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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

FRANK SINATRA - SWING ALONG WITH ME

U.S. Original Reprise R-1002 (1961, July)
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 1-344 (2011)

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Rating: 6.8 /A (original)
Rating: 8.8 /A (MoFi)

Category: Traditional Pop - Big Band Swing

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


Long before anybody buzzed about NBC's The Voice there was THE VOICE. It is common practice to label certain artists with near-royal status - think The Queen and The Godfather of Soul, The Boss or The Edge - but to me none sounds more sweet as The Voice and let's not forget what was to follow, 'The Chairman of the Board' and Ol' Blue Eyes. Honing his craft first with the Big Bands of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey; the latter introducing him to trombonist Nelson Riddle who would later forge a winning 'partnership' on some of his best regarded albums. Together, Dorsey and Sinatra would produce over eighty recordings between 1940 and 1942; an amazing feat by any standard!
 
Back in 1943, Columbia Records had the foresight to sign the then 27-year-old Francis A to their roster. But in 1952, after a steady decline in popularity of their teen idol they chose to let him go; a business decision they no doubt regretted not long afterwards. Indeed who would have predicted that the older more mature Sinatra was about to rebound and embark on what is arguably his finest period. First throughout the Capitol years during the 1950s then followed by Reprise Records that he founded in 1960. To chose one period over the other is akin to pitting Next-Gen Picard over 'original' Kirk; logic dictates that you are just inviting reviewer hate mail by taking sides. Suffice to say that in both cases there are gems as well as clunkers though more of the latter appear in the late 1960s-1970s Reprise period. Fortunately Swing Along With Me falls into the former camp. On this second album for Reprise - the follow up to Ring-a-Ding-Ding! [Reprise R-1001], Frank is accompanied by arranger and conductor Billy May. Though Nelson Riddle was his first choice for string-ensemble albums back at Capitol, when it came time to all out swing-oriented Big Band, May was the man to turn to; having left his mark with the trilogy of Come Fly with Me, Come Dance with Me and Come Swing with Me [all on Capitol and reissued at some point by MoFi]. In fact, Capitol strongly felt that Swing Along With Me's title and music style were a little too close for comfort to let Reprise have it their way; they lawfully forced them to change album titles along the way - hence the alternate Sinatra Swings.


Sinatra wanted complete - artistic and financial - control. With Nat 'King' Cole filling up the coffers back at Capitol, there could only be one King; so at the height of his career he opted to 'Chair' his new adventure and by doing so did it his way. Always the perfectionist - a closet audiophile perhaps - he recruited Universal's key man - tech wizard extraordinaire Bill Putnam aka Mr. Echo Reverb in some circles. The close friendship - thereby present at most of Frank Sinatra's recording sessions - helped define the Chairman's sound during the 1960s and departed somewhat from the previous Capitol decade. It is debatable whether John Palladino or somebody like John Krauss - both of Hollywood's Capitol fame - would not have been a better match sound wise; no doubt contractual agreements would have prohibited such fructuous exchanges.

Nevertheless, Putnam is justifiably considered "the father of modern recording", engineer, producer and former associate Bruce Swedien is quoted as saying in interviews. Indeed just like fellow friend - musician, songwriter, inventor - Les Paul; Putnam was active in several closely related audio branches and responsable for pushing the boundaries of recording arts while setting studios standards still in use today. From echo/reverb chambers (even the men's room at times) to early 'sound on sound' (overdubbing), multitracking, mic placement, half-speed mastering; chances are he had a hand in it. In fact he literally built drum isolation sheds and string 'shells' to reduced acoustic channel leakage. Never satisfied with the status quo, he designed and customized - tube - equalizers, compressors, limiters, levelers and what is probably is most lasting influence; the Universal 610 console - a switchable 12 input with rotary faders - later dubbed the 'green board' by Neil Young. And lets not forget the UREI 811, 813 and 815 large scale Altec 604-based monitors. Despite the increasing popularity of the Neumann U47 condenser mic in the 1950s and 1960s, Putnam preferred the old RCA 77 ribbon mics, honing much of their appeal to their 'kindness' towards vocals and strings, typically perching several over the orchestra and contributing to his signature sound. This mic choice can probably be traced back to Putnam's earliest days in radio just prior to opening in 1946, Universal Recording in Illinois. Later in the 1950s he hit it off in spades with progressive jazz's Stan Kenton Orchestra. A typical Sinatra recording session would entail hiring a reputable orchestra with arranger Riddle or May conducting and chosing the best of three 'live in the studio' takes. No overdubs nor Auto-Tune in those times; Sinatra would effortlessly blend in with the strings and brass just like Mom's apple pie served with cheddar cheese.


I compared this MoFi reissue with my original U.S. mono tri-color (pre-Warner) 'blue and mustard' pressing on Reprise; I did not have the original U.S. stereo pressing [Reprise R9-1002] as a third alternative. On the front cover Frank looks particularly sharp dressed in a dark suit, narrow tie and silver wrapped Baron hat, perfectly in line with the 'rat-pack'- hip mob image. The original has a gloss film - similar to an original Blue Note - stuck on a tight plain white carton with the 'reprise :r' rectangle logo situated at the top right corner giving it a special 'vintage' design look while helping bring-out the stripes and weave in his suit and hat respectively. By contrast the MoFi does not sport a glossy add-on nor the aforementioned logo. Instead a standard quality rigid carton with the 'ORIGINAL MASTER RECORDING' trademarked-tan band is added, perfectly integrating with the saloon doors' hues. The original's maroon-browns appear black on the reissue and are too dark, obscuring the suits details; i.e. the black level is set too low. The flesh tones are close but seem more like a re-touched picture like those 1940-50s 'garage' calendars. Also the MoFi picture is slightly blown-up and cut off right at his jacket button lacking the bottom inch. The back cover has him swinging a golf iron thus playing words with the album's title which on the original remains identical to the front while oddly the MoFi uses the later alternate title of Sinatra Swings as printed also on their side cover and label. The original is a sepia-tinted monochrome while the MoFi is printed in neutral black & white with all the song titles remaining black compared to the original's green and red print for LP side differentiality. MFSL's default 'framework' is added at the bottom plus a white hat symbol depicting that it is part of 'The Frank Sinatra Collection'. To my knowledge it is one of the few 'non-silver-series' MoFi that is not a gatefold; granted nor did the original sport one either.


The original's relatively rigid pressing weighs approximately 150 gram, typical of the 1960s standard while the MoFi weighs in at 180 gram. Turning our attention to the reissue: inside, the record is housed in their flexible anti-static rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'. In addition, a folded carton with 42 album covers and various products brings further record protection. The heavy-weight LP is pressed at RTI in California. It was flat, black and shiny. A few small 'non-threatening' scuff marks visible under bright light on side A and on the last song on side B were the only quibble on an otherwise perfect pressing. As per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in this case Reprise) but instead is plain black with silver writing.

The original Reprise mono pressing used about 2 7/8 inches of lateral modulation on both sides. With around 16 min./side this equates to roughly 5.6 min./inch/side, posing no major problems for the 33.33 rpm cutting speed.

Working in Sebastopol California, mastering and cutting engineer Rob LoVerde chose a groove-spacing travel of 3 inches on side A and just over 3 1/4 inches on side B equivalent to 5.3 min./inch and close to 4.9 min./inch of linear cutting displacement respectively; thus leaving slightly less dead wax than the original, even more so regarding side B. MFSL's use of half-speed mastering/cutting technique and typical lower cutting level will also reduce distortion in the highest frequencies and extend them by doubling the time the cutter head has to trace the groove. Inscribed in the dead wax are what seems to be 'kml' on side A and 'rml' on side B.
 
Keep in mind throughout the evaluation that I will be comparing a fifty year old mono with a brand new stereo pressing so soundstage and mix differences are inevitable.


The album opens with the mid tempo swinging "Falling in Love with Love". The original is a bit veiled on top making cymbals sound far in the mix and lacking detail. Frank's voice is upfront and a bit strong in level; we can even detect the 'tremolo' plated reverb tail at the end of each strophe. Double bass is easy to follow. The track is nicely balanced but the lower and central mids tend to dominate the bandwidth leading towards a descending tonal balance. As usual MoFi's reissue is cut quite lower, even more so because mono cuttings often come out a bit louder than their stereo counterparts; here I measured about 6 dB lower on the soundmeter so naturally I compensated hereafter for the rest of the album. Immediately apparent was the substantial improvement in level and rendering of the top octave providing more detail on the drum cymbals as well as a naturally richer, crisper, more complete timbre on brass in general and trumpets in particular. These were more present in the mix and nicely spread in lateral soundstage which added aural excitement but was on the cusp of being to strong in relation to Sinatra's voice. The latter came out more neutral in tone, lacking a smidgen of warmth, power and chestiness compared to the original; sounding more 'solid state' or dryer than 'vintage tube romantic' one could infer. This could be explained by Reprise at the time producing two different masters - one for the mono and one for the stereo version - sourced from the same session tape, a familiar scenario in the 1960s not only at Reprise but elsewhere; a good example of the former being The Jimi Hendrix Experience LP releases in dual formats of which both sounded quite dissimilar; ditto for The Beatles. Or it could be that by not filtering the high end, MoFi's version replicates better the actual stereo master tape and that Reprise's engineering choices were simply following the new tendencies in pop to record more multitrack, dry and close and 'fix it' later in the mix or add reverb just prior to cutting. Back to this reissue, the stereo gives the illusion or reality perhaps of hearing more subtle details in the mix. Double bass is about equal in level but with better attack on the string plucking as can be expected relating to the extended bandwidth at both ends. So for openers, in general this newer version is a good notch superior to the original - mono at least.

"The Curse of an Aching Heart" is a fast tempo swinging piece. On the original, the mids dominate and are compressed giving a slight listening fatigue. The trumpets eschew finesse coming out loud, poor and 'shouty'. The double bass and low frequencies are quite shy. Not surprisingly this track is inferior sounding to the opening song whichever version. Thankfully the MoFi LP is much better balanced and extended in the lows and highs. Also the bothersome compression is reduced thus allowing some fair share of dynamic shifts. Trumpets though much better reproduced are still on the aggressive side of the fence in level - most probably an artifact inherent in the original studio recording. The kick drum and rhythm section are tighter and better delineated. While not up to par sonically and musically with the opening track, the MoFi again improves substantially over the original.
 
"Don't Cry Joe" takes things down quite a notch on this beautiful smooth ballad that ultimately morphs into a slow swinging blues. The original's intro has the hi-hat definitely sounding veiled in the top end, emphasizing the common filtering-tailoring of the times; not on the tape recording but when they transferred to LP. Ol' Blue Eyes voice has more bloom in the low mids this time around - fitting for a ballad. Double bass has a pleasant bounce and presence. Trumpets and brass, once more are on the 'shouty' level. Vibraphone is veiled and figures more in background. The MoFi possesses excellent balance. The intro's hi-hat displays fine extension. Frank's voice is well captured and transparent. The lack of compression makes for non-fatiguing listening. Nice large panoramic soundfield, woodwinds occupy the left while brass share the right. The lone vibraphone in leftfield gains in clarity and immediacy. While the original track was fairly good, this remastered version betters the previous ones.
 
Back in Big Band swing with "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone". The original is fairly well balanced. Vocals have a touch of reverb and at many intervals display strong bass 'thumps' indicating no mic popper blocker or low cut filter was used during tracking. Brass is compressed and too loud. Onto the MoFi, the differences are almost 'night and day' (no pun intended). The Chairman is dead center with the saxes on the left and - sometimes muted - trumpets plus swinging hi-hat on the right, providing a splendid spread widening considerably the horizontal soundscape compared to the original mono. The saxophones never intrude, rather blending at times in the farfield unlike the trumpets blaring in the foreground, thankfully with less distortion than on the original pressing. The aforementioned 'vocal pops' are present as well. The song ends with a nice tight drum stroke. On the plus side, MoFi's remastering is much more dynamic, too bad the overall tonal balance veers close to lean; some 'extra fat' would be welcome even if that means 'cheating' with some added EQ. Though the improvement is less pronounced on this track, nevertheless the MoFi still comes out on top.


"Love Walked In" is a midtempo swing. On the original, vocals are thin, hi-hat is fair and lows are weak. The balance is middy. Walking bass is shy and overpowered by the trumpets. On the MoFi, vocals are much more natural. Walking bass is panned left juxtaposed by a great swinging hi-hat on the right providing interesting soundfield placement. The balance has more weight. Dynamics and transparency greatly improved. Clearly superior to the original.

Side A concludes with Frank's cover of the 1932 Mexican standard "Granada". The frenetic Spanish intro a la Carmen style has trumpets lashing out loud producing a strainy sound. The song structure soon switches to swinging jazz alternating with Spanish castagnets, leading towards 'corny caricature'. On the original, hard compression is quite evident causing ear fatigue. This is the worse sounding track of both issues. The stereo on the MoFi helps enormously in giving some musical enjoyment with strings and saxes occupying left and trumpets and vibes on right. The distortion and compression initially noted is much lessened with the castagnets and hi-hat showing some major improvement. As a consequence, listener fatigue is reduced tremendously; the remastering really does transform the listening experience for the better. At this midway juncture, the reissue beats hands down the original and is delivered on a perfect, silent pressing.


Side B reprises with the exhilarating swinging Big Band number "I Never Knew". The original is fairly well balanced though middy in absolute terms and the double bass is shy. Some compression tends to bring listener fatigue. MoFi's reissue is quite another story. Sinatra's voice comes through more natural and transparent; muted brass possesses enticing cut-through contours like in real life. The piano on the left is excellent, so are the occasional tranparent vibes sharing the same channel. On opposite ends lays the realistic sounding hi-hat. All in all, a big improvement; impressive remastering considering the difference.
 
"Don't Be That Way" is a great midtempo swinging Big Band standard. The original has a very nice balance and mix. It is the least compressed of the album up to now and sweeter sounding also. The trumpets have lost that harshness previously noted and vocals show great realistic timbre. Quite surprising given the fact that we are so advanced in the album and only now does the original come alive; just when it was about to admit defeat. That said the reissue is not undone yet. For example the vibraphone shines while I barely noticed it on the original, a sure sign it seemed 'buried' in mono. Better discernment of the saxes on the left and brass on the right and of the 'blat' of those instruments. The snare at the very end comes out more transparent and percussive. Overall this version is more transparent and delineated but perhaps because of this, loses some of the integral 'organic' sweetness and palpability in the vocals; so I would have to call this one equal but quite different at the same time.

"Moonlight on the Ganges" boast of an exotic intro metamorphosing into a swinging affair with vibes and strings taking the lead followed by brass. Hi-hat is fairly good and some compression is present. MoFi's intro is much more interesting in stereo. Vibraphone and hi-hat on the right are very superior in realistic factor while sweeping strings on the left impress. Double bass trounces the original as do the dynamics. Frank's voice gains in transparency and the tonal balance has better tone. So on this track, there's no contest, the MoFi elevates the musical appreciation factor by a good notch.

With "It's a Wonderful World", the original has an excellent sweet solid intro and great tone. The balance of the saxes, trumpets, brass, voice and the walking bass is spot on; best of the original up to this point. The MoFi's stereo spread is very pleasant; vocals, saxes and brass timbres are a bit less natural or organic. Double bass a touch harder to follow. The fade-out with the increasing reverb to mimic the 'distancing effect' is more pronounced on the stereo version. In this instance though both versions were excellent I preferred ever so slightly the original.

"Have You Met Miss Jones?" The original has great tone on muted brass, voice and vibes. Good bouncy bass keeps the foot tapping. Surprisingly great dynamic shifts plus lots of palpability. This, to my ears is the best sounding track, both LPs included. MoFi's remastering is also interesting in part because of the channel sharing but the timbres sound thinner, less dense or full; more 'solid state-ish'. By itself it is a solid 8.2 on 10 vs the original flirting around a 9.

"You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You" is the album closer. The original is greeted with a great bassy intro and full tone. The hi-hat's opening and closing rhythmic pattern is well captured - again surprising considering the usual faith awaiting side-end cuts. Voice is close up. Exemplary mix balance. Unfortunately a long slow crescendo culminating in the coda picks up some compression and distortion along the way but the latter is close to tolerable. The MoFi counters with excellent stereo 'spread' including great sax timbres in left field. Beautiful voice, hi-hat also excellent but with a bit less 'closing' sound. Fine walking bass, xylophone is harsh a bit. The slow crescendo seems a tad less distorted but 'middier'. Verdict: equal but different. Just like the first side, this side's pressing was also perfectly silent. 

In conclusion, MFSL's remastering by engineer Rob LoVerde, by and large greatly enhances the listening experience of this classic swinging album. Though on two or three occasions I yearned for the charm and warmth of the original U.S. mono along with its realistic portrayal of timbral density, the majority of the tracks were better served on the MoFi reissue. In absolute terms, because of some minor - recorded perhaps - dryness, I would have wished for a tiny touch of added tube flavoring or sweetening and bloom. That said, this newer stereo version by Mobile Fidelity should be considered a must for any serious Sinatra swinging cat.
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