Last Updated: April 22, 2016
Many great jazz musicians recorded for Blue Note, but the man responsible for the quality of label’s recordings – their high dynamic and tonal range and lifelike presence – was sound engineer, Rudy Van Gelder. It was his recording equipment, choice and placement of microphones, the work at the mixing desk, the selection and rejection of takes, and the active supervision of the whole recording process from monitoring the dials through to cutting of the master lacquer, that created the “Blue Note sound”.
Van Gelder always sought to be at the forefront of recording technology – the Scully lathe he used for cutting lacquer masters was the first to feature variable pitch/depth control to optimise groove-width and loudness. He deployed the newest Neumann/ Telefunken U-47 condenser microphone, which he had specially modified for use very close to instruments. His recordings were made on the latest Ampex tape recorders. Van Gelder’s initials or stamp in the “deadwax” is the best guarantee of audio quality
(More on RVG recording secrets here)
There were two crucial steps in the chain from artist performance to replay in the home that Van Gelder had no control over: the record pressing process itself, and how other engineers would re-master those recordings in the future.
Variation in sound quality over time
The collector will hear variation in the audio quality of Blue Note recordings, from one decade to the next, from Van Gelder’s loud and dazzling “musicians in the room” presence and room-filling mono, as found on many original Lexington and 47 West 63rd editions, to primitive stereo (Van Gelder was a late-adopter), and poorer quality re-mastering decades later in the hands of other engineers. Thankfully, the quality of the original recordings with Van Gelder at the dials often still shine through, though sometimes he ran those dials hot, and it must also be said RVG had his off-days.
Records from the era of original Blue Note are miracles of dynamic audio sound – all the more remarkable because portable record players and radiograms of the day were entirely incapable of reproducing that quality, unlike todays vinyl systems. Home hi-fi systems went on to improve dramatically, but solid state electronics spread to all stages of engineering, and finally digital processing, adversely affecting sound quality.
Reissues from the late ’70s to the mid-’90s often do not compare well to the audio quality of records manufactured in the ’50s and ’60s. Sadly for the audiophile jazz lover, fifty years on, many of the original tapes have deteriorated, many so-called audiophile reissues offer a wooden or “botoxed” presentation, and the mono format has all but disappeared. Original pressings command a collector premium, with the very rarest far out of reach of any ordinary collector’s budget. Hence the jazz-audiophile must grapple with the variable quality of reissues, in order to seek out those that sound best at the most affordable cost.
Opinions about audio quality
Typically, collectors will say ” I’ve got a woteva pressing of summink-oruvvah and it sounds great!” “Sounds great” and its food-equivalent “tastes great“has little meaning beyond “I like it“. Not to dispute someone’s liking, but our likes are often different, few of us have the same quality audio systems, breadth of listening history, or taste. What sounds great to you may not sound so great to me. For an insight, check “writer-about-thinking”, Eduard de Bono and his “Village Venus” effect. “She’s the most beautiful girl I have ever seen” Yes, but you have never travelled beyond your own village. If you had, you would know she is nothing out of the ordinary. Now Italian girls…Mama Mia!
The journey beyond “likes” is to explicit comparison, something compared with something else. Try to compare alternative editions with original pressings, and make that comparison on a fairly revealing high-end audio system , and make a point of listening to a number of different high-end systems of friends. (It’s often surprising how different a record can sound on another system, tuned to different priorities).
Different issues of the same recording often have differences in dynamic and tonal range, rhythm and timing, and may exhibit different gain or feature instrument distortion. Records made at different times, by different people, from different generation copy tapes, sound different. Comparing two different issues, sometimes some instruments all but disappear, others stand well forward, like a different record. Superior engineering can reveal hitherto unappreciated artist intent and inter-musician interaction – the holy grail of musical coherence, while bad engineering can obliterate it.
Some collectors have yet to hear what an original first pressing sounds like because their resources don’t stretch to those high prices. Others who own first pressings have never really heard them, because they are not listening on a very revealing audio system.
I ask: “compared with the best sounding issues of these titles that I have heard, how does this re-issue sound on my system”? I’m looking for which sounds more fresh, engages the emotions, compels listening, whose rhythm and timing swings and gets your feet tapping, in which the music “makes sense”
Comparative judgement is essential to the record upgrading process. If you don’t upgrade, you will never know if there are better sounding copies. When someone says their audiophile reissue sounds great, ask if they have the original vintage press for comparison. Yeah, I know, no need, what you’ve got sounds great.
Inevitably there will be individual titles that do not conform to the expected quality, for whatever reason. Remember: only you know what you hear, no-one else does. If something sounds good or bad to you, your opinion is all that matters, though you should always take the opportunity to “educate your palate”.
The LJC Blue Note audio quality hierarchy – overall rating (this needs updating!)
(based on impression of listening to a range of copies – individual exceptions may differ)
The reason for seeking out earliest pressing of a title has nothing to do with them being valuable antiques or of sentimental historical interest, which of course they are, but as a general rule, the earliest edition is sonically the best edition. “First pressings” are considered the holy grail of audiophile quality, being the closest possible to the studio original tape recording and master acetate before any effect of age, wear and tear.
The factory test pressing is the ultimate first pressing, being “first off the first stamper” which at that point will exhibit no sign of the progressive groove wear which follows subsequent pressing repetitions. A white label promo or review copy is also likely to be among the first batch of records pressed, and sought after for the same reason, though its cover may be disfigured by stamping.
The first pressing of each Blue Note title will be on whatever was the label in use at the time – Lexington, 47 West 63rd or New York – and these are all the gold standard of audio quality, though some of the very earliest recordings betray the limitations of recording equipment at the time. However there may be no audible difference between first and later second pressings, being manufactured with stampers derived from the same mother and master. A later pressing on the NY label can sound as good as the first pressing on 47 West 63rd, the main difference being the collector’s premium, the price.
Similar high audio quality is often found in records pressed during the first few years of Liberty Records ownership, which include a number of Van Gelder mastered titles prepared for release before the 1966 watershed, whose first pressing is on the Division of Liberty label or previously printed N.Y. labels. I consider many if not most of these sonically the equal of Blue Note originals of the NY period. The same can not be said of those without Van Gelder mastering, of which there are a few.
Variations in audio quality within editions
From an audiophile perspective, the most important determinant of sound quality is the recording skill of the original sound engineer. After that – more important than label or first pressing status – is stamper wear. In the pressing plant, the ridges of a stamper are progressively deformed by a hundred tons of pressure through the two thousand or more pressing repetitions of a stamper’s useful life, resulting in increasing loss of fidelity, especially in the higher frequencies. Somewhere in each pressing run were the first few and the last few off the stamper, hence being a first pressing is itself not a guarantee of top audio quality, or a second pressing of poor quality: there is no way of knowing in advance at what stage in the life of a stamper a record was pressed. There is an audible difference in sound quality even between two copies of a first pressing. In extremis, one will be more inviting, more fresh, more presence, the other more dull, congested, leaving you inexplicably unenthusiastic about the music, but nursing an equally large hole in the bank account.
1968: the decline in audio quality starts
From 1968 onwards, the Liberty/Transatlantic years, Blue Note quality became increasingly compromised. The signature Van Gelder sound began to disappear. Recordings were often re-mastered by staff engineers,without any understanding of the adjustments Van Gelder applied to his own tape recordings during mastering. Pressing was farmed out to plants of lesser quality than Plastylite and All-Disc, working from second or third generation copy tapes, on ever-thinner vinyl.
This decline was not exclusive to Blue Note but an industry-wide trend throughout the ’70s. In the ’80s, there was a last attempt to revive the format and cut costs – Direct Metal Mastering – before final migration to CD, The Evil Silver Disc, for music distribution, which more or less killed off vinyl manufacturing know-how, though there were a few remaining bright spots.
Now for some good news: from our friends from Japan
A few exceptions to this gloom stand out, the most obvious being the pressing of Blue Note recordings in Japan, by King Records and Toshiba EMI. Dating from the ’70s and ’80s, the audio standard of these vintage pressings is consistently high, and favoured for near-silent vinyl. The presentation is not as forward as original Blue Note, but generally quite acceptable, more available and more affordable, especially for the rarest of titles.
King Records vintage pressings (1977-83) are generally preferred to Toshiba. Toshiba reissued most of the 1500 series between 1983-85, and most of the 4000 series between 1990-95. Beyond these dates however, Toshiba continued with further reissues through to the present day, however any Toshiba Blue Note manufactured after 1995 should be treated with great scepticism. Often sold on the back of the reputation of earlier years,more recent Toshiba are not the same audio quality as the vintage releases 1983-95. They include digital transfers, and even supposedly RVG-remastered for CD, cynically pressed on vinyl, and are not audiophile quality.
Other often acceptable reissues
Other brief oasis of sound quality include the Blue/black West Coast Liberty/UA pressings, the early Division of United Artists pressings, and some but by no means all early French Pathe Marconi before Direct Metal Mastering was introduced. All these editions are a variable experience – some can be very very good, others can be quite indifferent, depending on title.
Reissues to avoid
Blue Note reissues generally to avoid are the 1980’s US Capitol/Manhattan reissues (“The Finest in Jazz Since 1939“), EMI France Direct Metal Mastered, the blue label/white note. The 304 Park Avenue South Scorpios I consider Records in Name Only – a cd transferred onto vinyl. Also to avoid, any edition which has mono electronically rechanneled to simulate stereo, and modern “180 gm audiophile” reissues, even where claimed to be “remastered from the original tapes”, as despite the best intentions the result is often quite disappointing.
As with all these things, there are exasperating exceptions. Every once in a while you play a Blue/black b which sounds great, even a French DMM which sounds fresh and lively, not at all harsh. Sometimes the original recording was so good it was near impossible to make a bad transfer of it, so I am reluctant to condemn any edition out of hand. Ultimately only your ears can decide.
Reissues: the best and the worst US and European reissues
Putting to one side Blue Note “originals“, Liberty and Japanese pressings, there are some commonly found and inexpensive reissues – and my rule of thumb for the budget-conscious vinyl collector as to which to avoid and which may be worth pursuing.
(Above numbers refer to the detailed page for Blue Note, the United Artists Years)
How do other US labels compare with Blue Note audio quality?
Blue Note are by no means the only audiophile quality vintage vinyl and Van Gelder was not the only great sound engineer. Up there with the Blue Note best are US Columbia Six Eye and Two Eye,Contemporary, Impulse Orange black rim and black/red rim, and Prestige fireworks. For Stereo, I rank Columbia, Impulse and Contemporary often better than Blue Note.
Some labels such as Riverside, Mercury and Atlantic are variable and inconsistent, great recording artists but dogged by either poor engineering or poor pressing, depending on title and over time. Others I have not enough to judge, too small a sample, such as Verve, RCA Victor, and Bethlehem, and a host of smaller labels, like Candid.
What about sound quality of American recordings licensed for European release?
In UK licensed pressings, the dominant factor is remastering from copy tape (apart from Esquire, who enjoyed original US metalwork). Different engineer, different taste, different judgements. Pressing and engineering was to a very high standard, especially by Decca, closely followed by Philips, then EMI. With Riverside, I find UK Interdisk editions (Decca or Philips) better sonically than original US Riverside. Impulse recordings released by HMV pressed by EMI are very good but not as good as US Impulse, where RVG originals are much to be preferred. All Columbia manufactured in UK, whether for Fontana or CBS, are inferior to US Columbia. Your Monk and Miles must be Made in the USA.