Records that Are Good for Testing Grit and Grain

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers / Long After Dark – What the Best Pressings Get Right

More of the Music of Tom Petty

Energy and rock and roll rhythmic drive are of course paramount on any Tom Petty album.

Many copies were brighter than ideal, which is nothing new for Petty’s body of work but not the sound we find most pleasing.

Some copies in our shootout were dark and small; we took serious points off for both of these shortcomings.

The climaxes of the songs should be as uncompressed and uncongested as possible to earn our higher grades. When the music gets loud it should stay tonally correct and undistorted, and not all copies can do that, not at the serious levels we like to play our records.

Choruses Are Key

Watch out for too many instruments and voices jammed into too little space in the upper midrange. When the tonality is shifted-up, even slightly, or there is too much compression or distortion, there will be too many upper midrange elements — voices, guitars, drums — vying for space, resulting in congestion and a loss of clarity.

With the more solid-sounding copies, the lower mids are full and rich. Above them, the next “level up” so to speak, there’s plenty of space in which to fit all the instruments and voices comfortably, without piling them on top of one another as so often happens. Consequently, the upper midrange “space” does not get overwhelmed with musical information.

Also watch for edge on the vocals, which is of course related to the issues above. Most copies have at least some edge to the vocals — the band wants to really belt it out in the choruses, and they do — but the best copies keep the edge under control, without sounding compressed, dark, dull, or smeary.

The highest quality equipment, on the hottest Hot Stamper copies, will play the loudest and most difficult-to-reproduce passages with virtually no edge, grit, or grain, even at very loud levels.

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Eagles – One Of These Nights

More Eagles

  • On an exceptionally good sounding copy such as this one, the soaring guitar solo of the title track really comes alive – assuming you have it turned up GOOD and LOUD
  • Lyin’ Eyes and Take It To The Limit sound the way they should – we guarantee you have never heard them sound remotely as good as they do here
  • 4 stars: “…a lyrical stance — knowing and disillusioned, but desperately hopeful — had evolved, and the musical arrangements were tighter and more purposeful. The result was the Eagles’ best-realized and most popular album so far.”

Another in the long list of recordings that really comes alive when you Turn Up Your Volume.

What to listen for you ask? Dynamic, soaring guitar solos! On the best copies the guitar solos are the loudest parts of some songs, which, as everyone who’s ever been to a rock concert knows, is exactly what happens in live rock music.

This is one of the toughest Eagles albums to find with good sound. This album may never sound quite as good as Hotel California or the self-titled debut, but there are some wonderful songs here and a Hot Stamper like this brings them to life in a way most pressings cannot hope to do.

The best copies are richer and sweeter. When you turn them up, they really come to life. When you play the better sides at Rock Music Volumes they really ROCK. When a copy is cut really clean, as the best ones are, the louder you play them the better they sound. They’re tonally correct at loud levels and a bit dull at what we would call “audiophile” levels. That’s the way it should be. (more…)

Carly Simon / Hotcakes – What to Listen For

More of the Music of Carly Simon

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Carly Simon

Hot Stamper Pressings of Richard Perry Productions

Many copies of this album suffer from (at least) one of two problems: unnatural hi-fi sound or considerable grit and grain.

Both are in large part due to the processing-intensive production of Richard Perry. On the best copies it’s easy to understand his choices as the sound is quite lovely. Unfortunately that rich, sweet sound he obviously got on to the master tape didn’t quite make it to the average vinyl pressing of the album.

The effects used on Carly’s vocals turn her voice into a gritty, grainy mess on most copies — certainly not the kind of sound that audiophiles want to hear. It took a few exceptional copies to make us understand what Simon and Perry were going for. Compare this Hot Stamper to the typical copy and you’ll hear it for yourself right away. (You DEFINITELY want your electricity really cookin’ for this shootout, because bad electricity will certainly exacerbate problems with grit and grain.)

You Haven’t Got Time For The Pain, But We Do

It’s one of Carly’s best songs and the title perfectly sums up our selling point for these Hot Stampers. Anyone can do this shootout on his own; these records are in every used record bin out there. Of course, I don’t know if anyone but us would WANT to do this shootout, because so many copies sound just plain awful! If, like Carly, you haven’t got time for the pain, save yourself the trouble and take home a Hot copy. Your free time is valuable — spend it listening to good records and leave the bad ones to us.

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Creedence Clearwater Revival – Green River

More Creedence Clearwater Revival

More Roots Rock LPs

  • An essential, Must Own for every Classic Rock collection, this LP includes some of the band’s biggest hits: Green River and Bad Moon Rising, Lodi, Wrote a Song for Everyone and plenty more
  • 5 stars “If anything, CCR’s third album Green River represents the full flower of their classic sound initially essayed on its predecessor, Bayou Country. One of the differences between the two albums is that Green River is tighter, with none of the five-minute-plus jams that filled out both their debut and Bayou Country, but the true key to its success is a peak in John Fogerty’s creativity.”

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Joe Jackson – Get Rid of Grit and Grain The Right Way

More Records that Are Good for Testing Grit and Grain

More Records that Are Difficult to Reproduce

Jumpin’ Jive is one of the clearest examples of an album where it is CRITICALLY IMPORTANT to make sure your stereo is running on good electricity before you make any attempt to play it. This is the kind of recording — bright, full of energy — that will bring most stereo systems to their knees. Of course, when you play a good copy and it really sounds good, it’s a record that rewards all the time and effort you’ve put into your system.

So much of the aggressiveness, grit and grain that we hear in immediate, high-energy recordings such as this are really the fault of the electricity feeding the stereo, not the fault primarily of the record or even the equipment used to play it.

Now it should be noted that this recording has a ton of high frequency information that will be difficult to reproduce on most systems. If you leave a lot of appliances and electronic devices plugged in around the house when you listen to your stereo, you can forget ever hearing this record right. The grit and grunge caused by polluted electricity will make this record practically unlistenable, at the levels we listen at anyway. (At lower levels most of the garbage is masked, one reason no doubt that audiophiles rarely turn their stereos up to anything approaching live levels.) 

So do as we do: unplug everything you can get your hands on before you sit down to listen. Make sure your tubes (if you have tube equipment) are nice and warm too.

Power Conditioning

We are not big fans of power conditioners for the most part. We think most of them do more harm than good. Loss of energy and dynamics are the key shortcomings of practically all of the units we’ve tested. If you have not tested your conditioners lately, try playing some lively, large-scale music without them in the system. You may notice quite a difference.

Or you may not — perhaps yours work right. Nobody can make that judgment but you, so it’s important to test these things regularly and carefully and let the chips fall where they may. Don’t buy into the hype; test and retest for yourself.

Our philosophy: Better to unplug devices and prevent their bad effects in advance rather than try to filter them out of the electrical system after the damage has been done.


Creedence Clearwater Revival – Bayou Country

More Creedence Clearwater Revival

Bayou Country

  • This outstanding pressing boasts Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • “Proud Mary” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” are two of the better sounding tracks found on the album, and you can be sure this seriously good side two has them swamp rockin’ like crazy
  • Our pick for the best sounding CCR record – but only if you have a copy with sonics like these
  • 4 1/2 stars: “All the songs add up to a superb statement of purpose, a record that captures Creedence Clearwater Revival’s muscular, spare, deceptively simple sound as an evocative portrait of America.”

The sound is big and open with real weight to the bottom. The top end has a much more natural extension than most, and much less of the harshly brightened-up upper midrange you might be familiar with. On side two you can even pick out the piano in “Good Golly Miss Molly,” which is barely audible on most pressings.

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Listening in Depth to Aja (Includes Free Cisco Debunking Tool)

More of the Music of Steely Dan

Reviews and Commentaries for Aja

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

Our track commentary for the song Home at Last makes it easy to spot an obvious problem with Cisco’s remastered Aja: This is the toughest song to get right on side two.

Nine out of ten copies have grainy, irritating vocals; the deep bass is often missing too. Home at Last can sometimes be just plain unpleasant, which is why it’s such a great test track.

Get this one right and it’s pretty much smooth sailing from there on out.

If you own the Cisco pressing, focus on Victor Feldman’s piano at the beginning of the song. It lacks body, weight and ambience on the new pressing, but any of our better Hot Stamper copies will show you a piano with those qualities in spades on every track. It’s some of my favorite work by the Steely Dan vibesman.

The thin piano on the Cisco release must be recognized for what it is: a major error on the part of the mastering engineers.

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The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet

More Rolling Stones

  • An outstanding vintage London pressing of this surprisingly well-recorded Stones album from 1968, with solid Double Plus (A++) sound throughout and fairly quiet vinyl, all things considered
  • The long lost Tubey Magic of these early pressings has them sounding better than we ever thought possible with the audio equipment of the day
  • This is exactly the way you want Beggars Banquet to sound and it sure doesn’t take a pair of golden ears to hear it
  • One of a select group of Rolling Stones Must Own titles we prize above all others – Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed round out the trio
  • 5 stars: “Basic rock & roll was not forgotten, however: ‘Street Fighting Man’… was one of their most innovative singles, and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’… was an image-defining epic.”

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Paul Simon / Still Crazy After All These Years – Listening in Depth

More of the Music of Paul Simon

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Paul Simon (and Art Garfunkel)

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

As exceptionally well-produced, well-engineered Pop Albums from the ’70s, the very best copies can proudly hold their heads high. Wait a minute. Our last commentary noted what a mess most of the pressings of this album sound like, with so much spit and grain. Have we changed our minds? Well, yes and no, and as usual we make no excuses for having changed our minds. We call it progress.

Yes, most copies are still a mess, but No, some copies now sound far better than we ever thought possible.

As we noted in our previous commentary for the Hot Stamper Still Crazy (back in 2005!), when we first dropped the needle on side one of another copy of this record, we were shocked to hear how spitty, grainy and transistory sounding the album was. We could hardly believe that a mainstream pop album by Paul Simon could sound this bad. It was pure spitty DISTORTION with ZERO midrange magic. A CD would sound better. Even Graceland, a famously compressed, phony, digital sounding album wouldn’t sound this bad!

A bad copy you say? Maybe they don’t all sound bad on side one, but there sure are a lot of them that do. Two tracks in particular — in fact, the two biggest tracks on side one — have fairly bad sound on almost any copy you play: Still Crazy and 50 Ways…

The True Tests for Side One

What separates the mediocre-to-bad-sounding average copy from a Hot Stamper is how well mastered those two songs are. In other words, if you get those two tracks right — breathy vocals, sounding smooth and sweet, with the sibilance under control, supported by good solid bass — the whole side is going to be good, maybe even as good as it gets.

We noted previously that:

“… side two on every copy is better sounding than side one. Why this is I have no idea. It’s not as though they recorded all of side one’s tracks together and they didn’t come out as well. That’s not the way it’s done. The order of the tracks is determined long after they are recorded and mixed. But the songs on side two are consistently more open and sweeter, with silkier, more delicate background vocals and a more natural timbre to Paul’s voice. He sounds less like a transistor radio and more like a person.”

That turned out to still be generally true, but there were some exceptional sounding sides twos in this batch, so we can’t say that side two is always worse, just most of the time.

There is no substitute for having multiple clean copies and shooting them out. Every copy I played was original — no Nice Price junk, no bad imports, no throwaways. Good copies are the rare exception on this album — sad, but true. If you have an LP of this one, see how much Still Crazy spits. I’ll bet it spits like crazy; most of them do.


In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Still Crazy After All These Years

The toughest test of them all. If this song sounds good, you are 90% of the way there.

My Little Town

This track was supposed to be a hit single and has the radio mix to prove it, and it WAS a hit, but it’s not exactly as pleasing to the audiophile ear as the other songs on the side.

I Do It for Your Love
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

This track often has some midrange hardness and more of a dry, transistory quality than others on side one, that is of course unless you happen to be playing an exceptionally good copy. The better copies also seem to have substantially more ambience. It’s really a quite well recorded song when good mastering lets you hear it right.

On most copies, in the louder parts of the chorus there is also something that sounds like compressor or limiter distortion on the voices. Turns out it’s actually a mastering or pressing issue; on the best copies the loudest vocal parts sound just fine.

How about that awesome Steve Gadd drum part? What pop song relies more on its beat than this one? It’s practically worth the price of the album to hear those drums sound so good.

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Linda Ronstadt / Don’t Cry Now – What to Listen For

More of the Music of Linda Ronstadt

Hot Stamper Pressing on the Asylum Label

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

Her vocals on both sides can be very DYNAMIC, but only the best copies will present them with no hint of STRAIN or GRAIN, two problems that make most pressings positively painful to listen to at the loud volumes we prefer.

Linda really belts it out on this album — face it, it’s what she does best — and only the rarest copies allow you to turn up the volume good and loud and let her do her thing.

Another key to recognizing the best copies is the fact that they tend to be highly resolving.

Two places to check:

  1. Note how breathy her voice is in the quiet passages. Only the least smeared, most transparent copies reproduce that breathy quality in her voice
  2. Next check out the tambourine on Silver Threads and Golden Needles. If the sound is delicate, not gritty or transistory, you have yourself a winner in the resolution department.

Side One

The vocals on side one are often recessed and a bit dark on this album.

Linda’s Problems in the ’70s

The most common problem with these Ronstadt records from the ’70s is grainy, upper-midrangy sound. The smooth copies that still have plenty of presence, life, energy and top end extension are the ones that really get this music sounding RIGHT.

Every copy we played had problems on the last track of side one, Don’t Cry Now. Linda is singing at the top of her lungs practically from beginning to end, so both cutting the record and playing back the record would be difficult. The result is that there will usually be some coarsening of her vocal.

Some copies had the same problem on side two for I Believe in You, but not all.

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