Reference Recordings Returns to LPs
In response to demand from its international customer base, Reference Recordings will release its first two LPs in 200-gram deluxe pressings on September 2. With disc mastering done at half-speed to insure cleaner reproduction and extended high frequency response, RR begins its new vinyl series with two highly prized analogue recordings from its extensive catalog. Dick Hyman From the Age of Swing arrives as a two-LP, 45rpm set, and Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite coupled with The Song of the Nightingale as a single 331/3rpm LP. The Stravinsky, performed by Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra, received a 1997 Grammy® nomination for "Best Engineered, Classical" recording.
Both recordings on the San Francisco Bay Area-based audiophile label are the product of feted recording engineer Keith O. Johnson. While the Hyman appeared previously on LP, it was only as a 180 gram vinyl pressing that ran at 331/3rpm. The Stravinsky was a vinyl virgin until now. These and all future LPs come with the original liner notes, and are packaged in double-folded (gatefold) jackets to protect the discs.
Reference Recordings' producers, Marcia Gordon Martin and J. Tamblyn Henderson, Jr. (Tam), told Stereophile that the company issued quite a number of LPs in the early days of the label. In the early days of digital, Johnson began recording in both digital and analogue formats. The former was used for CD issues, the latter for LPs. When CD sound improved, Johnson developed the HDCD recording process, and demand for LPs dwindled in audiophile circles, the company sold its own customized half-speed lathe and cutting apparatus.
In 2005, when RR became aware of the vinyl resurgence, they searched throughout North America, Europe and Japan for optimal facilities for half-speed mastering and pressing. Nothing that met their stringent quality requirements and allowed for competitive pricing could be found. Instead, mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine agreed to take his lathe system out of storage, worked with Keith O. Johnson to get it up and running, and paired it with custom electronics by Nelson Pass. The mastering apparatus uses no compression or equalization, and minimizes obstacles in the signal path.
Then the RR team heard about a new source for 200-gram pressings, Chad Kassem's Quality Record Pressings (QRP) facility in Salina, Kansas, which was profiled by Micahel Fremer in the August issue of Stereophile. "The test pressings have been very, very good," says Martin.
"We expect to begin issuing two releases at a time as soon as we can," says Henderson. "Some will be 331/3rpm, others 45, depending upon the length of the program and what can fit on a single side. At this point, our plan is to master everything at half-speed because of the advantages of that technique." One special feature of all new RR vinyl, advocated by Henderson, is the "FDS" finish. At the end of each side, a 30-second band of silent grooves has been inserted to allow listeners to lift tonearms before the infernal noisy tie-off rudely interrupts their reverie. Previously featured on select 1950s vintage Capitol Full Dimension Sound pressings, RR's FDS finish is bound to receive special praise from audiophiles whose turntables are located on the other side of the room, and who hate rushing across the floor to try to head off the sonic assault.
RR is already evaluating test pressings of their next two issues, the Hot Cub of San Francisco and Oue's famed Minnesota Orchestra recording of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. Both are sourced from hi-resolution digital masters. Given that RR has already issued the Rachmaninoff as WAV files in 176.4/24 HRx master disc format, and made it available on HD Tracks as an 88.2/24 hi-res download, audiophiles will be eager to discover which sounds best on their home systems.
Future LP issues batches will most likely pair older and more recent titles. The only discs that will never appear on LP are the four or five titles Johnson recorded solely in 44.1kHz digital format. My mouth is watering for the arrival of vinyl pressings of the priceless final recordings by the late and great soprano Eileen Farrell, who reigned equally supreme in opera and jazz.
"People have been emailing and calling for years, begging us to resume LP manufacture," says Martin. "At this point, we are picking and choosing as best we can amongst the many wish lists we've received from our customers. Our first production batch was almost entirely spoken for by our international distributors. But we promise that there will be copies for people who have been waiting so long."
RR discs are available for pre-order from the company website. Once titles are released, they will also be available in the US from Acoustic Sounds, Elusive Disc, and Music Direct.