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The Black Magic of Original LPs
In Issue 13, our esteemed Robert H. Levi wrote a column on "Foolproof ways to Buy Excellent LPs".
The thing is, if I had been asked to write a column on that topic (and here I'll pretend that's the case), I would have made the exact opposite recommendations. Bob said buy sealed exclusively, and buy audiophile reissues first and foremost. If I'm reading Bob correctly, he's basically saying it's not worth the bother to seek out clean vintage vinyl, so just buy what you can get new. He's got a point—this vinyl collecting thing can be a big time-suck—but for my part, I'd quit vinyl before I started depending on the audiophile reissue houses for my music.
I first realized the magic of originals in 1994. Through the mid-late 80s, I was a teenager interested in classic rock, and I purchased my vinyl mostly in "Nice Price," "Best Buy," or "Super Saver" budget repressings at Record City in Skokie, IL. Around 1990, my first year of college, it became extremely hard to get new copies of the rock back catalogue. Luckily by this point I was also interested in punk and indie rock, which I could still get on vinyl. I bought used records too, and in general they seemed to sound pretty good, plus they often had extra artwork and lyric sheets that were excised from budget repressings. I had only one experience comparing pressings, between my dad's trashed mono copies of Surrealistic Pillow and Revolver and the new copies I bought to replace them. Despite their clean surfaces, those new copies languished on the shelf because they sounded so much worse. However I hadn't yet figured the general principle determining the sound quality of LPs.
That moment came in 1994, when there was a yard sale on my block and I bought a few LPs from an old professor—Pharoah Sanders Karma, John Coltrane Expression, Alice Coltrane Journey in Satchidananda, and the Rolling Stones Let it Bleed, which all looked like originals. Those free jazz records—well that's probably another story, but man I'd never heard such great sound. And Let it Bleed was one of the best dollars I ever spent. I mean like wow. Playing the original back to back with my 1981 copy was like going from AM to FM. After that I started to pay attention to mastering marks, and soon realized that original pressings almost always sounded better. At the same time, in the mid-‘90s, I took some flyers on audiophile LPs by Mobile Fidelity, DCC, and Classic. But as I started getting originals and comparing, I realized the 180 gram versions didn't really measure up. Sure they had clean surfaces, admirable heft, and smooth sound. But most of them lacked midrange bite and bloom. And as my system improved, the worse the audiophile versions did in comparisons.
Why is this so?
a) First and foremost, the original was usually done with the most care, and all the aesthetic decisions were made by people involved in the creation of the work. By which I mean the producer, engineer, and musicians were usually involved in the mastering and pressing, at the very least at the level of approving test pressings. The decisions made on the original are not by necessity correct, nor were they necessarily executed perfectly, but those decisions have a historical validity that no reissue can.
b) Many of the reissuers' mastering decisions are not guided by aesthetics but by marketing. They want their version to sound different from originals because that's their selling point. That so many of them seem to have elevated bass and treble (this was the documented strategy of the original Mobile Fidelity, though my ears tell me they are not alone) makes them sound more detailed and warmer. That's why engineers call it the smile curve. But when I listen to a reissue and the guitars have no guts or presence, I ain't smiling.
c) Tape degrades over time. Transients smear and the signal erases itself over time. How bad a problem is this? The evidence of reissues shows it's not insurmountable, but I can't say I've heard any reissue that has the life of the best originals. How much of that is down to physics and how much to the aesthetics of the reissuers is an open question.
d) Audio technology has changed. Something recorded in the tube era and remastered with solid state cutting amps or a digital cutting system will sound different, possibly better in some ways, but generally worse in others.
From where I sit, it's hard to stomach all the hype in the churning reissue treadmill. In the past ten years we've seen some titles reissued four times on LP, plus 45 rpm versions, not to mention Japanese CDs, remastered US CDs, DVD-A, and SACD. Some companies have issued the same title four or five times all by themselves. Each time a title gets redone, the original and prior reissues are supposedly made obsolete. The words "limited edition" play on our fears that we won't be able to get a copy in the future, and what if this reissue is the one?
Don't get played, folks. The one is the one is the one… is the original issue from the country of origin.
And if by some chance that reissue really is the one, the past few years have amply demonstrated that if it got reissued once, it probably will get reissued again. If not, there is always eBay.
So here are my rules of thumb for buying music in general and records in particular:
Have excellent, eclectic taste
Being interested in lots of stuff can only make record buying more fun. Having good taste means you won't buy lame records just because they got reissued. Having eclectic taste means you'll be more interested in hearing something new to you than buying your fourth pressing of Dark Side of the Moon. How many of you bought that one last year, played it twice, and filed it?
Buy new releases new
This is the secret to getting originals at good prices. A good portion of the interesting rock, rap, and electronic music being released today is released on vinyl. So if you want something on LP, don't wait around to pay double on eBay.
Speaking of "limited editions," the vast majority of new LPs will be out of print inside five years, "limited edition" or not. Another secret: many worthwhile CDs on independent labels will go out of print within five or ten years of release too. Most of my most valuable records and CDs I bought when they were current; now they are pricey and out of print. Few of them were ever carried by audiophile dealers. In other words, concentrate more on the music scene, and less on the audiophile record scene.
Buy old releases cheap
Repressings of records by the original label don't sound as good as originals, but they often sound as aesthetically valid as the audiophile reissues, for a fraction of the cost. They are usually the best way check out a record. Some examples: ‘70s blue label Blue Notes, Plum Victrola versions of classic Living Stereos, Mercury Golden Imports versions of Living Presence, and Decca Ace of Diamonds or London Stereo Treasury versions of their classic recordings generally sound quite fine, often better (even much better) than today's versions, for a fraction of the price (often a buck or two for the classical LPs). Another hint for classical buyers is to buy mono versions of classic recordings, again often for a buck or two.
Buy originals cheap
Nice work if you can get it. One advantage of trolling the record stores, fairs, fleas, and thrifts is you can find great originals for much less than they're worth.
Buy originals dear
When you are familiar with a title and it's important to upgrade your copy there is no sense pussyfooting—buy an original. Does the original cost more than a $30 reissue? It's probably worth it. If you buy a reissue you'll still want the original. When you do get the original, what use is the reissue? And if you buy an original and find it wasn't all that great, you can get back what you paid by putting it on eBay.
Buy reissues only for convenience
Some reissue labels have finally started to do more interesting catalogue, which means that they're doing stuff that's unobtanium, or close to it, in any version. Those are worth buying for the convenience of not searching for months or even years. Labels who know their shit musically include 4 Men With Beards, Sundazed, Plain, Earmark, Simply Vinyl, Sanctuary, Akarma, and Get Back (in rough order of their level of quality in my experience). Since these labels don't bother with baby boomer warhorses that sold huge in the first place, you aren't likely to find the original issue of one of their titles for $2 in the bins (some Simply Vinyl excepted). Personally, I don't often buy reissues for convenience anymore, because I have thousands of LPs to listen to already, and I know that I can eventually find originals of most things, even on the cheap, if I'm patient.
About those pitfalls
What about all the pitfalls of buying used records?
a) Grading: If you buy from high end record dealers, they will take a record back if it plays worse than its grade. If you're not willing to take buying risks on your own judgment, this is your solution. But if you experiment with cheap records, and learn what kind of light will show the condition of a record (not fluorescent) and how to recognize the signs of a trashed copy, it's not so hard. It's not foolproof, buy you can get pretty good at it.
b) Surface Noise: This is a matter of taste, but you can listen through the noise. At the Stereophile show I walked into a room with a system that was closer to $500k than $100k, and a Japanese Beatles reissue LP playing. A vg US mono of the same LP, that I paid $6 for, sounds much better on my system, which is (much) closer to $10k than to $50k. So I can live with the noise, thank you very much.
c) Sealed Records: Don't think "new and sealed" is a panacea. For older sealed records, beware of reseals—returned records (often because of defects) that were resealed. For any old sealed record, beware of warps, because the cellophane shrinks over time and can compress the record. Sealed records are appealing only because you can't see what's inside. As anyone who has bought a significant number of new LPs can tell you, many records are vg+ when brand new because of pressing defects or mishandling in the plant (human beings stuffed the LP in the inner sleeve). When you buy used and it's supposed to be near mint, you have recourse if it's not. An old sealed record, once you open it, is what it is.
d) Equipment: Contrary to what Bob says, better equipment makes surface noise less bothersome. Advanced stylus profiles and styluses with good polish will trace over (or under) imperfections more smoothly. (The quietest cartridge in the groove I've ever heard, by the way, is a Monster Cable Sigma Genesis 2000, which was made by Zyx, who are back in the US market and getting plaudits for that same quality from reviewers today.) Similarly, clicks and pops are pure transients, and better electronics will handle them better, so that the ultrasonic content doesn't compress as much into audibility. Record cleaning, while worth it from a sonic perspective, doesn't usually help with clicks and pops too much, since most of them are caused by actual scratches in the vinyl that can't be cleaned away.
So the main grounds on which Bob has a case, to me, is whether it's worth it to learn all the deadwax and label clues that can tell you how good an LP is likely to be. Divining originals is a complicated science. The easy ones: at the end of the stamper codes on Columbia LPs is a 1A, 1B, 1C... 1AG or so, then 2A, etc. On RCAs you'll find 1S, 2S, 3S, and so on. Remember some stampers were never used because they were defective, and that multiple plants pressed the records. For other labels, divining the provenance is a bit more complicated. But if you do a lot of shopping and looking, you get a pretty good eye for what records from different eras look like. It's all in the details and there are good labelographies on the web.
Another thing to look for, especially with pop and jazz, is the mastering stamp. When a mastering engineer is credited, check the deadwax for the stamp to see if you have the original mastering. The correct mastering stamps don't guarantee a first pressing, but they do assure that some low paid label staffer didn't cut the record from third generation backups. Some common mastering stamps are "Sterling", "Masterdisk", "TML" (The Mastering Lab), "K-Disc", "Golden" (my favorite), "Bell Sound" (common on sixties and seventies), "RVG" or "Van Gelder" for Rudy Van Gelder, "Precision", "SAE", "Trutone", "Townhouse" (in the UK), and "Europadisc". Some engineers put their mark as well such as SR/2 for Stan Ricker, RL for Bob Ludwig, HW for Howie Weinberg, "Pecko" or "Porky" for George Peckham.
Is it worth it for you? I can't really say. My moderate level of knowledge has been built over time, first on my own, then reading the Phonogram email list, and always through buying a lot of records. I'm happy with the records I've gotten with my knowledge, more importantly I have enjoyed the process, and that's the key.