Records that Are Good for Testing Sibilance (It’s a Bitch)

Paul Simon – Still Crazy After All These Years

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More Pure Pop Recordings

  • This outstanding pressing boasts solid Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • An extremely tough album to find with the kind of big, spacious, Tubey Magical sound this pressing offers
  • Clean, clear and open are nice qualities to have, but the richer, smoother, more natural sounding copies are the ones that win our shootouts
  • 4 1/2 stars: “…he was never more in tune with his audience: Still Crazy topped the charts, spawned four Top 40 hits, and won Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Vocal Performance.”
  • If you’re a Paul Simon fan, this has to be considered a Must Own Title of his from 1975.
  • The complete list of titles from 1975 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

The overall sound here is big and rich. You get texture to the instruments (check the strings in the title track) but a smooth quality to the vocals instead of the grit and strain you hear on most copies. There’s extension up top and weight down low. (more…)

Sly and The Family Stone – Stand

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  • Tired of the crude, congested, hard, harsh and otherwise unpleasant sound of most pressings? The solution is right here!
  • Stand, I Want To Take You Higher, Everyday People, You Can Make It If You Try — what a killer lineup of songs
  • 5 stars: “Stand! is the pinnacle of Sly & the Family Stone’s early work, a record that represents a culmination of the group’s musical vision and accomplishment. …everything simply gels here, resulting in no separation between the astounding funk, effervescent irresistible melodies, psychedelicized guitars, and deep rhythms.”
  • This is a Must Own Soul Classic from 1969 that belongs in every right-thinking audiophile’s collection
  • The complete list of titles from 1969 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

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Surfer Girl Takes MoFi Spit to a New Level

Sonic Grade: F

Hall of Shame pressing and another MoFi LP reviewed and found wanting.

I played the MoFi pressing of this record many years ago, some time back in the early ’90s if memory serves, and at the time I could hardly believe that the good people of MoFi would release a record that was so ridiculously SPITTY. The sibilance is positively out of control, the result of their wacky cutting system and phony EQ and who knows what else.

But then I remembered that there has never been a title produced by these people with sound so bad that they would have cancelled its release. {This is a classic case of begging the question. I really have no idea why some of their titles that exist only on test pressing — Pearl for one — never saw the light of day. It is possible that it was cancelled because it sounded worse than even the hard-of-hearing Powers That Be at MoFi could tolerate. Doubtful, but possible.)

The audiophile public was clamoring for remastered pressings of their favorite albums and MoFi saw it as an opportunity to serve them.

In other words, to paraphrase a famous wag, their fans had spoken and now they must be punished.

It started with their execrable remastering of Katy Lied and continued all the way to the turgid muck of the Anadisc series and beyond. Those who have visited our Hall of Shame have seen many of their worst productions on display. If we had more time to write listings for them I’m sure I could come up with double or triple the number that are there now. 

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More Recordings that Are Good for Testing Sibilance


FURTHER READING

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Simon and Garfunkel / Wednesday Morning, 3 AM – The Right 360 Stereo Pressing Is King

We played a big stack of copies a while back and ran into all kinds of problems.

Some were dull, some were spitty, many were smeared, and far too many were gritty.

The later pressings didn’t solve any of these problems. In fact, none of the Red Label copies we’ve ever played sounded good enough on either side to merit a Hot Stamper grade. If you want good sound for this album, 360 stereo pressings seem to be the only way to go. The mono pressings we played were painfully bad.

Stick with stereo on this album. The Mono pressings — at least the ones we’ve played — aren’t worth anybody’s time (scratch that: any audiophile’s time).

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More Moderately Helpful Title Specific Advice

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

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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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The Traveling Wilburys / Volume One – Learning the Record, Any Record

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More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

Many of the pressings we played o f Volume One suffered from too much compression and a phony hi-fi-ish quality on the vocals. We knew there had to be great copies out there somewhere, so we kept dropping the needle until we found a few good men. Here is what we had to say about a killer copy we ran into during that process.

We heard a lot of copies with a spitty, gritty top end, but this one is smooth like butter and sweet like candy. Side two is nearly as good but doesn’t have quiet the same energy factor. It’s still dramatically better than most copies out there.

Now that we’ve discovered these Hot Stampers, the sound is finally where we want it to be. Until this week, we were convinced that these songs sounded better on the radio. (That’s what tons of compression and FM bass boost will do for you.)

Learning the Record

For our recent shootout we had at our disposal a variety of pressings we thought would have the potential for Hot Stamper sound. We cleaned them carefully, then unplugged everything in the house we could, warmed up the system, Talisman’d it, found the right VTA for our Triplanar arm (by ear of course) and proceeded to spend the next hour or so playing copy after copy on side one, after which we repeated the process for side two.

If you have five or ten copies of a record and play them over and over against each other, the process itself teaches you what’s right and what’s wrong with the sound of the album. Once your ears are completely tuned to what the best pressings do well that other pressings do not do as well, using a few specific passages of music, it will quickly become obvious how well any given copy reproduces those passages.

The process is simple enough. First, you go deep into the sound. There you find a critically important passage in the music, one which most copies struggle — or fail — to reproduce as well as the best. Now, with the hard-won knowledge of precisely what to listen for, you are perfectly positioned to critique any and all pressings that come your way.

It may be a lot of work but it sure ain’t rocket science, and we never pretended it was. Just the opposite: from day one we’ve explained how to go about finding the Hot Stampers in your own collection.

The problem is that unless your a crazy person who bought multiple copies of the same album there is no way to know if any given copy is truly Hot Stamper. Hot Stampers are not merely good sounding records. They are the copies that win shootouts. This is a fact that cannot be emphasized too strongly.

As your stereo and room improve, as you take advantage of new cleaning technologies, as you find new and interesting pressings to evaluate, you may even be inclined to start the shootout process all over again, to find the hidden gem, the killer copy that blows away what you thought was the best.

You can’t find it by looking at it. You have to clean it and play it, and always against other pressings of the same album. There is no other way.

For the more popular records on the site such as the Beatles titles we have easily done more than twenty, maybe even as many as thirty to forty shootouts.

And very likely learned something new from every one. (more…)

Billie Holiday – All Or Nothing At All

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More Titles that Sound Best in Mono

  • This outstanding pressing boasts solid Double Plus (A++) sound on all four sides – reasonably quiet vinyl too
  • This 2 LP set features most of the tracks from the original release plus another handful of recordings from the same period (1955-1956)
  • It’s one of the better sounding Billie Holiday records we’ve heard, any guaranteed to beat any Heavy Vinyl reissue you’ve wasted your money on
  • 4 1/2 stars: “… features some of Billie Holiday’s top Verve performances from the mid-’50s… she runs the emotional gamut from summery optimism to pathos-rich musings. Befitting her perennial after-hours mood, the majority of songs here feature Holiday in a low-down mood of the highest order.”

Naturally, the highest quality vocal reproduction has to be the main focus on a Hot Stamper pressing for any Billie Holiday record we would offer. Her voice should be rich and tubey, yet clear, breathy and present.

In addition to being tonally correct and natural, the pressings we offer must also be highly resolving. With the right room and the right equipment, properly setup and adjusted of course, you will hear everything that these vintage recordings have to offer, including the three-dimensional space of the studios in which the various sessions were recorded, under the auspices of Norman Granz.

The Sound of the Original

The original Trumpet Player Verve mono we had on hand to play suffered from an EQ problem we frequently run into during our shootouts for vintage vocal albums. Actually, to be clear, there were two main problems in the case of All or Nothing At All: a boosted midrange and occasional quite serious sibilance issues.

Ella Fitzgerald’s albums can suffer from these same two problems. It’s a trick to find the copies that are tonally correct in the midrange and do not have the kind of cutter head distortions that result in excessive sibilance. (more…)

Frank Zappa / The Grand Wazoo – Smear, Sibilance and Tubey Magical Keyboards to Die For

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The Tubey Magic found on the title cut is really something to hear.

The Grand Wazoo now gets my vote as the best sounding record Zappa ever made (along with Absolutely Free).

Biggest Problems

Smear on the horn transients are always a problem on this album (and Zappa’s previous big band album, Waka/Jawaka) .

After that we would say a lack of top end is the other most common shortcoming we hear. To find a copy that’s not dull and smeary is no mean feat.

The vocals on For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers) are usually slightly spitty. The best copies keep the spit under control. (more…)

James Taylor / Sweet Baby James

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Reviews and Commentaries for Sweet Baby James

  • All that lovely echo is a dead giveaway that this pressing has resolution far beyond that of the others you may have heard (and of course the Rhino Heavy Vinyl)
  • Top 100, inarguably a Masterpiece – Fire and Rain and Suite for 20 G (one of JT’s All Time Best) are killer here
  • 5 stars: “Sweet Baby James launched not only Taylor’s career as a pop superstar but also the entire singer/songwriter movement of the early ’70s that included Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and others…”

Vocal reproduction is key to the best sounding copies of Sweet Baby James, as it is on so many Singer Songwriter albums from the era.

To find a copy where Taylor’s vocals are front and center — which is exactly where they should be — but still rich, sweet, tonally correct and Tubey Magical is no mean feat. Only the best copies manage to pull it off.

Out of the dozen or more Green Label early pressings we play every year, relatively few have the full complement of midrange magic we know the best copies can have. As a rule of thumb, the hotter the stamper, the better the vocal reproduction on that copy.

Hot Stamper sound is rarely about the details of a given recording. In the case of this album, more than anything else a Hot Stamper must succeed at recreating a solid, palpable, real James Taylor singing live in your listening room. The better copies have an uncanny way of doing just that. (more…)

Loggins and Messina / Sittin’ In – Hear that Boost at 10K?

Practically any copy you find will have a bit of a boost in the bottom end. The kick drum really kicks on this album, more than it should in fact.

And almost all copies have too much top end right around 10k. The ones with the worst case of boosted highs and boosted bass sound like they were mastered by Stan Ricker and pressed in Japan, much like those put out by a famous label back in the ’70s.

Oddly enough, many audiophiles to this day do not seem to know that this particular label has been responsible for a slough of the phoniest sounding audiophile records ever pressed.

There is also a sibilance problem with the recording. Some copies keep it under control, while other, more crudely mastered and pressed ones, suffer greatly from spitty vocals, especially noticeable on Danny’s Song. The better copies will tend to have the “cleanest,” least-objectionable sibilance.

Sibilance is a bitch. The best pressings, with the most extension up top and the least amount of aggressive grit and grain mixed in with the music, played using the highest quality properly set up front ends, will keep sibilance to a minimum.

VTA, tracking weight, azimuth and anti-skate adjustments are critical to reducing the spit in your records.

We discuss the sibilance problems of MoFi records all the time. Have you ever read Word One about this problem elsewhere? Of course not.

Audiophiles and the hacks that write for them just seem to put up with these problems, or ignore them, or — even worse — simply fail to recognize them at all.

Play around with your table setup for a few hours and you will no doubt be able to reduce the severity of the sibilance on your favorite test and demo discs. All your other records will thank you for it too.

More Loggins and Messina

Recordings that Are Good for Testing Sibilance

Back to Sittin’ In (more…)