Top Engineers – Larry Levine

Herb Alpert / Whipped Cream & Other Delights – Top End Extension Is Key

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The better pressings have the kind of Tubey Magical, big-bottomed, punchy, spacious sound that we’ve come to expect from Larry Levine‘s engineering for A&M. If you have any Hot Stamper pressings of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66’s albums, then you know exactly the kind of sound we’re talking about.

Top end extension is critical to the sound of the best copies. Lots of old records (and new ones) have no real top end; consequently, the studio or stage will be missing much of its natural air and space, and instruments will lack the full complement of harmonic information.

In addition, when the top end is lacking, the upper midrange and high frequencies get jammed together — the highs can’t extend up and away from the upper mids.

This causes a number of much-too-common problems that we hear in the upper midrange of many of the records we play: congestion, hardness, harshness, and squawk.

Painstaking Vertical Tracking Angle adjustment is absolutely critical if you want your records to play with the least amount of these problems, a subject we discuss in the Commentary section of the site at length.

Full-bodied sound is especially critical to the horns.

Any blare, leanness or squawk ruins at least some of the fun, certainly at the louder levels the record should be playing at.

The frequency extremes (on the best copies) are not boosted in any way. When you play this record quietly, the bottom and top will disappear (due to the way the ear handles quieter sounds as described by the Fletcher-Munson curve).

Most records (like most audiophile stereos) are designed to sound correct at moderate levels. Not this album. It wants you to turn it up. Then, and only then, will everything sound completely right musically and tonally from top to bottom.

Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 – Stillness

More Sergio Mendes

More Bossa Nova

  • An early A&M pressing of this incredibly well-recorded and criminally-overlooked LP, with STUNNING Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sound from start to finish – just shy of our Shootout Winner
  • Side two of the best sounding copies will always be out of polarity – for those of you who cannot reverse your polarity, we will have some second-tier copies coming to the site soon
  • The soundfield has a three-dimensional quality that will absolutely blow you away (assuming you have big speakers and like to turn them up good and loud)
  • Wonderfully present and breathy vocals from the lovely ladies in Sergio’s band – they’re the audiophile (and sex) appeal, and we know of nothing else like them on record
  • A permanent member of our Top 100 and Demo Disc par excellence,
  • 4 stars: “Stillness is a concept album — the title tune opens and closes it in moody stillness — and a transition piece all at once…. Overlooked in its day, Stillness is the great sleeper album of Sergio Mendes’ first A&M period.”

We figure we’re about due for a thank you note from Mr. Mendes, because we’ve turned a huge number of audiophiles into die-hard fans of this album. It’s easy to see why when you play a copy that sounds like this. All of the qualities we look for on this album are right here.

If you are looking for DEMO DISC QUALITY SOUND with music every bit as wonderful, look no further — this is the record for you.

If I had one song to play to show what my stereo can really do, “For What It’s Worth” on a Hot Stamper copy would probably be my choice. I can’t think of any material that sounds better. It’s amazingly spacious and open, yet punchy and full bodied the way only vintage analog recordings ever are. This one being from 1970 fits the bill nicely.

Side two of this album can be one of THE MOST MAGICAL sides of ANY record — when you’ve got a killer copy. I don’t know of any other record like it. It seems to be in a class of its own. It’s an excellent test disc as well. All tweaks and equipment changes and room treatments must pass the Stillness test.

To fail to make this record sound better is to fail completely. The production is so dense, and so difficult to reproduce properly, that only recently have I begun to hear just how good this record can sound. There is still plenty to discover locked in these grooves, and I enthusiastically accept the challenge to find all the sounds that Sergio created in the studio, locked away in the 50+ year old vinyl.

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Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 – Equinox

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  • You’ll find outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound on both sides of this wonderful copy of Equinox, along with vinyl that is about as quiet as we can find it
  • The breathy intimacy of the two wonderful female leads – Lani Hall and Janis Hansen – were brilliantly captured by the engineering team of Bruce Botnick and Larry Levine at A&M
  • It’s humble records like this one that blew my mind when I first discovered them back in the ’80s, with their dynamic, energetic, spacious sound, as well as shockingly good music that at the time I had no idea existed
  • “Watch What Happens,” “Night and Day,” “Wave” – Mendes brings his innovative Bossa Nova arranging skills to these timeless classics
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Equinox continues the scrumptiously winning sound that Sergio Mendes cooked up in the mid-’60s… Again, the mix of American pop tunes old and new and Brazilian standards and sleepers is impeccable, and the treatments are smooth, swinging, and very much to the point.”
  • 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 of an accent on morbidity and more on the joy these amazing audiophile-quality recordings can bring to your life.
  • Equinox is a good example of a record most audiophiles don’t know well but should.

These Sergio Mendes records can be surprisingly dynamic, but only the better copies (such as this one) will allow those dynamics to explode naturally, with the kind of ease that only analog is capable of reproducing correctly in our experience.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, we’re the world’s biggest fans of Sergio Mendes here at Better Records. Brasil ’66, Stillness, and this album are ALL Desert Island Discs for us, and we even enjoy the hell out of some of the later albums. You can search all you want, but outside of The Beatles you are going to have a very tough time finding the diverse thrills that this group offers. We go CRAZY for the breathy, multi-part female vocals, their unusually voiced multi-tracked harmonies, the brilliant percussion, and, let us not forget, Mendes’ superb keyboard work anchoring as well as jazzing up the whole production.

His stuff never sounds dated to us, and we’ve never heard another artist do anything in the ’60s samba idiom nearly as well. We love Astrud Gilberto’s albums from the period, which no doubt served as a template for the style Sergio wanted to create with his new ensemble, but Brazil 66 is clearly a step up in every way: songwriting, arranging, production, and quality of musicianship.

Just play the group’s amazing versions of “Watch What Happens,” “Night and Day,” or “Jobim’s Wave” to hear the kind of Mendes Magic that makes us swoon. For we audiophiles, it just doesn’t get any better. (Well, almost. Stillness is still the Ultimate, on the level of a Dark Side of the Moon or Tea for the Tillerman, but Equinox is right up there with it.)

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Sergio Mendes And Brasil ’66 / Stillness – (Reversed Phase Copy)

More of the Music of Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

Stillness Is a Record We’ve Discovered with (Potentially) Excellent Sound

This is one of the pressings we’ve discovered with Reversed Polarity.

This was a SEALED copy of Stillness, one of my favorite records of all time. Side two of this album is possibly THE MOST MAGICAL side of an album I’ve ever played. I don’t know of any other record like it. It seems to be in a class of its own. It’s my current favorite test disc as well [or was at the time anyway]. All tweaks and equipment changes and room treatments must pass the Stillness test. To fail to make this record sound better is to fail completely. The production is so dense, and so difficult to reproduce properly, that only recently have I begun to hear just how good this record can sound. 

There is still plenty to discover locked in these grooves, and I enthusiastically accept the challenge to find all the sounds that Sergio created in the studio, encoded in this vintage vinyl record all those years ago.

The sound is AMAZING. But only on one condition. You must REVERSE YOUR ABSOLUTE PHASE! I discovered today (1/25/05) this fact and I owe Robert Pincus a debt of gratitude for suggesting it. These stampers have always sounded bright, upper midrangy and aggressive, with congested loud passages and thin bass. I just assumed that it was because of bad mastering. Bad mastering is the rule, not the exception, around here. I play badly mastered records all day long, searching for the exceptional pressings that for reasons unexplained succeeded in capturing the magic of the music in their grooves.

Reversing the absolute phase on this record today was a REVELATION. There before me was all the ambience, openness, sweetness, silkiness and warmth I had come to expect from the Hot Stampers. For the first time, these stampers showed their true colors.

But you need a special key to unlock the magic. You must either switch the positive and negative at the speaker, the amp, or at the head shell leads (which is what I do), or you must have a switch that inverts phase on your preamp. If you can’t do any of those, or are unwilling to do any of those, this is not the record for you.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

More Helpful Advice on Doing Your Own Shootouts

Important Lessons We Learned from Record Experiments 

Making Audio Progress 

Herb Alpert – Whipped Cream & Other Delights

More Sixties Pop Recordings

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  • Tubey Magical, big-bottomed, punchy, spacious sound – what we’ve come to expect from Larry Levine’s engineering
  • An INCREDIBLE copy of this wonderful 1965 release, with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or close to it from start to finish
  • Tubey Magical, punchy, spacious, natural sound – this copy has what we love about Larry Levine’s engineering, with special emphasis on the HUGE amounts of deep bass that Herb liked to put on his records back in 1965. (Quick question: Where did that sound go?)
  • Not many audiophiles know how well recorded some of these early Herb Alpert albums were, but we count ourselves among the ones that do, going back more than twenty years now
  • It’s almost impossible to find clean copies of this album nowadays, which is why our last shootout took place in 2020 – now that we know the hottest stampers, we hope to do this shootout again before too long
  • Alpert’s most famous album, 5 stars on Allmusic: “Three Grammy Awards alone for the update of the Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow-penned theme ‘A Taste of Honey.'”

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Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 – Ye-Me-Le

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More of our favorite Sixties Pop albums

  • You’ll find outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound on both sides of this fun Brasil ’66 album on the early label – some remarkably quiet vinyl too for A&M in the sixties
  • “Norwegian Wood,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Easy to Be Hard” are among the great songs that have the potential to sound amazing
  • We’re huge Sergio Mendes fans here and it’s a thrill to hear copies like this bring his music to life

The first three tracks on side 1 are the best reason to own this album, especially the first two (“Wichita Lineman” and “Norwegian Wood”), which are as good as anything the group ever did. As I’m a big fan, that’s high praise!

The average LP of this album is terrible. Shrill, aggressive sound is the norm, but compression and overly smooth (read: thick and dull) sound are also problems commonly found on Ye-Me-Le. There’s also a noticeable “strained” quality to the loud vocal passages on almost every copy; only the best are free of it.

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Sergio Mendes And Brazil ’66 – Crystal Illusions

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More of our favorite Sixties Pop albums


  • Outstanding sound throughout, with both sides earning Double Plus (A++) grades – some remarkably quiet vinyl too for A&M in 1969
  • The sound on both sides here is jumping out, with Tubey Magic, space, extension top to bottom, and more detail than many of the other copies we played – huge soundstage as well
  • Yes, it’s a recording that has some problems, but the better copies are able to overcome most of them, and that’s precisely what we are offering here – a copy that gets the sound of this music right
  • 4 stars: “Dave Grusin is right there with a lush, haunting orchestral chart when needed; Lani Hall is thrust further into the vocal spotlight, as cool and alluring as ever.. Weird and overblown, but wonderful.”

If you are not familiar with Sergio and his magical band, this might not be the place to start. Try the first two albums or Stillness if you want to hear the best material recorded with the highest quality. This is a second tier album in the Sergio canon, and priced accordingly. There are of course some truly great songs on this one, just as there are on every Brasil ’66 album. I would draw your attention especially to the Otis Redding classic Dock of the Bay. Fans will no doubt find much to like here; others maybe not so much. If you get a thrill out of FINALLY hearing a famous album sound the way you always wished it could, this copy is for you!

What you’re looking for on Crystal Illusions is a copy that’s not thin, dry, harsh and edgy! If you own this album you know exactly what I am talking about. Most copies sound like CDs in that respect. And most Brazil ’66 CDs sound just as bad as you might think they would. Believe me, I know, I’ve bought practically all of them. Thank god for the treble control on my car stereo. (more…)

Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 – Fool on the Hill

More Sergio Mendes

More Bossa Nova

  • With two seriously good Double Plus (A++) sides, this copy is guaranteed to blow the doors off any other Fool on the Hill you’ve heard
  • Sergio’s unique rearrangement of two songs in particular here make this a Must Own album: Scarborough Fair and title trackl
  • Top engineers for A&M, Henry Lewy and Larry Levine, capture the natural, breathy intimacy in the voices of these wonderful female leads – Lani Hall, Karen Philipp and Gracinha Leporace
  • 4 1/2 Stars: “Even though he had become thoroughly embedded in the consciousness of mainstream America, Mendes still managed to have it three ways, exposing first-class tunes from little-known Brazilian talent, garnering commercial hits, and also making some fine records.”
  • If you’re a fan of Sergio and the band, this early pressing from 1968 belongs in your collection.
  • The complete list of titles from 1968 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

Two songs in particular make this a Must Own album: Scarborough Fair and The Fool On The Hill. Both of them are given wonderfully original treatments. These songs hold their own against the originals, and that’s saying something.

Sergio took on many of the heavyweights of his day, and most of the time he succeeded in producing a uniquely satisfying version of well-known material. Superb original tracks by The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell and others were given the Sergio Mendes latin pop treatment and came out much the better for it.

This vintage A&M pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records can barely BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.

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Baja Marimba Band – Rides Again

More Exotica and Easy Listening

Yet Another Record We’ve Discovered with (Potentially) Excellent Sound

  • Baja Marimba Band returns with this superb copy of Rides Again, boasting Double Plus (A++) sound on both sides and vinyl that is about as quiet as we can find it
  • 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
  • If you are familiar with other top recordings released by A&M engineered by Larry Levine, the killer Herb Alpert and Sergio Mendes albums just to mention a few, you know the sound of Rides Again
  • Super tubey, with low end weight and performance energy that leave most other records from 1965 in the dust

Larry Levine was the resident engineering genius at A&M Records, the man responsible for many of the best sounding Sergio Mendes albums.  What most people don’t realize is how good the best Herb Alpert recordings are, as well as the ones Herb produced, such as the second Baja Marimba Band album here.

The reason is simple: most of the A&M pressings out there only hint at the wonderful recording quality of these albums.

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Sergio Mendes – Look Around

More Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

More Bossa Nova

  • This superb pressing boasts Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sound throughout – just shy of our Shootout Winner
  • We go CRAZY for the breathy multi-tracked female vocals and the layers of harmonies, the brilliant percussion, as well as the piano work and arrangements of Sergio himself
  • “The Look of Love” and “With a Little Help from My Friends” are the epitome of the group’s ability to create Bossa Nova Magic
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Sergio Mendes took a deep breath, expanded his sound to include strings lavishly arranged by the young Dave Grusin and Dick Hazard, went further into Brazil, and out came a gorgeous record of Brasil ’66 at the peak of its form.”

As you may have noticed, we here at Better Records are HUGE Sergio Mendes fans. Nowhere else in the world of music can you find the wonderfully diverse thrills that this group offers. We go CRAZY for the girls’ breathy multi-tracked vocals and the layers and layers of harmonies, the brilliant percussion, and, let us never forget, the crucially important, always tasteful keyboards and arrangements of Sergio himself.

Most copies of Look Around are grainy, shrill, thin, veiled, smeary and full of compressor distortion in the loud parts. Clearly, this is not a recipe for audiophile listening pleasure. Our Hot Stamper pressings are the ones that are as far from that kind of sound as we can find them. We’re looking for the records that have none of those bad qualities. I’m happy to report that we have managed to find some awfully good sounding copies for our Hot Stamper customers. (more…)