Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lessons in Sonic Hierarchy


PREFACE. Collecting vinyl has its own rewards. First, vinyl is the original medium on which The Beatles released their creations, so listening to vinyl is a time machine, allowing you to hear the music with the same aural sensation (all things being equal) as a 1960’s Beatles fan. Second, vinyl is analog. Sure, digital can be more portable, flexible, and durable, but with vinyl you hear wavelengths and not an architecture of ones and zeroes. The result is the warmth and fullness of real analog bass, the true slap and pound of analog drums, the true girth of analog voice, and so on. Digital has come a long way, but the audiophile almost always prefers analog. Third, vinyl comes in a variety of sound textures, based on mastering and pressing (more on these below). Digital media rarely varies from disc to disc, and if it does it’s generally not for the better. Fourth, original vinyl gives you a full-size album cover (or picture sleeve for the 45 or EP), often with liner notes, a colorful inner sleeve, a poster, and/or other extras. These are almost always puny or non-existent with digital media.

INTRODUCTION. “Sonic hierarchy” is defined as levels of superiority based on a combination of certain mastering elements which allows otherwise-identical pieces of vinyl (records) to be ranked in order of delightful listening experience. When such a pecking order is produced, the audiophile is able to acquire the finest-sounding examples. However, since the luxury to listen to any record before you buy it is not usually available, visual identification is necessary. Fortunately, many have come before you in this field of detective work, and there are known superior versions of (at least) each Beatles LP. This information has become widely available since the advent of the Internet, and I have collected it here as much as possible. This article will provide general information concerning the pertinent elements of any piece of vinyl being considered for its sonic hierarchy. Separate hierarchy articles will offer specific information and purchase recommendations for each Beatles LP (and certain other releases). In short, this will be a guide to collecting excellent Beatles listening experiences.

LESSON 1: DEAD-WAX INFORMATION OVERVIEW. Every Beatles album has numbers and letters etched or stamped into the “dead wax” (which is the vinyl near the center hole after the groove runs out, also called the “run-out”). There is nothing recorded here, and thus the wax is “dead.” The main piece of information here is commonly called the “matrix number.” The matrix number tells us whether the record is Mono (XEX) or Stereo (YEX), the catalog number, and the lacquer (see Lesson 2). For example, on side 1 of the first pressings of the Mono Rubber Soul LP, there is at the bottom (at 6 o’clock) the machine-stamped matrix number “XEX 579-1.” This indicates Mono (XEX), catalog number 579, cut from lacquer 1. On the left (at 9 o’clock) is the “mother” number, which if it was “3” would indicate that this pressing came from the third mother made from the lacquer (see Lesson 3). On the right (at 3 o’clock) is the code for the metal stamper that produced this pressing (see Lesson 3). Sometimes, the name(s) or initials of the mastering engineer(s) is etched into the dead wax, and this may be a desirable element, as there are in this field true artisans who have gained a reputation among audiophiles, and are given a collectible status all their own.

In various articles on my blog-site, this information will be provided (where pertinent and known) for any recommended pressing.

LESSON 2: LACQUERS. A lacquer is a master disc created from the master tape(s) through a process called “cutting” (thus, the lacquer is sometimes called the “cut”). The lacquer number helps date the vinyl in hand but, more importantly, it also helps to determine which cutting procedure was used, that is, whether your vinyl is from a “tube-cut” lacquer or from a “solid state-cut” lacquer. Tube-cut lacquers are created by equipment using vacuum tubes, and the vinyl from these lacquers have an incredibly warm sound, sometimes known as “breath of life” (that is, it feels like you’re there with The Beatles). Solid-state-cut lacquers are produced by equipment using transistors, and thus vinyl from these lacquers sound different than vinyl from tube-cut lacquers. Some connoisseurs are averse to solid state-cut, thinking it produces a “stiff” result. Others call the result “detailed” in relation to the tube-cut’s “smokier” sound. In the end, it’s a matter of taste. Note that some releases (for example, Help!) were at various times (naturally, using different lacquers) pressed from both types of cut.

At times, the mastering engineer is given instructions (generally by the producer) to meddle with the original EQ, or to add compression, or perhaps to raise the overall volume of the record. This, of course, produces noticeable differences between copies of the same release (for example, Rubber Soul) with different lacquer numbers.

In various articles on my blog-site, this information will be provided (where pertinent and known) for any recommended pressing.

LESSON 3: METAL MASTERS, MOTHERS & STAMPERS. After it’s cut, the lacquer disc undergoes a process of metallurgy coating. The result is called the “metal master” (aka “negative master” or “master matrix”). The metal master serves as a mold which forms a “mother” (aka “positive master” or “positive matrix”), which is an exact, playable metal copy of the lacquer. The positive mother is then used to create a “negative” known as the “stamper,” which is used to mold raw vinyl into the grooved discs that play on a turntable (records). The same metal master may be used to create several mothers, which in turn may generate many stampers that can be run simultaneously for high-volume jobs. The reason for all of this generation is to preserve the original lacquer and/or metal master, since it takes much effort to create it/them; mothers and stampers, by contrast, take a relatively short amount of time to replace when they eventually wear out.

The only purpose to identifying the mother of any particular piece of vinyl is to ascertain how many times the metal master has been used to that point, and whether it was worn out by the time the mother of your record was pressed. For example, if the mother number is “1,” you own a piece of vinyl from the metal master’s youth. If the mother is “5,” it’s more likely that the metal master was worn out when this mother was created, and this can affect sound quality.

When a stamper is created from a mother, it’s given an identification code. At EMI UK, stampers were not identified by number, but by a lettering code based on the mnemonic GRAMOPH LTD (Gramophone Ltd), where G=1, R=2, A=3, M=4, O=5, P=6, H=7, L=8, T=9, and D=0. Thus, “R” equals the second stamper, and “GP” equals the sixteenth stamper. There is no “zero” (D) stamper, but this is used in combination with other letters when denoting a stamper which is a multiple of ten (for example, “GD”=10). Now, a higher-generation stamper code almost always indicates a worn mother, but it’s not necessarily so. For whatever reason, there are higher-generation stampers which have produced records that offer superior sound; and there are experts who spend all their time testing multiple examples of the same pressing (for example, an original pressing of Sgt. Pepper) in order to discover (and sell) such sonic hierarchy delights, which they call “hot stampers.” You may be interested in learning more about (or buying) hot stampers: here, or reading an interview with expert Tom Port: here. Be aware that Port does not disclose the identity of his particular hot stampers, nor can I vouch for or against any claims he makes.

In various articles on my blog-site, this information will be provided (where pertinent and known) for any recommended pressing.

LESSON 4: PRESSINGS & VINYL THICKNESS. Every vinyl product has an original release date. For example, the Mono UK LP Please Please Me was first issued March 22, 1963, and this is the original (first) pressing. Thereafter, the next pressing may be known as a “re-press” or a “re-issue” (it may be argued that “re-press” is explicitly different from “re-issue” but this has little to do with our discussion). There are benefits to collecting re-pressings and re-issues, the most obvious being that you may be able to purchase at a much lower price the same sound quality (and perhaps sound characteristics) as on the original press. There are, in fact, re-pressings which are more desirable than the original press (UHQR Sgt. Pepper comes to mind).

Some have argued that the specific pressing facility makes a difference, but if the pressing characteristics (lacquer, mother and stamper numbers) are identical with superior pressings, this is unlikely. Nevertheless, at times the stamping equipment at certain facilities can make a difference.

Some pressings (even those deriving from a desirable lacquer, mother, and stamper) may be delivered on a thinner vinyl. This is not always bad but, generally speaking, it indicates shallow grooves (deeper is better).

In various articles on my blog-site, this information will be provided (where pertinent and known) for any recommended pressing.

LESSON 5: INDIVIDUAL RECORDS & PROMOS. If you obtain a pressing with a “dead-wax pedigree” (that is, the right lacquer number/mother number/stamper code), which is also the “right” pressing with the “right” vinyl, your individual record is almost certainly going to sound excellent. However, it’s still possible that your particular piece of vinyl was pressed with flaws which will only become apparent when the record is played. Among such flaws are bad metal master plating, bad or worn mothers, bad or worn stampers, bad vinyl in the pressing, and so on. Amazingly, many individual records pressed fall under this umbrella. This is because high sales volume and not high quality is the goal of a record company. The average record buyer was never going to notice the difference anyway. For the audiophile, this would be disheartening but for one thing: there are pressings which are, in general, known to be superior. Nevertheless, though there is no flaw or skimpiness known in such a pressing, and the number of mothers generated might be low, an individual record may have been pressed from a worn stamper (that is, at the end of its life). This is where visual evidence fails, since there is no data on the record to identify at what point in the stamper’s life that record was pressed. The only way to know for sure how a record from any particular pressing (even one with all the necessary dead-wax data) will sound is to play it. As Tom Port has written, you may need 50 copies of a pressing in order to find “the one” copy that makes you smile.

It has been generalized that the first 500 records pressed from a good stamper will be “hot” and the rest will be average. This indicates that lightly-played Promos, Demonstration Records, and DJ records will sound better, since such special discs are normally pressed first on the first stamper from the first mother. As should be elementary, Beatles records of this variety, especially in good condition, will be exponentially more expensive than generic copies.

Another variable is if previous owners of your record treated it poorly. This anxiety has led many to look for unopened (sealed) copies, but such a quest can be very expensive, and... do you really want to open it? Proper cleaning of used records is probably a better option (see Lesson 7).

LESSON 6: TRADE-OFFS. The goal of every music lover is to have a “defining moment." With Beatles vinyl, this can many times be an expensive proposition. Beatles vinyl is, by definition, a collectible, so it is to be expected that one will pay more for any Beatles listening experience. When a particular piece of Beatles vinyl is known to be this gem, there will be a battle for it, and thus prices will be driven upwards. If one finds such a vinyl at a decent price, it is often in less-than-acceptable condition, usually with too much groove wear and/or surface noise.

Auctions are risky ventures, as some sellers “over-grade,” which can cause the aficionado to waste time, effort, and money. Such stress can many times be alleviated by seeking a less-expensive pressing of the same lacquer, but audiophiles compete with each other over these as well.

LESSON 7: SOUND SYSTEMS & CARING FOR RECORDS. Better sound systems produce better results. If you have a junk sound system, listening to a better vinyl record won’t make much difference. If you have a very good solid-state sound system, listening to a better vinyl record will make a big difference. If you are an audiophile, especially with tube equipment, listening to a better vinyl record will make a huge difference. The vinyl you purchase will thus sound only as good as the gear you play it through. I give no specific recommendation for such systems. However, many members’ profiles at www.stevehoffman.tv list their audio gear by component, which is a starting point for the neophyte.

After the sound system, cleaning records correctly is the best way to bring out all of the sound on your pressing. Even if you have a weak sound system, this is critical. Take the time to find, purchase, and use superior cleaning products.

LESSON 8: TAPES, DIGITAL MEDIA & BOOTLEGS. Cassette tapes are almost always not a good resource in lieu of vinyl. For example, the cassette “Blue Box” from 1978 used cheap shells with parts that eventually squeak during playback (they also rearranged the order of the songs). Eight-tracks are not desirable either, as any tapes which may be unearthed will probably break if played. Reel-to-reel could be acceptable if it has not been subjected to any creasing or rot, but these are common defects.

Digital media (CD, Beatles Rock Band video game, etc) can be superior to vinyl in two areas: (1) remastering (the 2009 releases prove this point), and (2) material not found elsewhere.

In the realm of bootlegs, pedigree is everything. The digital revolution has produced an abundance of mp3 releases, but mp3 is a compressed state, so there is loss of information. FLAC is a lossless transfer system, but simply receiving something in FLAC form is not a pedigree (FLAC from what?), nor does it guarantee the original mastering (bootleggers can be sloppy). When it comes to digital bootlegs of legitimate Beatles releases, there are (in my opinion) two sources of repute, Dr. Ebbetts and Purple Chick. Dr. Ebbetts has done a mint needle-drop of nearly every collectible version of every Beatles LP including the Blue Box UK’s, red vinyl Japan Mono’s, German issues, and even the Mono Brazilian issues. His catalog has over 200 different needle-drops, mostly recorded without the use of EQ or noise reduction. There are some warnings (besides the legal issues) here. First, if you have a Dr. Ebbetts CD, you can’t be sure it’s not a knock-off unless you received it straight from the source (which is difficult to prove). Second, Dr. Ebbetts has received complaints from audiophiles regarding the sonic characteristics of his work, ranging from (most commonly) “too bright” to “too warm," both a consequence of the recording gear Dr. Ebbetts used. Third, I have not been able to ascertain which pressings Dr. Ebbetts used. For example, when he recorded Die Beatles, did he use “-1” or “-2”? Purple Chick often lists Dr. Ebbetts as the source for many of their releases. Assuming they used a first-quality Dr. Ebbetts transfer (not a knock-off or an mp3), any particular Purple Chick release (if it has a FLAC pedigree) could be considered a prime source for your audiophile needs.

In various articles on my blog-site, this information will be provided (where pertinent and known) for any bootleg recommended as a substitute for a rare pressing.


Tom Wise

Although I use quotes from sources, or cited fact, much of the material on this and other pages of my blog is original, from my own pen. This is not cut-and-paste, it is a work of art. Copyright © 2010 Tom Wise.

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