‘Old Vs New’ or ‘Where to put your money when buying your favorite albums on vinyl’
I love old things. Im fairly convinced that I am at least 60 years old myself (Im actually 28). To me everything made in mid century America just feels better. Consumers gave a damn about repairability and quality and those values were truly motivators that drove most markets. Sigh.
Unfortunately this has panned out not to be true about vinyl records. Ive tried to convince myself so many times it’s a fallacy, but after hundreds of hours of listening Ive got to hand it to the boutique current production pressings 90% of the time over 'original' records for sound quality. I will still go and hunt the record bins at the vintage shops, but at this point its only for that wonderfully unique smell, the thrill of the unknown and occasionally for something rare. Why? Lots of reasons.
First it comes down simple economics. Once a record was mastered, the tape was handed off to be mass produced. Remember, at one point vinyl records were how the entire world was listening to music and so the demand to produce was huge across the board. Brass stampers where made from that tape (hopefully the master) and then then it was off to the races. Typically you would have 6 stampers made from each mother (the original plated lacquer cut from the master tape) and these would in turn press up to 10,000+ records. Brass degrades, trust me I know better than most, and as a run of pressing goes on, the wear in those stampers transfers to the fidelity of the vinyl it’s pressing. On top of this, most of the factories were using cheap vinyl for their pressing and even if you find an ideal copy from an early stamping run there could be still be defects just from the material itself. The records were then put in paper sleeves and shrink wrapped outer jackets. Those groves are fragile and even paper will scratch the mess out of it, this is why nice audiophile records are packaged with a rice paper or anti-static plastic sleeve. Lastly they were shrink wrapped. Hey I've got an original unopened pressing of Aja! Big flippin’ deal cause that shrink wrap has undoubtedly warped the record. Great Job.
OK so that about describes all the possible things that could suck about a first pressing record that you bought unopened that was stored correctly. You also probably paid a stupid amount of money for it, thats ok I've done it too. However most mortals just go to the local record shop and freak out over a 70’s Liberty repressing of Blue Train saying things like ‘omg I cant wait to hear a vinyl of Coltrane lol’ much to the dismay of snarky assholes like me. Apart from all the above inconsistencies, now you have to take into consideration how to determine if a played record is gonna sound good. I remember reading lots of articles on this a few years ago. Looking for scratches is obvious, scuffs and dust obvious, but there are some other pitfalls. Back in the 60’s and 70’s most people didn’t have precision cartridges as they do today, they had junk for the most part. Records were cheap as hell too, like $7 in today’s money so people were not overly cautious about storage and maintenance. Those cheap cartridges, which were probably not calibrated with the correct tracking force, would absolutely destroy the grooves of a record. Also, good luck seeing if a record is warped without putting it on a turntable. People dont even hold records correctly for christ’s sake. Just about everyone holds a record by pinching the lead-in grove thinking that they aren't touching the ‘music’ groves, which leaves all sorts of fun human crap to be mashed into the record by the needle when it drops. So many times, with a mirthful chuckle, when Id find a beautiful copy of some record devoid of all obvious physical flaws, run back to the shop and then have my hopes dashed listening to the pop-filled, flat sounding record I just spent $25 on.
But what about record cleaners you might say? HELL NO. Total waste of money. I have a VPI commercial grade record cleaner and use a three step proprietary solution system to clean my records. It takes about twenty minutes to do one side. On a good day it will improve the sonics of a vintage record 10-15%. Just buy nice records and save yourself the headache! Ive tried the crazy shit too, covered a nice copy of Bowie’s ‘Ziggy’ with wood glue, waited 24hrs and peeled it off. Stupid.
So. New records. First we need to understand the difference between digital and analog repressing. When a record is going to be made we must first start with a source recording which is played into a special machine called a lathe that uses the frequencies of that source recording to cut the signal into lacquer. The lacquer is then plated and eventually is used to make the previously mentioned brass stampers. When someone today wants to repress a record they have a couple choices to obtain that source material, but chiefly it’s done with a master tape or a digital copy of a master. The digital master is much much much cheaper to use and will typically require a lot less legal hoops to jump through. Its also just an easier process to make that lacquer with a digital source. Tape degrades a bit every time you play it, is extremely fragile and flammable and digital is well, digital. Whats wrong with digital? Well it;s going to be more compressed than tape, a lot more. Plus who know where it came from? Typically a copy of the master tape not the actual original, meaning less information for you, the listener on the end, which is the whole goddamn point. At the very best, it’s going to be CD quality fidelity on a LP. These records are made for the people who buy turntables at Urban Outfitters.
Now, getting the analog master tape already shows that someone is going to great lengths to do it right. This could involve contacting estates of deceased artists, digging though archives and typically shelling out a fair amount of money just to ‘rent’ the tape to cut a lacquer. I was told that when Music Matters (a great repressing outfit) gets a tape from Blue Note they actually send a guard with it who watches to make sure they only play it a certain number of times. Secondly these folks are obsessive with the quality. They typically limit the stamper runs to around 1,000 records to ensure that wear does not occur, this also makes many high quality repressing limited editions which are individually numbered. All the original details are typically present in the packaging as well, not that it really matters, its just cool and shows commitment in my opinion. Basically every step of the process is done with care and respect, preservation is paramount.
I have compared a lot of great original pressings with the new analog reissues. Most recently a minty original, low serial number, first pressing of Miles Davis’ ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’. I paid a lot for it and it sounds damn skippy. A friend brought over the new Analogue Productions copy and we did the shoot out. It was no contest. There was significantly more detail and dynamics in the AP version, it floored me as I really considered my original to be a bench mark.
So now I live by the $20 rule. If an LP is less than that it's 90% of the time just a digital pressing. Look for ‘produced from the original master tapes’ in the description or label. I like and respect the following labels: Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, ORG, Classic Records, Analog Spark, Analogue Productions, OJC (original jazz classics). Anything that is listed as mastered by Kevin Gray or Bernie Grundman is gonna be good and almost always cut from tape. Not all records are created equal, sometimes I listen to one of these and say ‘well thats just the best its ever going to be due to how it was recorded’ so just keep that in mind. The real show stoppers are the ones Ill be reviewing, at least for now.
whew. back to horns.