The Tale of Two Recordings
I thought I’d share my thoughts with you on the sound of two LP’s I recently acquired. Many of you will have heard of the term ‘sound wars’ which has been coined to describe the relentless increase in the use of dynamic range compression in modern recordings, a development it could be argued from the ‘wall of sound’ most famously associated with Phil Spector, now serving nineteen to life for the murder of girlfriend actress Lana Clarkson. Today, as in the early 1960’s when Spector first developed his specific technique, the theory is that highly compressed, or ‘full’ music is more obtrusive when played over the radio or as background music in, say, a shopping mall or restaurant. Of course, technically this is quite correct. Subtle low volume passages, or background instruments, that would normally provide depth and timing cues, would be lost in the din of folk going about their daily business, so boosting them through compression, or filling every available space in the mix with sounds as Spector did in the 1960’s, allows them to be better heard in noisy environments. However, the last thing I want to do is listen to ‘back ground music’ in a shopping mall, and I find it in restaurants particularly irritating. Some producers never fell for the wall of sound or high compression approach (Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmitt spring to mind for example) and they are noted for the sound quality of the records they produced. Al Schmitt, better known for his engineering perhaps, is on record as saying he uses little or no compression and very little EQ – he relies on the microphones and their placement to do most of the work. And you can hear the difference – for the most part, fabulous, open sounding recordings with oodles of air and space around the performers. Ever wondered why they don’t use grunge to demo high end systems? Now you know.
The two recordings I want to briefly compare are Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book’ recorded March 13 – 18, 1958 in Hollywood and available on WaxTime Records(772192).
The second is a September 2017 recording by the Christian McBride Big Band ‘Bringin’ It’ on Mack Avenue records (7320311151).
The first would have been all analog and recorded on tape with vacuum tube electronics, whilst the latter is likely to have been recorded in the digital domain using all solid state electronics – although some of the mic preamps may have been tube, which is commonly done nowadays. Many recording engineers and artists consider a microphone a musical instrument where the microphone and associated preamp are selected to provide, for example, lower mid-range bloom that adds weight to the human voice and certain wind and string instruments, or another combo might provide a more open top end, allowing percussion instruments to ‘shimmer’ and so forth.
However, my concern here is primarily about the musical experience and how one recording – ancient and 60 years old – can be so much better than one using the latest technology and the mountain of new, advanced knowledge about acoustics and recording technology developed in the intervening years. And before anyone jumps to conclusions about tube versus solid state, let me tell you that’s got nothing to do with what I am alluding to.
The Ella recording is wonderfully open and spacious. Sitting in front of the speakers the sound stage runs from beyond the left and right-hand side of the speakers and stretches back far behind them. You can clearly discern that the cymbals are way back in the performance space and off to one side, while the different sections of the orchestra can be clearly delineated – holographic in the very best sense of the word. Then we have to consider the timbre of the instruments. The brass is particularly resonant with a wonderful upper-bass/lower-mid bloom that makes for an incredibly warm ‘plummy’sound. Strings often screech at the listener like chalk on a blackboard in lesser recordings and emanate from a confined space, but here are spread across and and to the rear of the soundstage, sound smooth and add depth and scale. And then there’s Ella’s voice. Her singing position varies from track to track, but mostly its slightly off centre and forward of the orchestra as one would expect. Noted for her impeccable diction, intonation and ‘total command over her vocal resources’, Fitzgerald’s voice anchors the orchestra, giving it purpose and direction. If ever a recording could be described as immersive its this one and out of the 1000 or so LP’s and CD’s I own, this has to rank somewhere in the top 10.
Now we come to the Christian McBride album. I first became acquainted with McBride’s music by way of the ‘Super Trio’ CD where, in the company of Chick Corea and Steve Gadd, his double bass chops are on full display, and he is superb. His big band line-up in this recording certainly includes some talented musicians and you cannot fault the technical skill of the players. However, the recording is as lifeless as a beached whale: the stereo image is narrow, sitting firmly between the two speakers and sadly lacks any sound stage depth in stark contrast to the 60-year-old Ella recording, although the upper and lower frequency extension is good. Make no mistake the pressing quality is superb, and it is one of the quietest LP’s I have. Lest anyone accuse me of being biased, here’s the link to the Stereophile review of the album – they loved it, but I don’t. Sorry Mr. Baird, the music and the performers may be good, but the recording is not in my view.
I like both types of music but how can the experience and enjoyment of two LP’s differ so widely? The one I am led to play over and over, engrossed in the soundscapes and the artistry of the performer, while the other, which should provide visceral, adrenaline pumping excitement leaves me cold and unable to concentrate on the music.
The answer of course lies in how the LP’s were mixed and compressed before being sent off to the record manufacturing plant. In the Ella recording, its clear that the producer (and founder of Verve Records) Norman Granz took the time out to preserve (and to create) not only a good recording, but leave the listener with the experience of being there in the room with one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time. In the McBride case, there was no such concern. The first recording is a work of art, greater than the sum of its parts, and the fact that I wax lyrical about it sixty years after it was committed to tape simply further makes the point, while the second is just a record of some good performers and nothing more. Clearly mixed down (assembled if you will) from many takes of individual musicians and then compressed (why? This is BIG BAND) supposedly to allow the LP to be cut at or near maximum groove modulation, its lifeless and soulless. What a pity. I have a ‘Best of James Last’ CD (yes, I can see the eyes rolling back) and some of the tracks dating from the 1970’s are very well recorded. There is air, space and three-dimensionality in gobs – not at the level of the Ella recording because the violins are not quite right for example – but enough to make it a satisfying listen.
I recently came across an article in Stereophile by Michael Fremer in which some of the new LP releases of classics were discussed. Many of these old recordings are now in the public domain and quite some industry has developed around re-issuing them – WaxTime Records (who are based in Spain) is just such a re-issuer and sell their products on Amazon here in Europe. I seems that in many cases, the vinyl source is in fact a CD – and usually just 16 bit 44.1 kHz at that. I hear that WaxTime use hi-res files – you never know – but the Ella recording to my ears is very good. Of course some are horrified by this, but I have a different take and its in line with my earlier comments. Whether CD or vinyl, these old recordings still deliver the goods – once again, nothing to do with the medium (CD dynamic range is > 90dB while a really good LP approaches 65 dB, but more usually <60 dB), but mostly to do with how the originals were captured and mixed.
In the final analysis, £23 per LP is neither here not there. But when I put the McBride vinyl on, I feel cheated and robbed of the experience I anticipated. What should have been magnificent is instead relegated to the mediocre despite the high standards of musicianship. It has nothing to do with old valve recording studio’s vs solid state, because I have other outstanding modern recordings. On the other hand, the Ella Fitzgerald recording is uplifting, and I am emotionally buoyed for the next few hours. And that is exactly what a good recording should do – like a great piece of fine art, it should leave you wondering how the artist managed to achieve what they did and what it took to get them to that point. But above all, and especially so with music, it must touch the listener emotionally.
The moral of the story of course is if you are a critical listener and derive great pleasure out of good quality recordings always listen carefully before buying. Caveat Emptor!