Music

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In Part I, I walked you through an obscure boxed set from the legendary Les Paul and the likely definitive Beatles boxed set. Here, we’ll look at innovative sets from a couple of rock legends and an elusive collectible from possibly the greatest song stylist of the 20th century.

Neil Young Archives Vol. 1

This set (shown above) is fascinating, and if you are a Neil Young fan, it’s essential. Inside this oddly sized, semi-cumbersome-to-open treasure chest you’ll get seemingly endless riches. Documenting his earliest recordings up through the period around his big breakthrough smash-hit album Harvest, you get a deep dive into Neil’s world, from classic album tracks 

to live concerts, demos, and unreleased recordings.

 

Everything on the Blu-ray edition is presented in high-resolution audio, so the sound is terrific and there are fun onscreen visuals that you have to be something of an audio geek-o-phile with a sense of humor to appreciate. Click here to watch Neil’s trailer for the set, with many glimpses of what to expect, including high-res video footage of records and reel-to-reel decks playing back the music on screen.

 

There is a lot of deep detail, and the set was designed at the time to connect to the internet, where you could hear even more tracks that didn’t make it into the box. In 2010, this boxed set won the Grammy Award for Best Art 

Direction on a Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package! It’s a neat thing. And while it’s not cheap, it is not astronomical to pick up these days on Discogs, ranging in price from $120 to $240.

 

Oh, and you may be wondering what happened to Vol. 2? It has been continued and expanded on the internet and as a series of ongoing vinyl releases. So there hasn’t been another physical boxed set like this one, and there probably won’t be, which makes Volume 1 all the more intriguing and desirable to own.

Pete Townshend’s
Lifehouse Chronicles

After the success of The Who’s Tommy, main songwriter Pete Townshend prepared another rock musical called Lifehouse. The storyline was ahead of its time, and the elaborate concept was ultimately whittled down into The Who’s landmark 1971 smash Who’s Next. Townshend soon crafted another brilliant rock opera called Quadrophenia, yet he never gave up on Lifehouse, and by 1999 he got to present it as a musical radio play on the BBC.

 

This wonderful six-CD boxed set dedicated entirely to Lifehouse was only sold on Townshend’s website and The Who’s 2000 tour. It includes not only that 1999 BBC radio play but four

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 3

discs of Townshend’s original demos and his continued experiments over the years (including songs that ended up on later Who albums!).

 

The packaging is gorgeous, presented in a sleek grey corrugated cardboard design with the Lifehouse logo and design etched into the cover. Inside, each CD gets its own rainbow-colored sleeve, and there is an informative full-color booklet. Ultimately, it’s all about the music, and there are some amazing works here. This set wasn’t cheap to begin with, and sells online (at Discogs) upwards of $270. There is one on Amazon going for much more. Whatever price you pay, if you are a fan of the music and the man, it’s worth it.

 

 

The Astaire Story
Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In 1953, jazz impresario and record-label owner/producer Norman Granz pushed forward on a wondrous journey, pairing by-then-legendary dancer/actor/personality Fred Astaire with jazz-legend-in-the-making Oscar Peterson. Issued in a super-deluxe boxed-set package, the album featured Astaire singing—and sometimes tap dancing!—with Oscar and his band.

 

If the individual albums are difficult to find in any condition, the deluxe version is near impossible to track down (at least reasonably priced). It was a limited edition of exactly 1,384 copies (it says so in the set!), each signed by Astaire and the artist David Stone Martin. I have never seen a copy in person, but from the photos online, it seems to use cloth-

bound, padded-style packaging with looseleaf-styled binding to house liner notes, the discs, and some wonderful drawings by Martin.

 

And consider this: Along the way someone told me there was an even more deluxe edition that was sold back in the day bound in a leather-clad folio! I don’t know if this real or mythology, but I am keeping a watchful eye out for one to materialize somewhere along the way!

 

I have been aware of this set for several years—there is even a nice CD reissue, which I have reviewedbut I have only found three of the four LPs out in the wilds of record collecting (stores, thrift shops, flea markets, etc.). I just saw one copy of the deluxe set on eBay going for $720 with the rare blue-vinyl pressing.  But . . . I remain intrigued as I’ve never seen the rumored leather-bound version.

 

The quest continues . . .

 

 

This is the kind of treasure hunting I love and keeps me excited about collecting music!

 

There are many more deluxe-edition sets to explore.  Stay tuned for my next article in this series.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

In the world of collectible music, the venerable boxed set has proven to be a highly prized and desired artifact of home entertainment. The ultimate statement for many an artist, these sets are a chance to present their music in a definitive light.

 

Boxed sets are often limited editions that can accrue in value. Exploring the packaging can be an enjoyable experience complementary to the music inside. Many sets include memorabilia, such as hard-cover coffeetable books chock full of pictures and artist details. Some sets have bonuses like buttons, marbles, board games, and other fun merchandise the artists have created for their fans.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Vol. 1

They seem to be more popular than ever, too—over the past 10 years, not a Record Store Day or Black Friday goes by without a special edition making some headlines, from The Beatles and Pink Floyd to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Heck, there is even a website dedicated to new boxed-set releases. And there seem to be more and more sets released every year.

 

But you might be surprised to learn that the boxed-set concept isn’t new. I’ve seen special-edition sets dating back to the early days of recorded music, especially with the advent of multi-disc album sets on 78 RPM records in the 1940s, and have encountered vintage multi-disc deluxe editions for Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby with cloth-covered padded covers and such.

Just last year, Craft Recordings (a deluxe imprint from Concord Music, which owns a multitude of labels including Fantasy Records and Prestige Records) put out lovely (and expensive) sets celebrating Miles Davis and John Coltrane that mimic the 1950s design aesthetic. (Click here for my review of the Coltrane set.) They sell for $200 or more new!

 

I’ll show you some of my faves, including one in Part 2 that I have yet to get my hands on!

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1
Les Paul, The New Sound

I only learned of this set of 78 RPM discs last year when I discovered a nearly mint-condition copy at a flea market. For those of you not in the know, I am a very deep fan of Les Paul, dating back to the 7th grade or so when I discovered one of his 

albums at a garage sale. His solo in “Bye Bye Blues just knocked me out. And thus began a quest that continued into college in the form of a Jazz History term paper that ultimately led to my freelance-writing side career!

 

I’ve written about Les in the past and even been to his house once. (He was nice enough to autograph the issue of DISCoveries, shown at right, containing my interview with him.) I’m a deep collector, so finding this set I never knew existed was remarkable. That it was in pristine condition was miraculous given the fragility of shellac 78s. I knew some of these songs came out as individual 78s in 1948 and on a 10-inch LP in 1950. But this boxed set of 78s is something I’ve not seen or read about anywhere. No one has posted a copy on the record collectors’ site Discogs. (I will probably post my pix there for posterity someday.) I did find one at this site, but it doesn’t seem to be for sale.

 

What is the value of a set like this? To me, it’s invaluable. To a record store, it’s 

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

probably not worth a lot, but I don’t care. I’m not selling it! The discs include the first experiments Les released in his creation of multitrack recording, using his groundbreaking sound-on-sound technique recording direct to disc at 78 RPM! In essence, everything most of us love about high fidelity pre-recorded music today has its roots in these recordings by Les Paul.

 

 

The Beatles in Mono

This gorgeous limited-edition boxed set was a significant and different animal than the similarly presented stereo Beatles boxed set. All the recordings were made direct from the original mono master tapes in an all-analog mastering process similar to how the records were made in the 1960s. The packaging and labels are period-accurate, which is fantastic for most of us 

who have never been able to get our hands on the rare original UK editions. Even if you could find them, chances are they wouldn’t sound as good since they were probably played to death on primitive equipment.

 

Why is this so much better than the stereo? It turns out that the earlier boxed set was mastered from 44.1 kHz, 24-bit digital files (a few steps above CD

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

quality). Probably embarrassed, the label pulled out all the stops for the (in some ways more important) mono box. It is a gorgeous and fantastic-sounding collection.

 

The set wasn’t cheap when it came out (at about $400 or so) and is now selling for a minimum of more than twice that, and upwards of three times the price on eBay!  A limited edition, it’s doubtful they will ever produce another set quite like this one again, so that makes this collection of all the Beatle records up through The White Album extra special.

 

You can read my three-part review of the set by clicking here, and here, and here. If you’re in a Beatles mode, the Sgt. Pepper boxed set is pretty wonderful too, albeit a different focus (more about Blu-ray Discs and such but still great). Click here, here, and here to read my three-part review of that set!

 

In Part 2, I’ll walk you through some extraordinary boxed sets devoted to works by Neil Young, Pete Townshend, and Fred Astaire.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

So much has been written about this most legendary of jazz albums that it seems kind of pointless to repeat the usual stereotypical commentary—that it’s the greatest jazz album of all time, that it solidified a new type of modal jazz playing, that its influence is boundless. (All true except arguably the first point—can anyone really anoint a Greatest Jazz Album of All Time when recordings like Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps exist?)

 

One thing’s not subject to argument: The music is transcendent. Recorded in 1959, it features Miles Davis (trumpet), Bill Evans (piano), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), James Cobb (drums), and Paul Chambers (bass), The music was recorded with the musicians having no preparation beforehand, making it all the more remarkable when you

hear the empathy between them.

 

The sound quality is excellent—not without its flaws, including the fact that, because of a problem with the tape machine, the pitch of the original production master tape is about one and a half percent too fast. (Later re-issues corrected this subtle but perceptible anomaly.) But the recording has a natural tonality and dynamic shadings that capture the ebb and flow of that masterful empathy between the musicians.

 

On a good system, you’ll feel them playing live in the studio: Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio in Manhattan, considered by some to be the finest-sounding recording studio of all time. Not to trivialize the magnificence of the music, but this quality alone, of feeling like you’re there listening in the moment, makes Kind of Blue an essential album for evaluating a music system’s performance.

 

Kind of Blue has been issued countless times (Discogs lists 377 versions, and that doesn’t count hi-res downloads and streaming), so it’s impossible to recommend a definitive version. But I’ve heard a number of excellent pressings, including the original Columbia “Six-Eye” catalog number CS 8163, a surprisingly good “The Nice Price” 1970s Columbia issue (PC 8163), and versions from Classic Records. There are plenty of audiophile pressings from Acoustic Sounds and others. Google is your friend. I also listened on Qobuz in 96/24 Hi-Res Audio.

Let’s get the audio imperfections out of the way. Typical of jazz recordings of the era, there’s a lot of hard-left and hard-right panning, with Evans and Coltrane in the left channel and Adderley and Cobb in the right, leaving Davis and Chambers in the middle. As a result, you’re not going to hear that expansive “3-D” soundstage that audiophiles prize so much. The drums are often spatially flat and distant, the piano somewhat less so but certainly far from up front.

 

That said, the feeling of room ambience, of the musicians playing in a live space, does come through, partly the result of mic leakage (such as the reverberant bleed-through of Coltrane’s tenor in “”Freddie Freeloader”) and partly because the tonal

balance and dynamic presence of the horns is so authentic. Coltrane’s and Adderley’s saxes sound positively creamy and full-bodied.

 

The audibility of the piano is a test of how good a system is. When I first started listening to Kind of Blue in the 1970s, it was on crummy stereos and the piano was so faint I could barely hear it. I thought it was a shame the recording was so “bad.” As my systems got better, the piano got louder. On a good system the piano is plain to hear.

 

Davis’ trumpet—it’s astonishing. Front and center with thrilling presence. On a good system, the nuances of his playing come through with startling clarity. It really does sound like there’s a human being playing a real instrument in real space. You can

Kind of Blue

hear the absolute genius of Davis’ infinite variations in note shading, attack, breath, and dynamics. The trumpet sounds like an instrument with air blowing at you, not a thin two-dimensional simulation. It’s spooky.

 

There’s really no need to do a track-by-track dissection, but some highlights: On an inadequate setup, Chambers’ signature acoustic-bass opening riff to “So What” will be hard or impossible to hear. On a good one, you’ll hear a full-bodied bass with plenty of harmonic richness. “Freddie Freeloader,” the second track, features Wynton Kelly rather than Bill Evans on piano, and you can distinctly hear Kelly’s more aggressive playing and blues-laden style compared to Evans’ more delicate touch and utterly distinctive harmonic approach.

 

Blue in Green” finds the musicians laying back, and Davis is first heard using a trumpet mute. If anything, his individualism and seemingly endless variations in conveying each note are heightened even more. His phrasing and dynamics are hair-raising. Again, the trumpet should sound like a real instrument with body, not some feeble kazoo-like approximation. The minimalist atmosphere of this piece should let you hear everything that’s right about the music’s stark beauty and clarity.

 

In “All Blues,” Cobb’s brush work on the snare drum is more prominent. Playing the brushes is deceptively simple to do right (try it sometime) and you should be able to hear that Cobb is an absolute master here. Then he switches to drumsticks in a seamless sleight of hand—I still haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact moment when he does it. And the players take a 6/8 time signature—usually reserved for waltzes—and make it swing! Listen for the distinction of the tap of Cobb’s stick on the ride cymbal behind Adderley’s solo, followed by the cymbal’s after-ring.

 

The album closes with “Flamenco Sketches,” and it’s spellbinding. If everything’s right, you can walk into the lushness of the acoustic bass. Listen to the beauty and restraint of the playing. For a couple of minutes, there are no drums and then they sneak in almost imperceptibly at first, something that will be completely lost on a lesser system. Listen for the decay of Evans’ piano notes—sublime. Coltrane’s balladic playing here is heart-stopping.

 

For those who might ask, “Why high-end audio?,” hearing music like Kind of Blue the way it was meant to be heard is why.

 

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.

How to Listen: Just a Little Lovin’

How to Listen: Just a LIttle Lovin'

In the first installment of “How to Listen,” I talked about the sonics of The Dark Side of the Moon, an album with a sound as immense as the album’s influence. The sound of Shelby Lynne’s Just A Little Lovin’ is exactly the opposite.

 

A tribute to Dusty Springfield, with Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs and other covers (plus “Pretend,” a Lynne original), it’s almost minimalist in its approach, with Lynne’s lower-register contralto voice accompanied by just a few instruments on any given track—typically one or two electric or acoustic guitars, along with lightly-played drums (usually with brushes), acoustic or electric piano, and acoustic or electric bass.

 

As such, her vocals are right up front, and on a good system her singing and each instrument stand out with an almost physical presence, essential parts of a simple, pure, and clean sonic presentation that is remarkably well recorded.

No wonder—the album was produced by Phil Ramone, recorded and mixed by Grammy winner Al Schmitt and mastered by Doug Sax and Robert Hadley at The Mastering Lab. For the most part, it sounds like it was recorded with the musicians playing together live, although I don’t know that for a fact, and on a good system you can feel as well as hear them grooving together with a relaxed yet swinging feel. And Lynne’s gorgeously husky, smoky voice is so well-recorded and expressive that I don’t think you can help but be moved by the emotional nuances of her singing.

 

Small wonder the album has become a bonafide audiophile classic.

 

I listened to the Analogue Productions vinyl LP remaster, an astoundingly quiet and well-done pressing, as well as a Qobuz 24/96 hi-res stream and a recently purchased CD.

 

The tonal balance of the album is warm and smooth—if Just a Little Lovin’ doesn’t make your stereo sound sweetly, richly inviting, something isn’t right. In fact, it could be argued that the tonal balance is a touch too warm; but, on 

the other hand, some of that very deep bass you should be hearing is there (or should be) because on a few cuts (“Breakfast in Bed” for example), the bassist is playing a five-string electric bass, which goes deeper (usually tuned to a low B) than a four-string electric or acoustic bass.

 

The midrange sounds about as natural as you’ll hear on a recording and the upper-midrange should be detailed and transparent, without a hint of stridency or forwardness. The soundspace overall is big and deep, but not hugely extended beyond the speakers. This is a more intimate than cinematic recording.

 

Another attribute of the album is that while Lynne’s voice is dead center, the instruments, while occupying their own sonic spaces, aren’t laser-focused in terms of imaging. It sounds like some of them were miked in stereo and then panned a little more to the left or right, but I can’t verify this. In any case, most of the time the instruments create more of a sonic spread

across the soundfield than the hard left, center, or right placement you often hear in jazz albums from the 1950s and early 1960s, for example. So if that’s what you’re hearing, your system’s imaging isn’t vague—it’s what you should be hearing.

 

One of the key sonic ingredients is the reverb on Lynne’s voice. During quieter instrumental sections, it should not only be clearly audible but should fill the sound space. This leads to my one quibble about the album’s sonics—at times, the reverb sounds over-applied, and I would like to have heard more of her singing presented “dry” instead. This is especially apparent on the last track, a cover of the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.”

 

Listen for the quiet parts. Many demo tracks or audiophile recordings will 

How to Listen: Just a Little Lovin'

impress you with their loud and sometimes bombastic dynamics. This record is exactly the opposite—it’s the detail in the sparse, soft parts that will draw you in.

 

There’s no need to go into a track-by-track analysis since the above paragraphs describe the overall sound of the record, but there are a number of specific sonic attributes to listen for.

 

The first one happens on “Just a Little Lovin’” almost immediately with a literally startling thwack rim shot that happens with incredible realism. Lynne’s voice is so upfront and present that you can, on a good system, actually hear some mouth sounds at points when she pauses between phrases. The Rhodes electric piano gives notice of the sumptuously rich sounds to come.

 

Listen to the way the acoustic piano and electric guitar blend chordally and rhythmically on “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” It’s the sound of master musicians at work. It’s very hard for a guitar player and a piano player to “comp” together in a band, but here you can hear it done perfectly. And listen for the scrape of the drummer’s brushes on the drum heads. Incredible. Most of all, listen for the restrained passion in Lynne’s voice. Hair-raising.

 

“I Only Want to Be with You” is an all-acoustic-instrument (guitar, piano, bass, drums), languid take on the song Dusty Springfield made famous. As such, it’s a can’t-miss system demo track—if your system’s up to the task. The same is true for “The Look of Love.” It’s a song that’s been done and heard countless times, but Lynne brings a grit and a yearning to it that no one else does.

 

“Willie and Lauramae Jones” has a distinctly different sonic feel than the other tracks, thanks to the fact that Lynne is playing guitar on this one along with the other musicians. Listen for the “ring” of the drum hit (not sure if it’s a snare or

something else; the tuning is odd), the beautifully-recorded dobro happily sliding away in the left channel, and the acoustic guitar “chops” in the right channel, where you should very distinctly get the feel of a real person doing them.

 

Speaking of feel, Lynne’s version of Randy Newman’s “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” is so emotionally riveting, I’ll bet it had him in tears the first time he heard it. The way the song ebbs and flows will simply be 

lost on a lesser system. And just when you think you’re hearing a fadeout, the musicians reveal they’re just getting quieter until they decide to end the song. Masterful.

 

Perhaps the best is saved for last: Lynne duetting with acoustic guitarist Dean Parks on the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.” Now the sonic minimalism is at its most sparse, just the two of them playing with, and off of, each other. Not only can you hear that Parks is fingerpicking rather than flatpicking the guitar, you can hear the sound of flesh on string and the way he continuously varies the touch of his fingerpicking. The beautiful fade out is the perfect ending to this sublime-sounding recording.

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.

How to Listen: Dark Side of the Moon

How to Listen: The Dark Side of the Moon

In “How to Become an Expert Listener,” I talked about the kinds of recordings you can use to evaluate a luxury audio setup and walked you through the general things to listen for, such as deep, articulate bass, accurate instrumental and vocal timbre, and an expansive sound field.

 

Here I’m going to take one of the most revered albums not just in the audiophile world but in rock history and give you a sense of what makes it such a great recording—not just so you can better appreciate the virtues of this particular effort but so you can apply that knowledge to your own favorite albums. Once you get used to not just listening to the music but savoring the quality of its presentation, you’ll find it easy to pick out the common elements that make for a great recording and that

reveal the virtues and flaws of high-performance gear.

 

No album is more iconic than Pink Floyd’s towering 1973 masterpiece, The Dark Side of the Moon. (I don’t think I  need to give a musical synopsis here—is there anyone reading this who hasn’t heard it?). Dark Side is up there with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. It was the band’s commercial breakthrough (to put it mildly), spending more than 900 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart.

 

It’s also one of the best-recorded albums ever, thanks to Grammy-winning engineer Alan Parsons and the innovative use of then-new synthesizers, elaborate multitracking, found sounds, and the resources of Abbey Road Studios, to say nothing of brilliant performances by Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright. It’s a true reference recording that will give every aspect of an audio system a thorough workout.

 

I listened to an original UK pressing on my main system and on Qobuz in 24-bit/44.1 kHz hi-res on high-end nearfield monitors. (Geek-speak translation: “Qobuz” is a high-

resolution music-streaming service and “nearfield monitors” are speakers meant to be listened to from up close.) I also heard a good chunk of the album on a huge system at a trade show within the past year. Unfortunately, I now can’t remember the show or the system. I do remember the incredible sound.

 

One quick note: This isn’t meant to be an exam. You don’t need to go through the whole album, in sequence, to appreciate what Parsons and the band wrought here or to put it to use for demo purposes. Start with your favorite tracks and, if you find yourself getting into this new way of listening to an old classic, make your way around from there.

 

“Speak to Me”

The album sucks you in with the iconic heartbeat. You’re not going to hear it fully—or at all—on a small speaker with a small woofer. You need a speaker setup capable of extended low end. The track should sneak up on you quietly, then crescendo into . . .

 

“Breathe”

. . .and the trademark sonic signature of the album, a vast, wide, deep soundspace with instruments placed hard left, hard right and everywhere in between, up close and far away. Start with your system volume low!

 

Listen for the clarity of every instrument—electric bass, guitars, keyboards, drums, percussion, and effects. Even though some of the sounds are heavily processed, you should hear the clarity of the processing, such as the myriad of reverbs that are a major part of the album’s sonic palette. The tonal balance is smooth and even, from the articulate bass to the densely detailed midrange and clear highs—although I wouldn’t call TDSOTM the absolute last word in transparency.

How to Become an Expert Listener: The Dark Side of the Moon

Alan Parsons mixing The Dark Side of the Moon with Pink Floyd

(Check out a good version of the RCA Living Stereo Reiner/Chicago Symphony Scheherazade for that.)

 

In fact, this one track will tell you everything you need to know about how a system is performing—but you’d be shortchanging yourself if you didn’t keep listening.

 

“On the Run”

On a lesser system, this will sound like flat musical filler. On a good system, you’ll hear a rich variety of 

details, like the multiple synthesizers panning from left to right, and the very distinct sound of someone turning the knobs on the main sequencer/synthesizer in real time as it plays through the track. “On the Run” ends with a roar and a rumble that, on a system capable of delivering it, might even scare you.

 

“Time”

You know what I’m going to say here. The clanging of the multiple clocks going off at the beginning should be nothing less than startling. If ever there was a test of a system’s transient response, here it is. The soundstage, if anything, is even bigger now. This is one of the most masterful uses of reverb in recording history. The mixed male and female processed background vocals are utterly gorgeous. Those vocals rise in intensity after the second chorus, with a scraped guitar string lifting you to Gilmour’s fuzzed-out guitar solo, one of the most epic ever recorded. This should sound simply mammoth, thrilling, with layers of synths, vocals, guitars, everything, behind it. (Conventional wisdom opines that Gilmour’s greatest solo is on “Comfortably Numb” from The Wall. I’d argue, uh uh, no. This one is it.)

 

“The Great Gig in the Sky”

After those dizzying aural heights, you need a comedown. But it’s not a crash . . . just an intensity of a different kind. The soundstage expands to galactic proportions. The dynamic range goes from relaxing to system-taxing. (My main system has 100 watts per channel and three-way speakers, and I didn’t hear any strain. My desktop monitors? Well, I didn’t want to risk blowing them up.) You should be able to hear guest vocalist Clare Torry go from a very distinctive growl (on a good system; it’ll be completely lost on a lesser one) to seductive sweetness and every nuance in between. Wright’s piano accompaniment is the model of sensitivity. And listen to how Waters’ bass beautifully complements Torry’s vocals in the second half of the track. This should sound nothing less than emotionally riveting.

 

“Money”

Like the clocks at the beginning of “Time,” the cash registers and sacks of coins should sound surprising. Listen for the clarity of Waters’ picked bass (as opposed to played with the fingers on the previous track) and the way it drives the song. Once

again, the mix is “big,” but not as much as the previous tracks, and sounds more dynamically compressed. My guess is this was done to make the track sound more radio-friendly. But it’s relative—if the other album tracks’ soundspaces are the size of a galaxy, this one’s merely a solar system in comparison. Listen to the drastic removal of all reverb in the breakdown section after the guitar solo

How to Become an Expert Listener: The Dark Side of the Moon

—a dramatically effective sonic contrast that should come through razor-sharp. Gilmour’s final solo should practically peel the paint off the walls in its treble intensity, yet still have body and depth.

 

“Us and Them”

The galactic soundspace returns. Listen for the “swirl” of Wright’s Hammond organ played through a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet, and the complementing swirl of Gilmour’s guitar through a Uni Vibe pedal, designed to simulate the sound of a Leslie. It’s a rich, densely textured mix. When the sax comes in, even though it has added reverb, it should have a palpable presence and a physicality by comparison.

 

“Any Colour You Like”

Here, Parsons uses repeating echo on the main synthesizer to create spaciousness and depth, and even though it’s a dense mix, you should be able to clearly hear the echo repeats trailing off into the sonic distance. Listen for the harmonic complexity of the multiple synths and guitars and the, once again, startle factor of Gilmour’s guitar when it comes in dead center, in the middle of the song. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a clam (wrong note) from the left-channel guitar at around 2:14 into the song.

 

Another track that might sound like a flat wash on a so-so system. Not on a good one.

 

“Brain Damage” & “Eclipse”

I don’t know what else I can say, as these concluding tracks continue the sonic strengths of the rest of the album—exceptional clarity, dynamics, tonal balance, placement of instruments, soundstage width and depth, huge drum sounds, and masterful mixing of all the vocals, instruments, and effects by Parsons. A final test of your system’s resolving power: Near the very end of the album, listen for Abbey Road Studios’ doorman Gerry O’Driscoll saying, “There is no dark side of the moon, really. It’s all dark.” If your system’s up to the task, you’ll hear it.

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.

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.