Revinylization #9: Sonny Rollins's Way Out West on ERC

Used copies of Sonny Rollins's classic 1957 record Way Out West are easy enough to find. The album has been reissued some 30 times on vinyl, most recently in 2018 on Craft Recordings (but read Michael Fremer's take on that reissue before buying). You can still buy Original Jazz Classics reissues from 1988—sealed —for about $20.

If you want an early pressing, though, your opportunities are limited. If you want an early pressing in collectable condition, expect to pay real money. And if you want that early pressing in pristine condition, good luck with that.

This is the niche the Electric Recording Company (ERC) fills. No, ERC reissues aren't early pressings, so ERC makes sure their reissues are better than the originals ever were. They ensure authenticity in all the ways that matter and then sell in small quantities for prices that, while very high for a record, are lower than collectible first issues.

In May, ERC released two versions of Way Out West, mono and stereo.

ERC typically presses 300 copies for their jazz titles and even fewer—as few as 99—for classical titles. Each copy is numbered and comes with a certificate of authenticity and a guarantee that ERC will never press more. Even at the price—Way Out West sold for £300, or about $373—ERC reissues sell out quickly. Clearly, scarcity is part of their business model.

You may have noticed the past tense, above. At electricrecordingco.com, Way Out West—both versions—sold out within days of going on sale. As I'm writing this, Rollin' Records, an authorized ERC retailer near San Francisco, has "one or two copies" of the stereo version left, these selling for $424.99 plus tax and shipping. Those copies will surely be gone by the time this review is published.

Like most late-'50s jazz albums, Way Out West was first released in mono. As far as I know, it has never before been reissued in mono since those 1950s issues. The mono version, then, is the real prize. My review copy is in stereo, with the original Stereo Records label. (Stereo Records was the early imprint for stereo titles on Contemporary Records.) Oh, well.

Why am I writing about a $400+ record that you can't even buy? Because this is the first time I've held an ERC record in my hand. It's a remarkable object. It deserves to be written about.

I have often said, in conversation, that it's surprising how much engineering goes into high-end turntables when you consider what sad objects typical LPs are: slightly warped; a little scratched; dimpled; with moldy grooves, an off-center spindle hole, pressed from noisy, low-quality vinyl.

Not this ERC. Way Out West is sturdy, shiny, weighty. It radiates quality.

820revinwy.label

The first thing I noticed is how the label is applied; it's hard to describe, so look at the photo. Everything about the process of producing these records is appropriate to the era: Records are cut on vintage '50s equipment using a tubed tape machine. Sleeve artwork is "faithfully recreated using a vintage letterpress procedure."

When I played this record for the first time, straight out of the package, I heard two tics and a pop, right together, near the start of Side 1. After that, silence. A turn in my Audio Desk Systeme Vinyl Cleaner Pro took care of the tics and the pop. Now it's dead quiet. I can turn it up loud and still hear no groove noise. It may be the quietest LP I've ever heard.

This is a recording where quiet matters. Rollins was eager to make a trio record, without piano—just tenor sax, bass (Ray Brown), and drums (Shelly Manne). The result is stark, minimalist. There's irony in a minimalist "I'm an Old Cowhand"; consider the lyrics (which are absent, of course, on this instrumental recording): "I'm a cowhand who never saw a cow / Never roped a steer 'cause I don't know how." While the playing is playful, the effect is unsettling, enhanced by the deep quiet between the notes, as if someone is watching from offstage.

I wish this experience could be more widely shared—that ERC would press more copies and sell them, maybe, at a lower price. Clearly, these records are valuable in part because they're rare. But only in part. They're also valuable because they're beautifully recorded, well-crafted, and gorgeous. I can live with their business model, even if I don't love it. I'm just glad there's a place in the world for objects like this.

Would I buy this at full retail? I would. I will. I'll be selective, buying only recordings I really care about—but with that caveat, yes, I absolutely would. Owning a favorite album in a pressing of this quality is worth sacrificing a dinner out or two, even once the restaurants reopen.

COMMENTS
remlab's picture

Years ago, having never heard the recording and before streaming existed, I purchased it knowing that it was an audiophile standard, knowing full well what that meant, that you were taking a big chance. So many of those albums suck, in my opinion. Not this one. Just wonderful. Every bit of it. Puts me in a great mood every time.

Anton's picture

I would like to see more copies made and scale the price accordingly. That's certainly easy for me to say, knowing nothing of their business.

I do not know the answer to this question: is 300 copies the sonic drop off point for a stamper, perhaps?

I had always heard "1,000" but perhaps ERC notices a decline after 300.

Could this simply be a case of being allowed only one stamper, or something, from the owners of the material?

Anyway, I will continue to try to buy them as I can, I love the idea and their total commitment to excellence, in all aspects of their work!

tonykaz's picture

I'm not in the vinyl loop, obviously..

I recall how horrible mass market vinyl was. We carefully 'selected' Store Demo Albums and maintained a hunt for 'useful' quality new Albums. Out of the hundreds of thousands 'out there', we only had a hundred or so of outstanding Demo Records.

Then Sheffeld came and dominated Demo Rooms, then Reference Recordings and even Wilson's Vinyl Rag Time Razamataz.

Chad Kassem began supplying long after I went 16/44. I met the man and feel that he stands as the leading man of integrity, with most of the Vinyl promoters simply shil for $10,000 Phono Cartridge Sales. ( my somewhat angry opinion )

Mr. Kassem says he works from the "Original" Master Tape. I realise that Acoustic's output is rather expensive and quite limited.

Now-a-days, building a remarkable collection of outstanding pressings is a very expensive proposition. I didn't realize one 33.3 Album could fetch $400 each. Phew

I see two types of 33.3 vinyl people:

1.) The 33.3 Vinyl collector, Curator. People like the "Jazz Shepherd" or Joe Bussard the leading 78 person.

and

2.) The Vinyl Audiophile Perfectionist with a $1,000,000 Audio System in his basement ( if he's married ), fully committed till death, a religionist true believer that lives with his 10,000+++ 33.3 Vinyl collection and never ending fresh re-supply of all accessory things 33.3 vinyl.

Now that $400 is established pricing for limited edition 33.3 vinyls, it seems like folks controlling the Master Tapes will start metering out "New re-releases".

Bon Apitite to you folks that have a taste for this stuff.

Tony in Venice

Michael Fremer's picture

You can buy dozens of $30 "Tone Poet" and other Blue Note reissues properly cut from tape, well-pressed and presented in Stoughton Tip-on jackets. In fact, you can build a great collection of many hundreds of superb vinyl reissues that will sound better than any digital version you might have.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be you (MF) could do a follow-up review of the Holo Audio May R-2R DAC (under $5k) ..... JA1 said it was one the best DACs he heard ..... JA1 liked its sound with CDs using the NOS and OS/DSD filters :-) ......

volvic's picture

Tony Kaz is a lost cause. His myopic approach to 33.3 is legendary! But there is truly no hope for him, he just waxes lyrical about his old Koetsu cartridges. Tony if you still have them I'll take them from you.

tonykaz's picture

We curating 33.3 people are the "lost cause". The entire world has moved-on, a long time ago.

The Transportation Industry is probably the largest segment of the Music Industry as consumers spend 20 Billion on their Automotive Dashboard Stereo/surround Systems Annually. ( with GM Corp. alone )

33.3 Vinyl as a Stand Alone segment is diminutive. ( I've heard that Beats is bigger )

I'm living in both Segments of this, I own a collection of 33.3 and my Auto Industry went digital ages ago.

Serving two masters is difficult, most High End Professionals are 98% Digital.

Recording Studios have been Digital for Evah. ( I'm told that the majority of 33.3 pressings come from digital masters )

33.3 has become a Cult Religion unless a person is going for Vintage Jazz discs.

As far as Koetsu is concerned:

The Phono Cartridge is the Singing Voice of a 33.3 System, with the Koetsu range being the finest voices I've ever heard.

As far as 33.3 vinyl is concerned:

Tape is superior. ( far superior according to Chad Kassem of Acoustic )

As far as pricing is concerned:

33.3 Vinyl gear now reaches into the Beech Bonanza price levels but the superb phono cartridge transducers still have very short half-lives and dubious warrantee periods from outfits hesitant to support. ( everyone has a drawer full of old Phono Cartridges ).

Tony in Venice

ps. of course, if a person's synapses are 'tuned' for 33.3 vinyl, nothing else will suffice. You're stuck!

Anton's picture

It's like a "Niagara Falls" routine with him.

volvic's picture

I just can't, bores me.

dial's picture

Despite CD/CDR/CDRW/HDCD/BRA/DVDA/SACD/FLAC/MP3/HIRES DOWNLOADS/STREAMING (did I forget something ?!), vinyl's alive. Well for me it's most of the time a black to black press (do you know about ?) for a tenner new...
It's people like you, Mr Fremer (thank you about Stoughton Printing Company, see on Yt a fantastic video about them !) or here Mr Austin, you find the right words to make us love these "products" (or work of art ? Anyway = woaaa !).

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Wonder what JA2 thinks about the Holo Audio May R-2R DAC :-) ......

Jim Austin's picture

Superb measurements. Haven't heard it.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Anton's picture

If it has superb measurements, you don't need to hear it!

;-D

Bogolu Haranath's picture

IIRC ..... You have a reasonable collection of CDs ....... So, I'm eagerly waiting to read your (JA2's) follow-up review :-) .......

tonykaz's picture

Dear Sir,

I moved my Stereophile subscription to my new address in Florida in June of last year.

It finally started arriving today, 15 months later. hmm

My issues have been delivered to others who would hand them over to me ( sometimes ). These last few months I've gone without.

I've worked to correct this, which seems to take a very long time for results.

Today, all is well again, the mailman delivered and I smiled. ( but not at that silly record player on the cover )

Tony in Venice

Jim Austin's picture

Glad it finally got straightened out.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Anton's picture

Could you cut out all the vinyl articles/coverage in the issues you send him?

;-P

volvic's picture

Enclose PDF's of all Analog Corner reviews from DNA to the present. :-)

Anton's picture

I am purely a consumer, but I am part of the Hi Fi community at least at a nano/pico level....well, maybe micro if there are only a million audiophiles!

This thread got me to thinking about why I buy these pressings and those ideas coalesced last night, but my wife said, "Shut up and go to sleep," as I was explaining to her, so I waited until now to post...

There are only two arguments against ERC: cost and scarcity. I can see why people don't like those things.

On the plus side, and what makes me happy is...

1) For any given record, ERC likely provides me the single best pressing available of a given LP. I don't have to take a seller's word for condition, I don't have to hunt for the best pressings, or spend to compare a bunch of pressings. I am getting what may be the platonic ideal of a given artist's LP.

I gauge my own leisure time at 15 dollars per hour. I can tell you I have easily spent more than 30 hours over time looking for certain pressings and trying to find the highest quality/best pressing of many different LPs. So, the lazy me finds this a not unattractive way to indulge my lust for the apogee pressing of a fine LP.

Everybody's cost analysis is different, but to have a chance to sit and relax and feel 'done' with the hunt for certain LPs, count me in.

Quality + Laziness divided by price comes out in my favor for these babies.

2) With ERC, I rise to the level of milli-member of my community and I like the audio community, for the most part. I like supporting someone's pursuit of creating the ideal pressing of a record. I am helping support what I consider to be a worthy pursuit and helping someone have some cost certainty as he creates these pressings. What's not to like about that?

I like knowing ERC exists and will continue to exist. I like rewarding ERC's pursuit of perfection. I look at these as supporting someone's creative drive, same with painters or other artisans I like. I find value in my experience.

3) The success of ERC is influencing other labels to create artisan pressings, that's kind of exciting. I can't buy them all but I don't begrudge them their aspirations.

So, an occasional indulgence like this brings me joy. It's a cool part of a hobby I truly love.

readargos's picture

I find it interesting that Mobile Fidelity started out producing 3,000 copies of their Ultra Disc at $125/album. ERC is producing 1/10 that at three times the price. Now MoFi is issuing up to 9,000 copies of an Ultra Disc (and they are still selling out - must be the scalpers?). Much care goes into the Ultra Disc, and it is a premium product, yet they are producing many times the pressings of ERC.

I applaud the effort, and there is no part of our hobby as fetishistic as the collecting and cleaning of records, so ERC is already catering to an extreme end of the hobby and market. Still, I wonder that it's not an example of planned scarcity, and that more copies cannot be produced at comparable quality and more attainable pricing.

Given QRP, ORG and Speakers Corner care about classical recordings, I'd like to see what they could do with some of the titles ERC has reissued.

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