Friday, 9 May 2014

Die Röhre —The Tube from Tacet Records

No conductor–no semiconductor as it states in the rather dry humour on the sleeve, but don't let that put you off as this is one of the best recordings you're ever likely to hear.
The Stuttgarter Kammerorchester were founded in 1945 by the late Karl Munchinger and I believe the same orchestra (or a modern version) that plays on one of my favourite Decca recordings SXL 2019 Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

That aside the music on this disc was recorded on equipment from the 1950's in analogue and then transferred to disk using cutters from the same era hence the 'Transistorfrei' label. The gate fold sleeve shows the equipment used with brief explanations of the recording process.

The actual music (which face it should be the main reason for purchase) is absolutely first class, eclectic in some ways especially the Biber 'Battalia' in which the musicians strike their instruments with wood and pull paper though the strings to make rasping sounds the whole effect is one of musicians really enjoying the performance.
In fact the musicianship and performance are also first class, often products aimed at the audiophile community have superb sound with so so performance, or they sound perfect and ultimately dull–no so here sound would be and eleven out of ten the music easily matches that.
Of course the music is from the 17th Century and the current vogue is for totally authentic instruments to be used, the ones used here are modern, but take it from me they sound fantastic.

in the past when I've put this disc on and played it as background music people have looked round at the stereo almost by compulsion, it sounds so realistic.
I think they still have pressings of this LP as well as CD versions, mine has number 801 written by hand on the sleeve.
In my opinion this is the best classical record I own, buy it with confidence.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Cleaning Records With PVA Glue

I know what you're thinking, cleaning your valued record with glue sounds a little on the crazy side, perhaps even an April fools day trick–trust me it's not.

The type of glue needed is PVA which can be bought cheaply from most art or educational shops in gallon cans for about £7.00–10.00 and at time of writing, and is also stocked by UK retail outlet Poundland which sells 500ml for... you guessed it–a quid.

The idea is records are made of vinyl or PVC; so PVA glue won't stick to it instead making a perfect inverse copy of the groove, looking like a reptiles shredded skin

Note: the thicker part on the right was used to assist peeling from the disc 
The record above was very dirty and covered in mould, so much so it looked like a piece of Stilton cheese on the surface, you wouldn't want to put any stylus though the ordeal of playing it. 

A close up shows the grooves in 'negative' with all the dust, mould and other junk is embedded in the dried glue.

Firstly get together all the materials, PVA glue, a small pot (an old yogurt pot is good), possibly a 10mm wide artists brush (not essential) and an old PVC LP sleeve.

Place the PVC record sleeve on a flat surface, put about an egg cup full of PVA glue into the small pot.
Next place the LP onto the PVC sleeve making sure it is level (a spirit level is a good way of checking) as we only want glue on the grooves not the label.

Take the pot of glue and make four small pools of glue at the positions of the clock 9, 12, 3 and 6.
Work the glue into the grooves going with the groove spreading the glue from the outer edge to the run out inner–but not quite up to the label. 
You might need to add more glue at different points of the clock, say 7, 11, 2 and 5 and work it in evenly.
The secret is to put the glue on so that you can still see the groove slightly though the white glue I'd estimate about 1-2mm thick and make it evenly spread, I use fingers but you might like to use the 10mm artists brush I mentioned.

I have found that if I make a small bead of thicker glue near the run out it helps to remove it after drying.

The mix must now be left to completely dry which where I live (room temp 18°C)  can take 12 hours; the glue is dry when clear–if in doubt leave it!

When it's finally dry use your fingernail to lift the thicker 'bead' area near the run out and slowly ease up the 'skin' from the centre working away to the outer edge trying to keep it in one piece.

Its a long process and will take a day to clean a single LP, but for those rare occasions where mould, ingrained dust or other noise creating undesirables are ruining that treasured LP it does work.

My advice would be to try it on a charity shop junker until you get the feel for the right amount of glue.
In all honesty though the large time spent waiting for the glue to dry makes this impractical for all but a few very dirty records it is interesting though and does seem effective enough when done properly.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Decca Classical Recordings

The Decca 'Tree'

As I went though my favourite classical LP's the other evening I was amazed at how good the sound was, particularly the ones recorded by the Decca record company in the 1950's and '60's.
Many of the Decca engineers spent the war working with sound based submarine detection systems which needed an extremely wide frequency response in order to differentiate between allied and German submarines.
After the war the company put the technology into the new microgroove records with a ffrr logo to denote the full frequency recording, and during the 1950's they started to make stereo recordings.

The Decca Tree
At the dawn of stereo, Decca started experimenting with a three microphone setup that became known as the 'tree'.
The  configuration was a sort of inverse 'T' the centre microphone being slightly forward and fed to both left and right channels, the other two being placed at the extreme edges (left and right) the idea was to give an extremely wide sound stage.

It worked very well especially in larger concert halls where room ambiance and sometimes even the vibration of London tube trains can be heard going under the often used Kingsway Hall.

Along with new recording technologies and innovative microphone placement were those engineers and producers who kept Decca at the forefront, two of note being
Kenneth Wilkinson and John Culshaw.

Messrs Culshaw and Wilkinson crafting another masterpiece

The recordings really are first rate, the idea was to put you in the best seat in the house. Here are a couple I've been listening to of late:

First is Witches Brew, recorded by Decca for RCA in 1959 and has a very clear and wonderfully dynamic sound

Another is a recording made in 1960 and released in the 1990's on the Chesky label, you can hear the acoustics of the Kingsway Hall and the rumble of traffic, and of course beautiful stereo that belies the age of the recording.

Lastly an LP I bought in a charity shop for a couple of quid, Decca SXL 6000 which has a punchy and immediate sound

All the above recordings show how well the engineers knew their job, listening to them 50+ years on is very illuminating...

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Pleasure Principle–Gary Numan

Released in September 1979 this album is Gary Numan's third, the first two were released under the name 'Tubeway Army'
The album represented a musical departure from the first two because of the widespread use of synthesisers dropping the guitar sound from the previous albums completely.
When I first heard this album as a teenager it sounded incredibly fresh and futuristic and to a degree it still does today.
The Moog synthesiser is used in large sweeping layers, punctuated by the acoustic drums, rolling bass guitar and clipped vocal, the overall effect is one that is dark brooding and dramatic.
The track that most people will know from the album is the hit single 'Cars' which has a jaunty rhythm with bouncing bass but isn't typical of the rest of the album content. The tracks that stand out to me are 'Films' and 'Conversation' the former especially being a dark powerful sound; analogue synth hum is built up in layers providing the perfect backdrop for the drums and bass interplay which in turn is punctuated by Numan's trademark clipped lyric style.

From memory I think the album wasn't critically well received, it was in someway ahead of its time the British music press being particularly critical of the artist who for them represented a different direction from the 'new wave' post punk of the time.

It is however, a hugely influential album and one that has influenced many artists something that at the time wasn't fully recognised, possibly I think it nudged the door open for other bands that had been using synthesisers and helped put them in the mainstream.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Blue Note 75 series

Larry Young: Unity

Blue Note have decided to re-issue some high watermarks from their classic jazz back catalogue. Originally released in 1966 Unity finds itself in the first batch of re-issues and is legendary among jazz fans.

I wish to state that before today I'd never listened to this LP so what you're going to read is a first impression rather than a knowledgeable article.

Larry Young is the credited artist I suppose you'd call him the 'band leader'; he plays Hammond organ which is an interesting instrument to play in a quartet as being electric in sound contrasts to the sax, trumpet and drums as they are all acoustic in nature.

From the off the pattern becomes clear, each musician is equal in the composition, you don't really feel there is a band leader, more that each musician is a collaborator. In fact Larry Young's organ sound often sounds soft and supportive and almost understated almost like a Thelonious Monk in chord progression although rarely coming to the foreground it seems to hold the track together while the other musicians drift in and out. 
I think that must be quite a difficult thing to achieve as being an amplified (modern for the time) sound the temptation must have been to push that instrument forward in the mix, which actually rarely seems to happen.

The overall impression from the first couple of auditions is that the group is quite relaxed and certainly seem to be on the same page musically, I guess that's why the album is entitled 'Unity' the music drives on without any one musician dominating for any length of time.

The effect is one of a very focused and together sound which is gentle and persuasive rather than in your face. The album grows on you slowly, it's not as accessible as Hard Bop or rock music don't get me wrong just don't expect Miles Davis or Dave Brubeck.
The stand out tracks for me are 'If' and 'The Moontrane' although the drumming in 'Zoltan' is also enjoyable.

Production is obviously excellent, the sound quality being very good, the new LP pressing was almost quiet, with some minor distortion on track two, (which also seems to be on the downloaded MP3). Another thing to note was the inclusion of a download voucher in the LP so if you listen to music on your daily commute you have a reasonably high quality MP3 for your iPod or phone.

Musicians: Larry Young; organ; Woody Shaw: trumpet; Joe Henderson: tenor saxophone; Elvin Jones: drums.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Vinyl Redux

LP's and the reasons for the revival
Even if you only have a passing interest in music you'd have to be hiding under a very large rock with your fingers in your ears not to noticed the resurgence in interest in what some must have thought as a dead format–the Long Playing record.

Last week I walked past a local Hi-Fi shop which had a very lovely display of Turntables in the window, very prominently placed and in a range of bright colours.
Later, whilst buying the children a DVD I noticed that a large high street retailer has vinyl back in stock, only a few hundred albums but significantly placed to give them prominence; to cap it off they had new vinyl editions of many Beatles albums near the point of sale area.

Something is indeed happening, a format that all but disappeared in the late 1990's is becoming main stream enough to be prominently displayed in large chain shops like HMV.

Returning home I decided to investigate further, and sure enough sales of LP's have been steadily increasing:

The graph above shows American sales of LP's the UK sales are similar showing a resurgence from around 2007 (a significant date which I'll touch on later).
Although they are still a small fraction of the overall music sales they appear to be an increasingly significant one, figures suggest that over 25 million albums were sold worldwide in 2012 which makes pressing them increasingly viable.

What are the causes?
Why? I hear you ask – how can this format return to relevance? The answers aren't simple, CD was supposed to supplant vinyl by about 1990 and downloads to a large degree have had the same effect on that format in return.
It seems that in a small measure vinyl has a higher value to consumers, large artwork, a pleasing artifact that is fun to collect at car boot and junk shops as well as buy new.
Record companies and artists have helped by including download vouchers in the vinyl helping people download to their iPad as well as own the large artwork just for a few pounds more than a CD.
Couple that to the fact most new content consumption devices (Smartphones, iPads, Laptops etc) no longer have CD drives which to rip your music anyhow, so if you want to own the recording vinyl offers a way to collect music.
Software sometimes tries to mimic the vinyl interaction, programs like 'coverflow' are software abstractions akin to flipping though a pile of LP's.

The changes in the way the end user consumes music haven't gone un-noticed by vinyl shop owners who seeing an increasingly young demographic coming through their doors needed a promotional vehicle to reach people.

In my opinion the breakthrough came in 2007 (look at when the sales uptick starts on the graph above) when hundreds on independent record shops joined together for 'Record Store Day' 
People queueing for Record store day 2014
Artists and Stores ran promotions like limited edition vinyl, personal appearances, quizzes and other events.
Vinyl finds itself in the public eye with this kind of promotion, which connects it with consumers, once people browse the stores they'll be more inclined to buy.

All this is great, but ultimately will be unsustainable or a 'fad' if those young newly introduced consumers are just buying the odd limited edition for collection and a copy of a cool LP for a picture frame on the bedroom wall.
Though if what the Hi-fi shops are seeing is the case and turntatable sales are also increasing exponentially (one manufacturer boasts they sell 8,000 per day) someone is actually playing those records–the future looks good for the vinyl LP.