Key Tracks for Critical Listening

Listening In Depth to Let It Be

More of the Music of The Beatles

More Reviews and Commentaries for Let It Be

This is the first time we’ve discussed individual tracks on the album. Our recent shootout [now many years ago], in which we discovered a mind-boggling, rule-breaking side one, motivated us to sit down and explain what the best copies should do on each side of the album for the tracks we test with. Better late than never I suppose. 

These also happen to be ones that we can stand to hear over and over, dozens of times in fact, which becomes an important consideration when doing shootouts as we do for hours on end.

On the better pressings the natural rock n’ roll energy of a song such as Dig A Pony will blow your mind. There’s no studio wizardry, no heavy-handed mastering, no phony EQ — just the sound of the greatest pop/rock band of all time playing and singing their hearts out.

It’s the kind of thrill you really don’t get from the more psychedelic albums like Sgt. Pepper’s or Magical Mystery Tour. You have to go all the way back to Long Tall Sally and Roll Over Beethoven to find the Beatles consistently letting loose the way they do on Let It Be (or at least on the tracks that are more or less live, which make up about half the album).

Track Commentary

Side One

Two of Us

Dig a Pony

On the heavy guitar intro for Dig a Pony, the sound should be full-bodied and Tubey Magical, with plenty of bass. If your copy is too lean, just forget it, it will never rock.

What blew our minds about the Shootout Winning side one we played recently was how outrageously big, open and transparent it was. As the song started up the studio space seemed to expand in every direction, creating more height, width and depth than we had ever experienced with this song before.

But there is no studio space; the song was recorded on Apple’s rooftop. The “space” has to be some combination of “air” from the live event and artificial reverb added live or later during mixing. Whatever it is, the copies with more resolution and transparency show you a lot more of “it” than run-of-the-mill pressings do (including the new Heavy Vinyl, which is so airless and compressed we gave it a grade of F and banished it to our Hall of Shame).

In addition, Ringo’s kit was dramatically more clear and present in the center of the soundfield just behind the vocal, raising the energy of the track to a level higher than we had any right to believe was possible. The way he attacks the hi-hat on this song is crazy good, and the engineering team of Glyn Johns and Alan Parsons really give it the snap it needs.

These are precisely the qualities that speed and transparency can contribute to the sound. If you have Old School vintage tube equipment, these are two of the qualities you are most likely living without. You only need play this one track on faster, better-resolving equipment to hear what you’ve been missing.

On the line after “All I want is you”, the energy of “Everything has got to be just like you want it to” should make it sound like The Beatles are shouting at the top of their lungs. If you have the right pressing they really get LOUD on that line. (more…)

The Rolling Stones / Through The Past Darkly Has Surprisingly Good Sound

More Rolling Stones

More Compilation Albums with the Potential for Very Good Sound

This is a Decca In The Box Blue Label LP with EXCELLENT SOUND! Some of the tracks here sound WONDERFUL, but even more surprisingly, none of them sound bad the way so many Stones compilations do.

Virtually nowhere on this record can you find shrill, thin, edgy, typical compilation Stones sound.

Playing songs like ‘She’s a Rainbow’ or ‘Dandelion’ on this album is so refreshing and enjoyable because they really sound the way you want to hear them. They have that rich and sweet analog quality that’s usually lost on later and/or digital versions.

The best sounding tracks on side one are track two; track three (silky vocals and deep bass); track five (big sound — a bit bright but ALIVE and tons of fun); and track six.

The best sounding tracks on side two are track two (as good as it gets); track four (the same); and track six, with plenty of cowbell. Side two is characterized by perfect top to bottom tonality and lots of energy.

“The U.K. version of this album was a bit odder yet more rewarding than its American counterpart. Apart from the superior sound, the major difference lies in the range of songs…” – AMG (more…)

Listening in Depth to Ye-Me-Le

More of the Music of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

More of our favorite Sixties Pop albums

The first three tracks on side 1 are the best reason to own this album, especially the first two (Wichita Lineman and Norwegian Wood), which are as good as anything the group ever did. I’m a big fan so that has to be seen as high praise indeed.

Let’s be frank: the average LP of this album is terrible. Shrill, aggressive sound is the norm, but compression and overly smooth (read; thick and dull) sound are also problems common to Ye-Me-Le. There’s also a “strained” quality to the loud vocal passages on almost every copy; only the best are free of it.


In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Wichita Lineman

The best copies have out of this world sound on this track, every bit as good as anything Sergio Mendes ever did. This was the song that made me search out the best sounding copies. Even when I had mediocre copies, I loved the music and KNEW there had to be better sounding versions out there.

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)

Love the arrangement. When the voices get loud, the sound can be painful. On the better pressings there is practically no strain whatsoever.

Some Time Ago

I love this song! It’s so relaxed and easygoing.

Moanin’

This is actually a pretty good arrangement of Moanin’. I’ve grown to like it.

Look Who’s Mine

Side Two

Ye-Me-Le

The best copies have DEMO DISC QUALITY sound for this song.

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Listening in Depth to Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

More of the Music of Simon and Garfunkel

Reviews and Commentaries for Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series with advice on what to listen for as you critically evaluate your copy of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.

Here are some albums currently on our site with similar Track by Track breakdowns.

TRACK COMMENTARY

Side One

Scarborough Fair/Canticle

Listen carefully to the voices on this track, one of our favorites to test with. On the best copies they sound exceptionally delicate yet full-bodied.

Patterns

The percussion on this track is a great test for smear, a problem that plagues most pressings to one degree or another. On the better copies you’ll distinctly hear the sound of the drummer’s hands hitting the skins of the bongos, as well as lots of ambience and echo around the drums.

Note also that every stereo copy we’ve ever played spits at least a little on this song.

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Listening in Depth to For Sale

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

Side One

No Reply
I’m a Loser
Baby’s in Black

This song tends to be a bit dull on most pressings of the album, but on a superb copy you’ll get wonderful Tubey Magic, warmth and life.

Rock & Roll Music
I’ll Follow the Sun

It seems to us that I’ll Follow the Sun would have to be on any list of The Beatles’ very best. On a good copy the vocals are rich, sweet and delicate beyond belief.

Paul pops the mic on one word in this song — if your system has reasonable resolution and bottom end speed, you should be able to pick it out. [It’s been so long since I wrote this this I honestly do not remember what word it is!]

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Fleetwood Mac – You Need a Copy Where the Drums Punch Through the Mix

More of the Music of Fleetwood Mac

Reviews and Commentaries for Fleetwood Mac

Many pressings are compressed, murky, veiled and recessed. To find one that is transparent, clear, present and punchy is no mean feat.

Proper cleaning is essential. Many early Orange label CBS pressings (the only ones that have the potential to win shootouts) just sound like old records until they have been properly cleaned.

There are two tracks to play to hear how well the drums punch through the mix.

Mick Fleetwood is banging the hell out of his toms on Black Magic Woman. If it doesn’t sound like he’s really pounding away, you need a better copy.

Or a better stereo; one must always be open to the possibility that the system may not be up to reproducing the punchiness of the drums.

Oh Well Part 1 has some big drums too, which means you can check both sides of your copy for how punchy the drums are.

Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits is a Big Speaker record. It requires speakers that can move air with authority below 250 cycles and play at fairly loud levels. If you don’t own speakers that can do that, this record will never really sound the way it should.

Most of the music is not in the deeper bass anyway. It’s the whack of instruments whose energy is in the lower midrange and mid-bass that screens and smallish box speakers will struggle with.

A good large-driver dynamic speaker fed by fast electronics can usually handle the energy in that range with ease.

Take this album with you next time you head to your local stereo store to audition speakers.

It will help clarify the issues. Screens and small boxes do many things well, but drums are not one of them, at least in my experience.

This and hundreds of other albums like it are precisely the kinds of recording that drove me to pursue Big Stereo Systems driving Big Dynamic Speakers. You need a lot of piston area to bring this recording to life, and to get the size of all the instruments to match their real life counterparts.

For that you need big speakers in big cabinets, the kind I’ve been listening to for more than forty years. My last small speaker was given the boot around 1974 or so and I have never looked back.

To tell you the truth, the Big Sound is the only sound that I can enjoy. Anything less just doesn’t do it for me.

If you are looking for that kind of sound, we have a list of Demo Discs that can deliver it like nothing you’ve ever heard.

For more What to Listen For advice on other titles we have auditioned, please click here.

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Listening in Depth to JT

More of the Music of James Taylor

More Albums with Key Tracks for Critical Listening

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’ 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 [not true, we did the shootout in 2022], 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 plenty of it.

Side One

Your Smiling Face

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

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Listening in Depth to Katy Lied

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for 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. On a highly resolving system, you shouldn’t be able to 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.

This is a very tough record to reproduce — everything has to be working at its best 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

Arguably the most musically aggressive track on the album, “Black Friday” is without question the most sonically aggressive and a quick indicator of what you can expect from the rest of the side. The typical copy is an overly-compressed sonic assault on the ears. The glaring upper midrange and tizzy grit that passes for highs will have you jumping out of your easy chair to turn down the volume. Even my younger employees who grew up playing in loud punk rock bands were cringing at the sound.

However, the good copies take this aggressive energy and turn it into pure excitement. The boys are ready to rock, and they’ve got the pulsing bass, hammering drums, and screaming guitars to do it.

Without the grit and tizz and radio EQ, which could have been added during mastering or caused by the sound of some bad ABC vinyl, who can say which, the sound is actually quite good on the best of the best copies. It’s one of the toughest tests for side one. Sad to say, most copies earn a failing grade right out of the gate on this album.

In that respect it’s very similar to Royal Scam. Kid Charlemagne is no walk in the park. We noted:
This song will always be a little bright and upper midrangy. That’s the way it’s mixed. It will never sound as good as the songs that follow on side one. It will sound really irritating, hard and aggressive on the average domestic pressing.

Bad Sneakers

This is my favorite track on the whole album. I love this song! On the best copies, the sound is very punchy, but the most important qualities I listen for are richness and sweetness, especially on the backing vocals. Michael McDonald, et al. should sound like they were recorded with ribbon mics and an Ampex 300 Tube tape recorder, like the one Contemporary Records used. The vocals are that good!

Another quality the chorus should have is clarity. By that I mean there should be separation between each of the vocalists that make up the group. When this record is mastered from sub-generation tapes (or sub-sub-generation tapes, which is more often the case) the voices take on a smeary quality and there is a noticeable increase in the harmonic distortion.

I first discovered this sound when listening to a Hot Stamper copy of Countdown To Ecstasy while doing a shootout with a Japanese pressing, which until that time I thought was the better sounding version. On the chorus of one of the tracks the domestic copy was clear, clean and undistorted. The Japanese pressing had noticeable harmonic distortion, which I’m inferring came from their use of a sub-generation tape.

In every other way, the Japanese pressing sounded fine. When the mix got complicated, the flaws showed up.

So when Bad Sneakers gets loud and complex, the shortcomings of some pressings will become obvious. This is what shootouts are all about. Everything is relative. The three most important words in the English language when it comes to evaluating records are “compared to what?

More often than not it takes a better record to show you what’s wrong with the record you’re playing.

And Turning Up Your Volume is key to testing a song like Bad Sneakers. The louder the problem, the harder it is to ignore.

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Listening in Depth to Blue

More of the Music of Joni Mitchell

Reviews and Commentaries for Blue

Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series with advice on what to listen for as you critically evaluate your copy of Blue. Here are some albums currently on our site with similar Track by Track breakdowns.

The best copies bring out the breathy quality to Joni’s voice, and she never sounds strained either. They are sweet and open, with good bass foundation and transparency throughout the frequency range.

The best pressings (and today’s better playback equipment) have revealed nuances in this recording — and of course the performances of all the players along with it — that made us fall in love with the music all over again. Of all the tough nuts to crack, this was the toughest, yet somehow copies emerged from our shootouts that made it easy to appreciate the sonic merits of Blue and ignore its shortcomings.

Hot Stampers have a way of doing that. You forget it’s a record; it’s now just music. The right record and the right playback will bring Joni’s music to life in a way that you cannot imagine until you hear it. That is our guarantee on Blue — better than you ever thought possible or your money back.

Side One

All I Want

This is a do-or-die song for side one. When Joni sings “traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling,” she really pushes on the last couple of them, and even the best copies have a hard time dealing with it. When a copy of this record comes in, that first line often tells me that there is no hope for side one.

If an LP can get through that first line properly, it’s at least a ‘B’ and often times a Hot Stamper.

My Old Man

The piano on this track needs to be solid and full-bodied. The sound of the piano tells you if there’s any real weight to the sound of the pressing you are auditioning.

More records that are good for testing the sound of the piano.

Notice that Joni’s voice is much smoother on this track as well. If the whole album sounded like this it wouldn’t be so hard to find a good sounding copy.

Little Green
Carey
Blue

This is a tough track for a number of reasons. Joni really pushes her vocal; it’s at the end of the record where inner groove distortion is at its most problematical; and her voice is quite naked. When you add up these three factors, you have some real hurdles to overcome.

The best copies “survive” this track. Everything before this song on side one can sound awfully good. This song we try to do the best we can with, but it’s the rare copy that won’t have problems of one kind or another.

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Listening in Depth to Desperado

More of the Music of The Eagles

Hot Stamper Pressings of Especially Tubey Magical Recordings Available Now

Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series. Here are some albums currently on our site with similar Track by Track breakdowns.

This is the second-best sounding Eagles record of all time, no doubt thanks to the engineering of our man Glyn Johns.

Of course, the best sound on any Eagles record is found on the first album. It’s a Top Ten Rock and Pop title and as Tubey Magical a rock record as you will ever hear.

You don’t need tube equipment to hear the prodigious amounts of Tubey Magic that exist on this recording. For those of you who’ve experienced top quality analog pressings of Meddle or Dark Side of the Moon, or practically any jazz album on Contemporary, whether played through tubes or transistors, that’s the luscious sound of Tubey Magic, and it is all over Desperado.

For whatever reason, the first Eagles album was left off the TAS Super Disc list, even though we feel that both musically and sonically it beats Desperado by a hair. And there is no need to buy the one Harry recommended back in the day, the original British on SYL.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Doolin-Dalton

This wonderful song is a great test track for side one. Typical pressings of this album tend to be dark and lack extension up top. When you have no real top end, space, detail and resolution suffer greatly. You need to be able to appreciate each of the stringed instruments being played — guitar, banjo, dobro — and the top end needs to be extended and correct for you to be able to do that. (more…)