LondonJazzCollector reaches 3 million page views since its inception in 2011. To celebrate, I’ve been building up a monster post. This is it, and it is monsterous: a multi-dimensional music comparison, borrowing ideas from another of my interests, wine. It’s also good for beer drinkers and even teetotalers, though not much.
Can insights from wine-tasting be transferred to music listening? Emphatically, yes. Both are a mistresses of the senses, one taste, the other, ..audiometeryness…, whatever.
Wine buffs may be familiar with the concept of vertical tasting, in which you compare the same winemaker and grape variety from different years, say the 2013, 2014, and 2015. As it is basically the same vines each year, the comparison illuminates the influence of the different weather in the growing season each year, and the effect of ageing in the bottle.
By systematically comparing vintages,you learn more than simply tasting a wine and comparing it with your hazy recollection of other wines you drank at some time in the past. It’s also an interesting alternative to a horizontal tasting, where you taste wine of the same type and vintage made by different wine makers, with their own unique terroir. However both serve to educate the palate, comparing is good.
Could “systematic” comparison method apply to music? In a Vertical Listening, you could compare several recordings of the same musician a number of years apart, recorded snapshots of music history, stages of artistic development, recording technology and musical fashions. That’s where we are. You are invited, and you don’t even have to bring a bottle, it’s on the house.
The subject of this experiment, one of my most listened-to artists, Freddie Hubbard. The closest I could get from my vinyl cellar, four vintages of Hubbard:
About a decade – give or take a year or two – separates each of these Hubbard recordings, a twenty seven year journey on vinyl, from analog to digital, from mono to stereo, the changing equipment in recording and engineering, changing tastes and fashions in music, and the maturation of Freddie’s playing over the decades. It’s always Freddie, but everything else around him changes.
We are going to sample four tracks in one tradition of vertical tasting, reverse order, starting with the most modern, finishing with the most aged. Our “flight”, as it is called in tasting, is as follows (headphones recommended)
1988: Capitol /Blue Note, Van Gelder, digital stereo – The Eternal Triangle / trk: Nostrand & Fulton
Eighties: 1981 Pablo, Allen Sides, digital stereo – Born To Be Blue / trk: Gibraltar
Seveties: 1971 CTI, Van Gelder, analog stereo- Baddest Freddie Hubbard / trk: First Light
Sixties: 1960 Blue Note, Van Gelder, analog mono – BN4056 Going Up/ trk: The Changing Scene
Three of the four are recordings by Van Gelder at his own Englewood Cliff studios and mastered by Van Gelder, so some commonality in production. The outlier is the Pablo, recorded by Allen Sides of Ocean Way, L.A. Over the decades, Sides has recorded every one of any importance on the music scene, all the big names. The most recent recordings should benefit from all the “advances” in technology over those twenty seven years, including digital production. Conventional Wisdom™ suggests the most recent should sound the best, though progress is not always what it claims.
The full track on these samples can run up to 12 minutes. You can taste the whole track, which is like drinking the whole bottle, or just take a small tasting sample, as you wish. Or the heck with all this wine tasting bollox, jump in where you like and enjoy the music. As with wine, so with music, the trick is to note down your first thoughts and impressions as you have them. It’s a lot more effective than trying to remember what you thought about it afterwards.
Let the tasting commence!
First up: 1988: Capitol /Blue Note, Van Gelder Digital recording – The Eternal Triangle / Nostrand & Fulton.
Issued by Capitol/Blue Note in 1988 , The Eternal Triangle reunited two great trumpet players, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. Bonus if you can tell the difference between Hubbard and Shaw. (Who takes the opening solo?).
Recorded and mastered by Van Gelder, direct to two-track digital, on an open-reel Mitsubishi X-80 digital tape recorder, According to one engineer “The X-80 made the transition from analog to digital easy, as it behaved like its analog counterpart but without the noise, wow and flutter“. The X-80 was the last tape-editable digital recorder, as it permitted editing the old-fashioned analog way, with a razor blade and splicing tape . It is treated with some reverence by engineers interested in retro aspects of sound recording.
Though this was about the end of the road for vinyl, 1988, there was no happy ending for Freddie either. Only a few years after this recording, in the early ’90s, he suffered a lip problem which fatally affected his embouchure and effectively terminated his ability to play the trumpet. Sad, but leaving a great legacy for us.
My Tasting Notes:
Very bright sound, to the point my ears would bleed. There is emphasis on the middle to upper register but weak on delivery of bass. It appealed to some of my listening panel as was the first record they heard, no immediate point of comparison, and they liked the music. Sort of how life often works. My first reaction was that it sounded “horrid”, that’s what I wrote down.
Round Two – The Eighties: Pablo Digital recording – Born To Be Blue / Gibraltar
Recorded in 1981 by Allen Sides on the Soundstream Digital Recording System. Soundstream’s digital editing system, hugely expensive at the time, was the first instance of a computer being used to edit commercial recordings. Digital recording faced strong resistance in some quarters. Doug Sax of Sheffield Labs helped form a group known as M.A.D (Musicians Against Digital), who sound like my sort of people. A New York psychiatrist, John Diamond M.D. M.R.C.Psych, even published a paper titled “Human stress provoked by digitalised recordings“. I link this simply to annoy some folk, you know who you are.
The Soundstream Digital Tape Recorder was a multi-track system sampling at 50kHz. It was popular with the classical industry people for its clarity, but unpopular with elite rock bands, who were forced to fly sober to Utah to do the computer editing, possible only at Soundstream’s headquarters due to lack of portability of the editing suite .
Soundstream ceased to operate in 1983, following the introduction by Sony of The Evil Silver Disc™ using a lesser sampling rate, 44.1kHz Opinion at “Tape Op”, a sound enthusiast forum, was that the loss from 50kHz to 44.1kHz was significant. I know what I hear, but not why.
Allen Sides (Ocean Way Studios, LA) went on to become one of the industry’s most respected engineers, well-known for leading the charge on reclaiming classic tube mics and gear that was being abandoned in the ’80s. He has one of the world’s largest collections of vintage microphones, some including some Stanley Church modified Neumann U-47s. The sound here probably owes more to Allen Sides’ interest in microphones than to the digital tape deck and editing system.
Possibly the Hubbard album is one of the few made on the superior Soundstream system prior to The Evil Silver Disc ™ . Even if it’s not, it’s a good story to tell at certain types of parties attended by sound engineers and DJ types. “What do you think of the old Soundstream DTR’s, gosh, is that the time?“
I forgot to mention, the vinyl is red. When invited to check condition of the vinyl, I found that I couldn’t, it doesn’t reflect faults the same way black vinyl does. Black Vinyl Matters.
Despite my general reservations about digital, it is impossible to dislike the presentation. Pablo is one of the good ’80s labels. The “Digital” banner at the top of the cover is a declaration, a manifesto, not a technicality, Pablo were proud of it: at the vanguard of digital recording and editing. Why not?
Freddie sounds great, but the percussive arrangements are beginning to take on a life of their own. The soundstage has become a percussion panoramic . Instead of the drummer being placed in one location on the stage, like the other instruments, the drum kit components are spread across the whole stage, snare here, tom toms here and there, bass kick another position, disembodied crash and hi-hat cymbals. An additional percussionist is woven into the mix, with various things they hit inserted in any gaps. Percussion Panoramic, very characteristic of its time.
The bass floor is typical of electric bass, low and booming, to the point your chest vibrates in sympathy, even the mice in the basement came up to complain, though some people like it that way. Artistically, electric bass tends to shape the way that instrument is played, as a supporting foundation – not to argue the point, as I’m sure there are other types of bass player (the most musical George Mraz for example), and some people are crazy for this type of deep floor bass. Acoustic double bass is dry and musical, in the hands of the right player, an equal member of the instrumental frontline.
Harold Land’s tenor should be a high spot of the album. He gets first billing after Freddie in the liner notes, but sounds a little weak and veiled. Sounds to me an artistic error of judgement in the mixing, but that’s just my opinion, I have heard him much more assertive and feisty, he deserves better, but someone approved the final mix.
Round Three, back to the Seventies. Get your flares out, it’s 1971, CTI Van Gelder, analog, stereo – Baddest Freddie Hubbard /First Light
An absolutely must-have album for anyone wanting an introduction to Hubbard’s electric albums for CTI – electric piano, electric bass, percussionist in addition to drums, hippy-flute….flugelhorn, and George Benson. Astonishing for a mere “compilation”, it reissues all the killer tracks of his several 1971 CTI albums only a year after first release, on one gatefold album and just like the originals, AND mastered by RVG. What more could you ask? Well, the originals, of course. Everyone knows Red Clay, so I chose First Light.
Selection: First Light (1971)
First Light – his 19th album as leader, and 3rd for CTI, it won Hubbard considerable commercial recognition, winning a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz. He had begun to explore new sounds and arrangements that overtly infused jazz with influences from rock, R&B, soul, and funk, though the trumpet is solidly Freddie: rich gold, fine hint of vibrato, a flow of imaginative phrasing and ideas, the terroir is Freddie, though the musical scenery is beginning to change.
Analog recording, with acoustic instruments mixed with modestly amplified electric instruments. Some commenters have suggested that while Van Gelder was a genius at capturing acoustic instruments through the use of close condenser microphones, he may not have been that interested in electric instruments – recording amplified electrical signals rather than moving air. Sounds way less interesting to me.
The CTI sound is dry, the musicians are isolated, a spaciousness that owes much to the larger acoustic space of Englewood Cliffs compared to Hackensack, and the studio’s large EMT Plate Reverb. Influences here are Creed Taylor and his arranger Don Sebesky.
The stereo presentation natural, not a special effects element in its own right, the music remains rightly the focus of attention.The soundstage is a traditional array of point-sources. (Engineers probably have a name for this, less clumsy than mine) The music and sound a child of its time, the transition from ’60s to ’70s.
Final round: back home to the Sixties: 1960 original Blue Note mono Van Gelder, analog – Goin’ Up/ The Changing Scene (Mobley)
Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) Hank Mobley (tenor sax) McCoy Tyner (piano) Paul Chambers (bass) Philly Joe Jones (drums) Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, November 6, 1960
Though this is a Hubbard tasting, I couldn’t resist one of the Mobley compositions, a minor-keyed groove in which Hank is on fire. As is Freddie, of course. Somebody get a fire extinguisher, we’ve got musicians on fire! Such a beautiful album, young Freddie returning to the studio after his wonderful Blue Note debut Open Sesame (which I can’t afford as original, so this is the closest album I have as “original”)
Selection: The Changing Scene (Mobley)
As the fourth and last disc on the platter, I felt at last I had finally come home: warm rich organic, natural 100% music, no special effects or spatial distractions. Room-filling mono, emotionally satisfying, makes sense in rhythm and timing, and communication of ideas between the musicians, and musicians on fire, and the artistry of Freddie Hubbard in plain view.
Congratulations for completing the tasting. You may have arrived at completely different opinion from me, great! All opinions welcome, even wrong ones, it’s a 1st Amendment free-for-all.
I tried out this vertical tasting experiment with a couple of hi-fi friends, same records, same order. The conclusion was not unanimous. There were some preferences for the more modern presentation of the Pablo, even the Capitol, which I found almost unlistenable. I quite liked the Pablo, preferred the CTI to that, but most of all liked the Blue Note. There don’t have to be any “winners”, you like what you like, nothing will change that, but you have through comparison a context for your likes, a roadmap through which to navigate changing musical times, may be expand your zone of comfort.
Your Sound Preference Poll – taking everything into account – mono/stereo presentation, engineering, tonal and dynamic range, music style, instrument-fidelity, hairstyle and flares-width, vote now for one of the four. I know it’s too simple but that is all Polldaddy offers, so better than nothing. Comments below if you have more to say. Poll good for one week only, check back to see how other readers are voting.
I’ve had my say. The floor is yours.
Any mistakes about engineering stuff, always happy to be corrected. Hey LJC, why didn’t you include Hubbard’s funky stuff? (Answer: I don’t have any) Did you get anything, from the vertical tasting? Your preferences and why? More of this stuff?
LJC – 3 million page-views, and still going strong. Hurrah!
Postscript – Freddie Tribute
Artist David B has sent in his artwork tribute to Freddie:
A fitting tribute. bravo.