In 1982, the combined forces of Decca/Telefunken (TelDec) and Georg Neumann Gmbh launched a German compilation of classical music tracks demonstrating the new analog mastering process – Direct Metal Mastering:(10 For Sale from €7.87). The DMM process entered the Blue Note chain of reissue manufacture through EMI Capitol and Pathe Marconi in the early/mid 80s.
According to Abbey Road Studios reviving the DMM process in 2019, DMM results in a “faster and more economical process overall, but also less risk of introducing unwanted ticks and pops to the audio (LJC: shouldn’t be there in the first place) .The signal-to-noise ratio is improved, with reduced background noise, especially in shallower grooves. (LJC: shallower grooves? ) Cutting into a harder metal surface rather than a softer lacquer one also produces more precise transients and a more accurate reproduction of high frequencies – a DMM cut will often sound brighter than a lacquer cut.and10% longer playing time than standard lacquer cuts”. Disclaimer: “Abbey Road Studios” self-promotion, a business name of Virgin Records Limited.
Nothing should sound “brighter” – fidelity means faithfully reproducing what was recorded. 10% longer playing time – at the expense of poor reproduction of lower frequencies? This won’t end well.
The topic of Direct Metal Mastering has surfaced several times on Steve Hoffman Forums , with one SHF reader poll voting eight votes to seven votes in favour of DMM. That is not a lot of votes. As usual, a lot of “(insert album name) sounds great” comments, but few are able to make a comparative judgement between DMM and conventional lacquer cut of the same recording. Until you compare, you know very little about the difference. LJC takes the plunge.
I have used the same recording source – a track from a Van Gelder recording session from 1967, to compare a vintage conventional lacquer cut, with a vintage Direct Metal Mastering cut. Obviously different mastering engineers, but it is all mastered before the intrusion of digital processes, the two treatments of the same source should reveal the sonic differences resulting from the two technologies. No longer the one dimensional “sounds great” opinion, but more informed opinion – which sounds better, and in what way.
The subject: another Blue Note that never was, 4261. There is no “original Blue Note” pre-1966 as such – it remained unissued until United Artists brought it out a decade later.
First, the original artwork for Blue Note 4261 that never was. Reid Miles makes his unfailing connection between the music and the cover art design. Dimensions and Extensions, duochrome angular geometric abstraction, fracture, tension, perfect wallpaper for your Twighlight Zone listening room, anything can happen in the next twenty minutes listening, and almost certainly will.
Selection 1: Precis (Rivers) – EMI France , Direct metal Mastering (DMM) 1986
. . .
Selection 2: Precis (as above) United Artists Involution, “twofer”, conventional lacquer mastering, 1975.
. . .
Donald Byrd, trumpet; Julian Priester, trombone; James Spaulding, alto sax, flute; Sam Rivers, tenor, soprano sax, flute; Cecil McBee, bass; Steve Ellington, drums; recorded Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, March 17, 1967, first issued in 1975 and again in 1986.
The music showcases Rivers’ aggressive free-style playing, but with arranging skill,, drrifting from post-bop dissonance into late 50s urban-landscapes and fragments of Manny Albam syncopation, Mingus and George Russell territory, an intoxicating mix which didn’t appeal to Liberty, who promptly sat on the session.
Jazz writer John Fordham (great insights) sums up Rivers’ stylistic strengths thus:” an enthralling balancing act between an advanced bebop style and the atonal music of the later Coltrane era, except that Rivers has always sounded unlike anybody else in his between-tones melodic flexibility, blustery tenor phrasing and edgily delicate ideas on flute”
My favourite tune from this album is in fact the track, Paean: a jagged opening melody line, James Spaulding avant-leaning alto wrestling with River’s wildcat tenor, moving over Steve Ellington’ ringing cymbal strikes. However, as I ripped Paean in a previous review of Involution back in 2012, I have gone with a fresh tune, Precis, which embodies many of the same qualities, for the comparison.
The interesting addition to fireworks from Rivers, Spaulding and Donald Byrd, is Julian Priester’s romping trombone. Trombone is an interesting if schizophrenic instrument. It can be an easy marching band swinger with JJ and Kai, an avant threatening force in the hands of Grachan Moncur III or Roswell Rudd, or articulate and expressive solo instrument, with the likes of Priester and Jimmy Knepper.
A brass line up of four instruments keeps everything exciting – you are not likely to fall asleep on the sofa with this album.
Vinyl 1: EMI France DMM 1986
BST 84261 digital transfer by Ron McMaster, process Direct Metal Mastering, issued by EMI Pathe Marconi, France, 1986, on puny 116 gram vinyl, but featuring the original intended cover art, under its original catalogue number and liner notes. No doubt which one looks better. The original Reid Miles cover art is great, though the manufacturing quality is indifferent 80s thin card.
One of only two DMMs in my collection. Ironically, the other DMM “sounds great”™, but without a comparator, who knows if the original sounds even greater. It is also possible that a 320 mp3 might sound better over an internet/PC connection in one format, but not on a revealing hifi.
First released as part of Blue Note”twofer” series BN-LA453-H2 Sam Rivers “Involution” (United Artists 1975).
Despite the general second-class standing of the UA Blue Label, this Van Gelder recording has been mastered with considerable fidelity: an open, spacious, fresh and natural presentation. Though badged “The Blue Note Reissue Series”, much of the material is previously unissued. The beige covers of the two-fers are poor advertisement for the great music within. The UA Blue Label are second to Plastylite/ All Disc pressings, especially where Van Gelder metal was to hand, but the distance is not so great compared to what came later in the mid 80s and beyond.
Direct Metal Mastering Tutorial
DMM was the ’80s technical swan-song of vinyl before it finally bowed to The Evil Silver Disc, a struggle between two evils, and it litttle mattered which evil won.
Wiki picks up the DMM story: “Unlike conventional disc mastering, where the mechanical audio modulation is cut onto a lacquer-coated aluminum disc, DMM cuts straight into metal (copper), utilizing a high frequency carrier system and specialized diamond styli, vibrating at more than 40 kHz (i.e. 60 kHz) to facilitate the cutting.
The DMM copper master disc can be plated to produce the required number of stampers using the one-step plating process. Rather than having to electroform a master (or “father”), mother and then stampers (the traditional “three-step process”), the DMM copper disc serves as the ‘mother”. LJC: So it saves the mastering engineer one step. Does one step saved improve or diminish the sound quality? And what does the engineer do with the time they saved?
Critical assessment (Wiki continues…)
“Because of the modulation arising from this cutting method, criticisms have arisen of the sound of such ‘DMM’ records. They are often labelled as bright or edgy, having a harshness or forwardness in the high frequencies. The fact the groove is cut to copper, a hard metal, and not to soft lacquer, nitrocellulose, supposedly endows DMM vinyl LP with a very different tonality to traditionally manufactured vinyl LP pressings.
Direct metal mastering requires a radically different cutting angle than traditional (lacquer) cutting, almost 0 degrees. However the playback cartridges will always have the standard playback angle of 15–22.5°. Thus, the DMM process includes electronic audio processing so the records can be played with a standard cartridge despite having been cut at a substantially different angle. This electronic processing might account for the supposedly different high frequency “signature sound” of DMM records.”
Electronic audio processing. You have there the admission. Put the cuffs on the DMM, (and mind it doesn’t bang his head when loaded into the back of the police station wagon). However, the original intended Reid Miles cover art forced me to buy the DMM, and play just the UA blue label.
Any thoughts on Direct Metal Mastering – friend or foe?
DMM is a contentious (re)issue. I purchased quite a few in my early days of serious collecting, because the price was attractive, and surfaces were quiet. Over time, equipment gradually improved, and I was able to acquire earlier pressings. So the inevitable happened: a shootout; in fact many shootouts to determine which pressings I would keep, and which I would sell. (I also had many OJC pressings but that is another matter). DMM pressings -ALWAYS- sounded inferior to earlier AAA pressings. Here are my notes from an early comparison of HH Maiden Voyage- I had recently purchased a NM RVG Liberty pressing:
“Next- the DMM pressing. This pressing was made ~18yr after my Liberty and represents what was at the time a premium reissue. The vinyl is dead quiet and flat. While not 180g, there is NO raised edge, so with my record clamp in place, the record is flat against my mat. In comparison to the Liberty, I heard what I can only describe as a later generation copy of the same recording. Soundstage width was noticeably narrower and did not escape the boundaries of my speakers. Soundstage depth was almost nonexistent and I could no longer hear space between instruments. I could hear some air and studio ambiance, but the sense that real people were playing with each other in clearly defined space was just about gone. Horns lacked bite with first note attack noticeably diminished.
“On the plus side, the treble was more extended and provided a natural sheen and decay to the cymbals. Bass did not seem as deep, but was clearer- on the DMM, I could easily follow the bassline against other instruments.”
My opinions, as relayed above, have remained remarkably consistent over the years. DMM presssings sound like much later generation copies. With some exhibiting very digital sounding midrange and treble.
Digging deeper into DMM history: I was able to determine that the first Blue Note/Path Marconi reissues dated from 1984 and I believe were all analogue. In the US, most had “c1984/ Manhattan Records” in the fine print. Later DMM pressings dated from the late 80’s and had early digital glare…..changeover from analogue to digital mastering ?
See Palmer is giving Rivers 1930 for his year of birth always thought it was 1923
Jazz biographers seem very keen on identifying artists place and year of birth. True, it is a factual start point, but one which never seemed to offer much insight to me. However, I’m “not from around these parts”.
What seems to matter to me is when they entered the performing field, and how they played. They might be old school, or new school. I think it was tough on the younger guys who entered the jazz genre in the late 60s, just as jazz audiences were moving in different directions Rivers remained true to his own personal calling, which is courageous, even though it is not one I follow beyond the ’60s.
Not important per se but most followers of jazz in particular are of a nerdish disposition and welcome such information.
For instance hearing Tony Williams playing phenomenal drums at the age of 17 doesn’t make the listening experience any greater but, I believe, adds a certain historical perspective which can be appreciated,
Ideally I suppose one should just listen to music without any prior information or knowledge about the participants to make it a purer experience.
Going back to Rivers if he was born in 1923 that would make him older than Sonny Stitt which shows how different career paths were available to saxophonists of the same vintage, not important but interesting
Insightful comments, Yardbird. For me, jazz is far more than the listening experience alone. Learning these kinds of facts – such as the comparison of Stitt and Rivers – provides perspective and adds greatly to the enjoyment, at least for me – with my nerdish disposition.
Is it just me or does Donald Byrd sound like he’s hanging on for grim death on side 1 track 1 (‘Precis’, I think). Very much out of his comfort zone and the technique is a bit wobbly but you have got to admire his sense of adventure on this session.
When Sam comes in with his solo it is with total authority. Great stuff.
I own a few France EMI DMM recordings, one of them H.Hancock’s Maiden Voyage. Using the Music Matters release as a surrogate for the original, I compared the two LPs. Indeed, the DMM was a bit tipped up in the high frequencies – this gave a nice zing to the cymbals. But with the MM record all the other instruments sounded superior – horns and piano in particular had much more body and presence. The soundstage was much cleaner. Having said that, if the DMM was the only version that existed, I would find it to be very listenable. That’s a risk you take in making comparisons.
Never use a Music Matters as a surrogate for an original. They deliberately sound very different from a classic Van Gelder cut, and generally a whole lot less fizzy in the high frequency sound of the cymbals.
Sam actually signed the top of the front cover of my DMM Pathe Marconi copy of this title when I had fortunate chance to meet him. Also part of the Sam Rivers Blue Note Mosaic set, which is probably my favourite version.
Forgot to mention that back in the 70s the earthy, beige covers of the ‘Blue Note Reissue Series’ were pretty damn cool. Matched the carpets and wallpaper !
A signed version! …and ’70s styling.. Never thought of that! 😀
The comeback of the DMM procedure is probably due to the Apollo/Transco lacquer manufacturing fire. One of the two lacquer manufacturers gone means the industry has to look for alternatives to lacquers since their lacquer stocks won’t last forever and the one Japanese company still producing can only do so much. So, in the future new releases will be done more often as DMMs. I only hope the Tone Poet series won’t go there!
This was indeed a tragic absolute disaster for the future of the audiophile community. I certainly won’t be buying any modern DMMs. Let’s hope Ron and the boys have an alternative source.
I’ve got — and have had — a lot of the Pathe Marconi DMM reissues of the 80s. Some sound OK. Others somewhat thin. None that I have had are so awful that I would pay ten or twenty or thirty times more for an early pressing or original, even assuming one could be found. My pressing of the Sam Rivers in question is DMM but I will say it has never lodged itself firmly in my affections. I don’t quite know why. It sometimes still strikes me as an incredible line-up not quite sure what it is trying to achieve. I need to listen again, mind you.
I’ve still got about 300 of those circular posters that they came with !
When they first came out they were like gold dust though – considering the Blue Note vacuum that was the UK circa 1983/84.
I had forgotten about those, Bob. They’re rather nice, in fact.
I guess I can always wallpaper one of the rooms with them !!
RE: ‘Unwanted tics and pops’, as I mentioned previously, it’s hard to believe, given the dirty, dusty environment at Plastylite (much of the dust in the air was from the grinding of slag off Bakelite, [super-hard phenolic resin] moldings, in the same building) that their Blue-Notes are held in such high regard. Modern-day pressing plants are like operating rooms…You’d think the record pressing at Plastylite would’ve been in an at least slightly more sterile area…I wouldn’t think record-pressing plants back then were also doing Bakelite stuff…
Larry the Plastylite guy……
Not a fan of the DMM pressing, but own it for the excellent Reid Miles sleeve.
Apart from this album and Freddie Hubbard’s Here to Stay, are there any other sessions released as part of the Blue Note Re-Issue Series that eventually made it to market with the originally planned artwork?
I can remember Happy Frame Of Mind by Horace Parlan which was part of a Booker Ervin 2fer
I think Procrastinator by Lee Morgan was a US 2fer and a Japanese issue with original art. I think there are more, but it’s late.
I’m now thinking of the OTHER ‘previously un-released’ LT-series (not the ‘two-fer’s): Andrew Hill’s’
‘Dance With Death’ and Wayne Shorter’s ‘The Soothsayer’, that had Japanese alternative (and much better) covers..
I’d forgotten about Happy Frame of Mind. That’s another nice Reid Miles sleeve housing a so-so sounding DMM record.
I think the US Connossieur pressing of The Procrastinator is Patrick Roques, so I suppose artwork hadn’t been prepared for that one before the album was shelved. Some of his Miles-esque design is pretty good.
I recently found that Sam Rivers ‘two-fer’ and enjoyed the entirely different two sessions tremendously (also being somewhat of a Andrew Hill fan .. record two). Your writing and comparison just adds to the appreciation! 🙂
And yes: I’m in the “they don’t sound that bad, in particular the higher frequencies” camp for DMM, of which I own several (both the French and the Capitol). For now: stopped buying the 304 Park Ave. records.. but would still consider a French DMM.
Thanks for posting yet another great LP for which I will have to look. “Tinnier and tinnier” may be the case re: the DMM-version; but what strikes me more is the added echo at the “BN-LA453-H2”. RVG did it also here, which is very unfortunate: https://www.discogs.com/Sonny-Rollins-More-From-The-Vanguard/master/692264 — The original release (https://www.discogs.com/Sonny-Rollins-A-Night-At-The-Village-Vanguard/master/169232) with the master takes sounds as dry as a carpet 😉
I’d agree with the notion that the DMM is brighter and at least over my ‘new’ stereo (well, an improvement over my previous temporary system), the DMM sounds oddly smaller in its presentation of the instruments. The DMM strikes me as tinnier and tinier! I’d never really listened to Sam, I think I like him, at least in measured doses. I will say this about the DMM (short for damned?) releases: they were available in my record store and the old Blue Notes were hard, if not impossible to find in California’s Bay Area (San Francisco area), so I bought ’em and enjoyed them. Thanks for all the research into the DMM process…