Music

Three Essential Vinyl Demos

I’ve been a vinylphile since I was a child, when 78 RPM records like Debbie Reynolds’ “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” and Spike Jones’ “Hawaiian War Chant” captivated my young ears on my grandmother’s Victrola.

 

Here are three of my favorite demo discs for audio system and component evaluation and listening pleasure. In fact, I’d say you could tell everything you need to know about what your system is doing or where it’s falling short with these three records.

 

 

Bill Berry and His Ellington All Stars, For Duke

M&K Realtime RT-101

 

This LP attained audiophile-pantheon status shortly after it came out in 1978, and for good reason. It remains one of the most astonishingly well-recorded vinyl LPs ever. Unlike many “audiophile” discs with exceptional sonics and forgettable music, the playing is wonderful, with a jazz combo having a ball playing Ellington’s greatest hits, including “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll,” and “Mood Indigo.”

 

For Duke was recorded direct-to-disc—the performance was cut live directly to the master disc, a process that eliminates the sonic degradation and generation loss that comes with recording to analog tape and then cutting the disc from tape.

 

It shows. In particular, the dynamics are remarkable. A couple of minutes into “Take the A Train,” Berry takes a cornet solo that is literally startling—when he comes in, it’s all you can do not to flinch in surprise (as I did the first time I heard it). The drums are powerfully lifelike, as are all the instruments—Ray Brown’s bass is jaw dropping in its richness and presence. The recording is astoundingly pure and detailed. The tonal balance is near perfect.

 

We’ve all heard the cliché “It sounds like the musicians are in the room” to describe the sound of a good recording, but in this case, it really does sound like that. This record is hard to find and usually expensive, but hey, that’s part of the agony and the ecstasy of record collecting.

Fritz Reiner, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Scheherazade

Analogue Productions LSC-2446 re-issue of RCA “Living Stereo” original

 

While For Duke is renowned for its up-front perspective, Scheherazade puts the listener in an entirely different acoustic environment, with its realistic rendering of an orchestra in the concert hall. Recorded in 1960 by producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton and brilliantly performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by maestro Fritz Reiner, this Analogue Productions re-issue is nothing less than sensational.

vinyl demos

The tonal palette of the orchestra is beautifully conveyed, with sumptuous lows, a natural midrange, and the sweet, airy upper midrange and highs that let you know you’re hearing analog at its best. On a good system, you can clearly hear the character of the hall. The quiet parts are exquisite (Sidney Hart’s violin playing could not be more nuanced and expressive) and the fortes are thrilling.  My feeble words don’t begin to do this masterpiece justice.

 

For decades, the legendary original RCA Living Stereo recording was nearly impossible to find, with various vinyl re-issues ranging from mediocre to very good. No longer—this 2013 Analogue Productions re-issue is magnificent. In fact, while I don’t have an original pressing on hand for comparison (though I’ve heard it many times), no less an authority than Analog Planet’s Michael Fremer thinks this re-issue actually betters the storied original. I won’t argue.

New Order, “Blue Monday”

Factory Records Factus 10 (1983 US 12-inch single)

 

But want to know if your system can rock? All you need do is listen to the first Oberheim DMX drum-machine beats of New Order’s “Blue Monday,” the best-selling 12-inch single of all time (according to Wikipedia), and one of the most groundbreaking, genre-defining, walloping bowl-you-over dance-music singles ever. But don’t turn it up too loud or you might blow out your woofers.

 

“Blue Monday” is insanely powerful and dynamic, irresistibly catchy and moving. Back in the day, this would propel people to the dance floor with its mesmerizing mix of synth and Peter Hook’s unmistakable electric bass, its layered synthesizer washes and melodies, its pull-no-punches electronic drums, and Bernard Sumner’s dryly-delivered vocals. On a good audio system, it sounds massive.

 

My copy is an original 1983 US version with the die-cut cover (designed to resemble a floppy disc!) and silver inner sleeve, though not one of the first UK pressings with the “FAC 73” catalog number. There are literally more than 50 1983 vinyl US, UK, and international issues listed on Discogs (and there were also 1998 and 1995 remixes and numerous CD and digital versions), so I certainly can’t vouch for the sound quality of every one of them! But since the record sold so well, you shouldn’t have to do a Where’s Waldo to find a copy like mine. Put it on the turntable and stand back!

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

The Lost Art of Album Listening

album listening

I have a confession to make: I can no longer listen to an entire album in one sitting. I can binge-watch an entire season of Game of Thrones over a weekend, but I can’t devote 60 to 75 minutes of real concentration to absorb the latest creation from a favored musical artist. I get maybe six or seven songs in, then I just tune out. The music may still be playing, but my brain ain’t listening.

 

I would not call myself an audiophile, but I’m definitely a music junkie. For me, music is an indispensable part of each and every day—when I’m driving in the car, working at my desk, going for my daily walk, or making dinner. Music is always playing. The thing is, that music is always in the form of a playlist. I almost never listen to complete albums anymore, even my most treasured faves.

 

I’ve always been a playlist kind of gal, dating back to the days when playlists were called mix tapes. Oh, could I make a mean mix tape. The hours spent picking a theme, agonizing over song selection, and then arranging the songs just right to ensure that minimal time was left at the end of each side of the tape. Give me a mix tape that cut off part of a song, and I would think less of you as a human being. But there was a balance between my love of mix tapes and my love of albums. How do you think I found all the songs to mix?

 

Mix tapes evolved into CD mixes, which evolved into iTunes playlists, which evolved into Pandora artist-inspired radio stations, which evolved into curated playlists from Apple, Amazon, or Tidal. The ease of playlist listening, combined with the ability to buy just one song off any album, has simply removed “the album experience” from my repertoire . . . apparently to the point that I can’t even do it when I want to.

album listening

This became painfully obvious when I recently picked up U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience. We’re talking about my all-time favorite band here, and I was determined to sit down and really absorb the album from start to finish. Didn’t happen. Got distracted. The snarky response is that perhaps the album just isn’t good enough to merit my full attention, but how can I even make a fair assessment without one serious listen? Believe it or not, Achtung Baby didn’t jump out at me at first, and now it’s my favorite U2 album, start to finish.

 

It seems there is no “start to finish” anymore. I wonder, if I forced myself to use nothing but a CD player—to ban iTunes and all streaming music services—for six months, could my love of album listening be revived? Or are the days of sitting in front of the record player, reading liner notes, and learning lyrics far behind me? I could say I don’t have time for such indulgences, but the hard truth is that I don’t make time for it. I don’t give music the attention it deserves anymore.

 

As for liner notes, who can even read the text in CD packaging these days? Maybe that’s the real reason for vinyl’s resurgence—it’s not the sound quality, it’s the larger print.

    —Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at WirecutterAdrienne lives in Colorado,
where  she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

Record Care 101

If you keep your vinyl and stylus clean, you’ll be able to enjoy your records for many, many playings.

 

Keep the dust, dirt, oil, and sweat from your fingerprints, along with other contaminants, away from the record surface. Always handle records by the edgesnever grab them by the surface! Whenever I see somebody do that in a TV show or movie, I cringe.  (Guess the producers didn’t do their homework.)

 

After you put records back in their sleeves, put the sleeve into the album cover with the sleeve’s opening facing up, not with it facing to the right, aligned with the opening of the cover. I realize it’s easier to pull the record out if you don’t have to remove the sleeve from the cover, but doing it right will protect your LPs from dust and other schmutz. And storing records “sleeve up” keeps them from accidentally falling out.

 

Store your albums vertically, never laying one on top of another, which makes them susceptible to warping. And never pile bare records on top of each other. They’ll scratch and go from mint to mauled in no time.

 

Keep records away from extreme heat and humidity. I can’t tell you how many moldy records I’ve found in basements. Never store them in direct sunlight.

how to clean records

Before you play a record, clean it off with a record brush. This will remove dust that can cause ticks, pops, and record and stylus wear. (You can brush the record while it’s spinning on the turntable.)

 

Clean your stylus. The dust and contaminants that can accumulate there can cause distortion and even damage the stylus. But don’t use your fingertip! Use a brush specifically designed for stylus cleaning, and use a back-to-front motion to avoid damaging the stylus assembly.

 

If you like to buy used records, and if your budget allows, get a record-cleaning machine. They can be miraculous in transforming dirty click-and-pop-laden LPs into noise-free specimens. If money is tight, buy a record-cleaning kit. You can clean records by hand using various methods, including dishwashing liquid and soft clothsyou have to be careful but it can be done.

 

This post just scratches the surface. (Sorrybad analogy!) Other aspects of record care include replacing worn paper inner sleeves with high-quality sleeves, using anti-static guns and cloths, and investing in electronic stylus cleaners and even ultrasonic record cleaners. More to come!

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

REVIEWS

Good Omens
Batman Returns
Batman (1989)
The Natural

Listening to Vinyl? Then Do It Right

record listening tips

Editor’s Note: For a lot of people, listening to vinyl is the ne plus ultra of the home-entertainment experience,
and since this site is all about finding the best ways to enjoy the best entertainment at home, we’ll be
offering advice on what it takes to make sure you’re getting the best sound possible from your records
& your system.

 

 

What’s not to love about the vinyl renaissance? The inviting sound, the tactile pleasure of handling a record, the cover artwork, the thrill of finding a sought-after album, and the pleasure of building a collection all add to the experience.

 

But you need a turntable that’s set up properly, and a good music system. A poorly set up or poor-quality turntable won’t give you all the sound records have to offer and might even damage themusually because of a crummy stylus and tonearm.

 

And an inadequate music system won’t let you hear records at anywhere near their wonderful bestin the same way watching a movie on your phone can’t beat seeing it on a big screen! You can listen to a turntable through a cheap Bluetooth speaker but you won’t get the tonal realism, dynamic impact, stereo imaging, and other sonic attributes you’ll hear out of even a modest system with good speakers.

 

You need to start with a level playing fieldand I mean that literally. The turntable needs to be level so the arm can properly track the record from beginning to end without wanting to “skate” from one end to the other.

 

The cartridge needs to be mounted and set up correctly. The tracking forceor the pressure of the stylus in the groovecan’t be too light or too heavy. And the geometric alignment of the cartridge has to be right in all three dimensions.

 

If all that sounds daunting, the good news is that many turntables come with the cartridge already set up, or might require just a couple of simple adjustments (usually tracking force and anti-skating). Or, your dealer or other specialist can set it up for you. But you might want to learn how to do it yourselftweaking your turntable to perfection is something many aficionados will tell you is supremely rewarding.

 

But not as rewarding as listening to your vinyl on a good, properly set-up turntable and system. It’s astounding how much music is engraved into those record groovesand how captivating and real a good record can sound.

Frank Doris

 

Disclaimer: Frank Doris handles U.S. public relations for Audio-Technica, a manufacturer of turntables, phono cartridges, and other products, and for high-end turntable manufacturer Spiral Groove. All opinions are his own.

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s been involved in audio 
& music for most of his life
and is a professional guitarist.