Top Artists – Tom Waits

Tom Waits – Small Change

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  • Both sides of this vintage copy (only the second to hit the site in three years) were giving us the sound we were looking for, earning superb Double Plus (A++) grades
  • Recorded LIVE to 2-track by audio legend Bones Howe in 1976, no wonder the sound is so big, full-bodied, clean and clear
  • A tough record to find in the bins these days – Tom Waits still has plenty of die-hard fans here in L.A. and nobody wants to part with their copy
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Small Change proves to be the archetypal album of his 70s work. A jazz trio comprising tenor sax player Lew Tabackin, bassist Jim Hughart and drummer Shelly Manne, plus an occasional string section, back Waits and his piano on songs steeped in whiskey and atmosphere…”


Tom Waits – Nighthawks At The Diner

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  • Excellent sound for this Tom Waits classic, with Double Plus (A++) grades on all FOUR sides of these vintage Asylum pressings – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • A superb recording, with much credit due to Waits’ constant collaborator Bones Howe, who produced and engineered
  • It’s a live-in-the-studio romp through Los Angeles with Waits playing the role of tour guide, and the results are wonderful
  • “As entertainment, Nighthawks at the Diner is one of Waits’ most thoroughly enjoyable albums … it’s hard to imagine anyone not being charmed by it.”

At its best, this album has the immediacy and energy of a real live performance, but the typical copy just doesn’t bring it to life. This one is a big step up on all four sides, with the kind of life and clarity we just don’t hear often enough.

This album was recorded live at The Record Plant back in 1975, and while I can’t be certain, it sure seems there are no overdubs or post-performance additions. There’s a touch of hardness to the vocals at times, but it was on every copy we played and it’s obviously on the tape. It’s the kind of sound we hear on Johnny Cash records and it just seems like a by-product of the microphones these guys used. It doesn’t seem to far a reach to imagine that an iconoclast like Waits might prefer an old-timey microphone sound that doesn’t soften or smooth his vocal style. (For those in search of buttery vocals, there’s usually an Al Stewart record or two on the site. This ain’t the one for you.)

We played quite a few copies and while we were absolutely blown away by the better pressings; the typical copies left us cold. When you have a copy that’s veiled and lacks presence, the magic is gone.

I’m not very familiar with the musicians that make up the backing band here, but they are a top-notch crew. The way they interact with Waits as he spins stories, songs, and even a few jokes is in the very best jazz tradition. Waits actually hooked up with the great drummer Shelley Manne to record his next album (the classic Small Change) so this is a man who clearly knows how to pick a band.


Tom Waits – Listen for Smeary Piano Notes

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Hot Stamper Pressings of Singer-Songwriter Albums Available Now

Some of the more common problems we ran into during our shootouts for this album were slightly veiled, slightly smeary sound, with not all the top end extension that the best copies have.

You can easily hear that smear on the attack of the piano. More often than not the piano notes are a tad blunted, a quality you notice when you finally hear a pressing with the piano notes rendered clearly.

The Piano

If you have full-range speakers some of the qualities you may recognize in the sound of the piano are WEIGHT and WARMTH. The piano is not hard, brittle or tinkly. Instead the best copies show you a wonderfully full-bodied, warm, rich, smooth piano, one which sounds remarkably like the ones we’ve all heard countless times in piano bars and restaurants.

In other words like a real piano, not a recorded one. This is what we look for in a good piano recording. Bad mastering can ruin the sound, and often does, along with worn out stampers and bad vinyl and five gram needles that scrape off the high frequencies.

But a few — a very few — copies survive all such hazards. They manage to reproduce the full spectrum sound of the piano (and of course the wonderful performances of the musicians) on vintage vinyl, showing us the kind of sound we never expected from a old Tom Waits albums like this.

Lately we have been writing quite a bit about how pianos are good for testing your system, room, tweaks, electricity and all the rest, not to mention turntable setup and adjustment.

Other records that we have found to be good for testing and improving your playback can be found here.

Further Reading

Tom Waits – Foreign Affairs

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  • This early pressing was hard to fault – it will put Tom Waits right between your speakers, with a batch of great session players behind and to the side, all playing live in the studio
  • “The album contains more ballads than most of his records do, but they were the most effective vehicles for the kind of storytelling he was trying to get to. Produced and engineered by Bones Howe, Foreign Affairs was recorded live in studio by a quintet that included West Coast jazzmen Jack Sheldon on trumpet, saxophonist Frank Vicari, bassist Jim Hughart, and drummer Shelly Manne.


Tom Waits – The Heart of Saturday Night

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Amazing Triple Plus (A+++) sound on both sides! This music ain’t for everyone, but when you find good sounding Tom Waits pressings like this one the sonics can be out of this world. It’s tough to find clean copies of this stuff these days and even tougher to find ones that really deliver the way this one does. Bones Howe sure knew how to record this kind of music, and a copy like this will really let you appreciate his work.  (more…)

Tom Waits / Heartattack and Vine

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One of the better copies of Heartattack and Vine we’ve ever heard! We enjoy listening to the music of Tom Waits here because the music and sound can be excellent. His albums are certainly a nice change of pace from the stuff that’s usually on our table. We had quite a few copies of this one and none of the other ones were in a league with this bad boy. The sound is very rich and full with incredible immediacy to the vocals. You just couldn’t get the vocals to sound any better than they do on this copy. (more…)

Tom Waits – Blue Valentine – Our Shootout Winner from 2011

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TWO GREAT SIDES on this wonderful album — A++ for the first and A+++ for the second! Both sides have a wonderful bottom end — check out all the WEIGHT to that rich, meaty bass. Many copies we played had a tendency to sound somewhat dull, but this one has all the extension up top you need. The overall sound is rich, full, sweet and warm. The strings have texture, the voice has lots of breath, and I just don’t think you could find a better sounding copy.

Drop the needle on Romeo Is Bleeding for some of the best music on here. When you’ve got the kind of bass definition that this copy offers, the sound for that song can be killer, as it is here. (more…)

Tom Waits – Closing Time

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This copy has the kind of sound we look for in a top quality Tom Waits record: immediacy in the vocals (so many copies are veiled and distant); natural tonal balance (most copies are either bright or dark; ones with the right balance are the exception, not the rule); good solid weight (so the piano and other instruments sound full and powerful); spaciousness (the best copies have studio ambience like you would not believe); and last but not least, TRANSPARENCY, the effect of being able to see INTO the soundfield all the way to the back, where there is plenty going on in this remarkable studio recording.

Some of the more common problems we ran into during our shootouts were slightly veiled, slightly smeary sound, with not all the top end extension that the best copies have.

You can easily hear that smear on the attack of the piano. More often than not the piano notes are a tad blunted, a quality you notice when you finally hear a pressing with the piano notes rendered clearly. (more…)

Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones

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  • Insanely good Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sound from start to finish; we rarely have these on the site!
  • Both sides here are incredible — big, rich, full-bodied and super spacious with tons of energy and presence
  • “…the dominant sounds on the record were low-pitched horns, bass instruments, and percussion, set in spare, close-miked arrangements…”
  • 5 stars: “Swordfishtrombones marked an evolution of which Waits had not seemed capable”

This is yet another wonderful sounding Tom Waits recording, though it’s very different from the earlier titles from his catalog that have been featured on our site before. While we’re huge fans of the sound Waits and engineer Bones Howe put together on albums like Small Change and Heartattack and Vine, this album marked a turning point for Waits and the sound of his albums. (more…)