Listening #162 Page 2

Given a more generously forceful recording, the combination of Shindo SPU and Tavish Adagio did not disappoint; so it was when I listened to Charles Mingus's wonderful Oh Yeah (LP, Atlantic 1377), in which the composer and bandleader plays piano, sings, shouts, and leaves the bass playing to someone else: Doug Watkins, late of Sonny Rollins's Saxophone Colossus. I found the Adagio thoroughly satisfying—praise that isn't the least bit faint. Watkins's string bass had force and snap, especially in "Hog Callin' Blues"—and in that same number, the very present sound of Roland Kirk's tenor sax was no less impressive than through the Masseto phono stage. Spatially, this stereo recording is peculiar, with the sounds of some instruments—including that Kirk solo—panned hard left or right. (Although Oh Yeah doesn't sound as overtly edgy as other recordings made by engineer Tom Dowd, it does nothing to alter his reputation for being sonically indifferent if musically astute.) And it was in the spatial sense that I heard some of the greatest differences between the Shindo and Tavish stages: The Masseto did an overall better job not only at sounding big but, when called for, sounding as if the recording space itself were charged with the performance's energy, and not just reverberated sound. Put another way, the Tavish wasn't quite as good at allowing the Mingus album to sound appropriately chaotic.

But let's not lose perspective: the comparatively inexpensive Tavish Adagio punched above its weight. And its overall good sense of force—of which, I suppose, one could say it was punchy above its weight— was not limited to recordings in which that quality is so overtly displayed: When I used the Adagio to listen to the recording of the Schumann Cello Concerto made in 1969 by Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, and the New Philharmonia (LP, EMI ASD 2498), I was struck—again, appropriately—by the physical intensity of the soloist's playing.

With record after record, the Tavish Design Adagio proved itself a high-value and consistently engaging phono stage. That's good news, because it's also well made, agreeably styled, and, unlike so much of its overpriced competition, no larger than it needs to be. One assumes the made-in-Westchester Adagio will soon be seen and heard in more than a few homes, suburban and otherwise.

A Pressing Matter
In fall 2014, at the Brooklyn Audio Show, I was browsing a vendor's selection of LPs when a newly reissued title caught my eye: In the Wind, by Peter, Paul and Mary, originally released in 1963 as Warner Bros. WS1507. This most recent incarnation was offered on two 45rpm LPs, packaged in a "deluxe gatefold" jacket and priced at $50. I examined said jacket for a sign of the record's provenance, and saw that it was manufactured by the Rhino Entertainment Company and distributed by the Original Recordings Group.

I already owned a copy of the original album—possibly the trio's finest, coincidentally recorded in very good stereo sound by engineer Bill Schwartau—but I knew my copy was slightly noisy, the spine of its jacket a bit tatty. I reached for my wallet, my proffered $50 bill disappeared into a cash box, and I walked away with LP no. 00187 of this reportedly limited edition.

That indecorous waste of money must now come in for some righteous criticism, part of which is reserved for myself: Had I stopped to think, I might have wondered just how "limited" an edition could be when five digits are reserved for serial numbers. And when I removed the shrink-wrap and examined the new album, I discovered inside the gatefold jacket nothing more "deluxe" than a washed-out, low-contrast scan of the same photo used on the front cover, plus the track list from the back cover. And when I slipped the first of the two LPs from its inner sleeve, I saw that its label was marred by a crease permanently pressed in place. My mind raced with thoughts of the groceries I could have brought home for $50.

My hopes were shaken but not shattered: After all, the sound's the thing, and I had every reason to believe that this expensive, audiophile-grade record would sound a lot better than my original—which I'd bought in the early 1980s at the same Yonkers used-book store that supplied most of my vinyl needs in those days (footnote 4).

On the evening of my return home from the Brooklyn show, I warmed up my playback system and lowered the needle to record one, side one, expecting to be impressed—perhaps even Blown Away—by a clear and present facsimile of the vigorously strummed guitars that open "Very Last Day," and of the voices of Peter, Paul, and Mary (to whose names as individuals I am free to apply the serial comma). What I heard instead was a slightly duller-sounding version of the record I already owned. I also noticed that the softest sounds on the reissue were cut at a higher volume than on the original, while the reissue's loudest sounds were no louder than the original's. The Indians called it compression.

Apart from the surface noise, my old copy of In the Wind—when new, it probably went for two bucks and change at an E.J. Korvette or Sam Goody store—sounded better than the supposedly audiophile-quality record for which I'd just paid $50. I won't exaggerate: the reissue wasn't drastically worse than the original issue, just slightly worse. But slightly worse was worse enough. The differences between original and reissue were on a par with the differences between the original album's cover art and the reissue's versions of same, the latter obviously made from scans of a good-condition jacket rather than from the original typesetting film and screened photographs.

I didn't wind up playing the entire album over and over again. I didn't wind up playing the entire album even once. After just one side, I filed it away, hoping that neither my wife nor my daughter would ask how I liked my new record. (They didn't.) I was disgusted. More to the point, I was embarrassed for having thrown away enough money to buy a standing rib roast. I just wanted to forget the whole thing.

And I did—until February 2016, when I got on one of my biannual folkie kicks and started pulling from the shelves all of my records by Phil Ochs, the Greenbriar Boys, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, and Peter, Paul and Mary—and rediscovered the overpriced reissue that I'd forgotten about. (Aging is good for some things.) Again I compared the Warner Bros. and ORG releases of In the Wind, and again concluded that the latter is worse than the original. The original LP sounded great; the reissue sounded okay—but, by comparison, sounded veiled, less detailed, and less dynamically nuanced.

I can already hear the excuses, chief among which will surely be: Maybe the original tape, from which the new LP is claimed to have been mastered, had deteriorated. Yes, maybe the tape had deteriorated—in which case, no one should be selling the sorry-ass final product for $50 a pop, at least not without a sticker on the front cover that says: "THIS DIDN'T COME OUT THE WAY WE WANTED, BUT BY THE TIME THAT BECAME APPARENT WE'D INVESTED TOO MUCH MONEY AND WE NEED TO MAKE IT BACK." I'm thinking Day-Glo pink.

No doubt I will also be assured that my criticisms are ill-founded, simply because the reissuing of any great LP is a labor of love. I'm sure that's true in the cases of some LP vendors, but is that reason enough to support, without question, inefficiencies and occasional glaring screwups occurring within an obviously profitable industry—especially one that sells new versions of the same tired titles every few years? I don't think so.

I endure in regarding as worthwhile the vast majority of contemporary LP reissues I've heard, especially those that sell for $30 or less, that spin at 331/3rpm, and whose jackets don't bear the words Kind of Blue. Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has, over the course of its many years, done some awesome work (although I sometimes wish they didn't alter the cover art with their logo). Classic Records, may they rest in peace, had more hits than misses, and showed, on occasion, an adventurousness in music selection that could serve as a model to others. Cisco Music, reincarnated as Impex Records, has done stellar work. I can't think of a single Speakers Corner LP reissue that wasn't superbly chosen and brilliantly executed—and there have been many. And the Electric Recording Company exists on a separate, higher plane of quality than all the others, at prices of equal otherworldliness.

But the LP-reissue industry still has to up its labeling game. I don't care about "superstar" mastering engineers—that's just bullshit—but I do think people who buy expensive reissues deserve to know whether or not the original master tape was used for the new lacquers, and whether a digital safety copy of same was used to drive the lathe: it's disgraceful when companies persist in not spelling this out (footnote 5). Consumers also deserve to know what kind of equipment was used to cut the master, including whether the preview mechanism was analog or digital. They deserve to know where the finished LPs were pressed. They deserve to know the number of copies to which a limited edition is limited. And they deserve to know if the artists or their heirs will share in the proceeds. And if you're charging someone $50 for an album, printing all of that information on a slip of paper, or at least putting it on your website, isn't too much to ask—unless, of course, you don't want your customers to know.

And if anyone is interested in Peter, Paul and Mary's In the Wind—a beautifully crafted document of a remarkable time in the history of American folk music—they're better off buying a used original for a buck and change than spending any amount of money on the Original Recordings Group reissue.

Footnote 4: The other stores I frequented were an independent record store in White Plains called TuneMasters (whose proprietor was so unpleasant that everyone I knew called it TuneBastards), and the mostly excellent record department of the White Plains branch of Harvey Electronics.

Footnote 5: No company on Earth exhibits a greater need for improvement in this respect than Universal Music Enterprises (UMe), the catalog/reissue division of the Universal Music Group (UMG).

mink70's picture

Dear Art—

I always look forward to your cogent, smart, funny and elegant articles, but in this month's column I find myself confused by a single sentence.

You write: "And in the second movement's upbeat second theme, the color and texture of the woodwinds and strings were to die for (a sentiment with which P. Tchaikovsky was okay, I'm sure)."

I've read this sentence many times, and remain puzzled by what "sentiment" refers to. Attempting the close reading thing, I wondered whether P. Tchaikovsky might have been "okay" with vivid woodwind and string colors and textures, but of course "color" and "texture" here refer to qualities of electro-mechanical sound reproduction, which didn't exist in his lifetime.

I also considered whether "sentiment" might instead refer to "were to die for," an expression that sounds stereotypically gay, at least if you go by some American movies of the 1980s. Of course P. Tchaikovsky was known to be gay, so for a moment I wondered whether you were being humorous. Then I remembered that P. Tchaikovsky was tormented by and persecuted for his homosexuality, and that this persecution probably caused him to commit suicide, and that coming from a straight man a joke on this subject might be construed to be, at the very least, gauche. And so I realized that a writer of prose as cogent, smart, funny and elegant as yours would never joke about a thing such as this.

I remain puzzled, but will keep trying to figure it out. Reading comprehension was never my strong suit.

Art Dudley's picture
Thanks for reading that column, Mink70, and for your kind words. By "sentiment" I was indeed referring to the fact that Tchaikovsky might've been okay with the idea that something of great beauty could be "to die for." I used that phrase with no thought in mind of sexual orientation - every February we publish our annual Records to Die For issue of Stereophile, and I confess that have never thought of it as our "gay issue" - and with no thought of suicide or other human tragedy. I meant only that Tchaikovsky was, by all reports, not the most light-hearted guy in the world, and thus would have no trouble signing-off on a superlative steeped in morbidity.
AaronGarrett's picture

Thanks for reminding me to listen again to Oh Yeah. Kirk is particularly brilliant. And I love Doug Watkins bass playing so much -- his intonation and solidity in the groove is addictive. So sad that he, his friend Paul Chambers, Scottie LaFaro, Jimmy Blanton and so many others died so young. Only trumpeters seem to have been as cursed. But glorious that at least we can still hear him on so many records.

Ruxtonvet's picture

It is not just ORG that issues releases of old recordings where tape deterioration has occurred. Most companies do the same. Chad Kassem at one of last year's Axpona lectures said that increased dynamics and better bass response are reason enough to reissue an old recording even if ambience and high frequencies have been lost due to the tape deterioration. Speakers Corner is also guilty of the same plus they add transistors to the brew. Reference Recordings has refused to reissue some of their old recordings due to problems with the tapes but they are the exception to the rule. In my experience almost all reissues if they are older than 50 years have tape deterioration issues and sound inferior to an original clean pressing although their dynamics and bass response may be improved.

John Atkinson's picture
I have added Ying Tan's August issue letter to this Web reprint of Art's June column.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile