Cat Stevens / Tea for the Tillerman on Two 200 Gram Discs Cut at 45 RPM
About ten years ago we auditioned and reviewed the 2011 edition of Tea for the Tillerman pressed by Analogue Productions, the one that came on a single Heavy Vinyl 33 RPM LP.
I wrote a very long commentary about the sound of that record, taking it to task for its manifold shortcomings, at the end of which I came to the conclusion that the proper sonic grade for such a record is F as in Fail. My exhaustive review can be found under the not-very-subtle title This Is Your Idea of Analog?
Our intro gave this short overview:
Yes, we know, the folks over at Acoustic Sounds, in consultation with the late George Marino at Sterling Sound, supposedly with the real master tape in hand, and supposedly with access to the best mastering equipment money can buy, labored mightily, doing their level best to master and press the Definitive Audiophile Tea for the Tillerman of All Time.
It just didn’t come out very well, no matter what anybody tells you.
Recently I was able to borrow a copy of the new 45 cutting from a customer who had rather liked it. I would have never spent my own money to hear a record put out on the Analogue Productions label, a label that has an unmitigated string of failures to its name. But for free? Count me in!
The offer of the new 45 could not have been more fortuitous. I had just spent a number of weeks playing a White Hot Stamper Pink Label original UK pressing in an attempt to get our new Playback Studio sounding right.
We had a lot of problems. We needed to work on electrical issues. We needed to work on our room treatments. We needed to work on speaker placement.
We initially thought the room was doing everything right, because our Go To setup disc, Bob and Ray, sounded super spacious and clear, bigger and more lively than we’d ever heard it. That’s what a 12 foot high ceiling can do for a large group of musicians playing live in a huge studio, in 1959, on an All Tube Chain Living Stereo recording. The sound just soared.
But Cat Stevens wasn’t sounding right, and if Cat Stevens isn’t sounding right, we knew we had a Very Big Problem. Some stereos play some kinds of records well and others not so well. Our stereo has to play every kind of record well because we sell every kind of record there is. You name the kind of music, we probably sell it. And if we offer it for sale, we had to have played it and liked the sound, because no record makes it to our site without being auditioned and found to have excellent sound.
But I Might Die Tonight
The one song we played over and over again, easily a hundred times or more, was But I Might Die Tonight, the leadoff track for side two. It’s short, less than two minutes long, but a lot happens in those two minutes. More importantly, getting everything that happens in those two minutes to sound not just right, but as good as you have ever heard it, turned out to be a tall order indeed.
I could write for days about what to listen for in the song, but for now let me just point the reader to one of the most difficult parts to reproduce correctly.
At about 50 seconds into the track, Cat repeats the first verse:
I don’t want to work away
Doing just what they all say
Work hard boy and you’ll find
One day you’ll have a job like mine, job like mine, a job like mine
Only this time he now has a multi-tracked harmony vocal singing along with him, his own of course, and he himself is also singing the lead part louder and more passionately. Getting the regular vocal, call it the “lower part,” to be in balance with the multi-tracked backing vocal, call it the “higher part,” turned out to be the key to getting the bottom, middle and top of the midrange right.
When doing this kind of critical listening we play our records very loud. Live Performance level loud. As loud as Cat could sing, that’s how loud it should be when he is singing his loudest toward the end of the song for the final “But I might die tonight!” If he is going to sing loudly, I want my stereo to be able to reproduce him singing as loud as he is actually singing on the record. No compression. No distortion. All the energy. That’s what I want to hear.
The last fifteen seconds or so of the song has the pianist (Cat himself) banging out some heavy chords on the piano. If you have your levels right it should sound like there is a real piano at the back of the room and that someone is really banging on it. It’s a powerful coda to the song. (more…)