Listening in General

Listening in Depth to Airto’s Masterpiece – Fingers

More from Airto

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This is without a doubt the BEST ALBUM the man ever made. On top of that, this copy really has the kind of sound we look for, with an open, fully extended top end that gives all the elements of this complex music room to breathe.

We Love Fingers

Fingers is one of our all time favorite records, a Desert Island disc to be sure. I’ve been playing this album for more than thirty years and it just keeps getting better and better. Truthfully it’s the only Airto record I like. I can’t stand Dafos, and most of the other Airto titles leave me cold. I think a lot of the credit for the brilliance of this album has to go to the Fattoruso brothers, who play keyboards, drums, and take part in the large vocal groupings that sing along with Airto.

At times this record really sounds like what it is: a bunch of guys in a big room beating the hell out of their drums and singing at the the top of their lungs. You gotta give RVG credit for capturing so much of that energy on tape and transferring that energy onto a slab of vinyl. (Of course this assumes that the record in question actually does have the energy of the best copies. It’s also hard to know who or what is to blame when it doesn’t, since even the good stampers sound mediocre most of the time. Bad vinyl, worn out stampers, poor pressing cycle, it could be practically anything.)

The Highs Are Back

This copy has the highs that are missing from so many of the CTI originals. When you play this against most copies there is an extension to the top end that you don’t hear elsewhere. Since this album is heavy on percussion, that difference is critical. The HARMONICS of the percussion are critically important to the music. When they go missing it’s as if the music seems to slow down, a strange effect but a fairly common one with rhythmically dense arrangements such as these.

With an extended top end the sound is SWEET, not HARSH. Believe us when we tell you, the last thing you want is a harsh sounding pressing of a Rudy Van Gelder recording. (Not unless you have a dull, dull, deadly dull stereo. Those “Old School” stereos are practically the only way one can tolerate some of his early recordings.)

With so many high frequency transients and such complex arrangements, this is a record that must be mastered (and pressed) with great skill or the result is going to be trouble. RVG, who both recorded and mastered the album, has a penchant for over-cutting records and being heavy handed when it comes to his favorite studio tricks, often to the detriment of instrumental fidelity. When his approach works, the resulting recordings are wonderful. When he gets too carried away with his “sound”, look out.

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Fingers

This is the most problematical track on the entire album — please DO NOT JUDGE the album by this song! The sound is much better on the tracks that follow. This may have been an attempt to get that hot hit single sound for track one, the kind that would jump out of your radio speaker, but the effect can be a bit much, depending on how low distortion and high resolution your equipment is. The better your system, the less of a problem you will have getting this track to play well. If this track sounds decent, everything after it will really shine.

The biggest problem one typically runs into is a lack of bass and lower midrange. On the better copies the bass will be fine on the next track and those that follow.

Romance of Death

The guitar work on this track is stellar, some of the best musicianship on the album. Credit must go to Rudy Van Gelder for making the guitar jump out of the mix. One of the things he can do, practically better than anyone, is make a lead instrument sound as big and as bold as you’ve ever heard it.

Merry-Go-Round

This track has a tendency to be overly compressed. Some stampers have so much added compression that the guitar and the percussion in the middle of the soundfield turn into undifferentiated muck. Those copies are what we refer to as “Not-So-Hot Stampers”.

Wind Chant

Side Two

Note that the sound on side two tends to be more open, rich and clear as a rule.

Parana

Perhaps my favorite track on the album; it builds into a chanting jam towards the end of its six minutes that grows to be as powerfully hypnotic as any I know. It’s the main reason this is a Desert Island Disc for me. I simply cannot get enough of Airto’s driving rhythms on this album. I’ve been playing this record my entire adult life and never once tired of it.

We wish Airto had made a string of albums as good as this one, but unfortunately we are not aware of any others of this quality. Which makes sense I suppose: one awe-inspiring masterpiece is more than most artists will ever produce.

San Francisco River
Tombo in 7/4

The Said and the Unsaid – Stravinsky’s Firebird on Mercury

More of the music of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

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Another entry in our Thinking About Hot Stampers series.

For our recent shootout of The Firebird we had three minty, potentially hot copies of the Mercury with Dorati, as well as our noisy ref. (We have a noisy reference copy for just about every major title by now. We have been doing these shootouts for a very long time. After thirty years in the record business we have accumulated a World Class collection of great sounding records that just too noisy to sell.)

We had one FR pressing and two of the later pressings with the lighter label, the ones that most often come with Philips M2 stampers.

This is how we described the winner:

So clear and ALIVE. Transparent, with huge hall space extending wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Zero compression.

Lifelike, immediate, front row center sound like few records you have ever heard.

Rich, sweet strings, especially for a Mercury. This side really gets quiet in places, a sure sign that all the dynamics of the master tape were protected in the mastering of this copy.

What we didn’t say — and what we never say in the listings — is what the second tier copies didn’t do as well as the shootout winner. (more…)

Mad Dogs, Englishmen and Copies with Bad Stampers

Wow, this is a crazy good copy!

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What to Listen For

The weaker copies have a tendency to sound smeary and congested. Listen for good transients and not too much compression. Many are also somewhat opaque as well as dull up top; try to find the ones with some degree of transparency and as much top end extension as you can (the percussion will be helped most of all by the extended top).

And of course you need to find a copy that rocks, as this is a definitely a Rock Concert, although what it most reminds me of is Ray Charles doing a choice set of modern pop classics, mixing it up by off-handedly throwing in a few hits of his own. See how they all fit together? That’s how the pros do it. (The main pro in this case is Leon Russell, the mastermind of the whole operation.)

Biggest Problems

Well, for one thing, if you get the wrong stampers on this record you will discover, as we did, that it’s clearly been mastered from a badly transferred dub tape. The “cassette-like” sound quality will not be hard to recognize. If you have stumbled onto one of those pressings, give up on it and try your luck elsewhere, making sure to note the bad stampers. That’s how we do it; there is in fact no other way. Trial and error is the name of the record hunting game.

All tracks were engineered by the legendary Eddie Kramer, then selected and mixed by the equally legendary Glyn Johns. (more…)

Santana – Inner Secrets

Our Killer White Hot Stamper copy!

 

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Just one of the  distinguished members of our Rock and Pop Hall of Fame that we’ve added recently (now 200+ strong!).

It’s also another in the long list of recordings that really comes alive when you Turn Up Your Volume.

It’s a true Demo Disc in the world of rock records. It’s also one of those recordings that demands to be played LOUD. If you’ve got the the big room, big speakers, and plenty of power to drive them, you can have a LIVE ROCK AND ROLL CONCERT in your very own house. When Santana lets loose with some of those legendary monster power chords — which incidentally do get good and loud in the mix, unlike most rock records which suffer from compression and “safe” mixes — I like to say that there is no stereo system on the planet that can play loud enough for me. (Horns maybe, but I don’t like the sound of horns, so there you go.)

What to Listen for

On side two the final guitar solo Santana takes on Well All Right gets LOUDER in the mix than any guitar solo on any rock record with which I am familiar. The sound gets louder after the first chorus, then louder still right before the second solo, and then the solo itself gets even louder until it seems to be as loud as live music. (Operative word: seems.)

Some copies get loud and some do not. Some stereos are dynamic and some are not. If you have the right stereo, set at the right volume, and THIS copy, you will hear something that not one out of one hundred audiophiles (or music lovers) have ever heard on a record — LIVE ROCK SOUND.

What makes it possible to play this record so loud and still enjoy it? Simple. Just like Nirvana, when the sound is smooth and sweet, completely free of aggressive mids and highs, records get BETTER as they get LOUDER. (This of course assumes low distortion and all the rest, but the main factor is correct tonality from top to bottom, and this record has it.)

Jump Factor

There were about a half dozen different stampers for each side that we did the shootout with. Like other Hot Stampers you may have read about, sometimes the instruments and voices just JUMP out of the speakers. When that happens I usually write “It’s Alive!” on the post-it, and I know exactly what to do with it — it goes right in the Contender pile, to be compared with the other top contender copies. It’s definitely a crazy Hot Stamper; just how hot we still need to find out.

Which is what happens in Phase Two of these affairs. We go back through all the best copies to see in what areas they really shine and in what areas they may fall a bit short of the best. Occasionally a record will come along that just murders what I thought was the best.

Of course there’s no way to know what accounts for any of the sound we hear. Not for sure anyway. It’s just interesting to ponder what makes one record sound one way and the next record, with stampers as little as one letter off in the alphabet — sometimes with exactly the same stampers! — sound so different from one another.
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Big Speakers, Loud Levels and More Power to the Orchestra

Some of our favorite Big Speaker recordings
Some records that we love to play at Loud Levels

 

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The darker brass instruments like tubas, trombones and french horns are superb here. Other Golden Age recordings of the work, as enjoyable as they may be in other respects, do not fully reproduce the weighty quality of the brass, probably because of compression, limiting, tube smear, or some combination of the three.
The brass on this record has a power like no other. It’s also tonally correct. It’s not agressive. It’s not irritating. It’s just immediate and powerful the way the real thing is when you hear it live. That’s what really caught my ear when I first played Ansermet’s recording.

There is a blast of brass at the end of Catacombs that is so big and real, it makes you forget you’re listening to a recording. You hear every brass instrument, full size, full weight. I still remember the night I was playing that album, good and loud of course, when that part of the work played through. It was truly startling in its power. (Back then I had the Legacy Whisper speaker system, the one with eight 15″ woofers. They moved air like nobody’s business. If you want to reproduce the power of the trombone, the loudest instrument in the orchestra, they’re your man.)
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Leaner and Cleaner Won’t Cut It

More about The Last Record Album.

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Musically The Last Record Album is one of our favorite Little Feat releases, and the recording has many excellent qualities. Prime among them is amazing bass; the bass goes REALLY deep in places (Long Distance Love) and it’s punchy and rich throughout the albumThe problem has always been an overly smooth top end, combined with congestion, smear, and a serious lack of presence. The good news is that if you clean enough copies with the advanced cleaning techniques we’ve developed, and you make enough improvements to your stereo, room, etc., with the right copy you can actually get this album to sound clear AND rich.

This is one of those copies, both clear and rich. It’s one of the best we have ever heard.

Whose Fault Is It?

Most copies of this album are shockingly dull and compressed. On such copies the band itself sounds bored, as if they lack conviction in their own songs.

But it’s not their fault. Whose fault it is is never easy to fathom; bad mastering, bad tapes, bad vinyl, bad something else — whatever it is, that thick, lifeless sound turns this powerfully emotional music into a major snooze-fest. It’s positively criminal but it happens all the time. It’s the reason we have to go through a pile of copies to find one that sounds like this.
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New Paradigms and Old

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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:

It’s not my pleasure to be so negative but since I have a clean UK original (signed for me by George Martin!) I’ll not be playing this one again. Yes, there are some panning mistakes and whatever else Martin “cleaned up” but really, sometimes it’s best to leave well-enough (and this album was well-enough!) alone.

We can’t imagine how anyone can have a system in this day and age that can obscure the flaws of the original Parlophone pressings of Rubber Soul (or any other Yellow and Black label Parlophone pressing for that matter). MF apparently does (as do some of our customers, truth be told), but we have something very different indeed. One might even consider it the opposite of such a system. Our system is designed to relentlessly and ruthlessly expose the flaws of every record we play. Only the best of the best can survive that level of scrutiny. This commentary addresses this issue in more depth.
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Good Sound As Late As 1979?!

Albums from 1979 in stock

All albums from 1979

 

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Who knew that good sounding records were still being recorded in 1979?

Candy-O comes to mind, but the B-52s’ first album has virtually none of the grit and Roy Thomas Baker heavy-processing of that one, and a lot more Tubey Magic to boot — when you get a pressing like this of course.

Both of these sides are superb, with the kind of huge, spacious soundstage and amazingly rich, full-bodied tonality that earned this recording its place in our Top 100. Talk about jumpin’ out of the speakers! Every instrument is clear and present, laid out right there in the listening room.

The Best of ’79

This recording reminded me of a really good Don Landee / Ted Templeman production, the kind you hear on JT or Simple Dreams or the better Doobie Brothers albums. Everything is laid out clearly: there’s a space created for every part of the frequency spectrum from the lowest lows to the highest highs, with nothing crowding or interfering with anything else. The production is professional, clean, clear and REAL sounding everywhere you look. (more…)

Great in Stereo, Bad in Mono. What Else Is New?

More of The In Crowd

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Skip the Mono

This album is more common in mono than stereo, but we found the sound of the mono pressing we played unsatisfying. Where is the wall to wall space of the live club? It has been drastically shrunken into the area between the speakers. Much of the ambience disappeared with it, destroying the illusion the album was trying to create, that you are there.

In mono, you really aren’t.

Here are some other records that we don’t think sound very good in MONO.

Here are some we think can sound amazing in MONO.

OUR HOT STEREO COPY

  • An excellent copy with both sides rating a Double Plus (A++) or better
  • It’s taken us years, but Lewis’s breakout bestselling album The In Crowd finally makes its debut at Better Records
  • If you want to know what jazz at an intimate nightclub would have sounded like in 1965, play this record – this is that sound
  • AMG raves “…this is the moment where Lewis shined the brightest, the “in crowd” at the club was verbally into it, and the time for this music was right.”

 

See all of our Ramsey Lewis Trio albums in stock

This original Argo Blue Label Stereo 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 signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in a real jazz club, this is the record for you. It’s what Vintage Records are known for — this sound. (more…)

Finally, MF and TP Agree on Something

Rubber Soul in Stock

Originally posted in 2015

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We are so excited to tell you about the first of the Heavy Vinyl Beatles remasters we’ve played! As we cycle through our regular Hot Stamper shootouts for The Beatles’ albums we will be of course be reviewing more of them*. I specifically chose this one to start with, having spent a great deal of time over the last year testing the best vinyl pressings against three different CD versions of Rubber Soul.

The short version of our review of the new Rubber Soul vinyl would simply point out that it’s awful, and, unsurprisingly, it’s awful in most of the ways that practically all modern Heavy Vinyl records are: it’s opaque, airless, energyless and just a drag.

I was looking forward to the opportunity to take Michael Fremer (the champion of thick vinyl dreck from sources far and wide) to task in expectation of his rave review, when to my surprise I found the rug had been pulled out from under me — he didn’t like it either! Damn it all.
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