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Positive Feedback ISSUE 73
The Original Mono Recordings
Columbia Records/Sony Music Japan SICP 30521-9
Blu Spec CD2 x 9
Upon reading about the pioneering years of audio and the people involved from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century up to the 1940s, it turns out that the vast majority of them were hobbyists with academic background and that they worked in large research centers, such as Bell Labs and General Electric. In the introduction to his book Illustrated History of High End Audio. Volume One - Loudspeakers, Jonathan Valin says that most of them should have won the Nobel Prize in their time. How very true. It was them that laid the groundwork for what today is primarily the domain of hobbyists and only then of engineers. It seems that we simply refine and hone what THEY invented.
One of the most important inventions of those pioneering days was what became known as "stereophonic" sound reproduction, "producing a desired degree of auditory perspective or stereophonic effect in a listening area", as we read in a patent. The founding father of stereophonic sound was Alan Blumlein who at the age of 27 built his first stereo system, patented it in 1931, in 1933 cut the first stereo disc and in 1934 made the first stereo orchestra recording. A true visionary, with 128 patents to his credit.
The most dynamic research center was Bell Labs that, based on its research and experience, developed a method of recording stereo sound, which was applied after the war. For Bells Labs stereophony meant something different than it does today. It was assumed that proper spatial recognition requires three speakers: left, right and center. Most of the U.S. recordings from the golden age of jazz were recorded in a three-channel stereophonic system. That also includes Miles Davis recordings for Columbia, starting with the 1959 album Kind of Blue.
So where do the mono versions come from? Initially, recording studios were equipped with one- track recording equipment, so all the records were mono. Starting from 1955, more and more studios were equipped with stereo tape recorders. But even then, the material was simultaneously recorded on a three-channel tape and on mono tape, as a back-up. The three tracks were then downmixed to two channels for stereo LPs. From the beginning, two-channel stereo discs were a compromise between the three-channel stereo system requirements and commercial capabilities. In comparison, mono recording was the simplest possible - a microphone, a separate mixing console and one track that was being mixed "on the fly". Perhaps that is why many music lovers believe that the best versions of the recordings, including Davis', are the mono versions.
Especially for them, Sony Music Japan prepared a nine-disc box set, starting from 'Round About Midnight from 1957 and ending with Miles & Monk at Newport from 1964. This is the latest 2013 remaster, also available in the form of hi-res PCM 24/192 files, prepared by Mark Wilder at Battery Studios. The CDs were pressed in Japan using the Blu Spec CD2 technology, i.e. manufactured by a proprietary process which employs a Blu-ray Disc cutting machine.
In addition to the nine CDs in cardboard jackets, we get an interesting booklet with Wilder remarks about any necessary adjustments on each album. It turns out that they were minimal and mostly concerned a slight frequency response correction, and only one case involved slight compression. All that processing was performed on tube equipment.
Now for the cons. Cardboard jackets do not have the same size as mini LPs, and measure only 123mm x 123mm. They have no OBI. Their cover print quality is average, significantly inferior to the standard the Japanese accustomed us to. The CDs are kept in plastic inner sleeves by which they can easily slide out of the cardboard. What saves it somewhat is a nicely prepared box with large collective OBI and a really good booklet. Regardless of what we think about the sound of the new versions, it's hard not to have this release, especially if Davis is important to us or we simply collect CDs with music from that period of time.
I compared its sound to the stereo versions released by Mobile Fidelity (as SACDs and, in the case of older as CDs), mono editions, regular Sony Music releases and Sony Master Sound series versions. The first disc in the set is 'Round About Midnight. I compared it against the stereo Sony Music version, released in Europe to mark the trumpeter's 75th birthday anniversary, and the mono Mobile Fidelity SACD/CD version from 2012. I must say that the regular Sony Music version is pretty good. This is a stereo release, so the comparison was not entirely fair, but it is definitely worth keeping. The mono version from Mobile Fidelity is brighter and more "forward" than the BSCD2. I preferred the Japanese release, mostly due to its better vividness and phenomenal depth. The MoFi sounded clearer, with stronger cymbals, but against the BSCD2 it sounded slightly overexposed. I had the same exact feelings about Milestones. The new mono release sounds better differentiated, darker and deeper. This is the kind of sound I like. In comparison, the stereo versions released by Sony in the Master Sound series were quite reasonable, but not enough resolving, as if slightly clouded. The new version beat them with presence and density.
The BSCD2 versions are excellent. Dense, deep, dark and soft. The new MoFi releases sound slightly too bright and have lower resolution. Interestingly, the older edition dating back to the previous "life" of Mobile Fidelity, pressed on aluminum by Sanyo, turned out very interesting (MFCD 828). The mono version from Sony is thicker and much more resolving, but the old MoFi has kept the spirit, color and dynamics similar to what we hear from the box set version. It is a recommended buy need and brings lots of fun in a small box.