Top Engineers – Al Schmitt

Henry Mancini / Our Man In Hollywood – Making More Progress in Audio

The story of our recent shootout is what progress in audio in all about. As your stereo improves, some records should get better, some should get worse. It’s the nature of the beast for those of us who constantly make improvements to our playback and critically listen to records all day.

Courtesy of Revolutions in Audio

In our previous listings we noted:

This is one of those odd records in which the variation in sound quality from track to track is dramatic. Take the first two tracks on side one — they suck. They sound like your average LSP Mancini album, the kind I have suffered through far too many times. And that means bad bad bad. 

But track three boasts DEMO DISC QUALITY SOUND and the next one is nearly as good. Listen to that wonderful glockenspiel. It sound every bit as magical as anything on Bang, Baa-room and Harp, and that’s some pretty magical sound in my book!

Same thing happens on side two. Bad sound for the first tracks, then track four sounds great, followed by a pretty good five and a lovely six with a chorus of voices to die for. Go figure.

Is there a copy that sounds good from start to finish? Doubtful.

We’ve made a dozen or more improvements to the system since we last did this shootout, and I’m happy to report that most of the tracks we had trouble with in the past are now sounding very good indeed. Of course the better tracks we noted from years ago are even better, making this a consistently good sounding Mancini record.

One obvious change from the old days is that we now spend a fair amount of time honing in the VTA for every title. That may account for the fact that the first track on side one, which used to be problematical, now sounds wonderful. The value of getting the correct VTA setting — by ear, for every record — cannot be overestimated in our opinion.

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Dave Mason – It’s Like You Never Left

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  • It’s Like You Never Left finally returns to the site with outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish on this original Columbia stereo pressing
  • Mason’s comeback got help from Graham Nash, Stevie Wonder and George Harrison
  • There’s good extension up top and down low, with plenty of meaty bass and silky highs
  • “Mason is perhaps one of the most creative forces, lyrically, musically and vocally, in pop today.” — Billboard, 1973

I was a big fan of this album when it came out in 1973. I used to play it all the time in fact. Now I hear why – it’s big and rich with a solid bottom end and a smooth, sweet top, perfect for the big but not especially sophisticated speakers (the Fulton J System) I had back in the day.

This album has the kind of sound that the typical CD just doesn’t want anything to do with. Not that the Compact Disc couldn’t pull it off — there are good sounding CDs in this world, I own hundreds of them — but it doesn’t seem to want to even try.

Graham Nash helps out on vocals on tracks one, two and five on the first side. Stevie Wonder plays a lovely harmonica solo on The Lonely One on side two, and George Harrison guests on guitar on If You’ve Got Love, the third track on side one. (more…)

Dave Mason / Alone Together – Bad Vinyl and Murky Sound

Some records are consistently too noisy to keep in stock no matter how good they sound.

This is one of them.

We have a section for records that tend to be noisy, and it can be found here.

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We struggled for years with the bad vinyl and the murky sound of this album. Finally, with dozens of advances in playback quality and dramatically better cleaning techniques, we have now [circa 2012] managed to overcome the problems which we assumed were baked into the recording. I haven’t heard the master tape, but I have heard scores of pressings made from it over the years. I confess I actually used to like and recommend the Heavy Vinyl MCA pressing. Rest assured that is no longer the case. Nowadays it sounds as opaque, ambience-challenged, lifeless and pointless as the rest of its 180 gram brethren.

You want to keep what is good about a Tubey Magical analog recording from The Golden Age of Rock while avoiding the pitfalls so common to them: poor resolution, heavy compression, thickness, opacity, blubber, compromised frequency extremes, lack of space and lack of presence.

How’s that for a laundry list of all the problems we hear on old rock records, and classical records and jazz records; all records really.

What record doesn’t have at least some of these faults? Not many in our experience. A copy with few or none of these problems would have White Hot Stamper sound indeed.

This Copy Rocks

Punchy and surprisingly DEEP bass is one of the first things you will notice when playing one of these Hot Stamper copies. Huge amounts of ambience fill out the space the extends from wall to wall (and all the way to the back of the studio), leaving plenty of room around each of the players. (more…)

Linda Ronstadt / Don’t Cry Now – What to Listen For

Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For as you critically evaluate your copy.

Her vocals on both sides can be very DYNAMIC, but only the best copies will present them with no hint of STRAIN or GRAIN, two problems that make most pressings positively painful to listen to at the loud volumes we prefer.

Linda really belts it out on this album — face it, it’s what she does best — and only the rarest copies allow you to turn up the volume good and loud and let her do her thing.

Another key to recognizing the best copies is the fact that they tend to be highly resolving. Two places to check:

Note how breathy her voice is in the quiet passages. Only the least smeared, most transparent copies reproduce that breathy quality in her voice

Next check out the tambourine on Silver Threads and Golden Needles. If the sound is delicate, not gritty or transistory, you have yourself a winner in the resolution department.

Side One

The vocals on side one are often recessed and a bit dark on this album.

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Linda’s Problems in the ’70s

The most common problem with these Ronstadt records from the ’70s is grainy, upper-midrangy sound. The smooth copies that still have plenty of presence, life, energy and top end extension are the ones that really get this music sounding RIGHT.

Every copy we played had problems on the last track of side one, Don’t Cry Now. Linda is singing at the top of her lungs practically from beginning to end, so both cutting the record and playing back the record would be difficult. The result: there will be some coarsening of her vocal.

Some copies had the same problem on side two for I Believe in You, but not all.

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Al Schmitt – One of Our Favorite Producer / Engineers

Al Schmitt Engineered / Produced Albums with Hot Stampers

More of Our Favorite Producer-Engineers

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Al Schmitt is one of our favorite engineers and producers.  Click here to find more blog reviews and commentaries for his albums.

FURTHER READING

Top Engineers – Alan Parsons (16)

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Neil Young – On The Beach

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  • A KILLER early pressing of this Neil Young Classic with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound throughout
  • The title track has that live-in-the-studio sound we love about Zuma, but in this case it sounds like it was recorded at three in the morning in a room full of pot smoke
  • 5 stars on Allmusic: “…where Time Fades Away was embattled and Tonight’s the Night mournful, On the Beach was savage and, ultimately, triumphant… he was saying goodbye to despair, not being overwhelmed by it.”

Folks, we don’t find too many Hot Stamper copies of this great album, so don’t assume that another one will pop right up once this one goes. This album may not be as well-known as Harvest or After The Gold Rush, but it’s every bit as worthy of a place in your collection — especially when it sounds this good!

Prime Time For Neil Young

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the string of superb studio albums Neil released from 1970 to 1976. I mean, look at these titles: After The Gold Rush, Harvest, On The Beach, Tonight’s The Night, and Zuma. Not a dog in the lot, to say the least. I can’t think of anyone else besides Led Zep (first five titles) and The Beatles (pick ’em!) who put out at least this many killer albums consecutively. We consider each of those albums a work of genius, and we can proudly claim to have found copies of each with the sonic credentials necessary to bring you these masterpieces at their absolute best — exactly the way you want to hear them.

That Live In The Studio Sound

On the best copies, the title track is OUT OF THIS WORLD. It’s got that live-in-the-studio sound we recognize and love from Zuma, but in this case it sounds like it was recorded at three in the morning in a room full of pot smoke! When you play a Hot Stamper copy, the soundfield is HUGE — big, wide, and deep — and there’s lots of space around each of the instruments. You will not believe all the studio ambience, and you can probably catch a contact high from it! (Results may vary.) (more…)

Bill Evans – You Must Believe In Spring

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  • This outstanding copy of Bill Evans’ posthumous release boasts solid Double Plus (A++) sound on both sides – exceptionally quiet vinyl for this title too
  • Both sides here are lively, dynamic and full-bodied – there’s real weight to the piano, always critically important on the piano recordings we play
  • An exceptionally well-recorded album, especially the piano, thanks to Al Schmitt
  • 4 stars: “This well-rounded set (released posthumously) features the highly influential pianist Bill Evans in a set of typically sensitive trio performances… It’s a solid example of the great pianist’s artistry.”

This relaxed piano trio outing has been one of our favorite Bill Evans releases for close to a decade, in no small part because the best copies have the potential for truly Demo Disc sound. This is one of those, and it demonstrates more than anything else how natural, balanced and real the sound of a good piano trio recording can be.

Most copies of this album lack the energy and drive to keep the music from getting sleepy, but both sides here are lively, dynamic and full-bodied. There’s real weight to the piano, always critically important on the piano recordings we play.

This is the last album Bill Evans made before he died. His playing is emotional and powerful, and the other members of the trio provide fine support. (more…)

Dave Mason – Alone Together on MCA Heavy Vinyl

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Sonic Grade: D

A Hall of Shame pressing. I confess I actually used to like and recommend the Heavy Vinyl MCA pressing. Rest assured that is no longer the case. Nowadays it sounds as opaque, ambience-challenged, lifeless and pointless as the rest of its 180 gram brethren.

We struggled for years with the bad vinyl and the murky sound of this album. Finally, with dozens of advances in playback quality and dramatically better cleaning techniques, we have now managed to overcome the problems which we assumed were baked into the recording. I haven’t heard the master tape, but I have heard scores of pressings made from it over the years. 

It is a surely a MASTERPIECE that belongs in any Rock Collection worthy of the name. Every track is good, and most are amazingly good. There’s not a scrap of filler here. The recording by Bruce Botnick is hard to fault as well.

1970 was a great time in music. Tea for the Tillerman, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Moondance, Sweet Baby James, Tumbleweed Connection, After the Goldrush, The Yes Album, McCartney, Elton John, His Band And Street Choir, Deja Vu, Workingman’s Dead, Tarkio, Stillness, Let It Be — need I go on?

Even in such illustrious company — I defy anyone to name ten albums of comparable quality to come out in any year — Alone Together ranks as one of the best releases of the year. (more…)

Dave Mason – Headkeeper

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  • An excellent copy with Double Plus (A++) sound from the first note to the last – reasonably quiet vinyl too
  • Some of the best sound Dave Mason ever managed, so let’s give credit where credit is due, to the amazing engineer Al Schmitt
  • If you’re a Dave Mason fan this is one of the better albums he’s put out and it deserves a place in your collection
  • “The spare, acoustic solo performance of “Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving” heard here, for example, makes the undistinguished full-band studio version instantly obsolete. And the live version of “World In Changes” is one of the best pieces of early ’70s rock, period.”

This is some of the best sound Dave Mason ever managed, so let’s give credit where credit is due, to the amazing Al Schmitt. He recorded and mixed this album and he sure knocked it out of the park.

We know his work well; he happens to have engineered many albums with SUPERB SOUND: Aja, Hatari, Breezin’, Late for the Sky, Toto IV – the guy’s won 13 Grammies, which ought to tell you something.

Side one of the album is recorded in the studio, side two live from the Troubador. Many of the songs on side one would be recorded again by Mason, and not as well in most cases. Mastered at Artisan (where Kevin Gray got his start) by none other than the owner, Bob MacLeod, this record got the A Team treatment from start to finish. (more…)

Dave Mason – Alone Together

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  • This outstanding copy of Mason’s Masterpiece boasts solid Double Plus (A++) sonic grades on both sides – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Listen to how big and rich the dynamic chorus gets on the first track, Only You Know and I Know – what a thrill to hear it like that
  • A killer Bruce Botnick recording – Tubey Magical Analog, smooth and natural, with the whole production sitting on a rock solid bottom-end foundation
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Alone Together represents Dave Mason at his peak… everything comes together perfectly.”

Before I get too far into the story of the sound, I want to say that this album appears to be criminally underrated as music nowadays, having fallen from favor with the passage of time.

It is a surely a masterpiece that belongs in any Rock Collection worthy of the name. Every track is good, and most are amazingly good. There’s no filler here. (more…)