Top Engineers – Bernie Grundman (Vintage)

Joni Mitchell – Hejira

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Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Joni Mitchell

  • This original Asylum pressing was doing just about everything right, earning excellent Double Plus (A++) grades or BETTER on both sides
  • Most copies we played were too compressed or veiled to involve you in the music, but this one has the big, rich, clear sound of analog at its best that Joni’s spacey “beatnik jazz” needs to work its magic
  • Problems in the vinyl are sometimes the nature of the beast with these vintage LPs – there simply is no way around them if the superior sound of vintage analog is important to you
  • “Joni Mitchell’s Hejira is the last in an astonishingly long run of top-notch studio albums dating back to her debut… Performances are excellent, with special kudos reserved for Jaco Pastorius’ melodic bass playing… This excellent album is a rewarding listen.”

We played a ton of copies and heard a lot to dislike. Many copies have a tendency to sound phony, a case of heavy-handed EQ in the mastering perhaps. When a copy sounds glossy, it loses its natural warmth and starts to sound like any old audiophile LP. We’re ideally looking for something akin to Blue here, and not the sound you find on Patricia Barber LPs. (Gratuitous maybe, but it feels like it’s been too long since we took a swipe at that junk. But I digress…)

Plenty of copies had natural sound but no real life or presence to speak of. It’s a sound you could live with until you heard a good one, but there’s no going back once you’ve heard what the album’s really capable of. A copy like this one gives you lots of richness and warmth without sacrificing the texture to the instruments or the breath to Joni’s voice. The percussion really comes through, the bass has more weight and the immediacy of the vocals put Joni front and center, just where she should be.

If you aren’t familiar with this album, it’s a few more steps down the path she started taking on Court and Spark. The musicians include Larry Carlton and Jaco Pastorius, so that should give you an idea about the jazz-fusion direction of the arrangements. It was a fun album to get to know and on a copy like this one, it really rewards multiple listens.

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Carole King – Tapestry

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Reviews and Commentaries for Tapestry

  • This vintage Ode pressing boasts outstanding grades from start to finish
  • Big, full-bodied and Tubey Magical, yet still clean, clear and open – finally, the dark veil obscuring the sound of most copies has been lifted
  • This album is clearly Carole’s masterpiece – it’s loaded with great songs, and they all sound solid and correct here, two qualities which are critically important to the sound of the album
  • 5 stars: “…an intensely emotional record, the songs confessional and direct; in its time it connected with listeners like few records before it, and it remains an illuminating experience decades later. A remarkably expressive and intimate record, it’s a work of consummate craftsmanship.”

Audiophile sound is not easy to find on Tapestry. As we’ve been saying for twenty years, most copies are either dull and murky or edgy and thin, and on half the ones that do sound good, the vinyl is noisy.

On a copy like this, though, the sound gets out of the way and lets you focus on the MUSIC — and make no mistake, the music on this album is as good as it gets from Carole King.

We went nuts for this album during our big shootout. Since most of the time we’re playing testosterone-fueled, raging classic rock, it was a nice change of pace for us — and certainly easier on our poor eardrums. Our man JT makes an appearance playing acoustic guitar on a number of tracks, most notably You’ve Got A Friend, and his pals Russ Kunkel and Danny Korstchmar turn up too, with Kootch handling most of the electric guitar duties.

Carole returned the favor, playing the piano and singing on Taylor’s wonderful but underappreciated Mud Slide Slim album.

What’s surprising, if you haven’t played this album in a while, is how good non-hit tracks like “Home Again” can be. But there aren’t many of those non-hits on this album, and that’s a good thing; almost every song was a hit or received a lot of radio play. The quality of the material is that good.

What We’re Listening For on Tapestry

Transparency and Richness

One quality that we had no trouble recognizing on the better copies was transparency. The more transparent copies made it possible to hear through the mix to Carole’s piano, which is usually placed toward the back of the mix. There it serves to underpin the music, playing more of a supporting role than a leading one, very unlike the piano on a Joni Mitchell album for example.

The best copies let you easily follow Carole’s playing all the way through every song, from start to finish, no matter how quiet her part or how far back in the mix she may be placed.

If the pressing has a thinner sound (here are some examples of thin sounding records), obviously it becomes easier to pick up on the percussive nature of the instrument and “see” it more clearly. However, a thin piano tone on this album is the kiss of death. The best copies allow you to hear the full range of notes — including those played with the left hand — and for that, you need both richness and transparency.

This is a tricky balancing act; rarely in our experience do any two copies find precisely the same balance throughout an entire side.

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Linda Ronstadt – An Album You Need to Hear

More of the Music of Linda Ronstadt

Reviews and Commentaries for Heart Like a Wheel

We’ve recently compiled a list of records we think every audiophile should get to know better, along the lines of “the 1001 records you need to hear before you die,” but with less accent on morbidity and more on the joy these amazing audiophile-quality recordings can bring to your life.

The list is purposely wide-ranging. It includes some famous titles (Tumbleweed Connection, The Yes Album), but for the most part I have gone out of way to choose titles from talented artists that are less well known (Atlantic Crossing, Kiln House, Dad Loves His Work), which simply means that you won’t find Every Picture Tells a Story or Rumours or Sweet Baby James on this list because masterpieces of that caliber should already be in your collection and don’t need me to recommend them.

Which is not to say there aren’t some well known masterpieces on the list, because not every well known record is necessarily well known to audiophiles, and some records are just too good not to put on a list of records we think every audiophile ought to get to know better.

Out of the thousands of records we have auditioned and reviewed, there are a couple of hundred that have stood the test of time for us and we feel are deserving of a listen. Many of these will not be to your taste, but they were to mine.

Heart Like A Wheel

I’ve been playing HLAW since the year it came out, roughly 48 years by my calculation, and I can tell you it is no easy task to find this kind of smooth, sweet, analog sound on the album. Folks, we heard it for ourselves: the Heart Like A Wheel magic is here on practically every song.

A Must Own Pop Record

Linda’s Masterpiece, and a recording that should be part of any serious Popular Music Collection. Others that belong in that category can be found here.

Warren Zevon – Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School

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  • Zevon’s 1980 release finally arrives on the site with outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER from start to finish
  • The best sides are doing most everything right — they’re cleaner, clearer, with better bass, more energy, better midrange presence, as well as lots of other qualities only found on the best analog pressings
  • Features a long list of guest artists, detailed below, who brought their talents to bear on this superb album
  • 4 1/2 stars: “The album’s rockers hit harder and cut deeper than any of his previous work, especially the twisted Southern gothic of “Play It All Night Long” and the mercenary’s anthem “Jungle Work,” while “Bed of Coals” and “Wild Age” found Zevon bravely addressing his own failings and expressing his need for a greater maturity in his life.”

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Thriller Is Proof that Bernie Grundman Was Cutting Great Records in 1982

More of the Music of Michael Jackson

Reviews and Commentaries for Thriller

This commentary was written many years ago, probably in 2010, right around the time that Thriller really started to sound good, owing to advances we had made in cleaning and playback.

Our old friend Bernie Grundman handled the mastering for Thriller and managed to do a really nice job. Unfortunately, most copies of this mass-produced classic don’t give you as much of the magic as other copies, including the ones BG mastered.

The sound on this copy is huge — big, wide, deep, and open, with the kind of three-dimensional soundstaging that lets the music unfold in front of you and around you as well. You get the bottom-end punch that’s so crucial to this music and tons of energy. The bass is meaty and well-defined, showing you the rhythmic foundation that the music needs. The sound is transparent with amazing texture to practically every element.

Michael’s voice is marvelous on this copy — breathy, textured, and positively dripping with emotion (just listen to him break down on The Lady in My Life).

Thanks to constant improvements in our stereo, we’re now getting this album to sound better than it ever has. Extended highs appeared where none had been before. We were hearing synthesizers buried deep in the mix we’d never heard. All of a sudden, these ’80s pop records had amazing analog magic.

If your system is up to the task, you won’t believe how big and lively this album sounds. Who woulda thunk it?

In a recent commentary we went into some detail about Bernie Grundman’s shortcomings as a mastering engineer.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

Making Audio Progress

Joni Mitchell – The Hissing of Summer Lawns

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Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Joni Mitchell

  • Joni’s superb 1975 release finally returns with KILLER Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound from top to bottom
  • Lots of Tubey Magic, textured synths, big bass and breathy vocals – this copy brings Joni’s jazzy folky fusion to life
  • Check out the big bottom end on The Jungle Line, which features the Drummers Of Burundi
  • Who made a more original, forward looking and interesting album in 1975 than this? I can’t think of anyone, can you?
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Joni Mitchell evolved from the smooth jazz-pop of Court and Spark to the radical Hissing of Summer Lawns, an adventurous work that remains among her most difficult records [as difficult as it is brilliant] … a strange and beautiful fusion of jazz and shimmering avant pop.”

Both sides here are airy, open, and spacious, with plenty of ambience. The bottom end is tight and punchy throughout with good solid weight, and the top end is silky sweet. Many copies of this album have a phony hi-fi “glare” that made us wince, but the sound here is warm and natural.

After hearing a few copies that bored us to tears years ago we had pretty much given up on finding good sound for this album, but once we found some truly hot Hot Stampers we found ourselves really enjoying this sophisticated Jazzy Folk Pop music. (more…)

Linda Ronstadt / Heart Like A Wheel – Does Bernie Ever Get Bored?

More of the Music of Linda Ronstadt

Reviews and Commentaries for the Recordings of Linda Ronstadt

Years ago we wrote:

One thing we noted with interest while doing this shootout was how compressed the first track is. When the chorus comes in, and Linda seems to be singing louder — should be singing louder, with a substantial coterie of vocalists backing her up — the volume is actually lower. In the verse immediately following you can hear that not only is she singing louder, but the amount of dynamic contrast in her voice is greater. Go figure.

The compression also means that that song will never sound the way we would wish it to. But that doesn’t mean it won’t sound good. It means it will sound good in more of a radio-friendly way. On a good copy, one with relatively little grain and plenty of bass, the music can still be very enjoyable, and that includes a Number One Pop Hit like “You’re No Good.”

Do we still see things this way? Well, yes and no. It’s not exactly that we were wrong, but that better cleaning and better playback (all that revolutions in audio stuff) have now allowed us to hear that some copies are actually much more dynamic on this track than others. Quite dynamic in fact.

Think about it. Bernie Grundman is going to cut this record many, many times, maybe more times than he wants to. Is he always going to apply exactly the same amount of compression to each cutting, or is he going to experiment a bit and see what works better over time? Or maybe he just learned a thing or two as he went along.

Which is pretty much what we do when playing copy after copy. The best pressings show us precisely what it is they are doing when they actually work. We can’t know that in advance; we’re learning on the job so to speak.

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Joni Mitchell – Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter

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Reviews and Commentaries for Joni Mitchell

don

  • With four sides that are either White Hot or close to it this copy murdered the competition
  • Rich, full-bodied, smooth, yet open and clear, this is about the best the album can sound 
  • Mastered by Bernie Grundman back when he was still cutting some of the best records around
  • Joni Mitchell meets Weather Report is the best way to describe much of the vibe here

We had trouble finding copies that played consistently quietly on all four sides. This copy has an issue with side four, but the second best sounding side four was noisier, so we feel that this is still the best way to go for the album. (more…)

George Cables – Cables’ Vision

More Jazz Recordings Featuring the Piano

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  • George Cables’ superb 1980 release finally arrives on the site with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or close to it throughout 
  • I’ve known about this Allen Sides Oceanway recording for decades – his stuff is smooth, punchy, solid, and alive with energy
  • 4 1/2 stars: “One of the most satisfying recordings to be released in 1980… this date features trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Ernie Watts in fiery form; the two horn players took time off from their much more commercial efforts for other labels. The solos overall are concise and make expert use of each note. Cables’ tunes are generally catchy and memorable while “Byrdlike” gives the virtuosos an up-tempo blues to romp through. This well-paced set is a gem that is highly recommended.”

This Contemporary pressing has wonderful sound. This should not be too surprising as it was recorded by one of our favorite engineers, Allen Sides, working out of his Oceanway studios. (Supposedly he is a big fan of vintage mics and the like. with many superb and valuable examples.)

On top of that the album was mastered by Bernie Grundman, who was at the time still cutting very good sounding records, this being 1980. Since then he has gone precipitously downhill, as we have noted on the site numerous times.

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Cat Stevens / Izitso – Our Shootout Winner from 2008

TWO AMAZING SIDES, including THE BEST SIDE TWO WE’VE EVER HEARD! We just finished our first shootout for Izitso, and this was the overall champion with an A++ side one backed with an AGAIG A+++ side two. It’s no Teaser and the Firecat, but there’s enough Cat Stevens magic here to satisfy casual fans and die-hards alike. 

It wouldn’t be unfair to call this Stevens’ disco album, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great songs on here. Old Schoolyard is a great uptempo rocker, while Life — on a good copy — is pure audiophile gold. Child For A Day, which closes out side two, is great as well — it sounds like many of the gems from Cat’s earlier albums. The instrumental track Was Dog A Doughnut? (featuring Chick Corea) certainly ain’t our cup of tea, but we imagine some of you will have fun with its synthesized dog barks and its goofy electronic vibe. If you were a fan of Herbie Hancock’s work in the ’80s, you’ll probably get a kick out of all those synths and sequencers. (more…)