Vinyl

How to Listen: The Firebird

How to Listen: The Firebird

Stravinsky: The Firebird

Mercury Living Presence (original LP & Qobuz 16-bit/44.1 kHz)

 

We haven’t yet done a classical LP in our “How to Listen” series, which many would consider an egregious omission—and I would agree. Aside from the considerable musical merits of classical, there’s arguably no better form of music to demonstrate what a good audio system can do—and perhaps no better disc than this 1959 recording of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. It’s legendary, long-revered by audiophiles and classical aficionados for its sensational sound and thrilling performance. Simply put, The Firebird is a class in itself on what to listen for in an orchestra—and in a great stereo system.

 

Among Golden Age classical record labels, Mercury “Living Presence” and RCA “Living Stereo” LPs are the most acclaimed, with Decca right beside them. (Other labels like London, Everest, and Angel aren’t to be slighted, but among audiophiles and 

collectors, Mercury and RCA are the two most mentioned and re-issued.) Mercurys tend to be more dynamic and brighter, RCAs warmer and more lush-sounding.

 

The Firebird is a 1910 ballet (it’ll have its 110th anniversary on June 25!) about the journey of hero Prince Ivan and his encounters with the evil Koschei the Immortal, the mythical and captivating Firebird, and 13 captive princesses. As you might imagine, this is rich material for musical portrayal, and Stravinsky’s score is magnificently evocative—you really don’t have to know a word of the story to “get” the work’s emotional range. The music is energetic, colorful, impassioned, with a tremendous range of dynamics, moods, and tonal colors. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff summarized The Firebird’s greatness: “Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia!”

 

The recording was engineered by C. Robert Fine and produced by Wilma Cozart Fine, two of the greatest figures in classical recording. The disc was recorded in half-inch three-track tape using three Telefunken 201 microphones. It was then mixed down to stereo. This simple, straightforward method of miking an orchestra yields remarkably natural sound, with the orchestra spread over a wide and deep soundstage, instruments accurately placed, and the natural ambience of London’s Watford Town Hall to be clearly heard—if your system is up to the task. The multi-miked recording techniques that later came into vogue gave engineers the ability to create instrumental balances after the fact and “fix it in the mix,” but also destroyed the phase relationships and hall ambience that make purist, simply-miked recordings sound so convincingly real.

 

And what a sound those mics and that tape captured. In particular, the dynamics are fantastic. Starting with quietly-bowed basses, the first few minutes sneak up on you. Set your volume control low, because this recording begins with a barely audible string passage, and then explosive 

orchestral bursts happen, beginning with the appearance of the Firebird in the musical story about five minutes in. If you’re wondering about the low-frequency capability of your system, the first time the timpani come pounding in, you’ll know just how deep and articulate your speakers are—or aren’t.

 

One of the many other striking things about this recording is its clarity. Instruments are reproduced with astonishing transparency and detail. The tonal colors and characters of each instrument are remarkably distinct and, on a good system, 

easy to hear. In fact, the ability to hear and differentiate between all the instruments is crucial to the full appreciation of Stravinsky’s often densely—and brilliantly-orchestrated score.

 

You shouldn’t just hear masses of woodwinds and strings—you should clearly be able to pick out the sweetness of the oboes as opposed to the timbre of the clarinets, the distinction between the violins, violas, and cellos, and other nuances. Percussive sounds are rendered with exceptional transient realism, with the pluck of a harp or the striking of a mallet instrument almost thrilling in their clarity. A real system test? In some spots the strings are playing some very fast, quiet bowed passages. They’re almost imperceptible at times—but they’re there. On a lesser system they’ll sound like one continuous bowed note—or won’t be heard at all.

 

The reproduction of the hall sound is also superb. When a solo trumpet plays or a timpani strikes, you can easily hear the echo of the acoustic space, and if you have the appropriate speakers, you’ll get a sense of the size of the hall and its physical presence. There’s a vast spaciousness, width and depth. For me, the combination of orchestral and hall sound is perfect. It’s simply beautiful to listen to.

 

If there’s one quibble to the overall sonic splendor, it’s that during very loud passages, the sound can get more than a little bright. The upper range is never harsh or grainy, but this recording, and other Mercurys, certainly can’t be accused of erring on the side of mellowness. If your system is on the edge of brightness, this recording may push it over that edge. On the other hand, the bass is rich and authoritative and the midrange is spot on—not too lean, not

The Firebird on Qobuz:
Streaming a Vinyl Icon

 

The original Mercury Living Presence LP of The Firebird (catalog no. SR90226) has long been considered one of the greatest orchestral recordings of all time. It’s had a “Best of the Bunch” highest ranking on The Absolute Sound’s Super LP List for a very long time (a fact I’d forgotten about until doing this review). So . . . how did this iconic recording sound on a digital stream—a format that’s anathema to vinyl-sniffing purists? (Don’t get me wrong—I’m a vinyl aficionado myself.)

 

Well, I listened on Qobuz in 44.1k/16-bit on an extremely high-quality system and was impressed. It sounded smooth with good detail and not very “digital.” The wide dynamic range and tonal balance were there. It didn’t quite have the same richness or spatiality, and I think you need a good copy of the LP to get the “magic.” (There have been a few reissues of varying quality over the decades.) On the other hand, nothing can diminish the transcendent performance.

 

However, Qobuz gives the release date of this Decca Music Group reissue as 1991—jeez, can it really have been 30 years ago?—so this is crying out for a true hi-res 192/24 remastering.

—F.D.

too thick, just right. Instruments like violins and those oboes have a sweetness and expressiveness—the sound just gets out of the way.

 

You can truly hear Dorati’s hand—literally—in conducting the LSO, every nuance of control and relaxed grace easily heard. You feel as much as hear the ebb and flow. The performance of the orchestra is masterful. The musicianship is transcendent.

 

There’s not much more I can say other than to conclude with this: In writing the review, I listened to The Firebird multiple times. First to reacquaint myself and take notes. Then, having trouble tearing myself away, to simply bask in the utterly beautiful sound and performance.

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.

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.

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.