Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises.
Over the last decade I Am The Walrus has evolved into a good test for side one, a fact that came as a complete surprise to me. As I was listening to the various copies in a shootout years ago I noted that the opening cellos and basses in the right channel were often tonally identical from copy to copy, but sounded quite a bit more lively and energetic on some pressings relative to others. Was it EQ? Level? Compression?
Why so much more passion from the players on some copies and not others?
As I tried to puzzle it out, playing first one copy and then another, it became clear to me what was happening. The cellists and the bassists were just plain digging HARDER into the strings on the best copies. When you see live classical music, the cellists at the front of the orchestra are usually sawing away with abandon when the music is really going. They dig their bows hard into the strings to make them vibrate as loud as possible. To make their instruments heard in the back row it becomes a matter of muscle, of pure physical exertion.
So armed with the copies where the string players are working the hardest, I checked the other tracks. Sure enough, the opening cut, MMT, jumped out of the speakers with the most energy I had heard on any copy. As I went through the tracks one by one, they had the most life of any of the copies I had been listening to. To use a word that was popular at the time, the music was HAPPENING.
This was the final piece to the puzzle. Tonality always comes first. Frequency extension; lack of distortion; rich, powerful bass — these are important qualities as well. But the life of the music is in the micro and macro dynamics, and that is what I had not been paying sufficient attention to in the shootout. That was until I listened to Walrus and heard the players working up a good healthy sweat. Then I knew I had a hot stamper. And when I played the not so hot stampers, the string guys sounded like session musicians picking up a paycheck. Where was their passion? Didn’t they realize they were making a Classic?
If you get the right pressing they sure were!
This recording is quite difficult to reproduce, which means it ranks high on our Difficulty of Reproduction Scale (DORS). Do not attempt to play it using any but the best equipment. The tutti passages will tear your head off unless you are using a very good cartridge and arm.
In its way, this is an ideal record to gauge how much progress you have made in audio. I remember playing these DG pressings only five to ten years ago and hearing shrill strings, harmonic distortion and many other unpleasant qualities in the sound. With those very same pressings today the sound is dramatically better. This is no accident. It is the result of both hard work and the Revolutions in Audio we discuss on the site.
Here is what I had to say about a Brewer and Shipley album that ranks high on the DOR scale:
I can also tell you that if you have a modest system this record is just going to sound like crap. It sounded like crap for years in my system, even when I thought I had a good one. Vinyl playback has come a long way in the last five or ten years and if you’ve participated in some of the revolutionary changes that I talk about elsewhere on the site, you should hear some pretty respectable sound. Otherwise, I would pass. On the Difficulty of Reproduction scale, this record scores fairly high. You need lots of tubey magic and freedom from distortion, the kind of sound I rarely hear on any but the most heavily tweaked systems, the kind of systems that guys like me have been slaving over for twenty years. If you’re a Weekend Warrior when it comes to stereo, this is not the record for you.
Much like Synchronicity, this is a tough record to get the right sound out of — even if you do have an excellent pressing. It took a long time to get to the point where we could clean the record properly, twenty years or so, and about the same amount of time to get the stereo to the level it needed to be, involving, you guessed it, many of the Revolutionary Changes in Audio we tout so obsessively.
It’s not easy to find a pressing with the low end whomp factor, midrange energy and overall dynamic power that this music needs, and it takes one helluva stereo to play one too. As we’ve said before about these kinds of recordings — Ambrosia; Blood, Sweat and Tears; The Yes Album; Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin II — they are designed to bring any audio system that tries to reproduce them to its knees.
If you have the kind of big system that a record like this requires, demands even, you are going to hear some amazing sound when you drop the needle on these Hot Stampers.