Nearly eight million old-fashioned vinyl records have been sold this year, up 49% from the same period last year, industry data show. Younger people, especially indie-rock fans, are buying records in greater numbers, attracted to the perceived superior sound quality of vinyl and the ritual of putting needle to groove.
But while new LPs hit stores each week, the creaky machines that make them haven't been manufactured for decades, and just one company supplies an estimated 90% of the raw vinyl that the industry needs. As such, the nation's 15 or so still-running factories that press records face daily challenges with breakdowns and supply shortages.
Their efforts point to a problem now bedeviling a curious corner of the music industry. The record-making business is stirring to life—but it's still on its last legs.
Robert Roczynski's dozen employees work overtime at a small factory in Hamden, Conn., to make parts for U.S. record makers struggling to keep abreast of the revived interest in LPs. Mr. Roczynski's firm says orders for steel molds, which give records their flat, round shape, have tripled since 2008.
"They're trying to bring the industry back, but the era has gone by," says Mr. Roczynski, 67 years old, president of Record Products of America Inc., one of the country's few suppliers of parts for the industry.
Many producers, including the largest, United Record Pressing in Nashville, Tenn., are adding presses, but there has yet to be a big move by entrepreneurs to inject capital and confidence into this largely artisanal industry. Investors aren't interested in sinking serious cash into an industry that represents 2% of U.S. music sales.
Record labels are waiting months for orders that used to get filled in weeks. That is because pressing machines spit out only around 125 records an hour. To boost production, record factories are running their machines so hard—sometimes around the clock—they have to shell out increasing sums for maintenance and repairs.
Large orders from superstars create bottlenecks, while music fans search the bins in vain for new releases by The War on Drugs, a Philadelphia indie group, or French electronic duo Daft Punk. More requests for novelty LPs—multi-colored, scented, glow-in-the-dark—gum things up further.
Nick Blandford, managing director of Secretly Group, a family of independent labels, in Bloomington, Ind., is putting in orders now to make sure his artists' LPs are in stores for next year's "Record Store Day" in April.
To get more machines, record-plant owners have been scouring the globe for mothballed presses, snapping them up for $15,000 to $30,000, and plunking down even more to refurbish them.
Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who studies what he calls "technology re-emergence," is familiar with this industrial netherworld.
Swiss mechanical watches, fountain pens and independent bookstores all re-emerged from the doldrums by reinventing themselves for consumers and then attracting investment from entrepreneurs, he says.
"The question is whether there's enough demand for vinyl to make this jump. And it's too soon to tell," Mr. Raffaelli says.
There are lots of hurdles in the way of any such reinvention.
Just one company, Thai Plastic & Chemicals, which has a three-person shop in Long Beach, Calif., supplies the vast majority—as much as 90%, the firm says—of the raw polyvinyl chloride compound needed to make records across the country.
Jack Cicerello, TPC manager for North America, says after his old company, Keyser Century, closed in the mid-2000s, there were no suppliers of raw vinyl left in the U.S.
Thai Plastic & Chemicals, a Thai maker of plastic products, tapped Mr. Cicerello to expand its presence in North America, and he and some colleagues proposed launching a side business of shuttling Thai-made raw vinyl to American record-pressing plants.
But things can easily go awry. In October, a truck carrying raw vinyl to Quality Record Pressings, a plant in Salina, Kan., broke down just as the plant was ramping up production for Black Friday. "We almost ran out of vinyl," says
Gary Salstrom, QRP's general manager.
Another step early in the record-making process—making the "master" record from which copies are made—is even more archaic.
Len Horowitz, 62, is one of a handful of people who know how to fix sensitive electronic components involved in record mastering. In September, one mastering firm's cutting lathe—used to engrave music from an analog tape or digital file onto a blank disc that becomes the master—broke down. It took weeks to come back online.
"It's one thing to be short presses, or short capacity," Mr. Horowitz says. "If you can't cut anything, everything stops—a real panic begins."
The actual process of pressing records is surprisingly labor-intensive. During a visit to Brooklynphono, a smaller plant in New York City, the pressing machines required constant monitoring. Minor things kept going wrong, requiring workers to make adjustments.
"Things fall apart," says Thomas Bernich, who runs the plant with his wife Fern. "I get lots of butterflies." He could make a new machine, but that would cost him upwards of $250,000, which is prohibitively expensive.
Once the equipment is in place, technicians are needed to train younger staff. But maintaining the industry's human capital as veterans like Mr. Roczynski retire is another big challenge.
Mr. Roczynski has been in the business since age 16, when he began working at his father's company. In 1946, Mr. Roczynski's father, Stanley, was tapped by CBS Records, which pressed records at America's first LP plant in Bridgeport, Conn., to design equipment. The elder Mr. Roczynski eventually made record equipment the main focus at his factory.
Some 50 years later, Mr. Roczynski is acting as an equipment broker to connect people seeking old machines to those unloading them, for a fee—though it is getting harder to find anything usable. Since Mr. Roczynski has no one to pass Record Products to, he'll probably sell when he retires—but he says he wants to stay on as a consultant for a while.
"We've done all the work," he says. "Why throw it away?"
Both Chad Kassem and the vinyl records he sells are making an unexpected comeback from near oblivion.
Kassem, a native Cajun, started as an unwilling immigrant to Kansas. He now spends his days behind a messy desk covered with stacks of LPs thinking about how to extend his unlikely music empire based on an obsolete technology.
His Acoustic Sounds and its several subsidiaries employ 90 people spread over three buildings in the city's industrial north end.
He has businesses that press new vinyl records, make and distribute high-quality digital downloads, buy and sell old records, and buy and sell audio equipment. He even has a recording studio in an old church downtown.
He owns a record factory, Quality Record Pressings, at a time when vinyl is again a hot thing in music after nearly disappearing in the early 1990s. Through the first 11 months of 2014, 8 million vinyl records were sold, a 49 percent increase over the year before, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
As a result, demand is red hot for time at his plant. He put a second shift at his record-making company, Quality Record Pressings, this summer and company makes 6,000 albums a day. He expects to put on a third shift in the next few months. He has to tell record companies they have to wait to get their product on his presses.
"The whole industry is months and months behind," he said.
The reason for the revival is simple, he said: People love the sound of vinyl.
The analog sound is warmer, fuller, richer than what's delivered by the mass market compact discs.
He's married to the sound, not necessarily the technology. In the last year, he also launched a digital download service, Super HiRez digital, that provides the same high quality sound in digital that it does in analog. It produces reissues under its Analogue Productions label and its new music under APO Records label.
Earlier this month, Kassem was in Los Angeles to receive the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society's "21st Annual Founders Award" for extraordinary contributions to audiophiles worldwide.
To some extent the vinyl revival is a luxury niche, like curated adventure travel or Rolex watches. The new records, heavy at 180-200 grams with beautifully laid out art and liner notes, cost in the range of $30 to $50. It's easy to spend a few thousand dollars a year on vinyl. Audiophiles, the people who really love the music, are willing to pay for it.
The company's main demographic is upper-income middle-aged white men, said David Clouston, the company's communications associate.
Some can even afford the $30,000 turntables sold in the company's catalog.
"The people who spend that kind of money tend to set up listening rooms in their homes — I hate to say 1 percent, but yeah," Clouston said.
But it's not about money, it's about the music.
"I'm really no different from the guys who buy records from me," he said. "What's fun is to come in and hear my favorite music. Reissue an album and hear it sounding better than it's ever sounded before."
A visit to Acoustic Sounds can be a startling experience because the staff here are touching, even tweaking, some of the most emblematic music of the last 70 years.
Earlier this month, a visit through the pressing room revealed Neil Young's new solo "Storytone" on a couple of the record-pressing machines, and reissues of Bob Dylan's "Bringing It All Back Home" and the Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari" on other machines.
The reissues start with the original masters, hidden away in vaults in Los Angeles or New York. A master engineer recuts a first copy, called a "lacquer," which is delivered overnight to Salina. He has a crew that handles the high-skilled work of making stampers, the dies that put the grooves on the vinyl.
Production workers coat the "lacquer" with silver and then a nickel alloy. That is used to create a second copy, "the mother," which is used to create "stampers," the dies used to stamp the grooves on the hot vinyl.
The result of this reprocessing can be pretty impressive.
He and his staff played Sam Cooke's "Bring it on Home to Me" in the company's listening room. The original featured Cooke's soulful voice, but the vocal edges were ragged and the sound a little muddy as if coming from the next room — caused by time and the limitations of a 1960s-era mass market disc. The company's reissued version, taken from the original master and reproduced on high quality vinyl, is clearly the same song, but considerably cleaner and brighter. Sam Cooke's voice had moved into the same room as the listener.
"Sometimes we blow them away, sometimes it's just a little bit better," Kassem said.
In the graphics department, workers were cleaning up the original photos of those Beach Boys covers where Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine are frolicking on a beach. The designers work with the studios to get the original photos or, sometimes, to create their own designs if it's something like a boxed set.
The company also retains it longtime business of buying and selling records. The company now has nearly 100,000 records in the company headquarters and in its climate-controlled warehouse.
His best decision
Kassem's big corner office is messy, his desk piled high with records and CDs that he is in the midst of evaluating.
Next to his desk sits a turntable. On the floor in front of his desk are more stacks of records and beyond those, a couple large speakers directed at his chair, making it the room's "sweet spot."
It wasn't very obvious in 1984 that Kassem was headed for success.
He grew up in Cajun country, Lafayette, La., and even after 30 years in Kansas, he still has a Cajun accent.
He freely acknowledges that he partied, drank and smoked pot heavily in his teen years, barely graduating high school. By age 21, he faced a judge and a choice: jail time or a drug treatment/half-way house in Salina.
Coming to Kansas was the best thing that ever happened, he said.
After seven months, the pot in his brain finally cleared, and he started to see the world a little more clearly. He remained in Salina, at first, because Kansas had a law that allowed him to cut his probation if he stayed sober. He also realized that going back to Louisiana would probably mean going back to drugs.
As he killed time waiting, he continued his old business of buying and selling records. By 1985, he was living in a small apartment and he placed an ad in the back of Audio Magazine.
His business took off. By 1990, he said, he was doing $100,000 a month in record sales out of his house. City inspectors came down on him.
"I don't think they minded the UPS trucks coming to the house every day, but when the 18-wheelers started coming ..." he said.
He's moved the business five times since then, and every time he moves, he thinks he's arrived and will never have to move again. But he's an entrepreneur, always looking for a new or complementary niches.
He took major financial risks in opening the pressing plant in 2011 and the digital download business last year.
Next year, he plans to open a printing plant for labels and add more vinyl pressing machines.
"I could never have imagined you can do what you love for a living," he said.
He's still torn by his Cajun heart and his Midwestern head. He still loves Louisiana, its culture and its fun-loving attitude. But he's stayed in Salina because Kansans are hard-working, modest and conscientious. It's a good place to build a business, he said.
Plus, he's trying to prove a point.
After he completed his probation in Kansas, his probation officer wrote a letter to officials in Louisiana. The result: Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards actually issued Kassem a full pardon.
His life, to some extent, is a validation of that gesture. He's stayed in Salina, stayed out of trouble, built a solid business that employs a lot of people.
We reinvest in keeping vinyl and the blues alive. That’s what we care about.”
Chad Kassem returned to those two passions several times in our phone conversation of a few weeks ago. Kassem owns Analogue Productions, which produces exquisitely remastered recordings on vinyl, hybrid SACD/CD, and, beginning recently, high-resolution downloads. The label’s subsidiary, APO Records, releases new music by blues artists Jimmy D. Laine, Weepin’ Willie, Henry Townsend, and many others. Kassem markets his products, as well as recordings from other labels, through his website, Acoustic Sounds.
As I was getting ready to write this piece, I tried to recall the first time I heard about Analogue Productions. It was probably in the late 1990s, when I picked up a copy of their pressing of You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce! According to the company’s website, Chad Kassem established the label in 1991 as a way to reissue some of his favorite recordings in audiophile-quality sound.
Kassem was living in Salina, Kansas, a small city in the north central part of the state. He’d moved there in 1984 from Louisiana, to enter a halfway house to treat his addiction and substance abuse. In 1985, he began buying collectible LPs and reselling them from his two-bedroom apartment. That apartment-based business became Acoustic Sounds.
“I was there with vinyl when CDs were starting to take over, before all the Johnny-come-latelies,” Kassem told me. At that time, as LPs disappeared from store shelves and were replaced by CD longboxes, everyone in the music industry was predicting that the Compact Disc would kill the long-playing record. Nearly 30 years later, not only is the LP not dead, but CDs themselves are fading. “I trusted vinyl,” Kassem says, “but I didn’t foresee the death of the CD.”
When I bought You Get More Bounce from Curtis Counce!, Analogue Productions and the now-defunct Classic Records were reminding listeners that vinyl was still around and still vital by producing painstakingly remastered, all-analog pressings. Stan Ricker remastered You Get More Bounce, and when I replayed it again today I was struck by how open and deep the soundstage is, and how much musical detail the record conveys. Acoustic Sounds showed that American companies could make vinyl of higher resolution and better sound than CDs.
Now there are more American companies producing good vinyl than ever, among them Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, Original Recordings Group, Music Matters, and Sundazed. Analogue Productions is unique in not only overseeing the mastering of recordings from the best possible sources, but also manufacturing LPs in its own plant, Quality Record Pressings (QRP), also based in Salina. QRP opened its doors in 2011. “We wanted to make the best records in the world, control the process, and get the product on time,” said Kassem.
While some APO titles are available on CD, Acoustic Sounds’ preferred digital format appears to be the SACD/CD, a few of which I’ve reviewed: Holly Cole, Sam Cook, and Ray Charles. And through its Super HiRez division, Acoustic Sounds has also recently introduced high-definition digital downloads in FLAC and DSD formats at various resolutions. As Kassem said, “[Acoustic Sounds] is the only site that has it all -- LP, SACD/CD, and high-resolution downloads.”
Kassem is a larger-than-life character with a forceful personality, even over the phone. I wondered how he was able, even in the early years of Analogue Productions, to get companies to license recordings to him. “You can buy the Empire State Building if you offer enough money,” he answered. “It’s just basic negotiation. They tell you what it will cost, and you do it or you don’t.” After talking to Kassem for half an hour, though, it was clear to me that he could, through the power of his personality and the strength of his argument, persuade a record company to let him press their recordings on vinyl. His commitment to the format and his conviction that it should be done well are that convincing.
When Kassem decided to reissue the Doors’ albums on vinyl, he had a bit of good fortune. “The Doors’ manager is an audiophile, and he knew we would do a good job with their recordings. We hire the best, and put our heart and soul in it.” Doug Sax mastered the Doors albums, and Bruce Botnick, who produced and engineered the original recordings, oversaw the project. Sax used all-tube gear for the remastering, and Analogue Productions pressed each album on two 45rpm LPs.
My copy of The Doors is a Quality Records Pressing. QRP pressings, even for labels other than Analogue Productions, are easy to identify by their static-free inner sleeves, on which are printed the company’s name. Although the jackets of some Analogue Productions releases come in lighter-weight cardboard, the Doors LPs are in heavy stock with a beautiful, glossy finish. The black-and-white photo of the band on the inner gatefold of The Doors is fuzzy, but the color and reproduction of the original cover is excellent.
The Doors recordings were so well done that even my early-1980s LP of The Doors has a broad soundstage and a natural flow -- or so I thought until I heard this new pressing. The low-end keyboard lines that open “Break on Through” have more oomph, and John Densmore’s drums in the left channel sound as if a veil had been lifted from them. Jim Morrison’s voice is much more realistic and three-dimensional, and the image of his voice is more intimately in the room with me.
“Soul Kitchen” is one of my favorite Doors tracks, and on this pressing Larry Knechtel’s bass line, which anchors the song, is more defined and driving. The touch of reverb originally added to Densmore’s hi-hat is much easier to hear on this pressing than on my older LP, and the dramatic buildup in the chorus is more vivid. Another of my favorites is the band’s version of Brecht-Weill’s “Alabama Song.” The tuba that bleats in the left channel is clear and punchy on this master, and Robbie Krieger’s sharp guitar chords, played against Ray Manzarek’s harpsichord lines, are placed more distinctly apart from the other instruments and come through with more intensity.
“The End” takes up all of side 4 of this two-disc release, and this dramatic track sounds much more exciting than on my other LP. The sense of space that’s essential to the song’s impact is much more impressive and deep, aided by the 45rpm groove cutting. It brings forward important details, such as guitarist Robbie Krieger’s plectrum strokes behind the bridge in the song’s opening moments. The tambourine shimmers in the opening have a haunting edge that emphasizes this track’s feeling of menace. Morrison’s voice is more intense and emotionally urgent, and Krieger’s minor chords are harmonically richer and rounder in tone.
I’d been happy with my old pressing of The Doors, but I doubt I’ll play it again -- the Analogue Productions version is better in every way. It brings me closer to the music, more inside the recording, and lets me really hear how exceptional it is, sonically and musically. You’ll believe, for 40 minutes or so, that it’s 1967 again.
QRP also pressed my copy of Analogue Productions’ reissue of Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue, the jazz guitarist’s 1963 masterpiece. A friend sent a tape to me in 1981 that I played constantly, and for me the album defined Blue Note Records, the label that released it. I finally picked it up on CD in the mid-’90s, but didn’t get around to buying an LP until I saw it on Acoustic Sounds’ website. Like The Doors -- in fact, like all of Analogue Productions’ currently available LP reissues -- Midnight Blue is pressed on two discs cut at 45rpm.
Ray Barretto’s congas in “Chitlins con Carne” help set the album’s simmering, late-night atmosphere. On the CD they sound somewhat sharper toned, but this LP lets them sustain more, and reveals a more expansive sound that’s appropriate to such a large, deep-toned instrument. Billy English’s snare-drum taps are also brighter on the CD, but on the LP they ring more deeply, and they’re placed in support of the rest of the instruments, especially Stanley Turrentine’s tenor sax. On the LP, Burrell’s guitar sounds more like the hollow-body electric it is, and the notes of his solos blend together better and more fully.
Major Holley’s low bass rumble in the opening of “Mule” is impressive and deep on this remaster, his long, sliding notes lingering in space. Burrell’s guitar lines flow easily, and with a better midrange feel, than on the CD. English’s hi-hat taps have more body, and his ride cymbal is more precisely placed. When Turrentine’s smoky tenor enters, it’s clearly out in the room and the bell of the horn is easier to visualize. Burrell’s chords in his solo feature, “Soul Lament,” are expansive and warm on this LP, in contrast to their brighter tone on the CD, which makes them sound as if they’re being played on a solid-body electric.
I’ve enjoyed the CD of Midnight Blue, and I think many of the qualities I prefer on this newer LP pressing are inherent to vinyl. However, I can also hear that when Kevin Grey and Steve Hoffman remastered it, they made choices that resulted in a richer, more spacious version of this classic session.
I also listened to two Analogue Productions releases not pressed at QRP. Pallas Records, in Germany, made my copy of Gil Evans’s Into the Cool, and my copy of Hank Mobley’s Workout came from RTI, in California. Though I recommend both of these sets, I won’t go into detail about their mastering -- I mention them only because Pallas and RTI are acknowledged as the best vinyl producers in the world. But the QRP pressings I’ve described are just as good. They’re quiet, they’re beautifully finished at the edges, there are no anomalies (such as small dimples or hazing), and they sound remarkable.
I have several LPs from Sundazed Records pressed by QRP, including two Donovan albums and the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I noticed a marked improvement in background silence and resolution over some other Sundazed titles I have, although many of their LPs have been pressed well enough by United Record Pressing, in Nashville. When I compared a Sundazed mono of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited I bought 12 years ago with a recent QRP pressing of that album, the difference was easy to hear. There was much more space, inner detail, and life in the newer pressing, which I suspect was remastered by Kevin Grey.
Chad Kassem put a lot of energy and thought into how QRP could make great vinyl, and was able to do some things to improve the manufacturing of LPs. The company’s website points out that because no one has made new vinyl presses in some time, QRP rebuilt and modified older presses made by SMT, Toolex Alpha, and Finebilt. They added microprocessors to the presses that “allow both the operator and the engineer a level of control capability and feedback simply unavailable with manual valves and control systems.” Kassem also brought in Gary Salstrom, whose long career in LPs includes work with RTI and Classic Records as a plating engineer. Mark Huggett, another industry veteran, came out of retirement to ensure that QRP’s modified presses are working efficiently and consistently.
Thirty years ago, when it looked as if CDs would soon be our only option, and that turntables, tonearms, phono cartridges, and the LP itself would disappear from the marketplace, vinyl lovers felt something like despair. But demand for vinyl is now high enough for a new, world-class pressing plant to join Pallas and RTI, and other plants are doing work that is often very good. New turntables are easy to find on the Web, if not in your local shop, and many entry-level ’tables are very good. Chad Kassem was among the very few who all along has kept the vinyl faith. If you, too, love what Stan Ricker calls licorice pizza, you owe Kassem your thanks.
Stevie Ray Vaughan: Texas Hurricane
Epic/Legacy/Analogue Productions AAPB SRV33-BOX (6 LPs, 331?3rpm). 1983–1991/2014. John Hammond Sr., orig. exec. prod.; Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Hammond Jr., Richard Mullen, others, orig. prods.; Richard Mullen, James Geddes, Lincoln Clapp, others, orig. engs.; Chad Kassem, reissue exec. prod.; Ryan Smith, remastering. AAA. TT: 3:55:20
He was the shining star the blues world had always dreamed of: the rare performer who could break through to the musical mainstream. Yet alas, he flashed across the musical heavens and was gone far too soon, dying in a helicopter crash in August 1990, at the age of 35. That Stevie Ray Vaughan's reign as blues-guitar hero was brief but incendiary is driven home yet again by this spectacular new boxed set from Epic/Legacy and Chad Kassem's Analogue Productions label.
Available in three formats—331?3rpm or 45rpm vinyl and SACD/CD (the last also contains the bonus tracks previously available on Epic/Legacy's CD reissues), Texas Hurricane collects the four studio albums released during Vaughan's lifetime—Texas Flood, Couldn't Stand the Weather, Soul to Soul, and In Step—as well as Family Style (1990), recorded with brother Jimmie Vaughan; and the posthumous The Sky Is Crying, assembled by Jimmie. Missing are the musically unfocused and badly recorded Live Alive (1986), and such major posthumous releases as In the Beginning (1992) and Live at Carnegie Hall (1997).
The most crucial aspects of Vaughan's style and sound were the copious amounts of soul and feeling he poured into his playing. After that came his speed. The man had fingers as fleet as those of Jimi Hendrix, his greatest influence (along with Lonnie Mack and Albert King) and the player to whom he is most often compared, favorably or not. Finally, there was the overdriven sound he got from his Fender Twin reverb amps and what he called his 1959 Fender Stratocaster (it was actually built from an early-1960s body and neck). Vaughan didn't use huge numbers of effects, preferring to stick mostly to wah-wah and screamer pedals.
For Texas Hurricane, the original 30ips, ½" analog master tapes were used for the studio albums and the SACDs' bonus tracks. Using a Neumann VMS 80 cutting lathe, Sterling Sound's Ryan Smith cut the lacquers for the 200gm LPs. Gary Salstrom handled the plating, and the vinyl was pressed at Kassem's Quality Record Pressings, in Salina, Kansas. Andy Aledort, senior editor for Guitar World, wrote the liner notes, with contributions from Vaughan biographer Craig Hopkins. The LP jackets were printed direct to board, and the first 1000 boxed sets are numbered in gold foil. Kassem is particularly proud that Texas Hurricane corrects an error in Vaughan's catalog: Unlike every reissue since 1999, this one used the correct original master for Soul to Soul, which contains the right take of "Life Without You."
Even those familiar with these standards of Vaughan's catalog will be impressed by the sound on the LPs. These recordings have never sounded this good, and likely will never sound better. Layers seem to have been stripped away, and the music seems to have been set free. Vaughan's guitar has new bite and edge. His first-rate backing duo of drummer Chris "Whipper" Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon has more low-end impact and a wider, more dynamic soundstage. Overall, when A/B'd against both previous CD reissues and the original LPs, these tracks sound brighter, with more detail.
Some key tracks tell the story of this reissue's superior sound. From Vaughan's sparkling debut, Texas Flood, his finest album, comes one of his biggest hits, "Pride and Joy": the 331?3 edition sounds more spacious, with Vaughan's always-underrated singing more prominent in the mix. In the refreshing "Stang's Swang," from Couldn't Stand the Weather, SRV works out his swing-jazz chops. In no previous edition does his unaffected tone have this much presence, and the interplay of Vaughan's guitar and Fran Christina's snappy drumming has so much more life than has ever been audible before. "Crossfire," from the final studio album, In Step, hints that Vaughan had larger rock ambitions. From the opening crack of Layton's snare to Shannon's thick bass chords and the sweep of Vaughan's never-better guitar work, the new remastering and fresh pressings are nothing short of exceptional.
As with his idol, Hendrix, the question of where Stevie Ray Vaughan might have gone musically had he survived remains a mystery, yet sonically all questions have now been answered: Texas Hurricane is the Stevie Ray set to own and enjoy.—Robert Baird
In a cluttered office, Chad Kassem, owner of Quality Record Pressings (and Acoustic Sounds, Analogue Productions and several other vinyl-related businesses), said to me, "Sit here," pointing to his own chair. As I watched him load one of his reissues of a Shelby Lynne record onto the player he commanded, "No, face the speakers." As the music began, I instinctively glanced around for Shelby Lynne herself – her voice was so clear and immediate. I likened the experience to the first time I put on glasses. "I didn't know you were supposed to see this well!" I exclaimed to my mother.
At home, we play old records. By "old," I mean the type you pick up at a garage sale or thrift store. I enjoy the round, mellow sound of vinyl but I never imagined how much of the sound I was missing. Analogue Productions has reissued many old favorites from the Doors to Nat "King" Cole to Elvis Presley, and even some relative newbies like Norah Jones. Chad started Quality Record Pressings because his small company, Analogue Productions was dropping to the back of the line at record pressing companies as records have become a popular way to release albums at large record labels. For a vinyl-o-phile like Chad, the only option for pressing his own records was to make the best pressings possible. They now not only press their own reissues and the artists they produce, they also press records for almost every major label out there. They have been featured on NPR and in the New York Times with awed confusion. What is the best record pressing company doing in rural Kansas?
It is what I call historical accident. There is no reason that the company is here except that it is where Chad moved in 1984 from Lafayette, Louisiana. He did not move to start a business, or for some spectacular incentive package, but, "to get sober." He started buying and reselling records. As he expanded he moved from his apartment, to a house, to a commercial space. Then he started adding more businesses to his portfolio. He reissued vinyl albums. Then he produced his own artists, such as legends like Honeyboy Edwards and Weepin' Willie as well as young blues artists like Noah Wotherspoon and Marquise Knox in his Blue Heaven Studios, a renovated church down the road from Chad's offices. His most recent addition has been Quality Record Pressings (QRP).
"You can say it's in the middle of nowhere or you can say it's in the middle of everywhere." Chad said about Salina Kansas. Perhaps that was his pitch to Gary Salstrom (pictured above inspecting a master after the initial bath). Gary left RTI in Southern California to join Kassem and manage QRP. He takes the master through the plating process to produce the stampers. The stampers are then used in the room next door to stamp the records using vintage record presses (new record presses have not been produced since the early 1980s). The presses have been re-engineered and include electronic sensors to gauge temperature so that the operator now has even higher quality control of the record. The records are tested for quality and the ones that do not meet the exacting standards are recycled.
Chad brought in Gary to manage the plant but the people who operate the machines are not specially trained in record making. Many have backgrounds in HVAC systems and are comfortable with the types of operations that record machines perform. The re-engineering of the machines was also done locally. The innovation happening "in the middle of everywhere," is a combination of Chad's vision, Gary's expertise and about 50 employees who were able to adapt to a "new" product. Would it be possible for this company to exist anywhere?
Probably not. Chad is committed to Salina because of his employees and his daughter. He likes the quality of the workforce and the quality of the schools. Though he speaks longingly of Southern Louisiana, he seems disinclined to move his family and employees down there despite its well-established blues music industry. "You meet a child here and they are very educated and very smart and very well spoken, you know....This is a good place to raise children, I think....The schools are better. It's a big plus." When I look at a company like Chad's suite of businesses and listen to his story, I see the future of rural America. It is not a call center or an auto plant or a distribution center that will save Small Town, USA. It is the guy out of rehab that has a passion for records.
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 Salina, 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 Salina—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.
There were always record collectors who disdained the compact disc, arguing that an LP's grooves yielded warmth and depth that the CD's digital code could not match.
But the market largely ignored them. Record labels shuttered their LP pressing plants, except for a few that pressed mostly dance music, since vinyl remained the medium of choice for D. J.s.
As it turned out, that early resistance was not futile, thanks largely to an audience of record collectors, many born after CDs were introduced in the 1980s.
These days, every major label and many smaller ones are releasing vinyl, and most major new releases have a vinyl version, leading to a spate of new pressing plants.
When the French electronica duo Daft Punk released Random Access Memories" in mid-May, 6 percent of its first-week sales — 19,000 out of 339,000 — were on vinyl, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which measures music sales.
Other groups with a predominantly college-age audience have had similar success: the same week, the National sold 7,000 vinyl copies of its latest album, Trouble Will Find Me," and 10,000 Vampire Weekend fans opted for the LP version of Modern Vampires of the City." When the Front Bottoms, a New Jersey indie band, posted a photo of their players carrying stacks of LP mailing boxes on their Facebook page recently, their label, Bar/None, racked up what Glenn Morrow, who owns the label, described as phone orders for $2,000 worth of LPs in 10 minutes."
A growing number of classic albums — including the complete Beatles and early Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan catalogs — have had vinyl reissues in recent years as well.
Michael Fremer, who monitors the LP world on his Web site, Analogplanet.com, said: None of these companies are pressing records to feel good. They're doing it because they think they can sell."
About a dozen pressing plants have sprouted up in the United States, along with the few that survived from the first vinyl era, and they say business is so brisk that they are working to capacity. Thomas Bernich, who started Brooklyn Phono in 2000, says his company makes about 440,000 LPs a year, but a giant like Rainbo Records, in Canoga Park, Calif., turns out 6 million to 7.2 million, said Steve Sheldon, its general manager.
One plant, Quality Record Pressings, in Salina, Kan., opened in 2011 after its owner, Chad Kassem, grew impatient with delays at a larger plant where his own line of blues reissues was being pressed. His company, which runs four presses — acquired used, but modified to run more efficiently — now makes LPs for all the majors, and lists Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Nirvana reissues among its recent projects. He is currently pressing 900,000 vinyl discs a year.
We've always had more work than we could do," Mr. Kassem said. When we had one press, we had enough orders for two. When we had two, we had enough orders for four. We never spent a dollar on advertising, but we've been busy from the day we opened."
There is a limit to how much the vinyl business can expand right now. When it seemed inevitable that CDs would supplant LPs, the companies that made vinyl presses shifted to making other kinds of machinery. The last new press was built in 1982, so relatively recent start-ups like Quality and Brooklyn Phono searched out used presses (the going rate is about $25,000) and reconditioned them. Most plants have deals with local machine shops to make replacement parts.
Some pressing plants have looked into commissioning or building new presses but have found the cost prohibitive — as much as $500,000, said Eric Astor of Furnace MFG in Fairfax, Va. Since my partner also owns a CD/DVD plant," Mr. Astor said in an e-mail, we've been testing using the methods used in disc manufacturing to make a new breed of vinyl record, but that R&D is slow going and not looking promising."
How are LPs selling? That is a matter of dispute. David Bakula, Nielsen SoundScan's senior vice president of client development and insights, said that his company tracked 4.6 million domestic LP sales last year, an 18 percent increase over 2011, but still only 1.4 percent of the total market, made up mostly of digital downloads (which are increasing) and CDs (for which sales are declining). This year, Mr. Bakula said, vinyl sales are on track to reach about 5.5 million.
But manufacturers, specialist retailers and critics argue that SoundScan's figures represent only a fraction of actual sales, perhaps as little, Mr. Kassem and Mr. Astor said, as 10 to 15 percent. They say that about 25 million vinyl discs were pressed in the United States last year, and many more in Europe and Asia, including some destined for the American market.
Mr. Bakula countered that manufacturers are speaking of the number of discs made; SoundScan tracks how many were sold. But the manufacturers argue that LPs, unlike CDs, are a one-way sale: labels do not accept returns of unsold copies. Therefore labels and retailers are careful to order only what they think they can sell. Moreover, LP jackets do not consistently carry bar codes — Mr. Kassem, for one, leaves them off his discs because, he said, they're ugly" — and therefore cannot be scanned at the cash register. And many shops that sell LPs are independents that do not report to SoundScan, although Mr. Bakula said his company weights its figures to account for that.
There are other measures of the health of the field, including figures from ancillary businesses. Heinz Lichtenegger, whose Vienna-based Audio Tuning company produces the highly regarded Pro-Ject turntable, said in an e-mail that his company sells 8,000 turntables a month. And Mr. Fremer has sold 16,000 copies of a DVD, 21st Century Vinyl," that shows users how to set up several turntable models.
Vinyl retailers are thriving as well. Mr. Kassem of Quality Record Pressings also runs Acoustic Sounds, which sells LPs as well as turntables and accessories, including cleaning machines and protective sleeves. Music Direct, a Chicago company that owns Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, a storied audiophile label, has a similarly broad stock, including a selection of turntables that ranges from the $249 Music Hall USB-1 to the $25,000 Avid Acutus. Josh Bizar, the company's director of sales and marketing, said that Music Direct sold 500,000 LPs and thousands of turntables" last year.
And the buyers, Mr. Bizar said, are by no means boomer nostalgists.
When you look at the sales for a group like Daft Punk," he said, you're seeing young kids collecting records like we did when we were young."
We never expected the vinyl resurgence to become as crazy as it is," he said. But it's come full circle. We get kids calling us up and telling us why they listen to vinyl, and when we ask them why they don't listen to CDs, they say, ‘CDs? My dad listens to CDs — why would I do that?' "
Chad Kassem has been updating LP pressings of some classic RCA recordings, using today's state-of-the-art technology found at his own record pressing plant in Salina, Kansas, (Quality Record Pressings) and released through his Analogue Productions label. None of his resurrections is more gorgeous than his revivification of the classic Fritz Reiner/Chicago Scheherazade, itself a knockout of a recording in its Living Stereo issue. (Except, maybe Analogue Productions new version of the Reiner, Pines of Rome.)
We compared this new 200-gram, 33-rpm LP from Analogue Productions with the original RCA Living Stereo issue, and Classic Records 33 rpm version, and were surprised at the outcome. Why? Because to these ears, the new Analogue Productions version was the more relaxed and natural sounding of the bunch. The sound is as it should be, inviting the listener into the music and entirely consonant with Reiner's readings. This transfer bespeaks a confidence in the sound on the master tape, without the artificial touch-ups (a brightness) later found in the original Living Stereo pressing and the more pronounced jiggering in the version from Classic Records.
RCA graced this recording with some of their best engineering. Rimsky's orchestration seems tailor-made for a sonic showcase and this is exactly what the RCA engineers gave Reiner's well-nigh perfect reading. It is a reading of great subtlety and romanticism, which brings this too-often played piece to a newfound life. And so worth getting to know again if you've drifted away from it.
If ever there were a must-have LP in the recent wave of audiophile vinyl re-incarnations, this is it. Treat yourself and thank Kassem for doing it the justice it deserves.
Comment by Joey Weiss:
I've always held my original RCA pressing of this classic Reiner/CSO as a personal treasure. The strength of this recording – perhaps all RCA shaded dog" LPs for that matter – lives in the mid frequencies. They might as well have used the slogan, living midrange", instead of living stereo", because that is just what they deliver. This particular recordings strength lies in the string tone, especially the solo violin, representing Scheherazade herself, whose tale is woven throughout the four movements. The original pressing is simply lovely, translating everything that those RCA's do best. The violins are natural, the cellos romantic, and the trumpet calls are precise and penetrating. Unfortunately, this pressing is not without its many faults, as it is harmonically thin in the bass and overall dynamics are weak, almost shrill at the peaks. There is room for sonic improvement, most likely due to the lackluster vinyl pressing technologies of the day (at least, compared with what we have now), as subsequent reissues showcase.
One will immediately notice that the Classic Records (200 gram) redo sounds much darker and deeper than the original RCA, with increased tonal coloration throughout the harmonic range, especially in the mid to lower registers (double basses, cellos, violins, brass, et cetera). This LP takes the dramatic approach – a highly colored sweetness – and runs with it. The sound comes off as an interpretation of what they thought the recording should sound like, and to that end, the sound is not one of naturalness, but bursting with hi-fi spectaculars. The sound image pushes outward with a confrontational edge (there is even brightness in the higher harmonics) and a jazzed-up midrange that will impress any first time listener. But subtleties and nuances are generally passed over in favor of the harmonic onslaught (check out the rapid trumpet blasts in the last movement, which are uncomfortably forward in the mix, removed from their proper place in the mix). This version presents the performance with such an enhanced character, you will surely miss out on the delicateness that makes this particular recording so special.
I must admit that this Classic Records pressing is not without its charms – an epic widening of the stage, huge dynamics, and velvety rich violins – but these traits only further the super-sound" that defines this approach. The steroidal textures and cavernous dynamics make for a thrilling finale, but is perhaps more explosive than it really needs to be, instead of enraptured revelation, there is unrelenting intensity.
In the late 1980's, Chesky Records Inc. released an LP of this RCA recording. According to the liner notes, they sought to eliminate any unnecessary electronic coloration" and used all-tube electronics during the mastering process. Compared with the Classic Records LP, the Chesky sounds much more natural, laid-back even, with more ambience and breathing room. Compared with the original LP, there is a great deal of improvement in terms of dynamic range, frequency range, and overall clarity (most likely due to the improvements in the physical vinyl pressing itself). The Chesky is cleaner sounding and simply more thrilling than the original, thanks to a widening of the dynamic and harmonic range. I prefer this pressing to the Classic Records reissue because the latter is way too forceful and overemphasized in comparison.
Moving along to the new Analogue Productions (AP) pressing, we find ourselves with an exceptionally natural and musical sounding LP. It is also devoid of the drastic coloration of the Classic Records reissue, thankfully, forgoing over-dramatization and focusing on realizing the full potential of the information captured on the tape (the same approach as the Chesky). To these ears, the sound is lovely, with an unforceful immediacy, one that will excite you as it entices you. And it also happens to brings back some of that magical RCA midrange.
Without a doubt, the AP pressing sounds much more natural than the Classic Records reissue; the sound is simply less forced, as if the notes and rhythms have more air to explore, more ambient Hall to reverberate, and more of the acoustic envelope to reveal. Dynamics are explosive and clean, and the vinyl is so damn quiet, you can turn it up without any hesitation (the LPs are being pressed at QRP and plated by Gary Salstrom). The solo violin is the heart of this recording and it's supposed to sound seductive, and on this reissue, it does.
One thing is for certain; there is a lot more information coming through than on the original. The AP pressing takes the simplistic approach of the Chesky, but with a more developed sound, making the Chesky appear a bit subdued by comparison.
All the reissues mentioned above are superior to the original when it comes to bottom-end frequency (the original was seriously lacking fluid bass), deepening of tonal texture, the spatial imaging of the instruments, and the clarity of detail. The staging of the orchestra is also wider, and deeper, on all of the reissues than on the original LP. Regardless, the original contains something special, an essence that the others can't touch, perhaps stemming from sentimentality more than anything else, perhaps not. I keep thinking that the new Analogue Productions reissue sounds like the most realized version of this recording, or, simply, what it would have sounded like if the tapes were fresh today.
I find the new Analogue Productions LP to be a wonderful representation of this RCA. An original shaded dog" will delight with its antiquity and grace, but these days, they are not only difficult to find in pristine condition (well-loved LPs are also well-played LPs), but you will find they are also rather costly. Same goes for the Classic Records and the Chesky, both out-of-print and commanding relatively high prices on the used market, if you can even find one. (Considering the sound on this new reissue, those prices may quickly tumble.) If you are interested in hearing this classic RCA in all of its natural glory, you needn't look any further than Chad Kassem's latest offering. If this is any indication of Analogue Productions current batch of RCA reissues (approximately 24 more on the way), it just may be a new golden age for the modern vinyl listener. ~Joey Weiss
The Doors: Infinite / 12LP audiophile vinyl box set
It's pretty hard to not get carried away with sets such as Analogue Productions' recent DoorsInfinite vinyl box. For music lovers who have deep enough pockets, the contents of this box set represent something close to audio nirvana, with a presentation to match.
Not more Doors reissues, we hear you cry... well, yes Infinite collects the six studio albums again, but here's the thing: each album is pressed onto two 45 rpm vinyl records, attempting to provide the very best sonic experience, such as extended higher frequencies and lower noise.
Analogue Productions' remit is primarily about going back to the original analogue tapes and creating the best sounding reissues possible, but it's actually more than that. Crucially, they have recognised that for many, it's not just about the audio sounding great. If it were, we'd all be happy with hi-res downloads and the world would be a far less interesting place. They know that the records should feel great in your hands, and look the part. In short, the packaging needs to match the audio, in terms of quality.
Each record within the 12LP set is pressed onto ultra-heavy 200g vinyl, and the gatefold sleeves are of such thickness and quality that they weigh around 300g on their own. So if you do the math, each album weighs a staggering 700g.
To give you vinyl lovers a comparison, EMI's reissue of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust from 2012, came with what seemed a very good quality gatefold sleeve. Well that was around HALF the weight and thickness of these Doors sleeves. No one at this present time can come close to the quality on offer here. Rather than printing straight to board, (the cheap way of doing it) the sleeves are printed separately on paper stock and then mounted on to the board. Each jacket is then hand-folded and individually inspected. The vinyl jackets are all laminated for extra protection (and a luxury finish), and although that does cause fingerprints to show up quite easily, they are easy enough to wipe off.
Because these Doors albums are a significant part of rock history, the box set becomes a far richer experience than – for example – the already excellent Norah Jones Vinyl Collection, from the same company. For those that may have bought the records the first time around, over 40 years ago, the crack as you open the gatefold for the first time, the smell of the board used for the jacket, are likely to transport you back to that era. For those who may be purchasing Doors on vinyl for the first time, this is arguably going to be as close as you are going to get to recreating that experience.
Fonts are sharp, colours accurate and photos are vibrant. L.A. Woman stands out in particular with the correct embossing on ‘Doors' and the satisfying yellow tint (which looked a litte too green on last year's 40th anniversary CD). It should be pointed out that unlike Rhino's vinyl reissue of this title, Analogue Productions haven't attempted to recreate the rounded corners and die-cut sleeves of the original vinyl release.
The box itself has a wonderful front cover, with the classic Joel Brodsky photo of Jim Morrison faded into a slate grey, with the familiar Doors logo standing out in a bright, luminous green. The lid is secured by a hidden magnet and opens to reveal the six double LPs stacked inside. We actually preferred the style of box used for Norah Jones, where the you access the records ‘vertically', by sliding an inner tray out of the large rigid box. The Doors Infinite box design necessitates lifting the heavy set, laying it flat, and then taking records out to get the one you want underneath. As a storage solution it's not really as elegant or convenient as what was provided for Ms Jones.
At least with The Doors Infinite you get a large format booklet to go with the vinyl records (something absent from the Norah set). It contains 24 pages with photos (including each master tape), track listings and modest, but pertinent, summaries of each album by Ben Fong-Torres (the Rolling Stone journalist who conducted the last interview with Morrison). There is a back page within this booklet that explains the technical processes used to create this box set.
Of course no amount of time, money and talent expended on first class presentation will make up for audio that does not sound up to par, and thankfully that is not the case here. The vinyl is almost eerily quiet. Silent. All our LPs were nice and flat, although one LP in our set (side one and two of the 1967 self-titled debut) is pressed slightly off-centre, so the QC is not infallible. The later recordings in this box are probably better from an audio fidelity point of view, with L.A. Woman sounding incredible. It's very natural and not too bright, and easily betters the recent 40th anniversary CD, for example, with Jim Morrison's vocal far less harsh, particularly at high volumes. In fact cranking up the recent CD reissue is not pleasant at all compared to the analogue warmth of the vinyl. Morrison Hotel is another that sounds particularly good – again, with some very smooth vocals from Morrison and Manzerak's piano standing out at the beginning of The Spy. We'd be foolish to claim every track on every album sounds better than anything previously released (the DCC issues are held in high regard), but it's hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with the audio delivered by these new Analogue Productions pressings, and most will likely consider these to be absolutely exceptional, and probably the last word in stereo Doors vinyl.
The sound is incredible, but you do wonder how much less incredible it would be if each album were pressed on one 33 rpm LP. Does creating two 45s really make that much difference? And there's no escaping the fact that there is a great deal of getting up and down to turn records over. Strange Days has a running time of less than 40 minutes, so splitting this across four sides of vinyl could be seen as rather excessive. Side two of this Analogue Productions pressing lasts for only six and a half minutes!
In the end, you have to admire the sheer bravado in deciding to create these new editions. It has not been done before with this catalogue, and even if the improvement over 33rpm is only marginal, Analogue Productions have decided to do it anyway. This is down to a combination of pride in attempting to creating the ultimate Doors vinyl audio experience and commercial savvy, knowing that if you're going to charge $400 dollars for a box like this, it had better be something very special and a bit different.
Anyone considering buying this set will own all the albums already. That's a given. In fact it is quite likely that multiple versions of each record may reside on the shelf of prospective purchasers. What Analogue Productions have done with The Doors Infinite is create a stunning set that genuinely offers something new, to tempt aficionados. No right-minded fan or audiophile is going to expect a night-and-day transformation of how these records sound, but the two 45rpm approach, with mastering by Doug Sax and supervision by Bruce Botnick, is not to be dismissed as some kind of gimmick. It's accepted that the faster speed of 45rpm with only between around six and 11 minutes of music on each side will sound better – all things being equal – than a 33rpm pressing with 20+ minutes of music pressed onto it.
The Doors Infinite box set is certainly an indulgence at $400, but as they say in Hollywood when producers are justifying a big budget movie, the money is up there on the screen. In other words, should you decide to purchase this set, when you see (and listen) to the product you will conclude that it's reasonable value. If you are still not convinced, you can dip your toe into the water of Doors 45rpm vinyl and buy one or two of these individually. Analogue Productions will even sell you an empty Infinite box afterwards should you end up buying all six albums.
Chad Kassem doesn't like compact discs. He never has — not now, not back when manufacturers started churning them out in the 1980s. There are CDs in his office at Acoustic Sounds, the Salina-based music empire that he runs. But he listens to those only to decide whether his company will rerelease a better-quality vinyl version of the music contained on them.
"CDs push you out," Kassem says, standing inside a concrete-reinforced vault adjacent to his office. He tugs randomly at the sleeve of one of the thousands of vinyl records stored here. "Vinyl is more emotional. It feels better. It draws you in. You start playing a CD, and dogs leave the room.
"The major labels tried to kill vinyl," he continues. "At first you'd go to Sam Goody, and they'd have a little box of CDs, and the rest was records. Two years later, it was all CDs and a box of records. So I've been swimming against the current ever since I started Acoustic Sounds. But I trusted my ears. Now the Johnny-come-latelies are coming back to vinyl. I knew vinyl wasn't really going anywhere all along.
"But here's what I didn't predict," he says, and his eyes gleam. "What I didn't predict was that CDs would die so hard."
Kassem has earned the right to gloat. CD sales are plummeting, and vinyl sales rose for the fifth year in a row in 2012, from 3.9 million units in 2011 to 4.6 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Kassem is perhaps better positioned than any individual in America to benefit from these trends. Acoustic Sounds and its subsidiaries, all of which are located on a 70,000-square-foot campus near the train tracks that run north of downtown Salina, are essentially a massive bet on the market for vinyl. The company retails and distributes new and used records — plus an assortment of audiophile paraphernalia, such as turntables, preamps and speakers — online at acousticsounds.com. It supplies wholesale vinyl to independent record shops. It records artists at Blue Heaven Studios. It plates and presses vinyl records at its plant, Quality Record Pressings. And it reissues rare and out-of-print albums from such labels as Blue Note, Impulse and Prestige.
It has been only two years since Kassem decided to start pressing vinyl in Salina, but Quality Record Pressings already has an international reputation for high-end audio.
"I've visited almost every vinyl pressing plant in the world," says Michael Fremer, senior contributing editor at Stereophile magazine and editor of analogplanet.com. "And QRP is right at the top, along with a handful of others. There's Pallas, in Germany. There's Optimal, which is also in Germany. There's RTI, in California. And there's Chad and QRP. And I'm not sure there's anybody else getting the consistency he's getting. And here's another thing: RTI has been around 30 years. Pallas has been making records since before World War II. QRP just came out of nowhere."
In 1984, Kassem moved from Lafayette, Louisiana, to Salina to get sober. Why the middle of Kansas? "You don't send a drunk to New Orleans or Miami to get sober," he says.
He got a job as a cook at Russell's Truckstop Café and started collecting records as a hobby. Using mail-order catalogs, he traded, bought and sold rare and high-quality blues and jazz records. By 1986, he put a name on his operation: Acoustic Sounds.
Kassem has an obsessive streak and an audiophile's ear — advantageous characteristics for record collectors — and his business grew quickly. He moved from a two-bedroom apartment to a house with four bedrooms to accommodate the stacks of records piling up. By 1991, Acoustic Sounds was doing $100,000 a month in sales. "The neighbors started complaining about the 18-wheelers delivering pallets of records outside," Kassem says. "So we finally had to move to a commercial space."
Soon after he relocated operations to downtown Salina, Kassem started a reissue label, which he called Analogue Productions. He contacted record labels and negotiated deals to license their artists' original analog recordings, then had them remastered and pressed on high-quality vinyl. Then he sold the new records through Acoustic Sounds' mail-order catalog. (Analogue's first reissue was a classical record, Virgil Thomson's The Plow That Broke the Plains.)
Kassem also founded Analogue Production Originals (APO), a label dedicated to releasing new music from aging blues legends. In 1997, he bought an old Victorian church in Salina, converted it into Blue Heaven Studios, and began recording APO artists there. In the years since, APO has released new material from semi-forgotten blues figures such as Honeyboy Edwards, Jimmie Lee Robinson and Jimmy Rogers (a member of Muddy Waters' original band), plus Kansas City blues legends Myra Taylor and Little Hatch. He often records these artists while they're in Salina for Blues Masters at the Crossroads, the blues festival that Acoustic Sounds throws.
"He's recorded a wide range of American blues music down there," says Chuck Haddix, local blues historian and host of KCUR 89.3's The Fish Fry. "He brings a lot of love to those projects, and he does it right. The recordings he does are high-fidelity, 180-gram vinyl, and he captures these guys at the top of their game. He doesn't put out that much, but what he does is top-shelf, both artistically and technically. It's kind of a throwback to an earlier era. I mean, he holds a blues concert series in a converted church. Things take on a greater meaning in that kind of environment."
All record collectors dream of a big score, and Kassem's came about in 2004, when he bought a collection of 30,000 sealed records from a widow in Olathe.
"It was a pretty wealthy family, and they were all busy with jobs and careers, and they just didn't have the time to deal with sorting through all the husband's records and figuring out what was worth what," Kassem says. "I offered them a lump sum, drove down and picked up some guys from under a bridge near Southwest Trafficway, and we hauled every last record out of that place."
Acoustic Sounds moved into an old Dillon's grocery store shortly thereafter. Then, in 2011, it moved again, when Kassem decided to start pressing records himself.
Kassem's voice sometimes arches up into a yell. It is unclear how much control he has over it. "Stand over here," he barks, from behind his desk.
Kassem wears hoodies to work, but not in the hip manner of Silicon Valley CEOs. He pairs them with sweatpants in a way that suggests a man who does not think too hard about his physical appearance. His cluttered office gives a similar impression. Two human-sized speakers occupy the space across from Kassem's desk, where you might expect visitors' chairs to be. The rest is just promo boxes and stacks of records.
He drops the needle on People, Hell and Angels, an album of unreleased Jimi Hendrix songs that QRP recently pressed.
"You see how loud it is, but it's not hurting your ears at all? We can talk while it's on," Kassem says. "With bad recordings, you have to turn it down to really hear. I want to be able to turn it up. Why have the volume knob if you can't turn it up?"
He plays Counting Crows' debut album, August and Everything After, which QRP also recently pressed. "If the guys in this band ever heard this, they'd fire every fuckin' engineer or producer they ever hired before," he says.
There are only about 15 vinyl pressing plants in the United States and 30 worldwide. This relative scarcity would seem to suggest opportunity. But opening a pressing plant is not as simple as buying some machines and hiring some workers to operate them. It has been decades since new pressing equipment was built. After CDs were introduced, manufacturers assumed that the record presses and plating tools required to make vinyl records would become obsolete, and they stopped producing them.
To start their pressing plant, Kassem and his team had to track down old presses and then recondition them. The 10 presses and assorted machinery now churning inside QRP were hauled to Salina from such locations as London, Sweden and South Korea.
Finding someone with the knowledge and ability to oversee a pressing plant presented another challenge; plating and pressing records is a highly specialized skill. Kassem was able to convince Gary Salstrom to leave RTI in California, where he had earned a reputation as one of the most respected plating technicians in the world, move to Salina, and become QRP's plant manager. (Salstrom's wife grew up in Overland Park, which worked in Kassem's favor.)
"It was very shrewd of Chad to bring Gary in," says Marc Mickelson, the founder and editor of the Audio Beat, an online audiophile publication. "He's a really renowned guy in the audiophile world."
"There are only a few Garys in the world," Kassem says. "His expertise pushes us to a serious level. Because of Gary, we're able to produce the absolute highest-quality records."
Salstrom says he simply shares Kassem's philosophy about QRP serving discerning listeners. "We can't compete with [pressing plants] Rainbo and United. They're bigger, and they can offer lower prices," he says. "But the quality is not as good as ours. And there's a larger group of people out there moving toward quality, and those are the people that are seeking us out."
In the beginning, QRP cranked out only the albums that Acoustic Sounds wanted to press and sell. Quickly, though, QRP attracted customers: Smaller labels looking to press vinyl that had to wait in line behind the Sonys of the world to get their records done. Now bigger labels are calling, having heard the quality of other QRP releases.
So what is QRP doing that's so different than other plants? "If you overcook vinyl, you get dead spots," Salstrom says. "We keep plate lacquers at lower temperatures — plates at higher temperatures can induce pre-echo and high-end loss."
"I hate to make the analogy to McDonald's, because QRP is producing the equivalent of gourmet food, but there's a uniformity to the process at QRP that is kind of McDonald's-like," Fremer says. "For instance, they've installed sensors inside the actual tools so they can control and monitor the temperature. Nobody else has those. Other companies depend on the skill and intuition of the pressmen. They've also installed a valve system, where they know the precise temperature of the water coming in and going out. In other plants, that temperature will vary, and it will affect the quality of the sound on the finished product. There are a lot of small things like that that they're doing to ensure quality. Basically they're using modern computer technology to take an old technology and make it much better, and much more consistent.
"At first, the records were just OK," Fremer says. "They had to work out the kinks of their system. But now I get records from QRP, and they're quiet, flat and beautiful. You put the stylus in the groove, and you don't hear any noise. The depth of the quiet is really amazing. Chad made the investment from the beginning to surpass everybody else in terms of technology, and it's paid off."
Acoustic Sounds doesn't disclose its finances, but it keeps hiring — 56 employees at last count — and new business keeps coming in. On a good day, 500 orders leave the Acoustic Sounds warehouse. Recently, QRP pressed the entire Doors catalog, a boxed set of six studio albums that retailed at Acoustic Sounds for $400. Soon, Kassem's company will repress most of the Beach Boys' discography. My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James released his first solo album earlier this year; Salstrom plated it, QRP pressed it, and you can buy it on Acoustic Sounds' website as a 200-gram vinyl LP.
Kassem seems pleased by the progress, but he's still scheming. He has his eye on a new target: MP3s. "One of the main things we're finding is that people who want quality really want quality," he says. "So the next thing we're getting into is high-resolution downloads. They're as close to vinyl as you can get.
"I don't give a shit about the money, I really don't," Kassem says. "This whole thing started as a hobby, and it's still my hobby. To reissue my favorite albums and have them sound better than they did before — that's what I'm about."
Forty-two years after his death, rock guitar legend Jimi Hendrix still is making records, and Salina is playing a part in it.
On the occasion of what would have been Hendrix's 70th birthday, a new album of 12 previously unreleased studio performances is being released March 5 as a CD and double vinyl album entitled "People, Hell and Angels."
Newly struck mono vinyl editions of two of Hendrix's greatest albums, "Are You Experienced?" and "Axis: Bold As Love," also will be available on the same day, and a newly pressed vinyl box set of most of the Hendrix catalog is due to be released later this year.
And all of the vinyl records are being pressed right here in Salina.
Starting Tuesday, plating technicians at Quality Record Pressings, 543 N. 10th, began manning two of the six active presses at their plant. Their mission? To create two sets of vinyl, long-playing records (a total of 30,000), with each record containing six tracks to make up a double album containing 12 songs.
Quality Record Pressings is a division of Acoustic Sounds, a Salina-based audio equipment and vinyl album pressing and distribution company.
It's a huge order
Quality pressings' general manager and master lacquer plating technician Gary Salstrom believes it will take at least two weeks to process the records, which he said was a huge order by vinyl album standards.
"We're just using two presses now," he said. "We may have to double up to four if we fall behind."
Salstrom has heard the 12 tracks on the album and said the music is an awesome reminder that Hendrix -- whose hits included "Foxy Lady," "All Along the Watchtower" and "Purple Haze" -- was a musical genius and still arguably the greatest guitar player who ever lived.
"You know it's Hendrix, and his playing seems pretty inspired," he said.
'Somewhere' the single
The individually numbered double albums, which will sell for $29.98, are available for preorder before at acousticsounds.com. A CD version will released in stores the same day.
"Somewhere," a single from the new album, is due to be released as a digital single, limited edition vinyl single and CD single on Feb. 5.
Quality Record Pressings was opened in May 2011 to enhance the market for vinyl record collectors of reissued classic recordings and to press original recordings released by APO Records, Acoustic Sounds' record label.
The plant currently has 10 presses, "but only six are running full-tilt right now," said Acoustic Sounds owner Chad Kassem.
Passion for excellence
The Hendrix assignment was given to the Salina company by John McDermott, co-producer on "People, Hell and Angels" and manager of Experience Hendrix, the Jimi Hendrix music catalog.
Kassem said he and McDermott share a mutual love of blues music and a passion for audio excellence.
"He was a writer for Guitar magazine and did a good review of a Jimmy D. Lane release we did," Kassem said. "He knows about our commitment to quality. When we opened the pressing plant, he was the first person to say he was in. He was confident about what we could do."
Commitment to quality is why Experience Hendrix made the decision to press only three tracks on each side of the new Hendrix record and produce it as a double album.
"We could have done it as a single album, but with less songs on each side the better it sounds," he said.
Not his regular band
The tracks that make up "People, Hell and Angels" feature Hendrix working outside of his regular band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience trio. In 1968, Hendrix became eager to develop new material with old friends and new ensembles and create new sounds using different musical elements such as horns, keyboards, percussion effects and a second guitar.
The recordings were intended to possibly be included in Hendrix's upcoming album "First Rays of the New Rising Sun," his planned double album sequel to 1968's bestselling and groundbreaking album, "Electric Ladyland."
But on Sept. 18, 1970, the 27-year-old died from an accidental overdose of barbituates.
His 70th birthday
In 2010, Hendrix's final recordings with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Valleys of Neptune," was released. "People, Hell and Angels" is being released to coincide with Hendrix's 70th birthday, said Bob Merlis, a Los Angeles-based publicist for Experience Hendrix.
"This will help underscore his legacy," Merlis said.
Although some tracks from the new album have been available in other posthumous Hendrix releases, the new recording has been taken from original analog master tapes, Merlis said.
Close as you can get
"It's closest to the original as possible," he said.
Kassem said it is a great honor to help bring new Hendrix music to the world, especially 42 years after his death.
"It's a big deal for us," he said. "It's like a gift to the world."
In a world of increasing disposability, cut-price bargains, and cheap imports, it's reassuring when you find people (and organisations) that specialise in doing things properly. Getting it right. Attending to those tiresome details that others don't have the time or inclination for.
What we are talking about here is quality, with a capital ‘Q' – examples that come to mind might include the cut of a Saville Row suit, the brilliance of a Tiffany diamond, or the craftsmanship of the burr walnut dash and hand-stitched leather trim in a Bentley motor car.
You don't have to be able to afford these things, or even desire them, to appreciate the work and artistry than has gone into making something as good as it can be.
With music in recent years, it is fair to say that there has been something of a lax attitude when it comes to both the presentation, and even the sound of releases. Flimsy booklets in jewel case CDs have, on occasions, referred the listener to a web address for lyrics or credits, and the so-called ‘iPod Generation' – unimpressed with the subtleties of dynamic range and fidelity of the music they listen to – adversely influenced mastering engineers to crank up the volume to ear-bleeding levels.
Although we should acknowledge that, post-The Beatles' remasters, we are seeing a trend back to a more balanced approach with the sound of the music we buy, there is still a sense that, with CD sales on the slide and downloads growing more popular, maybe people aren't bothered about holding some exquisite item in their hand, while poring over the sleevenotes and lyrics, as the music plays?
US music group Acoustic Sounds, and their specialist label Analogue Productions, are likely to take issue with this suggestion. Certainly not everyone cares about packaging and expert mastering, or is willing to pay a premium for it, but there is still a sizeable group of enthusiasts and music lovers for whom this is important, and for the last 20 years Analogue Productions have been reissuing classical, folk, rock, pop, blues and jazz music with this niche market in mind. Their remit? To better the original".
These releases come largely in the form of hi-res SACDs, or heavyweight vinyl pressings. As their name suggests, all reissues from Analogue Productions are remastered from the original analogue tapes, ensuring the best possible transfer.
In partnership with Blue Note Records, the label have recently released all five albums from the singer-songwriter Norah Jones' back catalogue, including the 2002 blockbuster Come Away With Me (wellover 20 million copies sold) and Jones' most recent release, 2012's Little Broken Hearts. All her albums are available from Analogue Productions to purchase separately on vinyl and SACD, or in limited edition box sets that come with an exclusive bonus album Covers (unavailable separately), featuring a selection of rare or unreleased cover versions of songs from artists such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.
We took a look at the vinyl box set, or Norah Jones: The Vinyl Collection, to give it its full title...
The first thing to point out is that the box weighs a ton. It's extremely heavy thanks to the 200gsm vinyl that all seven records have been pressed on (Little Broken Hearts is 2xLP). To put that in some perspective, that's weightier than each Beatles stereo vinyl LP (‘only' 180gsm), and makes your average 1980's vinyl feel like a flexi-disc.
Of course, vinyl quality is not just about weight. To that end, the oh-so-critical vinyl mastering was done by renowned engineer Kevin Gray of Cohearant Audio, and all the records were pressed at Quality Record Pressings, the Kansas-based plant whose growing reputation for excellence has resulted in them being regarded as one of the best – if not the best – in the world.
The heavy discs of vinyl are protected by non-scratchable, anti-static sleeves and the card stock that makes up the vinyl jackets, like the vinyl itself, is very thick indeed. In your hands, it feels like proper card, not thick paper. Certainly more rigid than some of the Audio Fidelity releases we've come across in recent years. All the albums have impressive gatefold sleeves except the Covers record and two of them (The Fall and Little Broken Hearts) come with large posters.
We loved the small details. Even the outer protective transparent bags that each record comes in, have little perforated edges at the top with tears off easily allowing you to remove the record easily, without having to take a pair or scissors or scapel to it (see video below).
The box itself is a very attractively designed item. Rigid board with a patterned outer lining, on textured paper, with Norah Jones The Vinyl Collection" overprinted on the centre in a satisfyingly distressed font. What is rather special is that a bit like many of those small CD boxes for mini-LP CDs, produced by Disc Union in Japan, this Norah Jones vinyl set also consists of an inner box which uses a contrasting patterned outer lining of the same design. The idea is that you carefully place your records into this darker housing, and then slide that into the large outer box.
So enough about the packaging, how do the records actually sound?
As you might expect, they sound excellent. The original CD of Come Away With Me was never too bad on the ears, but the warmth and detail from the clean, flat vinyl shines through. The Fall, sounds particularly good – with Jones going for a different sonic palette on her fourth album, utilising synths, Wurlitzers and organs. The bass and general bottom end of tracks like Chasing Pirates and Waiting sounds exceptionalon this vinyl pressing. Jones' most recent album, Little Broken Hearts, has its 12 songs spread across two records. The original LPs were pressed on white vinyl, but no such gimmicks this time around. This dark, cinematic, brooding exploration of fractured relationships sucks you in with the beats of Say Goodbye or the Badalamenti-esque stylings of the title track. Our favourite Norah Jones album, sounds better than ever in this form.
The packaging is stunning – there is no doubt about it – and the records sound as good as you might have hoped, but it should be pointed out that you can purchase all the identical records in this set individually from Analogue Productions for total price of US $185, while the box retails for US $259.99. That's US $75 for the Covers album and the actual box. If you're a big Norah Jones fan (let's face it, quite likely if you are considering this purchase) you may also have picked up some of the limited edition releases from which at least half of the Covers selection originate (only two tracks are completely unreleased). So the box set purchasing decision is not a slam-dunk, by any stretch.
It has to be said, the ‘carrot' for this box certainly isn't as strong as the impressive 252-page hard back book that is unique to The Beatles stereo vinyl box set, but on the other hand, the bonus album here is still unique, the box is a limited edition (Analogue Productions were coy about quantity, and this set is not numbered), and unlike the same label's forthcoming DoorsInfinite vinyl box set, the Norah Jones box is not being made available separately (i.e. empty) so there is not room for changing your mind afterwards!
Put it this way, you just know, it's going to hurt looking at those five audiophile pressings when they are NOT in a nice presentation box, especially when you knew it was an option at the time of purchase. Most of this author's record buying regrets are to do with items NOT purchased, rather than things I wished I hadn't bought. Obviously the flexibility to cherry pick a few albums is welcome, but if you're planning on buying all five pressings and willing to spent almost US $200 on Norah Jones vinyl, you probably should stump up the extra for the lovely box to keep them safe (and the bonus LP, of course).
When Hollywood movies cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, the filmmakers often claim that the money spent is all ‘up on screen' – in other words it is very apparent why it cost what it did to make. That is how we feel about this Norah Jones box from Analogue Productions. US £259.99 (approximately £163) is clearly a lot of money to spend on a box set of six vinyl albums, but unlike certain ‘super deluxe editions' we could mention – which offer a book (of often average quality) and four CDs for £100 – you really can see where the money has gone with this set. It's been spent on the important things – not coasters, marbles, scarfs, art cards, and replicas of backstage passes, but employing the best people to create the finished product, whether that be mastering engineers, or the pressing plants.
This set embodies everything this blog believes in passionately. Holding the music in your hands". A lifetime of listening pleasure from the music is massively enhanced by the pleasure of owning a physical object. The ritual of pulling out the record you want to listen to from a box set, opening the thick gatefold jackets, and placing the spotless, heavyweight vinyl record on the turntable platter, is of great value to many – convenience aside, how could a mouse-click on a computer or the swipe of your thumb on your ‘smart phone' ever hope to compete when it comes to listening to music?
Despite the continued six-year growth in sales of LPs, selecting a quality vinyl recording isn't always easy. Even heavier weight pressings can attempt to mask subtle imperfections in other areas, such as mastering. The New York Times calls on Acoustic Sounds owner Chad Kassem for some advice. Read about it here!
Amid the shifting trends and fads that underlie the year-end holiday shopping binge in Japan, one item commands enduring and dogged fascination among retired baby boomers and others by conjuring up an enthusiasm for jazz from decades past.
Jazz fans have taken to buying vinyl Blue Note records that almost exactly re-create original recordings dating back to the 1950s. Vinyl junkies are apparently obsessed with the otherwise obsolete pressing technology that re-creates the original look and feel of the records–even though originals they are not.
The Blue Note Premium Vinyl Reissue Series is the brainchild of Tokyo-based record retailer Disk Union and EMI Music Japan. Since October last year, they have released 36 titles from the storied Blue Note label's catalogue in limited editions of 1,000 each. The titles include albums by some of the legends of the genre, such as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell and Art Blakey.
Blue Note is considered one of jazz's most collectible labels. Original copies in mint condition of its 1500 and 4000 series from the 1950s and 1960s can fetch up to ¥100,000 ($1,180) in Japan, while a particularly prized John Coltrane recording can top ¥400,000.
The mania for vinyl stems partly from the warmer, richer analogue sound that 12-inch LPs are perceived to offer, compared with later digital versions. Add the original artwork, sleeve notes and a certain historical cachet, and hardened collectors are left drooling as they reach for their wallets.
But why buy a "new original"?
It seems that after so much remastering, revamping and repackaging of classic recordings, a new approach was required to sell the same albums all over again.
"Blue Note recordings have been reissued so many times before, so there's no demand for a similar kind of product," said Koki Hanawa of Disk Union, who supervised the project. With the first batch of installments released in October of last year, Mr. Hanawa said many titles have already sold out.
Instead, the team opted to faithfully re-create the original details of each title, employing an essentially defunct production process to make the discs from the original mono master tape.
To find the equipment necessary for such time travel, Mr. Hanawa tracked down and visited a record pressing company in the U.S. that had well-maintained machines actually used in the 1950s and 1960s.
The equipment leaves the hallmarks of an original that a hardened collector would seek out to verify its authenticity: from a deep circular groove stamped into the label, to the disc's "flat edge." Pressing equipment from the late 1950s onward left a tiny lip on the edge of records to stop the stylus from slipping off and to protect against damage when stacked–a tell-tale sign of later pressing.
The team also asked a Japanese printing company to reproduce as faithfully as possible the distinctive sleeves used in the original pressings of these titles, some of which featured slightly arched edges to give the impression of a picture frame.
Such details seem to press all the right buttons of the vinyl fetishist. So in an world rampant with Internet downloading–legal or otherwise–Japan has emerged as the largest market for music you can not only listen to, but see, touch and smell. Japanese sales music in physical form–CDs, tapes, and vinyl–account for 25.4% of the global market for all such products–$4.1 billion, versus $3.6 billion in the U.S., according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan.
Despite the continued six-year growth in sales of LPs, selecting a quality vinyl recording isn't always easy. Even heavier weight pressings can attempt to mask subtle imperfections in other areas, such as mastering. The New York Times calls on Acoustic Sounds owner Chad Kassem for some advice. Read about it here!
By: Gary Demuth, Salina Journal | September 29,
Kenichi Arai and Koki Hanawa flew from Tokyo to Salina to fill a pressing need.
The Japanese businessmen, one a record label executive and the other a manager and buyer for a chain of Japanese record stores, came to a converted warehouse in north Salina to watch record presses make nearly 1,000 vinyl copies of five classic jazz albums.
If this initial press run is successful, workers at Quality Record Pressings might be pressing thousands of copies of 95 additional classic jazz albums for eager Japanese record collectors.
Arai, a strategic and international marketing executive for EMI Music Japan, said he was impressed with the Salina plant.
"It's exactly what we were expecting," he said.
That's a relief to Arai, who searched worldwide for a record pressing plant to reproduce these jazz albums from the famed Blue Note label exactly as they were released in the 1950s.
This means each album is made with a flat edge along the outer rim instead of the standard raised groove guard and has a deep-groove indentation around the surface of the label.
While this doesn't make a difference in the sound quality, it's how Blue Note chose to press its albums in the 1950s and '60s, Arai said.
"We wanted to make these reissued albums special by making them as close to the original as possible," he said.
The Salina company, he said, was the only pressing plant willing or able to fill the request.
Reissuing classic records
Quality Record Pressings is the brainchild of Salinan Chad Kassem, owner of the local record distribution businesses Acoustic Sounds and Analogue Productions and the recording studio/concert hall Blue Heaven Studios.
In May, after purchasing and restoring six record presses, Kassem founded a new company, Quality Record Pressings.
The concept behind the new business is to market reissued classic recordings for collectors, as well as produce original recordings issued by APO Records, Kassem's own record label.
"We have four presses currently up and running, and we'll have six running within a month," Kassem said. "I want to have 11 presses running within the next year."
The record pressing and distribution businesses are housed in three buildings at Ninth and North streets.
It's 'hugely ambitious'
Kassem said the Japanese project is a hugely ambitious undertaking for his new company.
"It's not just a couple of records," he said. "It takes extra effort to make these as close to the originals as possible. In some cases, better than the originals."
During the 1950s and '60s, Blue Note recorded music by artists such as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, Sonny Clark, Kenny Burrell and Donald Byrd.
The Blue Note catalog currently is owned by the EMI Group, which also has released current albums by Norah Jones, Wynton Marsalis and Van Morrison.
When Arai began contacting Japanese record pressing plants for the reissue project, he was disappointed at their inability or unwillingness to create albums to his specifications. Then a mutual business acquaintance suggested Kassem's company.
"I asked him if he knew someone who could do deep groove album pressing and replicate flat edges, and he suggested Chad," Arai said. "Chad sent us some samples of his work, and we were quite impressed with the quality of it."
They have high standards
Kassem said Japan has high standards when it comes to vinyl pressing.
"For them to come to the absolute center of America is a big compliment," he said. "We want our quality to meet their standards."
Kassem's staff also is reproducing the original covers and sleeves for each album, which Arai said often were works of art in themselves.
Once finished, the albums will be sold to Japanese collectors and at record stores in Tokyo and the surrounding area. Arai said the price of each album in Japan would equal about $65 U.S. dollars.
"They were probably 99 cents originally," he said. "But these are designed to be very limited collector's items."
This could be big
If the initial press run is successful in Japan, Arai said EMI Japan will contract Kassem's company to press 1,000 to 1,600 copies of five more titles in December, and then five more albums every subsequent two months for a projected total of 100 albums.
"Exactly how many we do will depend on the demand," he said.
As any record buyer knows, LP quality varies a lot. I'm not just referring to the dusty old records sold at yard sales; some new records have noisy grooves, clicks and pops, or they're not flat. Those imperfections are common vinyl woes; making consistently quiet records has never been easy. That's why I was thrilled to hear that Quality Record Pressings (QRP), in Salina, Kansas, employs the most advanced technology ever used to manufacture LPs. The proof is in the listening, and the sound is spectacular.
I spoke with QRP's Chad Kassem about the undertaking, which he started planning two years ago. Temperature control of the vinyl through the entire pressing process is key, and while other plants' record pressing machines are allowed a certain predetermined amount of time to squeeze the heated vinyl into a record, QRP uses a double-steam-valve system that reduces cycle time and closely monitors the actual temperature of the vinyl within the press. That's important, because it's the temperature variations in pressing that result in record inconsistency and noise. Each QRP LP is visually inspected, and from time-to-time during a production run someone listens to a freshly pressed LP to ensure the quality is consistent.
Before we go any further I should explain that QRP doesn't cut the original analog lacquer disc from which all the LPs will be made. That's the mastering engineer's job, which is probably done in New York or Los Angeles (or a few other cities around the country). The lacquer master is shipped to QRP, where Gary Salstrom electroplates it with nickel, and after a few intermediate steps produces "stampers." The stamper is the mold within the press that creates the vinyl records. The QRP Web site has a video that takes you through the complete process, from analog master tape to finished LP. Of course, LPs can also be made from digital masters, but again, that would occur before QRP's involvement.
Kassem sent a few LPs over, and I have to say they were all pretty stellar. Bluesman Freddie King's 1971 "Getting Ready..." LP rocked with a vengeance. It's no audiophile recording, but the pure analog sound and straightforward recording technique let the music speak for itself. Ah, yes, it was made in the days before Pro Tools, Auto-Tune, and click tracks were required to make music; all you needed was a great band and good songs. The King record has an immediacy that few contemporary recordings can match, and with the QRP vinyl you'll get so much closer to the sound of the analog master tape.
Ray Charles' 1964 recording, "Live in Concert," is one of my favorite LPs, and it just recently came out on CD for the first time. That's nice, but the QRP vinyl gives a very different, and far more musical rendition of his performance. I could feel that Charles was really leading his swinging band, and his reaching, pleading, and ultimately powerful voice was dramatically more present on the LP. It's the weirdest thing, I've listened to my original LP a zillion times, but this was not only quieter, the sound of Charles and the band were so much more three-dimensionally present than before. The sound improvements are similar to what you hear from a better-sounding phono cartridge.
While the QRP LPs were exceptionally quiet I don't want to give the impression that they are as quiet as CDs, they're not. If you crave dead silence, stick with digital media. This much I can say: the QRP LPs sound better than the vast majority of the records in my collection. I applaud their dedication to elevating the art of manufacturing LPs.
Vinyl's comeback is showing no signs of slowing down, and pressing plants around the country are running full-tilt. QRP makes records for Kassem's online record store, Acoustic Sounds, but it's not a closed shop; Blue Note Japan, Sony, Sundazed, Warner Brothers, and other labels are having some of their LPs made by QRP. If you're a musician or you're in a band that releases LPs, you can get your records pressed at QRP.
arrived in Salina, Kansas, on a blisteringly hot
day -- 103 in the shade and the air heavy with humidity. Chad Kassem invited me to tour
his newly minted record-pressing plant, but I ended up seeing every corner of his growing
business and in the process spent one of the most memorable days of my time in the audio
press. The tour of Acoustic Sounds, Quality Record Pressings and Blue Heaven Studios,
which comprise Chad's analog empire, was a reminder of the power of music and the
uncompromising standards that drive high-end audio.
The lead-in groove
bout every third audiophile you mention Chad
Kassem's name to has a story that begins "I've been buying records from him since. .
. ." In the early 1980s, after discovering how good carefully mastered and pressed
LPs could sound, Kassem began selling B-stock and remaindered Mobile Fidelity LPs via the
mail. These were the early days of the CD, when vinyl's demise seemed all but assured.
"The business began in my apartment," he reminisced, "moved to my house,
then to small offices, then to a bigger building, and then to an even bigger
building." Over the course of the past seven months, Acoustic Sounds has more than
doubled its space. Last December, the company moved from a 18,000-square-foot facility
that comprised offices and warehouse space to two separate buildings down the street from
each other. The office building is now 21,000 square feet, while the warehouse is 28,000
square feet -- big enough to be traversed by golf cart.
Some of the 46,000-record purchase and
a few shelves of the Acoustic Sounds Vinyl Vault.
Records are everywhere at Acoustic Sounds -- on
desktops in offices and on countertops in the break room. There are piles of boxes stuffed
with them, and row upon row of shelves filled with them. They even hang from the walls as
decoration. During my visit, I kept seeing parts of a 46,000-classical-record collection
that Chad purchased strewn about the building. One of the Acoustic Sounds staff was holed
up in a corner inspecting these records, scanning their covers and adding them to the
company's website -- one record at a time.
Nearby, Paul Chester (shown below), whose name you may
recognize from the Acoustic Sounds catalogs, listened to test pressings. "I make
money selling records, and I spend money making records," Chad quipped, and Paul is
an important part of this effort. He pulled a test pressing of an upcoming release from
its plain white sleeve, started it spinning on a Technics SP-10 Mk II turntable -- chosen
not for its audiophile pedigree but because of its quick stop-start abilities -- and sat
down to listen, not to the music but rather to what was happening beneath it. He
makes extensive notes, recording the point on each track where a tick, pop or other
anomaly exists. And get this -- he listens to at least four test pressings of each
title, cross-referencing what he hears on one with what he noted on the others.
The point of such attentiveness is making better records.
Immediately before my visit, Chad had decided to redo an upcoming release because of one
faint tick that was on the lacquer and transferred to the stamper. "People don't know
about this stuff," he told me, referring to the thousands of dollars Acoustic Sounds
will spend to remove that single bit of noise.
Chad's office is a miasma of projects-in-progress and
music, always music. He has a serious audio system here: Spendor S100 speakers, a pair of
VTL mono amps, a Sutherland preamp and a Kenwood K-07D turntable that I immediately
coveted because of its two tonearms.
When Acoustic Sounds announces the release of a series of
Verve or Impulse! titles, Kassem hand-picks them. He had boxes of Verve and Columbia
records in his office -- all from his personal collection -- and was sifting through them,
deciding which titles to release. The criteria is simple: if he likes a record, he puts it
on the list. In terms of jazz, Chad admits to preferring "straight-ahead" titles
-- ones whose merits are immediately and easily understood. He eschews experimental and
avant-garde titles because he simply doesn't like that music as much. As he flipped
through the boxes, he told me which titles he had decided upon, and why, remarking,
"I'm glad when other companies release records that I like. I can't do them all, and
at least I'll be able to get a good copy." Half of his record collection is housed in
a concrete bunker adjacent to his office. There have to be 7000 records here, with another
7000 at his house.
We should all be so lucky as to have a
Kenwood L-07D with two tonearms in our office system.
The Acoustic Sounds warehouse is immense but orderly, and
it's wirelessly networked to the offices, where the orders originate. As we rode on a golf
cart from one end to the other, Chad stopped to point out particularly interesting stock,
like the 30,000 sealed records he purchased a number of years ago. These included 200+
original Verve titles, which have long been sold. Interesting titles remain, including
obscure records from jazz greats and a large number of movie soundtracks, some of which
have been long forgotten.
The records on other rows of shelves are easily
recognizable by the identifying marks of their spines: black and orange stripes for
Impulse!, all white with black lettering for Blue Note. We drive by and the patterns
repeat with perfect regularity, like rows of corn in the summer. Digital has its own area,
as do the various audio products Acoustic Sounds sells -- amps, turntables and
record-cleaning accessories. In the middle and to one side is the packing area, large
rolls of bubblewrap and piles of cartons decorating the ceiling and walls. Four people
pick and pack up to 300 orders a day.
The records of record
ext door to the warehouse is the newest addition
and the main reason for my visit. Quality Record Pressings (QRP) completes the
music-production circle that begins with recording the artists (more on that in a bit) and
ends with the sale of their records. It is in many ways the most precarious part of the
process. Designing and constructing any kind of manufacturing facility is a laborious
undertaking, and the obstacles multiply when the facility you're building will press
records. It's not as though you can buy the hardware out of a catalog. Record presses and
plating equipment haven't been made for decades, and what's available needs repair and
repainting at the very least and may require top-to-bottom restoration.
Added to this is the ambition that Kassem and his staff
have. "Put a million dollars in this hand," Chad said, holding out his right
hand. "Put the ability to press the best records in the world in this hand," he
said, motioning with his left hand. He reached out his left hand and said, "I'll take
Where does that "million dollars" figure come
from? That's all he would reveal about his financial commitment to Quality Record
Pressings -- so far. Even a quick glance around the 21,000-square-foot plant reveals where
that money has gone. The building began life as a colossal refrigerator for the storage of
food. Before any equipment, fixtures, plumbing or electrical could be installed, entire
rooms had to be stripped of foot-thick insulation and then repainted.
When you walk into the large pressing area, you notice
air filters affixed to the doors. It's a clean room with constant airflow to remove
airborne particles. This makes sense, given that dust is an enemy of analog playback. What
also makes sense is a modification made to the presses. The chassis of each is cut in
order to isolate the motors and hydraulics -- which are sources of vibration -- from the
press itself. This rests on industrial-grade absorbers.
There are currently six operating presses, two each from
Toolex Alpha, SMT and Finebilt. Each is at least 30 years old. The Toolex Alpha and
SMT presses are automated, the workhorses of the plant (as well as the Pallas and RTI
plants, respectively). The Finebilt presses are manual and feature a couple of important
add-ons. Temperature probes in the dies along with programmable logic controllers monitor
the pressing process, allowing for greater control over the minute conditions required to
make records, especially thicker ones. And that's what the Finebilt presses will be used
for -- the modern equivalent of JVC's renowned flat-profile UHQR pressings, each of which
the operator will edge-trim and inspect immediately after it comes out of the press.
Pressing records in this way is as much art as science,
and it requires people with a deep understanding of the entire process. With this in mind,
Chad hired Gary Salstrom and Mark Huggett, who worked at the Wakefield pressing plant in
Phoenix, Arizona, until it closed in 1989. Salstrom went on to work at RTI in California,
where Chad recruited him for QRP, while Huggett was coaxed out of retirement. Salstrom,
who is plant manager, has the reputation of being one of the finest plating technicians in
the world, and Huggett, who's an audiophile, "just knows more than anyone,"
according to Salstrom, about pressing records.
Other modifications done to the presses are aimed at
smoothing out inconsistencies in the heating/cooling cycle and the contact of the vinyl
with the stampers, which Quality Record Pressings also creates, normally the same day the
lacquers are received. The plant is already doing plating and pressing for labels other
than Analogue Productions and APO Records, Acoustic Sounds' house labels. Still, the bulk
of the plant's output at this point is over twenty Analogue Productions titles, including
many double-LP 45rpm sets from the Verve catalog.
Pews & blues
fter the pressing plant, Chad took me to Blue
Heaven Studios. I suppose this austere red-brick building is technically a converted church, but at this point, more than a decade after it was purchased, it still looks as
much like a place of worship as a recording studio. Its abundant well-wrought woodwork is
matched by its expansive acoustics, which you notice as your voice carries through the
immensity of the main floor. Kassem claims that even seats in the last row of the balcony
-- when it was built, this was the equivalent of today's megachurches, though smaller and
imbued with far greater character -- are still in the sweet spot.
Blue Heaven is quiet for much of the year, coming to life
for direct-to-disk recording sessions and the yearly Blues Masters at the Crossroads
festival, which transforms it into a commotion of music and food à la the
festivals in Chad Kassem's native Louisiana. The festival features as many blues notables
as can be accommodated over a weekend, and its past roster is a who's-who of modern blues
players, many of whom have passed away since the festival launched fourteen years ago. The
walls are decked with their pictures, underscoring the preservation of their music that is
an important part of the studio's mission.
The view from the balcony of Blue
As Chad walked around his studio and relayed all that
happens during Blues Masters, it was easy to sense that this festival held each October is
one of the proudest and most joyous moments of his year.
Hearing and believing
ollowing a whirlwind day that covered everything
from retail sales to record pressing, Chad took me first to Acoustic Sounds' previous
home, where the company's reference system resides while listening rooms are constructed
in the new building. There were actually a pair of adjacent listening rooms in the old
building, both of them measuring 18' wide by 33' long. The front room was nearly empty,
while in the back room a pair of Avalon Sentinel speakers draws immediate attention. I had
never heard these speakers, which include their own bass amps, but they retained Avalon's
stock portrayal of extreme spaciousness, driven by a Pass Labs stereo amp. The music Chad
played -- a few of his direct-to-disk LPs -- was astonishingly detailed and dynamic. It
was delicate at one moment, knock-you-over powerful the next.
Kassem also uses Avalon speakers in his home system. He
drives Eidolons with Sutherland mono amps, a Sutherland preamp and phono stage in front of
these, and a Basis turntable with Graham tonearm and Shelter cartridge as the source. This
occupies the front two-thirds of the room. In the back are the rest of his LPs -- easily
the finest collection I've ever seen. This is understandable, I suppose, as Kassem has
been an inveterate LP collector for his entire adult life. He has most well-pressed
audiophile LPs ever made, including dozens of Mobile Fidelity test pressings and some
titles MoFi never released. Even rarer were test pressings of Mercury Living Presence
releases once owned by recording engineer Robert Fine.
Sound treatment between the speakers
courtesy of Chad Kassem's four-year-old daughter.
Chad is not shy when it comes to playing any of these,
but we listened to test pressings of Analogue Productions and APO Records releases
instead. He played DJ, choosing a truly eclectic mix of music. Highlights included Nancy
Bryan's sophisticated singer-songwriter folk-pop and Dan Dyer's blues-gospel-chamber rock
-- amazing stuff in both musical and sonic terms. Like the Sentinels, the Eidolons were
expert at melting away the walls of the room and replacing them with an absolutely
cavernous and supremely detailed soundscape.
"Mr. B. Fine" is Robert
Fine, renowned recording engineer for Mercury Records.
We listened past midnight, the vibe reminding me of when
I was much younger, getting together with friends and playing the latest records we had
bought. This is uniquely an analog thing, the drop of the stylus signaling that something
special is about to happen so pay attention. It's easy to think the same thing
about Quality Record Pressings as its LPs make their way beyond Salina, Kansas, and out to
the rest of the world.
By DAVID CLOUSTON
Two things become clear in the first few minutes while Chad Kassem gives visitors a tour of the latest addition to his expanding business empire.
One is that the worn and greasy unrestored record presses resting in pieces in a dark warehouse corner show how much work it will take to bring them back to life.
The second thing is that those unused presses are ample proof Kassem's business isn't through growing.
Six restored presses resting under bright fluorescent bulbs atop a freshly painted floor in a room nearby appear as shiny as the day they left the factory. They're all 30 years old or older and have been tricked out with the latest electronic monitoring devices.
"Paint 'em now, clean them up. Do everything you can think of. Now is the time," was Kassem's charge to the technicians he's hired to make his latest vision for his company a reality.
Salina for years has been known for the products made here and shipped nationwide -- automotive batteries, frozen pizzas, fluorescent lamps, farm tillage implements, firefighting equipment and airport shuttle buses, to name a few. Now, thanks to Kassem, high-quality vinyl records can be added to the list.
That's right -- vinyl LPs. Turns out the medium wasn't dead, it was merely resting. Driving the market is an increasing demand for the superior quality of music that vinyl LPs provide over the more popular CDs.
Kassem has lately invested heavily in north Salina for his new business, Quality Record Pressings. The idea is to enhance the market for collectors of re-issued classic recordings as well as original recordings released by APO Records, his company's record label.
Today, his businesses employ 35 workers, and he's hired five, so far, for the pressing plant.
Kicked to the side
In 1986, at the age of 24, Kassem started buying and selling used audiophile LPs and CDs from his apartment. The enterprise became a business, Acoustic Sounds, which today has expanded to include a sister business, Analogue Productions. Analogue reissues choice jazz, blues, classical and folk recordings. In 1993, Kassem began augmenting his reissues with original recordings focused on the blues, his favorite genre, on APO (Analogue Productions Originals) Records.
"Once vinyl started really taking off, we were a very good customer at (another) pressing plant," Kassem, 49, explained. "But when the big major (record labels) came knocking, all of a sudden we weren't so big anymore. We weren't so important anymore. So we kind of got kicked to the side."
About four years passed before Kassem decided to do something about the increasing delays in getting his records pressed. In late December 2010, he tripled the size of his core business, buying three empty buildings in the neighborhood of North and Ninth streets, altogether totaling about 70,000 square feet.
One, an enormous warehouse, now houses the majority of the record album inventory, as well as the shipping department. Another is a nearby office building that houses the administrative staff, customer call center, graphic designers and more storage for preowned LPs.
Lastly, Kassem bought a former refrigerated warehouse and is turning it into the home of his newest venture, Quality Record Pressings.
Better than orignals
These days some rare vinyl LP collectors say fine reissues of classic jazz and classical recordings are better than the originals in many cases, for four main reasons. First, they feature super fidelity reproduction at 45 revolutions a minute instead of 33 1/3 rpm. Second, they're made with higher-quality, thicker vinyl at 180 grams or better. Third, they're produced with meticulous remastering, using the original source analog tape recordings used to produce the original record. And lastly, they're made with pristine vinyl with no wear.
The New York Times, in an August 2010 article profiling Analogue Productions and other companies involved in reissuing jazz recordings, called the 45 rpm a fringe phenomenon but one that's "the fine-laced fringe of a market that's in revival."
The Times reported that in 2009, 2.5 million LPs were sold nationwide, up from 1.9 million in 2008 and 990,000 in 2007. The numbers amount to less than 2 percent of the music market, but they're at their highest level in two decades.
Prices for top-quality reissued LPs can run $50 or more. That may seem outlandish, but not so much to audiophiles whose turntables cost a few thousand dollars and their stereo systems much more.
"We looked like idiots for a long time. We were the only ones going against the grain (by sticking by vinyl LPs)," said Kassem, who reissued his first record title in 1992, Virgil Thomson's "The Plow That Broke The Plains," originally issued on Vanguard records. Now, with vinyl sales picking up, "We're looking like geniuses."
A dedicated following
Even as CDs became lauded in the 1980s as the nail that would hammer shut vinyl's coffin, some critics of the format thought writing off vinyl was premature.
"There was always a dedicated following. It's as absurd as saying books were going away when the Kindle was invented," said Michael Fremer, referring to Amazon.com's electronic book reader. Fremer is a senior contributing editor for Stereophile magazine and editor of the audiophile website musicangle.com.
Fremer describes music on CDs as the "sex equivalent of sandpaper condoms," and he's watched and written about Kassem's record-pressing adventure with growing interest.
"What he's done is unbelievable. It's already a world-class processing plant. But it has the potential of being the best," Fremer said.
You get 2 vinyl discs
The grooves on an LP are the music's actual acoustic waves, etched by a cutting head into the soft lacquer of a master disc. The grooves on a 45 rpm LP are spread out more widely, so a turntable's cartridge ferrets out very quiet sounds and fine details, such as the full shimmer of a cymbal or the vibrating wood of a bass.
Since 45 rpm is about one-third faster than the 33 1/3 rpm of standard LPs, each disc holds a third less music, meaning the tracks on a single album have to be spread out over two vinyl discs instead of a two-sided single disc.
Kassem, working with other record plants, has released in the neighborhood of 300 titles in LP and super audio CD formats.
Those discs have included work from the catalogs of such legendary record labels as Blue Note, with leading artists Art Blakey (drummer and bandleader) and Lou Donaldson (saxophonist), and Impulse!, with saxophonist John Coltrane.
"We're going to be as busy as we want to be. We really don't want any more business than we already have. If all I do is press my own records, I'll be all right," Kassem said.
"And if it's just my own records, and people go, 'I like his label because his label has the best vinyl,' how bad can I go wrong there?" he asked.
Other businesses doing well
Kassem also is enjoying success in his other ongoing ventures. About a quarter of Acoustic Sounds' business is overseas, mainly in Germany, Japan and Hong Kong. The company also has strong customer bases in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The warehouse ships 250 to 300 orders a day consistently.
Kassem also owns Blue Heaven Studios, a converted church on South Eighth Street, where each October he hosts a two-day blues festival that draws music fans from across the country and even other nations.
Kassem chose to stay in Salina when he decided to move the company from its 18,000-square-foot former home at 1500 S. Ninth. He gave some thought to relocating closer to his hometown of Lafayette, La., but decided against it.
"This was a lot of work to move across town. It probably would have been a million dollars to move (the business) to Louisiana," he said. "My family's here, we have a little girl. There are a lot of good things here. I like Salina. And the things it lacks, we try to bring -- like music and food. We try to bring the party here."
Quality Record Pressings • 543 N. 10th St. • Salina, Kansas 67401