Labels We Love – Atlantic/Atco

Bryan Ferry – The Bride Stripped Bare – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

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

It’s been years since I last played this album, and I’m happy, ecstatic even, to report that it sounds far better than I remember it sounding. In the old days I recall it as somewhat dry, flat and transistory. Now it’s BIG and BOLD, revealing a band that’s on fire in the studio. 

This White Hot side two had by far the most energy of any side we played, showing us just what a monster rocker this album can be when it’s mastered and pressed right. The reviews were mixed when the album was released in 1978 but time has been kind to it — after hearing the killer copies I would rank it up at the top with the best of Ferry’s and Roxy’s work.

The first three tracks are uptempo barn burners sure to get you out of any funk you may find yourself in, day or night.

With a sonic grade of A++ side one was nearly as good! The Tubey Magic on this side is much more pronounced than it is on side two, which has more of a clean, spacious sound, a better mix to be sure.

We were a bit surprised to find that the domestic copies we played were clearly better sounding than the UK imports. It may be counterintuitive but these are the kinds of things you find out when doing shootouts. We have little use for intuitions (UK recording, UK pressing) and rules of thumb (original equals better). Hard data — the kind you get from actually playing the records — trumps them all.

AGAIG Side Two

This side two has it all: the kind of transparency that allows you to hear into the soundfield like never before; presence and immediacy in Ferry’s breathy, emotional vocals; air and ambience around all the instruments; and especially Rick Marotta’s super-punchy drums, so high up in the mix. That front and center snare is the sound we love here at Better Records!

This side one also had REAL ENERGY and dynamics not found on other pressings. With dynamics AND the warmth and richness found here, we’re pretty sure this copy can’t be beat. (more…)

Yes’s First Album on Plum and Orange

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  • Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound on both sides and the first to hit the site in many years
  • This UK Original Plum and Orange pressing is by far the best way to hear the album, but finding a clean one was no walk in the park
  • “In an era when psychedelic meanderings were the order of the day, Yes delivered a surprisingly focused and exciting record that covered lots of bases…” – All Music

I wish I could say that this was the sonic (or musical) equivalent of Fragile of The Yes Album — or even the second album, Time and a Word — but that’s simply not the case. Still, there’s a lot to like here and it’s fun to hear the band developing their style and growing into the pop-prog behemoth they would become with their third release.

What shootout winning sides such as these have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1969
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments (and effects!) having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is of course the only way to hear all of the above. (more…)

Otis Redding – The Dock of the Bay

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  • A stunning copy of The Dock of the Bay — Triple Plus (A+++) on the first side and Double Plus (A++) on the second
  • A well-recorded album, with sound that’s incredibly big, rich and Tubey Magical yet still clean, clear and spacious
  • About as quiet as we can find them, Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus throughout – most copies we see are just wrecked
  • “…this is an impossible record not to love … Cropper chose his tracks well, selecting some of the strongest and most unusual among the late singer’s orphaned songs…” — All Music

This vintage Atco pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records cannot even begin to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing any sign of coming back. (more…)

Helplessly Hoping to Get the VTA Right

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This listing from 2005 (!) contains commentary about VTA adjustment using the track Helplessly Hoping from a Hot Stamper pressing of CSN’s So Far. 

Helplessly Hoping is a wonderful song that has a lot of energy in the midrange and upper midrange which is difficult to get right. Just today (4/25/05) I was playing around with VTA, having recently installed a new Dynavector DV-20x on my playgrading table (a real sweetheart, by the way), and this song showed me EXACTLY how to get the VTA right.

VTA is all about balance. The reason this song is so good for adjusting VTA is that the guitar at the opening is a little smooth and the harmony vocals that come in after the intro can be a little bright. Finding the balance between these two elements is key to getting the VTA adjusted properly. (more…)

Ray Charles – The Genius of Ray Charles

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  • One of the few copies to ever hit the site and boy is it KILLER — Triple Plus (A+++) sound on the second side and Double Plus (A++) on the first
  • The sound is incredibly rich, full and Tubey Magical with tons of energy and a nice extended top end
  • Robert Christgau noted that “Charles tried many times, but except for Modern Sounds, he never again assembled such a consistent album in this mode.”
  • “Charles’ voice is heard throughout in peak form, giving soul to even the veteran standards.”

Tom Dowd engineered on Ampex 3 Track through an All Tube chain (this is 1959 after all), Quincy Jones did the arrangements, and Ray sang the hell out of this great batch of songs — all the ingredients in a recipe for soul are here.

Top tracks on the first side: Let The Good Times Roll, It Had To Be You and When Your Lover Has Gone. (more…)

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Deja Vu – An Album We Are Clearly Obsessed With

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DEJA VU is an album we admit to being obsessed with — just look at the number of commentaries we’ve written about it.

We love the album and we hope you do too. If you have some time on your hands — maybe a bit too much time on your hands — please feel free to check out our commentaries.

This link will take you to all of our other Crosby, Stills, Nash or Young albums.

Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series with advice on what to listen for as you critically evaluate your copy of Deja Vu. (more…)

Coltrane’s Sound – Forget the Reissues

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  • Outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound, or close to it, on both sides of this early pressing of Coltrane’s Sound
  • An authentic Green and Blue Atlantic stereo pressing, the only version of the album that has the potential for Hot Stamper sound, which explains why this is only the second copy to hit the site since 2011
  • “This is one of the most highly underrated entries in Coltrane’s voluminous catalog. Although the same overwhelming attention bestowed upon My Favorite Things was not given to Coltrane’s Sound upon its initial release, both were actually recorded during the same three-day period in the fall of 1960… these recordings remain among Trane’s finest.”

This is yet another superb Tom Dowd recording of Coltrane in his prime, with support from the brilliant McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones.

Advice

Forget the later Red and Green Atlantic pressings. Every one we’ve ever played was flat, dry, and thin. They sound like the cheap reissues that we Atlantic churned out in the ’70s. Don’t get me wrong; there are some good sounding records on the Red and Green label, but you really have to know what you are doing, or be really lucky, to find them.

We’ve played them by the score, and found relatively few winners among a slough of losers. If you want to take your chances on some, knock yourself out, more power to you, but expect to come up with nothing to show for your time and money almost every time. That’s been our experience anyway.

And be very thankful if you happen to run into one of these early Atlantic stereo pressings, especially if it plays as quietly as this one does. Few Classic Coltrane albums survived the jazz lovers of the day and their awful turntables. (more…)

Crosby, Stills and Nash Replay – Listening in Depth

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This is another very handy record for setting your VTA. The end of Shadow Captain has loud vocals and punchy bass, which are a bit difficult to reproduce. (Forget trying to get this song to sound good if you don’t have an exceptionally good copy.) 

The next song is To The Last Whale, which starts with Nash and Crosby’s multitracked voices in a big hall. With the correct VTA, their voices should sound silky and sweet. If your arm is too far down in the back, they will get a bit dull. Too high, and they will lose that breathy, “fluffy” quality. And once you get their voices to sound just right, make sure the ending of Shadow Captain is still punchy and dynamic.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Carry On 

A crappy remix, with added guitar, ugh.

Marrakesh Express 

Nothing special.

Just a Song Before I Go 

This song sounds WONDERFUL on the better pressings. One of the best reasons to play this album. It’s probably better here than it is on almost any pressing of the album it comes from: CSN.

First Things First 

This track tends to be aggressive.

Shadow Captain 

This track on the typical pressing of this album will tear your head off. On properly mastered copies, it’s surprisingly smooth and sweet, a quality I never associated with this song before, until I played the Hot Stamper.

To the Last Whale 

This song also sounds WONDERFUL on the better pressings. Another one of the best reasons to play this album.

Side Two

Love the One You’re With 

Nice but a little spitty as a rule.

Pre-Road Downs 

This track tends to sound dull but sometimes it’s magical.

Change Partners 

Nothing special, from a nothing special sounding album, Stills’ second outing (which usually sounds like cardboard).

I Give You Give Blind 

This track can sound quite good on the better pressings, better than almost any pressing of the album it comes from: CSN.

Cathedral 

Nice, and, as with some cuts mentioned above, better than almost any pressing of the album it comes from.

Detail on Crosby Stills and Nash’s First Album – Holy Grail or Audio Trap?

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Detail may be the Holy Grail to most audiophiles, but detail can be a trap we all too easily fall into if we are not careful. Tonal balance is the key. Without it no judgments about detail have any real value. 

One example: As good as the Classic Heavy Vinyl pressing is, the guitar at the opening of Helplessly Hoping tells you everything you need to know about what’s missing. The guitar on the Hot Stamper domestic copies has a transparency that cannot be found on Classic’s version. The Classic gets the tonal balance right, but their guitar doesn’t have the subtlety and harmonic resolution of the real thing.

I’m laboring here to avoid the word detail, since many audiophiles like bright, phony sound because of all the wonderful “detail.”

The MOFI guys and the CD guys often fall into this trap. Get the sound tonally balanced first, then see how much detail you have left. Detail is not the end-all and be-all of audio. Those who think it is usually have systems that make my head hurt.

But most people will never know what they’re missing on Helplessly Hoping, because they will never have an amazing sounding copy of this song. The hot copies are just too rare.



Further Reading

…along these lines can be found below.

The most important advice can be found under the heading Hot Stamper Shootouts — The Four Pillars of Success.

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

Here are more entries in our ongoing Shootout Advice series.

The Yes Album – What a Recording!

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  • An outstanding copy with solid Double Plus (A++) grades on both sides – the sound is huge and powerful
  • Plenty of Prog Rock Power is on display here – Eddie Offord’s engineering is Hard To Fault throughout 
  • A Top 100 Album and the band’s best sounding record – quiet too, Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus
  • “It was the addition of Steve Howe’s guitar pyrotechnics that finally allowed Yes to find their true identity. The Yes Album is a giant leap forward.” 

At its best, this album is a Big Speaker Prog-Rock opus with tremendous power and dynamic range, but it takes a special pressing like this one to really bring it to life. 

These guys — and by that I mean this particular iteration of the band, the actual players that were involved in the making of this album — came together for the first time and created the sound of Yes on this very album, rather aptly titled when you think about it.

With the amazing EDDIE OFFORD at the board, as well as the best batch of songs ever to appear on a single Yes album, they produced both their sonic and musical masterpiece — good news for audiophiles with Big Speakers! (more…)