Records that Are Good for Testing Midrange Congestion

Herb Alpert / Whipped Cream & Other Delights – Top End Extension Is Key

More Sixties Pop Recordings

More 5 Star Albums

The better pressings have the kind of Tubey Magical, big-bottomed, punchy, spacious sound that we’ve come to expect from Larry Levine‘s engineering for A&M. If you have any Hot Stamper pressings of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66’s albums, then you know exactly the kind of sound we’re talking about.

Top end extension is critical to the sound of the best copies. Lots of old records (and new ones) have no real top end; consequently, the studio or stage will be missing much of its natural air and space, and instruments will lack the full complement of harmonic information.

In addition, when the top end is lacking, the upper midrange and high frequencies get jammed together — the highs can’t extend up and away from the upper mids.

This causes a number of much-too-common problems that we hear in the upper midrange of many of the records we play: congestion, hardness, harshness, and squawk.

Painstaking Vertical Tracking Angle adjustment is absolutely critical if you want your records to play with the least amount of these problems, a subject we discuss in the Commentary section of the site at length.

Full-bodied sound is especially critical to the horns.

Any blare, leanness or squawk ruins at least some of the fun, certainly at the louder levels the record should be playing at.

The frequency extremes (on the best copies) are not boosted in any way. When you play this record quietly, the bottom and top will disappear (due to the way the ear handles quieter sounds as described by the Fletcher-Munson curve).

Most records (like most audiophile stereos) are designed to sound correct at moderate levels. Not this album. It wants you to turn it up. Then, and only then, will everything sound completely right musically and tonally from top to bottom.

Earth, Wind, Fire – Hard and Honky Brass Is a Dealbreaker

More of the Music of Earth, Wind and Fire

More Recordings by George Massenburg

As you can imagine, most copies of this album leave a lot to be desired. Most were, to one degree or another, dull, smeary, opaque, gritty or shrill.

Our Hot Stampers, on the other hand, depending on hot hot they are, will give you the sound you’re looking for. If you’re a fan of BIG HORNS, with jump-out-of-the-speakers presence, this is the album for you. Some of the best R&B-POP brass ever recorded can be found here — full-bodied, powerful, fast, dynamic and tonally correct.

Advice

Here is some specific advice on What to Listen For as you critically evaluate your copy of The Best of Earth Wind & Fire.

When the brass sounded the least bit squawky on a given copy, that was almost always a dealbreaker and out it went.

When the BIG, MULTI-TRACKED vocals get going they need to have plenty of space to expand into. They also need to be breathy and warm, with airy extension for the harmonies (and those crazy high notes that only Philip Bailey can sing). Proper tape hiss is a dead giveaway in this respect.

This advice will of course work for any Earth Wind & Fire record you happen to have multiple copies of.

Choruses Are Key

Three distinctive qualities of vintage analog recordings — richness, sweetness and freedom from artificiality — are most clearly heard on a Big Production Recording like this one in the loudest, densest, most climactic choruses of the songs.

We set the playback volume so that the loudest parts of the record are as huge and powerful as they can possibly become without crossing the line into distortion or congestion. On some records, Dark Side of the Moon comes instantly to mind, the guitar solos on Money are the loudest thing on the record.

On Breakfast in America the sax toward the end of The Logical Song is bigger and louder than anything on the record, louder even than Roger Hodgson’s near-hysterical multi-tracked screaming “Who I am” about three-quarters of the way through the track. Those, however, are clearly exceptions to the rule. Most of the time it’s the final chorus of a pop song that gets bigger and louder than what has come before.

A pop song is usually designed to build momentum as it works its way through the verses and choruses, past the bridge, coming back around to make one final push, releasing all its energy in the final chorus, the climax of the song. On a good recording — one with real dynamics — that part of the song should be very loud and very powerful.

The climax of the biggest, most dynamic songs are almost always the toughest tests for a pop record, and it’s the main reason we play our records loud. The copies that hold up through the final choruses of their album’s largest scaled productions are the ones that provide the biggest thrills and the most emotionally powerful musical experiences one can have sitting in front of two speakers. Our Top 100 is full of records that reward that kind of intense listening at loud levels.

We live for that sound here at Better Records. It’s precisely what the best vintage analog pressings do brilliantly. In fact they do it so much better than any other medium that there is really no comparison, and certainly no substitute. If you’re on this site you probably already know that.

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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Neil Young – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

More Neil Young

One of Our Favorite Titles from 1969


  • This outstanding copy of Neil’s second studio album boasts superb Double Plus (A++) sound from the first note to the last
  • The best tracks have that Live-in-the-Studio quality Neil is famous for (of which Zuma is the best example), with minimal processing and maximum ENERGY
  • Includes some of Neil Young’s most beloved classics: “Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and “Down by the River” just to name three
  • 5 stars: “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was breathtakingly different when it appeared in May 1969, both for Young and for rock in general, and it reversed his commercial fortunes….”

Although not quite in the league with the best of the best — the likes of Gold Rush, Harvest, or Zuma, all titles we have a devil of a time keeping in stock — the best sounding tracks here are a rough guide to what was to come as Neil and his producer, David Briggs, got better and better until they were As Good As It Gets by the time they got around to After the Gold Rush in 1970 (for which they seem to get no credit, outside of Better Records’ raves for the album of course).

We absolutely love the Live-in-the-Studio quality that only the best pressings of this album can give, with minimal processing and maximum energy. Man, with a good copy played back on a big pair of speakers this album can ROCK like nobody’s business. Nine minutes of “Down by the River”? A ten minute long version of “Cowgirl in the Sand”? “Cinnamon Girl”? We are so there!

This kind of musical, natural sound is not easy to come by. If you own any copy of the album you know what we mean. (more…)

Bob Seger / Night Moves – His 1976 Masterpiece

More Bob Seger

Hot Stamper Rock Masterpieces Available Now

  • A KILLER vintage pressing with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound throughout for Bob Seger’s breakthrough album (the 8th time’s the charm)
  • A big step up over every other copy we heard – richer, fuller, more dynamic, more lively and just plain more fun
  • Knock the album if you like, but there’s no denying it’s one of Seger’s best and certainly a ’70s classic – every song’s a hit, and deservedly so
  • 5 stars: “One of the universally acknowledged high points of late-’70s rock & roll. And, because of his passion and craft, it remains a thoroughly terrific record years later.”
  • If you’re a Seger fan, or perhaps a fan of mid-’70s Classic Rock, this title from 1976 is surely a Must Own.
  • The complete list of titles from 1976 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here

Vintage covers for this album are hard to find in clean shape. Most of them will have at least some amount of ringwear, seam wear and edge wear. We guarantee that the cover we supply with this Hot Stamper is at least VG, and it will probably be VG+. If you are picky about your covers please let us know in advance so that we can be sure we have a nice cover for you.

It’s not easy to find killer pressings of this album — it took us plenty of fruitless shootouts before we figured anything out. Most copies out there are thin and dry, which is no way to hear these classic ’70s tracks. We brought in copy after copy that made us think, “I swear this sounds better on the radio!”

Finally, after pulling together a ton of copies from different eras, we started to realize that there were indeed vinyl pressings of Night Moves that sounded right… but they are few and far between, the exception and not the rule so to speak. This copy is one of the better ones we played in our most recent shootout, no question about it.

Knock this album if you like, but there’s no denying it’s one of Seger’s best and certainly a ’70s classic. It may not have the audiophile appeal of Tea For The Tillerman, but it’s a blast when it sounds this good.

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The Byrds in Mono – How Do The Original Pressings Sound?

Congested and compressed, with no real top, who in his right mind could possibly tolerate that kind of sound on modern equipment?

Although, to be fair, we’ve stopped buying them, so there may actually be a good copy or two out there in used record land that we haven’t heard. In our defense, who really has the time to play records with so little potential for good sound?

What about the Sundazed mono pressings?

The best Columbia stereo copies are rich, sweet and Tubey Magical — three areas in which the Sundazed reissues are seriously lacking.

Does anyone still care? We simply cannot be bothered with these bad Heavy Vinyl pressings. If you’re looking for mediocre sound just play the CD. I’m sure it’s every bit as bad.

More of The Byrds

More Sixties Pop Recordings


FURTHER READING

Mono, Stereo, Reprocessed Stereo, We’ve Played Them All!

Mono or Stereo? Both Can Be Good

Mono or Stereo? Stick with Mono

Mono or Stereo? Stick with Stereo

Mono Reprocessed into Stereo – Good and Bad

Simon & Garfunkel / Bookends – Save the Life of My Child Is One Tough Test

More of the Music of Simon and Garfunkel

Reviews and Commentaries for Bookends

The big production songs on this album have a tendency to get congested on even the best pressings, which is not uncommon for Four Track recordings from the ’60s. Those of you with properly set up high-dollar front ends should have less of a problem than those of you without them. $3000 cartridges can usually deal with this kind of complex information better than $300 ones.

(But not always. Expensive does not always mean better, since painstaking and exacting set up is so essential to proper playback.)

Save the Life of My Child — A Tough Test

I used to think this track would never sound good enough to use as an evaluation track. It’s a huge production that I had heretofore found all but impossible to get to sound right on even the best original copies of the album. Even as recently as ten years ago I had basically given up on reproducing it right.

Thankfully things have changed. Nowadays, with carefully cleaned top copies at our disposal and a system that is really cooking, virtually all of the harmonic distortion in the big chorus near the opening has disappeared. It takes a very special pressing and a very special stereo to play this song. That’s precisely what makes it a good test!

America — Another Tough Test

America is another one of the toughest tracks to get right. The big ending with its powerful orchestral elements is positively stunning on the rare copies that have little or no congestion in the loudest passages.

On virtually every copy you will ever hear the voices on this track are a little sibilant. Modern records are made with what is known as a de-essing limiter. This limiter recognizes sibilance and keeps it under control, because once the cutter head sees that kind of high frequency information, which is already boosted for the RIAA curve, it will try to cut it onto the record and the result will be this kind of spitty distortion.

What’s interesting is that none of the reissues we played managed to control the problem, even though the higher quality cutting systems they would have been made with should have been able to handle the extra power requirements. The reissues are not only spitty, but the spit tends to be grainy and aggressive on the bad copies, the worst of both worlds. (Careful arm adjustment — VTA, azimuth, tracking weight and anti-skate — is critical to getting the grit and edge out of the more problematical sibilances found on records such as this. You’ll be amazed at what a little tweaking can do.)

Adding to the problem on the track is the fact that it fades in over the ending of the previous track. This means that it’s actually a generation of tape down from the master, owing to the fact that that kind of mixing is generally done from two master tapes onto a third mixdown tape. From there further dubs might even have been made. Who knows how many generations of tape there might end up being between the master and the finished product?

Your Reward

As you may have read elsewhere on the site, records like this are the reward for owning the right stereo equipment and having it properly tweaked. There is no way in the world we could have played this album remotely as well 10 years ago as we can now. It only makes us appreciate the music even more.

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Earth, Wind, Fire and the Neverending Search for Balance

More of the Music of Earth, Wind and Fire

More Recordings by George Massenburg

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises. As is usually the case when plowing through a big pile of copies, we learned pretty quickly that what makes the sound work is having these two qualities in balance:

1) Richness / Smoothness 
2) Transparency

When the vocals are thin and pinched, as they often are, the resulting edginess and harshness in the midrange take all the fun out of the music. Every track has group vocals and choruses, and the best copies make all the singers sound like they are standing in a big room, shoulder to shoulder, belting it out live and in living color.

The good copies capture that energy and bring it into the mix with the full-bodied sound it no doubt had live in the studio. When the EQ or the vinyl goes awry and their voices (and brass) start to take on a lean or gritty quality, the party’s over.

But richness and fullness are not enough. They must be balanced with TRANSPARENCY.

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Chicago II – Why Does Side Four Tend to Be the Best Sounding Side?

More of the Music of Chicago

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

There is one, and really only one, major problem with the sound of this album — too many overdubs, meaning too many generations of tape on too many instruments. There are easily three and four generations of tape on some of the tracks, probably more, all causing compression and a loss of transient information.

When the drums sound like cardboard boxes being hit with wet noodles it’s because they recorded them early on and then bounced their tracks down to another track and then bounced that track down to another track until what’s left sounds like a cassette tape you made of a song playing on the radio.

Yes, it’s that bad.

Best Evidence?

Side four. Side four is on most copies almost always the best sounding side. It’s also the side with the simplest arrangements, which means it probably has the fewest overdubs. The second track on side four is an obvious example. It’s mostly just bass, drums, flute, vocal and guitar, sonic elements which would more or less fit on the eight tracks of their eight track machine.

Listen to how real and immediate the sound is. You don’t hear that sound on the rest of the album because the rest of the album has multiple horn overdubs, multiple vocal overdubs and all kinds of percussion overdubs everywhere you look. Foreigner used 48 tracks to record Dirty White Boy. Chicago had eight to record their much more complex arrangements.

The result? They found themselves running out of tracks over and over again, resulting in reductions and further reductions, piling losses upon losses. This album is the poster boy for bad planning in the studio.

Not So Fast

Or is it? To our surprise we actually did manage to find at least one amazing side for each of the four sides of the album. Of course almost none of the hot sides mated with any of the others, meaning that the only way to get a complete album was to have at least two copies from which to play the best sides.

Meaning that bad pressing quality and bad mastering quality had to have been the principle cause of the mediocre sound of many of the copies we played. This is easily demonstrated by the fact that the stampers found on the best copies are sometimes the stampers found on the worst.

What Stampers Mean

Stampers mean something, but sometimes, as is the case here, they don’t mean much. (If you don’t know that by now you probably haven’t done that many big shootouts on your own. Can’t blame you — without lots of helpers in the cleaning and needle-dropping departments they’d be an even bigger pain than they already are. Even with three people involved it can still take almost all day, and that’s if you just happen to have ten or fifteen copies handy. It took us about two years to find that many, shopping at multiple stores weekly.)

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Joe Walsh – The Smoker You Drink…

More Joe Walsh

  • A superb copy of Walsh’s sophomore release with outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish
  • This copy has Walsh sounding clear and present, with much less grit to his vocal
  • The bass is tight and punchy, with real weight to the bottom end
  • More importantly than all of those, Joe’s guitars are meaty, grungy and huge – that guitar sound is the sine qua non of Classic Riff Rock, and this copy delivers plenty of it
  • 4 1/2 stars: “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get features some of the most remembered Joe Walsh tracks, but it’s not just these that make the album a success. Each of the nine tracks is a song to be proud of. This is a superb album by anyone’s standards.”

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