Last Updated: December 21, 2020
Updated: BLUE NOTE Audio-Quality Graphic
My current assessment of audio quality based on around 600 pressings of Blue Note recordings, of which around 250 are original pre-1966 issues, and around 20 modern audiophile issues, and everything else in between. Your mileage may of course vary. This updates the earlier graphic, which dated back to around 2012 and was based on a more limited sample listening on much less revealing equipment.
What has changed?
United Artists have moved up a league, Liberty ranking now reflects the difference between East And West Coast reissues, earliest Toshiba Liberty gets recognition. Toshiba are ranked higher in the period before digital influence, and Music Matters 33 appear for the first time on the upper floors. Mosaic now included.
These are generalised rankings – “taken as a whole”. Individual titles may differ, better or worse.
Summary: quality signposts
For an individual title, test pressing and promo will usually be stronger than commercial release, especially those towards the end of the pressing run.
Always give preference to edition with direct lineage to Van Gelder master metal (RVG/ VAN GELDER stamp).
Be wary of stereo editions mastered from original two-track tapes which tracks were not intended for stereo – Van Gelder recordings between 1957 to around 1960. Mono was the intended and is the preferred format.
Be wary of any live recording which claims to be mono but recorded in the era of stereo. It usually means someone was sitting in the audience with a portable tape recorder and one microphone, bootlegging.
Avoid any indication of “pseudo-stereo” (electronically generated from single-track mono tape, early 1500 series)
Made in USA preferred – overseas reissues are generally inferior quality. Blue Note had no international licencing agreements, which only slowly emerged in the Liberty years, and were not widely found until under United Artists stewardship. Invariably overseas issues were from copy tape, mastered by a jobbing house technician with a taste for rock.
Reissues manufactured during 80s/90s can show digital/solid state artefacts and filtering, with loss of high frequencies. Those from early 2000s may be simply 44kHz/16-bit CD transfers to vinyl, as only very select manufacturers have had access to original source tapes.
Modern audiophile reissues often boast 180gm vinyl, which was the 1950s gold standard. Whilst the weight and thickness of vinyl does provide stability in handling, it does not make any difference to sound quality.
Treat sceptically the claim “from the original tapes” , which applies to everything. Only “re-mastered from the original tapes” counts. A 1/2inch copy tape at 15fps should be effectively identical to the original, but there are many other factors during playback and mastering which degrade transfer.
If an original source recording is not mentioned, or it is “from the best available”, be doubly sceptical, even if officially licensed. Being licensed does not mean given access to original tapes.
Of the most recent anniversary editions, I have read Blue Note hired top US audio engineer Bernie Grundman to create a corporate archive of Blue Note original tapes, in the form of high resolution digital transfers at 24-bit/192 kHz. Digital replay runs into digital to analogue conversion quality issues irrespective of file resolution, and does not assure improved quality in vinyl transfers.
The best hope of audio quality remains “analog-to-analog”, mastering directly from original source tapes, supported by quality pressing, all of which is difficult to achieve at less than $30 per LP. And it can only be as good as the original recording – not everything was well-recorded.
Original commentary (written a few years ago)
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). Some systems are warm , friendly and very forgiving. Others are highly analytical and revealing. Mine is at this latter end, and forgives nothing. The best are absolutely neutral, transparent, with no hifi attributes, and just return what the engineer recorded, closest to what the instruments sounded like in the studio.
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 listening 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 promotional review/preview/audition 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.
Blue Note sent promos to radio stations and the music press – often the record label was stamped “Review Copy”, some adding “Not For Sale” to avoid accounting sales tax. Other copies were stamped REVIEW COPY on the back of the jacket, but not on the label.
Earliest and later pressings
The first pressing of each Blue Note title is the gold standard of audio quality for that recording. However at the start of the 1500 12″ microgroove series some of the very earliest recordings date back to the late 1940s, were recorded in radio station studios, and show the limitations of recording equipment at the time, despite remastering by Van Gelder.
There may be little 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, with less wear and tear, the main difference being the collector’s premium, the price. However the confounding factor is stamper wear.
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 was by Liberty’s All-Disc, Roselle NJ. plant in the later half of 1966 or early 1967. Most of these sonically the equal of Blue Note Plastylite originals.
The same can not be said of those without Van Gelder mastering. In the early Liberty years, Blue Note commenced pressing on both west and east coast, through their own pressing plants, and some third parties. This severed the link with Plastylite, though not with Van Gelder metal, which remained available for reissues pressed at All-Disc. Reissues manufactured in LA however, by Research Craft, were re-mastered from copy tape by Liberty engineers, whose output was less consistent. Always choose Liberty copies stamped VAN GELDER. New titles however used Van Gelder mastering on both coasts, until recording sessions started to be held with increasing frequncy in West Coast studios, by other engineers, in the closing years of the ’60s.
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. In the later half of the ’60s, demand for record pressing capacity exceeded supply, and Liberty under Transamerica was manufacturing records at multiple plants.
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” label), and EMI France Direct Metal Mastered. The 304 Park Avenue South Scorpios I consider RINOs – Records in Name Only – a cd transferred onto vinyl. Also to avoid, any edition which has mono electronically rechanneled to simulate stereo, and
I do not recommend modern “180 gm audiophile” reissues, even where they claimed to be “mastered from the original tapes” and this includes Blue Note 75 anniversary editions. The result is often quite disappointing. The modern (since 1995) use of digital delay lines (digital preview) during mastering effectively made a digital image of the original analogue tape, which digital image was then fed to the mastering lathe. Blue Note 75’s editions are high resolution digital transfers, but have many reported manufacturing defects.
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. 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.
UPDATE December 21, 2020
Blue Note/Capitol/UMG have made some major improvements in engineering and maufacture, most recently pressing at Optimal in Germany. Early results are extremely favourable. Latest Tone Poet and 80 series has set new standards in audiophile reproduction. More detailed commentary in future
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 Interdisc 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.