Albums of the Year 2022 (first attempt)

•December 1, 2022 • 1 Comment

Post pandemic – it seemed that every major artist in the world released an album or a live album or some product (in the case of U2 it was Bono’s autobiography). Unfortunately, I was so absorbed in the 500 songs podcast, I listened to very little music during the summer and autumn. I had presumed that this was a very weak year for new music until I looked at the pile of albums that I bought as the year went on. Although they didn’t get great reviews, I rather enjoyed Arcade Fire’s and the Black Keys’ new records – ok they weren’t up there with their best, but enjoyable listens nonetheless. I still have not gotten around to listening to Arctic Monkeys latest, Cate Le Bon, Spoon, Beach House, Jack White, Joan Shelly, Wilco, Beth Orton, Lambchop, Brian Eno, The Weather Station, Richard Dawson, Big Thief or the Weeknd or Taylor Swift or Beyonce – I’m sure their own fans have their own opinions. I listened to Belle & Sebastians’ and Midlake’s albums, once. They are still sitting on the shelf. Perhaps one-day…… I didn’t buy the Springsteen covers album – what is the point? – but really enjoyed the Cowboy Junkies one. I have yet to buy a copy of the Radiohead offshoot “The Smile” – but it may turn into a new year revelation for me (Radiohead albums unpack well over time). I am convinced I am Jonathan Jeremiah’s only fan outside of Germany. Wet Leg were the breakout stars and Pillow Queens and Fontaines D.C. are flying the flag for Ireland. I get that the list below is very white and retromanic – but – this is just a list of what I enjoyed this year. I am certain that there are dozens of great recordings that I have missed (and may add to this list later). I just loved the Black Country New Road album (the 4LP box set was just gorgeous), but was devastated to learn that the lead singer had mental health issues and bailed from the band just as the album was released. They have been touring without him this year – playing nothing from either of their outstanding albums. Go figure.

This is a first attempt at the list – just to get it rolling. Recommendations in the comments section always welcome.

So, those things taken into account – this is my list of my favorite pop and rock recordings of 2022 (the versions linked were the ones I bought).

Best of 2022 (Pop and Rock)

Black Country, New Road – For The First Time

Pillow Queens  – Leave The Light On                  

Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band – Dear Scott

Kevin Morby – This Is A Photograph

Weyes Blood – And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow

Suede – Autofiction

Alt-J – The Dream

Wet Leg – Wet Leg

Rolling Blackouts C.F.* – Endless Rooms

Jonathan Jeremiah – Horsepower For The Streets   

Fontaines D.C. – Skinty Fia

Bodega  – Broken Equipment

Tears For Fears – The Tipping Point

Cass McCombs – Heartmind

Elvis Costello & The Imposters – The Boy Named If

The Mars Volta – The Mars Volta

Cowboy Junkies – Songs Of The Recollection

Father John Misty – Chloë And The Next 20th Century

Band Of Horses – Things Are Great

Ferris & Sylvester – Superhuman (I still haven’t gotten hold of a vinyl copy)

Best of 2022 Jazz (New Releases)

I’m embarrassed to say that this year my support of young jazz artists has been poor – again I’m sure I missed loads of great recordings. Amazingly, for the first time in years – I don’t seem to have bought any new music from ECM. It may be my continued fascination with 1950s west coast jazz and the relentless avalanche of Blue Note reissues.

Julian Lage – View With A Room

Binker And Moses – Feeding The Machine

Bill Frisell – Four

RedmanMehldauMcBrideBlade – RoundAgain

Charles Lloyd – Trios: Ocean

Charles Lloyd – Trios: Chapel

Wolfgang Haffner – Dream Band Live in Concert

Cécile McLorin Salvant – Ghost Song

Final aside – if you look at the Downbeat Readers’ Poll for 2022 – it will be very clear to you that Blue Note are the jazz label in the ascendency for new music.

The Saturday Night Fiasco

•November 24, 2022 • Leave a Comment

Buyer beware. Recently, a gentle nudge appeared in my Amazon account to consider buying “Saturday Night in San Francisco” by Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia. I have had CD and vinyl copies of “Friday Night ” for years – and – well I rather enjoy the recording – a dazzling acoustic guitar jamboree of three of the great instrumentalists of the 1970s and 1980s. The original album was a partial release of a concert in the Warfield Theatre on December 5th 1981. When I saw that there was a Saturday Night release, I was intrigued. These kind of recordings exist in bootleg (soundboard) form – and I have boxes of them, but – the chance to have a modern well engineered version seemed very tempting. However, having been badly burned several times lately by dodgy vinyl releases – I pre-empted the “Buy” button by streaming the 24/192 album on Qobuz. It was marvellous – extraordinary deep soundstage, great rhythm and timing, deep bass, natural harmonics, treble that sounds – analogue. On vinyl, I speculated that this would sound breath-taking. I clicked “Buy.”

A couple of days later, the album arrived. Nice cover, if a little bit flimsy compared with the Tone Poets. Clear vinyl. Nice liner notes. It looked great. Onto the turntable it went. Withing 3 seconds – WTF!!!! Dull! Dull! Dull! This sounded like a 1981 cassette with Dolby Noise Reduction turned on cut directly to vinyl. It sounded like it was recorded through a pillow. No treble. Not much bass. No soundstage. Absolutely dead. The music is, of course, nice – but it is about 4 levels below the version that I streamed on Qobuz. Had I been suckered again? Absolutely.

After a bit of digging (ok it took all of 4 seconds to find this out on the Hoffman forums) it turns out that Di Meola found a box of tapes at home. He is currently working with “Ear Music” – which seems to be an offshoot of Optimal GMBH (well known pressing plant) – they are issuing and reissuing a bunch of his recordings. It seems that Optimal took the tapes – I don’t know if they cut lacquers directly from them (AAA) or digitalized them, and then cut lacquers. But – regardless – a straightforward transfer. An that is the version of the recording that I bought. But, hang on, why does the 24/192 version sound – well – amazing!

Due to my not paying adequate attention, I did not realize that, as usual, on the other side of the Atlantic, the recording was enjoying a completely different re-genesis – a parallel universe of mastering. Impex records, for whom I have tremendous regard, and I do not know the timeline here, were simultaneously working on their own audiophile version of the recording. So, what follows is my understanding, based on various forum posts, as to what happened.

The concert was recorded in 16 track – so there were multitrack masters that needed to be mixed down to a stereo master to be cut into vinyl or mastered to CD or Hig Res PCM or SACD. The Ear version (mine) was mixed and edited by Al Di Meola and an engineer – presumably in the digital domain, and the files were delivered to Optimal, who happily used them for the “official” release. Impex presumably, at an early stage, made a deal to do an “audiophile” version (all vinyl reissues should be audiophile). When they heard the Ear version, they were unimpressed. They baked and de-moulded and digitalized the multi-track masters (32/384 PCM), corrected speed anomalies, wow and flutter. Then they professionally mixed the album, generated a new digital master, sent it to Bernie Grundman who cut the lacquers and the records were pressed at RTI. What I was streaming was the 24/192 version of that master. By all accounts, the Impex version sounds phenomenal. It also demonstrates the value of digitalizing the multi-tracks and creating a definitive modern mix – wider soundstage and greater dynamics. Those Luddites who believe that high res digital cannot create the “3D” effect of AAA vinyl should stream the high res files of this recording on decent equipment.

So, here we have it. One “album” – exactly the same cover, the same liner notes, similar labels – and COMPLETELY different products. Ok the “audiophile” version is roughly twice the price. But FFS – who the hell wants to buy a record that sounds worse than the CD? Seriously: I can’t send back the “Ear” version – there is nothing wrong with the product itself except for shoddy sound. It gets chucked into the pile of records that are unlikely to see the light of day again.

It seems to me that there is an increasing amount of vinyl apartheid going on that has determined that the USA should get “good” versions of album reissues and Europeans should get cheap ass digitally derived schlock that the record companies know that those multi-lingual soccer loving funny food eating suckers will buy. Perhaps the opposite is true for new releases.

I will save my final venom for “Sony Legacy.” Sony, of course, own the Columbia catalogue: Michael Jackson, Springsteen, Dylan, Miles, SRV, Brubeck, Monk etc. They reissue LPs and CDs under the “Legacy” moniker. What this means is that, in the USA, a recognized mastering engineer (Gray, Grundman, Smith etc.) is given access to the original master tapes (or analog copies of them – which I suspect) and cut AAA lacquers for albums pressed in the USA for the local market. Unfortunately, a lot of these are pressed at United – where the quality is highly variable, by all accounts. Simultaneously, a 24/96 (presumably) set of files is made from the tapes, Dropboxed or emailed to some no named cutting engineer – who cuts lacquers to be pressed up in Haarlem, the Netherlands, or GZ, for the European market. Why they can’t just FedEx over a couple of AAA mother stampers baffles me. Buyer beware – do not buy European Sony Legacy vinyl without checking the provenance on Discogs. And this brings me to Bob Dylan.

I really enjoy the mid 1960s Bob Dylan catalogue. One of the few Dylan albums that I enjoy, but do not have a high quality audiophile pressing of, is “Blond on Blond” (I do have the Sundazed mono – but – its not great -compared with the SACD). Again, Amazon, 2022 vinyl reissue “Blond on Blond.” Vinyl-spider-senses twitching, I did my homework. The European version was mastered and pressed at Pallas – the best pressing plant in Europe: no contest. But, the rub, almost 100% certainty it was cut from digital files by inhouse engineers. The US version was cut by Ryan Smith (Sterling Sound), with no claims for AAA on the record and pressing plant unclear. Probably United – but who knows. There is a THIRD version out there – not yet listed on Discogs – the Vinyl Me Please record of the month version. Disclaimer – I am a VMP fanboy – they produce excellent product, the provenance is made clear from the outset, they replace faulty product quickly with minimal fuss – my only complaint is the tendency to press up a lot of their “collections” on coloured vinyl at GZ. Regardless, the VMP version: “(AAA) Lacquers Cut From The Original Mono Master Tapes By Ryan Smith, Sterling Sound; Plated At Record Technology Incorporated (RTI).” Well that’s a bit of a no brainer – except there is no way of buying this version, currently, without being a member of the club (and it absolutely will sell out before they offer it to non members). Gold vinyl; sigh. Presumably, the US version is the exact same mastering. Pressing – who knows – but it is likely that separate mothers were produced for the US wide version and the VMP version (so why not the effing European version). Vinyl apartheid indeed.

Also, be aware, that although this is listed AAA – we do not know exactly which tapes were used by Ryan Smith (RKS). We know that Sony do NOT let the Original Master Tapes (OMTs) out of their storage location – that is what got MOFI into trouble: they had to digitalize the OMTs. So what do Sony send out to RKS? He does not bring his studio to Sony – so Sony MUST be supplying him with a copy of the OMT. AAA, presumably, but not AAA-OMT.

Trying to be a well behaved vinyl consumer, and assemble a decent long term collection of the best available copies of favorite albums is hard work indeed. We seem to be in an era where record shops have opened or re-opened all over the world selling slabs of vinyl that do not out perform the files that you stream from Qobuz, Deezer, Tidal or Apple Music. Although high quality vinyl is available, it is either geographically restricted, confined to exclusive deals with boutique labels (e.g. Steely Dan on Analogue Productions) or ringfenced within fairly expensive “members only” record clubs.

Needless to say, I have shelled out a pile of money for the Impex version of “Saturday Night.” My new years resolution for 2023 – to stop buying bad records. Again. Outcome: likely the same.

Addendum: FFS – I just re-read the blurb on the VMP website: “Plated At Record Technology Incorporated (RTI)” – click another box and it says “Pressed at GZ.” Another swiz. Of course – colored vinyl always equals GZ. So, three versions of the same album out this year. It is being pressed up in three different locations simultaneously – an AAA version pressed up in Europe and exported to the US (VMP), a Digital version pressed up in Europe for Europe, and a (presumably) AAA version pressed up somewhere in North America. Although on the surface the VMP “exclusive” looks really good – it is just the colored vinyl that is exclusive and the standard black US version may well be the best of the lot. Again – the f***ing plates, cut by Ryan Smith, were physically IN EUROPE, how hard would it have been for Sony Legacy to give us a non digital version of the album?

Steely Dan $150 UHDR vinyl; seriously?

•November 10, 2022 • Leave a Comment

A few months ago, Chad Kassem announced there would be some MAJOR announcements from Analogue Productions in the Autumn. Most expected that AP would be doing a major Led Zeppelin reissue program. I can’t say that this excites me. Instead it turned out to be Steely Dan.

July 21st 2000, Walnut Creek, Raleigh North Carolina. I got to see the Steely Dan band live. At last. This was a big deal in my life as, for about 15 years, I had been obsessed with SD, and for a few years prior to that with Donald Fagen’s Nightfly. It is fascinating, looking back, how a band of that stature could get away with not playing “Do it again,” “Ricky don’t lose that number” or “Reelin’ in the years” (amongst others). But such was their prolific work rate over 7 albums in roughly 8 years that nobody was complaining. I liked the songs, the complex chord structures, the wit and nuance, the calibre of musicianship. I knew the stories of having 27 guitarists or whatever trying to do a solo on Aja. But here, one band, led by Becker and Fagen, were reproducing the magic in person.

More than 20 years later, Becker has passed away and Fagen is now Steely Dan. I have seen the band in various iterations many times, including the same musicians masquerading as the “Donald Fagen Band” for the Morph the Cat tour. The music never gets old.

Since the late 1990s reunion, SD have released four albums “Two Against Nature,” which is good, “Everything Must Go,” which isn’t great, a live version of “The Nightfly” and “Northeast Corridor” – a live compilation. In addition, Fagen released “Morph the Cat” which was forgettable, and “Sunken Condos” – which I really enjoyed. If you are familiar with any of the albums, you will know that SD/DF are studio perfectionists and very appealing to audiophiles. Incidentally, before I proceed, I must point out that three of the albums sound disappointing – “Countdown to Ecstasy” and “Katy Lied” (SD) – which are also the weakest albums and “Kamikiriad” the highly anticipated follow up to “The Nightfly” by Fagen in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, the sound – that horrible brittle 1980s sheen – dated at the time of release – it is just horrible. While the songs are good, it is close to impossible to listen to the album in its entirety due to the production.

There are few albums in the history of rock that replicate the production values of “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” “Aja,” “Gaucho,” “The Nightfly” and to a lesser extent “Pretzel Logic” and “The Royal Scam.” So where are all of the audiophile reissues, the HiRes albums, SACDs, 5.1 multichannel releases? Aside from Gaucho, none of the SD albums have had the deluxe treatment.

Side note: “The Nightfly” has had a couple of reissues: a 2012 Chris Bellman audiophile cut and an early Mofi One Step release. I recently did a shootout between my early 1980s original-ish pressing, the 2012 reissue, the Cheap-Xmas version (identical to the 2012), the One Step and the DVD-A. Hands down the One Step was the best. Obviously, this is unavailable for most people. The DVD-A was really excellent – but I thought the 2012 CB cut sounded better – and that was significantly better than the “original.” Without hesitation I would recommend the 2012 version if all you have is a CD/tape or later pressing.

A year or two ago the 21st Century Dan records were reissued on 180g 33rpm vinyl for Record Store Day. I queued up and bought them. As expected, they sounded marvelous. Then, earlier this year, they were reissued by Analogue Productions as 2 x 45rpm albums, priced at $60 (but about €80 in Europe, including vat etc). The reviews were spectacular – but – these records were cut from exactly the same digital sources as my 33rpm versions. How much better could they be? Also, I don’t even particularly like those albums why would I drop €150 buying them again. That didn’t stop that strange itch you get – “must have the best” that plagued me for a day or two, that was eventually cured by listening to “Everything Must Go” and realizing that I didn’t need another copy.

The SD catalog has been reissued on CD several times – I rather liked the last set of remasters, though they divide opinion. One of the first CDs I ever bought was Katie Lied – and it sounded atrocious – so remaster any day. Gaucho was reissued in 2003 on SACD and DVD-A with a surround layer. It is an excellent digital product and strongly recommended.

Throughout the vinyl renaissance there has been a distinct absence of quality SD material. Speakers Corner released an AAA reissue of “Can’t Buy a Thrill” in 2000 and repressed it for several years. Audiophiles complain that it has bloated bass and seems compressed; I like it regardless. All of the albums were reissued in 2008-9 on the Back to Black moniker (i.e. CD on vinyl) – and – again despite what know-alls say – the couple that I bought (Aja and Gaucho) sound great. Not audiophile, perhaps, but most people would appreciate them. Nonetheless, a Steely Dan box set or audiophile vinyl set – that would be something that I would spend €300 or €400 for.

So, I was excited when I heard that Analogue Productions were going to do a Steely Dan reissue program. Then I got sticker shock.

Here is the story. Chad Kassem buddied up with Donald Fagen and persuaded him of the need to do a Steely Dan audiophile reissue program. Ok. UMe – the current rights holders got on board. Then they sent for the master tapes. Unfortunately, as everyone knows (apparently) the original master tapes for Aja and Gaucho don’t seem to exist, and part of the multitrack masters of Aja disappeared decades ago. Hence no surround sound version of Aja. No big deal – copies were located. The “master tapes” for all 7 original albums will be used by Bernie Grundman to cut AAA 2 x 45 acetates for Analogue Productions. Sweet. Unfortunately, those 2 x 45s will be on UHQR (i.e. AP faddy super vinyl that is basically crackly clear vinyl like everything that came out last year on RSD except that it is biconcave) in the stupid ugly empty box that KOB was reissued in. Price $150. Each. They will be pressing up 25,000 copies of Aja, 20,000 of Can’t Buy a Thrill and 15,000 copies of the rest. Total price before tax and shipping – over $1000. If you try to get the full set in Europe – you are talking, probably €1750. Consider that you can pick up pretty good AAA copies of any of these records at most decent second hand stores this is – wow – expensive. Not for one minute do I believe that UHQR sounds as good or as quiet as other supervinyl formulations or One Step pressings. Although the sleeves are gorgeous (essentially the same as €50 Tone Poets) the boxes are absolutely horrendous.

But what about all of us mere mortals (i.e. not wealthy people with money to burn) and non Americans – any chance of an AAA 33rpm version of “Pretzel Logic.” Well….no! Instead of getting Bernie to cut lacquers AAA at 33rpm – they are using a digital feed (DSD or PCM who knows?) from his “mastering” to send to another cutting engineer to cut digital to lacquer. Seriously! The fu**ing tapes are in the hands of one of the great vinyl mastering engineers and he is making a digital copy! And remember, Bernie is no Bob Ludwig or MOFI guy who does DXD copies – he is just going to run a analogue to digital line from his system (a bit like connecting your turntable to a USB input in your computer). This is just complete BO**OCKS. Talk about a missed opportunity. Let’s get this straight: for 50 years records were pressed on black vinyl (to look like shellac) or on gimmicky colored vinyl, at 33rpm and we bought them, listened to them and loved them. I have many albums that I love only one side – it could be A or B. Now it seems that Chad Kassem and UMe and Fagen have decided that the only all analog reissues of some of the best selling vinyl records of all time will be that bastardized pseudo audiophile obsession: the 7 minute a side 45rpm album. Do they not realize that the best thing about the CD and streaming is that you don’t have to get up of your ass and flip the record every 15 minutes?

Chad Kassem intimated, during his 2 hour vape filled obnoxious but charming bromance filled puff piece no difficult questions interview with 45rpm dude Michael Ludwig that – once the UHDR versions sell out they may release standard black 2 x 45rpm versions of the albums. No doubt – CBAT, Aja and Gaucho will sell out: will they sell 15,000 copies of “Countdown to Ecstasy” or “Katie Lied” (nobody’s favorite SD albums) at about $180 a pop (including tax and shipping)?- God only knows.

Aside from everything else – I figure that the empty ugly box from AP is now costing about $70 (assuming that the records are worth $80 – although this has messed up my calculator – usually the useless empty foam filled box is $23-30). I tossed my KOB box aside and then wondered…..

Yes – as you can see (below) – all my UK original pressing SD albums can fit handily into the stupid empty box that CK and AP have decided to stick us with.

Anyway – Nov 4th came (the above material was typed up ages ago) and, of course, everybody who bought the UHQR version of “Can’t Buy a Thrill” (the first release) waxed lyrical about the amazing sound that was on offer (much better than the “OG” – original generation – a popular euphemism for early pressing in the country of origin). It would want to be for that price: sunk costs anyone? Aside from the overfamiliar hits (Do it Again, Reeling in the Years, Dirty Work), the rest of the album is good – but wouldn’t justify my paying the price of a ski lift pass for it. The 24/192 files were uploaded for streaming on Qobuz – very low volume mix – once ramped up it was good – but not spectacular to listen to. I much prefer my 1978 UK pressing and the Speakers Corner edition; actually I think I prefer the remastered CD (yes that must be my “loudness button” ears – but let’s face it – Kevin Gray, Van Gelder and Roy DuNann all mastered LOUD).

What about the pleb edition – the digital on vinyl cut by the legendary cutting engineer that nobody had ever heard of (Alex Abrash)? I’m just weirded out by the whole thing – Bernie Grundman or one of his minions produced, from analogue, high res (“master”) files for a relatively unknown cutting engineer to cut lacquers. Why not do it in house? WTF! Ok I know I’m repeating myself.

Well I’m not buying it – certainly not for €32 – with it’s flimsy jacket and horrible horrible horrible Geffen label. Yes Geffen – both vinyl versions are on Geffin – a label that did not even exist when the band broke up in 1980. It probably sounds pretty good – keeping in mind that about 99.9% of vinyl records that are sold these days are derived from digital but it seems like a huge…..lost opportunity.

My spider senses tell me that Bernie Grundman cut a set of 33rpm lacquers from the tapes (why wouldn’t he?) – that are probably locked up in a vault in Kansas awaiting a later release once Chad Kassem has sucked the wealthy audiophile pockets dry.

Have we reached peak vinyl? I wonder. Certainly the audiophile vinyl thing is now officially out of control. Think about it. We can buy phenomenal audiophile AAA reissues of 60 or 70 year old jazz titles (Tone Poets, Verve, Impulse, Contemporary etc) – some of which sold fewer copies when they came out originally – in Stoughton tip on jackets for a moderate price. But we cannot buy audiophile rock vinyl reissues – that sold millions of copies (and that you can pick up from Discogs) without being lied to (MOFI) or, basically ripped off with a Hermes Scarf type ($70) box used to puff up the price of that great musical product of the proletariat – the vinyl record. And boy, do I hate those boxes.

The “Original Pressing” Blues

•September 8, 2022 • 1 Comment

I intermittently watch the 45rpm audiophile (Michael Ludwig) Youtube channel. There is something both endearing about watching Michael, who clearly has stacks and stacks of money and a late in life enthusiasm for vinyl records. He clearly did not spend his formative years crate digging. His impressive record collection is made up, principally, of new releases and audiophile reissues, which he has been reviewing – sometimes comparing different pressings by different audiophile reissue labels. A couple of months ago, the bubble burst – when we all discovered that MOFI were, effectively, duping us into believing that their reissues were cut directly from analogue tape sources. He vowed that, in future, he would source original pressings to make comparisons. When I heard this, my heart sank, it was like looking at the Truman show – he was so upset by the MOFI conspiracy that he naively decided to fall into the “original pressing” sinkhole.

If you are a book collector, the object of all desires is the “first edition” that looks exactly like the second edition, the third and so on. The book doesn’t look or read any differently from one edition to the next. In fact, later editions may be printed on better quality paper with more easily readable fonts, but – no mind – the “first edition” that is the one you want.

There is a widely held perception that if you want to get the best copy of an vinyl record you want a first pressing from the country of origin (i.e. the metal work was derived from the original master tapes, not copies of those tapes). However, “country of origin” is ok if that is, for example, Sweden, where there was likely only one pressing run at one pressing plant. For popular recordings, albums may have been pressed up at several plants in the USA. Was the metalwork all made in the same place or were copies of the master tapes distributed to make lacquers at each plant? Did they use virgin or recycled vinyl? What was used for pressings in the UK, or in the Netherlands, Germany, France or Japan? Was the record in the first 100 off the stamper or the 9000th. How many pressing runs happened in the first year (they often look identical)? Absolutely nobody knows.

Yes geography matters. You can be pretty sure that if the album was recorded in the USA or UK then the Spanish, Portuguese or Greek version will sound horrible. However, as has been my experience, the Dutch pressing may seriously outshine the origin country one. The ONLY way to know how good a record sounds is to listen to it in the record shop before laying down any money. In the modern era, that is often impossible. Many record shops have closed and gone online only. Smaller markets don’t have second hand shops. Hence Better Records set up a business that takes the guess work out of shopping for your favorite albums. They buy piles of the most popular albums, listen to them and then grade them – into super white hot stampers or whatever (and then they, presumably dump the detritus – the exceeding blue cold stampers – on unsuspecting record shops, ebay or Discogs). It will cost you $200 or so for a hot stamper – and there is NO MENTION about first pressing, country of origin or anything else. And for good reason: it’s a crapshoot. Great sounding records are great sounding records. It has been my experience, for example, that D5 stamper represses of Contemporary Records albums, may sound better than original pressings, in particular if the grooves have been gouged out by 1950s needles.

Although you will read reams and reams of comments on the Hoffman forums that say things like “I don’t understand why you would pay $40 for this reissue when you can pick up an original copy for $5 in my local record store.” I often wonder where that store is. Not near me, and not likely near you. Most second hand records that I encounter are scuffed, warped, lightweight discs in tatty covers. Even if they look good they often sound horrible. It is often hard to find an early copy in excellent condition that sounds good – anywhere (see my last post). The reissue market exists because those records sound and look great.

This all brings me to Discogs. I have a long strong and loving relationship with that online platform. It is an amazing wiki type resource where users catalogue recordings – and correct mistakes. It is a goldmine for record collectors and a cash cow for record sellers. There are lots of great record dealers on Discogs who have sold me wonderful records that have enriched my life. And there are shysters. You order what you think is a country of origin first pressing (COFP) and receive a budget or midprice repress that comes on 90g of flexi vinyl – which NOBODY would mistake as a COFP – particularly when there is a mid-price sticker on the cover. After vehement complaints you end up stuck with the product (after a partial refund) due to the hassle and cost of returning it to the oh-so-innocent huckster. Add this to the epidemic of overgrading both vinyl and covers and you have a major problem. If you give the seller a negative review you get an ignorant and patronizing response. An a downgraded buyer rating.

So, when Michael posted a video titled “Why Discogs is no longer working for me” – it was like clickbait.. He informed us that he had ordered something like 130 original pressings on Discogs and, surprise surprise, a bunch of these never arrived, many were overgraded, bootlegs or not the original pressing and some dealers were particularly strange. He describes one seller in the UK who wouldn’t ship the precious album because he believed that it would be “flipped” for profit. I’m sure that some viewers would not believe the story, but I had exactly the same experience a few years ago with a seller from whom I wanted to buy a COFP of “Exile on Main Street” – he became weirdly suspicious of my enthusiasm for the record. He wouldn’t let me pay for it (the absence of a pay now Paypal button is a red flag on Discogs). Eventually, after a few email exchanges, he cancelled the order and later relisted the record for twice the price. Scumbaggery in the extreme as far as I’m concerned (I really wanted that record at the time – I lost interest about a week later).

If you are looking for COFP of jazz records, from any era, you have a good chance of picking them up, from reputable dealers, on Discogs. Often later Japanese pressings actually sound better for significantly less money. However, if you are looking for COFP in NM condition of popular rock albums from the 1970s or 1980s – well good luck to you. You are a sitting duck for being ripped off on Discogs or EBay or on any other online platform. Rock fans in those days didn’t buy a lot of records; they couldn’t afford many – and the ones that they had got a lot of play. Each time you play a record it deteriorates. Mint or near mint original pressings are few and far between: archives, cut outs or avid collectors. If you encounter, even in a shop, a record that has not been reissued on vinyl since 1975 and it looks new – it is a bootleg. It may sound great, incidentally, but it is not worth more than €20.

I was particularly bemused that Michael was going to a lot of trouble trying to source an original UK copy of a Blondie album. What was wrong with the German* version that would likely sound identical, cost half the price and avoid that horrors that involves buying anything from the UK post Brexit? [Warning rant ahead]. At this stage I am convinced that it would be cheaper for me to fly Ryanair to the UK, go to the record shop and buy the album there rather than face the deluge of duties, fees and VAT charges that you encounter from the postman. Michael seems to have found a good dealer in the UK to serve his insatiable desire for first pressings. Hopefully the dealer has vinyl mules who carry the records from London to Brussels on the Eurostar and then post them to Dusseldorf.

*A large proportion of albums pressed in Europe, particularly in the 1980s came from a couple of plants in the Netherlands and Germany.

Annual Rant about Record Shops

•August 25, 2022 • 1 Comment

Over the past few months I have visited a good few record shops in London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm (unfortunately Andra Jazz was closed for vacation), Gothenburg and Lisbon. These days there appears to be two types of record shops (aside from nostalgia shops that have a few “vinyls”), those that sell new records and those that sell used ones – some do both. At this stage there are practically no new records that I want – except for new releases (which I can buy at home or from Amazon) or expensive imports (usually US – Analogue Productions, Impex etc) – which are rarely stocked. That leaves me perusing second hand record shops.

Concerto Records in Amsterdam, an example of everything a record shop should be

To quote myself: (2019) “ have been in dozens of used record shops across Europe and, everywhere you go, it the same stuff: crappy 1970s and 1980s Italian pressings of classic records in weird jackets on thin vinyl. Anything remotely decent is up, on the wall, at staggeringly elevated prices. This, for me, is the ongoing problem of used record stores: as soon as any new high quality stock arrives it is cherry picked by the staff, regulars, lucky browsers etc. such that most of what fills the crates is fairly ordinary. Yes, you might pick up a much wanted replacement of “Nightflight to Venus” for €1, but forget about finding a first or second pressing of an American jazz classic. Indeed, my own experience is that even a first UK or German pressing can be very very expensive.”

In every city there were a handful of extremely well run stores, where there was no escaping the place without dropping €100. However, many of the record shops that I visited are owned by extremely nice people who don’t really seem to know their market. Most of the stock of your average second hand record shop is low quality or uninteresting. A decade or two ago, record shops could be really choosy about what LPs they bought – estates were being liquidated and old records in good shape could be bought cheaply. I believe that the stock of these shops has deteriorated a lot since then – due to the boom in vinyl sales, possibly due to more rapid turnover of higher quality product. A lot of dross remains. It is painful to go digging through crates and crates of second rate reissues or damaged albums looking for good record. So can I give record shop owners some advice:

  1. If you are selling a record for >€10 please put it in a plastic dust jacket. Treat the album with the same amount of respect that the purchaser would do. These dust jackets cost cents – and they make the album cover look as if it is in better condition than it is.
  2. If you are selling a record for more than €20 please clean it, and have you ultrasonic or vacuum cleaning machine displayed prominently in the shop. Once cleaned – put the record in a nice new inner sleeve (they cost pennies)
  3. Catalogue the records properly. There must be times during the week when record shops are not busy – that time could be easily spent actually cataloguing the records on sale and cleaning the good ones.
  4. How difficult is it to put a little sticker on the cover with “US second pressing, media NM, sleeve VG+” or equivalent? So that folks don’t have to spend valuable time excitedly picking up albums in pristine sleeves only to discover that they are scratched to pieces on the inside.
  5. If you have very high quality and collectable stock – please put a “collectable” bin in front of the cash register (beside the “new in” bin) so that keen collectors don’t have to spend hours crate digging.
  6. If you are a cash only business – there seems to be a lot – please have change available. I recently proffered €20 for a €15 album – the retailer did not have change – so he went off to another store and came back with it. Then once paid – no bag – neither plastic nor paper. So I spent the next hour holding a NM sleeve in a sweaty hand with sunscreen dripping down my arm, looking for something, anything, to protect the album (which wouldn’t have been an issue if the seller had followed item 1 above) – eventually using a FNAC magazine as a temporary record sleeve.
  7. Engage with your customer – if a customer spends more than 10 minutes digging around your crates, they are likely interested and valuable customers (i.e. they may spend real money). Rather than ignoring them – it does no harm to enquire if they were looking for anything specific. Even if you don’t have it, you can always guide them to equivalent product that you do have.
  8. Mind your prices. It takes approximately 3 seconds to look up the price of an equivalent product on Discogs (and it is just as quick to order it). When I am in a record shop and am considering a relatively expensive item – I figure that the Discogs price is about right (the 6% commission that they charge is offset by the shipping costs). If I buy multiple records, I expect a discount. Generally retailers who list on Discogs do a better job of cataloguing and grading their records.
  9. Don’t forget digital – there is a hidden market out there for SACDs, DVD-A, BluRay audio and of course music videos – and collectors are willing to pay fairly high prices (as they are for “unofficial” recordings). CDs will be back in a big way – soon – but collectables need to be properly catalogued. These days tourists – who a lot of modern record shops cater for – are travelling with only hand luggage and don’t have room for a bunch of albums. I always return home with more CDs than records.
  10. Think about your niche – are you a dance record, indie record, jazz, soul etc. shop? If so, how to you source your stock? I am always on the look out for quality Japanese imports, but it is strange how few record shops seem to stock them. Also, don’t forget that your customers are also a good source for stock. One of our local bookstores buys back books for store credit (at reasonable rates). By providing generous store credit – remembering that trade ins often avoid the VAT (sales tax) conundrum, you lock your customer into a virtuous cycle of visiting your shop. It is likely, 12 years or so into the “vinyl revolution” that there are a lot of vinyl/music enthusiasts with multiple copies of much sought after records – that they would happily trade in their surplus if they didn’t feel ripped off (I have often witnessed people wandering in off the street trying to sell records to used record stores – being treated with distain and then offered laughable sums for their treasured collection – I, for one, don’t wish to be treated this way).
  11. Whether or not you sell new or used records or CDs – curate the material (this is the playlist generation after all). Have a stand with “Staff Recommendations” or “Albums of the Year” or “5 Star Reviews” or “Rolling Stone 100 greatest albums” or whatever. This is a very effective way of promoting product – you can stick a little description of the record beneath it. If you think about looking for a couple of novels to read on your vacation – how do you find good ones? Simple – Amazon reviews or staff recommendations or prominent positioning in a shop.
    Often it is hard to know where to start in a record shop when you don’t have much time (I often have a quick browse through the bargain bin or the “new in” bin). Hence well curated display stands for “collectables” (usually left over RSD stock) or of acts “Coming to town” (live) attract a fair amount of attention. There is nothing more off-putting than rows upon rows of records listed A to Z. Also – have an “independent record store exclusives” rack (these are the, usually overpriced, coloured vinyl versions that they don’t sell on Amazon). Finally, think practically about how you catalogue records: for example – some buyers are particularly fond of certain record labels – so have an ECM or Blue Note or Rough Trade or Creation section. This significantly enhances impulse buying. I have often thought that shops should have a “Greatest Hits” section for artist specific compilations – these suck in casual browsers particularly during the holiday periods (most shops that sell new records do display, prominently, “DSOM”, “Rumours”, “Back to Black”, various Springsteen and Bowie albums etc. because that is what sells).
  12. Stay open in the evenings. People who buy records – particularly outside tourist season – work during the day and sometimes find themselves in town in the evening with time to kill and money in their pockets.
  13. It seems to me that a small number of artists in any given market represent a large proportion of sales – Pink Floyd, Beyonce, Harry Stiles, Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran, Adele etc. Hence, it makes sense to tap the market for add ons – if Styles has a new album out there should be a large display containing vinyl, CDs, DVDs, Blu Rays, picture discs, books and other memorabilia, T-shirts, bootlegs, some One Direction material etc. Even less dramatic releases such as the Blue Note Classic Record series – should be displayed together so that, when you go to pick up a Grant Green or Herbie Hancock record, you might be tempted to buy that George Braith or Howard Wilkerson album. Even simple side by side comparisons like “If you like this album” -> you’ll love this!” works a treat. Remember, when a potential customer enters your record shop, they are usually LOOKING for something to buy. If they leave 30 mins later with their hands empty, you have failed miserably. Tower Records used to be very effective at using these techniques.
  14. Please don’t fill up your “Jazz” section with DOL, Waxtime, JazzWax and other public domain recordings on vinyl. Put them in a separate (2 for €35) section.
  15. Finally, give recurrent buyers a discount, they appreciate it and usually spend more.

Thoughts on Buying Vinyl Records in the 2020s

•July 28, 2022 • 1 Comment

You will forgive me for the semi disjointed nature of this column. There was a fair amount of “stream of thought” writing and not a lot of time.

Are Vinyl Record Buyers suckers, hobbyists or just people who never grew up?

I have thousands of records that I have been buying intermittently since the 1970s. I have a mountain of CDs and lots of SACDs, DVD audio discs, boxes of tapes, DVDs, BluRays, and hard drives full of bootlegs, high res downloads etc. And that doesn’t mention books. Enough stuff to fill a storage unit. My brother, 12 years younger, owns no physical music media, no books, no video tapes or movie discs. He could pack his life into a suitcase. Mine is full of records. My overhead – hundreds of thousands of pounds, dollars and euro over several decades. Opportunity cost – a holiday home in the South of France? Maybe.

What makes me different from my brother? I have a paid subscription to Qobuz (and Deezer), Scribd and Audible and various video streaming services, and bring a Kobo on my vacations. I only listen to records when I am sure to be left alone for more than 20 minutes at home. Otherwise, much of my listening is via iPhone or at home to Roon, streaming High Res, DSD or 16/44 from Qobuz or from my own NAS. He listens to music on a small portable bluetooth speaker So what is the point of owning all of those records (most of the CDs – except for the box sets – are actually in storage)?

One argument is that music fans just want a definitive version of their favourite recordings. I mused about this in 2013 and came down on the side of vinyl (in years that followed I developed a taste for DSD). A lot of folks out there clearly think the same way. It is completism. And, yes it is bonkers to have 8 different vinyl versions of “Exile on Main Street” or, in my case, “Kind of Blue.” It’s your business unless the kids are starving. In my home country approximately €1000 is gambled (most of it lost) per person per year. That grand will buy a lot of records (or one copy of Bill Evans Riversides from Acoustic Sounds). Buy a new car – 25% of it’s value is lost year one. Sometimes more. Drink “gourmet” coffee, buy lottery tickets, buy branded groceries, smoke? Then don’t judge my record buying habits.

Music is life. Each one of our lives has a soundtrack. It doesn’t matter if your musical life started with the Wombles, Gary Glitter, ABBA, Girls Aloud or Ariana Grande. Your memories are encased in music. It entertains us, relaxes us, cheers us up when we are down, prods us awake in the car, keeps us company when we are alone. It can be a shared experience amongst strangers or provide a bond between friends and lovers.

During my teenage years most people were interested in only music and sport (preferably both). Your tribe was your friends with whom you would argue endlessly about the music you liked and loathed. As we grew older and drifted apart, I wondered if their passion remained or was it replaced by the mundane life experience of work, the family, the bins, the garden and the pub. For me music was and has been a constant, a hobby. A distraction.

I believe that the world is divided into the following groups: 1. Casual listeners; 2. Fans of artists – who follow certain artists and groups and go to concerts and buy merch etc; 3. Music fans – who spend a lot of money at concerts, buy a lot of audio product or both, and read books and magazines about music and musicians; 4. Record collectors – often being more interested in the provenance and value of the product than the contents; 5. Audiophiles – who are more interested in the sound of their system than the music that they are playing on it; 6. People who have no interest in music (complete weirdos in other words).

Realistically, most audiophiles love music – maybe not a diverse range. Most record collectors have audiophile tendencies and have their own favourite recordings. Most music fans like to hear good reproduction of the products that they buy. A lot of this is based on income. If I was rich I would have a state of the art audiophile system in a purpose built room adjacent to my purpose built audio library. Most of the time I am listening to music on my iPad (Roon>iPad>Chord Mojo>Sennheiser HD800 – not shitty Beats headphones).

Are vinyl record buyers just suckers when we can stream HiRes digital from Qobuz/Amazon/Tidal?

Sometimes records just sound so much better than their digital counterparts. I have been listening to Lennie Niehaus’ small group recordings, for Contemporary Records, for several months. It astonishing how much energy and musicality that engineer John Palladino was able to encode on wax – that really is absent on digital versions of the albums. These are, of course, original pressings or early reissues not 21st century “audiophile” remasters. While I was really looking forward to the Acoustic Sounds Contemporary Records reissues series  – particularly having watched the video featuring John Koenig, Chad Kassem and Bernie Grundman mastering the records in 2015 – aside from “Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section” in mono (appropriately released with the “Stereo Records” label) – I haven’t been overly impressed. And this is the crux of the reissue business. Viny reissues may be a lot better than CDs, but they are not necessarily better than the original records. Moreover, and certainly this is the case with the Blue Note Tone Poets, often the reissues are selling a lot more copies than the album sold back in the 1950s and 60s.

Lennie Niehaus Contemporary Records Small Group Releases

Why do we buy reissues? I believe that there are ten reasons for buying vinyl reissues:

  1. Original pressings and even all analogue reissues are extremely rare and prohibitively expensive. This is very much the case with the Blue Note catalogue.
  2. When released on vinyl, previously, the sound was really bad – this was particularly the case of the limited amount of vinyl that was produced and sold between 1998 and 2012: really lazy CD mastered onto vinyl.
  3. Original vinyl pressings in really good condition pressed on high quality vinyl that sound good are really hard to find. This is true of popular 1970s and 1980s vinyl releases – and is the reason why Better Records are in business.
  4. A lot of people are nostalgic for the records of their childhood – but their records are scratched to pieces and now that they have bought a turntable they want a fresh copy. Hence – the gazillion digitally derived copies of Dark Side of the Moon that are sold each year.
  5. A lot of people are nostalgic for CDs of their childhood and want a vinyl copy – which they may never play.
  6. Record companies hype 180g vinyl as audiophile and people believe that these new pressings are superior to originals.
  7. Records bought to decorate the apartment and indicate “good taste” – no turntable; enough said.
  8. Records bought as investment vehicles or collectors items for future profit – hmm. This goes on a lot – and is a real problem with “Record Store (->ebay) Day.”
  9. “I’m a hipster, records are cool” – well this is obviously true even if you are a dick and you buy your records from clothes shops.
  10. Compulsion – buying records is your hobby, just as stamp collecting might be or historic movie posters or artwork. It’s your thing. I believe that most of these people (and I think I am one) love music but not necessarily all of the music that they buy on vinyl.

At the end of the day there are really two types of people who buy vinyl: the ones who listen to their records and the ones who don’t. Amongst the latter are the collectors who are afraid to devalue the product and the hipsters and others who are more interested in image than audiophilia.

Do records sound better than CDs or High Res Audio files (including DSD)?

A lot of the time – yes. And this is not because there is some inherent flaw in vinyl that convinces our brains that it sounds better.

Psychoacoustics

From my own experience – and I cannot explain why – it is much easier to sit down and listen to records (whether derived from analogue tape or digital) than to digital formats – it is less fatiguing. And most audiophiles will say the same thing. And I love digital for its precision, dynamic range, clarity and convenience. However, I am still not certain, after 40 years, that digital recording and digital to analogue conversion has really managed to be fully transparent. I have a Benchmark DAC and Poweramp that sound absolutely extraordinary playing digital material – astonishing levels of detail that would really wow a visitor to the house as a demo. But sustained listening is not an option – and I play my records back through a tube poweramp.

The Value of Great Mastering

Mastering

Since 1994 – digital releases have significant bass boost and dynamic range compression. This makes hearing your album on a car’s CD system easier (overcoming the engine noise – prior to electric vehicles). It may be beneficial in the club or pub – by it is really unpleasant for home listening. This “loudness” process is also a major problem with pretty much all digital reissues from 1996 to 2016 (and most CDs still have a lot of compression). Modern records tend to centre the bass and widen the dynamic range – otherwise the needle will not stay in the groove. They are not loud. Compare a modern record to it’s CD equivalent and there is a huge dynamic range difference.

If you watch the Abbey Road and Analogue Productions videos here you will see the value of good mastering. Engineers spend weeks and months carefully constructing albums in their studios – and then the mastering engineer either botches the CD or brickwalls it (on request from the artist). With high quality vinyl (and SACD) reissues from companies like AP, MOFI, Speakers Corner etc. a flat transfer of the album will be mastered and the record will sound significantly better.

The Listening Experience

I believe that frustration with the music industry’s inability to move physical media forward has led to the “vinyl renaissance” – which has directly benefitted the music industry. Two generations – mine (Gen X) and those in their 20s – early 30s have embraced vinyl out of frustration. The want carefully curated physical product to spend their disposable income on. Millennials don’t care – they stream.

Beware Rant Ahead:
The music industry has failed miserably in the digital era to provide us with an enhanced experience when listening to digital media. People like record covers. They enjoy reading the blurb on the back cover. I can’t even read the liner notes on CDs these days without a magnifying glass. They did make an effort with CD-interactive content and Dual Disc – and certainly Deluxe Editions contained DVD videos and concerts. But this became moot in the Youtube era. SACD, DVD-Audio and Pure Audio Blu Ray were introduced and abandoned rapidly.
Worse is the ridiculous situation with SuperDeluxe Editions that contain CDs, DVDs, BluRays (Pink Floyd the Later Years) and, frequently, Vinyl as well. I cannot think of any reason why anyone who would lay down real money for a box set would even want a DVD when they can have a BluRay and I hate the cynicism of the record companies who force fans the pay $100 + tax for the SDE so that they can get a 5.1 version of their favourite album – in a big unnecessary box including several CDs filled with material that few listeners want.

The Value of Discogs / eBay and others

Most of the records that I buy these days are from Record Shops around Europe that use the Discogs platform (unfortunately the UK is no longer really an option). Whenever I travel, I visit record shops and dig through the bins – new and used. It is a great way to pass an hour. Unfortunately most of what is in the bins is dross. Forget about second hand records anywhere in Mediterranean Europe (bad pressings) and Ireland (overpriced and poor condition along with poor range). Northern Europe, UK, Germany and Scandinavia are good for second hand records. Most of which are dross. You are not going to find a first pressing of a Gerry Mulligan Pacific Jazz album in the “Jazz” bins of a random record shop in a touristy area. What you will find is a 1970s or 80s reissue – that may or may not sound good – at a reasonable price. It would take me 5 seconds to find the original album on Discogs. My experience is that I am much more likely to buy second rate records in mediocre condition directly from a record shop (when I am in a bit of a rush) than from (notoriously overgraded) Discogs.

Discogs and Ebay have been a major advance in the new analogue era by liberating record collections from the attic and providing those of us living in vinyl deserts with online oases.

Completism

Is completism the quickest route to insanity?

My heart goes out to the elderly man who paid $3000 for the MOFI one-step copy of Abraxis. He wanted the “complete set.” I recall reading forums a decade or so back, where a couple of participants described how they bought the entire Music Matters Blue Note set (it was subscription based back then to get the numbered editions): they bought 2 copies of each release – one to listen to and one “mint” to collect. Thankfully, Blue Note decided to toss in a Casandara Wilson album early in the Tone Poet series, so I wouldn’t go all completist. I’m sure that there are volumes of psychology periodicals that explain the mindset of the collector and marketing textbooks and seminars that seek to educate business people in how to exploit them. It is important to separate normal from dysfunctional psychology. People who collect “stuff” are all a bit odd; completists are odder still. Having the “ultimate” sounding version of recording is a version of completism. Save you condensation for QAnon followers.

What has changed for me since 2013?

By 2013, I had good vinyl copies of most of my favourite records (I eventually got a copy of Skylarking – I prefer the newer 33rpm) – is that my new music exploration – primed by streaming – has been in vintage records from international sellers at reasonable prices. In the description above I am 25% music fan, 25% record collector, 25% audiophile and 25% fan of specific artists and record labels. I have acquired 50+ year old records, sealed, tore open the packaging and played the album immediately.

I play my records. Do you?

Final Thoughts

Record Store Day – in general a good idea, but records are overpriced and overrated. A RSD sticker on an album or single seems to increase the asking price by 50%. I really don’t like RSD exclusives – particularly if the numbers pressed are very few – as it discriminates against enthusiasts who don’t live near record shops. Allowing online retail after 24 hours is a good step forward, nonetheless.

Picture Discs – no no no no no. These are souvenirs. They should never ever be part of a Super Deluxe Box set (Tattoo You).

Coloured Vinyl – nearly all coloured vinyl is pressed at GZ. Vinyl Me Please seem to do everything – unnecessarily – on coloured vinyl but the records sound really good. I am completely ambivalent: I would choose clear (natural) first, then black. I can see why some people think coloured vinyl is cool (one of the Lennie Niehaus singles from 1954 above picture came in red translucent vinyl). Nearly all new release records come in “limited edition coloured vinyl” editions for about 25% more than the basic black. This is total bollocks. Do fans buy multiple copies in multiple different vinyl colours – I suspect so. Whatever.

Warps / Off Centre Pressings / Infill – seems to be a problem although if you read the forums it seems that some people are either extremely picky or extremely unlucky. I have had bad experiences with Amazon deliveries from the US – almost always warped and difficult to return (I suspect that they leave the boxes out in the sun in Atlanta). Overall, I seem to be lucky and – you can always return the record to the shop or to the online retailer. Most infill issues are resolved by playing the record.

Buying from Discogs – can be a bit of a “crapshoot” – the best approach is to find reliable sellers will large numbers (or, surprisingly, a small number – usually people selling their collections – they tend to be honest) of reviews. Search the reviews for “overgraded” or evidence that disputes have been “resolved” (i.e. the buyer was pissed off about overgraded vinyl and got a refund of sorts). Avoid these. Again, Northern European’s tend to grade correctly, and Southern Europeans – well I have had some bad experience (WTTJ in Rome is a major exception, they are great) particularly in Italy (a place where they have lots of great used vinyl – you just have to dig it out).

I’ll update this if I think of anything else.

Abbey Road Use Benchmark DACs and ADCs

Final Thoughts on the MOFI public relations disaster

•July 26, 2022 • 3 Comments

Update: MOFI have quietly relabeled the production chain for many of their vinyl products (but not the one steps) see the image below:

Recently added description from the MOFI website

Original Post:

Having had about 10 days to digest the Mobile Fidelity cut from digital masters shock – I thought that I would give you my own personal thoughts on the issue. Currently there are about 400 pages of sanctimonious comments on the Hoffman forums by irritated record buyers who believe that they have been suckered. There are probably another 400 blogs and youtube videos ridiculing “snobby audiophiles” for paying so much and then looking like suckers. I have looked at a couple of hilarious videos of vloggers telling “digital hating audiophiles” to “turn the bullshit” down. I don’t think that the critics quite get it. A lot of people have invested a lot of time and money into building what they thought were valuable record collections – only to discover that there were provenance issues with their property. I am going to use a couple of art world metaphors in this post – the first one worth reading is about the woman who thought she had a very valuable Marc Chagall painting. The painting may be nice to look at regardless of who painted it – but if it is a Chagall it is worth millions, if not, it is wallpaper.

I previously posted a system for determining the price of a new audiophile record. I deliberately did not price in AAA versus ADA for the simple reason that, most of the time, it is the quality of the mastering rather than the source – digital or analogue – that really matters. You can see this with Kevin Gray’s Blue Note releases – old (AAA) and new (DDA). This is not an argument of analogue versus digital – it is about cost and value.

Let me be clear – I am not an audiophile “snob” but I have bought records that I believe to have existed entirely in the analogue domain because I believe that 1. They may sound better, 2. They have long term collector value. There is a good reason why Music On Vinyl (MOV) reissues do not have the enormous resale value on Discogs that albums from Analogue Productions, Impex, Org, Mofi and others have: MOV are up front about their digital sources – and knowing this buyers also know that the company can keep pressing up digitally derived copies FOREVER. When MOFI released only 2500 copies of Abraxis One Step – the selling price skyrocketed up to almost $3000 because 1. Apparently it sounded amazing, 2. There would be no more copies pressed ever, 3. Buyers believed that it would be the ultimate reissue version. Now that we know that the record was derived from a DXD master – we also know that MOFI could potentially cut an unlimited number of acetates. In the collector realm – scarcity is everything and it trumps quality. Many of those Abraxis One Steps have never been played.

A way to look at this is from an art collector perspective. I am a big fan of Romero Britto’s artwork. I could (but can’t) buy an original painting by Britto for $45,000. That painting is the equivalent of the master tape. I can buy a serigraph of the original for about $4000 – and that will look pretty much the same, with beautiful colour and texture and a signature – that is an all analogue silkscreen-type copy. Or I could buy a poster or print for 1/10th of that price (maybe lower) – that is an analogue reproduction of a digital photograph. It is the same picture, the poster looks the same as the original – but may lack the colour depth, the detail and the texture and emotional impact of the original and the serigraph. A photograph of the painting on the screen (like streaming) may be as enjoyable as seeing the picture in person – but it is not the same thing. Collectors – whether they are “snobby audiophiles” or not – believed that by buying MOFI products they were getting serigraphs not posters. What they were getting from MOFI were posters dressed up as serigraphs.  When I bought the One Step version of The Nightfly – I knew exactly what I was getting. When I bought Portrait in Jazz, I did not.

A couple of years ago I decided that I needed to obtain a vinyl copy of Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan (already having a copy on CD and tape). There were several options available to me. First, I could buy the original pressing for €$25 in near mint condition. Large volume early 80s records are notoriously variable in quality. Secondly I could buy a reissue: the 2010 MOV version (about €20) or the Sundazed version – both of which I discounted because of digital (former) and quality control (latter) concern. I was strongly tempted by the Analogue Productions 2 x 45LP (about $80) and was about to buy it when I spotted a copy of the One Step from the UK @£100 (pre Brexit). This is not an audiophile recording (it is actually a bunch of demos) but I was led to believe by the hype that this was the last word in vinyl reproduction and would be slightly better than the AP version. In reality this version – that retailed for $125 (the early one steps were $99) – was really not a lot different, being digitally sourced, than the MOV record. Nevertheless, it was pressed on supervinyl, in nice polys, in a big box with lots of foam and mastered by a “named engineer.” So still an audiophile product – just not of the same audiophile grade as the AP version. So, yes I was misled. Oh, and I still prefer the CD – not having to flip sides every 7 minutes.

Many of my MOFI purchases were to “have the last word” on the album: i.e. the belief that this would be the best version that I would hear (and stop that compelling quest for perfection). So I bought most of the Elvis Costello MOFIs (admittedly at a sale in Newbury Comics in Boston at very reasonable prices). I can say categorically that the MOFI version of Armed Forces is not better than my original pressed in Germany in 1979. But is is not worse. Given a choice – I would keep the MOFI. MOFI’s reissue of Almost Blue is vastly superior to the Back to Black version on UME. I absolutely do not regret buying any of these MOFI Costello recordings – they sound great – were reasonably priced ($30 I think) and are packaged beautifully.

I guess these Sundazed Dylan reissues will probably appreciate in price

Conversely, I bought a bunch of the Bob Dylan Sundazed albums – and I thought that they sounded good but not great (not as good as the SACDs) in the 00s. I bought one or two from MOV – which I thought sounded pretty good. Then I saw the MOFI version of “Blood on the Tracks” in a record shop (33rpm) for a reasonable price – and thought it sounded ok – but not stellar. Subsequently I bought most of the Dylan classics on MOFI (2 x 45rpm) and they were good but not amazing sounding. If you look at Discogs – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (I have #217 of I don’t know how many) – the median selling price is $170. It was sold, Mint, a couple of months ago (#1940) for €300. Nobody is paying that kind of money for an SACD pressed onto vinyl (this was a 2018 release). You can buy the MOFI SACD for €25 today. I haven’t heard it, but I cannot imagine that it is any better than the 2003 Columbia SACD or the Mono CD box set version or myriad other CD reissues – all of which sound pretty good.

For what it is worth, I have several versions of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew – CD, superdeluxe CD, CD box set, HiRes Audio etc. I bought a MOV version of this album in 2010 – and frankly it was disappointing. I ordered the MOFI version, on release in 2014 (eventually receiving #7451!) – and it is several levels of audio quality better than the MOV (apparently the original vinyl release sounded horrible). They may both be derived from digital files – but the MOFI version is stunningly good and I don’t care about the provenance. I have a number of the MOFI Miles Davis records – unimpressed by Kind of Blue – but Milestones and In a Silent Way sound fabulous (and I have several digital and vinyl versions of both).

I have heard stories of customers bringing cartloads of MOFI albums back to record shops (see video below) – but I must confess that, having gone through my collection, I wouldn’t give any of them back. I particularly like The Cars, Santana III (both silver label), Tapestry and the Weezer reissues. None of these set me back big money (and none was in the same price range as some of the current Acoustic Sounds jazz reissues).

I think, when the dust settles, many people will be like me – yeah I rather like most of my MOFI albums – few of them sounded astonishingly good, but they were thoughtfully packaged and presented and, in the majority of cases, sound as good as the original pressings and CDs. Probably more than a few of the “Original Master Recordings” in the 33rpm and 2 x 45rpm catalogue are actually AAA (from second generation tape – we don’t know because they have not told us). However, there is no doubt that they have a problem with the highly expensive One Steps. The company seems to have a whole bunch of these ready to go (I see 25 “coming soon” on their website) – in particular the 40,000 copies of “Thriller.” I am not sure that, given the reputational damage that their deceit – and they did deceive us (I don’t care what bullshit semantics detractors of audiophiles claim – record collectors believed that the One Steps were AAA and no effort was made to dispel that myth) – that MOFI can continue to justify the price tag of these products (given that they saw a 25% price inflation despite greater numbers pressed after the first few titles). The $30 for the SACDs seems quite reasonable, nonetheless.

My final thought on MOFI – despite the almost puff piece interview with Mike Esposito and the Engineers (remember they evaded most of the questions) – the company – have not made an official comment, not apologized – not really done anything. I also note that the industry supported blogs such as AnalogPlanet, Stereophile, The Absolute Sound and other magazines – have so far published NOTHING on this subject – which concerns me about editorial control (would Fremer have published the scathing comments from his youtube channel if he was still working for Stereophile?). This has been a big eye opener for me, and does demonstrate the democratizing power of the internet.

One other aside: Analogue Productions are repressing the Complete Bill Evans Riversides (2 x 45rpm) – 11 albums 22 vinyl LPs. Last time this collection was reissued (it has been reissued twice before) it cost $599 – or about $25 per record – so each album cost $50 – not really expensive at the time for 2 x 45rpm (usually these retailed at about $80). I procastinated about such a big investment – and am not crazy about these 2 x 45rpm reissues (they ruin the flow of the record). Unfortunately, by the time I decided to take the plunge – they were all gone. The median selling price of this box on Discogs is $1000. Acoustic Sounds are now taking pre-orders for a new set for – guess what – $1000 (a 66% increase in price). “Limited to 3000” – even though the metalwork could press up an unlimited number. It is still probably a good investment – if you have a spare grand lying around (I don’t) – it is one of the great box sets. For the same price, at the Acoustic Sounds store, you can buy a MOFI one step copy of “Sunday at the Village Vanguard”(I wonder if the asking price for these rare pressings will fall?). So – is this where we are going – price inflation on AAA. It seems to me that the price of all records has gone up 30% (and with some new releases priced at over €40 – a lot more) since 2017 with no obvious improvement in quality (and no free CD and still only MP3 download codes). Will the bubble will burst?

Concord need to do a Bill Evans Riverside reissue series – get Kevin Gray, Bernie Grundman or Chris Bellman to cut the records at 33rpm and be done with it.

I am currently listening to a guaranteed AAA 1970 Japanese repress of Waltz for Debby – and, I really don’t think it could be improved on (aside from the dodgy cover) – and, you know what, I think that the CD (and the SACD) sound just as good, without the snap crackle and pop.

Is the Audiophile Vinyl House of Cards Disintegrating?

•July 25, 2022 • Leave a Comment

I watched the In Groove guy interview of the engineers at MOFI a couple of times (in between the ridiculous amount of youtube ads) and a number of things struck me.

I forget that the vinyl renaissance thing has been going on for a dozen years – and that the perception of the value of both vinyl and the master tapes has evolved for the major labels and the heirloom (master tape) owners. Master tapes are extremely fragile, often needing to be baked to even be playable and even then are badly affected by wow and flutter, flaking, cuts et. A variety of digital processes have been developed to overcome these limitations – in particular the Plangent process. This approach that gets rid of hiss, ultrasonic noise, wow, flutter and various other remnants (clicks and pops on the tape from damage) and restores the master – in digital format – to something approaching it’s original form. Vinyl me please released an Errol Garner album a couple of years ago and promoted it as having been restored using Plangent Process (PP). The most recent Bruce Springsteen remasters (2014) have been remastered digitally using PP – and there is no doubt that these are the best sounding versions of the albums that have been released. The Doors, Grateful Dead, David Crosby etc. – lots of recent remasters have used PP. The point I make is that we are living in the period of “peak digital” – digital recordings, digital remasters, digital bandwidth (whether PCM or DSF) are better than ever before and, now that the loudness war is over, this has translated to better sounding CDs and HiRes products (although- in my view the recording quality has fallen off a cliff since artists abandoned high end studios). So, I can see the point that the MOFI engineers made about their DSD transfers of the original master tapes (OMT).

I have great fondness of SACD and DSD (now that we can rip our SACDs) but there are caveats: DSD is great for tape archiving and playback not for editing. Digital audiophiles routinely bemoan the following: a) recorded and edited in PCM and then converted to DSD – completely pointless; b) recorded or archived in DSD, converted to PCM for editing, and then converted back to DSD – an abomination. The labelling on SACDs is as bad if not worse than that on vinyl – we really don’t know what is on the disc and what the chain of custody has been. I realized while watching the video of the MOFI guys that their SACDs were exactly what we want: original master tapes with no compression or other fiddling copied onto DSD256 and then downgraded to DSD64 on the SACD. It is as close to a copy of the master tape that we are going to get in digital – and I think that will make the MOFI SACDs more valuable (to be honest I would prefer a DSD256 download). Unwilling to cough up €175 for the “Mingus Ah Um” one step, I stumped €40 for the SACD – and thought it sounded amazing. Turns out that they were the same product. So these SACDs, on the surface, look like winners. But……the engineers intimate that they do their own Plangent like adjustments to the digital file – to ensure that the levels are the same, to correct tape errors etc. and I wished that the interviewer had asked them what software they used and – horror of horrors – did they transcode to PCM to do this?

Getting back to those very valuable master tapes. It appears that t the major labels won’t let high caliber engineers even look at their master tapes – and when they have a license the technicians have to go to the tape vault area and make the transfers to tape or digital there and then. This makes me ask serious questions of the provenance of a lot of the AAA reissues: for example exactly what are Speakers Corner using for their reissues? We know that they are all analogue – but what generation? Are these German copies of the master tapes that have been copied or do they get the lacquers cut locally from the OMT in the USA. Sometimes a mastering engineer receives an attribution: for example the Dooby Brothers “The Captain and Me” was mastered by Kevin Gray. Miles Davis’ “Miles Smiles” was cut in Berlin by Maarten de Boer. What tapes did they use? The same goes for Vinyl Me Please, Pure Pleasure, Org, Impex and all of the other craft “audiophile” reissue companies. Certainly the current crop of Blue Note reissues are all analogue (we have seen the video). There are also videos of Bernie Grundman remastering the Contemporary records series for Analogue Productions. So we know that at least some of the stuff that is labelled AAA is kosher.

One company that bothers me, though, is the Electric Recording Company. As you are probably aware this is a super luxury craft vinyl reissue label – where only 300 copies of each album is pressed (i.e. a single set of stampers) and the price is £300/£350. All of their releases, that look spectacular, sell out immediately. They make a big deal about how much effort goes into the production of the records. They also state: “To achieve their scrupulous sonic ends, Electric’s engineers have worked directly from the precious original studio master tapes, maintaining a purist, simpatico approach at every stage”  and “officially Sanctioned Heritage pressings mastered from the original analogue master tapes.” Curiously, one of their recent releases was “Portrait in Jazz” by Bill Evans: they have done a stereo and mono version. MOFI did a one step of the same album (I bought a copy and cannot honestly say with confidence that it sounds a whole lot better than the OJC version). We know that the one steps have been sourced from digital files – and we know that the Concord music group recordings are very careful to let their crown jewels out of their vaults (and the Bill Evans Riversides are very valuable masters). So, do we really believe that Concord allowed the original masters of “Portrait” to travel from their storage facility in California (I presume) to the UK to allow an artisan group make a single acetate from their tape? Maybe they do, maybe the ERC guys travel to California – but can I see the photographs and the videos as proof? If not what was the real source of this record? As I mentioned before, I bought a copy of “Way Out West” after getting a rush of blood following a refund on expensive concert tickets during lockdown. It sounds really good – but not magnitudes better than my 2009 OJC repress (which may be digital or analogue – difficult to know – but $350 cheaper). Is the ERC version derived from the OMT or a tape copy or other source?

Another issue that struck me in the MOFI engineers’ interview was a discussion about one of the Marvin Gay Reissues for which the engineers at MOFI felt that they could not produce a lacquer “Live” due to the complexities of the settings for each track. Hence the DSD version. As you recall, there was a bit of a furor about “Let’s Get it On’s 50th Anniversary Reissue” a couple of months ago: the European version was cut from digital, the US version was cut “direct to analog mastering by Kevin Gray” – what does this even mean* (there was also a MOFI one step which was cut from DSD)? There is no mention of the Original Master Tapes (OMTs) here. Is Kevin in such a privileged position that record companies (other than Blue Note) are willing to ship the original master tapes to his studio – or is he working off tape or digital copies of tapes? These guys are sworn to secrecy to not disclose their sources (like a doctor patient or lawyer client relationship). I suspect the former in this situation. But – who knows? The whole thing is now hocus pocus and there are audiophiles everywhere wondering if they have been sold “audiophile” CDs on vinyl in nice jackets for the past decade or so.

My advice is that if you want all analogue buy original pressings, or represses or Japanese reissues pre 1982. Pretty much everything since then was recorded digitally – so it makes very little difference. Modern audiophile reissues do not necessarily outperform originals or even represses.

*Under my desk, currently, there is a box of cassettes – many from the 1970s and 1980s. If I sent one of them to an engineer to cut a lacquer – that would be “direct to analog” mastering from an analog source.

I may have said this before – but I believe that the real audiophile boom for remasters was 30 years ago (1988-1994) when first generation masters were transferred to CD pre loudness war using modern equipment but no gimmicks. The high resolution follow up, and to a lesser degree the audiophile vinyl renaissance, has been a disappointment. Given a choice I would buy Pure Audio Blu Ray discs with a surround layer as new releases – yes in preference to vinyl. Unfortunately, that format is practically dead.

Alternatively the closest you will may get to the OMT is the volume balanced files that streaming services use (Apple famously demanded that record companies supplied files without dynamic range compression so that users wouldn’t have to keep adjusting the volume on their playlists).

Andrew Hickey Is Ruining My Life

•July 24, 2022 • Leave a Comment

For more decades than I can remember I have been reading about the history of modern music, be it jazz, blues, R&B, pop, rock, heavy metal, alt-rock -I have boxes and boxes of books. I have been religiously reading Q, Uncut,Mojo, the Word, NME, Rolling Stone, Paste, Under the Radar, Jazzwize, Downbeat,
Jazz Times, Prog and other magazines since the 1980s. I thought I knew a lot. I was wrong. By chance I bumped into a colleague who mentioned the 500songs.com podcast. This podcast is hosted by an Englishman, Andrew Hickey, and has been running since 2018. Andrew has ow reached song 150 (“All you need is love”) and the episodes just keep getting better. It is now his fulltime job. Frankly the BPI should
be paying his a salary – as should the Library of Congress.

The podcast is slightly misleadingly titled (“A History of Rock Music”) – it is really the story of all modern popular music since World War 2. Hickey covers political, cultural and business history of music (alongside a fair smattering of anthropology) that frames songs that we all know, and some we don’t, in the times that they were recorded and the influences from which they were derived. The detail is astonishing. No punches are pulled regarding sharp business practices, racism and homophobia. You will hear about Jimmy Rogers, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Rosetta Tharp, Ravi Shanker and others – alongside the crooks and bozo managers who ripped off the artists, the white imitators of the original black singers, the magnificent musicians that are hideous people.

I have learned more from listening to these podcasts than I have from decades of reading music magazines and books and watching documentaries. For example, Andrew is the first person who has adequately explained modal jazz to me, without being patronizing. The podcast is like doing a college course – in fact it is better than any of the Great Courses lecture series that I have followed. And there is a good reason. Each episode, they started at 30 minutes but now run to 90 or even 120 minutes, is chock full of snippets of songs. This means that Andrew will, for example, play a snippet of Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti” and then play the copycat Pat Boone version. He explains the underlying music theory (simply). He is able to make connections between different strands of music and tie them all together cleverly. If you don’t know the difference between R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, hillbilly, rockabilly, bluegrass, mountain music, country, western swing or medley other genres – this is the place for you.

Fortunately, for me, I have started 3 or 4 years back – so following this podcast is like binging on a box set. Although the podcast is free on iTunes (and other platforms), for a modest fee you can be a subscriber and gain access to bonus podcasts. Unfortunately, for me, so obsessed have I become with Andrew’s podcast that my Audible audiobook credits are piling up (better buy something before they expire) – as I have no interest in listening to anything else. Beyond recommended.

 

(Not) from the Original Master Tapes

•July 23, 2022 • Leave a Comment

While I was away on vacation devastating news arose that will long have a massive impact on my life and psyche: no I wasn’t the dethroning of Boris Johnson, Ireland winning a test series in New Zealand, Wildfires across Europe, revelations in the Jan 6th Inquiry, the strange tripartite relationship between Russia, Iran and Turkey, Jen and Ben getting married – no it was the revelation that Mobile Fidelity have been using digital sources for their major releases for several years. HOW AM I SURPRISED?

Recall a couple of months ago I discussed the forthcoming one step release of “Thriller” where MOFI is planning on releasing 40,000 one-steps – requiring the manufacture of up to 200 acetates. Clearly there is no conceivable way that Sony were going to allow their most valuable master tapes get slung across an old Ampex machine 200 times. Something didn’t smell right. Surprise – they are using a DSD copy of the master tape as the source: now cutting lacquers is easy peasy. This is now confirmed – MOFI – have been not so subtly deceiving us for years.  Their one-step greed is revealing the Emperor’s new clothes.

I have about 40 MOFI albums – Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Allman Brothers, Santana, Cars, Tears for Fears, Derek & the Dominos, Carole King, Little Feat, Pixies, Weezer etc. These were sold to me, and others, as super audiophile numbered limited edition high quality (often half speed mastered) vinyl records from the original master tapes (OMT). The assumption that I made, and I presume virtually everybody else did also, was that the entire production process was all analogue (AAA). These were all premium priced products; otherwise why are these in any way different from Waxtime versions of the same releases (cut from a CD derived from the Original Master Tape)?

Just to say this – and with all honesty – I never thought that these MOFI releases sounded all that great – particularly in comparison with Analogue Productions releases of similar material (SRV, Bill Evans etc.). The One Step of “The Nightfly”  – which everybody in the world knows was from a digital source (and admitted to by MOFI – although there was a whole digitally recorded transferred to tape nonsense discussion at the time) – sounds amazing – but everything else has been a bit…meh. The MOFI version of Layla was the subject of a group test on this blog a while ago – and it came out on top – but that was due to packaging rather than sound quality – and I still prefer that surround layer on the original SACD. Nevertheless, I presumed that MOFI records, due to their limited editions and mastering chains would be considered collectable and valuable in the future. Now I’m not so sure.

Why did it believe that MOFI releases were AAA? I have gone back to the MOFI website and their inserts: “First and foremost, we only utilize first generation original master recordings as source material for our releases.” Above this they boast that the “The GAIN 2 Ultra Analog™ system is comprised of a Studer™ tape machine with customized reproduction electronics and handcrafted cutting amps that drive an Ortofon cutting head on a restored Neumann VMS-70 lathe.” Anybody reading this would assume that the Struder tape machine was used to play the First Generation Master Recording to deliver signal to the lathe. This is not the case. What appears to be happening is that the engineers digitalised the original master tapes (did they even have access to these tapes?) at DSD256 and used these digital files as the source of the One Steps in particular. Hmmm.

Not long ago, with a friend, I did a multi disc comparison between the Acoustic Sounds (Classic Records) version of Kind of Blue and various other copies – including the MOFI (which I bought off my colleague). I’m looking at it now (see picture). The cover of the box states “Original Master Recording” – which it absolutely is not (it is derived from the Mark Wilder remix). On the back cover the mastering notes mention the “Gain 2 Ultra Analog System.” You would assume that this means AAA (but it doesn’t actually say that). This version almost certainly was derived from a DSD transfer of a fold-down from a non original master. Indeed, it is likely no better (and certainly doesn’t sound better) than the £5 DeAgostini magazine copy from the same master. An the numbering is hocus pocus – as the acetates were cut from a digital file – there is absolutely no limit to the numbers that could be pressed (just limited by Sony License).

For years I have been reading the Better Records blog (The Sceptical Audiophile) – which I find quite entertaining – remembering that they are in the business of selling “Super White Hot Stampers” of original pressings. Much of the blog involves Tom Port ranting about why MOFI records are lousy and he really does not like their Half Speed Mastering Process.* It has bothered me for some time that Miles Showell has been cutting a variety of records at Half Speed at Abbey Road Studios and has been up front about using digital sources. There are numerous interviews with him on the internet and magazines where he describes in detail the processes – and he explains how he is able to get that great half speed treble extension without sacrificing bass. Moreover, he states categorically that he has access to the original master tapes (an is well capable of cutting all analogue) but chooses to use a digital file (that he may or may not remaster) to use in the half speed cutting chain. He digitalises the tape running at half speed and uses a variety of corrective approaches to ensure that, when sped up, fidelity is maintained. The records all sound pretty good – but I still find them a bit bass light. If Showell has to use digital files – how are MOFI able to do the same thing on the fly with all analogue. Now we know – they don’t.

So, MOFI use DSD as their mastering source. Big deal? Rolling Stones 2010s vinyl reissues came from DSD and they sound great (and were priced at <$20). I have loads of records that were recorded digitally and pressed onto vinyl that absolutely destroy most of my all analogue records. Practically everything released by Blue Note in the last few years (the Charles Lloyd and Bill Frisell material in particular) has been high res digital (24/96) onto vinyl. The digitally recorded Venus Hyper Magnus Sound records sound extraordinary. But, so do the SACDs. And speaking of SACDS – if MOFI are using DSD256 as their source material – why the hell are they still releasing DSD64 discs? That is like releasing a 24/96 file as an MP3 and charging a premium price.

MOFI also release “Silver Label” records. They are generally less expensive that the Original Master Recordings. The spiel on Discogs is: The Silver Label titles are pressed on standard weight vinyl (about 140g-150g). The majority of Silver Label titles are sourced from the original tapes, there are some exceptions where the best available source is used. Digital sources are not used except in cases where the title’s original master was digital itself.

I found this on Uebervinyl website: Whereas the Original Master Recordings always uses only the original master tape, for the Silver Label Mofi will also accept good copies of the master tape. This may be necessary if the original tape is lost or damaged. More and more often the labels will be either offered digital files or copies of the original tape. For example, when the original tapes are not allowed to leave the record companies’ vaults for security reasons. In such cases MFSL checks whether the quality of the source material offered meets the in-house quality standards. If this is the case, Mofi will publish on the Silver Label. This need not always result in a worse sound than the original tapes. Especially older master tapes, which have been used for many reissues and have been played accordingly often, do not sound as good as they should. Often the coating on old tapes partially peels off. If the sensitive tapes are not stored optimally, further damage can occur. In this case, a well stored copy of first or second generation tape may even sound better than the original.

So – if the Silver label releases don’t use the original master tape. That’s fine – so the OMT version must use it right? And if you make such a big deal of the tapes, presumably you are cutting all analogue? You would think. I have dozens and dozens of boxes of CDs and hard drives full of high res digital and DSD albums that are derived “from the original master tapes.” Practically everything on CD from major labels – comes from the OMT. My CD copy of “Milestones” from the 1980s is no different from the DSD version that MOFI used to cut the record – both are from the OM tape. This is total crapology from Mobile Fidelity. The CD of “Seeds of Love” by Tears for Fears is from the Original Master Tape (or files or whatever).

I am not an all analogue zealot – but I do believe that premium priced records should have clear provenance. Those Venus Hypermagnum records are bloody expensive – but at least I know what I am buying. This is also the case with Pure Pleasure, Speakers Corner, Analogue Productions, Impex and others. I love this comment from the Intervention Records Website: “Premium vinyl reissues are expensive to produce and they cost our customers real money. Customers have a right to know what they’re buying! Our commitment to transparent sourcing means that we will always reveal the exact source material used for mastering and who the mastering engineer is, who pressed the records and who printed the jackets.” And they do (see picture). – and a couple of their records are derived from digital sources. They sound great.

It is often said wine snobs cannot really tell the difference between plonk and grand cru. The same may be the case for record buyers. I am not certain that I can tell the difference between an album that has been carefully mastered all analogue from one that is derived from a digital source (particularly DSD). However, if I go into a wine shop and I see a bottle of Bordeaux for €20 and beside it a bottle for €50 – with fancy Appellation claims – I am going to assume that the more expensive bottle is considered to be a better and more valuable wine. If I pay $100 for a copy of “Kind of Blue” – I am going to assume that it is better than the $20 version. Now we know that the fancy schmancy MOFI version was digitally sourced and the cheap record store day copy was actually the true audiophile AAA version.

Is this the beginning of the end of the vinyl resurgence? I wonder. Certainly it will make me think twice about putting down a lot of cash for records that I believe will be highly collectable in the future.

*According the Michael Fremer, MOFI stopped half speed mastering some time ago but didn’t tell anyone .

UPDATE

The In Groove guy interviews the engineers at MOFI.

I have previously posted my opinions on digital sources on vinyl – and why we are all suckers buying these records. I have also posted on quality control issues with new release vinyl. I also whined about the price of vinyl and the poor quality presentation.