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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.
____________________________________________________________________ 

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.
____________________________________________________________________

Friday, October 7, 2016

MILES + MOFI + MAGIC

Nefertiti (1968, Jan. or March?) Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-436 (2014)
Miles in the Sky (1968, July) Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-437 (2015, May)
Filles de Kilimanjaro (1969, Feb) Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-438 (2015, Aug.)

Originally released on Columbia CS 9594; CS 9628; CS 9750 respectively

Ratings:

Global Appreciation: 9.6

- Music: A+
- Recording: 9.0
- Remastering + Lacquer Cutting: 9.7
- Pressing: 10
- Packaging: First Rate

Category: Jazz
Format: Vinyl (2x180 gram LPs at 45 rpm) each.

Musicians:

Miles Davis - trumpet
Wayne Shorter - tenor saxophone
Herbie Hancock - piano, and Fender Rhodes electric piano
Chick Corea - piano RMI Electra-piano
Ron Carter - double and electric bass
Dave Holland - double bass
Tony Williams - drums
George Benson - electric guitar on "Paraphernalia" (M.Sky)

Additional credits:
 

Produced by Teo Macero and Howard Roberts
Recorded in Studio C at Columbia 30th Street and in Studio B at CBS Building 52nd Street, Manhattan NYC
Engineered by Fred Plaut, Ray Moore, Stan Tonkel, Frank Laico and Arthur Kendy
Remastered and cut by Krieg Wunderlich and assisted by Shawn R. Britton at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopol Ca
Design, Cover Art for MoFi by John A.Beck


http://www.mofi.com/product_p/mfsl2-436.htm
http://www.mofi.com/product_p/mfsl2-437.htm
http://www.mofi.com/product_p/mfsl2-438.htm

How time flies!

Twenty five years almost to the day after Miles Davis passed away and close on the heels of Mobile Fidelity's 40th anniversary, the confluence of one of the most influential and iconic jazz figures with the world's preeminent record reissue label obviously brings with it, sky high expectations. To find out just how high, read on...

First and foremost from a musical standpoint you cannot go wrong with just about anything from Davis' visionary and vast body of work. In contrast to many artists, Davis to his great credit, did not stay stuck or feel confined to a certain style or era; instead he kept things in motion, discovering up-and-coming musicians along the way, most of whom would later become giants in their own right. And like any other artist pushing the envelope, he was not always understood initially by the critics but often praised much later on.

The albums under evaluation are the last three of what is generally viewed as Davis' second great quintet - this in reference to the famous first great quintet of 1955-58 then comprising tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers, pianist Red Garland and drummer Philly Joe Jones; admittedly these were all big names and once disbanded, very 'big shoes to fill'.

First great quintet


Respectively it fell upon Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and a 17-year-old named Tony Williams recruited a year earlier to 'shape the sound' of this second great quintet from 1964-68.

Second great quintet

With the exception of Shorter who had joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers a few years prior and Hancock's 1962 debut on Blue Note, all four were just starting off their career. In hindsight it is easy to see why he brought them together under his tutelage and wing. Many music historians consider the collective as one of the most influential jazz ensemble ever, serving as a bridge between Davis' modal post bop acoustic period and the electric jazz rock fusion that would soon follow.


This transitional phase is well documented on The Complete Plugged Nickel Sessions [Mosaic MQ10-158] a 10xLP box set cut from a 1965 concert in Chicago. In that context the group reinterpret some of their older material with abrupt changes in tempo and with such structural liberty, that some are barely recognizable; while all the same, showcasing incredible intuitiveness, intensity and dexterity delivered throughout the live set. In contrast, these three albums feature strictly brand new studio material with more restraint in the aforementioned qualities yet still exploring new territory by dipping into avant-garde and free form, all the while without losing sight of the central groove. 

Without going the full 'ultra deluxe' route, each album jacket is nontheless presented in gatefold manner on heavy duty matte carton conveying substantial quality and confidence in the finished product and much superior to the original's regular single slit. MFSL's John A. Beck did a splendid job adapting these new double LP designs, combining Victor Atkins' original cover art with Hiro's b&w back photography and providing record collectors long term value. Inside, the gatefold is tastefully rendered in minimalist fashion with the recording studio and engineers taking pride of place in central page, a rare and nice touch given the importance we audiophiles care about the sound.




Inside, the records are housed in their familiar anti static rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'. In addition, a folded light carton comprising many releases adorns the outer sides while CD's, SACD's and various products are featured on the inner sides, bringing further record protection.

  

The 180 gram LPs are pressed at RTI in California. All 12 sides were stunningly flat, shiny lustered and deep black, i.e. visually perfect save for a tiny scuff on side B of Miles in the Sky which turned out to be totally inconsequential upon listening. This confirms that RTI - when closely monitored - are capable of producing the best pressings worldwide and that MoFi have very strict QC to be this consistent on every release compared to other labels that press at the same plant. As customary with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in this case Columbia 360 Sound) but instead is plain black with a silver top rim. Inscribed in the dead wax on all sides are 'kw' for MFSL's cutting engineer.


Working in Sebastopol California, mastering and cutting engineers Krieg Wunderlich and Shawn R. Britton did not take any chances curtailing the high frequencies chosing to stay far away from the label even leaving up to 2 inches of dead wax on one side; almost exactly half of the 4 inch groove width permissible.

"Hello darkness my old friend..."

Paul Simon summed it up nicely when he composed The Sound(s) of Silence since that is the first thing that springs to mind when the stylus hits that outer groove. Contradictory as those words may seem there is indeed a wonderful warm 'sound to the pitch blackness' of these RTI pressings underlying the music and culminating into the dead wax. The visual that comes to mind everytime are the lunar landscape shots from 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can feel that darkness depth on the screen just as you can in this case with the cantilever travelling the grooved surface, contributing to a great detente of the ear and mind. This was consistent on all three albums so kudos to RTI and the personnel in charge of the stampers for this flawless quiet noisefloor.


Starting with Porgy and Bess [CS 8085] in 1959 and with nearly all of his Columbia catalogue save for a few exceptions such as E.S.P. [CS 9150], producer extraordinaire Teo Macero manned the helm, crafting the genius of Miles by extracting the very best parts of the recording sessions while painstakingly splicing them back together. A New Yorker jazz saxophonist and composer in his own right, Macero 'rose to fame' on the heels of two seminal productions, both released the same year - 1959 - and considered the best selling jazz albums of all time: Kind of Blue [MFSL 2-45011 or Classic Records CS 8163-45] and Dave Brubeck's Time Out [CS 8192-45QPC].


The latter two need no further introduction in audiophile circles, having benefited numerous times of high quality reissues. Which makes perfect sense given they shared the same chief engineer and recording venue - Fred Plaut and Studio C from Columbia's 30th Street Studio in Manhattan, New York City - recognized as one of the finest recording studios in the world. Designed by architect J. Cleaveland Cady and first constructed as a Presbyterian church back in 1875, Columbia bought and transformed the place in 1948. Sporting 100 foot ceilings and 10 000 square feet of floor space, most of the first reflections were naturally staggered farther apart in time than in a small room. Regrettably it was abandoned by the label in 1982 and demolished shortly after, as so many others since the dawn of DIY DAW's.

 
 
First released in early 1968, Nefertiti is Davis' last all acoustic production recorded by engineers Fred Plaut, Ray Moore and Stan Tonkel at the church in June and July 1967. Born in Munich, Germany and after a stint in Paris designing recording gear, Plaut emigrated to the States in 1940 and was soon hired by Columbia. The cutting level is in the 'Goldilocks Zone', i.e. not as loud as the typical Bernie Grundman Classic Records cut nor some of the older Anadisc 200g series that could sometimes come off a bit hard and tight - which I suspect was a result also of pressing on thicker, stiffer vinyl in the case of the latter - but louder than MoFi's current 33rpms that may lack a bit of bite or sound smoothish to a point; a phenomenon akin to magnetic tape recording where the character of sound varies depending on the VU recording level. Of the three albums under evaluation, this one exhibited more of the airiness that comes with a huge room or church venue such being the case here. And yet it remains intimate just the same with at times a hint of heigthened reverb on the brass, situated in the central stage with the sax a little to the left and Davis dead center. There is a sprinkling of analog warmth when compared to a direct-to-disc or the real thing but nothing overly warm nor romantic, which contributes to the non-fatiguing sound.


The drum's ride cymbal up front and panned hard left is truly captivating and some would rightfully argue steals the show due to Williams' unrelenting playing whereas the piano panned hard right is rather sparse in notes. The contrast in sound between these two instruments cannot go unnoticed: the drum and in particular the cymbals are captured and cut to vinyl with such precision and realism you can easily differentiate the myriad variations in textures of the wooden tip from the drum stick along the ride cymbal and its corresponding metallic overtones and fluctuations - something extremely rare in reproduced sound - while the piano appears bandwidth limited, more concentrated in the mids, lacking fundamentals and harmonics. The latter is directly related to the original recording's artifacts, either by deliberate mic choice or placement and common enough for the era - unless the leader was the pianist - and as such is not improvable even during remastering. This was more pronounced on side B than on side A while sides C and D showed much better attack and decay of the ivory keys' harmonics bringing a ghostly presence to life over the dead quiet vinyl background; just don't expect to hear the lower registers nor weight presence on par with such piano references as Basie's 88 Street [Pablo Analogue Productions AJAZ 2310-901] or Three Blind Mice's classic Midnight Sugar [TBM-23].


The sax and trumpet harmoniously intertwine but never dominate; in that sense Miles Davis is not starring as one might expect a band leader to do but rather sharing the spotlight within the quintet. This is reflected also in the sound presentation, totally opposite to 1957's Round Midnight [MFSL 1-373 or CL949] in mono that features him upfront, big and intimate. Call it equal opportunity among peers. The double bass sounds a bit cushiony; in amplifier terms, more akin to a 'McIntosh bass' than a high damping Bryston 4B or Classé DR9. It does get better defined with sides C and D where we can follow the typical double bass 'walking', making sides C and D my favorite for music selection and demo purposes.


This is Cinerama!

Recorded in January and May 1968 and released in July the same year, Miles in the Sky brings quite a change in landscape musically and sonically. Electrification of the bass and piano make their first entry within the quintet on the opening track "Stuff" and George Benson adding electric guitar on the following track "Paraphernalia", both providing 'blueprints' for Bitches Brew, still a full two years into the future. Recording engineers Arthur Kendy and Frank Laico take over duties in a different venue - Columbia's Studio B in New York on the second floor of the seven-story CBS Studio Building on 52nd Street; where Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" would soon be recorded.


Typical miking techniques at Columbia in this period consisted of one mic per instrument except for drums which could mount up to four: 1 for kick; 1 for snare; 1 for hi-hat and 1 as a overhead or alternatively; 2 overheads (l+r) instead of the hi-hat alone; making a grand total of eight on these sessions. Favored choices among the engineers were what are now considered all time tube, condenser and ribbon classics of the 'golden age': Neumann M49 & U47; AKG C12; RCA types 44BX & 77D; mostly placed between 1.5 to 3 feet away facing the winds/brass and in the case of the piano, angled sideways with the lid open. A sandbag would be placed inside the kick drum to reduce its vibrations of spreading through the wooden floor and overpowering the room.
 

 
 
 
 
 
In interviews, Frank Laico pointed out that everybody played in the same room rather close together like in a small club, without headphones, so they could hear each other, even talk if necessary and strived towards complete takes to really get the vibe of the moment. The close proximity created a bit of spill or leakage but this was welcomed to a certain degree for better realism.
 
Like "The Church", the signal path passed through the 'in house designed' Columbia Records' 16-input console, utilising 3-Track / 4-Track rotary fader vacuum tube boards (3 LEFT busses, 3 CENTER busses, 3 RIGHT busses + 1 buss for CHANNEL 4). This was just one example of the numerous electronic gear that Macero or any of the head engineers could custom order to the R&D department situated on the 7th floor to produce the sound they were looking for. In addition tube Pultec EQs and Ampex 300 tape decks were the norm at Columbia. The typical three-hour sessions, recorded first onto 3 track-1/2 inch tape, were later mixed and edited on 2 track-1/4 inch, sometimes by a different team altogether.
 
 
I mention these here rather than previously because I felt that the chunky tube signature of this beautiful vintage studio gear came out more strongly, contributing to the impressively meaty sheer weight of the drum kit's hi-hat panned hard left as well as the otherworldly gigantic lows from the bass. If your audio rig is either flubby or boomy in the low registers you will probably find this tonal balance on the heavy side of 'neutral'. Thankfully throughout the years I have spent many late hours and many tweaks to fine tune my bass reproduction to my liking i.e. very well articulated without sounding thin or over-analytical and as such am able to appreciate and take full advantage of the organic bass that was recorded and now for the first time cut to full power on vinyl. Sharpening my critique pen I would have wished for a smidgen more of pitch precision as one typically gets on say a Roy DuNann Lester Koenig Contemporary production. But then again I relish this rare opportunity to actually feel the lows spreading out on the stage horizontally. We normally only experience this in a live concert when the bass player, plugged into his own amp/cabinet, has it resting on a big wooden stage with the latter serving as a conduit for the instrument's low vibrations. That MoFi had the audacity to transfer this fully into the grooves without the typical 'low-cut' filter that original pressings were forced to implement - to lessen 'skipping' on cheap turntables, maximize side length program and prolong cutter head life - is to be highly commended.

The imposing beast - MoFi's magnificent Neumann VMS-70 cutting lathe

During this same time period, Miles met model and future funk queen Betty Mabry (later Betty Davis) who courted company with the likes of The Chambers Brothers, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone; all three innovators in their own right, fusing funk, soul and psychedelic rock. Within this melting pot of genres and highly creative minds, Miles soon realised the adoration and fascination he could tap into from this large young public associated with the rock world in contrast to the much smaller jazz scene and in so doing, began incorporating some of these key elements into his music. The pair quickly hit it off, soon married - while ending up divorcing only a year later - and as a tribute for his admiration, is portrayed on the cover of the following album with the closing track dedicated to her. One can only speculate as to what extent she influenced the direction of his music and in turn that of jazz in general with the predominance of fusion in the following decade or would Miles being the eternal innovator, create this same path or some other form or fusion altogether. We may never know.

 
 
 
Recorded in June and September 1968 and released in February of the following year, Filles de Kilimanjaro has the players positioning reversed compared to the two preceding albums with electric piano and Fender Rhodes now on the left and drums on the right - trumpet and tenor sax remaining dead center and electric bass filling the room with powerful presence, primarily towards the middle stage. I found engineers Kendy and Laico did a superior job in these sessions of capturing the tenors' tone with better biting force and sheer rawness but the trumpet comes out just short of impressive with a bit of smearing on fortes, perhaps a bit overpowering the mic. The overall sound envelope is again full range but 'busier' and denser in saturation rather than the airier feel of Nefertiti. Again the realism of the drum kit is to die for and I believe among the best ever recorded and cut on record.


Tony Williams' metronomic foot activated hi-hat and energetic syncopated snare patterns, propels the music with tremendous drive and momentum on what is arguably some of the quintet's most creative and liberating playing ever. Hancock and Corea enjoying a fun game of 'cat and mouse' respectively with Carter and Holland while Davis and Shorter preferring to intervene rather sparingly but always convincingly.


Though not credited, longtime collaborator Gil Evans supposedly contributed arrangements and expertise on many of the tracks even with Macero heavily involved in production. And while these are studio sessions, there is this constant 'jam-live' feel to the presentation, with synergetic interplay between these top-notch players, somehow miraculously interlocked with such precision, grace and spiritual adventure that makes everything seem oh so easy. It is obvious how this particular time period of Miles has had a profoung influence on Swiss-born French trumpeter Erik Truffaz. This can be felt and heard on The Dawn [Blue Note 493916 1] and Bending New Corners [Blue Note 522123 1] from 1998 and 1999 and to a certain extent projected in sound and in the mix on the impressive Istanbul Sessions meeting with Ilhan Ersahin [Nublu NUB040] from 2009.  


Wrapping things up, to say I was not disappointed, would be a gross understatement. By and large, these three releases from Mobile Fidelity not only met but exceeded pretty much all past references in my record collection. They are up there with what I consider the crème de la crème; where outstanding music is served by outstanding sound, proud to stand side by side with my 5 LP box set of The Nat King Cole Story [Capitol A. Prod. AAPP 1613-45]; Sonny Rollins' Way Out West [A. Prod. AJAZ 7530 S7017]; Johnny Griffin's The Kerry Dancers [A. Prod. Riverside AJAZ 9420] and harking back to their pioneering JVC days - Gino Vannelli's Powerful People [MOFI MFSL 1-041] - just to name a few.


Without a doubt, we can now include the names of Shawn R. Britton and Krieg Wunderlich in the upper echelons of remastering-cutting engineers along with former dream team Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray as well as the one who started it all for MoFi, the late great Stan Ricker. The main caveats keeping these LPs from a perfect score is the somewhat 'narrow' piano range and a mild distance or lack of boldness from the brass on some sides more than others, both limited by the original master tape recording. But just as one would not fault a Ferrari Enzo solely for its heavy fuel consumption, I did not feel that the above sonic reservations diluted any bit my overall appreciation; indeed the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I have not had the chance of listening to the remainder of Davis' Columbia remasterings by MoFi but if any equal or remotely come close to these three, they would be well worth seeking out while still available; for when they are gone, you can be sure they will be priced out of reach like so many of their past catalogue, just like those of Classic Records, Analogue Productions and DCC.

Highest recommendation!
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