nobody, who takes the time to perform this little exercise can fail to hear exactly what we are on about.

Or you can join the other 99% of the audiophiles in the world, the ones who don’t know just how dramatic pressing variations for records and CDs can be. Probably a fairly large percentage of that group also doesn’t want to know about any such pressing variations and will happily supply you with all sorts of specious reasoning as to why such variations can’t really amount to much — this without ever doing a single shootout!.

Such is the world of audiophiles. Some audiophiles believe in anything — you know the kind — and some audiophiles believe in nothing, not even their own two ears.

The Book of Hot Stampers – We’d Love to Read It!

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I received this email a while back: “Hi Tom, could you please recommend a book which would give the stamper numbers associated with the different pressings of a particular record.”

Let me take this opportunity to give a more comprehensive answer, since the concept of Hot Stampers is not especially well understood by the audiophile community outside of our admittedly rather small customer base. Only those who have spent a great deal of time reading the reviews and commentary on the site are likely to understand the importance of stampers. This is partly my fault, as this issue of stamper variability and quality is spread out all over the place, exactly where, no one really knows.
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A Guide to Finding Hot Stampers: The More Mistakes the Better, Part Two

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A Guide to Finding Hot Stampers

Wise men and women throughout the ages have commented on the value of making mistakes. Here is one of our favorite quotes on the subject.

If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.

We can thank Tallulah Bankhead for that one. When I think of the 20 odd years (early ’70s to early ’90s) I wasted trying to figure out how audio works before I had learned to develop critical listening skills, it brings to mind that old Faces’ song, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”

Record shootouts are the fastest and easiest way to hone your listening skills, a subject we discuss often on the site and most cogently in this commentary from way back in 2005.

We believe that the only way to really learn about records is to gather a big pile of them together, clean them up and listen to them one by one as critically as you can.

We do not recommend devoting much time to reading about them in magazines or on forums.

We also would dissuade the serious record collector from paying much attention to what the most sought after or expensive pressings are.

And don’t think you can “logically” predict which pressings should sound the best and then just go about acquiring them.

None of these methods are likely to produce good results.

Making mistakes will though. And the more you make, the more you learn. The more you learn, the easier it is to recognize good records and happily part with bad ones. (The latter group we hope will include your major holdings of heavy vinyl and half-speeds.)

All in a days’ work for the crew at Better Recordsl. We makes the mistakes so you don’t have to.

Wired Investigates the World of Hot Stampers

Check out our Wired Article.

If you have time, go to the comments section and read the 300 plus postings of how preposterous the very idea of Hot Stampers is, along with analog vinyl itself and the ridiculously expensive audiophile equipment used to play it, as if you didn’t know already!

The Science of Hot Stampers – Incomplete, Imperfect, and (Gulp!) Provisional

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We have a section on the website you may have seen called We Was Wrong. This section is devoted to discussing the records we think we got, uh, wrong.

Oh yes, it’s true. But it’s not really a problem for us here at Better Records. We see no need to cover up our mistakes. The process of learning involves recognizing and correcting previous errors. Approached scientifically, all knowledge — in any field, not just record collecting or music reproduction — is incomplete, imperfect, and must be considered provisional.

What seems true today might easily be proven false tomorrow. If you haven’t found that out for yourself firsthand yet, one thing’s for sure, you haven’t been in this hobby for very long.

We’re so used to the conventional wisdom being wrong, and having our own previous findings overturned by new ones, that we gladly go out of way in listing after listing to point out just how wrong we were. (And of course why we think we are correct now.)

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How Can Anybody Not Hear What’s Wrong with Old Pressings Like These?

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New Paradigms and Old

It is our strongly held belief that if your equipment (regardless of cost) or your critical listening skills do not allow you to hear the kinds of sonic differences among pressings we describe, then whether you are just getting started in audio or are a self-identified audio expert writing for the most prestigious magazines and websites, you still have a very long way to go in this hobby.

Purveyors of the old paradigms — original is better, money buys good sound — may eventually find their approach to records and equipment unsatisfactory (when it isn’t just plain wrong), but they will only do so if they start to rely more on empirical findings and less on convenient theories and received wisdom.

A reviewer we all know well is clearly stuck in the Old Paradigm, illustrated perfectly by this comment: (more…)

Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular – Our Favorite Record for Cartridge Setup

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Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular just happens to be our favorite Test Disc, eclipsing all others in the areas of naturalness and difficulty of reproduction. Any tweak or new room treatment — we seem to do them almost weekly these days — has to pass one test and one test only — the Bob and Ray Test. 

This record has the power to help you get to the next level in audio like no other. Six words hold the key to better sound: The Song of the Volga Boatman.

For the purpose of mounting new carts, our favorite track is The Song of the Volga Boatman on Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular (LSP 1773). It’s by far the most difficult record we know of to get to sound right.

There are about twenty places in the music that we use as tests, and the right setting is the one that gets the most of them to sound their best. With every change some of the twenty will sound better and some will sound worse. Recognizing when the sound is the biggest, clearest, and most balanced from top to bottom is a skill that has taken me twenty years to acquire.

It’s a lot harder than it looks. The longer you have been in audio the more complicated it seems, which may be counterintuitive but comports well with our day-to-day experience very well.

All our room treatments and tweaks must pass The Bob and Ray Test as well. It’s the one record we have relied on more than any other over the course of the last year or two.

Presenting as it does a huge studio full of brass players, no record we know of is more dynamic or more natural sounding — when the system is working right. When it’s not working right the first thirty seconds is all it takes to show you the trouble you are in.

If you don’t have a record like that in your collection you need to find one.

It will be invaluable in the long run. The copy we have is so good (White Hot, the best we have ever played), and so important to our operation here, that it would not be for sale at any (well, almost any) price.

The Bob and Ray Trombone / Trumpet Test

One of the key tests on Bob and Ray that keeps us on the straight and narrow is the duet between the trombone and the trumpet about half way through The Song of the Volga Boatman. I have never heard a small speaker reproduce a trombone properly, and when tweaking the system, when the trombone has more of the heft and solidity of the real instrument, that is a tweak we want to pursue. The trumpet interweaving with it in the right rear corner of the studio tests the transients and high frequency harmonics in the same section. With any change to the stereo, both of those instruments are going to sound better. For a change to be positive they must both sound better. (more…)