Top Producers – Peter Asher

Linda Ronstadt – Hasten Down The Wind

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Hot Stamper Pressing on the Asylum Label

  • A vintage Asylum pressing that earned outstanding Double Plus (A++) grades or close to them from first note to last
  • This copy is doing pretty much everything right, particularly on side two — huge, rich and lively, with Linda’s vocals reproduced to near perfection
  • “Her big but pretty voice is a stunning instrument for expressing feelings, particularly intense feelings that require a slightly understated delivery… a fine album that begs closer inspection than, I fear, many of us are willing to give to Linda Ronstadt’s art. Like the best moments of the preceding nine, though, the best moments of Hasten Down the Wind will be with us a long, long time.”
  • If you’re a fan of the lovely Ms Ronstadt, her 1976 release is surely one that belongs in your collection
  • The complete list of titles from 1976 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here

The sound is rich, smooth, full-bodied and natural on both sides. In other words, this is Classic Analog from the ’70s, recorded by none other than Val Garay, one of our favorite engineers.

Most pressings of this album have quite obvious problems. If you own the record see if you don’t notice some of them on your own copy.

Some have a phony boosted top end, a subject we have discussed on Linda’s records before.

Some are just too fat and Tubey. Perhaps the result of too much Aphex Aural Excitement?

Some are thick, some are thin, some are too clean, some are not clean enough, every sonic issue you can imagine can be heard on this album if you have enough copies to play, and we had plenty.

We know that this copy is about as correct as can be. We know because we cleaned and played it and listened to it critically in comparison to other copies, and we did it all by ourselves. (Of course we did. There’s really no other way to do it.)

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James Taylor / Dad Loves His Work – Our Shootout Winner from 2011

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This Hot Stamper original Columbia is THE KING, the Best Sounding Copy we have ever played — the sound was OUT OF THIS WORLD! In fact, side two went so far beyond what we’ve come to expect from this album that we had to award it the rare Four Plus (A++++) grade.

We no longer give Four Pluses out as a matter of policy, but that doesn’t mean we don’t come across records that deserve them from time to time.

Even recordings that are as heavily processed as this one. We don’t have a problem with that approach when it works as well as it does here. Mud Slide Slim this is not. It’s also 1981, not 1971. We prefer the recordings from 1971, undeniably the Golden Age for rock and pop recording quality[1], but we know that to expect the sound of the ’70s in 1981 would simply be setting oneself up for disappointment.

Those days are gone, as are the amazing sounding pressings that came out then, and nobody, repeat nobody, pressing records today can figure out how they did it.

The soundstage and depth on our best Hot Stamper copies is HUGE — this is without a doubt the most spacious recording by James Taylor we’ve ever heard. If you want your speakers to disappear, replaced by a huge studio full of musicians playing their hearts out, this is the album that can do it.

But of course there’s a lot more to the sound of the best copies than a big soundstage.

Tonality is key.

As usually happens in these shootouts, we learned that there’s so much more to this album than just great songs. What really makes this music work on the best copies was the result of two qualities we found were in fairly short supply:

(1) Correct Tonality

Most copies have a phony MoFi-like top end boost in the 10k region that we found irritating as hell. The longer we listened the less we liked the copies that had that boost, which adds a kind of “sparkle” to cymbals and guitars that has no business being there.

Now if you’re a MoFi fan and you like the boosted highs that label is famous for, don’t waste your money buying a Hot Stamper copy from us. Our copies are the ones with the correct and more natural-sounding top end. The guitars will sound like real guitars and the voices will sound like real voices.

(2) Lower Midrange and Bottom End Weight

When the vocals sound thin, bright and phony, as they do on so many copies of this album (partly no doubt the result of the grainy crap vinyl Columbia is infamous for) that hi-fi-ish sound takes all the fun out of the music. Many tracks have background vocals and big choruses, and the best copies make all the singers sound like they are standing in a big room, shoulder to shoulder, with the full lower midrange weight that that image implies.

The good copies capture that energy and bring it into the mix with the full-bodied sound it no doubt had live in the studio. When the EQ or the vinyl goes awry, causing Taylor and crew’s voices to take on a lean or gritty quality, the party’s over.

Transparency and That Feeling of Reality

Transparency is always a big deal on pop recordings such as this. Of course this has to be a multi-miked, multi-tracked, overdubbed pop record — they don’t make them any other way — but it doesn’t have to FEEL like one.

When you get a good copy it feels like all these guys are live in the studio. They may have their own mics, and are certainly being placed artificially in the soundfield to suit the needs of the track (kick drum here, hand-claps over there), but the transparency of the killer pressings makes them sound like they are all in the same room playing together, clearly occupying their own share of the space in the studio.

This is one of our favorite Taylor albums here at Better Records. It’s the last album by the man that bears any resemblance to the genius of his early work. It’s steeply, steeply downhill after DLHW. (Case in point: His specials for PBS of the last few years are a positive cure for insomnia, with every song slowed down and all the energy drained from the material.)

But he still had fire in his belly when he made this one — one listen to Stand and Fight is all the evidence you need; the song rocks as hard as anything the guy ever did. (And it’s got plenty of cowbell, always a good sign.)

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James Taylor – Two Qualities Are Hard to Come By on This Album

More of the Music of James Taylor

More Rock and Pop Personal Favorites

The soundstage and depth on our Hot Stamper copies is HUGE — this is without a doubt the most spacious recording by James Taylor we’ve ever heard. If you want your speakers to disappear, replaced by a huge studio full of musicians playing their hearts out, this is the album that can do it.

But of course there’s a lot more to the sound of the best copies than a big soundstage.

Tonality is key.

As usually happens in these shootouts, we learned that there’s so much more to this album than just great songs. What really makes this music work on the best copies was the result of two qualities we found were in fairly short supply:

(1) Correct Tonality

Most copies have a phony MoFi-like top end boost in the 10k region that we found irritating as hell. The longer we listened the less we liked the copies that had that boost, which adds a kind of “sparkle” to cymbals and guitars that has no business being there.

Now if you’re a MoFi fan and you like the boosted highs that that label is famous for, don’t waste your money buying a Hot Stamper copy from us. Our copies are the ones with the correct and more natural-sounding top end. The guitars will sound like real guitars and the voices will sound like real voices.

(2) Lower Midrange and Bottom End Weight

When the vocals sound thin, bright and phony, as they do on so many copies of this album (partly no doubt the result of the grainy crap vinyl Columbia is infamous for) that hi-fi-ish sound takes all the fun out of the music. Many tracks have background vocals and big choruses, and the best copies make all the singers sound like they are standing in a big room, shoulder to shoulder, with the full lower midrange weight that that image implies.

The good copies capture that energy and bring it into the mix with the full-bodied sound it no doubt had live in the studio. When the EQ or the vinyl goes awry, causing Taylor and crew’s voices to take on a lean or gritty quality, the party’s over.

Transparency and That Feeling of Reality

Transparency is always a big deal on pop recordings such as this. Of course this has to be a multi-miked, multi-tracked, overdubbed pop record — they don’t make them any other way — but it doesn’t have to FEEL like one.

When you get a good copy it feels like all these guys are live in the studio. They may have their own mics, and are certainly being placed artificially in the soundfield to suit the needs of the track (kick drum here, hand-claps over there), but the transparency of the killer pressings makes them sound like they are all in the same room playing together, clearly occupying their own share of the space in the studio.

This is one of our favorite Taylor albums here at Better Records. It’s the last album by the man that bears any resemblance to the genius of his early work. It’s steeply, steeply downhill after DLHW. (Case in point: His specials for PBS of the last few years are a positive cure for insomnia, with every song slowed down and all the energy drained from the material.)

But he still had fire in his belly when he made this one — one listen to Stand and Fight is all the evidence you need; the song rocks as hard as anything the guy ever did. (And it’s got plenty of cowbell, always a good sign.

(more…)

James Taylor – Flag

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  • Taylor’s 1979 release returns to the site with INCREDIBLE Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades or close to them throughout this vintage Columbia pressing – fairly quiet vinyl too
  • The best sides have Tubey Magical acoustic guitars, sweet vocals, huge amounts of space, breathtaking transparency, and so much more
  • Credit the engineering chops of Val Garay – the guy makes these sort of Demo Disc Quality Pop Records about as good as they can be made
  • Musically this is one of JT’s most underrated albums – it’s a Better Records Top Recommendation and Must Own LP

From the opening notes you will be amazed at how good this album sounds. As far as JT’s recordings go, it’s right up there at the top. Like his album JT, which came just before this one, the best copies of this record are smooth, rich, punchy and have great bass.

The average copy of this record is dreadful. All the recuts that were done by Columbia that I’ve ever heard are garbage. There are a number of different stampers for both sides one and two and it’s almost impossible to find two good sides on the same album.

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James Taylor – Self-Titled

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More Debut Recordings of Interest

  • An early UK Apple pressing of James Taylor’s debut LP with excellent sound from start to finish – fairly quiet vinyl too
  • Big, rich and solid on both sides, with a more relaxed, musical quality, as well as the clarity that was missing from most other copies we played
  • Listen for Paul McCartney on bass and an uncredited George Harrison providing backing vocals on “Carolina In My Mind”
  • 4 1/2 stars: “The absolute conviction that runs throughout this music takes the listener into its confidence and with equal measures of wit, candor, and sophistication, James Taylor created a minor masterpiece…”

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James Taylor – JT

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More of Our Favorite Artists’ Best Sounding Albums

  • This STUNNING copy of Taylor’s breakthrough album from 1977 boasts Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or close to it on both sides
  • It’s a superb recording – a member of our Top 100, in fact – but it takes a pressing like this to show you just how BIG and LIVELY it can sound
  • The big hits “Your Smiling Face” and “Handy Man” both sound great here – thanks Val Garay!
  • This and Sweet Baby James are the man’s best recordings, and his best albums too, but he has so many great albums that it almost seems unfair to him to point that out
  • 4 stars: “JT was James Taylor’s best album since Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon because it acknowledged the darkness of his earlier work while explaining the deliberate lightness of his current viewpoint, and because it was his most consistent collection in years.”

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Linda Ronstadt – Get Closer

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  • 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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James Taylor / One Man Dog – A Personal Favorite and Forgotten Gem

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Which of these copies has Hot Stampers?

That’s easy – just check the notes!

Of course this is far too many copies to have in one shootout, so some quick and dirty triage is the only way to get this group down to a manageable number, typically ten to twelve.

  • Big, rich and solid on both sides, with an especially relaxed, musical quality – it also has the transparency and clarity that most of the copies we played could not offer
  • There is not a false note to be found on side one: it’s brilliant from start to finish and side two is almost as good – we love the Abbey Road-like medley that makes up most of it
  • “Taylor turns in his best singing performance, running through the songs with fire, force, and enthusiasm, the qualities most notable by their absence on earlier recordings.” Rolling Stone

Play Chili Dog here, one of our favorite tracks, and note not only the clarity and spaciousness, but the PUNCH and LIFE of the music. This song is supposed to be fun. The average compressed dull copy only hints at that fact.

Then skip on down to the hit at the end of the side, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight, another favorite track for testing. There’s a lot of bass in the mix on this track, but the best copies keep it under control. When it gets loose and starts blurring the midrange, the vocals and guitars seem “blocked”. The best copies let you hear all that meaty bass, as well as into the midrange.

One Man Dog, like many early WB pressings, has a tendency to be dull and opaque. (Most side twos have a real problem in that respect.) When you get one like this, with more of an extended top end, it tends to come with much more space, size, texture, transparency, ambience and openness.

Of course it does; that’s where much of that stuff is, up high. Most copies don’t have nearly enough of it, but thankfully this one does.

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

Linda Ronstadt – The Middle of the Midrange Is Key

More of the Music of Linda Ronstadt

More Records that Are Good for Testing Midrange Tonality

Here’s what we learned when doing our recent shootout: many copies sounded like they were half-speed mastered. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a lot of things. In this case, these half-speed sounding ones had a little something phony added to the top of Linda’s voice, they had a little bit of suckout right in the middle of the midrange, the middle of her voice, and they had an overall diffuse, vague quality, with sound that lacked the SOLIDITY we heard on the best pressings. 

These hi-fi-ish qualities that we heard on so many copies reminded us of the audiophile sound we decry at every turn. We’ve played literally hundreds and hundreds of MoFi’s and other half-speed mastered records over the course of the last twenty years, and one thing we know well is THAT SOUND.

Wait a Minute

But stop and think about it for a moment. What if you only had one copy of the album — why would you have more than one anyway? — and it had that Half-Speed Sound? You’d simply assume the recording had those qualities, assuming you could even recognize them in the first place. (Let’s face it, most audiophiles can’t, or all these companies that use this approach to mastering would have gone out of business and stayed out of business, and their out of print records would sell for peanuts, not the collector prices they bring on ebay and audiophile web sites.) (more…)

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.