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Sunday, January 15, 2017

TOP 500 SUPERSONIC LIST



"This is a journey into sound. A journey which along the way will bring to you new colour, new dimension, new value..."

What better way to introduce this new long term project than to quote Geoffrey Sumner's spoken words at the beginning of the classic 1958 Decca compilation A Journey Into Stereo Sound [SKL 4001]. Nearly six decades since the introduction of stereo sound onto vinyl, and seven since Columbia cut the first 33 1/3 rpm micro-groove LP for commercial release–the latter coincident in time with the advent of magnetic tape recording in the U.S.–, I felt it appropriate to create this Reference List for those about to 'jump on this train' for the very first time, and for those already aboard; perhaps eager to discover some new or old hidden gem to add to their precious collection. In that frame of mind, I am limiting the scope of the project to great recordings, going back to that early hifi period right up to the present, released on vinyl, either as LPs, EPs, or singles. I am estimating completion within 4 to 5 years at a rate of approximately 10 selections per month. In order to keep things rolling, a capsule-type review instead of an in-depth evaluation will accompany each selection, along with the picture of the album or single, and the recommended label pressing and country of origin. When not specified, the U.S. pressing is always the default option. If a full review of a selection already exist, a link to the latter will be provided at the end of the capsule. There are no individual ratings but I will try to set the 'sonic bar' at no less than 8/10 and give priority to those surpassing 9/10 in my judgement. Contrary to a 'Rolling Stone-type' of list where albums are chosen on musical merit or relevance with no mention of sound quality whatsoever, and the extreme polar opposite–a 'purely audiophile-only' list–where sometimes sub-par music value is overlooked by extraordinary sound, I will endeavor to bridge the gap between these two solitudes. One last note: the order within the list is by and large arbitrary and only there to reflect where we are situated in the project's time frame; i.e. number 25 is not necessarily better or worse than number 50; it is impossible to assign a preference order when dealing with so many different music and production styles. Like any list out there, personal tastes will differ between individuals, so always keep in mind that these are my Top 500 favorites chosen from the 'roughly' ten thousand titles from my Vinyl Vault after 42 years of collecting records.

Buckle your seat and let the journey begin...
 


1- Santana – Abraxas Columbia – KC 30130 (1970), MoFi – UD1S 2-001 Box (2016), (2x45 rpm) #0338. Genre: latin rock, latin jazz, fusion, psychedelic rock, heavy rock

I pondered the question numerous times: what would be my very first entry? Then I thought, why not launch the new year and Top 500 List with the recent reissue of Santana's second and best album by a label celebrating its 40 year anniversary in 2017. Always dedicated to delivering the best possible sound from past 'catalog classics', this limited edition LP box represents the first of a new unique series of records designated 'UD1S', wherein the 180 gram vinyl is pressed following a 'one-step' process instead of the industries' standard three-step: the stamper ("convert" is MoFi's term) is made from a part pulled from the lacquer; in effect, skipping the father and mother intermediates altogether; and by logical assumption, approaching with greater fidelity the original lacquer and by extension, the master tape. Being the oldest audiophile reissue label out there and I assume having one of, if not the largest, most diverse catalogue, they've experienced some hits and misses along the way through the years, but I can say with all certainty that this latest Santana hits a homerun, and occupies a league all of its own. It is outstanding in every sonic parameter: tons of detail, from the opening wind chimes and cymbals; followed by Carlos' electrifying lead guitar; percussive congas, tablas, and timbales; powerful drums, keyboards, heavy organ, and organic bass; super-wide, deep, and tall soundstage; dynamics; perfect tonal balance; non-fatiguing, airy sound; impressive immediacy and raw energy; need I say more? Credit must be given in part to recording engineers David Brown and John Fiore, who's wonderful work is now more apparent than ever with this remastering-cutting by Krieg Wunderlich assisted by Shawn R. Britton. It vastly surpasses the previous version in 2008–the single 33 1/3 rpm half-speed mastered by Britton [MFSL 1-305]–which at the time I found quite good, rating it around an 8.5 or so; but when juxtaposed in sequence, track by track, respectively, the standard MoFi takes quite a dive to the latest one, showing less presence; size; impact;...well everything; as if diluted; with even a hint of listener fatigue creeping in on some tracks. Needless to say, it blows away my old '360 Sound' Canadian pressing nearly to the 'dustbin'. Having being impressed by passed remasterings by SRB,–think Pixies' Surfer Rosa [MFSL 1-296]–thus putting aside any cutting engineer superiority of one over the other, and supposing MoFi used the same Santana master tape in 2008 as this time, we must come to the conclusion that the major improvement is due to the double-45 rpm format and/or the UD1S pressing. Based on their latest 45 rpm editions like I Robot and Miles Davis' for example, which were quite a leap from their regular 33 1/3 rpms, I would guesstimate roughly a 60% improvement ratio due to the higher speed and the remaining 40% for the 'one-step' method. The box-type packaging is super-deluxe in texture and looks; quite above their usual fare. Now if only all records were made like this, we would be in heaven. Definitely one of the best, if not the best rock recording and tape to disc transfer ever; such a shame it was already sold out for good within a month or so upon release.



2- Nat King Cole – The Nat King Cole Story Capitol – SWCL1613 (1961), Analogue Productions – AAPP 1613-45 (2010), (5x45 rpm), Compilation Box Set. Genre: traditional pop standards, easy listening, vocal jazz

Nat King Cole along with Frank Sinatra are my two favorite male singers of all time and I am not alone in that regard. Both are considered masters of their craft in their own way, their voice always delivered with perfect phrasing, timing, and emotional sincerity. Luckily Capitol Studios and the golden age of recording–from the mi-1950s to the early 1960s–served them well sonic wise. This is especially true here with Cole and the dedication by remastering engineers Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray who instead of relying on the usual 2-track masters went one step further: back to the original 3-track analog session reels and with lots of TLC, remixed the blend of the central vocal track against the left and right orchestral tracks, using a lighter touch on the reverb knob compared to the excess of the period, and cut at 45 rpm no less. It pays off handsomely and all comes down to the most impressive vocal recording ever in areas of size, power, delivery, dynamic contrasts, transparency, clarity, and intimacy; sometimes startlingly so by Cole 'jumpin out' way past the front of the soundstage. Not to forget the sweet refined timbral qualities of the orchestra and its strings in particular, plus a spot-on analog warm tonal balance without overdoing it. The deluxe packaging is top notch and superior to the original with a canvas-bound embossed box, including an informative album-size booklet with b&w photos of 'King' in studio. Without doubt, so is the sound which makes this collection of sweet love songs and traditional pop, a no-brainer. Many other N.K. Cole LPs of the period were reissued and remastered by this same team of players and worthy of inclusion but if condemned to own only one, this is the one to get.
 


3- Diamond Version – Diamond Version Boxset EP1 Mute 12DVMUTE1 (2012); EP2 Mute 12DVMUTE2 (2012); EP3 Mute 12DVMUTE3 (2013); EP4 Mute 12DVMUTE4 (2013); EP5 Mute 12DVMUTE5 (2013); 45 rpm each + LP CI STUMMDV1 33 1/3 rpm; Box Set Compilation. Genre: minimalist dark techno. Euro pressing

Growing up in East Germany, the Diamond duo composed of Olaf Bender and Carsten Nicolai distinguish themselves from many other electro groups and styles by their exploration into a whole other universe that relies on granular synthesis. Similar to music sampling, granular divides the sample into smaller pieces between 1 and 50 ms of duration only, making this particular production all the more special. This is without a doubt the most impressive recording, mastering, and lacquer-cutting I have heard, and even viewed vinyl wise, in this electro subgenre. This gives new meaning to Decca/London's original 'ear trademark' ffrr. These EP's really do reach deep down into the lowest registers and all the way up to the other end of the spectrum, with world class solidity and stunning staccato pounding and hammering. Trust me this will test the tenacity of your speakers and system; think German industrial military precision and you start to get the idea. It is mind boggling, listening and realising, just how much a simple 'stone riding a groove' can physically impart such sheer visceral force, drive, and intensity. Mastering/cutting engineer Andreas Lubich aka LUPO is not one to 'slap on' a low-cut filter just for the sake of extending the life of his cutter head; sonic compromise is not part of his vocabulary. At the time, I had bought these five EPs separately, but a year later London-based Mute records regrouped them–plus threw in a bonus in the form of an additional LP–in a nice matching box which makes this recommendation all the more enticing. A more in-depth evaluation is posted on another page.
 


4- Gino Vannelli – Powerful People A&M – SP-3630 (Can.) (1974), MoFi – MFSL 1-041 (1980), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: funky synth-pop, disco, jazzy soulful pop


This is the Italian-Canadian singer's second and best album, musically and sonically, and it's no wonder why Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs had chosen way back in their half-speed JVC-pressed virgin vinyl days, of showcasing their superior version to the regular A&M original. Although Gino and older brother Joe would keep 'the river flow' with hits streaming from 1976's The Gist of the Gemini; 1978's Brother to Brother [both on A&M]; and in a totally different style and colder compressed sound; 1984's Black Cars [Polydor]; Powerful People remains the only LP worthy of recommendation on this List at the present time. Vannelli's compositions with bro's sophisticated arrangements, showcase the singer's sensuous soaring vocals, supported by some powerfully tight musicianship, mixing majesty with energy, and providing a beautiful balance of smooth and faster tempi material with a few flirts of jazz overtones. As the discofied groove of "People Gotta Move" packs a punch upon first entry, the initial and lingering impression is one of stupendous speed, solidity, and soundstage size. Swirling synths and organs, spiced up with organic percussive instruments, electrify the room's air molecules, complementing each other on every track. With meticulous mixing and engineering by Larry Forkner and Tommy Vicari; this 'old' MoFi LP, cut by the late and great Stan Ricker, has it all in spades: full range even-balanced frequency, tight punchy drumkit, 'elastic' bouncy bass and most impressive of all, is the sense of a limitless dynamic ceiling with unbounded soundstage dimensions that defies any common logic.
 


5- Sonny Rollins – Way Out West Contemporary – C3530 (mono) (1957) – Stereo Records S7017 (1958), Analogue Productions – AJAZ 7530 (2003) (2x45 rpm). Genre: jazz, hard bop

Following the critical success of Saxophone Colossus for Prestige the year before, this 1957 recording sees the master tenor joined by Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne on drums, making it his first foray as a trio and for Contemporary Records. Started in 1951 by Lester Keonig, the small independant Los Angeles label was at the forefront of recording jazz stereophonically as far back as 1956, two years prior from stereo LPs entering the main market. This coincides with engineer Roy DuNann–formely of Capitol since a decade–bringing his skills to their new 'studio'; in reality, the corner of a tight backstore sharing space with the shipping room, surrounded by shelves of records. Armed with a handful of outstanding mics, AKG C12s and Neumann U47s–both high output, tube condenser types–fed directly into an Ampex 350-2 tape recorder with only hand-built 'pots' inserted for level-ajustment; this is Rollins' best sounding LP, especially in terms of warmth and sheer realism. By all accounts, this seems to be the very first jazz vinyl reissue by Acoustic Sounds' then newly-formed label, Analogue Productions. Initially remastered by Doug Sax with tube electronics and released as a single 33 1/3 rpm in 1992 [APJ-008], it sounded awesome and was already a great reissue at the time. Fast forward a full decade later when they decide to re-release it as a double 45 rpm, this time by the remastering duo par excellence–Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray–to even more impressive heigths than before: with better double bass plucking and pitch precision; as well as superior top octave extension and intimacy on the cymbals; snare brush-stroke patterns; and percussive drumstick nuances. According to tech notes and photos, the instruments were captured close up and dry, leaving the mastering engineer the task of adding 'plate reverb' at the very end just prior to the cutting stage and which, in this instance, appears either left out or kept at a minimum–to my great delight I might add. Being extra critical, I would wish for a fraction of a dB more in the lower mids (around 400 to 600 Hz) to better unleash Rollins' power and 'bark' but that's it as far as nit-picking goes. From 1956 to 1963, DuNann and Contemporary never released a boring or bad sounding LP and believe me their 'batting average' was way high, placing them at the very top with Orrin Keepnews' Riverside label up to par or coming in a close second soundwise.



6- Felipe De La Rosa – Flamenco Fever M&K Realtime Records – RT-107 (1978), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: traditional flamenco. Live direct to disc cutting. German pressing (yellow label).


It is somewhat rare when high end audio manufacturers decide to dip their toes into the art of recording and disc pressing–think Mark Levinson; Wilson Audio; Linn–oftentimes with lackluster results and excitement; what is rarer though, is when said company actually produces quite the opposite: a truly hot demo recording of reference calibre. Such is the case with this 1978 release from M&K Realtime Records–aka M&K Sound of (Jonas) Miller & (Ken) Kreisel subwoofer fame, who entered the D2D LP niche audiophile market back in 1976; pretty much during the heyday of that minimalist 'back to basics', ancient, and restricted practice of 'putting to wax' live music. If ever a record redefined the definition of PRAT and simultaneously presented a major challenge for every link in the recording and reproducing chain, all the while engagingly captivating its audience, this is the one absolutely. The rapid-fire percussion from the palmas of the hands in conjunction with the flat and tap of the feet from the flamenco dancer sharing the stage either with a spanish guitar or dynamic drumkit, are a feast for the ears, as must have been for the eyes of those present. Captured and cut with stunning slam and physical impact along with realistic, tight, tom drum timbres; this German pressing is a sure show stopper when properly reproduced. My only reservation regarding the recording is some slight saturation on the close-miked vocals during the singer's climactic fortes–perhaps 'overtaxing' the mic's diaphragm or preamp–and which may be system-dependent up to a certain point, in the context of groove trackability and acoustic dynamic compression.
 

http://www.mofi.com/product_p/mfsl2-455.htm

7- The Alan Parsons Project – I Robot Arista – SPARTY 1012 (UK) (1977), MoFi – MFSL 2-455 (2016), (2x45 rpm). Genre: electronic, art rock, symphonic rock, prog rock, contemporary


After gaining great notoriety engineering one of the quintessential multitrack albums of its decade–the landmark Pink Floyd 1973 masterpiece, The Dark Side of the Moon–Parsons launched his progressive Project three years later with the ambitious Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Along with its subsequent LP–1978's PyramidI Robot probably represents the pinnacle of Parsons' essential 'tri-pack' worth owning, after which the compositions and 'creative juices' did not run so constantly, turning out uneven material musically speaking. Initially released in 1977, this album mixes many styles rarely heard together; including symphonic-aspiring rock with mesmerizing hypnotic electronica, evoking Germanic sequenced loops ala Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and Moroder. At opposite ends of the spectrum are the hit single "I Wouldn't Want to Be Like You" with its disco-infused rhythm pattern, and the atonal cluster chords and choir found in Ligeti's Lux Aeterna which clearly permeates "Total Eclipse" throughout the track. There has certainly been no shortage of choice throughout the years when it comes to this particular Parsons' LP. Heck MoFi alone has released it on vinyl on three separate occasions: in 1982 as MFSL 1-084; then in UHQR form a year later as MFQR 1-084 and this newest version; not to forget neither an 'all tube' done by Bernie Grundman [Classic Records 7002-200G] in 2000. The latter was a warmer and more detailed improvement over my fairly good original UK pressing which showed signs of mild compression and top end curtailing in comparison. The latest Mofi has the theoretic advantage of being spread on 4 sides at 45 rpm and with all the care that Krieg Wunderlich and Rob LoVerde must have put into this, it bears fruit by beating the Classic to a good degree in all the usual audiophile aspects: soundstage dimensionality; dynamic range; deep sub solidity; distortion-free instrument separation; midrange transparency; top end airiness; analogue ease; and a sense of unbounded ceiling height. If pressed to roughly rate them in order: I would give an 8 for the original UK; a 9 for the Classic; and a 9.8 for the latest 45 rpm MoFi.

 


8- Fleetwood Mac – Rumours Warner Bros. Records – BSK 3010 (1977) – Reprise – Warner Bros. Records – 517787-1 (2011), (2x45 rpm). Genre: soft rock, pop rock

Formed by Peter Green, Mic Fleetwood, John McVie–all three, ex-John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers–, and Jeremy Spencer in 1967 and later joined by wife Christine (formely Perfect) McVie, they were originally a traditional British blues band. They say you gotta feel the blues in order to really sing the blues. The latter is often caused by great emotional turmoil and internal tensions ravaging relationships and that certainly was transpiring within the group by the mid-1970s–with the addition of Americans Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in the mix–ironically shedding the blues influences of their early years for some softer rock and artistic pop. After gaining fame and greater acclaim in 1975 with the release of their second self-titled LP, featuring 3 major hits singles, the quintet finally reached superstardom status two years later with Rumours, one of the best selling albums of all time and luckily for us audiophiles, one of the best recorded pop rock albums also. Producers-engineers Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut assisted by Chris Morris spent the better part of 1976, recording and mixing the band at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California on a 3M 24-track tape deck and API mixing board with mostly AKG condenser and dynamic mics in a 30 feet by 20 feet 'dry-sounding' room–all the while making sure the blend of all the acoustic and electric instruments, plus the many vocal and harmony parts were equally shared and distributed within the entire frequency range, ensuring instrumentation clarity throughout the album. The last 4 months were spent at Wally Heider Studios in Los Angeles. Despite the–not uncommon for the times–drug-fuelled proliferation, hedonistic behavior, and countless hours of multitracking every instrumental solo lick, the end result was a sonic delight and when came time to re-release it 34 years later, Reprise did the right thing by hiring Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman to handle the remastering and lacquer-cutting process, which they executed perfectly. The tonal balance is natural and more neutral than overtly warm, yet thankfully, not falling into the hyper-detailed analytic sound trap that a DMM cutting would have generated and ruined. The quiet Pallas pressing helps with the micro-dynamics and fine degree of spatial separation, string finesse, and midrange transparency. It surpasses my still excellent-sounding first-press UK copy [K 56344] by a certain degree, with a bit more bottom weight and overall refinement. All in all, one of the finest remastering jobs of the AcousTech duo right after their N.K.Cole Story box set.




9- James Brown – Bodyheat Polydor – PD-1-6093 (1976), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: disco, funk, soul


The Godfather of Soul was very prolific throughout a lenghty career starting as far back as 1956–at times releasing up to 4 LPs per year; not forgetting roughly 100 singles entering the charts, 17 of which hitting number-one. Almost single-handedly inventing the funk genre in the mid-1960s and backed up by The J.B.'s during most of the 1970s, this is Brown's 47th album; his last truly inspiring before his creative style got totally eclipse by the sweeping wave of disco. First signed to King, then Smash, and later to Polydor–with sound quality varying from poor to excellent–this LP is the only one I would qualify as outstanding and not warranting any retouch. This is 'my go to' record when I want to demonstrate to someone what a 'groovy bass' recording sounds like; or test if a loudspeaker or complete sound system is capable and convincing of conveying the musicians' emotional rhythmic vibe. Back in the day, when "Bodyheat" would play, believe me 'you were in business' if you had a pair or two, of big JBL 4520 'double-scoops' delivering the punch and propelling the patrons onto the dancefloor into a frenzy of excitement and sheer sensuality. The opening riff by the saxes sets the stage with superb presence and warmth; the four-on-the-floor kick drum and accompanying electric bass seem to be 'modulated' by an expander, creating dynamic tension and movement within the locked organic groove; panoramic guitars are extra limpid; the ride cymbal beating the 8th notes, sports a natural metallic shine without ever veering analytical. In fact the overall tonal balance is just perfectly warm, sweet, and with an 'alnico-type' midrange all through the title-track and most of the album–mastered and cut at Frankford/Wayne in NYC. There are two main parts within the track and the abrupt back and forth switches between them, are swift and tight. So if sound is your main criteria, this is your best bet for Brown and first one to collect. As James states on the back cover: "Listen to this album. Not only will the spiritual feeling get to you, but the 'groove' will too."

 


10- Various, The New Symphony Orchestra of London, Alexander Gibson – Witches' Brew RCA VICTOR RED SEAL – LSC-2225 (1958), CLASSIC RECORDS – LSC-2225, Living Stereo – LSC-2225 (1996), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: classical modern

This is probably one of the 10 best classical orchestral sound recordings in my collection, and among Classic Records' finest reissues of the RCA LSC catalogue; and I might add, of their entire output, period. Whereas certain Bernie Grundman remastering-cuts are a bit hot, harsh, and dry, leading to some audiophiles to seek out original Shaded Dogs for more sweetness on top and limpid warmth in the mids–though at some sacrifice in the bottom octave–, this one seems to not suffer the same fate and garners high praise for its huge dynamics, full range frequency extension, unbounded soundstage solidity, and unfettered force. No doubt the original December 1957 recording engineered by the great Kenneth Wilkinson at Kingsway Hall in England by UK Decca, using the famous 'Decca Tree' mic method, plays a tremendous part in its sonic glory, but one must also acknowledge the lacquer-cutting and stamper challenges this must have presented to get it just right. Both sides are equally impressive and make a worthy demo disc for hifi shows or 'showing off' between friends–just make sure your rig is up to the task or you may regret 'dropping the needle' on this one. The musical aspects–instrumental color, composition, drama, tension, performance–are particularly captivating on side B. My copy is the first Classic reissue that came out: the single 33 1/3 rpm 180 gram version but two rarer, pricier issues, consisting of 4 single-sided LPs cut at 45 rpm–at first standard black and later on their Clarity Quiex-SV-P II series–were available but I have not compared them with mine. All things being equal, the faster speed should be superior, especially in the top end and 3D spaciousness; on the other hand, the carbon-free clear vinyl is up for debate, and from my experience and point of vue, less attractive visually and sonically, based on other past comparisons between black, clear, and colored vinyl–the black carbon providing better body, intimacy and weight to my ears, perhaps at a slight expense of detail transparency.

 
A final note:

Now don't go 'bonkers' if you have not found your favorite recording included in this list, just remember: we are only at the beginning of a long journey...into sound.
____________________________________________________________________

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

DIAMOND VERSION

EP1 Mute 12DVMUTE1 (2012, Sept.)

EP2 Mute 12DVMUTE2 (2012, Nov.)

EP3 Mute 12DVMUTE3 (2013, Jan.)

EP4 Mute 12DVMUTE4 (2013, May)

EP5 Mute 12DVMUTE5 (2013, July)

Rating: 10/ A

Category: dark techno; glitch; industrial

Format: Vinyl (Five 180 gram EPs at 45 rpm)  
             or in one Box Set compilation containing all five EPs plus LP CI STUMMDV1


Optron
n.
1. A device that consists of a light-emitter and a photodetector that are optically coupled and are placed in a common envelope.

2. A musical device comprising three fluorescent tubes commonly found in most Japanese homes and offices. As with an electric guitar, a pick up microphone is fitted into each of the tubes. By altering the voltage applied to the tubes, the lights pulsate and the microphones pick up the electromagnetic noise in accordance with the modulating light, before final sound amplification.

Combining the visual arts with experimental music is nothing new; performance artists such as Yoko Ono, Cabaret Voltaire, Laurie Anderson, Björk and by extension Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable - the multimedia roadshow which pioneered the fusion of art, innovative lighting with the original and experimental music of The Velvet Underground and Nico - have existed since the mid 1960s, albeit mostly under the radar or with limited appeal.

 
But Robin Thicke isn't the only one blurring the lines between the senses; more recently Diamond Version - the Berlin based duo project - has been making waves; filtered sine, square and saw tooth that is. Music and sound creators Olaf Bender and Carsten Nicolai better known by their alter egos Byetone and Alva Noto had been performing live solo sets in venues lending itself to experimental electronic music and the digital arts; places such as Sónar in Barcelona and Montreal's Elektra and MUTEK - two well respected international festival organisations founded around 1999 and held annually in late May and early June - now joined together under the banner EM15. After which they would sometimes perform encores combining their creative strengths in spontaneous and improvised tracks to the delight of their audience. Bender along with musician Frank Bretschneider had founded electronic music label Rastermusik while Nicolai was running sub label Noton; the fusion of both produced Raster Noton - a German record label and network combining art, design and sound. Since 2012 they have signed onto London's Mute records, made famous since the early 1980s by synthpop bands such as Fad Gadget, Yazoo and of course mega stars Depeche Mode and which continues to flourish with newer bands.


 

Visual and sound artist Atsuhiro Ito, a veteran of the Japanese improv scene as well as inventor of the aformentioned Optron has occasionally joined Diamond Version live on stage. He brings to the table a noisier counterpoint to the duo's minimalist dark-techno. Although a joint record collaboration has not to the best of my knowledge yet materialised, his sonic influence on this present five EP project seems a given.

Growing up in Chemnitz East Germany and under the Marxist-Leninist regime, Bender and Noto were quite constrained compared with their western counterparts in regard to diverse musical influences. Once the world’s leading textile producer, the city's vibe pulsated to the sounds of the Jacquard weaving machines controlled by some of the first mechanical computers - each punch card dictating the machine to a specific weaving pattern. So by witnessing the various stages of the digital evolution, they could relate these processes with digitalizing sounds. Cosmic electronic music pioneers like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze along with industrialist Einstürzende Neubauten were a few of the German bands to pass through the strict state censorship that only started to ease up towards the mid-1980s.

 
These 'old school' musicians as well as the majority of 20th century 'melodic electronica' relies basically on subtractive synthesis whereby through the use of oscillators and frequency-phase filters, basic waveshapes containing many harmonics are tone-filtered as to modify the sound envelope thus creating new timbres. It is the basis of most analog synths - the Moog and its many siblings being one of the best known - as well as other digital synths and software emulators. Think of it as subtractive sculpture which consist of removing material from stone or wood from a given object. The sonic results can be magnificent of course but somewhat confined to a certain 'sound universe'.

What distinguishes the Diamond duo from the latter mindset is their exploration into a whole other universe more in sync with this century's technology that relies rather on granular synthesis. Similar to music sampling, granular divides the sample into smaller pieces between 1 and 50 ms of duration only. These dissected sound snippets or grains extracted from the original envelope be it in the attack, body or decay are now free to be reconfigured in any possible manner - run forward, backward, time stretched, sped up-down, pitch or phase shifted, modulated, randomized; in other words, limited by one's imagination only. Using the same analogy as above, this may be compared with additive sculpture where the artist adds objects together rather than chiseling them out. In the visual art world Pointillism as practiced by Seurat and Signac provides another perspective with punctualism its main musical reciprocal.

 
Categorized as a mixture of techno, glitch, industrial and noise, their style has roots reaching back to the 1950s when French pioneers of musique concrète and électroacoustique, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry of the Groupe de Recherche Musicales at the ORTF in Paris followed closely by Karlheinz Stockhausen's elektronische musik in Cologne West Germany explored and established this new 'symphony of sounds'. These early electronic pieces were often tape-spliced together producing an almost aleatoric effect and would entail huge rooms of expensive equipment, placing it out of reach for most musicians, let alone the common soul. Since then affordable personal computers and sophisticated software have open up the realms of the world to any creative person who wishes to dabble in sound.

In an interview with Emil Schult of Kraftwerk fame, Bender and Nicolai explain the following: "using the computer allowed us to veer away from traditional compositional constraints. And the same thing went for visuals. The computer allowed us to compose music and to design visuals at the same time with the same machine. And the most important thing for us was that we could actually see the music. Composing became a visual thing on the screen thanks to the translation of sound into waveforms. For us, this was like a revolution".

They go on to say: "This to me shows how much growing up with abstract music - if not electronic music - has altered the way we perceive sound. What used to be perceived as noise we hear today as a tone or sound. Our listening habits seem to have changed completely. Our relationship with sound is culturally conditioned. In the Renaissance, our music wouldn’t have sounded like music at all...Kraftwerk were also inventors of sounds. And since we talked about sampling before, I want to stress that I always would support the idea that you can sample whatever you want, including an original sound by Kraftwerk. But you’re also somehow obliged to alter the sound to the point of unrecognizability. Otherwise it would be a rip-off".

And a bit of wise advice perhaps for those starting out: "today’s software encourages you to think in pre-set patterns. The whole idea of the loop resembles a dogma that you actively have to question as an artist...We recorded everything very carefully but when we tried to play it on our computer speakers, we couldn’t hear anything. Our compositions consisted only of very high tones and very low sub-basses. Nowadays, the speakers of laptops are much better, but back then… Anyhow, due to that experience we learned and put more effort into customizing our frequencies. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why our tracks stand out from the mainstream".

Extensive research in sound phenomena, exploiting both the extremes and minutiae from subsonic to ultrasonic on the auditory senses. By designing their own user interfaces and control panels for the live concerts, this ensures audience and music fan a more personalized sound.

 
The Bauhaus art school design philosophy renowned for its minimalist 'form follows function' is reflected not only in their music but even more so in their cover art where a simple diamond shaped icon in the bottom right side corner cleverly includes a 'D' and 'V' highlighted in white on the black background framed by a white perimeter. All five EP front covers share the same basic pattern and are identical save for the corresponding numerical next to the icon while the back sides persue the same minimalist theme showing only the track titles. The black inner sleeve consist of a semi-rigid paper with top angled corners and label cutout - classy but unfortunately not ideal for record protection so adding a 'smoother' surface type inner-sleeve is highly recommended. The 180 gram EPs were rigid, straight and shiny. All ten sides were flawlessly deep black with no scratches, blemishes, scuffing or press residues. The varying groove patterns were beautiful to contemplate under the light and inspired visual confidence; in one word: exemplary.


Bender and Nicolai handled the recording and production while engineer Andreas [LUPO] Lubich at D&M in Berlin was in charge of the mastering and lacquer cutting. Strangely he is credited - in tiny print on the back cover - on EP1 only but the 'Loop-o/D&M' inscribed in the matrix runout on all five EPs confirm that he largely deserves credit on every single one of them. A recording and mixing engineer since 1995, Lubich is best known for his work at Dubplates & Mastering from 1999 up until 2013. A quick search of Discogs' data base on the German facility shows over 3000 entries with 126 to his name - impressive figures considering that many of the titles are released on vinyl as well as other formats. Since then he has moved on to Calyx Mastering also situated in Berlin that offers Premium Pure Analog Mastering circumventing any digital conversion in addition to some serious tube outboard gear and even a modified EMT 948 with TSD 15 no less. Way to often we tend to forget in our small audiophile circle that there is life beyong the Ricker, Sax, Grundman, Gray and Hoffman mastering maestros. Believe me when I say LUPO is the real deal. Man can this guy cut! No mercy whatsoever for the cutter head. Each EP contains one to two tracks per side with a total of 7 to 11 minutes of modulation per side; pretty much approaching the safe recommended limit for a 45 rpm cut for this type of material before high end degradation sets in.

You want bass? You got it. You want to feel it deep down in your gut like in a club? Ditto - if your speakers are up to the task that is. It gave my 8-inchers a run for their money, taunting me to relieve them of their misery with my vintage Altec 416As sitting on the shelf but quite impressive nonetheless. This rarely heard subterranean bass was especially marked and appreciated on the very first cut of EP1 with the track "Technology at the Speed of Life"; talk about making a great first impression! But in order to keep an equilibrium and avoid a boring rumble like a cheap car subwoofer, there is adequate energy in the high end of the frequency spectrum to keep things tidy and tight. Mind you this ain't no German vegan dish, there is plenty of meat and fat on the bone; if only Kraftwerk would have cultivated such a full bandwidth sound - next to this, Man Machine or Die Mensch·Maschine [Kling Klang, EMI Electrola - 1 C 058-32 843] sounds as emaciated as their wax-like robotic models project. On that subject, one particular track - "Live Young" taken from the B side of EP 4 - reminds me of "Nummern" from Computerwelt [Kling Klang, EMI Electrola - 1 C 064-46 311]. The incremental count from 1 to 100 has that similar machine-like voice pattern.

I will refrain by dissecting each and every track. Suffice to say that there is no filler-up material; some will prefer the slower heavier pounding ones while others will delight in the stellar staccato syncopation of the busier compositions. My sole minor musical reservation is that many of the tracks though constructive in nature are quite repetitive and an abrupt shift in pace or structure could cerebrally challenge the senses better. The sound quality throughout the duo's project is uniformely mind boggling. I am not exaggerating when I state that this is the best 'techno & co.' sound I have ever heard and felt on record; nitpicker as most of you know I am, I would not change a fraction of a dB anywhere. Part of the credit must go to Bender and Nicolai for exploring such a wide gamut in sound textures and their ongoing fascination with frequency extremes; but as well to Andreas Lubich for transcribing these huge contrast in modulation to wax that would sweat out any normal mastering engineer; kudos LUPO. The quality of the pressings were up there with the very best. No surface noice to distract on all ten sides; all too rare in this day and age of low QC.

To conclude, even if you do not consider yourself a fan of the breed, as an open-minded audiophile you owe it to yourself and your rig to get at least one if not all of the EPs from the Diamond Version project. Rumors has it there will be a sequel soon and I will be first in line to buy it.
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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

JUNE IN THE FIELDS

Fidelio Music FALP044 (2013, Sept.)

Rating: 9.0/ B

Category: contemporary folk
Format: Vinyl (180 gram LP at 33 1/3 rpm)

Musicians:
 
Jean-Michel Renaud – vocals and guitar
Mélissa Brouillette – vocals
Sébastien Saliceti – double bass

Additional credits:

René Laflamme – recording, 'mixing' and mastering engineer
Recorded at Planet Studios in Montréal, Québec, Canada 

Bernie Grundman – lacquer cutting engineer in Hollywood, California
Pressed at Philips' former pressing plant in Holland

Michel Bérard – photography


Let's face it: opposites attract. What else would be more extreme, than combining a pipe organ and brass quintet for a colossal classical work in a big church, in contrast with capturing a simple folk duo strutting in the fields. Fidelio begs to answer that question by taking up the challenge. From Holst's majestic Planets performed admirably by Mélanie Barney and the Buzz Brass quintet two years ago, we are now jettisoned to June in the Fields' debut album.

When label founder and recording engineer René Laflamme asked if I would be interested in reviewing his latest project, I enthusiastically but relunctantly said yes. Why the latter you may wonder? Loyal readers will remember that I wholeheartedly recommended the aforementioned Barney-Buzz LP, giving it one of my all time highest ratings. That was not always the case with previous Fidelio recordings. Not that they didn't meet many of the traditional 'audiophile standards' in resolution and such but I found they had not yet hit the 'big leagues' prior to that recording. In addition the sound aesthetics did not tickle my fancy, in the same way that low-efficient narrow baffles neither cut it with me. Just like in loudspeaker design where there are many schools of thought, such is the case with sound recording; consider me more a 'disciple' of the Roy DuNann-Contemporary school with its strong emphasis on close intimacy as oppose to loads of distant and reverberant decay that a certain audiophile segment crave. With that reference organ LP, Laflamme had struck the perfect ratio between proximity and venue grandeur in the great Mercury 'Living Presence' tradition and by that same token set the bar quite high–possibly even 'trapping himself'–regarding future projects. The question remains could he uphold this superior level of excellence on this latest 'labor of love' exploring another end of the musical spectrum?


Attending the 2014 Salon Son & Image in Montréal Québec, I had the pleasure of meeting briefly the young duo consisting of Jean-Michel Renaud on vocals and guitar and Mélissa Brouillette on vocals only. Mélissa exuberated an innocent smile and simplicity while Jean Michel without any pretension or fanfare began tickling the ivories. They were sharing the same room as Laflamme and others presenting high end componants. Unfortunately I missed one of their live acoustic sets which I was told by a trusted colleague had impressed him greatly, in effect convincing him to buy their record on the spot. They met about a year and a half ago and are a team since; hence June in the Fields was born.


He has travelled extensively, guitar strapped to his back, making stops and friends along the way in Europe, India and Pakistan; taking inspiration from the deep musical riches of these cultures, always happy to return to Québec where he shares his passion in many settings and venues. Music has always played an important part of her world also; discovering her love for singing at a very young age and persuing her studies first in the classical domain in college and more recently towards jazz at university in Montréal, where you can catch her performing on a regular basis. Sébastien Saliceti on double bass lent a hand on some of the songs.

 
On their self-titled debut, the pair chose to express their feelings in the contemporary folk tradition. This second folk revival appeared towards the late 1950s and rose to prominence throughout the following decade coinciding with the war protests and civil rights movement. Headed by such luminaries as Pete Seeger; Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul & Mary; Simon & Garfunkel and CSNY; cross-pollination eventually would produce folk rock, country folk and soft rock offspring. The coming of age of the singer-songwriter in the early to mid-1970s exemplified by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carol King and Cat Stevens showed the shift from war and world issues to a more introspective approach. Naturally these Canadian, American and British influences did not stop at the border and were in fact well received in the duo's home province and native French language. Québec's own progressive folk group Harmonium–led by Serge Fiori–dominated the close-knit music scene back in the day. Closer to us in time, Jack Johnson brought a breath of fresh air at the turn of the Millennium combining fresh melodies and arrangements and along with the latter group, exemplary sonics.

 
In prior projects, Laflamme was mainly working in hi-res digital from the initial sound take to the final mastering to be offered either on CD, USB key or high quality downloads. The 'Planets production though recorded at 24/96 and later upsampled to DSD under Fidelio's X2HD proprietary process introduced three new elements to the story: 1/4 inch analog tape via a tubed Ampex reel to reel deck–as source for the cutting lathe–a master lacquer and obviously vinyl LPs. One could view this as a hybrid or transitionary phase. For this project he went even further by taking the purist pursuit to the ultimate conclusion: no digital, purely analog from beginning to end. It is a return to how things were done before Soundstream Incorporated introduced digital via Telarc way back in 1978. Ironically they were ahead of the game–at least in digital–both in sound and technical matters boasting a 50 kHz sampling frequency instead of Philips and Sony's red book 44.1 kHz limit adopted for the Compact Disc two years later. Digital proponents will argue that we have moved way beyond that point in this age of HDtracks and near-infinite conversion numbers while die-hard analog fans swear that 'cutting it up' anyway you want it remains once too many.

In total, seven microphones were used to capture the live–non overdubbed–studio performance. Starting with the guitar: a pair of Schoeps M 222 condensers in quasi-ORTF configuration placed some 14 inches from it. These 'pencil' type tube mics have a detachable capsule and their power supply can be run on either normal AC mains or 12V DC; here they were fitted with the cardio capsule and run on a 12V battery for superior performance, isolated from any electrical interference. For the non-amplified double bass: the elegant reissue of the Telefunken ELA M 251 E, originally built from 1960 to 1965.


This large diaphram multi-pattern sought-after mic based on the classic U47 was made by AKG in response to Neumann GmbH not renewing their distribution deal, following cessation of the Telefunken VF14 steel pentode tube. The 6072a tubed condenser sports omni, figure-8 and cardio patterns; this last one chosen here. For Jean-Michel's vocals: another 1960s classic, the tubed Neumann U67–a successor to the U47 with less emphasis in the presence region; considered by many to be the all time favorite 'pop' vocal mic. Mélissa's vocals were handled by a Neumann M149; more modern than the aforementioned mics, it provides no less than nine different patterns and being transformeless is claimed to be more transparent to the source, thus no vintage sweetening or EQ tonal shaping to compensate. Both singer's capsules were switched to cardio and naturally close-mic'ed. Finally, Contemporary engineer Roy DuNann's favorite mic, a pair of tubed AKG C12's–set to omni about two feet apart and parallel to each other–were added for room ambiance approximately 15 feet away.


Mic preamps were a Millennia M2-B and the highly revered Pendulum MDP-1; both pure class A tube transformerless designs. Vocals were treated to a tiny amount of EMT 240 reverb plate–the smaller version of the original 140–plus the classic LA2A tube leveling limiter/compressor of the early 1960s. Not surprisingly these vintage 'toys' have been renewed since then in plug-in form but Laflamme stuck to the 'real thing'. Everything was mixed or rather balanced through the Neve A6610–a custom 8078; its output 'printed' on 2 track 1/4 inch analog RGMi SM 468–a reissue of the BASF/EMTEC 468, a high bias tape popular with Nagra machines which Laflamme used a lot in the beginning–at 15 ips on his vintage Ampex 354 tube recorder with no noise reduction. Recorded at Planet Studios in Montreal; with adjacent brick and wood walls; hardwood floors adorned with beautiful persian carpets; comfortable seating furniture and warm lighting; it provided a cozy and creative atmosphere for the artists and engineers.

 
The master tape was sent to Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood, California, who had cut their previous Holst organ LP. Having done a superb job, it was only logical to stick with them. For this project the lacquers were cut 'flat' with no tweaking at 33 1/3 rpm, then shipped to Holland to create the stampers for the pressings. These were done at Philips' former pressing plant, recognized for its silent pressings throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

 
The stock carton is plain regular and not to tight for the inner sleeve but far from anything deluxe. Photographer Michel Bérard went with an understated graphic design of quasi-monochrome tone. Both front and back covers capture the duo from behind strolling in the fields and up a country road at close and far distance respectively, reflecting the subdued mood of the album. A matching monochrome semigloss insert sheet presents the artists and their respective bios with credits in French and English plus two small photos of them as well as the Ampex 354 recorder on one side and the song lyrics on the flip side. The record is well protected in a non-flimsy white paper sleeve with fixed poly-film inside to warn off any scratches during insertion/removal while loose enough not to increase static; basically the ideal choice in my opinion. Both labels duplicate a portion of the back cover with the Fidelio logo at the bottom. All things considered, the presentation is ok but a tad underwhelming when compared to their gatefold Planets double-LP or some competing labels.

The credits list Bernie Grundman as the cutting engineer when after closer inspection, Chris Bellman is more likely to be the reality based on the 'CB' dead wax inscription; no doubt a slip-up due to the fact the latter is part of Grundman's mastering team along with engineers Brian Gardner and Patricia Sullivan. Bellman chose a groove lateral spacing of just over 2 3/4 inches of linear cutting displacement for both side A and B; leaving sufficient 'wax' not to entice inner groove distortion. At about 21 min. for side A and 18 min. for side B, this translates to approx. 7.5 min./inch and 6.5 min./inch respectively. Given the music style and sound spectra, the single 33 1/3 rpm format seems adequate. The 180 gram LP was rigid, straight and shiny with sharp edges typical of euro pressings vs the curvier-edge RTI pressings and minutely off-centered which may increase wow depending on arm geometry, cartridge compliance and one's own sensitivity to pitch variations. Both sides were flawlessly black with no scratches, blemishes, scuffing or press residues as one would always wish for but rarely gets. The varying groove patterns were beautiful to contemplate under the light and inspired visual confidence.

 
"Andaman Sea" opens the album in an uptempo country-flavoured track with blue-grass seasonings. Shades of Harmonium's "Dixie" from their second album Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison [Célébration CEL 1900] permeate along the way and make it the 'catchiest' song of the album. Jean-Michel's playing style is attractively light, agile and fast with a high degree of fluidity and finesse. Alas, his singing does not reach that same level of sophistication, in range nor in richness and there is no mistaking his 'French Québécois' accented English that left me a bit ambivalent; then again some may find it charming. Saliceti's double bass rhythmically accompanies him and perhaps because of the latter role, sounds slightly soft. While not 'stealing the spotlight', a bit more precision and articulation on his string fingering would be welcomed. On the other hand the guitar and vocal parts are very natural in tone with striking dynamics and strong presence respectively. The U67 and its placement relative to the singer brings uncanny honesty and truth of timbre. The close miking provides great clarity and proximity; bewildering to the extent you can hear throat inflexions with minimal sibilance placing this recording high up the ladder in raw vocal realism.

The guitar is almost on an equal footing with plenty of wood body resonances, soundboard percussive effects and fretboard-finger glissandi, all of which are too often missing from recordings usually leaving behind an emasculated guitar impression. To nitpick, I would have prefered to hear a bit more of the string's upper harmonic content relative to the 'boxier sounds' which were somewhat unbalanced in decay and level. The absence of any compression on the instrument allows wonderful dynamic shifts with startling speed, spontaneity and realism.


 
"Maryann" changes the mood and is more reflective of the rest of the album in tempo and feel. The string riff reminds me of "Pour un Instant", another classic from Harmonium's 1974 self-titled debut [Célébration CEL 1893]; itself borrowing heavily from The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun". On this track his singing is much more convincing, captured with outstanding sound intimacy as if he was singing just for me, only a few away. Mélissa makes her entrance; the pair sing in unison with wonderful bloom expanding in the soundstage. Her sweet and soft timbre is very delicate without any obvious accent and captured with great purity by the 'non-editorialising' nature of the M149. I found this song to be my favorite for its tender and lovely angelic ambiance as well as the most sonically impressive of the album; demo material for sure when promoting sound intimacy at its maximum.
 
"Summer Road" sees him singing solo again. I found the chorus and vocal delivery to be weaker on this track.
 
 
"Back in the Country" sees the return of Mélissa. The title is appropriate given the country-blues-folk influence recurring in some parts of the song; you can almost imagine the old steam engine on the tracks among the cotton fields belonging to a long gone era. An interesting musical bridge changes the atmosphere. She also gets to explore more of her vocal range by climbing the scale and here again the vocals are rendered oh so natural. This is another solid track that stands out. Nit-picking once more, I would have ever so slightly changed the level ratio of the three tracks, mixing the guitar and her voice a bit higher and his a smidgen lower.

"With You That I Wanna Grow" closes side A. There is no inner groove distortion apparent but I noticed a small degree of pitch variation in some of the string strumming in relation to the off-centering that I speculate is more pronounced as the groove radius decreases towards the center. This could be viewed by a slight swaying in and out of the tonearm. Again, arm geometry may play a role in the perceived effect and it did not offend to the extent of detracting from my listening enjoyment.


Flipping sides has "Your Grandmother's Wedding Ring" followed by "Big Plans"; "Dragonfly (Beautiful Day for Writing Songs)" and lastly "Computer by the Window (I Won't Surrender)". The level of composition, performance and sound quality are sufficiently constant and close to par with the previous songs that it would be redundant to dissect each one separately. If you liked side A, chances are you will like side B as much.

Both sides were dead silent regarding vinyl noise floor while tape hiss was barely audible to non-existant during and between tracks; this despite no form of noise reduction being used while probably 'hitting' the high bias tape harder compared to other formulations. This implies also that the near-all tube equipment had extremely good signal to noise ratio from beginning to end; putting an end to the false theory that analog and tubes are at a disadvantage vis-à-vis digital and solid state silence. The change of pressing plant is a major improvement in terms of ticks and pops over the previous LP projects but the slight off-centering–due to the 'punching' of the stamper I speculate–would mandate in the future stricter approval based on the test pressing before giving the 'green light' for the pressings.

The general sound of the LP is very close to a direct-to-disc recording with barely a hint of tape insertion or sweetening; which to my ears is still the closest you will get to the real thing. More so than DSD where I do find more resolution and openness than red book CD but still lacking in palpability, presence and solidity vs vinyl. That said, do not expect the typical warm overdubbed 16 track of a 1970 A&M first pressing of Cat Stevens or Grateful Dead's American Beauty on an 'olive green' Warner Bros. Even Jack Johnson's 2005 In Between Dreams [Brushfire B0004149-01]–mastered by Bernie no less–while very well balanced and nuanced shows more compression and studio 'sweetening' which some audiophiles may prefer than the 'rawer' though never harsh presentation found here.


So the steaks were quite high. Does Fidelio's June in the Fields' debut release live up to its prior LP project? The music and circumstances are so vastly different that a simple answer is nearly impossible. On the one hand engineer René Laflamme has up the ante by eliminating any digital conversion or infiltration in the full tube analog chain–save for the Neve board–and utilising 'la creme de la creme' of vintage and modern gear with good taste I might add. On the other hand, this seems like a promising debut for the young duo but future releases should focus on refining the lyrical and musical diversity as well as the composer's vocal delivery. It would be interesting also to leave a larger space for Mélissa Brouillette to shine while Jean-Michel Renaud explores more the guitar facet.


Thus, with some minor caveats, another reference in sound is born but on a smaller scale.
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