Moaning over Moanin'

Be careful, the old saw has it, what you wish for. For a long time now, many of us boomers have wished that the mainstream record companies would rediscover the glories of the vinyl LP. Now, a few of them are doing just that. Sony has released new 33-1/3 rpm slabs of vinyl from Columbia’s classic jazz catalogue—Charles Mingus’ Ah Um and a bonus LP as part of the deluxe box commemorating the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Blue Note has gone further still, reissuing a dozen of its old titles in vinyl, packing both a CD and an LP inside the 12” record jackets, presumably so you can hear a comparison.

In all cases, the LPs were remastered form the original analogue tapes. Good people were involved in the work. So why do the albums sound so blah?

They don’t sound bad, just entirely uneventful. The Blue Note LPs sound hardly different from the accompanying CDs, and I don’t mean this as praise for the CDs. They sound two-dimensional: no harmonic richness, no depth, none of the you-are-there magic that one hears in the original pressings of these albums or in several previous reissues by the audiophile labels, especially Classic Records or Analogue Productions. So one must ask: What’s the point? Why did the producers bother embarking on these projects? More dismaying, why would any consumer, listening to both the CD and the LP, get the slightest bit excited about vinyl?

Are the record companies just engaged in trend-spotting? Several mainstream newspapers and magazines have run stories in the past several months about a resurgence in vinyl, but the reporters have tended to cover the phenomenon as another instance of retro cool, like Mad Men or the return of Che Guevara T-shirts. There has been little assessment of the claim that—a quarter-century into the digital era, for all the vast improvements in CDs and CD players—a really well-made LP still sounds better.

I’m one of those who make this claim, though, I must confess, I spend a lot more time spinning aluminum than vinyl (especially to hear new music); I love the sound of vinyl, I don’t have a fetish for the object. If someone were to digitize my LPs without sacrificing any sound quality, I’d unload them in a minute. (Don’t worry, Fremer; I’d call you first.)

By coincidence, one of the Blue Note titles—Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers—was also reissued on LP, around the same time, by Analogue Productions, and the comparison…well, there is no comparison. Granted, the AP pressing is mastered at 45 rpm and laid out on two slabs of 180-gram vinyl (it also costs twice as much as the EMI/Blue Note reissue and doesn’t come with a bonus CD), but the difference is vaster than even the technology might suggest. In fact, Moanin’ is the best-sounding title I’ve yet heard in AP’s series of Blue Note 45s. The horns are 3D, the trapset is crisp, the bass sounds like wood, there’s air everywhere, you’re in the room. And it also happens to feature the best Jazz Messengers that Blakey ever assembled, including Lee Morgan on trumpet, Benny Golson on tenor sax, and Bobby Timmons on piano.

If you want to hear what “the Blue Note” sound sounded like, get this Moanin’. That goes for the corporate guys at modern-day Blue Note, too.

PS: I don't mean to suggest that only bona fide audiophile companies are capable of mastering a good LP (though the art does stand in danger of becoming a lost one). European branches of major labels, such as Warner Bros., have been putting out excellent-sounding LPs for several years. Some rock bands, such as Radiohead, release their new albums on vinyl as well as CD, with terrific results. So Sony, Blue Note: What's up?

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Comments
Stephen Scharf's picture

I gotta agree with you on this one, Fred. I've been buying some reissues of both jazz LP's I've never owned, as well as some reissues of rock LPs that I still have the original copies of. In almost all cases regarding the rock records, which are the only ones I have for a frame of comparison, my original LPs sound markedly better than the reissues. I recently plunked down $58 for the Led Zep Mothership LP and was disappointed in that the discs did not sound as good as my original single albums. I also just spent $32 on a new 180 gram reissue of Traffic's Low Spark of High-heeeled Boys and it sounded dark and muddy compared to my original version that I bought over 30 years ago. I thought it was just my imagination, but I guess something real is going on....

Fred Kaplan's picture

Stephen - Hang on to those original pressings. In many, if not most, cases, they will sound at least as good as even the very good audiophile reissues. There are some exceptions. In the mid to late '60s, the quality of vinyl took a dive. For instance, original Columbia pressings of Miles Davis' mid-60s quintet albums (with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, etc.) sound mediocre. But the reissues - on Mosaic LP or Sony CD - sound very good to excellent. Turns out the problem with the originals wasn't the master tapes; it was the pressings.

Stephen Scharf's picture

Oh, I will be hanging on to them. I never threw out any of my vinyl. All my classical, and almost all of my rock recordings are in quite good condition (they been stored vertically all those years). Regarding pressings, I've had some problems with the quality of new pressings. I've got two Norah Jones LPs on New West were the pressing quality is questionable at best; there are some tracks with notable modulation problems. I took my copy of Norah's first album back as it was warped, now my replacement copy has some distortion and fuzziness in the right channel on a couple tracks. My original classical LP's: Telefunken, Arkiv, Das Alte Werke, and Philips LPs consistently seem to be of the highest quality. Argo, Decca, London FFRR, Harmonia-Mundi behind that, and DG the worst, typically. Some of the pressings of reissues I've bought recently have me looking like a cartoon character with question marks over his head. What's up is right.

Fred Kaplan's picture

I'm glad that you mention Telefunken, Arkiv, Das Alte Werke, and Harmonia Mundi. I think their LPs (especially, in the case of the first three, those with black and gold labels) sound better than most of the RCAs and Mercurys that make up the quasi-official audiophile SuperDisc lists.

Steve Dollar's picture

Fred, I have some Blue Note vinyl reissues that came out in the mid-90s, as part of the Van Gelder editions re-masterings that the label began doing then. I enjoy those a lot, esp. as I've began playing records again. You must be familiar with those. Have you compared them to the more recent ones you find so lacking?I also think I have some Mingus reissues around somewhere, from around the same time.

Stephen Scharf's picture

Those German labels had it goin' on..the famed Teutonic obsession with quality is evident in their vinyl as well as in Porsches. I recently bought an boxed set of Bach's Brandenburg concertos with LPs in immaculate condition on the Arkiv label for a whopping $2.00 at Amoeba in Berkeley. Guess livin' near Berkeley has its advantages. I washed them up with my record cleaning system consisting of Dawn in a bowl of warm water, a homemade label protector, MoFi brush and microfiber cloths, and they sound fantastic. Right now I'm listening to the John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman Impulse/Classic Records re-issue, and I gotta say, it sounds *purdy dang good*. I also picked up a Lee Morgan LP reissue on Blue Note tonight at Rasputin's on my way home from work. We'll see how this one sounds; I don't know if it is from the re-issued series you are referring to, but it may be. It does not have the CD in it like my Art Blakey Moanin' one did (I have the same LP you referred to above), as it

Christopher Glanton's picture

I live in Berkeley too Stephen, and was just up there at both stores just the other day. I've had to return 5/7 NEW albums from Rasputins that were warped...they say they had "a bad bunch"...wierd. Just got back into vinyl myself too and bought one of those Music Matters 45rpm Blue Note reissue of Freddie Hubbard....incredible. I wish I could afford all the 45 reissues from both MM and Analog Prod's.Really something special to hear these!

stefano's picture

i had the opportunity of listening to an original copy/vs a reissue of moanin' on a good setup (dps turnt.,zyx card.,aht phono pre,lavardin pre, spectral power amp,magneplanar spkers), and there has been no comparison at all.i stick to old copies everytime i can. some experience with "audiophile" labels (classic records, sundazed, speaker's corner) let me unsatisfied with, a big loss of money.

S. Chapman's picture

One of my first experiences with really blah sounding LPs was the first edition of the Heavyweight Champion (Coltrane's Atlantic recordings) box set from Rhino. I remember being so excited to get it and so disappointed by the dull sound. They say that the second edition sounds better, but I've been reluctant to buy it.

tom collins's picture

Fred: thank you, this is info we can really use. along those lines, they are now selling reissues of famous blue raincoat for around $100.00. i bought my stereo dealers personal original copy for $5. i would be it outperforms the reissues - it is awesome.SS: that's my cleaning system too, but i add a touch of isopropal to cut greasy prints and use distilled water my wife gets at her lab for free. works well.great discussion.

Stephen Scharf's picture

Yep, Fred started a great discussion. Christopher, I've thought about subscribing to the Music Matters series. I saw a couple of LPs from this series at Analog Room in San Jose on Saturday; almost bought one, but the thought of switching to 45 is a bit of a mental barrier, and flipping the record every 8 mins. is too. I am sure they sound great, though. S. Chapman, I almost bouugh one of those Rhino reissues of a Coltrane Atlantic LP, glad I didn't now. The George Winston/ Windham HIll and Vivaldi's Four Seasons I bought for fifty cents each last night at Rasputin's sound superb after cleaning them up. Talk about a bargain-six LP's for three bucks.

tomcollins's picture

i dont know how old some of you are, but i have found that anything on vinyl by the Windam Hill label is very good sonicly and quality wise. can usually be had used for cheap and most people that owned them knew what they had and took good care of them.

hockman's picture

I avoid most recent reissues with the possible exception of Speakers' Corner. Most of these companies are jumping on the bandwagon; I don't care for most of the audiophile jobs either (just a bit more EQ'ing here and there, so sounds different). Why pay so much more for the LP when the CD sounds fine or better and when better, earlier reissues or originals are available at reasonable prices?Also I don't understand the hype about making the LP 180 or 200 gms -- why the obsession with weight? Heavier isn't better; it's the quality that counts!

WR Mastering's picture

After intense study, one would find that a lot of "new mastering" takes place using the B&W 802 series loudspeakers. Even though these loudspeakers 'measure' relatively accurate, they do boost the bottom end in the 50Hz range within room boundaries. Top this off with 'mastering engineers' using them near the walls and corners and you have a much boosted bottom end curve. If the mastering engineers are rolling off the bottom to make this arrangement "level"- we will have a very thin product. (amongst the other ills of poor placement and implementation)I am hearing this 'sonic footprint' on a lot of newer mastering and my system is ruler flat in my room, without eq, to below 20Hz. One would think that these transfers are manipulated around these inaccurate mastering rooms.I don't want to seem 'self serving' but time and time again, mastering done here translates extremely well with hi-end systems and the B&W's can be indentified at first listen

tom collins's picture

WR: you may have answered a question that i have wondered about for a long time: is it my system or something else that causes a lot of newer albums to seem to lack bass energy? i listen to some material such as steely dan's recent morph the cat on cd and the bass definitely gets the job done. then listen to the remix of aja on vinyl and it sounds comparatively thin. i have other vinyl that produces strong bass, but it tends to be older. a number of new releases such as radiohead, iron and wine and fleet foxes seem somewhat topend biased. perhaps your theory of the monitors is correct and add to that the newer digital mastering perhaps? nothing perfect. good theory.

Erik's picture

Fred,You know, Stereophile just ran an article over the last couple of months showing how the spectral energy in an LP was wider than that of a CD. That same technique could be applied to your pressings. Woudln't it be funny if the LP's were pressed from the digital master used for the CD's? You could find out this way. Do a 3 way comparison. Compare the 2 LP's and the CD that was shipped with the LP pressing you mentioned. I bet you'll see it there. Regards,Erik

WR Mastering's picture

To Assembly line above:Science gives us standards to go by for loudspeaker translation but this cannot be a case 'de facto' due to the varibles in room acoustics and the skewing of the translation over the years from one era to another. Good intentions of solid scientific design will never replace artistic intention. What we have happening is incompetence in the mastering stage and the moving away of good listener habits and verification of the source materials. The best assembly lines with digital will turn out exact product from the mastered material but the mastering engineer should familarize themself with the sources on various "period" equipment to know what is happening during their translation.Far too often it is these cost cutting measures and the rush and lack of proper care and education that causes products to waver from the best original source and intentions.To Mr. Tom Collins, I would be happy to share my findings with you. audiowkstation -at- msn dot com

Peter's picture

Having a nasty suspicious mind my immediatethought was that some digital processing hadbeen introduced into the remastering process(can someone please tell me what on earth isthe use of producing a LP from a digital master,as this must have the shortcomings of both systems).Over the years I have acquired some LP's andcassettes in both the original analogue and digitally remastered versions.The difference is very obvious in that the digitalversions are flat and lifeless; "not a happeningmusical event".This tends to refute the claim that LP's soundmore pleasing due to the euphonious influenceof record decks.WK. also raises a very good point.

Cihangir Güzey's picture

WR:A very good explanation for a question that has been waiting in my mind for years. Unfortunately some 30 year old CD's sound much better than many new CD's. I really like the CD's mastered by Bob Ludwig, George Marino and a few others (mostly rock and metal CD's). Those CD's sound excellent (if not perfect) in almost all systems and headphones. But inaccurately mastered many CD's sound very bad (with very muddy bass)except for high damping factor amplifier based powerful systems and bass really disturbs you (and system; you almost feel like bass frequency is torturing the system and loudspeakers).Why B&W 602 but not a good headphone also to see the end result and make some further fine tuning?Also I guess control, mixing and master engineers work in rooms tuned for around RT60=0.2sec. to eliminate the room factor from the recording. When you come so close to the loudspeakers, low bass frequencies start up losing (20Hz wavelength is around 17m). In order to compensate it, they sh

Cihangir Güzey's picture

Continues from above:In order to compensate it, they shift the low frequencies which sounds with more than enough bass in our listening rooms with more RT60 values (surely we talk about a not tuned room). If you can give me some distance info of loudspeakers to mastering engineer(typical), that would help a little bit to tune my room. I will try to tune my room to RT60=0.35-0.40sec. That is mentioned as typical listening room value. Further info would be appreciated.I guess checking the recording with some other equipments as well, cost will go higher (as you have said), required time will be more, but recordings will be excellent. Today we have much better audio equipment than 30 years ago but CD's sound not so good always. Thanks for clarifying such matters from the first hand.

Jerry's picture

WR Mastering...How do you know any of the claims you've made? It just sounds like subjective conjecture on your part, with no hard evidence of anything. You make some pretty outlandish claims: B&W 802s being placed near the room boundaries, boosting the bottom end? And are you that sure that they are ALL using 802s to begin with? I know of other brands of speakers that are commonly used in studios as well, not just B&Ws. I'm not saying you're being dishonest, nor am I trying to disparage you in any way, but it seems that you are generalizing just a tad to make an argument.

Ali's picture
sherman's picture

By coincidence, one of the Blue Note titles—Moanin’ by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers—was also reissued on LP, around the same time, by Analogue Productions, and the comparison…well, there is no comparison.

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Scoot's picture

with more than enough bass in our listening rooms with more RT60 values (surely we talk about a not tuned room). If you can give me some distance info of loudspeakers to mastering engineer(typical), that would help a little bit to tune my room. I will try to tune my room to RT60=0.35-0.40sec. That is mentioned as typical listening room value. Further info would be appreciated. I guess checking the recording with some other equipments as well, cost will go higher (as you have said), required time will be more, but recordings will be excellenthttp://www.petbul.net

Maç İzle's picture

I'm glad that you mention Telefunken, Arkiv, Das Alte Werke, and Harmonia Mundi. I think their LPs (especially, in the case of the first three, those with black and gold labels) sound better than most of the RCAs and Mercurys that make up the quasi-official audiophile SuperDisc lists.http://www.canlimacizle.gen.trhttp://www.ligtvizletr.org

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