Top Engineers – George Massenburg

Little Feat / Waiting For Columbus – We Broke Through in 2017

Little Feat Albums with Hot Stampers

Little Feat Albums We’ve Reviewed

More Breakthrough Pressing Discoveries

A classic case of Live and Learn

In 2009 we had this to say about a Hot Stamper pressing we listed:

This German import pressing of Waiting for Columbus is much better sounding than the typical Mastering Lab-mastered copy.

This German pressing is similar to one that came from my own personal collection, accidentally discovered way back in the early ’80s as I recall. It KILLED my domestic original, and got some things right that even my treasured Mobile Fidelity pressing couldn’t. We have been meaning to do a shootout for this album for at least the last five years, but kept running into the fact that in a head to head shootout the right MoFi pressing — sloppy bass and all — was hard to beat.

This is no longer the case, courtesy of that same old laundry list you have no doubt seen on the site countless times: better equipment, tweaks, record cleaning, room treatments, etcetera, etcetera. Now the shortcomings of the MoFi are clear for all to see, and the strengths of the best non-half-speed mastered pressings are too, which simply means that playing the MoFi now is an excruciating experience.

All I can hear is what it does wrong. I was so much happier with it when I didn’t know better.

That same laundry list continued to pay big dividends, and right around 2017 or so the best original domestic Mastering Lab copies started to sound much more right to us than the German ones.  The German pressings can be good, but the TML pressings are the only ones we expect to win shootouts from now on.

But who knows? We could find something even better down the road. That’s what shootouts are for. (more…)

Earth, Wind & Fire – Spirit

More Earth, Wind and Fire

More Recordings by George Massenburg

  • This outstanding pressing of Spirit boasts solid Double Plus (A++) sound throughout – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Big, clear, tubey, sweet ANALOG sound – we played it good and loud and it was ROCKIN’!
  • If you like Pop Music, Soul Music, or EWF’s groundbreaking hybridization of the two, you have to love these classic albums from the ’70s
  • 4 1/2 stars: “… the soul powerhouse didn’t let anyone down (either commercially or creatively) on the outstanding Spirit, which boasted hits ranging from the optimistic “On Your Face” and the passionate funk classic “Getaway” to the poetic ballad “Imagination”… even if one didn’t take EWF’s calls for unity, hard work, self-respect, and faith in God to heart, they had no problem with their solid grooves.”

Every track Maurice White ever produced was a testimony to his deep understanding and prodigious talent for crafting the perfect pop song, complete with arrangements for nine pieces as tight as the matching sequined suits the band wore. Fortunately for we analog types, EWF was an audiophile-oriented band, producing some of the best sounding ’70s multi-track recordings of the day. “Getaway” is killer on this copy.

There may in fact be a few too many multi-tracks, causing the typical copy of the record to get strident and congested in the loud vocal passages, contributing to the somewhat hot upper mids in some of the mixes (which is no doubt the fault of George Massenburg, whose engineering on even his best days tends to be somewhat sparkly).

Even though we are not in the business of selling typical copies — what we offer are very good ones at the very least, and superb ones at the upper end of the range — we should be clear that these problems can be heard to some degree on even the best copies we auditioned.

What we’re looking for is sound that is as rich, smooth, sweet, and tonally correct as we can find. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it really can’t be, anyway. It just has to be the best we can find after going through a big pile of copies, because if we can’t find it I don’t know how anyone else can. It’s the same process no matter who does it, and who else does it at this scale but us? It may not take a village, but it at least takes a sizeable crew to sort through a dozen or more copies of the same album time and time again.

Fortunately we did manage to find copies in which the sound was big — “wall to wall” as we like to say — and on the best of them the presence of the vocalists puts them right in front of you. For the most part you can clearly make out each of the voices that make up the harmonically-complex choruses. What a sound! Nobody harmonizes better than these guys, partly because no other band has anyone remotely as talented as the preternaturally gifted Philip Bailey to sing the superhuman falsetto parts the way he does.

For audiophiles who like to play their music loud, the sound on the best copies can be GLORIOUS!

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Little Feat / Hoy-Hoy Sampler – A Demo Disc Disc Like No Other

More Rock and Pop Demo Discs

More Little Feat Albums We’ve Reviewed

  • An amazing Triple Plus side two and a Double Plus side one
  • This is the Big Rock Sound we love, huge and punchy with tons of space and a big bottom end
  • Knockout Demo Disc Rock and Roll sound and then some

It may contain only a handful of tracks from the Hoy Hoy album, but folks, stunning sound doesn’t begin to do justice to this EP. I would state categorically that there is not a single rock record on the TAS List that can hold a candle to it in terms of live-rock-in-your-living room blasting power. This is one of the most AMAZING DEMO DISCS of All Time. If it were an album I would put it on a Top Ten Best Sounding Rock and Pop List (if we had such a thing).

It’s really not fair to judge the Harry’s List by records like this, which have never been the man’s forte. We, on the other hand, know these kinds of records about as well as anyone, and to prove it we would love to send you this copy.

And do you know how we discovered it? We had a couple of these promos lying around, and after shooting out the Hot Stamper Hoy-Hoys, we figured what the hell, throw one of them on just for fun. To our shock and dismay, it blew the doors off our BEST Hot Stamper pressings song for song. As good as those album sides sound, the EP took the same material to an ENTIRELY NEW LEVEL of sonic splendor.

This EP may only hold four songs, but each is a Demo Disc Track of the highest order: Gringo (edited version) and Over The Edge for side one; Teenage Nervous Breakdown and Rock and Roll Doctor for side two. (more…)

Little Feat – A MoFi Pseudo-Hot Stamper

Little Feat Albums with Hot Stampers

Little Feat Albums We’ve Reviewed

Sonic Grade: C

Ten or fifteen years ago we did a listing for this Mobile Fidelity pressing as a Pseudo-Hot Stamper. Here is what we had to say about it at the time:

This is actually a pretty good sounding record, all things considered. We put this one through our cleaning process and gave it a listen. Although our Hot Stamper copies do sound better, they’re also quite a bit more expensive. This copy had the best sound we heard out of the three or four we played, which makes it a Hot Stamper I suppose, but we are instead just calling it a Very Good Sounding Copy.

Waiting for Columbus is one of the greatest live rock and roll albums ever made, containing performances by one of the greatest rock and roll bands to ever play. If you only buy one Little Feat album in your lifetime, make it this one.

We spent years trying to get shootouts together for this album, but kept running into the fact that in a head to head shootout the right MoFi pressing — sloppy bass and all — was hard to beat.

This is no longer the case, courtesy of that same old laundry list you have no doubt seen on the site countless times: better equipment, tweaks, record cleaning, room treatments, etcetera, etcetera. Now the shortcomings of the MoFi are clear for all to see, and the strengths of the best non-half-speed mastered pressings are too, which simply means that playing the MoFi now would be an excruciating experience. All I can hear is what it does wrong. I was so much happier with it when I didn’t know better.

(more…)

Earth, Wind, Fire – Hard and Honky Brass Is a Dealbreaker

More of the Music of Earth, Wind and Fire

More Recordings by George Massenburg

As you can imagine, most copies of this album leave a lot to be desired. Most were, to one degree or another, dull, smeary, opaque, gritty or shrill.

Our Hot Stampers, on the other hand, depending on hot hot they are, will give you the sound you’re looking for. If you’re a fan of BIG HORNS, with jump-out-of-the-speakers presence, this is the album for you. Some of the best R&B-POP brass ever recorded can be found here — full-bodied, powerful, fast, dynamic and tonally correct.

Advice

Here is some specific advice on What to Listen For as you critically evaluate your copy of The Best of Earth Wind & Fire.

When the brass sounded the least bit squawky on a given copy, that was almost always a dealbreaker and out it went.

When the BIG, MULTI-TRACKED vocals get going they need to have plenty of space to expand into. They also need to be breathy and warm, with airy extension for the harmonies (and those crazy high notes that only Philip Bailey can sing). Proper tape hiss is a dead giveaway in this respect.

This advice will of course work for any Earth Wind & Fire record you happen to have multiple copies of.

Choruses Are Key

Three distinctive qualities of vintage analog recordings — richness, sweetness and freedom from artificiality — are most clearly heard on a Big Production Recording like this one in the loudest, densest, most climactic choruses of the songs.

We set the playback volume so that the loudest parts of the record are as huge and powerful as they can possibly become without crossing the line into distortion or congestion. On some records, Dark Side of the Moon comes instantly to mind, the guitar solos on Money are the loudest thing on the record.

On Breakfast in America the sax toward the end of The Logical Song is bigger and louder than anything on the record, louder even than Roger Hodgson’s near-hysterical multi-tracked screaming “Who I am” about three-quarters of the way through the track. Those, however, are clearly exceptions to the rule. Most of the time it’s the final chorus of a pop song that gets bigger and louder than what has come before.

A pop song is usually designed to build momentum as it works its way through the verses and choruses, past the bridge, coming back around to make one final push, releasing all its energy in the final chorus, the climax of the song. On a good recording — one with real dynamics — that part of the song should be very loud and very powerful.

The climax of the biggest, most dynamic songs are almost always the toughest tests for a pop record, and it’s the main reason we play our records loud. The copies that hold up through the final choruses of their album’s largest scaled productions are the ones that provide the biggest thrills and the most emotionally powerful musical experiences one can have sitting in front of two speakers. Our Top 100 is full of records that reward that kind of intense listening at loud levels.

We live for that sound here at Better Records. It’s precisely what the best vintage analog pressings do brilliantly. In fact they do it so much better than any other medium that there is really no comparison, and certainly no substitute. If you’re on this site you probably already know that.

Linda Ronstadt – What’s New

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More Nelson Riddle

  • So spacious and three-dimensional, yet with a tonally correct and fairly natural sounding Linda, this is the way to hear it
  • What engineer George Massenburg gets right is the sound of an orchestra, augmented with jazz musicians (Ray Brown, Tommy Tedesco, Plas Johnson, Bob Cooper), all performing live in a huge studio
  • “…the best and most serious attempt to rehabilitate an idea of pop that Beatlemania… undid in the mid-60’s.”
  • Watch for my MoFi review coming later this year – talk about a disaster, that reissue is beyond awful
  • If you’re a Ronstadt fan, this title from 1983 is surely a Must Own. The complete list of titles from 1983 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

With two outstanding sides, this pressing gets two critically important elements of the recording right:

The strings in the orchestra, and, for obvious reasons, even more importantly, Linda’s voice.

We guarantee that these sides give you a more natural sounding Linda than you’ve ever heard, or your money back.

If all you own is an mediocre sounding pressing or the truly awful Mobile Fidelity from 1983, you are in for a world of better sound with this very record.

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Linda Ronstadt – Get Closer

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More Women Who Rock

  • Superb sound on both sides of this Asylum pressing from 1982 with each earning Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) grades, right up there with our Shootout Winner
  • Engineering prowess provided by Val Garay and George Massenburg, which means the sound is full-bodied, dynamic and lively, with plenty of bottom end punch
  • “Linda Ronstadt’s voice has never sounded better than it does on Get Closer… [her] ringing soprano vibrates with clarity and authority on the record’s best songs…” Rolling Stone, 4 Stars
  • If you’re a fan of the lovely Linda Ronstadt, looking especially fetching on the cover in her red dress, a killer copy of her album from 1982 might just need a home in your collection

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Earth, Wind and Fire – Gratitude

  • A superb copy of this 2-LP set with Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER on all FOUR sides
  • My personal favorite EWF song of all time, “Can’t Hide Love,” sounds INCREDIBLE on this Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) side four, where you will also find “Sing a Song,” “Gratitude,” and “Celebrate”
  • We guarantee there is dramatically more richness, fullness, 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
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Gratitude brilliantly captures the excitement EWF generated on-stage at its creative peak… Neither hardcore EWF devotees nor more casual listeners should deprive themselves of the joys of the live versions of “Shining Star” and “Yearnin’ Learnin’.”

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Linda Ronstadt – Lush Life

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More Nelson Riddle

  • An outstanding copy of Ronstadt’s 1984 release with Double Plus (A++) sound or very close to it on both sides
  • Getting the strings to sound sweet and rosiny, not smeary and hard, is no mean feat, but it’s the kind of thing the better Hot Stamper pressings are guaranteed to give you on any of Linda’s American Songbook period albums
  • “What’s New illustrated that Linda Ronstadt was no longer interested in contemporary pop, and since it was a surprise success, there was no reason not to repeat the formula on Lush Life. Working again with Nelson Riddle, Ronstadt runs through several pop standards — ‘When I Fall in Love,’ ‘Sophisticated Lady,’ ‘Falling in Love Again,’ ‘It Never Entered My Mind’…”

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Linda Ronstadt – String Tone and Texture Are Key to the Best Pressings

More of the Music of Linda Ronstadt

More of the Music of Nelson Riddle

We’ve criticized the engineer George Massenburg in the past, but with this copy we almost want to take it all back.

What he gets right on this recording is the sound of an orchestra, augmented with various jazz musicians (Ray Brown, Tommy Tedesco, Plas Johnson, Bob Cooper), all performing live in a huge studio.

The sound stretches far to Linda’s left, far to her right, as well as back far behind her in a huge semi-circle. She is of course singing in a vocal booth, with her vocal placed front and center in the soundstage.

What to Listen for

That’s easy on this album: the strings. When the strings are big and rich, not shrill and thin, that’s a good thing. Rosiny texture means you have a copy with less smear and higher resolution. Harmonics up top means that the top end of your copy is extending properly.

Bottom line: If the strings are bad on this album probably everything else is too.

Here are some records that are good for testing string tone and texture.

Having said that, this is an album of standards sung by a woman with a very recognizable voice. If Linda doesn’t sound right, what’s the point of the record? To hear Nelson Riddle’s well-recorded strings?

The best copies have Linda sounding rich and breathy. Few managed to pull off that particular trick as well as we would have liked. We took major points off for those copies that had her sounding too thin or forced in her upper range.

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