"If it goes in, it must come out." (From The Firesign Theatre LP, I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus, Columbia LP C30737, [C]1971 by 4 or 5 Krazy Guys Publishing.)
My apologies to the members of The Firesign Theatre for quoting their witticism out of context; but Mazel Tov to readers who smiled, however faintly, upon reading that little segment of my favorite Firesign Theatre word play. This album is no longer in print. Although a reissue on CD had been available from Mobile Fidelity (MFCD 785) for a while -- a tribute, no doubt, to its unusual clarity and dynamic range -- but that too has been withdrawn. There are a few snippets appearing on a "best of" anthology entitled Shoes For Industry, but not enough there to appreciate the album in its entirety. "Teslacle's Deviant to Fudd's Law," the recondite quotation above, came to two researchers in the story, Tom Teslacle and Dick Beddoe, while developing a motor-operated pushover at Dr. Beddoe's Pneumatic Institute. Sir Sidney Fudd's Law, "If you push something hard enough it will fall over," was an equally erudite axiom, the wacky story goes, coined as a result of Sir Sidney's "fit of scientific rapture" while he and his "faithful servant, Spunky," were using his "excellent porcelain astrolabe." I could go on for days discussing Bozos with fellow Firesign Theatre lovers, but enough of the nostalgia. Common sense tells us that this "Deviant" is a mere variation on the most commonly known computer anecdote (often abbreviated GIGO, but that is only one of its meanings), which is central to one of the themes in the story. It, among other details of the plot, was a clever way of offering those listeners who knew something about computers, science, politics and symbols a means to enjoy their satire and puns at a different level from those who didn't.
As central as "Teslacle's Deviant" was to making The Firesign Theatre's point in their tale, it is brought to the fore here as it concerns the transfer of an analogue source to digital; and how near the dictum is the compliance of the engineers in charge of the remastering. In the recording discussed below, we have one of the very same engineers who originally produced the LPs 21 years ago now involved in the present CD. This is akin to Wilma Cozart Fine's direction of the Mercury Living Presence analogue recordings in their present-day CD reissues (she being there to ensure sonic accuracy and faithfulness to the original master tapes).
Ken Kreisel and Steve McCormack made the original direct-to-disc recordings in 1978; and it is Mr. Kreisel who has mastered the CD release from safety tape backups made simultaneously during the recording sessions. Who could possibly know better than he how the recording should sound? Of course, the most didactic of audiophiles will maintain that any recording made in this way cannot reproduce the degree of sonic purity found on the original direct disc, and he would be correct in some ways, but not others. In fact, if the tapes were recorded using the same demanding specifications as the original direct-to-disc LPs (that is, using a quality recorder fed directly from the same mixing console as was the cutting lathe), then the archived safety backup would have the potential to sound nearly identical. Yet it would have a clear and quiet advantage in remastering to digital. "If it goes in, it must come out" concisely defines what we must demand from an analogue to digital transfer.
The most impartial of audiophiles recognizes, however, that the recent audio industry announcements for a new 24/96 digital audio standard provide us a tacit concession that there may have been identifiable sonic shortcomings in the current 16/44.1 one. Maybe what went in really wasn't coming out after all. There is even talk of a system based on 24/192 that may eventually supersede this new, yet-to-be-introduced standard for music sources. But why not set a standard sufficiently high now -- one measured in Megahertz instead of Kilohertz, perhaps -- to avoid future obsolescence altogether? Certain groups of audiophiles have opined since the beginning of the digital era that what they heard on their records was missing on CDs they bought. In an interview with Ace Records' head, Roger Armstrong in Issue 73, we get an opposing opinion. Mr. Armstrong suggests that many of the recordings dating from the analogue era "operate in a narrow dynamic range and from what [he] gather[s] the conventional CD delivers these `narrow range' recordings perfectly well." If the CD discussed here were typical of the level of quality the present-day standard has produced, then I would agree with Mr. Armstrong. My experiences have been, though, that too many have not transferred to digital well enough to take his side. The reasons for my disagreement with his position are many. Some have nothing to do with the process of converting analogue to digital itself, or in whatever word length and sampling rate happens to be presently in vogue. They are instead concerned with the analogue equipment and source tapes used to make the transfers; and how devoted to producing a quality product from the sources an engineering team was.
I have a final thought before I begin my review on the M&K CD: It concerns the comparisons of LPs to their CD equivalents that so many audiophiles make. Unlike CD players today (which, popular sentiment tells us, vary sound reproduction only slightly from one model to another), the countless variations on tonearm, cartridge and turntable combinations conceivable make it impossible for anyone to say with absolute certitude that their LP playback equipment can reproduce the sound of an original stamping master (much less an original master tape) with 100% precision. This being said, the alert reader recognizes that those who make the claim that the LP source is more "accurate" than the CD are probably incorrect. Unless this claimant has access to the source tapes from which his recordings were made, his findings are only subjective determinations. The same is true for those who rally around the compact disc! Herein lies a crucial point: Our conclusions are based on the value judgments we make. This is not a bad thing. At the very heart of the audio hobby abides the sentiment that most individuals make preferences based upon their experiences. Were this not true, the audio industry could be reduced to a single builder of a single speaker model and one source component. Nor would we have the opportunity to hear alternatives to typical recordings from companies such as Classic Records or Mobile Fidelity. Try to imagine something more dolorous! Fortunately for those of us who enjoy being audiophiles, that is not the reality.
If we choose not to dispose of our records, we can compare them to our new CDs and decide for ourselves which ones we prefer, no matter how faithful to the original source either might or might not seem to us. Sometimes I prefer an analogue LP, others I pick the CD. These preferences are perceptions based on my comparisons, and they reveal that I tend to shy away from certain kinds of sounds. Some conversions are successful, others are not. I also concede that it sometimes, but rarely, takes a well-trained ear to hear any differences at all between an LP and a CD.
For Duke, originally released on LP as RT-101, was recorded on January 11-12, 1978, at M&K's studio in Beverly Hills. The lineup of Bill Berry's Jazz All-Stars included Bill Berry on cornet, Ray Brown (bass), Frankie Capp (drums), Natt Pierce (piano), Scott Hamilton (tenor sax), Britt Woodman (trombone), and Marshal Royal (alto sax). All of these are well-known musicians in their own rights, but also as sidemen for other artists. Each of them, except Woodman, had recording contracts with Carl Jefferson's then-young Concord Jazz label at the time M&K made this recording. Earl "Fatha" Hines Plays The Hits He Missed is a trio recording with Hines on piano, Red Callendar (bass and tuba) and Bill Douglas (drums). This session was recorded in March 1978, and originally released on LP as RT-105. The new CD release combines these two LPs on one 20-bit-mastered gold CD.
Because the original releases were recorded direct-to-disc, we get a sense from the new CD that these are live sessions. In direct-to-disc recording, there is no means of correcting a missing or false note, and there are plenty of them here. The first half of the CD features some of the most familiar Ellington compositions. The second half (the Hines session) has an admixture of songs composed by such jazz greats as Thelonious Monk, Fats Waller, and Horace Silver. The music is all mainstream jazz -- meaning that you don't need a music degree to enjoy it.
For Duke has been a cult item among audiophile cognoscenti for the past decade or so. Since its limited edition went out of print, used copies have been selling on the open market for many times their original price. I know of one local instance where the seller was paid much more than $100 for one of his copies. Although the Hines LP did not reach the level of popularity among audiophiles that Berry's did, the two recordings merge together nicely to form a likely continuum as if one were listening to two acts on stage. The CD runs 63:11, and retails for $24.95. It is very difficult to find, and seldom listed at the most popular internet sites for music. It is available directly from M&K (www.mksound.com); since they do not charge for shipping, we get a great bargain for an excellent CD.
For this article, I first listened to the LPs on three turntables and tonearms, with three cartridges in the Shure V15 family. I checked alignment with my Delmesen SoundTracktor on two of the setups to ensure that the cartridges were installed with utmost precision. The third setup used a Technics SL-10 with an integral straight line tracking arm. The LP sounded best to me on my SOTA Star Sapphire, fitted with a very old JH Formula 4 arm, and the Shure V15VxMR. While this latest Shure may be the most "accurate" of the three cartridges, it is also the smoothest in the highest frequencies. The resonant frequency for the arm and cartridge is also in a lower, tighter range than the other combinations. I recently re-tubed my three amplifiers and tried them all in different configurations. I settled on a pair of vertically bi-amped Golden Tube SE-40s.
The sound of the original For Duke record is astonishingly good, with excellent dynamic range plus very wide separation and bandwidth. There is lots of ambiance too, with solid image localization. The perspective is very close, and may be just a little too close for nearfield listeners. This is one of the most natural-sounding LPs in my collection, and I can fully appreciate why so many audiophiles regard For Duke as one of the best-sounding records made in the analogue era.
I find the Hines record to be just a little bright when comparing it to For Duke. It too is very close in perspective, and the image of Hines's piano is much too large. On some of his piano solos, the sound gets a little hot and perhaps even approaches distortion. Thanks to the CD, though, I can report that this is in the recording, and not the product of cartridge mistracking. Because the recording is so dynamic, I assume that these infrequent anomalies may be the result of overloads in the equipment that was used in the original recording sessions. Despite the differences in the two records, they are very close to each other in sonic character. They sound as if they were recorded with transistor equipment, not tubes, as they are a little crisper and more detailed than what I imagine the real sound of the music heard live might have been. Perhaps this is owing to the very close microphone placement. These minor detours from the theoretically perfect record aside, I find them to be better sounding than most of the direct-to-disc records available in the '70s.
The CD is a stunner too, and appears to adhere rigidly to "Teslacle's Deviant." The CD's liner notes mention that the original tapes were played on the very same Telefunken recorder that was used to make the them in 1978. This was very encouraging! Unlike many other comparisons I have made of the original LP to the new CD where the differences in sound were almost flagrant, this CD comes as close to the sound of the record as I have heard. Yes, there are differences: soundstage width and depth collapse ever so slightly, but the tonal balance is so close that I have some difficulty distinguishing one from the other. After many comparisons over several weeks, I found that the major differences between the two on my system were that the vinyl sounded slightly fuller in a narrow band of the lower midrange, and the highest frequencies were just a little more liquid. The Hines segment of the CD fares a little better than Berry's in one respect. As I noted above, there are some sonic irregularities in a few passages that I think are attributable to overloads in the original recording system -- perhaps these overloads were in the mixing console. Since these may have been magnified by the cutting lathe when it made the record grooves, the tape recorder would, presumably, "saturate" the tape in those instances. The result is that I hear these incidents of distortion just as well, but they appear to have been mollified just a trace. Could this just be the differences in my source components that reveal these subtle differences?
Without regard to a comparison with the LP, the sound of the CD ranks it as one of the two best sounding jazz CDs I have heard so far. It is not as musically engaging or natural sounding to me as those bits and pieces of Getz/Gilberto #2 that make it my favorite jazz CD, but a demonstration quality CD, this one most certainly is! Ken Kreisel has done what was necessary to ensure that what went in has come back out. I recommend it highly.
In the next installment of Reissue Roundup, I will report on one other CD that is almost as faithful to the sound of the original vinyl release as this one. It may be the best sounding record that Chandos ever released, but it appears after all these years that it did not become known in audiophile circles. Stay tuned. If you have a question or comment on reissued records of any ilk (except rap or country) or this article, I invite you to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy listening. - SGB
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|Author:||Baird, Steven G.|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1999|
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