SIX-PACK SUMMER SUGGESTIONS!


The essential reading for any music lover! Six-Pack Summer Suggestions by our friend and music collaborator Claude Lemaire... "So you want to get in on the vinyl scene and are eager to start a collection? Or perhaps you already own one and are open-minded to explore a few titles out of your comfort zone? Then this series will surely be of interest, and help you on that fun enriching path. What's in a name? Well "six-pack" refers to multiple packs comprising six (vinyl) selections each that I will put forward throughout the summer months, most regrouped under a common theme. Note that these are not necessarily "audiophile-grade" material–just like the various musical genres presented, the sonic aspects will vary greatly, from poor to outstanding, and everything in between. Now why choose six instead of the usual top five or top ten? Simply because I felt that with many artists or groups, choosing only five was too heart-wrenching, having to eliminate one or two great albums, while with ten, often the opposite was the case, i.e. I had trouble finding that many worthy, so in the end six seemed just about right."

But first, read on...

A brief vinyl history


In 1877, while Charles Cros in France had envisioned something similar named the Paleophone, back in the States, Thomas Edison was attributed the invention of the phonograph, patending it the following year. 

A decade later, German-born Emile Berliner brought forth his own version replacing the wax cylinder principle for a flat disc record coined the Gramophone. 


Though slower in rotating speed–eventually setting on 78rpm and pressed on a 10 or 12-inch shellac as the final standard–and inferior in sound to the former invention but better for mass production, it eventually won out the first format war, and the present vinyl format we still hold in high regard doesn't much differ from these origins. 



Prior to 1925, all of the above formats were what we consider acoustic recordings, meaning the musicians had to line up in front of one or sometimes several–hooked up via Y-shaped adapters–giant horn which at its apex vibrated a diaphragm, and in turn a needle cutting a spiral groove; the resulting sound being band limited to the mids, and explaining in part the prioritization of trumpets, saxes, and singers on record as opposed to double bass for example. This confinement somewhat widened when Western Electric came out with the first condenser microphones, tube amplication, improved cutter heads, and a few rudimentary faders, filters, and transformers. The first electric recording was Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra performing Saint Saëns' Danse Macabre, Op. 40 in 1925.


Thus began the electric era but it remained "direct to disc", i.e. live cutting to wax in one or several takes until you get it right, with little to no margin of error. This demanding situation on players and engineers gave way two decades later, when at the end of World War II, American Army officer Jack Mullin brought back with him the German-designed Magnetephon by AEG, later enlisting interest from newly-found Ampex with financial help from Bing Crosby. 


This technology was a major step forward in bandwidth and ease of editing, and a few years later, saw the beginnings of multitracking and overdubbing, thanks in large part to guitarist, experimenter Les Paul. 


Coincidentally Columbia–inspired in part by Western Electric's Vitaphone record developed for film sound in 1926–came out with the 33 1/3 rpm "microgroove" LP pressed on vinyl (PVC) in June 1948 which allowed about 20 to 23 minutes per side instead of the 3 to 5 minutes limit of 78 rpm singles, as well as a much lower noise floor. Rival RCA Victor introduced the 7-inch, 45 rpm single the following year as a replacement for the latter, which eventually occured towards the mid-1950s. Up to this point–putting aside a few rare experimental 2-track recordings of the 1930s and 1940s–everything recorded and released was monophonic, i.e. only one channel or identical in both channels. 



By spring 1954, RCA Living Stereo were recording onto 2 and 3-track stereo tape–and selling some on 7.5 ips, 1/4-inch, 2-track stereo, 7-inch cine reels [RCA Victor Red Seal ECS-1]–with Mercury Living Presence, and Decca's FFRR and FFSS series soon in line but all concerned parties had to wait until 1958 to finally enjoy them on stereophonic LPs. As for jazz, stereo recordings started around 1956-57 for several important labels and were offered in both formats from 1958 up to 1968–pretty much the same for pop and rock–whereupon stereo dominated the industry for good. 


The "first" 12-inch single sent out as a promotional pressing to radio stations and record stores appeared in 1970–Buddy Fite's "For Once in My Life" [Cyclone RF 6]. 



But it was really in June 1975, that the ball got rolling with the very first production of promo disco 12-inch or 'maxi-singles' available only in limited quantities to well-connected deejays, early record pools, and specialized radio stations, before being available to the public in May 1976–with Double Exposure's "Ten Per Cent" [Salsoul Records 12D-2008] being the first. 


Depending on the label, some were cut for 33 1/3 rpm while others went with 45 rpm–the latter especially in the U.K. and Europe–the majority staying under ten minutes to maintain a good compromise between bass quantity, treble quality, dynamic range, and overall loudness level. When done right, this format–regardless of the speed–had the benefit of providing superior sound to the typical 7-inch single or LP album cut, in addition to featuring extended or alternate mixes in many cases, including 'breaks' or instrumental passages not found or shortened on the smaller-sized single. They probably peaked in popularity towards the mid-1980s–with New Order's "Blue Monday" [Factory FAC 73] holding the title as best-selling 12-inch single of all time–and are still issued in limited runs for deejays and collectors. 



As the 1970s saw multitrack recording go from 16 to 24 to even 48 tracks by the end of the decade, a reactionary response was a return to the roots or past, pre-tape years, called 'direct to disc'. Sheffield Lab in California started this mini-movement in 1971–and hitting its peak in the mid to late 1970s–with a few other independant labels trying their hand at it, with limited success due to the repertoire relegated mostly to small-scale jazz and 'tribute-type' big bands; plus the lack of any editing practices, placing undue stress on the performance. 


From 1971 to 1977, Denon in Japan, experimenting with NHK's PCM recording system, released over time the first commercial digital recordings pressed on vinyl using 13 bits resolution only. Great strides were made in 1978 when American audiophile label Telarc, working with the Soundstream Inc. portable four-channel digital tape recorder and audio processor, developed by Dr. Thomas G. Stockham, Jr. issued their own symphonic recordings. 



Even then it was mostly concentrated in classical and a few jazz titles. Encoding at a rate of 16 bits linear and 50kHz sampling–instead of the yet to be released CD Red Book standard of 16 bits and 44,1kHz determined in 1980, these early digital on vinyl often sounded better than their CD counterparts later on. The transition from analog to digital on vinyl went much faster in the classical industry with most major label on board beginning in early 1980, while jazz labels took a bit longer. Rock, pop, and other genres transitioned at different paces mostly around 1981-1982–sometimes combining analog recording/'tracking' with digital mixing–and increasingly so post 1985. 


The first audiophile reissue label was Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, established in California in 1977. The following year they released Supertramp's Crime of the Century [MoFi MFSL 1-005]–the first of many popular choices–and are still in operation to this day. Specializing in remastering, and half-speed cutting for a broad spectrum of genres, they were initially pressed on rather thin 'virgin vinyl' in Japan by JVC, while later on, switching to RTI's pressing plant in the States–first on 200g for their Anadisc series, and later down to the more common 180g format either in single 33 1/3 or double-45 rpm editions. In the early to mid 1990s, they would be joined by other quality reissue labels such as Analogue Productions, DCC Compact Classics, and Classic Records to name the biggest players, with only the former still around today. The following decade would introduce Music Matters Jazz–and more recently the Tone Poet Series–concentrating on reissuing the vast Blue Note catalogue. There is also The Electric Recording Co. British label specializing in very limited and expensive, all-tube remasterings and cuttings of select–often mono–vintage classical and jazz LPs–which I have not heard. The latest advancement in vinyl manufacturing–and promoted by MoFi as their "Ultradisc" series–is the "one-step" method instead of the industry standard practice utilizing "three-steps". The former skipping the intermediary "father" and "mother" steps, thus going from lacquer directly to stamper or "convert" to pressing the final vinyl, and retaining more the character of the original master tape used to cut the master disc. 


A primer on pressings


Which pressings are best or should I get? Unfortunately there is no simple or definitive answer to this important and recurring question. It is a complex and personal choice, and to a certain extent, almost a case by case basis. Putting aside the whole cost factor–which can be huge–for my part, I usually try to find and prefer the original first pressing of a release–usually in stereo over mono when released in both formats–and avoid the many regular or conventional reissues which are often more affordable but remastered or cut from a digital file or copy. The exception to this rule of thumb of mine are the more expensive higher quality remasterings and cuttings by some of the major players cited above who try to use the original analog master tape or session tape to cut from, as well as a placing more attention to plating and pressing issues, and leading to superior audible results, all else being equal. Then again, sometimes I'll still prefer the original pressing if the tape has deteriorated over time or simply strange engineering EQ choices.

Following that logic, I will normally indicate my preferred pressing right next to the artist and title selection, with both the original label/release date and the reissue label/date if such is the case.   

Claude Lemaire/soundevaluations