Records that Are Good for Testing Grit and Grain

Michael Jackson – Thoughts on Hearing Thriller in the ’80s, Circa 2006

More of the Music of Michael Jackson

Reviews and Commentaries for Thriller

This review for a killer copy of Thriller that we discovered in our 2006 shootout gave us a whole new appreciation for just how good the record could sound. It was a real breakthrough, and proof that significant progress in audio is just a matter of time and effort, the more the better.

Our review from 2006

I remember twenty years ago playing Thriller and thinking they were all so transistory, spitty, and aggressive sounding.

Well, I didn’t have a Triplanar tonearm, a beautiful VPI table and everything that goes along with them back then. Now I can play this record. I couldn’t back then. All that spit was simply my table not being good enough as well as all the garbage downstream from it that was feeding the speakers.

The record is no different, it just sounds different now. In other words, this record is a great test. If you can play this record, you can play practically anything.

This pressing has a side two that is so amazing sounding that it COMPLETELY CHANGED my understanding and appreciation of this album. The average copy is a nice pop record. This copy is a MASTERPIECE of production and engineering.

After playing a bunch of these we noticed some recurring shortcomings on most of the pressings. Either they lacked extension on the top end or they lacked bass definition and weight, or both. When this copy hit the table, the first thing we noticed was that the top end was Right On The Money and the bottom end was also Right On The Money. Not surprisingly, the middle fell right into place.

It ended up having the most ambience, the most transparency, the most resolution, the most dynamic contrasts, the most presence — in short, it had more of EVERYTHING than any copy we’ve ever heard. The lesson to be learned there may be that when the extremes are somehow properly transferred to the vinyl, the middle will take care of itself. Since the extremes seem to be the hardest thing to get right, at least on this record, that might explain why so many copies don’t quite cut the mustard.

Side one fits perfectly into this theory. The bottom end is MEATY with plenty of punchy, solid bass, but the top end is lacking a bit of extension compared to the very best. The result is that there’s a trace of hardness in the vocals that shouldn’t be there. If you can add a dB or two of extreme highs, EVERYTHING will sound right on side one. It all comes back to life.

Listening in Depth to Bare Trees

More of the Music of Fleetwood Mac

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Fleetwood Mac

Presenting another entry in our extensive Listening in Depth series with advice on what to listen for as you critically evaluate your copy of Bare Trees.

Here are some albums currently on our site with similar Track by Track breakdowns.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Child of Mine

A real rocker from Danny Kirwan. If the electric piano is rich on your copy and you have some top end and space you are probably off to a very good start.

The Ghost
Homeward Bound
Sunny Side of Heaven

A wonderfully poignant, even melancholy instrumental track by Bob Welch. Not sure if that’s him on guitar but the playing is beautiful. The high point of side one.

Side Two

This is where most of the best music on Bare Trees can be found. We like every song on this side.

Bare Trees

If this song doesn’t get your blood pumping, you need to turn up the volume another click or two. There is tremendous energy and joy in this song, and it needs to be played loud to get those feelings across.

Sentimental Lady
Danny’s Chant
Spare Me a Little of Your Love

This is a tough track to get right. The Brit is smoother and sweeter, which works on this song. Bad copies can sound hard on Christine’s vocals as well as the chorus.

Dust

One of my all time favorite Fleetwood Mac songs. On a good copy this track sounds so sweet. The texture to the voices is right on the money — neither grainy nor dull.

Thoughts on a Grey Day (more…)

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Self-Titled

  • An incredible copy of the band’s debut album with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or close to it from start to finish, and impossibly quiet vinyl for a vintage Fantasy pressing
  • These sides are exceptionally low-distortion, solid, dynamic, with the neutral tonality completely missing from the current spate of reissues
  • Featuring classics such as I Put a Spell on You, the extended-length jam Susie Q (8:37, perfect for Underground Radio), The Working Man, Porterville and more
  • 4 stars: “CCR’s self-titled debut album was gloriously out-of-step with the times, teeming with John Fogerty’s Americana fascinations. … the band’s sound is vibrant, with gutsy arrangements that borrow equally from Sun, Stax, and the swamp.”

It’s unlikely you will be demonstrating your system with this record, but you may find yourself enjoying the hell out of it for what it is — an early example of Roots Rock that still holds up today.

This is an album that’s nearly impossible to find with excellent sound and clean surfaces. This is one of the best copies we’ve managed to come across. (more…)

Listening in Depth to A Hard Day’s Night

More of the Music of The Beatles

More Reviews and Commentaries for A Hard Day’s Night

Play it against your MoFi or Heavy Vinyl pressing and you will quickly see why those lifeless LPs bore us to tears. Who in his right mind would want to suffer through a boring Beatles record?

Drop the needle on any song on the first side to see why we went crazy over a recent Shootout Winner on side one. The emotional quality of the boys’ performances really comes through on this copy.

They aren’t just singing — they’re really BELTIN’ it out. Can you imagine what that sounds like on the title track? We didn’t have to imagine it, WE HEARD IT!

TRACK LISTING

Side One

A Hard Day’s Night
I Should Have Known Better
If I Fell

This is a wonderful example of The Beatles’ harmonies at their best. Toward the end of the song, during one of their harmonic excursions, you can hear John’s voice drop out when something apparently catches in his throat, and I could swear that you can hear Paul McCartney react to it with a little laugh.

If their voices sound warm, sweet, and transparent on this track, at the very least you have a contender, and possibly a winner. Not many pressings are going to bring out all the timbral qualities of their voices.

I’m Happy Just to Dance With You
And I Love Her
Tell Me Why
Can’t Buy Me Love

Always starts with a bit of grit and grain, but usually sounds better by the second verse.

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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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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

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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

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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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