The audiophile world involves a staggering amount of minutia. Everything leads, however, to an emotional payoff, as you’re constantly reminded while rubbing shoulders with people devoted to good sound. So while, if you study the literature on, say, speaker placement or multichannel audio, you might expect everyone who cares about such matters to walk around with a pencil protector in his shirt pocket, instead you’re much more likely to encounter someone whose passion for audio can hardly be contained and who has a lively sense of humor.
Those points were underscored when I began corresponding with Mike Valentine, the owner of the UK audiophile label Chasing the Dragon. Valentine contacted TAS in order to tell us about the direct-to-disc LPs of the young label (its first album came out in 2012). He isn’t afraid to say something controversial (certainly his statement, “The sound quality here…is better than sex!” could spark a heated debate), and because he’s filmed underwater sequences for over 90 films, including five James Bond movies, you quickly understand that he knows how to pursue lofty professional goals and have fun.
And it’s clear that for Valentine music and sound have been lifelong passions. “I was nine years old when I heard my first record,” he emailed from his office in London, England. “One in particular stuck in my mind, and it was La Boutique Fantastique.” Another favorite surfaced as he began combining his vocation with his avocation. “When I was 17 years old and had a part time job in a hi-fi shop in Manchester, I was always using one particular Decca SXL recording of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps as my favourite demonstration record.” His next job plunged him deeper into the world of sound. “I was lucky enough to join BBC television as a sound engineer when I was 18, and hearing my favourite music played live in Royal Albert Hall was, as you can imagine, an amazing experience to have in my late teens.”
Fast forward to 2012 and you learn that the decision to create a label came spontaneously. “I had made friends with a chamber orchestra, Interpreti Veneziani, in Venice whilst on holiday there with my wife, Francoise,” Valentine said. “I was so impressed with their performance that at the end of the concert I asked them if I could come and record them.” From the beginning, the recording sessions have reflected time-honored recording strategies. “I have always liked using a simple microphone technique, either based on the three mikes of a Decca tree or a “spaced pair” of microphones, again using classic Neumann valve microphones—M50s and in particular U47s.”
Chasing the Dragon’s first release was a test recording that was released on CD and then vinyl—and then a new twist was added. “For my next release I decided to ask Interpeti Vaneziani to come to London and record Vivaldi’s Four Seasons,” Valentine said. “Just before they came over, I was playing the Thelma Houston direct cut album I’ve Got the Music in Me, when it hit me, why not create a direct cut recording? Air Studios in London, started by George Martin, was an obvious choice, for two floors above the studio they had a fantastic cutting room.”
More experiments ensued: “I decided, whilst the chamber orchestra was here in London, to hire St John Smith’s Square—a church with a great acoustic and frequently used by BBC Radio 3—and put on a live concert. I used this opportunity to again record the orchestra and release another LP, but this time create a 45rpm 12-inch album.”
Next came a 2-LP big band jazz album where the Syd Lawrence Orchestra paid tribute to Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. The music on both platters is the same—but one is a direct-to-disc LP while the other involved more steps, so listeners could compare the sonic merits of both approaches.
The label’s new direct-to-disc release, A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, features jazz vocalist Clare Teal, who interviewed Valentine on BBC Radio 2. “At the end of the show, I was thrilled when Clare said that she would love to work with me,” Valentine said. “We are both great fans of the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, and I decided it would be great for Clare and the orchestra to record a tribute to Ella.” A review of the album appears in this issue.