Sneak Preview: Acoustic Sounds’ RCA Reissues

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Sneak Preview: Acoustic Sounds’ RCA Reissues

When I played him Rapsodie espagnole from a test pressing of Chad Kassem’s soon-to-be-released (October 8), 200-gram Analogue Productions’ reissue of RCA LSC-2183 The Reiner Sound, my buddy and TAS Music Editor Mark Lehman, whose musical tastes tend in the opposite direction of this glorious orchestral pastiche, sneered: “So corny.”

And then…he asked me to play it again.

 Why? Because what he actually said was: “So corny, so gorgeous.” And indeed this piece is gorgeous—seldom more so than on this great RCA LP, recorded in Orchestra Hall with Reiner’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra on November 3, 1956 (the Rachmaninoff Isle of the Dead on side two was recorded early the next year, April 13, 1957).

By this time RCA was recording three-track with a (for RCA) minimal number of mikes—three main Neumann M-50s or U-47s at the front of the stage (right, left, and centered behind the conductor’s podium) and likely two M-49 wind and string “helpers” on stage. (RCA originally recorded two-track with two main mikes, set stage right and stage left, and two wind helpers on stage, but the “hole” in the center of the stage that resulted from this early “A/B” setup led to the addition of a third, centered main microphone.)

Of course, in 1956 and 1957, the transistor had yet to raise its prickly little head. Everything was still being recorded via tubes—in the mics, in the tape decks, in the playback electronics, in the amplifiers driving the cutterheads. And it is the sound of tubes in this and other RCAs recorded and mastered prior to about 1961 that helps give strings and winds their ravishingly lifelike beauty, body, and bloom.

String and wind tone are, in fact, the block upon which previous reissues (and there have been many—from Chesky, from Classic, from RCA itself) have stumbled. The reason for this isn’t just the mostly solid-state gear that has been used in re-mastering; it is also the condition of the fifty-some-year-old tapes, and the eq that some latter-day re-mastering engineers have applied.

It seems to me that a certain amount of respect has to be shown to the original mastering engineers, whose work was, after all, supervised by the producer and approved (and not without discussion) by the artists themselves. To assume, as some have done and continue to do, that the mastertapes are “blank slates” to be drawn on freely is not just to re-master the recording; it is to re-produce it without the advantage of having been there on the spot when the recording was made—without hearing the music performed repeatedly before a live audience and then performed (in multiple takes) in the recording sessions. It is to make decisions about sonic emphases that affect music and artistry without having interacted with the producer, the recording engineers, the musicians, and the conductor, without knowing their intentions and forming a clear idea of how they wanted the sound shaped to recreate the performance.

But to say, as I am, that the original mix should be the benchmark is not to say that it should be held sacrosanct—that better sound cannot be had. After all, technologies have advanced in the past fifty some years. RCA’s original equalizers, for example, were capable of exactly two levels of boost and cut in the treble and the bass, labeled “1” and “2.” The exact amount of those cuts and boosts (and precisely where they were being applied) was so uncertain that Jack Pfeiffer, RCA’s ace producer and later head honcho of its classical recording department, once told me that if he thought a tape needed “a lot” of boost or cut he’d sent a note to the mastering booth ordering up position “2”; if he thought the recording needed “a little” or no EQ he’d order up position “1”—or none at all.

And then, of course, there was the way tapes were routinely dynamically compressed and bandwidth limited to make them more playable on the turntables of the day. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) example of this was Pines of Rome. In its original 1s/1s (the first stamper) pressing, it was released without dynamic/frequency limiting. Pfeiffer told me that almost every single copy of that first issue was returned to RCA by angry consumers, who simply couldn’t play it (their phonograph needles would literally jump out of the grooves), which is why the 1s/1s is so rare. The tape was immediately remastered and by the second stamper the usual dynamic/frequency limitation had been applied.

In Kassem’s reissues I’d have to say that the usual stumbling blocks have been sidestepped. Great care has been taken to do the right things, starting with the way the decision to remaster these RCAs was made.

To hear Kassem tell it there really was no compelling reason not to use Classic Records’ remastering for reissues. Indeed, there was no compelling reason to reissue these oft-reissued RCAs at all—unless they could be made to sound substantially better than previous attempts. To this end, Kassem had three RCA tapes re-mastered by the late George Marino’s protégé, Ryan Smith, at Sterling Sound, in George’s mixing room using Marino’s VMS 80 lathe and an ATR 102 tape machine modified by Mike Spitz—the only one of its kind in the world. If the test LPs pressed at Chad’s own facility, Quality Record Pressings in Salinas, KS, from the lacquers made from these remastered tapes turned out to be merely as good as the Classic remasterings, Kassem decided he wouldn’t go further with the project. If they were only a little better than the Classic remasterings, he decided he still wouldn’t proceed. The new LPs had to sound a lot better to justify the complete remastering of some 25 titles and the investment of several hundred thousand dollars. The fact that I’m writing this preview will clue you into the results. There will be a genuine windfall of choice RCA titles released over the next year or two, starting in September, 2013.

Interestingly, Sony (which currently owns RCA) was not about to let the mastertapes—and Kassem’s reissues were made from the original two- and three-track tapes (not from RCA’s work parts or safety masters)—travel any distance. Those tapes that were stored in New York City had to be mastered by Smith in New York City (at Sterling Sound); those tapes stored in Los Angeles had to be mastered in or near L.A. by Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab. (It rather makes you wonder what sources certain other reissue houses, whose mastering facilities aren’t located nearby L.A. or in NYC, are using.)

Test lacquers were sent immediately to Kassem’s QRP facility in Salinas—a state-of-the-art, no-expenses-spared record-pressing plant the likes of which has never been seen before. Equipped with three different pressing machines, QRP also has Gary Salstrom, whom Kassem calls “the best plating man in America—maybe in the world,” managing the plant. According to Kassem a great LP starts with the plating. “We plate the lacquers the moment we get them with the most loving care possible. Then we press on a flat-profile, 200-gram disc of virgin vinyl with many quality control processes along the way.”

There are good reasons why recording companies worldwide send their lacquers to Kassem’s QRP. His records truly are quieter, flatter, less bedeviled by those annoying ticks and pops that, even today, show up with shocking regularity on brand-new discs. And of course—as is the case with any kind of noise in stereo hardware or software—quieter vinyl means an increase in low-level information and better dynamic range.

When I asked Kassem if he’d used tube equipment for his remasters, he got his back up a bit. “There is no guarantee that a vintage signal path will lead to superior sonic results,” said he. “Just compare the speed fluctuation on vintage tape decks with what is achievable today. Speed affects pitch stability. In fact, it affects everything.” I gathered that the gear at Sterling Sound—which has done such a fine job with Analogue Productions’ Verve, Elvis, and Patsy Cline reissues—is mostly solid-state. The Mastering Lab tends to be more tube-centric, although neither outfit is purely tube or transistor. Kassem actually made a rather persuasive argument that it is the injudicious use of eq that is responsible for sonically disappointing reissues—and not the preponderance of tubes or transistors. (For the record, though doubtlessly judiciously eq’d, no frequency-range limiting or dynamic compression was applied to these new discs.)

Of course, the real proof is in the listening. And to my delight the listening proved Kassem’s point. For this preview I’m not making a thorough record-by-record comparison to the Classic reissues or the originals (although I do draw a few specific comparisons). In general I’ve concentrated on string tone, bass, and dynamics. Here then are my initial grades for the Analogue Productions’ RCA albums I’ve heard thus far.

1) LSC-2183 The Reiner Sound. Reiner. CSO. Producer: Richard Mohr; Recording Engineer: Lewis Layton. Grade: A+. As good as this record has ever sounded. Liquidly beautiful string and wind tone, very deep and powerful bass (although the orchestra occasionally overloads the mics or mic preamps, as it does on the original RCA pressings), sensational dynamics on both the Ravel Rapsodie and the Rachmaninoff Isle of the Dead (with some of the lifelike ease you usually only hear on reel-to-reel tape), and astonishing preservation of inner detail (some of which I haven’t heard before this clearly on vinyl or digital).

2) LSC-2201 Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. Reiner, CSO. Producer: Richard Mohr; Recording Engineer: Lewis Layton. Recorded December 7, 1957 in Orchestra Hall, Chicago. Grade: A+. Once again, as good as I’ve heard this record sound. Gorgeous strings, superb bass, avalanche dynamics with that same tape-like ease, sensational inner detail. The authority of the CSO is really something on fortissimo tuttis, of which there are many in Pictures.

3) LSC-2230 Spain. Reiner, CSO. Producer: Richard Mohr; Recording Engineer: Lewis Layton. Recorded April 26, 1958 in Orchestra Hall, Chicago. Grade A. Another triumph with ravishing string tone, so sweet and liquid it could’ve been poured from a jar. Not as spectacular as the previous two titles because the (mostly) Albéniz compositions aren’t as consistently slam-bang dynamic, though when the music heats up so do the sonic thrills.

4) LSC 2367 Gerswhin: Rhapsody in Blue, American in Paris. Fiedler, Boston Pops Orchestra. Producer: Richard Mohr; Recording Engineer: Lewis Layton. Recorded May 13-14, 1959 in Symphony Hall, Boston. Grade: A++. This is a disc that I have never been wild about (though it was always one of HP’s favorites). My complaint was the cavernous hole in stage center, which made Earl Wild’s piano sound tiny, distant, and swamped with reverberation. Here mastering magic has been done by Kassem and his crew. The piano track, apparently not properly mixed back in ’59, has been given the prominence it should always have had. Don’t worry: The “stage” ambience (usually a bit of a misnomer, given that the BPO was seldom recorded on the stage of Symphony Hall, more often in the “orchestra section” of the hall, after the first-floor seats had been removed) has not been lost; it’s just no longer overcooked, making a scintillating performance that much more immediate and exciting. (Thus the extra “+.”)

5) LSC 2436 Respighi: Pine of Rome, Fountains of Rome. Reiner, CSO. Producer: Richard Mohr; Recording Engineer: Lewis Layton. Recorded October 24, 1959 in Orchestra Hall, Chicago. Grade: A. The exceedingly rare 1s/1s pressing of this disc has been celebrated and sought after ever since Carol B. Keasler wrote her famous article in TAS on the best RCAs (she ranked the 1s/1s Pines the #3 RCA of all-time). If you don’t have a 1s/1s pressing, you will doubtlessly find this remastering sensational. Since I do have a 1s/1s, I’d have to say that there aspects of the 1s/1s that are marginally superior to the Analogue Productions reissue—and vice versa. Though beautiful, string tone doesn’t seem quite as silken on the Kassem reissue as it does on the RCA original; on the other hand, the staggeringly powerful bass on “The Pines of the Appian Way” (replete with gong and organ) retains all of its thunder and then some on the Analogue Productions’ re-pressing with, once again, a fair measure of tape-like ease and authority. (As with The Reiner Sound, the bass is a little murky in spots, probably the results of mic preamp overload. In any event that occasional murkiness is also present on the 1s/1s and the Classic reissue.)

6) LSC 2446 Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade. Producer: Richard Mohr; Recording Engineer: Lewis Layton. Recorded February 8, 1960 in Orchestra Hall, Chicago. Grade: A+. Another one of HP’s favorites, this LP (at least in its earliest pressings) is famously wonderful sounding, and the Analogue Productions version certainly lives up to the hype. Once again string tone—and this disc is celebrated for its string tone—is ravishingly beautiful. The bass is astonishing deep and authoritative. And dynamics are tremendous.

In sum, I highly recommend all of these celebrated RCAs in their Analogue Productions reissues. They will cost you $30 a disc, which is a more-than-fair price considering that they are, IMO, uniformly superb (yes, beter than the Classic Records versions). All LPs can be pre-ordered at http://store.acousticsounds.com/index.cfm?get=results&searchtext=Any&labelid=4868&OrderBy=4&ResultsPerPage=50. I should also note that these same titles will simultaneously be reissued in the hybrid stereo SACD format.