Top Artists – Chicago

Chicago – What We Heard Circa 2008

More of the Music of Chicago

Reviews and Commentaries for Chicago Transit Authority

In 2008, we had a lot of trouble finding good sound on the copies of the first album that we had on hand, more than a dozen I’m sure.

Over the next five to ten years we managed to do a much better job of cleaning and playing the band’s debut, to the delight of our listening panel as well as our Hot Stamper fans.

This is the kind of album that most audiophiles would be sorely tempted to give up on. Who can blame them?

So Many Faults, So Little Time

The average copy of this album is an unmitigated DISASTER. The smeary brass alone is enough to drive anyone from the room. To a list of its faults you can confidently add some or all of the following:

1) blobby, blurry, out of control bass;
2) opaque, veiled mids;
3) rolled off highs, or no highs, whichever the case may be, common to virtually every pressing you find;
4) plain old distortion; and, last but not least,
5) the kind of compressed, lifeless sound that manages to make this groundbreaking album boring — and that’s not easy to do.

The music ROCKS! It’s the crappy records Columbia pressed that suck.

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Listening in Depth to Chicago Transit Authority

More of the Music of Chicago

Reviews and Commentaries for Chicago Transit Authority

It’s amazing that this hard-rockin’ band from 1968 could be the same band that gave us “You’re The Inspiration” and other power-schlock ballads in the ’80s. Have they no shame?

Fortunately, this isn’t your Mom’s Chicago. Here, with their freshman effort, the band stands on the threshold of becoming True Rock Legends. Even today the album still sounds fresh. Who can argue with the brilliance of tracks such as “Beginnings,” “I’m a Man” and “Questions 67 and 68”?

This is as good as the band ever got, man! It’s all here.

All four sides boast some of the boldest arrangements for a horn-based rock band ever. These boys have no problem standing toe to toe with the likes of Blood, Sweat And Tears.

If you don’t find yourself turning the stereo up during “Beginnings,” this music is not for you. The energy they bring to their cover of Spencer Davis’ “I’m A Man” puts the original to shame. They jam its rock and roll groove, then take it places nobody else would even think to go.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Introduction
Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

A tough one right off the bat. If you have an aggressive sounding copy you’ll know it pretty quick. Grit and grain in the vocal on this track will have you running for the nearest exit. Conversely, you still need presence without smear or the brass won’t have the bite of the real thing, and a Chicago album without good brass is pretty pointless.

They really put their best foot forward with this cut — a true sing-along anthem.

Beginnings

THE best Chicago song of all time! Pop music just does not get any better. The one-two punch of that amazing trombone solo followed by the equally amazing trumpet solo still knocks me out.

Part of what makes Chicago’s brass so distinctive is the infrequent use of a saxophone in the brass section. The Chicago brass is darker and heavier than, say, that of Blood Sweat and Tears, and that Heavy Brass Sound was never better than on this, their first album.

Side Two

Questions 67 and 68

When the chorus comes in the bass had better be tight or the whole thing will turn to mud. The best copies have tons of energy and life on this song. Though not a hit, it still stands as one of the best tracks on the album and a real highpoint for early-period Chicago.

Listen
Poem 58

Side Three

Free Form Guitar
South California Purples
I’m a Man

Not the typical audiophile’s first choice in a Demonstration Quality track, but if you have the right kind of stereo (a big one, natch) and a top quality pressing (for side three anyway), watch out.

This track has the power to knock you right out of your socks. The bass part that Cetera opens the song with has an unbelievably solid tone. At the same time it’s harmonically rich and has subterranean power that must be heard to be believed. Holy Smokes does it ever sound good!

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Chicago and The Hottest Sounding Vinyl – Are You a Thrillseeker Too?

When it comes to sound, I’m a thrillseeker.

I want to hear it LOUDER and BETTER, with more ENERGY and EXCITEMENT, and the reason I spent uncountable hundreds of hours working on my stereo is that that kind of sound doesn’t happen by accident.

You have to work your ass off to get it.

And spend a lot of money.

And search for those pressings that have the sound you need.

And be very lucky.

I don’t play records to sip wine and smoke cigars. I play records to ROCK. Whether the music is rock, jazz or classical, I want to feel the power of the music just as you would feel it at the live event.

To me that means big speakers and loud levels. We played Chicago VII as loud as we could.

“(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” just KNOCKED ME OUT on this Hot Stamper copy, which had the best Side Three we played during the entire shootout. Exhilaration and adrenaline rush is right. As we said in our review:

How can you write a better song than (I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long? That track, with its huge buildup of strings and wall to wall brass, just KILLS. It’ll send shivers up your spine at the live music levels we were trying to play it at. It actually has some real dynamics built into the mix, which is not something pop songs are even supposed to have.

But sometimes they do; the best copies are proof that that kind of sound is actually on the master tape. Not many audiophiles (besides the listening panel here at Better Records) will ever get the chance to hear it sound as powerful as we heard it that day. I built a stereo system dedicated to playing records like Chicago VII. It was a thrill all right.

The above commentary was prompted by Ed’s letter about the Hot Stamper pressing he had recently bought.

What follows is Ed’s story of looking for love (or a good sounding record, whichever you prefer) in all the wrong places, and finally finding that special feeling, the feeling you get when you hear something right, which to us is the very definition of a Hot Stamper. Now to Ed’s story.

Dear Tom,

As you know Chicago is one of my all time favorites. I relate having played trumpet along with the albums blaring when they were first released. So I couldn’t resist the opportunity to grab your recent Hot Stamper of Chicago 7. It arrived yesterday and I rushed up to my “music room” and dropped the needle on “Wishing You Were Here”. Oh Wow……never heard it like this. The tonality was just simply beautiful. The three dimensionality was incredible. The extension of bass to highs was simply total and balanced. The voices were “right there”. I thought that this is what happens when you are hearing through to the master tape on an LP that hasn’t destroyed or even impaired the original sound. It pulls you from the first song to the next and on. It draws you into the music and makes you forget about all the “stuff” around it.

This journey to the Hot Stamper level of audio reminds me of skiing. You wake-up having packed carefully for your trip. You travel hours, maybe even fly to the mountain. Then you drive up the mountain to the lodge and haul everything to the changing room. After struggling to put on the ton of clothing and equipment you trek across to the lifts and travel to the very top of the mountain. At the top you are now temporarily exhausted and wonder if all this effort and work could in any way be worth it… Then you jump off and fly down the mountain and realize that yes, it was worth it. The exhilaration and adrenaline rush is an immediate flash back to why you do this. It’s the Holy Grail!

Well, getting a Hot Stamper gives me a similar feeling. The work to build a great sounding stereo system: the mixing and matching of components and voicing of the sound to your room and your preferences is part of the “trip to the mountain”. For me the years of not really understanding that the source material was so variable and generally defective has made the journey a lot worse. I envy those who discover Better Records early and never have to travel the quest to good sound by looking in the wrong places. But better late than never. As you say “Life is too short to listen to crappy records.”

So when I put that Chicago 7 Hot Stamper onto the table and drop the needle on a groove it is just as exhilarating as jumping of the top of a snow covered mountain on skis. The words that come into my head are… yes… that’s why I do this crazy hobby!

Best regards and thanks for helping my hike up the mountain,

Ed Z


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

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Chicago – Chicago Transit Authority

More Chicago

  • An outstanding Columbia 360 Stereo pressing of the band’s 2-LP debut with Double Plus (A++) grades on all FOUR sides
  • These sides boast some of the best sounding, boldest arrangements for a horn-based rock band we’ve ever heard
  • “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “I’m A Man” and “Questions 67 and 68” are simply incredible here
  • “In April of 1969, the four sides of Chicago Transit Authority unleashed a formidable and ultimately American musical experience… an unheralded synthesis of electric guitar wailin’ rock & roll to more deeply rooted jazz influences and arrangements.”

It’s difficult to find copies that do this big production music justice, but we got hold of a hot one here. If you’re a fan (and we think you should be, of the early band at least) you won’t believe how good this album can sound on the right pressing. All four sides here are rich and full, punchy and solid, with great energy and dynamics.

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Letter of the Week – “For the next three hours, I spun disc after disc, to their delight.”

Reviews and Commentaries for Led Zeppelin II

Reviews and Commentaries for Deja Vu

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he played for friends recently:

  Hey Tom, 

Story for you — last Saturday evening, a designer of a new world-famous tonearm, the owner of an elite high-end audio salon in California and I met for dinner with a well-known reviewer for one of the big audiophile rags, then went back to one of their houses to listen to records I had been asked to bring.

About 90% of the two dozen records I had selected were White Hot Stamper versions of classic rock staples.

For the next three hours, I spun disc after disc, to their delight.

Particular faves included Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True,” Led Zeppelin II, 10CC’s “The Original Soundtrack,” CSNY’s “Deja Vu,” and Chicago’s first LP.

Bill

Bill,

That sounds like a great way to spend an evening, playing killer copies of world class Demo Disc recordings! Would loved to have been there.

Without exception, these are five of our most beloved records, records we have been obsessed with since we first heard them growing up all those years ago. (The links you see have extensive commentaries for all five.)

And of course we will never read a word about Hot Stampers, from this or any other demonstration, in a big audiophile rag. We are bad for their business. Their record selling advertisers would throw a fit. They know what we have to say about their shoddy products.

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Chicago – Chicago VI

More Chicago

More Pure Pop Recordings

  • An outstanding copy of Chicago VI, with solid Double Plus (A++) sound from first note to last – fairly quiet vinyl too
  • The sound of the brass on any Chicago album is key and these sides have the horns sounding clear and really jumping out of the speakers
  • VI was propelled to the top of the charts for five full weeks by two of the band’s best tracks: “Just You ‘n’ Me” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day”
  • 4 stars: “Chicago VI is an undeniably strong effort – supported at the time by its chart-topping status…”

The background vocals on these sides are breathy and clear, a far cry from the typically smeary, dark voices we heard on most of the pressings we played, all originals in this case.

More often than not the brass lacks bite and presence, but these sides had the Chicago horns leaping out of the speakers. What is a Chicago record without great horns? Without that big bold sound you may have something, but it sure ain’t Chicago.

The sound of the brass on any Chicago album is key — it has to have just the right amount of transient bite yet still be full-bodied and never blary. In addition, on the best of the best pressings you can really hear the air moving through the horns.

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Chicago II – 360 Original or Red Label Reissue?

Both can be good. I did the shootout and often tried to guess the label for the copy I was hearing, for fun more than anything else. I have to admit that my batting average was not much better than chance. 

The 360s tend to be a little fuller and smearier, but plenty of red label copies sound that way and some 360s don’t, so trying to match the sound to the label was even more pointless than usual.

When comparing pressings in a shootout it’s too late for the label to have any predictive value. We’ve already bought the records, cleaned them up and now just want to know what they actually sound like — not which ones might be the best, but which ones are the best.

The time for guessing games has passed. Of course, if we do actually figure out what the right stampers are, this helps us next time around. (more…)

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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Turntable Tweaking Works Its Magic Once Again – “I’m sitting in shock!”

 Hi Tom,

Just wanted to give you a big thank you for the commentary on turntable tweaking. I constantly learn important advice on the audiophile subject from your website. I check it everyday.

Lately I have been thinking my audio sound was lacking. It didn’t sound as good as I remember it. After reading the turntable tweaking advice I reset up the tonearm. VTF, VTA, and azimuth. I have “magic” in my sound now.

Listened to some Neil Young, [Ten Years After] A Space in Time. Very Tubey.

Listened to my Miles Davis Kind of Blue. It sounded better than I ever heard it. I’m sitting in shock!

The killer was Chicago 2. I love 25-6-to 4 so I was blown away and normally I’m not interested in the rest of that side of the album but I sat through the rest of it and was enthralled by the vocals. Memories of Love is one track I was never interested in but it sounded so good I loved it. When you want to listen to every record in your collection you know you’ve done something right.

Anyway I want you to know we audiophiles appreciate the time you take to put up your advice and commentaries. I just got a huge upgrade and it didn’t cost me a cent. Only some time and I learned a little more.

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