Jon’s Musings

A Record More Than a Record

Sometimes one wants to tell the world about something that one is really excited about, and then one pauses and wonders if there is any universality whatsoever in that thing. I am that one right now.

I have a good friend who loves listening to music as much as I do. Although we both have a lot of recordings in our collections, the intersection of our musical tastes is quite small, but we talk about what we are hearing, and what makes a great recording, in sonic terms, in almost identical language. When he plays something for me, whether I latch on to the music or not, it always sound great. But, as I said, if he is blue and I am yellow in our music collections Venn diagram, the green area is barely visible to the naked eye. We are different, if equally ardent, cats when it comes to music.

It is from this, and other similar experiences, that I am assessing how to describe what I am excited about, but here goes. If you are a passionate pursuer of any pastime, hobby, collection, whatever, which leads you to have or experience more than a few examples, you no doubt develop favorites. If you read my Musing “Merle and the Mystery” or my review of Gram Parsons’ “Grievous Angel,” both on this site, you will realize that I like Gram’s music wildly out of proportion to the mere six records he had significant input to by the time he died at 26 in 1973. He is, very surely, a favorite of mine, but it is the “wildly out of proportion” part that leaves me wondering about my mission here.

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I first thought I would write a really enthusiastic review of a new version (a “remastering”) of The Flying Burrito Bros. “Gilded Palace of Sin,” suggesting that everyone should own this record. Then I realized that this is probably the seminal recording of my late high school years, the time when I, as a budding music lover, began to develop more mature tastes- the first music that I remain close to to this day. As I say in my “Grievous Angel” piece, when I first heard “Gilded Palace…”, I was a MESS. There are a few somewhat fluffy or upbeat songs on here, but even those have an undercurrent of deeper emotion than they seem to at first blush. But the bulk of it? Oh, man. It hurts! And I discovered that I really loved painful music.

But enough about me, and Gram. As much as I like him and the Bros., I harbor no illusions that the music is universal. The fact that it is so critically important to me because of when it came into my life and the inexplicable hold it took almost guarantees that it isn’t. I can’t even articulate what its power is over me.

For the rest of this, I’m going to ask you to substitute and envision a very favorite recording of a very favorite piece of music of your own, because I believe, going forward, we may be in universal territory, or at least the near suburbs. What arrived today is the new Intervention Records vinyl of “Gilded Palace..”. I decided, after cleaning and LASTing it, and then listening to both sides (it FLEW by! Dang, this record is not long enough.) that it may very well represent the single most “medium transcending” improvement to a recording I have ever heard.

I have been able, albeit going back a long way, to spend some time in recording facilities where music performances are laid onto analog tape. I have made a recording of a friend of mine in such a facility performing his own songs, and then subsequently observed the mastering process up close and had the results pressed onto vinyl. Hearing a live mike feed and the master tape that comes from it sort of sticks in your head, etched forever. Thus, one of the highest praises I can give a “play it at home version” of a recording (LP, CD, high res file, etc.) is to say it makes me think of those etched-in-the-brain master tape experiences.

Because I am nutty for GPoS, I have numerous versions. My original A&M, a second pressing; a first press I found many years later (sounds noticeably better); several other A&M’s grabbed whenever encountered at used record stores; the Four Men With Beards vinyl redo from a decade ago (sounds sanded way too smooth); and several CD-based reissues of different pedigrees. I began to feel I was, in a way, triangulating in on what the music actually sounded like based on my mind mixing all the attributes, and trying to edit out the liabilities of these many different recordings. I found out today I wasn’t within a million miles.

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I found out because Shane Buettner at Intervention Records apparently screwed up and shipped the master tape to Ultra Fidelis. From the opening stylus cue (sorry, I can’t say “needle drop”), I had the sensation that it was 1969, and I was transported to the recording venue and allowed to watch one of my very most favorite recordings being made. All of the bad sound, all the artifacts that I thought I had pegged, finally, to the master tape, vanished. The digital version ones, but also seemingly all the phono-based ones- gone! This recording, so close to my heart, had always sounded small, cheesy, unkempt, and thus slightly annoying, despite my love for the music, but not anymore.

I actually had an experience that happens once in a blue moon for me- the hallucinatory thought that if I looked over at my equipment rack, there would be a big old two-track Ampex spinning 10.5″ reels at 30 ips rather then a 12″ LP. And I had that thing that is what we are always trying to achieve in our work at Ultra Fidelis: “people in the room,” and one of those people was Gram, and all this from a master tape that I never, in all my born days, had any clue had it in it.

When this happens with one of one’s foundational records, life is good, really good, and it has staying power. I’ll be high on this for a long time. And that’s the universal part- hearing your music at its best takes both great hardware and great software, and when they come together, for a music lover, there is little better in life.

One of the things that disturbs me about digital files I make from my CD’s is that there isn’t even a metadata field in the ripping programs for “label.” This is, after all, the brand. As I gained knowledge and built my music collection, it was often an important factor in choosing what to add. Now, it’s vanishing. I am not necessarily suggesting that you get a copy of Intervention’s “Gilded Palace of Sin,” although if a few thousand of you did, it would warm my heart, but again, I have no idea if the music will do for you what it does for me, or anything like it. What I am saying is keep a very close eye on Shane’s label. Check out everything Intervention has done and will do, and if you are anywhere near a fan of a record they reissue, buy it unquestioningly. They are gems. Actual records of what went down in front of the mikes. I’m hoping he calls me and asks, “Okay, what are your favorite 1500 or so master tapes that you feel haven’t been done justice yet?”

Vinyl is a thing

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I was surprised to come across the following letter to the editor I wrote to the Shepherd Express, Milwaukee’s other newspaper, which I love, inspired by a story on the vinyl resurgence. I was shocked to see the date of the document: August, 2002.

To paraphrase A.J. van den Hul, famous Dutch phonographer, “LP’s
sonically blow CD’s into the damn weeds!” It seems the missing ingredient
in Jason T. Mohr’s otherwise heartwarming piece on local vinyl
consumption is any mention of this widely observed phenomenon.

While many pursue vinyl records for their “crackling,” the size of their
accompanying documentation and artwork, their retro-hipness, their sample-
ability, and their collector cachet, perhaps the most salient feature of the
medium, to many of us, is its superior ability to present the emotional essence of the music
it contains.

LP’s remain to this day the most available, convenient and portable medium
that represents a legitimate document of the original musical performance.
It’s the most special thing about them, and the prime motivator behind much
of the resurgence of interest.

Reading it now, I am not surprised they didn’t run it. It was a bit too arcane and, I guess, remains so. Here was a writer trying to talk nice about an alternative phenomenon, the stuff that alternative newspapers love to write about. And I was sort of raining on the parade, suggesting that some people, a significant number perhaps, might be liking a thing for how it performs, at its ultimate, when you actually use it for its intended purpose.

Bring it forward now 15 years and I just read in Stereophile that the BBC did a survey of vinyl record buyers. It showed that almost half didn’t plan to play their records and 7% didn’t own a turntable. What, now? No, I don’t have a car. I just like buying tires. It’s fun!

The thing about “vinyl” at its best, still, is that it sounds damn good. As in, brings musicians and their performances into your house, our guiding principle at Ultra Fidelis. Sure, it’s “old fashioned” and difficult, and for the uninitiated conjures up the smell of musty basements and Victrolas, but, if you care for and feed it properly, it works. Incredibly well.

This isn’t mere nostalgia, like looking back fondly on those cameras that made race car tires go oblong as they slowly scanned the scene and distorted time. This is manual transmissions, which have yet to be superseded in race cars. Stuff that works is to be celebrated. And USED!

Don’t get me wrong on this. I’m not suggesting that if you have vinyl records, you are done, you’re good. Nor that if you don’t you are doomed. Far from it. As I write, in fact, I am listening to an incredible CD-sourced rip on my Aurender (Pulse! Percussion Works). I love all stuff that works. But what I am saying is that if one more scribe mentions “the crackly sound” of LP records as a reason we fall for them, I’ll lose it. That ain’t it.

In fact, it is the compelling nature of the sound, the sheer realism good vinyl well played is able to conjure in our minds, that makes us able to overlook the foibles. If you don’t have any LP’s, you might consider investigating. And if you do, but they’ve been languishing, dive back in.
Really good sounding turntables start around $500, and the great ones, albeit for more money, are a mind bending sonic experience. You can also make some fairly cost effective improvements to your existing ‘table that will quickly convince you that vinyl records are capable of much more than sustaining a fad. They can fling open the doors to the incredible, almost unlimited world of recorded music and pull you in. Finally, thanks to the fad or not, they are making records again- by the ton. You’ll have no shortage of music, new and old, to explore.

Spring, huh?

Well, that was an interesting snowfall Monday. I initially thought my two stage snow thrower had broken its impeller as I was having to stop every thirty feet or so and unjam the chute. But when I garaged it and pressed my single stage snowblower into action, and it behaved virtually identically, it dawned on me that what was coming down was not snow, but some sort of white adobe. And plenty of it.

I only mention it because I remember thinking when Kaitlyn wrote about Richard Vandersteen coming and you all “joining us on a most welcomed Spring night in East Tosa” a few weeks ago. With the thought that if it were this nice in February, imagine what March 22 will be like. Now, I’m thinking it might be like the weather we were supposed to get in February. But the weather doesn’t matter when Richard is in town. We’re gonna have fun! And, while we won’t be unveiling any new product, we will have a cool retro surprise worked into our demo setup. So if you’ve missed the other umpteen ways we’ve tried to get the word out, consider this your last warning. A good time is in (the) store next Wednesday, March 22. RSVP by phone (414) 221-0200 or to my email address jonathan.spelt@ultrafi.com . Technically, we are full, but we’ll make room.

This past Saturday almost felt like a spontaneous similar session. A whole bunch of good people showed up, impromptu, and Bob and I led a little jamboree of music lovers. I decided, about mid-party, to trot out my soapbox and again make my case for full bitrate CD rips. Eh, what?

Well, most people reading here probably already know we don’t fool with no lossy digital formats (MP3, Apple AAC, etc.) if we can help it, and we almost always can (internet radio being the one exception, but that’s background anyway). But a lot of people seem to think that “lossless” formats, which carry all the original data, sound just as good as full bitrate rips. The facts are quite different and all in attendance agreed that a WAV or AIFF rip makes a lossless version sound quite anemic by comparison. Ask for a demo next time you are in; it will likely have you rethinking your CD copying protocol.

Also, worry not if you’ve spent the last half lifetime ripping your collection at a lossless rate. You can “transcode” those files to full bit rate and all the sound comes back, whereas if you’ve ground them into lossy MP3 hamburger, or are streaming or downloading iTunes tracks, or listening to Spotify and the like, well, I’m afraid it can’t be steak again. And before I tread too heavily on lossless, let me say with no ambiguity Tidal and Deezer, which both stream lossless, blow the doors off all other streaming services and iTunes sonically. If you don’t have a substantial CD library, or aren’t up for ripping it, you can live quite well with a lossless streaming service.

Soon, we will have a guide to vinyl record care and feeding, but I’ll leak a little about an exciting new product. By the end of March, we should have the new AudioQuest Conductive Record

Brush. No, it is not a “battery biased” tool for cleaning your records, but it does have gold plated contacts where your fingers grip it to let your body dump static charge to ground, and it has zillions of much finer carbon fibers for greatly enhanced “reach” into the grooves. If not a replacement for a liquid and machine deep cleaning process, expect this to radically improve daily dust removal, all for $20.

The weather, as it happens, is perfect for curling up with a good recording. See you in the store or online soon.

Recharge & Reboot

I just checked.  Five months and nearly a half ‘nother since my last writing.  Yikes!  Inexcusable.  But I do have a reason.  I didn’t feel it.

I bounced back quite nicely from my surgery back in September.  With one small glitch, I am indeed good to go.  I’ll need an annual CAT scan, and, assuming it shows nothing, I am “as healthy as my neighbor” as my oncologist put it.  Fortunately Jeff appears the picture of health so I am too, I guess.

And I feel a lot better, too.  Better than in a long time prior to the surgery, even. But I haven’t felt like doing this.  This musing thing.  It has been the longest part of my recovery.  I think it has to do with the fact that I was pretty focused on the day to day realities of getting back to full health and performance in all areas of my life.  That stuff all has to be right before I have the extra brain space to write, for which I need to be able to get away from the normal living stuff and let my mind wander where it wants to go.  And when I set it free to do that lately, it went out a few feet, turned around, came back and parked at my feet like a shy puppy at its first day at the dog park.

Well, things are starting to limber up.  It really feels as if I’m back.  But, after five months away, I am challenged to pick a topic to break the silence and feature today.  So I’m going to leave you with some examples of the things that have helped me get back up to speed.

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  • Setting up a number of AMG turntables, including the new 12 Turbo tonearm on the Viella ‘table, and basking in their profound ability to dig seemingly every last iota of music out of the wiggly grooves. One owner called it “the best sound I have ever heard” and another pronounced his “revelatory.”  Amen to that.  I’m weary of the “analog vs. digital” fuss as I am firmly in the “both, please” camp, but the combination of AMG and Lyra is incredibly compelling.  Vinyl is vitally alive at all strata, but it sure is fun to hang out at the summit.
  • And Aurender’s machines are one of the reasons I am weary of the war. Life with my N10, or the N100H, has been a non-stop journey of (re)discovery of old familiar (ripped) CD’s as well as high res files and the myriad offerings on Tidal. It continues to stun me how good Redbook CD bitrate material can sound when played back through an Aurender.
  • Speaking of Tidal, the emergence, finally, of MQA files thereon has revealed some really special improvements in sound quality stemming from their work reversing the AD (analog to digital) converter-based problems in digital masters. The jury is still out for me as to whether the other function of MQA, that is “unfolding” the streamed file into a higher res file “in your home” bears much additional fruit, but I am at least initially quite impressed with the A/D converter fix.  Now we see if they can continue to convince the record industry of the cost/benefit of the technology. But they’ve got Warner on board and I saw they just signed up Universal Music Group, so…
  • So how did the Moon geniuses get so much sheer fun to come out of the one-box super solution ACE? That machine does things, at $3500, it has absolutely no right to do!  Phono, DAC, MiND streaming and a great sounding amp and preamp in one box the size of any one of those components separately?  Get one before they are outlawed by the Value Police.
  • I have also enjoyed dialing in and doing MASTERS sets on several great audio systems. Vandersteens, Sonus fabers, KEFs, RELs and others have sprung to life before my ears as I optimize them in homes.  It always amazes me how important that final step is!  “Night and day” is not an uncommon reaction.
  • Bob and I have both been gobbling up the new Audio Research Foundation Series gear. Four brand new masterpieces, a DAC, phono preamp, line stage, and power amp, in the space of less than six months!  A person could wrap them all up into a system and retire from the race indefinitely, they are that good.  Or, replace an older component with any one and revitalize a system.  Home runs, all!
  • The Carbon generation of AudioQuest headphones are making even bigger waves than the shock one that the original NightHawk sent out, as well they should. NightOwl, Skylar’s first closed-back design, is particularly valuable for those who need isolation in their headphone listening.  He seems to have nailed it without any of the typical sonic compromises.  Can’t wait for my next plane trip!
  • Bob unboxed the first AudioQuest Niagara 5000 a few weeks ago and, hoo boy, it’s crazy good! Even Garth contends it’s much of what you get in the 7000 and it sure sounds like it from our perspective.  If you are looking for the second best power conditioner on the planet, they are now in stock.
  • Finally, my first Musing since my surgery comes, coincidentally or not, as Kaitlyn returns to manage our web/social media presence. She, too, it seems, went through a spell of “writer’s block,” from entirely different causes from mine, but I’m happy to see she is following her muse again.* Here’s hoping it lasts a good, long time!

*Editor’s note: There comes a point in life when you realize that if you must work, it’s better to surround yourself with really great people…

Recharge and Reboot

I just checked.  Five months and nearly a half ‘nother since my last writing.  Yikes!  Inexcusable.  But I do have a reason.  I didn’t feel it.

I bounced back quite nicely from my surgery back in September.  With one small glitch, I am indeed good to go.  I’ll need an annual CAT scan, and, assuming it shows nothing, I am “as healthy as my neighbor” as my oncologist put it.  Fortunately Jeff appears the picture of health so I am too, I guess.

And I feel a lot better, too.  Better than in a long time prior to the surgery, even. But I haven’t felt like doing this.  This musing thing.  It has been the longest part of my recovery.  I think it has to do with the fact that I was pretty focused on the day to day realities of getting back to full health and performance in all areas of my life.  That stuff all has to be right before I have the extra brain space to write, for which I need to be able to get away from the normal living stuff and let my mind wander where it wants to go.  And when I set it free to do that lately, it went out a few feet, turned around, came back and parked at my feet like a shy puppy at its first day at the dog park.

Well, things are starting to limber up.  It really feels as if I’m back.  But, after five months away, I am challenged to pick a topic to break the silence and feature today.  So I’m going to leave you with some examples of the things that have helped me get back up to speed.

IMG_5515

  • Setting up a number of AMG turntables, including the new 12 Turbo tonearm on the Viella ‘table, and basking in their profound ability to dig seemingly every last iota of music out of the wiggly grooves. One owner called it “the best sound I have ever heard” and another pronounced his “revelatory.”  Amen to that.  I’m weary of the “analog vs. digital” fuss as I am firmly in the “both, please” camp, but the combination of AMG and Lyra is incredibly compelling.  Vinyl is vitally alive at all strata, but it sure is fun to hang out at the summit.
  • And Aurender’s machines are one of the reasons I am weary of the war. Life with my N10, or the N100H, has been a non-stop journey of (re)discovery of old familiar (ripped) CD’s as well as high res files and the myriad offerings on Tidal. It continues to stun me how good Redbook CD bitrate material can sound when played back through an Aurender.
  • Speaking of Tidal, the emergence, finally, of MQA files thereon has revealed some really special improvements in sound quality stemming from their work reversing the AD (analog to digital) converter-based problems in digital masters. The jury is still out for me as to whether the other function of MQA, that is “unfolding” the streamed file into a higher res file “in your home” bears much additional fruit, but I am at least initially quite impressed with the A/D converter fix.  Now we see if they can continue to convince the record industry of the cost/benefit of the technology. But they’ve got Warner on board and I saw they just signed up Universal Music Group, so…
  • So how did the Moon geniuses get so much sheer fun to come out of the one-box super solution ACE? That machine does things, at $3500, it has absolutely no right to do!  Phono, DAC, MiND streaming and a great sounding amp and preamp in one box the size of any one of those components separately?  Get one before they are outlawed by the Value Police.
  • I have also enjoyed dialing in and doing MASTERS sets on several great audio systems. Vandersteens, Sonus fabers, KEFs, RELs and others have sprung to life before my ears as I optimize them in homes.  It always amazes me how important that final step is!  “Night and day” is not an uncommon reaction.
  • Bob and I have both been gobbling up the new Audio Research Foundation Series gear. Four brand new masterpieces, a DAC, phono preamp, line stage, and power amp, in the space of less than six months!  A person could wrap them all up into a system and retire from the race indefinitely, they are that good.  Or, replace an older component with any one and revitalize a system.  Home runs, all!
  • The Carbon generation of AudioQuest headphones are making even bigger waves than the shock one that the original NightHawk sent out, as well they should. NightOwl, Skylar’s first closed-back design, is particularly valuable for those who need isolation in their headphone listening.  He seems to have nailed it without any of the typical sonic compromises.  Can’t wait for my next plane trip!
  • Bob unboxed the first AudioQuest Niagara 5000 a few weeks ago and, hoo boy, it’s crazy good! Even Garth contends it’s much of what you get in the 7000 and it sure sounds like it from our perspective.  If you are looking for the second best power conditioner on the planet, they are now in stock.
  • Finally, my first Musing since my surgery comes, coincidentally or not, as Kaitlyn returns to manage our web/social media presence. She, too, it seems, went through a spell of “writer’s block,” from entirely different causes from mine, but I’m happy to see she is following her muse again.* Here’s hoping it lasts a good, long time!

*Editor’s note: There comes a point in life when you realize that if you must work, it’s better to surround yourself with really great people…

A Musing About Modern Medicine

I’m listening to The Tarantula on vinyl, an old musical and sonic favorite, as I load my Questyle QP1R with music for an upcoming journey.  I think the choice of this record was at least partly inspired by a wish to turn the clock back to the days when I first discovered it and it would transport me to another world.  It’s doing pretty well, but not quite there, despite sounding as good as I can ever recall having heard it.

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Next Tuesday, I will have a cancerous tumor removed from my small intestine and then I face a recovery period of somewhat vague length and difficulty.  For reasons that are a little gross to discuss here, this is not laparoscopic surgery so I’ll be in the hospital for three or four days.  Following that, I will have some recovery period the length of which is a little hard to determine.  The good news is that all the doctors involved have pretty much assured me this will rid me of the disease and there will be no more action needed to make me 100% of what I once was, for better or worse.  I’ll take that, for sure.

There will be several milestones in this experience for me.  First general anesthesia, first time having surgery, and longest time away from Ultra Fidelis since I started the business.  It’s the last that is most often on my mind.  I don’t take long or many vacations, or absences for other reasons, but this one is being forced on me.

We are a small organization, as you probably know, and I realize, with all due humility, that I am instrumental to the operation.  This means things won’t be the same, for a while, as what we are all used to.  The doctors seem to agree that I will be able to sit in a chair at the store for a few hours a day starting around September 27th, but what follows in terms of recovery to full ability is a little harder to determine.  And that still leaves two weeks of no me at Ultra Fidelis in any form.  I really wanted that to be because I was with my girlfriend at the Belgian and Italian Grands Prix, but such is life.

I’m asking for your understanding and patience during my absence, and, following my return, with my recovery.  Bob will be there, of course, and Kaitlyn has agreed to assist him by spending as much time as she can there while I’m gone, for which we are extraordinarily grateful.  And I will have my computer and phone, especially accessible once I am released from the hospital.

I expect nothing but good outcomes to follow, and I am already looking forward to getting back up to speed, in fact beyond where I have been in the last year plus as this undiscovered tumor had been wreaking havoc in my life in unexpected ways.  It will be very good to be rid of it.

I thank you all in advance for your help and understanding as we work toward my wellness, and now I’m going to put The Tarantula away and finish charging my Questyle.  I’m glad I’ve got a pair of NightHawks to join with it as I recover.  Music is the best medicine.

Listen to the Lion

A whole bunch of things just came together.

Stereophile Magazine made Van Morrison’s “Too Late To Stop Now, Volumes, 2, 3,  4 & DVD” the “Record of the Month” in the new issue, thus informing me that it existed, to my great shame and embarrassment.  I’m supposed to know these things!

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The Audio Research PH9 phono preamp passed its 450th hour of at least being on, some good portion of that spent with signal going through it, yesterday.  It should be primed and ready.

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Luke brought me a copy of the newly re-released “Too Late To Stop Now” (volume 1, I guess, which it did not have to be called back in 1974 when it first came out) on vinyl (Sony Legacy) today.

I rode my 1977 Trek road bike this morning before meeting Luke at Ultra Fidelis and the temperature was in the low 60’s when I left.  Bracing as Bruichladdich.

 

The coincidence of these things has put me right in the mood to listen to music.  The air, and also the light today, are whispering that Summer’s days are numbered.  Oh, sure, we’ll likely have some more scorchers or near ones, but today is more than a reminder that it won’t be too long before indoor music listening season is in full swing.

I have been poring over the V 2/3/4 “Too Late…” recently.  I love this music.  And I have for a long time.  I told a couple friends about the release and how excited I was about it, and one of them texted back “Not a big Van fan.”  I thought about it.  Hmm, I’m not either, I guess.  The ratio of his music that I find essential to that which I can easily ignore is pretty low.  But the good stuff is GREAT.  And nothing stops Volume 1 from being one of my favorite records.  In fact, I would be hard pressed not to contend that Side 4 is the best live side of an album I can think of right now.

So, of course I’m interested in Volumes 2, 3 & 4 of this stuff.  I can’t get enough.  But the “autumnality” of today and the arrival of this third version of Volume 1 inspired me to host a good old shootout among my V1 vinyl versions, to wit-

Original 1974 Warner Bros. release, bought originally by me when it originally came out.  It’s well traveled and played.  The inner sleeves say “KMAL 6-27-80” in my handwriting which means I cleaned it on the Keith Monks Audio Ltd. record cleaning machine we had at Audio Emporium way back when.  I treated it to its second bath and a LAST Record Preservative application today.

Fairly recent (don’t remember the year) Back To Black (henceforth B2B)/Polydor/Exile issue I bought several of when they became hard to get a few years ago.

2016 Sony Legacy/Exile release I received today.  I used to work, a long time ago, in record retailing and, very briefly, wholesaling.  Back then, I was up on my label families, but I have no idea how a record that came out originally on Warner Bros. was next released on Polydor and is now ended up in the house of Sony, but there you go.  And when did Exile enter the picture?

I decided to use “Listen to the Lion” as my comparo-track because, well, why not?  Once I play a track off side 4, I have to play the whole thing starting from the beginning, but “…Lion”, which ends side 3, can just stand alone.  And it really represents everything this recording can do.  Dynamics, space, tonal colors, but mostly emotions.  And the way it just fades away to nothing until the woman in the audience decides it’s over and utters, “All right!”  It’s perfect.

How did the different versions fare?  I’ll cut to the chase.  I remembered liking the B2B issue better than my original when I got it and that holds today.  It’s bigger, meatier, and yet more subtle.  Van’s voice and the rest of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, especially the saxes (Van himself plays one on this track) and cymbals, especially, of the drum kit, are just right.  The proscenium and ceiling of the stage take over my room and present the performance with a degree of vividness and “they are here” that are breathtaking.  If you just read the lyrics to this song (I did it on line today to verify this), they read like something you would never want to hear lest you die of the monotony.  Hearing them performed by Van and the Orchestra on this pressing is transcendent.  Chills?  Check.  Tears?  Held in check, but just.

I played the new Sony one next, after treating it to the same bath and LAST protocol all records get here.  Wow.  A lot less good.  Hard to see people in the band, er, Orchestra.  Stuck together, two dimensional cutout paper dolls in a not very spacious space largely devoid of air.  Neither are they here, nor I there.  Van’s voice is not quite shrill, but much less fleshed out.  And the cymbal sounds, so dark, rich and present on the B2B pressing, could almost be machine-made here.  But saddest is that the players seem to have lost some of their commitment to the music on this very committed music.  On the plus side, surfaces were dead quiet, significantly better than the B2B, and it wins authenticity points by maintaining the triple gatefold cover from 1974 whereas the B2B dumbs it down to double.  

On to the original.  Wow again. A lot of surface noise, somewhat debilitating in such subtle and dynamic music, but the sound is quite good.  Like a slightly thinner, but maybe more lithe version of the B2B.  The end is a bit of a letdown as some details are lost to surface noise, but overall quite satisfying.  

Until I put the B2B record back on.  Oh, nope.  It’s better in every way.  Every bit as lithe when it needs to be, but significantly more substantial all the time.  This is the one we played all four sides of after the AudioQuest event at the store, when Steve and I sang harmony, fueled by Founders Centennial, for over an hour.  It’s addictively good.  Maybe Scott has a white label promo that beats it, but I’m thinking it would take that, if even.  There’s just so much meat on these bones.

What I also learned is how incredibly great the Audio Research PH 9 is.  It engages in a way my 8 simply doesn’t.  And it makes short work of comparing pressings without ever failing to let me drift away with the music.  Even the Sony pressing was a delight, although a relative one, because the PH 9 was in the mix, letting me hear maximum music and minimum medium.  That’s what great phono preamps do- turn those 12″ vinyl discs into near master tapes and unlock the magic of the performance.  Closer, closer, closer we get.

Finally, I reaffirmed what a great record this is.  Perfect for tuning up your soul for the coming music season.  I’m hoping to get back out on the bike tomorrow, but for sure I’ll spend some time listening to music.  One more spin through George Crumb’s “Music for a Summer Evening” before it becomes downright inappropriate.

Mississippi, You’re On My Mind

Astounding. Is not a word I use much. It’s old sounding, something my father would have said a lot more often than I do, and he was born in 1908. But my audio system is that. Astounding.

It’s doing it regularly, including this morning with pedal steel and dobro on “I Can’t Escape From You” by Vince (“Triple O”) Martin. This record was recorded right after and on the site of Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” and avails itself of the very same stellar gang of Nashville session players, minus my buddy Norman Blake, and sounds even better than “Skyline” by dint of a more direct sound with more vivid, distinguished instrumental timbres and sparkier dynamics. Columbia’s recording of Dylan with these same dudes has more of that Vaseline on the lens kind of sound, as if they were trying to soften the scene for Dylan’s first shot at singing country and sounding like someone else. They all sound fine there, but they really step forward and snap here. And the dobro and pedal steel have that, well, astounding, in-the-room feel.
And, look here… It’s doing it again right now on “Straight, No Chaser” from Monk’s album of the same name. Not to ding Columbia Records twice in succession, but my “go to” Monk record for sound (as well as some of my very favorite of his music) is the much earlier Riverside “Monk’s Music.” But my system is so… astonishing that I can get as lost in this still pretty damn great sounding Columbia record. Charlie Rouse’s tenor is standing right where the pedal steel was this morning and every bit as convincingly. Every so often, I look over there and instead of Charlie, there sits Lily, her head flicking around as if she, too, is looking for the musicians. It’s got us both fooled, and at least one of us deliriously happy.

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I’m blaming Audio Research. They have been on a quiet roll for a few years now, but it’s starting to get loud. My inside source tells me it all started with the SE versions of the power amps, the development of which created just the right amount of additional music to leak through into their eardrums that they could investigate everything that happens before, or “pre-” the power amp with new ears stuffed with bags more knowledge.
Things just sort of snowballed from there. The Reference 6 line stage and Reference Phono 3 have been blowing open doors for over half a year now, and they are about to be joined by the Foundation Series for those of you who have been waiting for the more affordable lineup- LS 28 line stage, PH 9 phono preamp and DAC 9 D-to-A converter. Take your pick at $7500 each, or collect them all for maximum affect. All three will be in stock by August, with the LS 28 due this week. And joined by a tube amp before the snow flies.
The Ref 6 seems to be the source of this… astronomical improvement in my listening enjoyment. When I say “blowing open doors” I mean it. That is the sensation. So many veils lifted it as if they had added up to a door. One that is now open. In fact, removed from its hinges and leaning against the wall in the garage, so gone is it. It, in partnership with my Ref 75SE, causes the condition where seemingly every bit of good and none of the bad is unlocked in all recordings. Equality at the top of the sonic heap is a little hard to handle! It leaves little time for anything other than listening to music.
The other night, I was on a Jerry Jeff jag. The only copy I have of “Too Old To Change” is a test pressing of the vinyl. Literally a white jacket, no cover art, and a 8 1/2 x 11 photocopied piece of paper slipped inside with track listings. Normally, this would be cause for extreme celebration. If promo copies are guaranteed early pressings, you can imagine what something that precedes those sounds like. Except it has a flaw that lasts almost all the way through “Hands On The Wheel,” a knockout of a Jackie Jack solo voice and electric guitar. It’s heartbreaking. So I dialed it up on Tidal. Sweet mother of vacuum tubes! It’s still a knockout. This is a tender ballad and I thought the dynamics in Jerry Jeff’s voice were going to blow my speakers. It was… asparagus! Sorry, I’m at a loss for words. I have never heard such “jump,” such uncapped dynamics revealing a man singing a song completely unbound by the limits of a sound reproducing machine. Experiencing it with a voice I know so well and love so much was bordering on unnerving, but in such a beautiful, exciting way.

One thing led to another, as will happen, and I found myself completely rediscovering Jesse Winchester’s “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind,” long a classic in my life, as though for the first time. Gigantic, enveloping, loaded with musical sparklers at the same time as it let me explore every nuance of the scene the lyrics paint. What a revelation this Audio Research gear is! And what timing. Hottest night of the year and I’m playing perhaps the ultimate hot summer song. It was a harmonic convergence of a rare kind. Night is hot, song is hot, tubes are hot. Let it roll!
In the case you don’t know the song, I’ll leave you with a minor admonishment, the lyrics to it, and a strong recommendation to check out the latest or forthcoming Audio Research gear soon. If they have me listening nonstop in July, just think what will happen when the leaves turn.
Mississippi You’re On My Mind
Jesse Winchester

I think I see a wagon rutted road
With the weeds growing tall between the tracks
And along one side runs a rusty barbed wire fence
And beyond it sits an old tar paper shack

Mississippi, you’re on my mind
Mississippi, you’re on my mind
Ohh, Mississippi you’re on my mind

I think I hear a noisy old John Deere
In a field specked with dirty cotton lint
And below that field runs a little country stream
Down there you’ll find the cool green leaves of mint

Oh, Mississippi you’re on my mind
Oh, Mississippi you’re on my mind
Ohh, Mississippi you’re on my mind

I think I smell the honeysuckle vine
It’s thick sweetness like to make me sick
And the dogs, my God, ah, they’re hungry all the time
And the snakes are sleeping where the weeds are thick

Oh, Mississippi you’re on my mind
Mississippi you’re on my mind
Ohh, Mississippi you’re on my mind

I think I feel the angry oven heat
The southern sun just blazin’ in the sky
In the dusty weeds, an old fat grasshopper jumps
I wanna make it to that creek before I fry

Oh, Mississippi you’re on my mind
Mississippi you’re on my mind
Ohh, Mississippi you’re on my mind

Mississippi you’re on my mind
Oh, Mississippi you’re on my mind
Ohh, Mississippi you’re on my mind

It’s Black and White

A very interesting thing happened at the Radiohead “A Moon Shaped Pool” listening party last Thursday.  Prior to the event, Luke from Bullseye Records had delivered a white vinyl “collector’s” copy of the two LP set for us to preview.  Good thing he did, because there was a once-per-revolution noise in the right channel through all of side C.  As we sat there, both hoping that each revolution would be the last noisy one, Luke got madder and madder until I thought medical intervention might be needed.

I opined that we should really try to get a black vinyl copy anyway, as I have always found black vinyl to sound better than non-black vinyl, annoying noises aside.  I use the term “non-black” instead of “colored” for a reason.  Black vinyl contains carbon black, which is not there just for looks.  In every single instance I have had the chance to compare two pressings of the same record, one black and one not, the black has sounded noticeably better- smoother AND more detailed (a combination that Luke finds almost impossible to accept as he has spent most of his life thinking of them as virtual antonyms)- than the non-black.  And “non-black” includes clear vinyl, the natural state of the stuff, which still doesn’t sound as good to me as black.  So it isn’t the addition of “color” to the vinyl that makes it go bad sonically.  It is the lack of black.

On Wednesday, one day prior to the event, Luke delivered a black vinyl version and, as a backup precaution, I also paid $10.49 for the CD resolution digital download since the free versions that come with the vinyl weren’t activated yet.  This was, as stated, a “pre-(vinyl)-release” listening event, so I wasn’t too surprised to be locked out when I tried to enter my freebie code.  I loaded this version to the Aurender N10, ready if needed and fortuitous because we discovered that even the black vinyl version had a cyclical noise in the right channel on side C.  It doesn’t last nearly as long as on the white vinyl version, which noise Luke observed on every copy he opened of the white pressing, but it was intrusive enough on the first track that I opted to use the black vinyl for sides A, B and D, and the digital download from the Aurender for side C.

Shortly after the appointed starting time of 7:30, we dropped the stylus on side A of the black vinyl.  Magic ensued.  I really like this record, which I know surprises Luke.  When he suggested we launch our first jointly hosted music night with a listen to the new Radiohead record, I think he was anticipating my response to be, “Why?”  Instead, I thought, “Yeah, perfect.”  

I’m nothing like a fan.  I come very late to the party, having discovered “Kid A” only about four years ago while perusing the Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Albums list and buying some things I felt I should experience.  I’ve dug that record from the first play.  The creativity.  The lack of obvious, to me, influences.  The vibe.  And the real attention the band pays to the sonic environment they create.  It is “of a piece” in the way of which Pink Floyd are masters.  Very rare in the world of “fantasy” as opposed to “documentary” style recordings.  Its absence is what immediately turns me off  to so many modern pop and rock recordings.  I can’t hack my way through the production thicket to make it “into the room,” be it real or imaginary.  Not so with the Radiohead I have heard, including “…Pool.”  It sounds great.

But here’s the very interesting thing we observed Thursday.  No one really made any comments when I went from the black vinyl to the download for side C and then back to vinyl for D.  But when we had finished the entire record, I played the white vinyl version of the last track on side D, right after we had heard it on the black vinyl.  Everyone present, without any coercion from me, felt that it sounded markedly worse than the black vinyl version.  I then replayed the black vinyl track and the gap was even more obvious.

The consensus was that the black vinyl version was the winner, with the full CD resolution (a critical distinction from the iTunes garbage) download a fairly close second, and the white vinyl a distant third.

After the comparison, John noted that the white one, “sounded like it had been played a thousand times.”  Yes, it did.  On this last track, there is a point where Thom Yorke’s voice cracks.  On the white one it is virtually impossible to distinguish it from record distortion, but during the second playing of the black one, Scott and I looked at each other when the crack happened, grabbed our throats in unison and laughed.  It was blatantly evident that this was a human distortion, left in, if not in fact created, on purpose, and not a recording artifact.  Finally, his wife Tamara said that the black vinyl commanded her attention and compelled her to listen to music and lyrics, and to emotionally respond, while the white one left her able to treat it as mere background music.

Think about what this means in the grand scheme of things.  Great vinyl and great digital are now so close that the difference between a proper black vinyl record and a non-black one is noticeably greater in terms of the ability to enjoy the listening experience than whether the sound is originating from digital bits flying through the internet/ripped from a CD and landing in the Aurender or wiggles in the surface of a (black) vinyl record being sensed by the Lyra cartridge.  And these two vinyl versions were, in all other ways, apparently identical with all the talent- artists, producers, recording engineers and mastering (the great Bob Ludwig, in this case)- being the same between the two.

So the lesson is, if you are a vinyl fan who actually likes to listen to your records, this is something you really need to come to grips with.  The clearly less good sounding version is being presented and sold as “special” “collector” “rare” and “valuable.”  I think the only accurate part of that may be “collector” because it implies that it will be collected but not listened to.  It is perfectly good for that, but not much else.

Merle and the Mystery

The most wonderful thing about music is the mystery of it.  The fact that you can think, or talk, or write until hell freezes over about it, and you haven’t gotten anywhere at all in terms of explaining why it works for you.

I don’t mean why music in general works.  That’s relatively easy.  The definition of “music” is so broad, and the availability of it so ubiquitous that the answer can be as simple as, “it makes me happy” or “I can’t help but dance” or even “it keeps my mind off what my dentist is doing to me.”

What I mean is, why does one particular piece of music, or artist, make you immediately seek to get it stopped, while another makes you stop doing whatever else it is you are doing when it comes on?  I spend a fair amount of time thinking about this, the curiosity partly professional and partly personal.

I remember my first reflections on this subject in my own musical world came when I awoke to my attraction to, my affection for country music.  If you read my review of Gram Parsons’ music in our archives, you will note that I admit that I was perplexed, at that early age, as to what was drawing me to country rock, especially with such a heavy emphasis on the “country” part.  Nothing in my background- two college educated parents, one from Philadelphia and the other from Chicago, and a childhood in East Side, suburban Milwaukee- screams “down home.”  Further, although both my parents were amateur musicians, I never, ever heard my father refer to his violin as a fiddle and my mother’s piano was utterly incapable of speaking honky tonk.

But I was, in my late teens, sufficiently convinced that Gram was speaking the truth to me that I did what I’ve always done with music, even back then.  I tried to explain the mystery by following the tree back to a thicker, earlier branch.  Who did Gram like?  In looking to answer, I discovered a gold mine of deeper country, and also that, contrary to what I thought, I was not allergic to it.  In fact, hey Mikey!  I liked it.

One day, at age 19, I went into work, at a small independent record shop, and ordered Dolly Parton Bubbling Over for the title tune, and Merle Haggard Okie From Muskogee for “Silver Wings.”  (A side note to young people, and older ones who have given up on the joys of unexpected discovery- I was ordering complete albums to get one song, secure in the thought that if there were one great tune on the record, there was a strong likelihood that there would be others that I would like, some possibly even as much as the one I was after.)

When the shipment came in a week later, I remember taking them out of the carton with Larry, the manager, and him asking, “Who did we order those for?”  Those are mine.  “Cool,” he said.  And he meant it.  Larry was a little older and less up tight about these things than I was.  For me, this was new territory, and I didn’t quite know what to think of myself.  I knew Mama Tried from Skull and Roses, but I kind of thought The Dead were mocking Merle Haggard.  Little did I know.

In those early days, I had to find compatriots carefully with whom I could discuss “country music.”  It seems funny to me now, as genre-agnostic as I am as a music lover, but those were the formative experiences of that very agnosticism which today yields such a bounty of great music in my life.  My instant love of Merle Haggard and real country music let me set aside the indiscriminate, go along with the crowd musical choices of my youth (never did play another Uriah Heep album after that day!) and find Bill Evans and Dmitri Shostakovich and Bob Wills and Charles Mingus and Joni Mitchell and Bill Monroe and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Igor Stravinsky and, well, the list continues to grow to this day.

Its was Merle who pulled me out of my self-constructed set of expectations for what kind of music could affect me.  Before him, it was as if the mystery could be explained as lying fully within a single denomination, a small subgroup, of the great and complete history of music.  After him, I wondered how could someone as seemingly musically alien to me as anyone whose lyrics are still at least in my native tongue be connecting with me so easily?  Gram started it, but Merle hammered it home. You know what?  Genres must be bullshit!  Duke Ellington was right.  There are only two kinds of music.  Good music, and the other kind.

Today, I bought a bottle of George Dickel No. 8 and tonight, I am celebrating Merle’s life and mourning his death with non-stop playing of his music.

PicMonkey Collage

Mama Tried

Swinging Doors

Today I Started Loving You Again

California Cottonfields

Workin’ Man Blues

The Fightin’ Side Of Me

White Line Fever

Sing Me Back Home

The Bottle Let me Down

My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers

And, of course, Silver Wings

I love it all dearly.  And I owe it a great deal more.  So, please, try something Merle taught me.  Knock over a genre.  Step in to some music you swore you would never listen to.  Roll around in it, study it a little bit, even.  Try to find what people hear in it.  You may find that the mystery doesn’t need to be unlocked.  And music you thought was the other kind isn’t at all.