Please note that as a matter of policy we no longer give Four Pluses to any record.
That doesn’t mean we don’t come across records that deserve that grade from time to time, but nowadays those mind-blowing copies are just called 3+, White Hot, for purposes of consistency and credibility.
No more moving the goalposts here at Better Records! On to our story.
A while back we did a monster-sized shootout for Blood, Sweat and Tears’ second release, an album we consider THE Best Sounding Rock Record of All Time. In the midst of the discussion of a particular pressing that completely blew our minds — a copy we gave a Hot Stamper grade of A with Four Pluses, the highest honor we can bestow upon it — various issues arose, issues such as: How did this copy get to be so good? and What does it take to find such a copy? and, to paraphrase David Byrne, How did it get here?
Which brings us to this commentary, which centers around the concept of outliers.
Wikipedia defines an outlier this way: “In statistics, an outlier is an observation that is numerically distant from the rest of the data.” In other words, it’s something that is very far from normal. In the standard bell curve distribution pictured below, the outliers are at the far left and far right, far from the vast majority of the data which is in the middle.
In the world of records, most copies of any title you care to name would be average sounding. The vertical line in the center of the graph shows probability; the highest probability is that any single copy of a record will be at the top of the curve near the middle, which means it will simply be average. The closer to the vertical line it is, the more average it will be. As you move away from the vertical line, the data point — the record — becomes less and less average. As you move away from the center, to the left or the right, the record is either better sounding or worse sounding than average.
Hot Stampers are simply those copies that, for whatever reason, are far to the right of center, far “better” than the average. And as the curve above demonstrates, there are a lot fewer of them than there are copies in the middle.
Measuring the Record
Malcolm Gladwell has a bestselling and highly entertaining book about outliers out now which I recommend to all. Last year I read The Black Swan (or as much of it as I could stand given how poorly written it is) which talks about some of these same issues. Hot Stampers can be understood to a large degree by understanding statistical distributions. Why statistics you ask? Simple. We can’t tell what a record is going to sound like until we play it. For all practical purposes we are buying them randomly and “measuring” them to see where they fall on the curve. We may be measuring them using a turntable and registering the data aurally, but it’s still very much measurement and it’s still very much data that we are recording.
No Theory, Just Data
Many of these ideas were addressed in the recent shootout we did for BS&T’s second album. We played a large number of copies (the data), we found a few amazing ones (the outliers), and we tried to determine how many copies it really takes to find those records that sound so amazing they defy not only conventional wisdom, but understanding itself. We don’t know what causes these records to sound so good. We know ’em when we hear ’em and that’s pretty much all we can say we really know. Everything else is speculation and guesswork.
We have data. What we don’t have is a theory that explains that data.
And it simply won’t do to ignore the data because we can’t explain it. Hot Stamper Deniers are those members of the audiophile community who, when faced with something they don’t want to be true, simply manufacture reasons why it can’t or shouldn’t be true. That’s not science. Practicing science means following the data wherever it leads. The truth is found in the record’s grooves and nowhere else. If you don’t think record collecting is a science, you’re not doing it right.