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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 46

 

Some Thoughts on Somethin' Else, Recent Blue Note Vinyl Reissues, and Classic Records' Clarity Vinyl
by Tom Campbell

 

(Reviewer's note: I began this piece as a more or less straightforward review of Classic Records' new 45 RPM edition of the mono mix of Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else—with brief digressions planned on the mono versus stereo debate, Classic's new Clarity Vinyl, and the recent proliferation of high-quality Blue Note reissues. Little did I know that covering all of those bases would snowball into the longest piece I've ever written for Positive Feedback: over 4,000 words. Thanks in advance to all of you who read it all the way through—I hope you find it worthwhile, and that I impart some useful information along the way. – TC)

If you are a vinyl collector with even a minor interest in jazz, chances are you have at least one if not multiple copies of this all-time classic Blue Note session from 1958. While billed as a Cannonball Adderley album, the leader here is really Miles Davis, who took a back seat to no one once he completed his big-band apprenticeship in the mid-forties. Record-company diplomacy ended up dictating the titular leadership assignment for the date: Davis had recently signed a contract with Columbia Records, and Columbia understandably would not allow the LP to go out as the new Miles Davis album. So Adderley ended up grabbing top billing from the man who was actually his employer at the time.

In truth, if ever there was a session where leadership assignment is ultimately irrelevant, it's this one. All of the brilliant musicians here—altoist Adderley, trumpeter Davis, pianist Hank Jones, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Art Blakey—deliver performances that are among the definitive statements of their respective artistry. And though no one record could fully represent Davis, who would end up being a trailblazer for about five different phases of jazz's evolutionary development, Somethin' Else stands as one of the high water marks of what is arguably the music's most fertile and glorious period. It is a relaxed but swinging session, featuring five musicians who are absolutely locked in a groove, communicating effortlessly and joyfully with one another.

In addition to the official CD release on Blue Note, there are at least seven different vinyl versions of Somethin' Else currently available. It is available on standard-weight vinyl from Blue Note, packaged with the CD; on a cheapie pressing from the no-name label that has licensed much of the classic Blue Note catalog; on a new Japanese pressing that employs original engineer Rudy Van Gelder's digital re-mastering from the late '90s; on a sumptuous two-disc, 45 RPM set from Analogue Productions; individually available stereo and mono 33-1/3 versions from Classic Records; and, finally, this lavish new box set from Classic of the mono mix, cut on four one-sided discs at 45 RPM.

The box is Classic's latest attempt to produce a ne plus ultra pressing of a famous recording from vinyl's golden age. Not only is the original single LP spread over four single-sided discs, it is pressed on Classic's proprietary "Clarity Vinyl," a see-through, slate-grey vinyl that eschews the black pigment—aka "carbon black"—that has been a part of the vinyl formula since the very beginning of the LP era, when it was employed to make vinyl records look as much as possible like the shellac discs that they replaced. Classic believes that by leaving the carbon black out of the mix, the LPs do not become magnetized, since vinyl is not by itself a magnetic material. (The fact that magnetically charged records sound tight and constricted is widely, if not unanimously, acknowledged among audiophiles, and I will return to this subject later in this review.)

The first disc is placed inside a copy of the standard LP version's cover, while the other three discs are loose in their poly-lined inner sleeves. All four records are housed in a cloth-covered red box that takes up a considerable amount of shelf space for a single title. Classic sells the set for the same $50 list price that the Blue Note 45 RPM reissues from Music Matters and Analogue Productions go for—a relative bargain considering that we're talking about four slabs of vinyl instead of two. (For the record, the thinking behind single-sided discs is that the record makes better contact with your turntable platter when the flip side has no grooves.)

As mentioned, and unlike the other super-deluxe 45 RPM version of this same title from Analogue Productions, the mono mix is chosen here over the stereo. Classic Records proprietor Michael Hobson has spent the past several years cutting titles from Blue Note's late '50s-early '60s heyday. A handful of sessions are available in both mono and stereo—including Somethin' Else—but Hobson has for the most part stuck strictly to mono in his reissue program.

Classic is cutting these records on a vintage all-tube, pure mono system of a type that has not been seen in the record industry in decades. For years, mono records have been cut on stereo machines, so that when the records are played back the needle reads the information from the two side walls of the groove; stereo records, of course, have separate information in each channel, while mono records have identical cuts on each side. These Classic LPs, however, are cut on an old, refurbished mono machine that cuts the music directly into the center of the groove, so there is only one signal to be read. I believe that Classic is the only record company in the world taking this ultra-purist approach to mono reissues.

When it comes to highly sought-after original Blue Note LPs, stereo or mono has always been something a vexed question. Among the hard-core collectors—the individuals who pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for rare first pressings—it is the mono editions that generally command the highest prices. Most of the larger audiophile audience, however, likes their music in stereo. When I spoke to him on the phone when arranging this review, Hobson mentioned that when Classic offers Blue Note titles in both stereo and mono, the stereo typically out-sells the mono by a 2-to-1 margin. Despite these commercial realities, Hobson has dedicated himself to the Blue Note mono series out of a passionate belief that the monos are the best way to hear this music, delivering a more vivid and realistic snapshot of what it would have been like to be a spectator at one of engineer Rudy Van Gelder's sessions back in the day.

Hobson had actually initiated the conversation with me because he was interested in making sure that my system was going to give his mono cuts a fair shake. The fact is that not many two-channel systems, even very good ones, are well-optimized for playing mono recordings. When mono LPs are played back with a stereo cartridge through stereo speakers, the aural effect is often more like two side-by-side presentations of the same picture as opposed to one "full-screen" (as it were) presentation. This effect also tends to exacerbate brightness, and can lay bare any phasing problems or imbalances that may exist between the left and right channels of a system. Finally, stereo cartridges will pick up a certain type of noise in mono records that mono cartridges will not.

There are numerous ways to combat these issues. The simplest approach, of course, is just to disable one speaker and listen through the other. But that won't solve all of the above, and will not produce the full, loud, enveloping sound you're used to hearing from your system. A mono button on your preamplifier is an excellent first step, and will do a good job of turning those competing side-by-side pictures into a single, central image. But a mono cartridge—which has a differently-cut stylus as well as different wiring than a stereo cartridge—is the real answer, and is the most significant thing you can do to make sure that your mono records sound the way they were meant to. The word "revelatory" is over-used in audio reviews, but it is one I always seem to see used whenever reviewers place a mono cartridge in their rig for the first time.

As it turns out, I was about to do just that myself. Hobson was cheered to hear I did have a preamp with a mono button—my old Marsh Sound Design P-2000t tube/solid-state hybrid model, a great little overachiever if ever there was one ($1495 back when I bought it in 2000). He further arranged for an inexpensive mono cartridge—the Grado Prestige ME+, which retails for $150—to be sent to me specifically for the purpose of this review. Yes, he really wanted to make sure that I heard his mono discs properly. And while he didn't actually say it, it seemed clear to me that he felt Classic's Blue Note mono series—which has not been given near the fawning attention that the stereo reissues on Music Matters and Analogue Productions have received—has been given short shrift in the audio press.

I myself am on the fence as to whether the stereo or mono Blue Notes are preferable. Honestly, I love them both. However, the famed but sometimes controversial re-mastering team of Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray, who have been handling the 45 RPM Blue Note reissues for Music Matters and Analogue Productions, have aggressively staked out their side of the argument. On the Music Matters website, label head Joe Harley writes on behalf of the mastering team:

"The mono vs. stereo question confronts anyone dealing with reissues of Rudy Van Gelder's Blue Note masters.

Quite frankly, our expectation going into this project was that… the mono masters would probably be preferred. After all, in the LP collector market it is the mono Blue Notes that are most prized. Steve, Kevin, Ron and I put up the first tape (Horace Parlan's great "Speakin' My Piece" session) with an open mind. To our collective surprise, when listening to the master tape, the stereo was greatly preferred to the (summed) mono. There was no doubt that the stereo presentation much more clearly presented the quintet performing these six great tunes that July day in 1960 at Rudy Van Gelder's Englewood Cliffs studio. The stereo presentation revealed more air, more detail and more sheer life than the mono... Quite simply, the stereo masters revealed more of what it was like to be there that day."

If you go to the site and read Harley's entire note, in addition to using the phrase "summed mono," he asserts that, in general, "the mono masters were made by folding down the original stereo master," and even goes so far as to say "the great RVG mono/stereo controversy had been solved once and for all." As evidence, he points out that all of the old Blue Note master tape boxes have the same hand-written notation that the mono mix was "made 50/50 from the stereo master." Harley is playing with fire a little bit here, because he knows that "summed mono" and "folding down" are loaded terms in the audiophile vocabulary. Because while a good mono recording can capture the air and convey the spatial relationships of the original performance—sometimes spectacularly so—simply folding-down two tracks into one generally creates a weird, opaque, cluttered sound: like having the musicians all on top of each other rather than spread out across a stage. (This is exactly the effect you get, by the way, if you press the mono button on your preamp to listen to a stereo recording—"summed mono.")

Despite Harley's seeming certainty, it's by no means clear that such artless fold-downs were in fact Van Gelder's practice. The box note saying that the mono mix was made 50/50 from the stereo tapes is not the same as saying that said mix was quickly and carelessly done—and obviously, many of the most sought-after mono LPs from the '50s and '60s, in all genres, were mixed down from two-track or four-track recordings.

I have many more stereo than mono Blue Note LPs—for many years, all of the reissues used the stereo tapes where available, and even the early records were issued in fake stereo – but I have enough original mono issues to know that they should not be so easily dismissed. To name just a few, my mono copy of Jimmy Smith's Back at the Chicken Shack absolutely smokes, and I greatly prefer it to the stereo version; ditto for my mono of Big John Patton's Got a Good Thing Goin'; and though they are closer calls, my mono copies of Horace Silver's Blowin' the Blues Away, Art Blakey's The Big Beat, and Lou Donaldson's The Natural Soul also edge out their stereo counterparts.

For his part, Rudy Van Gelder has always regarded the mono mixes as definitive. Here is what he said in a 1999 interview:

"There was no artistic rush to get into stereo from the people I worked for… Even towards the very end when we were recording two-track we weren't listening in stereo. We were recording in two-track and we were listening in mono because there was only one speaker in Hackensack in the control room and only one speaker in the studio… And all the judgments, Alfred (Lion)'s judgments, as to mix and balance, and mine too and the musicians too and how they sounded in relationship to each other, and all that during the creative part of those recordings was done in mono. It couldn't be any other way. Towards the end we were running two-track sessions but no one had ever listened to them. So there was no particular… attempt at creating a stereo field at that time."

In other words, the opinions of the original recording engineer and the Music Matters re-mastering team are diametrically opposed—and I suppose one could either dismiss Van Gelder as a Luddite or the Hoffman/Gray/Harley re-mastering team as commercially motivated (given the preference for stereo over mono among the larger audiophile audience). I myself find Harley's suggestion that the mono mixes were willy-nilly afterthoughts unnecessary, careless and overreaching. But in the end, I do think that both sides are sincere advocates for their respective positions, and each has legitimacy: Van Gelder can rightly claim that the mono mix represents the original artists' intentions, while Harley, Hoffman and Gray can fairly believe that they hear a straight-to-mic purity in the stereo tapes of which Van Gelder is not even aware.

My equanimity is justified by the glorious results that both re-mastering teams are currently enjoying with the Blue Note catalog. The reissues that Hoffman and Gray are doing for Music Matters and Analogue Productions are, simply put, some of the best LPs I've ever heard: beautifully mastered, beautifully pressed and, especially in the case of the Music Matters series, beautifully packaged. I have over a dozen of them, and there is not a dog in the bunch. Classic has only just started doing 45 RPM versions of selected Blue Note titles, but I have their recent stereo edition of Blue Train, and it is absolutely in the same, top-drawer class. The Classic titles cut at 33 1/3 are also terrific, though not quite as deep, lively and transparent as the 45s; more on that subject later.

The Music Matters/AP and Classic Records series, however, do have different sonic characteristics. In interviews, Steve Hoffman has discussed how the master tapes show that Rudy Van Gelder purposefully built a peaky high end into his recordings. Apparently, RVG wanted the music to "jump" from the somewhat mushy-sounding amps and speakers of the day, so he engineered a treble emphasis right into his recording equipment, rather than doing it at the mastering stage. In their re-masterings, Hoffman and Gray have tried to reverse-engineer this emphasis to achieve their own idea of proper tonal balance. So their LPs are generally a bit warmer than the original pressings. The Classic re-masterings are more faithful to the Van Gelder sound and, presumably, to the master tapes. They sound terrific, but definitely have more top-end zing.

Returning, finally, to the matter at hand: Somethin' Else was recorded in March of 1958 at Van Gelder's original studio—i.e., his parents' living room—in Hackensack, New Jersey. He would move the following year to a bigger, higher-ceilinged, custom-built studio in Englewood Cliffs. A lot of collectors feel that the Hackensack recordings have a magic that was never duplicated at the subsequent location. The Hackensack sessions do sound closer and more intimate, and have a wonderfully warm, tube-y glow, with lots of air and ambience. But the early Englewood Cliffs recordings are also marvelous—although it must be said that from about 1964 on, Van Gelder's recordings, always a bit bright, seemed to get harder and flatter with each passing year. (Let's not even talk about the re-masterings of his own recordings that the then-septuagenarian and now-octogenarian RVG has done on CD for Blue Note in recent years, which for the most part range from unpleasantly bright to painfully bright.)

The stereo spread on Blue Note LPs—despite Van Gelder's 1999 remarks about not paying attention to such things—also changed over time. The 1950s stereo mixes are pretty much pure left/right with nothing in the middle, while by the early '60s he would come closer to approximating a true stage, with piano and bass more or less in the middle and the horns panned out to the sides to maximize the air around each player's sound. (Van Gelder also always had the drums on the far right, which some find odd, but which is not an uncommon placement in jazz clubs.) In the case of Somethin' Else, the piano, bass and drums are hard right, and Davis' trumpet and Adderley's alto are both hard left.

I had several stereo copies of Somethin' Else on hand with which to compare Classic's new mono cut: a mid-'60s (New York label) stereo pressing from Van Gelder's original stampers; a well-done, all-analog pressing that Blue Note issued in a short-lived mid-'90s vinyl series; and Classic's own stereo 45 RPM pressing of "Autumn Leaves," the album's first and perhaps most famous cut, which Classic included in the review package for comparison with the mono pressing.

So I started my audition by listening to three different stereo versions of "Autumn Leaves." The '60s pressing sounded terrific, and had the kind of life and immediacy that seem to be the exclusive province of early pressings made from fresh master tapes. It did indeed "jump" from the speakers. But there was no question that the tonal balance was on the bright side. The mid-'90s pressing, in comparison, was warmer but less vibrant and dynamic. Both, though, were easily outclassed by Classic's new 45 stereo cut—by itself on a 12" disc side, it is bigger, wider, deeper, airier, more lush (though not too lush), and much quieter than either the '60s or the '90s pressing. With deep, black backgrounds, the new disc is absolutely luxurious sounding. The mono mix would have to be very good indeed to compete with this stereo cut.

My first listen to the mono disc was with my own (stereo) cartridge, the Grado Reference Master. I set my preamp to mono and dropped the needle. Hank Jones' beautiful piano playing, so elegant and so soulful, intros the tune before Miles plays the melody. Rudy Van Gelder is as criticized for his recordings of piano as he is praised for recording horns—on too many sessions, the piano sounds almost like it's in another room from the other musicians. On the stereo mix of "Autumn Leaves", Jones' supple touch comes through nicely, but his instrument sounds relatively thin in texture and undeniably small in scale.

The mono mix is an entirely different matter. Rather than peeking out from the far right of the stage, Jones is front and center, and the nuances of his playing are far more audible and present. In fact, everything about his performance is more impactful. A little to my surprise, this perception carried over to the horns as well. Both Davis and Adderley are closer, more powerful, bigger and badder in mono. Of course, Miles is known more for the delicacy than the robustness of his tone—he is the seminal cool trumpeterbut the mono mix makes him sound a lot hotter and more impassioned. Listening to all four sides of Somethin' Else—even with the stereo cartridge—the mono mix is unquestionably the more dynamic and involving. "Alison's Uncle" jumps harder. "Dancing in the Dark" is more intimate and meltingly beautiful.

Now, don't get me wrong, the stereo mix sounds gorgeous. I've listened to it a hundred times, and love it, and it has never sounded better than in this new 45 RPM version from Classic (and I'm sure the Analogue Productions edition is just as terrific). But the mono mix feels, to me, like being in the presence of a performance. It is more natural and cohesive. For this particular session, it's the way to go.

This preference became even more striking once I installed the Grado mono cartridge into my system. When I did, everything just locked in, and in a big way. Spatial separation between the performers, and their physical proximity, was notably sharper: Blakey on the right; both Jones's in the middle; Davis on the left and Adderley on the far left, but not segregated from the others, like the stereo mix. Davis' and Adderley's respective playing had more clarity and bite. Backgrounds were even quieter. It was like adjusting the focus on a high-end camera and turning an already clear picture into a stunningly sharp, virtually three-dimensional one. All of this was true despite the fact that I was comparing a $150 mono cartridge with a $1000 stereo one from the same manufacturer. This is not in any way an indictment of the Reference Master—there was no question that the more expensive cartridge was delivering greater detail and tonal refinement—but the mono cartridge was getting things right that the stereo cartridge simply couldn't.

I kept the cartridge on my turntable for three or four weeks, and had a field day spinning old, half-forgotten LPs over that time. I pulled out my mono reissues of the first ten Beatles albums (the Japanese series on red vinyl from 1982) and was amazed how big and clear and coherent they sounded (and how much better they were than the re-masterings in the new "Beatles in Mono" CD box, which are really good, but which do not beat the best available vinyl pressings, be they Japanese or German or British). Many of these mono mixes were painstakingly pieced together on four-track recording equipment, but each has a wonderfully organic sound, with instruments and voices spread naturally across the sonic landscape—much more naturally, of course, than the extreme separation of most of the stereo mixes.

I also revisited almost all of the 15 to 20 albums I own from Classic Records' Blue Note mono series—the standard, 33-1/3 discs—and realized that the mono cartridge was essential to hearing them correctly: the additive brightness—the tizziness in the cymbals, for example—was solved, and the occasionally fuzzy imaging was rendered crystalline, leaving a vivid, full-scale sound that was wholly satisfying. Among the real revelations was the mono mix of Sonny Rollins' A Night at the Village Vanguard, which leapt to life and simply killed the stereo copy of the record I have, and Bennie Green's Back on the Scene, an exemplar of the early Hackensack recordings at their finest.

A final note on Classic Records' Clarity Vinyl: Classic has made a habit in recent years of introducing new vinyl formulations with much fanfare, and then re-releasing their entire back catalogue with the suggestion that the new pressings are stunningly superior to the old ones. It's easy to be cynical about this, particularly since I haven't always found a significant difference between these old and new pressings. But I can absolutely vouch for every claim being made about Clarity Vinyl—it really is something of a breakthrough.

A couple of months back, I reviewed the Furutech deMag, a big, spaceship-looking machine that removes the magnetic charge from LPs, CDs and cables. I—and subsequently my colleague Robert Levi, in his own review—found the deMag to have a hugely positive effect on both analog and digital discs, greatly reducing glare and making the music sound more naturally warm, detailed and dynamic. Classic included a standard black-vinyl disc of "Autumn Leaves" in my review package, and the difference between it and the Clarity Vinyl was clear—the black disc was just a bit edgy and constricted, an effect that disappeared after treatment with the deMag. The Clarity version sounded exactly like the black-vinyl version after the latter had been treated. Interestingly, Classic Records is a sister company of Elite Audio Video Distribution, the company that distributes the deMag in the U.S.—interesting because Clarity Vinyl makes the deMag unnecessary, and vice versa!

At any rate, it appears clear to me that removing the entirely unnecessary black dye from vinyl LPs is a so-simple-it's-brilliant idea that deserves to be adopted, and quickly, by other vinyl manufacturers. It probably won't happen, but it should.

Summing up, the question of stereo versus mono for vintage Blue Notes is ultimately a subjective issue—and for me, a case-by-case one. Somethin' Else, a small-band session with quiet backgrounds and lots of air and openness, is almost ideally suited to mono; a session with a relatively dense sound like, say, Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, may be best heard in stereo. But don't believe the recently proffered—and uncritically accepted, in quite a few reviews and articles I've read—suggestion that the stereo mixes are innately better, or somehow purer or more audiophile-correct than the mono mixes. They both have magnificence to offer, and each provide their own insights into these classic, never-to-be-matched performances and recordings.

 

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