Top Artists – Chicago

Chicago II – The Poster Boy for Bad Planning in the Studio

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Another in our ongoing series of Random Thoughts on issues concerning music and recordings.

There is 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 an cassette tape you made of a song playing on the radio. Yes, it’s that bad.

Side four tells the story. Side four on most copies is 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 tape recorder.

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. (more…)

Chicago – Chicago VII

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  • This outstanding pressing boasts nearly Triple Plus (A+++) soundor close to it on all FOUR sides – just shy of our Shootout Winner
  • These pressings have real depth to the soundfield, full-bodied, present vocals, and lovely analog warmth
  • Happy Man, (I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long and Wishing You Were Here (with Beach Boys backing vox) are the big hits here
  • “It was Peter Cetera who made the biggest strides on Chicago VII, composing his two most impressive songs thus far, Happy Man and “Wishing You Were Here” (#11), a lush ballad (signs of the future) that features three of The Beach Boys on backing vocals and which became a big hit in late 1974.”

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Chicago – Chicago VI

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  • 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. (more…)

Chicago Transit Authority on MoFi – Or Is It The Glade Spray Mist Septet?

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ADDENDUM 2020

The last time I played a copy of the MoFi Chicago debut was about twenty years ago. My all tube system was much darker and dramatically less resolving than the one I have now, having made score upon score of improvements since then. I suspect I would not be so kind to the MoFi today, and in that way I would surely be much more in agreement with Roger than I was about ten years ago when his letter arrived.


Our good customer Roger wrote to tell us of his Chicago shootout which included the MoFi, some later pressings and our Hot Stamper. Here is his story.

HI Tom

Got a chance to listen to your Chicago Transit Authority hot stamper and compare it to regular US and MFSL pressings. It has been a while since I last listened to this recording, but I listened to a lot of Chicago; Blood, Sweat, and Tears; and The Ides of March when I was in high school and college. I loved this music back then, as short-lived as it was, unfortunately.

Maybe this was because my two brothers played horns in concert bands, as does my youngest son now. A real shame that Chicago, at least, morphed into a whiny, wimpy, sappy Top 40 radio ballad band after their first two records. Anyway, it was fun listening to it again.

I recently picked up a couple of US copies of CTA to compare against my Mobile Fidelity version and the hot stamper. Both regular US copies had later Columbia labels, and had I only heard these, I might never have listened to this record again. Dull, compressed, murky, detail-challenged would be descriptive words for both copies. Muddy bass and absolutely no highs, I mean none.

The MFSL version did not have this lack-of-highs problem. In fact, it sounds like a lot of MoFi’s, the treble completely overcooked, sounding like cans of spray mist being actuated and overwhelming the rest of the music. This has to be one of the most hideous recordings in existence. With the MFSL version, Chicago has been transformed into the Glade Spray Mist Septet, with a psst psst here, a psst psst there, here a psst, there a psst, everywhere a psst psst. Arrggg! I was getting more and more psst off listening to this sonic detritus. Unless you have a Mattel Close-And-Play record player, how can anyone listen to this thing? Did MFSL engineers moonlight as gunnery sergeants on the artillery range? And the MoFi’s complete lack of bass left the overwhelming treble out to hang and dry. Unreal.

So the Hot Stamper was next, and you know what, it sounds like my son’s high school concert band (only a lot better but don’t tell him). After the MoFi, the highs sounded somewhat recessed, but more in line with the rest of the sonic spectrum. There was real bass weight, maybe not the lowest bass, but good just the same, and the midrange was much more full and weighty, something this recording needs. Trombones sounded like trombones and saxes like saxes. So perhaps the hot stamper will make my new regular record rotation now and my listening room won’t smell like a Glade pine forest. (more…)

Chicago – Chicago II

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  • You’ll find solid Double Plus (A++) sound or close to it from first note to last on this outstanding copy of the band’s sophomore release
  • Big, rich, and present throughout, with real Jazz Rock energy – this is just the right sound for this album all things considered
  • One of the most difficult rock albums to find good sound for, bar none – it’s by far the toughest nut to crack in the entire Chicago catalog
  • 4 1/2 stars: “The contents of Chicago II underscore the solid foundation of complex jazz changes with heavy electric rock & roll that the band so brazenly forged on the first set.”

*NOTE: On side three, a mark makes 8 moderate pops at the beginning of Track 1, Fancy Colours.

This album spawned three top 10 singles and can sound very good on the right copy. Finding that copy, though, can be incredibly difficult — that’s why you won’t often find top copies of the album on our site. (more…)

Chicago – Chicago Transit Authority

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  • An amazing pressing of the band’s debut album with Triple Plus (A+++) sound or close to it 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
  • 4 stars: “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. This is a Truly Killer Copy from start to finish!

Huge Sound Can Be Yours!

We love this album here at Better Records. 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’ positively puts the original to shame. They jam its rock and roll groove, then take it places nobody else would even think to go. (more…)

Chicago and The Hottest Stampers – Are You a Thrillseeker Too?

 

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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 so many hundreds, even thousands, 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 dig through a lot of dusty record bins buying LPs until you find one that sounds the way you want it to.

I don’t play records to drink 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… (more…)

Chicago – Chicago VIII

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  • With a Triple Plus (A+++) Shootout Winning side two and a seriously good Double Plus (A++) side one, this copy had some of the best sound we have ever heard for Chicago’s 8th album
  • We guarantee there is dramatically more space, richness, vocal presence, and performance energy on this copy than others you’ve heard, and that’s especially true if you made the mistake of buying whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing is currently on the market
  • Not a favorite with the critics, but that did not keep the fans from buying plenty of copies, sending the album straight to Number One
  • Harry Truman was the first hit single, followed by Old Days (which went all the way to #5)

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Chicago – Chicago VI – Our Shootout Winner from 2016

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame

The background vocals on these sides are super-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. (more…)

Chicago – Chicago II – Our Shootout Winner from 2010

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More Chicago II

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame

Chicago-Loving Audiophiles of the World, gather round, this is the week we took on one of the toughest challenges in all of Analog Rockdom — Chicago II.

Ever played one? Then you know that the average copy of this album is an unmitigated DISASTER. The smeary sub-gen brass alone is enough to drive you from the room.

To a list of the album’s faults you can confidently add some or all of the following: blurry out of control bass; opaque veiled mids; rolled off highs, or no highs, whichever the case may be, common to virtually every pressing you find: plain old distortion; and, last but not least, the kind of compressed, lifeless sound that manages to make even the best songs on the album tedious.

And that’s not easy to do — this one album spawned not one, not two, but three still-catchy tunes that get played plenty these days.

360 Original or Red Label Reissue

Both can be good. I did the shootout (TP) 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 all 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. In the case of this album probably around 2013 or 2014.) (more…)