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The Rolling Stones / Exile On Main Street – A Good Test for Grit and Grain

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More Records that Are Good for Testing Grit and Grain

The best copies will tend to have the qualities detailed below, and the more abundant these qualities are on any given pressing, the higher its grade will be.

Yes, it is a science, an empirical one, which can only be carried out by the use of strict protocols and controls, but it sure ain’t rocket science. All you need is the system, the room, the records, the time and the will to do the painstaking critical listening required to carry out the task.

It can be done, but you could spend a lifetime meeting audiophiles of the vinyl persuasion and never run into a single one who has made the effort more than a handful of times.

To be honest, shootouts are a bitch. If you aren’t getting paid to do them the way we are, finding the motivation to devote the time and energy required to do them right — not to mention the piles of copies of each record you will need — is daunting to say the least.

So, back to the question: what to listen for? (more…)

The Doobie Brothers – Stampede

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  • With two seriously good Double Plus (A++) sides, this copy has a lot going for it – exceptionally quiet vinyl for the most part too
  • These sides are rich and full, with punchy bass and plenty of rockin’-down-the-highway Doobies energy – thanks Donn Landee, you da man
  • Contains contributions from such guest musicians as Maria Muldaur, Ry Cooder, and Curtis Mayfield
  • Allmusic 4 1/2 stars: “The Doobie Brothers’ rootsiest album to date, Stampede was virtuoso soulful countrified rock of a gritty nature, crossing over into blues as well as reaching back to a raw, traditional rock & roll sound…”

The average copy of this album is compressed and congested, recessed and veiled, grainy and thin; in other words, it sounds like an old Doobie Brothers album. It takes a copy like this one to show you just how good the Master Tape must be.

And if we hadn’t had plenty of copies to play with, we would never have found this one. (more…)

Carly Simon / No Secrets – Listening in Depth

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Balance is key to getting all the tracks to sound their best. Many copies we played were too dull or too bright.

One more note: having your VTA set just right is critical to getting the best out of this album. The loudest vocal parts can easily strain otherwise. Once you get your settings dialed in correctly, a copy like this will give you the kind of rich, sweet sound that brings out the best in this music.

Two Points

Listen to Embrace Me, You Child on side two — on the best copies you can really hear the rosiny texture of the strings as they are bowed.

The cymbals can sound amazing — listen to how extended the crashes are on You’re So Vain.

(more…)

Elton John / Self-Titled – In Audio, We Live and Learn, Or At Least We’re Supposed To

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Reviews and Commentaries for Elton John’s Self-Titled Second Album

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A classic case of Live and Learn.

Scroll down to read what we learned from our from a while back. To illustrate how the game is played we’ve copied some of the previous commentary into this listing to show the change in our understanding from 2004 to about 2010 or so, which is when all this was probably written.

Live and Learn, Part One

These domestic original pressings have the very same stamper numbers as the British pressings. It appears that the metalwork was produced in England and shipped to America for pressing on domestic vinyl. What’s strange is that the American pressings are consistently brighter than the British pressings. Why this should be is a mystery, but I have a theory to explain it. The British stampers are used to make British LPs on that lovely see-through purple vinyl, and I’m guessing that that compound is a little smoother sounding than the vinyl that Uni uses. Either that or there is some other way that Uni produces their records so that they end up being brighter, even using the exact same stampers as the British ones.”

Partly true. We have five British copies in stock, and the reason they don’t sound as good probably has less to do with British vinyl and more to do with the fact that the British ones we have are not the stampers we like the best. The domestic pressings with our favorite stampers have more highs and better highs and just plain sound better to us now.

Notice how I completely contradict myself below, yet both listings were up on the site all this time and nobody, especially me, seems to have noticed.

Live and Learn, Part Two

These original British pressings, with the lovely see-through purple vinyl, are the only good sounding versions of this album that I have ever heard. As you can imagine they are extremely difficult to come by in clean condition.

What is there to say about such a bald-faced turnabout? Simple. We make our judgments based on the records we have on hand to play. When better pressings come along, or our equipment improves to the point where we can appreciate other pressings, we will happily and unhesitatingly report what we hear.

There is not now, nor can there ever be, an absolutely correct answer to the question, “Which is the best version of Record X?”

All knowledge is provisional. We do the best we can, and we think we do it better than anybody else. That said, we keep our minds and our ears open to new and better pressings whenever they come our way. (If the remastered Blue had sounded good, I would have been perfectly happy to say so and sell them to all our customers like crazy. But that was not to be, not for any reason other than the record just didn’t sound right to us. Maybe someday I will come to appreciate it more — can’t say I won’t — but I’m sure not holding my breath until then.) (more…)

Cat Stevens – Mona Bone Jakon

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More Reviews and Commentaries for Mona Bone Jakon

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  • With Triple Plus (A+++) sound on the first side and solid Double Plus (A++) sound on the second, this copy of Cat Stevens’ brilliant third album will be very hard to beat
  • So transparent, open, and spacious, nuances and subtleties that escaped you are now revealed as never before 
  • When you play I Wish I Wish and I Think I See The Light on this vintage pressing, we think you will agree with us that this is one of the greatest Folk Rock albums of them all
  • “A delight, and because it never achieved the Top 40 radio ubiquity of later albums, it sounds fresh and distinct.”

So many copies excel in some areas but fall flat in others. This side one has it ALL going on — all the Tubey Magic, all the energy, all the presence and so on. The sound is high-rez yet so natural, free from the phony hi-fi-ish quality that you hear on many pressings, especially the reissues on the second label.

Right off the bat, I want to say this is a work of GENIUS. Cat Stevens made three records that belong in the Pantheon of greatest popular recordings of all time. In the world of Folk Pop, Mona Bone Jakon, Teaser and the Firecat and Tea for the Tillerman have few peers. There may be other Folk Pop recordings that are as good but we know of none that are better.

Mike Bobak was the engineer for these sessions from 1970. He is the man responsible for some of the best sounding records from the early ’70s: The Faces’ Long Player, Cat Stevens’ Mona Bone Jakon, Rod Stewart’s Never a Dull Moment, The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One, (and lots of other Kinks albums), Carly Simon’s Anticipation and more than his share of obscure English bands (of which there seems to be a practically endless supply).

Tubey Magical Acoustic Guitar reproduction is superb on the better copies of this album. Simply phenomenal amounts of Tubey Magic can be heard on every strum, along with the richness, body and harmonic coherency that have all but disappeared from modern recordings (and remasterings). (more…)

Blondie – Parallel Lines

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Reviews and Commentaries for Parallel Lines

  • With a Triple Plus (A+++) Shootout Winning side one and a Double Plus (A++) side two, this copy had some of the best sound we have ever heard for Parallel Lines
  • The energy and enthusiasm of the band on this Retro Power Pop Classic really comes through here, and that’s not a claim you can make about very many copies
  • There’s not a bad song to be found anywhere, and lots of great ones: One Way Or Another, Heart Of Glass, Hanging On The Telephone, etc.
  • 5 stars: “Blondie’s best album,” which is actually a bit of an understatement – it’s by far their best album

All the Blondie magic you could ever want is in these grooves. The truly powerful sound of this Power Pop Classic really comes through on this bad boy — and that’s simply not a claim you could make about too many copies out there in record land, which tend to be flat, opaque and compressed. Not so here. This one just plain ROCKS.

Can this kind of music get any better? This album is a MASTERPIECE of Pure Pop, ranking right up there with The Cars first album. I can’t think of many albums from the era with the perfect blend of writing, production and musicianship under the guidance of producer Mike Chapman (The Knack) Blondie achieved with Parallel Lines.

As expected, if you clean and play enough copies of a standard domestic major label album such as Parallel Lines eventually you will stumble upon The One, and boy did we ever. The very best copies in our recent shootout were OFF THE CHARTS with presence, breathy vocals, and punchy drums. On top of that they were positively swimming in studio ambience, with every instrument occupying its own space in the mix and surrounded by air. (more…)

Barney Kessel / Carmen – A Great Disc for Testing Transparency

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Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Barney Kessel

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We highly recommend you make every effort to find yourself a copy of this album and use it to test your system. The right pressing can be both a great Demo Disc and a great Test Disc.

Transparency Is Key

The best Hot Stamper Original pressings have the Tubey Magic we’ve come to expect from Contemporary circa 1958, with that warm, rich, full-bodied sound that RVG often struggles to get on tape. However, some pressings in our shootout managed to give us an extra level of transparency and ambience that most original pressings rarely did.

There’s a room around this drum kit. So many copies don’t show you that room, not if they have the full sound that a copy like this does.

It’s amazing all the detail you can hear in a leaned-out record, but what good is that? The sound is all leaned out.

If you like that sound, buy the OJC or the CD. Leave these originals to those of us who are after this sound. (more…)

James Taylor / One Man Dog – Quick Listening Tests

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If you have a Hot Side One for One Man Dog you will know it in a hurry. The guitars and congas will leap out of your speakers at the beginning of One Man Parade.

If they don’t, forget it, move along to the next copy and keep going until you find one in which they do. There are plenty of subtle cues to separate the White Hot copies from the merely Hot, but if the sound doesn’t come to life right from the get go, it never will.

Side Two Has Bells

The first track is a bit dull on even the best copies, so don’t lose hope if your first track sounds rolled off. They almost all do. One Morning in May, the second track and the one featuring Linda Ronstadt on background vocals, is a much better test, as is track three, Instrumental II, the one with the lovely bells.

Wte paid a lot of attention to the bells on Instrumental II to help us get a handle on the top end. Sure enough, those bells are key to the best copies.

Fanfare is one of the few songs here with horns, so it became another key track. The horns need to have bite and texture, with the best copies really bringing out the breath in the sax. Any smearing or dulling of the sound and the horns go south in a hurry, along with the rest of the instruments. (more…)

Rickie Lee Jones – Pirates

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  • STUNNING sound on both sides of this original Warner Bros. white label pressing of Jones’ sophomore release with a Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) side two mated with an outstanding Double Plus (A++) side one
  • Forget whatever dead-as-a-doornail Heavy Vinyl record they’re making these days – if you want to hear the Tubey Magic, size and energy of this wonderful album, a vintage pressing like this one is the only way to go
  • Lee Herschberg recorded Rickie’s debut as well as this follow-up, and both can sound shockingly good
  • 4 stars: “The musical and lyrical variety on the album is best represented in the album’s centerpiece, ‘Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue),’ where she moves through mood and tempo changes with ease. Although the songs may not immediately grab the listener, the lyrical and musical complexities ultimately make this album more rewarding with every listen.”

(more…)

James Taylor / Sweet Baby James

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Reviews and Commentaries for Sweet Baby James

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  • This STUNNING copy of Sweet Baby James boasts Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it from start to finish – exceptionally quiet vinyl too, especially for this album
  • All that lovely echo is a dead giveaway that this pressing has resolution far beyond that of the others you may have heard (and of course the Rhino Heavy Vinyl)
  • Top 100, inarguably a Masterpiece – Fire and Rain and Suite for 20 G (one of JT’s All Time Best) are killer here
  • 5 stars: “Sweet Baby James launched not only Taylor’s career as a pop superstar but also the entire singer/songwriter movement of the early ’70s that included Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and others…”

Vocal reproduction is key to the best sounding copies of Sweet Baby James, as it is on so many Singer Songwriter albums from the era.

To find a copy where Taylor’s vocals are front and center — which is exactly where they should be — but still rich, sweet, tonally correct and Tubey Magical is no mean feat. Only the best copies manage to pull it off.

Out of the dozen or more Green Label early pressings we play every year, relatively few have the full complement of midrange magic we know the best copies can have. As a rule of thumb, the hotter the stamper, the better the vocal reproduction on that copy.

Hot Stamper sound is rarely about the details of a given recording. In the case of this album, more than anything else a Hot Stamper must succeed at recreating a solid, palpable, real James Taylor singing live in your listening room. The better copies have an uncanny way of doing just that. (more…)