record-experiments

Graham Nash’s Wild Tales and Their Mysteries Many and Deep

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What hurts so many pressings of this album is a lifeless, compressed quality and a lack of presence. Were the stampers a bit worn for those copies, or was it bad vinyl that couldn’t hold the energy of the stamper, or perhaps some stampers just weren’t cut right — these are mysteries, and they are mysteries that will always be mysteries, if for no other reason than that the number of production variables hopelessly intertwined at the moment of creation can never be teased apart no matter how hard one thinks about them. As we like to say at every turn, thinking is really not much help with regard to finding better sounding records.

Not surprisingly, we’ve found that cleaning them and playing them seems to work the best. They work the best because nothing else works at all.

What More Can You Ask For

What happens when you clean and play a bunch of copies? You come to recognize what the best ones are doing what the average ones aren’t. And the effect of that understanding on this particular title was simply to recognize the nature of this project, that these are a great bunch of well-crafted songs played with energy and enthusiasm by a very talented group of top flight musicians, totally in sync with each other. This is what they were trying to do, and really, what more do you want?
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The More Mistakes the Better, Part Three

Making More Mistakes

It’s the Secret to Success – Ours, Yours and Everybody Else’s

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“The essence of success is that it is never necessary to think of a new idea oneself. It is far better to wait until somebody else does it, and then to copy him in every detail, except his mistakes.” ~Aubrey Menen

Indeed, if only that were possible. Our approach to Hot Stampers and How to Find Them is certainly a revolutionary new idea, and undoubtedly the only way of discovering records with proven superior sound quality.

But even if we were to publish all of our secrets — the stamper numbers and labels and countries of origin of all the best pressings we’ve ever played, every last one — that would still not be the answer, for the simple reason that no two records sound the same.

As long as that’s true, either we have to play a pile of records to find the best sounding ones, or you do. There is no other way to do it.

But at the very least, with commentaries such as this one, we hope we can be helpful in pointing the analog record lover in the right direction. Follow us. What we do can work for anyone — anyone who’s willing to make mistakes that is. (more…)

Bob Dylan / The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Mono Versus Stereo

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The noisy (aren’t they all?) mono copy we keep around as a reference presents Dylan and his guitar in a starkly immediate, clear and unprocessed way. The stereo version of the album is simply that sound with some light stereo reverb added.

More than anything else, on some tracks the mono pressing sounds like a demo. It’s as if the engineers threw up a mic or two, set the EQ for flat and proceeded to roll tape. This is a good sound for what it is, but it has a tendency toward dryness, perhaps not on all of the tracks but clearly on some. Certainly the first track on side one can have that drier sound.

What the stereo reverb does is fill out the sound of Dylan’s voice respectfully.

The engineers of the late ’50 and ’60s had a tendency to drown their singers in heavy reverb, as anyone who’s ever played an old Tony Bennett or Dean Martin album knows all too well.

But a little reverb actually benefits the vocals of our young Mr. Dylan on The Times They Are A-Changin’, and there is an easy way to test that proposition. When you hit the mono button on your preamp or phono stage, the reverb disappears, leaving the vocal more clear and more present, but also more dry and thin. You may like it better that way. Obviously, to some degree this is a matter of taste.

The nice thing about this stereo copy, assuming you have a mono switch in your system (which you should; they’re very handy), is that you have the option of hearing it both ways and deciding for yourself which approach you find more involving and enjoyable — if not necessarily truthful.

We suspect your preference will be both listener- and system-dependent. Isn’t it better to have the option and be able to make that determination for yourself? (more…)

Chicago II – Why Does Side Four Tend to Be the Best Sounding Side?

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There is one, and really only one, major problem with the sound of this album — too many overdubs, meaning too many generations of tape on too many instruments. There are easily three and four generations of tape on some of the tracks, probably more, all causing compression and a loss of transient information. When the drums sound like cardboard boxes being hit with wet noodles it’s because they recorded them early on and then bounced their tracks down to another track and then bounced that track down to another track until what’s left sounds like an cassette tape you made of a song playing on the radio. Yes, it’s that bad.

Best Evidence?

Side four. Side four is on most copies almost always the best sounding side. It’s also the side with the simplest arrangements, which means it probably has the fewest overdubs. The second track on side four is an obvious example. It’s mostly just bass, drums, flute, vocal and guitar, sonic elements which would more or less fit on the eight tracks of their eight track machine.

Listen to how real and immediate the sound is. You don’t hear that sound on the rest of the album because the rest of the album has multiple horn overdubs, multiple vocal overdubs and all kinds of percussion overdubs everywhere you look. Foreigner used 48 tracks to record Dirty White Boy. Chicago had eight to record their much more complex arrangements. The result? They found themselves running out of tracks over and over again, resulting in reductions and further reductions, piling losses upon losses. This album is the poster boy for bad planning in the studio.

Not So Fast

Or is it? To our surprise we actually did manage to find at least one amazing side for each of the four sides of the album. Of course almost none of the hot sides mated with any of the others, meaning that the only way to get a complete album was to have at least two copies from which to play the best sides.

Meaning that bad pressing quality and bad mastering quality had to have been the principle cause of the mediocre sound of many of the copies we played. This is easily demonstrated by the fact that the stampers found on the best copies are sometimes the stampers found on the worst.

What Stampers Mean

Stampers mean something, but sometimes, as is the case here, they don’t mean much. (If you don’t know that by now you probably haven’t done that many big shootouts on your own. Can’t blame you — without lots of helpers in the cleaning and needle-dropping departments they’d be an even bigger pain than they already are. Even with three people involved it can still take almost all day, and that’s if you just happen to have ten or fifteen copies handy. It took us about two years to find that many, shopping at multiple stores weekly.) (more…)

Building a Store of Knowledge, One Record at a Time

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We recently ran across the commentary below in a reply to a Hot Stamper testimonial for Honky Cat. Based on our own experience, we give a quick and dirty primer on how one can build up one’s knowledge of records, stampers, labels, pressing variations and the like. 

We don’t really give out much in the way of specific information about any of those things; we just tell you how it can be done. It’s your job to go out and do it. It’s simple; just follow our lead. How tough can it be?

How We Find Them

Phil wondered how we could find such an amazing sounding record, which in this case is a rhetorical question. Phil knows exactly how we find them, because he shops at the same L.A. stores we do and finds a few himself — the only way it can be done, the old-fashioned way. We buy them, clean them and play them, just like Phil does.

The difference these days is one of scale. With five or six people here cleaning and playing records every day, we can probably shootout forty or fifty or even a hundred times as many records as any single person working by himself could. And to find the raw material (LPs, what else?) it helps immensely if you live in a major city like L.A., where records, even high-quality ones, are still abundant, if not ubiquitous.

After a shootout one of my favorite things to do is to jot down the stampers for the hottest copies. I then head right out to my favorite record stores to search through the bins and — even better — the overstock underneath. So many times I’ve thrilled to the purchase of an album with exactly the right stampers that very day, a copy that I would never have known to buy had we not just done the shootout.

Streamlining the Process

This is how record knowledge builds: one LP at a time. To that end we’ve streamlined the system of finding Hot Stampers, turning the process into a rough kind of science and devoting well over a hundred manhours a week to the effort. It’s time-consuming and expensive, but every week we find Hot Stamper copies of great albums that MURDER the competition, in the process often dramatically changing our expectations of how good that music can sound. (more…)

When I (We?) First Started Doing Shootouts, They Would Sometimes Go on for Days

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Reviews and Commentaries for After the Gold Rush

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Our first Hot Stamper listing from back in 2005 talked about what a struggle it was doing them at first. Back then, with not much in the way of staff, I often had to put the records on the table one at a time and do all the listening and note-taking myself. For our first Hot Stamper listing I wrote:

A record like this might go through 4 or 5 stages of cleaning and listening and cleaning again. I spent many hours listening to the various copies I played over the course of two days, first one track, then another, this copy, then that one. There’s no other way to do it. There’s no shortcut. There’s no substitute for hard work.

If you can call it that. It ain’t too hard playing a great album over and over again. Some people — myself included — might even call it fun. And now I love this album more than I ever did. I feel like I have come to know it. I’m positively thrilled to finally know how good it really is!

Isn’t that why we audiophiles go through all this shite, as the Brits say? When I hear a piece of familiar music sound better than I ever thought I would hear it, better than I ever imagined it, it’s everything to me. It’s the biggest thrill I know of in audio. It’s what I live for. If you like that feeling, this is the record for you!

One of Those Records

Is this one of those records in your collection that you wished had better sound, because the music is so wonderful? Well it does have better sound — just not on the copy you own.

The reason a record like this needs to sell for this kind of serious bread is because there just aren’t that many clean copies that have survived; there aren’t that many copies with these stampers; and there aren’t that many copies that were pressed just right, the way this one was. I’ve been picking up originals of this record for 20 years. I pick up every clean copy that I see. People loved this album and beat it to death. Who can blame them? It’s a masterpiece. I’d say it’s actually a better album than Harvest, and Harvest is about as good as it gets.

I don’t know how long it’s going to be before I find another copy that sounds like this one, but I’m guessing it’s going to be a long time. How many bad domestic rock records did I have to play in order to find a record that sounds like this? A hundred? More?! Who knows? It was a lot, that’s for damn sure.


MORE MUST OWN TITLES

Well Recorded Rock & Pop Albums – The Core Collection

Our Current Rock & Pop Top 100 List

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…)

White Hot and Soaring Ever Higher!

Hot Stampers of The Eagles Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for The Eagles’ Debut

One of our good customers has started a blog which he calls

A GUIDE FOR THE BUDDING ANALOG AUDIOPHILE

Below is a link to a comparison Robert Brook carried out with a his copy of The Eagles first album and one of ours.

WHITE HOT! and Soaring Ever HIGHER!

Black, Green, Yellow, Orange – Which Contemporary Label Has the Best Sound?

Contemporary Jazz Records Available Now

Reviews and Commentaries for Contemporary Jazz

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Our Hot Stamper commentary from a long-ago shootout we had done for the wonderful Helen Humes album Songs I Like to Sing discusses the sonic characteristics we find most commonly associated with the various Contemporary labels.

This Contemporary Black Label Original LP has that classic tube-mastered sound — warmer, smoother, and sweeter than the later pressings, with more breath of life. Overall the sound is well-balanced and tonally correct from top to bottom, which is rare for a black label Contemporary, as they are usually dull and bass-heavy.

We won’t buy them locally anymore unless they can be returned. I’ve got a box full of Contemporarys with bloated bass and no top end that I don’t know what to do with.

Like most mediocre-to-bad sounding records around here, they just sit in a box taking up space. All of our time and effort goes into putting good pressings on the site and in the mailings. It’s hard to get motivated to do anything with the leftovers. We paid plenty for them, so we don’t want to give them away, but they don’t sound good, so most of our customers won’t buy them.

What to do, what to do? Ebay I guess, but that’s a long way down the road. It’s too much fun doing listings for good records these days to want to stop now. The average record is just average, and nothing is ever going to change that!

We shot this out against a variety of later pressings. The Black Label copies have a bit of echo added to the vocals and have the attributes listed above — warmth, sweetness, presence, and immediacy. The later pressings offer superior clarity and resolution. I wouldn’t say one is necessarily better than the other; it’s really more a matter of taste.

More on the subject of Record Labels.

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The Most Serious Fault of the Typical Half-Speed Mastered LP – Dead-as-a-Doornail Sound

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Reviews and Commentaries for Revolver

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The most serious fault of the typical Half-Speed Mastered LP is not incorrect tonality or poor bass definition, although you will have a hard time finding one that doesn’t suffer from both.

It’s Dead As A Doornail sound, plain and simple.

And most Heavy Vinyl pressings coming down the pike these days are as guilty of this sin as their audiophile forerunners from the ’70s. The average Sundazed record I throw on my turntable sounds like it’s playing in another room. What audiophile in his right mind could possibly find that quality appealing?

But Sundazed and other companies just like them keep turning out this crap. Somebody must be buying it.

So how does the famous MoFi pressing of Revolver sound? In a word, clean. Also not as crude as the average British import, and far better than any Japanese or domestic pressing we heard.

But it’s dead, man. It’s just so dead.

The current record holder for Most Compressed Mobile Fidelity Record of All Time? This shockingly bad sounding release, a record I admit to owning and liking back in the ’80s. I had an awful lot of expensive equipment back then, but it sure wasn’t helping me recognize how bad some of my records were.

How many audiophiles are where I used to be? Based on what I read on audiophile forums, and the kinds of audiophile pressings I see discussed on youtube videos, it seems that most of them are.

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