Audiophile

Collecting: Vintage CDs

by Robert Cowlin

Poor old CD takes a regular bashing from so called audiophiles and even the mainstream media, which is a shame because it remains the cheapest and most convenient way to get high quality sound, printed artwork, and transportable lossless audio data. Despite this, a significant number of people have decided that CD is not for them and are ditching their collections in favour of vinyl (under the assumption that it always sounds better) or streaming. Contrary to popular opinion, CDs manufactured in the 1980s generally have very good sound quality. Ironically, we have the laziness of the record labels to thank for all of the wonderful sounding vintage CDs that are now swamping the secondhand market. In their haste to take advantage of the fledgling digital format in the 1980s, great swathes of EQ’d cutting masters from the vinyl years were pulled from the shelves and hurriedly transferred to digital with minimal additional processing. Added to this are the then-contemporary releases that were mostly treated very well (up to c.1994) and often came with bonus tracks to promote the new format. The result is that there is now a great wealth of catalogue titles just waiting to fill gaps in every music fan’s collection for very little outlay. One need only add the simplest of playback devices (such as an iPhone and a good pair of headphones, or an old DVD player outputting digitally to a low-cost DAC like the Musical Fidelity V90) and good sound is ready and waiting. Much like in the 1990s when vinyl was a buyers’ market, so too in the 2010s is CD a buyers’ market. As anyone who has read these pages will know, buying music isn’t as simple as getting something on one’s preferred format (if only!), not if one wants to hear a recording in the best possible sound. Unfortunately the purchasing of music on CD is just as problematic as it is with vinyl. With this short post, I’d like to draw your attention to some particular types and series of vintage CDs that pretty much guarantee good sound quality. Next time you’re shopping for used CDs, keep these in mind!

Target CDs:

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So called because the label design resembles a crosshair, Target CDs were released by WEA in the early to mid 1980s. They are collectable from a historical standpoint because they are the original issues and thus represent the first time these albums were released on compact disc, they are also generally “flat transfers” of the tapes used. They were predominantly pressed in West Germany and Japan and are most likely sourced from EQ’d production masters originally intended for vinyl with no additional processing, compression, or noise reduction applied during mastering. Target CDs (and their associated “Target masters”) were later reissued as standard silver-faced CDs and some of them (like Rumours) are still in production today which means one can still purchase Target masters without paying the collectable price.

Toshiba EMI “Black Triangle” CDs:

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“Black Triangles” are first generation CDs manufactured by Toshiba EMI Ltd in Japan during the initial launch of the CD format in 1983. Most stayed in print for less than a couple of years (some, like Abbey Road, much less), and are highly sought after because they are reasonably faithful transfers of the Japanese master tapes used for each title. These discs have a very natural unprocessed sound, particularly when compared to the officially sanctioned versions that British EMI released after 1986.

Original Jazz Classics (OJCCD):

original-jazz-classicsNow for something a little cheaper and easier to find. Original Jazz Classics is a reissue label created in 1982 by Fantasy Records to present classic jazz albums from the Fantasy-owned labels (Prestige, Riverside Records, Milestone Records, Contemporary Records) with their original artwork and liner notes. Over 1,000 titles to date have been reissued as part of this series. Initial OJC releases were on vinyl and cassette, but they started pressing CDs in the mid-1980s which resulted in a huge array of previously rare titles being reintroduced to mainstream jazz fans and critics to much acclaim. In general, OJC CDs are very faithful to the original master tapes and can be purchased for less than £3. They’ve gotten some negative press in recent years because they sound a little soft and quiet next to overly processed remasters, this isn’t helped by the fact that OJC themselves reissued some of their catalogue as 20-bit remasters in digipaks in the late 1990s with an OJC20 catalogue number prefix – these are to be avoided. An original OJC master can be identified from its packaging, which uses traditional black CD trays and often has a late-1980s “digital remastering” credit on the back, and OJCCD catalogue number prefix. They are almost universally a safe buy, plentiful, and cheap. Many incredible jazz recordings are available through OJC, of particular note are Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus (OJCCD-291-2) and the Bill Evans Trio’s Waltz for Debby (OJCCD-210-2). Some of the OJC catalogue is available for streaming on Tidal and continues to use the original CD masters created in the 1980s.

MCA/Impulse!

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In 1986 MCA Records revived the 1960’s jazz label Impulse! for a brief series of reissues. The mastering engineers involved with this project went uncredited, but it is known that veteran audiophile engineer, Steve Hoffman, worked on twelve of these titles in the early days of his career, with other respected engineers working on the rest. “All sourced from the original tapes with the exception of A Love Supreme, which was from the original Bell Sound cutting tape“. A list of releases in this series can be found here.

Island Masters (IMCD):

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This series was initiated by PolyGram in 1989 and focused on reissuing good selling records from the Island catalogue at “mid-price” level. Sound quality is generally very good and faithful to the original recordings with the Cat Stevens and Free catalogues getting praise from fans and audiophiles to this day.

The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs:

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Also known as The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music and The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs, this indispensable tome is a must buy for all classical music fans. The annual publication ranks and reviews currently available recordings of classical music, awarding points for both performance and recording quality. It makes the purchasing of classical music – which can be a minefield – much easier for novices and experienced collectors alike, which brings me on to…

Holst – The Planets (OSM/Dutoit), Decca ‎417 553-2, 1987:

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Every music fan should own a copy of The Planets, and the OSM/Dutoit recording from 1987 is the way to hear it. Generally regarded as the greatest performance of Holst’s most popular work, this award-winning recording represents the pinnacle of late-1980s digital engineering with out-of-this-world dynamics and realism. If you only ever buy one piece of classical music, it should be The Planets.

Albums recorded and released in the 1980s and early-1990s:

Original CD issues of ’80s and early ’90s recordings are generally considered the best sounding for a given album. Of course, these should be considered on a case-by-case basis, but the proliferation of extremely harsh sounding modern remasters, especially of ’80s rock and pop, often makes the purchasing decision pretty easy. It is also worth remembering that, by the mid-1980s, most major studios had moved over to digital recording and the CD masters were given preference over analogue ones (frequently analogue masters were simply D/A transfers), with vinyl being pressed in increasingly poorer quality in an attempt to persuade consumers to buy the CD. The quality of vinyl records got even worse in the 1990s as CD became the dominant format.

Care, back-up, playback:

If properly cared for, a CD should last for a very long time and exhibit no playback degradation. Collectors of used CDs are advised to keep a micro-fibre cloth handy to wipe clean any soiled discs, more heavily damaged discs can sometimes be returned to full playing order with an ultrasonic cleaning machine that one would use to clean jewellery with. The best way to ensure accurate playback of all discs is actually to rip them to a lossless file format and play the resulting rip, this method offers an error-free form of playback and CD rips can be backed up for peace of mind. Most importantly, CD rips can be made with error-correction that isn’t time-limited and therefore malfunctioning discs can be rescued. I recommend using dBpoweramp CD Ripper to back-up a CD collection with AccurateRip enabled for ensuring that the rip is an exact 1:1 copy of what’s on the disc. AccurateRip works by comparing binary data from your rip with a user-generated database. If your data matches another user’s (or, as is often the case, many other users’) it is highly likely that your rip is accurate. It is also important to use a CD drive with a high level of accuracy to make CD ripping easy and fast. Using AccurateRip data, it is possible to ascertain which drive is the most accurate. As of 2016, it is the LiteOn IHAS124, which can be purchased for less than £20 (CD/DVD Drive Accuracy List 2016).

Modern digital playback is source-transparent and reveals the excellent sound of many vintage CDs. A perfect sounding budget-conscious setup might consist of the highly regarded Marantz CD5005 CD player, vintage NAD 3020 amplifier, and Wharfedale Diamond speakers for less than £500. Alternatively, the Audioquest Dragonfly is a USB powered digital-to-analogue converter and headphone amplifier, capable of driving many high quality headphones from your laptop, phone, or tablet. This device paired with an award-winning headphone, like the AKG K550, can cost as little as £200 and offers brilliant sound quality. It’s never been easier to get good sound on a budget, so hunt down a bunch of vintage CDs, get yourself a good quality digital player, and enjoy pure perfect sound forever!

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Audiophile

Vinyl Revival: Do Record Labels Actually Care about Quality?

by Robert Cowlin

You were promised a review of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new record, Skeleton Tree. It’s a great record, I rated it 4/5 on All Music. I really like all the bubbling meandering synth work and Cave’s vocal is bang on. One could perhaps draw obvious lines of comparison with Blackstar based on the timing of surrounding events. The CD sounds like garbage but the YouTube videos (taken from the accompanying film) sound great. When it comes out on blu-ray I’ll rip the audio but until that time it shall remain in my Tidal streaming library.

Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time to turn to what could quite possibly be my favourite topic: moaning about vinyl. If you are one of the poor victims, unfortunate enough to have paid £20 for Skeleton Tree on vinyl, chances are high you’ll know what this article is going to be about. Pictures speak louder than words though, so if this recent scandal in the annals of audiophilia has somehow managed to pass you by, feast your eyes on these:

It seems that Kobalt Music, the company tasked with producing physical copies of Skeleton Tree, failed to perform any quality control checks on their monstrosity of a product and the result is a record with a murky surface, covered in scuffs, and there are even reports of glue being lodged in the playing surface. Complaints about quality control and the vinyl revival are not new. Many modern pressings are riddled with defects, and there is even a twenty-one page thread specifically devoted to issues arising from one particular pressing plant! To make matters worse, in the case of Skeleton Tree, the record comes in this ridiculous oversized sleeve making it impossible to store properly, especially if bought by the kind of vinylphile who likes to keep their records in protective polythene sleeves. I couldn’t tell you what it sounds like because I haven’t bought it (would you?). Needless to say, for a recording that is pretty sparse, you really do need to have it pressed on pristine vinyl if you want to enjoy it on that format. The combination of the unplayable record and stupid sleeve is the perfect embodiment of what the vinyl revival is truly about: conning music fans out of their money (duh, I hear you say). It didn’t have to be this way, and perhaps there was an innocent point over the revival’s now ten year history when vinyl was good, but greed has taken over and the labels are predictably putting just as much effort into their vinyl releases as they are their digital ones (hint: zero).

Think about it, here is a product that 48% of buyers probably won’t use, 7% of which can’t use, and for the remaining 52% it is highly likely they’re playing the record on this. Why on earth would anyone who is seriously concerned with audio reproduction entertain the notion that the labels actually care about their vinyl output when, statistically, that market is a niche within a niche? The biggest con of all is that vinyl is an objectively inferior technology to CD when it comes to sound reproduction, but it’s being marketed as a superior product! A cursory glance at Amazon’s Best Sellers in Vinyl reveals that consumers are spending on average £20 for a top 10 vinyl record that half of them aren’t going to listen to. With this in mind, it seems blindingly obvious that something like Skeleton Tree would happen sooner or later, as the labels realise they’re basically selling big pictures. I’m surprised Blackstar didn’t run into similar problems, being that it is a record that came packaged in a razor sharp plastic sleeve. Of course, these points won’t stop the kind of deluded vinylphiles that populate hi-fi forums and magazines from believing that anything pressed on Glorious Vinyl sounds like it has been produced by the ghost of George Martin, mastered by Orpheus on an all-tube lathe, and individually hand pressed by Japanese artisans…

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It isn’t difficult to press a high quality record. All you need to do is make sure it’s mastered specifically for vinyl with dynamics intact, instruct the pressing facility not to apply any additional processing to the sound, and pay the extra fee to have the record packaged in a poly-lined inner sleeve. At the time of writing, a run of 500 LPs will cost a DIY label with no major label discount around £2,000 (including mastering and VAT). You can see that selling such a product for £20 would result in a huge profit for the label and many happy listeners. I don’t even know how it would be possible for a label to spend so little to end up with a record that looks as bad as Skeleton Tree but apparently Kobalt Music has found a way.

In addition to all that, I’ve even heard of labels that let their individual bands organise the mastering of their records. How stupid can you get? Imagine the hodge podge of varying sonic signatures such a label would be putting out, rather than releasing a string of products with an element of sonic consistency. Clearly, a label that does this (I’m naming no names here) has absolutely no clue about maintaining quality control or presenting some semblance of a coherent catalogue of albums. We are at such a low point for sound quality compared to the relative high point of current recording technology that it seems hard to imagine how we could sink any lower. Compare this to the movie industry and the successful implementation of the blu-ray format amongst videophiles and it’s not difficult to see why the home music industry is trailing behind home video (evidenced by the way in which What Hi-Fi has increasingly turned its attention to home cinema, and the popularity of home theatre forums over hi-fi ones).

For a brief moment it was possible for the modern music fan with a penchant for sound quality to “get it on vinyl” and not have to concern themselves with the loudness war or streaming distractions. This patently is no longer the case. In the seventies, when audio production quality was high, music consumers might have concerned themselves over whether a label was using recycled vinyl to press the latest record. Now the music consumer must simply ask: does the label care about quality at all?

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Audiophile

Stop Buying Physical Music for its Physicality

The original intention of this article was to defend the compact disc format against those who see it as pointless, outdated, or superseded. However, during the course of my writing I came to realise that it wasn’t the format I wanted to defend, it was the choice offered by the format. Specifically, the ability to choose between different versions of the same material in order to make an informed decision when acquiring music.

by Robert Cowlin

Much as vinyl was kicked to the curb in the nineties by the music labels who saw it as unprofitable; the media who saw it as uncool; and the general public who saw it as cumbersome next to the by then fully established compact disc format, so today the wheel spins and it is the turn of the CD to play the industry scapegoat. In our post-Millennial world of streaming and downloads, those humble silver discs of yore appear antiquated and useless to the average consumer. Indeed, if music is simply a thing you hear to pass the time during your commute, or in the background at restaurants or at work, then yes the CD is probably completely useless and a Spotify account will do you just fine thank you very much. If, however, you’re are an actual fan of music, then the CD can be a very useful tool in your exploration and acquisition of music, in just the same way as vinyl, cassettes, and downloads are.

This entry is primarily inspired by a recent Noisey/Vice article entitled, “Does Anyone in the World Still Buy CDs?” It’s your typical run of the mill click-bait from Vice in which they pick a hobby and get an ill-prepared journalist to produce something of little substance and zero prior research. A cursory glance at Google will reveal that, as of 2015, UK CD sales accounted “for two thirds (66 per cent) of all album sales (excluding streams)“. So there you have it, one Google search has answered Vice’s question. Not only do people still buy CDs, but CD remains the most popular music format in Britain. Look a little further afield and one finds that, in Japan, “the second biggest music market, CDs still make up 85% of all music bought“. To Vice’s credit, they did interview shoppers in HMV, Fopp, and Rough Trade to get their take on why they still buy CDs. However as is always the case with these articles, be it CD, vinyl, or cassette buyers, the answers are always the same: “I like having a physical object”, “I like stuff to read like a booklet”, “I just hate downloading”, “I like the feeling of rummaging through CDs”. An alternative purpose for CD acquisition is presented below.

The problem with the findings of articles like the Vice one (the BBC ran a similar article a few months ago about the vinyl revival) is that one sees, time and again, people resorting to this concept of attachment to the physical object rather than the music contained therein. It seems as though the physical object takes precedence over the music when in reality it should be the music that dictates one’s purchases. If one approaches music acquisition from the standpoint of music first, the way in which one interacts with music changes as one’s purchasing habits become more concerned with the manner in which the music is translated rather than the form in which the music is presented. When I say “translated”, what I actually mean is “mastered” (or, more simply, how it sounds), but I’ve banged that drum quite a bit recently so I want to approach this from a slightly different angle here.

Let’s look at vinyl for a moment as that seems to attract the most amount of interest from object fetishists. Imagine you want to purchase Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath and you’re presented with three purchasing options: a vintage pressing on WWA Records from 1973, a recent reissue on translucent red vinyl, and a seemingly run of the mill reissue on Rhino from 2010. I’ve purchased all of these in the past for around £15 (yes, collectors, the WWA one too) and the eagle eyed amongst you will note the specific absence of an original Vertigo pressing in this scenario (a mint condition example will set you back at least £450). The purchaser driven by physicality might note the vintage pressing’s gatefold sleeve, or the reissue on red vinyl, or the Rhino’s lack of any special packaging. Perhaps they’ll purchase the WWA because it’s vintage, or perhaps they arbitrarily collect coloured vinyl. All the while, the comparatively ordinary looking Rhino pressing sits on the shelf. On the other hand, the purchaser driven solely by the sound of music, might note the fact that the WWA pressing uses the original Vertigo stampers, the coloured pressing’s lack of any provenance, or the Rhino’s hype sticker stating that it has been “cut from the original analogue masters”. In this example, it is possible to see how the music fan driven by sound quality is more likely to make a satisfying purchase than the one driven by packaging. The vintage WWA pressing is essentially a cheap way of obtaining a first pressing Black Sabbath as it reuses the original Vertigo pressing stampers from 1970 (though they’re slightly worn sounding), likewise the Rhino reissue is a cheap way of obtaining a freshly cut all-analogue pressing on high quality modern vinyl, the pressing on red vinyl of dubious origin is an expensive way of getting a turd. A far cheaper way of obtaining Black Sabbath in excellent sound would be to purchase the original mid-eighties Castle Communications CD (not the abysmal mid-nineties remaster also on Castle) from Amazon Marketplace for less than £5 at the time of writing. Here’s where the music fan who sees sound quality as paramount really wins. The packaging itself is abysmal, the jewelcase is cheap, the artwork is barely reproduced, there is no booklet to speak of, and the CD doesn’t have a pretty picture on it. It is the very definition of vanilla. However, it sounds just like the original Vertigo record without the associated imperfections of vinyl or eye watering price-tag. The result is that the sound-driven music fan enjoys a far richer exchange between themselves and the artist because they’re focused on enjoying the music from a listening perspective, rather than enjoying music for its packaging. After all, when a band makes a recording they are primarily creating something to be listened to, they’re not designing a box.

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Looks boring, sounds great.

Time and again one sees music fans ditch the best sounding editions (often old CDs from the eighties or early vinyl pressings) in favour of lavish new box-sets with zero provenance and a big REMASTERED sticker on them. If you ever want to buy a recording on the cheap, wait for it to get remastered and head to your nearest charity shop wherein you’ll find copious copies of the album you’re after, donated by the object fetishist!

There are exceptions to the rule. The recent Beatles In Mono vinyl box-set is a perfect example of modern packaging design and audio engineering combining to create a truly marvellous release that trumps the originals in every way. Such releases appeal to both types of collector and, considering all of these classic albums have been paid for long ago, there really is no excuse for record companies that get sound or packaging wrong.

Even when the music fan approaches musical acquisition from the goal of absolute sound, s/he still ends up with a sizeable collection of objects, however they stem primarily from a desire to connect with the music. Consequently, such a fan would also have a healthy collection of lossless and high-resolution downloads as there are plenty of recent examples whereby the download is actually the best sounding version of a particular recording (or the only version). Such a fan might also have a collection of first pressing LPs. The reason why an original Vertigo pressing of Black Sabbath is so expensive is not because of its gatefold sleeve, but because it is the best sounding version of that record. The original sound is what collectors are paying for. Much like the bibliophile would seek out an unabridged version of their chosen novel (regardless of how it is presented), the cinephile would seek out the best presentation of their chosen film, so too should the music fan seek out the best sounding version of the album they want to hear.

Try it. Next time you want to buy an album, do some research and see what other music fans think of the various versions available. Also consider your playback set-up and focus on the format that is best reproduced in your listening environment. In the case of catalogue titles, there will often be a variety of safe bets depending on your budget and format of choice. Focus primarily on sound quality rather than packaging or newness. You’ll probably still end up with a physical object of some description, though it might not necessarily be the best looking box in the shop. The key element in this article is the notion of connecting to music for music’s sake, rather than via an object or ritual (e.g. the act of playing a record, or rummaging through discs). Many listeners say that the rituals associated with music playback facilitate their connection to the music and that’s absolutely fine, as long as the ritual isn’t the driving force behind the acquisition of music.

Lastly, here are some cool pictures from the early days of CD…

Further reading:

 

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Audiophile, Reviews

A Taste of Spiritland: Inside North London’s New Audiophile Bar

Spiritland is a new music venue, due to open to the public in mid-September, situated on Stable Street by King’s Cross. Their website reads:

We’re opening our first dedicated venue in September 2016, on Stable Street, King’s Cross, London, built around the best sound system in the world – a one-off, exceptional creation playing original, in-depth musical programming day and night.

It’s all about the music, the artist and the listening experience.

Spiritland. Come home to music.

Spiritland was briefly situated in the Merchant’s Tavern in Shoreditch, but this new dedicated venue in King’s Cross is a permanent location. Stable Street is just behind the spacious Granary Square, and is home to some very on-trend restaurants and bars. It certainly appeals to the more genteel wallet. The excellent House of Illustration is nearby. The new venue promises “a cafe, a bar and a shop selling music on vinyl and CD alongside audio equipment and accessories“. It will also house the Spiritland Sound Studio where it will be possible to produce radio shows.

The new venue is running a series of ticketed “taster” sessions for two weeks to warm up the equipment and staff. I went along to the first of these last night and decided to write down my thoughts…

I’ll start by stressing that this was the very first taster night. The venue was barely finished and the music shop and radio studio were nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, the majority of the hi-fi had been installed (though the pièce de résistance Kuzma Stabi XL2 turntable was yet to arrive) and the general feel and atmosphere was already starting to take shape. The first thing I noticed upon entering was record shelving behind the bar with some LPs on display. I thought this was a really neat touch and was the first hint of some of the creative decorative ideas on show throughout the venue. The bar itself was fairly ordinary looking but the cool silver kitchen showed a lot of promise, especially with its meat slicer on prominent display (audiophile grade, no doubt)! The silver finish of the kitchen provided a nice juxtaposition to the brown of the bar (I always preferred silver hi-fi components too). We ordered some drinks and then got down to the serious business of checking out the stereo.

The playback equipment was spread across two distinct areas. A glorified DJ booth on one wall comprised all the nuts and bolts, replete with: two Pioneer CD decks, two modified Technics SL-1210Mk2 turntables, a dCS Vivaldi DAC (described by Michael Fremer as being “as three-dimensional and spacious as I’ve experienced with digital“), a Revox R2R tape deck, an Audio Desk Systeme ultrasonic recording cleaning machine, and pro gear by Tascam). The second area was where the amplification and speakers were located. The amplifier was a mighty Atelier du Triode all-tube integrated design, and the speakers were a unique and bespoke design called “Living Voice for Spiritland”. Visually, the speakers were the most impacting aspect. In addition to their massive horns, they had a bewildering series of tweeters stacked on top making the entire arrangement well over six feet tall. I didn’t measure the width of the speakers but they were enormous. Next to each speaker was a monolithic sub-woofer of the same size and width. I roughly estimated the total cost of the system to be in the region of £500,000 so we were firmly ensconced in cost-no-object territory. The DJ stuck to the Pioneer decks so the approximate signal path we were hearing was: CDJs > mixing desk > Tascam limiter (?) > Atelier amplifier > Living Voice loudspeakers (this is all based on my personal observations, no insider knowledge).

How to describe the sound? Much like the speakers, it was huge. The room was fairly large and the Living Voice’s were more than capable of filling it. The most impressive aspect was the high-end, it was absolutely clear. I stood right in front of the speaker, safe from any room reflections, and the sound of the treble was simply real. Normally, the closer you get to a speaker the more the sound starts to break up in a similar way that video does if you get too close to the screen. With these speakers, the sound of the high-end got even more exact the closer I got to them without the slightest hint of grain, distortion, or fatigue. They weren’t bright or harsh at all. Real is the only way I can think of describing their resolution of treble. When the DJ played well-recorded vocal tracks, the lucidity of the mid-range produced by the system was abundant. Singers were vaulted to the middle of the room like some hovering hologram, superb.

The bass was a little harder to evaluate. I got the impression that the sub-woofers hadn’t been entirely integrated into the system yet as someone kept fiddling with the crossovers throughout the evening. I don’t have a lot of experience with sub-woofers but I do know that integrating them successfully can be incredibly difficult and one can easily run into issues whereby a room’s resonant frequencies are overly excited, resulting in certain bass notes hanging in the air longer than others and thus clouding the sound. This was evident when the DJ played The Cure’s “Plainsong” and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”. “Plainsong” is notoriously difficult to get right due to its impossibly dense mix. Indeed, it can make or break a hi-fi system and, had I been DJ’ing, there’s no way I would have put a brand new set-up through such an ordeal! “Wicked Game” just so happens to be one of my favourite hi-fi test tracks so it presented a good opportunity to evaluate the sound at Spiritland. By this point in the evening I had honed in on the venue’s sweet spot (central and towards the back, leaning on the bar, three drinks down). On “Wicked Game”, Isaak’s voice often mingles with the thick bass notes and consequently is a very useful track for evaluating room modes. Listen to “Wicked Game” on headphones and you’ll notice that the bass is thick and rounded but each note decays at the same rate and never clouds the next, the same is true of the vocal. Now play it through speakers loud enough to fill your room and you’ll hear some of the low frequencies ‘hang’ in the room longer than others. This is caused by the speaker exciting resonant frequencies in the room. This is similarly demonstrated by loudly speaking in variously sized rooms and hearing how the sound of your voice changes as it is affected upon by the geometry and furnishing of the space (e.g. imagine how your voice sounds in a sports hall versus your nan’s living room). At Spiritland, I detected a distinct low-end resonance on Isaak’s voice during the chorus. This could be eradicated with acoustic treatment and was likely caused by the uneven ceiling which had a lot of exposed piping on display, but could also point to the need for a more accurately dialled-in sub-woofer crossover to achieve premium sound. Of course, room modes are ‘on’ all the time and will have an impact upon any sound that excites them (be it from speakers, people, or furniture movement). From a playback perspective, this can be overcome through accurate speaker placement and room treatments. When I visited, there were a lot of reflective surfaces in the form of untreated tables, exposed piping, and an entire side wall was a window. Unfortunately, I had to remind myself that the purpose of the venue is not to be a perfect audiophile lounge space where serious concentrated listening would take place. It is very much a bar with a great sound system. However, even in this configuration, it could sound even better with some basic room treatments (table cloths, for starters).

The DJ, Charlotte Hatherley, played an excellent selection spanning all decades and genres. To my delight she played many songs that wouldn’t be out of place at our very own A New Dusk club, including the themes from Assault on Precinct 13 and Stranger Things, generous helpings of Cocteau Twins, and “Feel” by The Soft Moon. We had a brief but interesting chat in which we discussed the down side of having such a revealing playback system being that it becomes incredibly easy to hear all the problems of bad modern music production versus older recordings which sounded a lot more organic. Readers of this blog will know that this is likely due to mastering and the loudness war. I suppose there was a slight perversity in hearing the abysmally mastered “Feel” through hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of equipment.

I’m thrilled Spiritland exists. There are similar places that cater to cinephiles (such as the Roxy Bar and Screen) and now there is a place for music lovers, audiophiles, engineers, and musicians to marvel at the abilities of hi-fi. I hope it will encourage people to invest in their own playback systems and relearn the art of listening for pleasure. Remember that my comments were formed based on the venue’s first taster night and that it was still very much a work in progress. There are a lot of developments on the horizon and I’m looking forward to returning in a few months to see (and hear) how things have panned out. I do hope they will consider putting on dedicated listening sessions as it seems a shame not to use such top class equipment for the very act that it was designed for. Nevertheless, if you simply want to hear music, Spiritland should be high on your list of places to visit.

RC.

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Audiophile

Doing Vinyl Right: An Introduction to Purchasing, Setting up, and Improving your Vinyl Rig.

by Robert Cowlin

The vinyl revival hit yet another high point in March as it was revealed by RIAA chairman and CEO, Cary Sherman, that “last year, 17 million vinyl albums, a legacy format enjoying a bit of a resurgence, generated more revenues than billions and billions of on-demand free streams: $416 million compared to $385 million for on-demand free streams”. Indeed, “with sales up 28% on 2014, [vinyl records] accounted for 6% of the overall retail music market, and one in five of all ‘physical’ sales”. Vinyl records haven’t sold in these numbers since 1988. This is of course excellent news for musicians and fans of physical music formats, many of whom regard the musical object just as highly as the music carried thereon. A slightly less comforting statistic came in the form of Amazon’s announcement that its best-selling home audio product of Christmas 2015 was a Jensen all-in-one record player. The thing about vinyl playback is that, being a physical mechanical process that relies on high levels of mathematical accuracy in order for it to work correctly, those who have gotten used to CD, iPods, and streaming often get it disastrously wrong. Vinyl playback requires a fair amount of time, attention to detail, and investment in order for it to sonically compete with the most rudimentary of digital players, and the types of all-in-one record players that dominate the very low end of the turntable market simply aren’t engineered well enough to handle the complexity that is accurate LP playback. None of this matters to the fad follower who just wants to frame record sleeves, or indeed to the person who enjoys vinyl for its aesthetics over its sonic potential. However, if your priority is how music is reproduced in the home – and you intend to listen to music on vinyl – then you need to come to the table prepared or you’ll simply be wasting your money on expensive frisbees.

N.B. None of the ideas discussed herein have any impact on one’s ability to enjoy music. This article is concerned solely with enhancing the sound quality of your set-up and it’s crucial to see these two concepts as separate; the former clearly being more important. Owning hi-fi always involves some form of compromise, especially if you don’t have a dedicated room for it. However, owning such equipment means that the possibility to unlock the sonic benefits of music is at your disposal. The quest for audio nirvana is one of balance. Simple awareness of the following practises will help even if you can’t implement them all.

Establishing a record friendly environment:
So you’ve decided to jump headfirst into the swirling maelstrom that is record collecting, and you want to hear your records’ sound properly reproduced to boot! The first thing you’ll need to establish, before you even start to think about which turntable to buy (pro tip: that’s turntable, not “record player”), is where exactly you’re going to put your stereo equipment. Proper LP playback requires three things: a turntable, a stereo integrated amplifier, and speakers. Ideally, you will position the hi-fi equipment on a dedicated rack, safe from footfalls and clear of airborne vibrations. If space is at a premium you might consider using a horizontal IKEA Kallax as a multipurpose hi-fi stand and record storage unit. Using the Kallax as a stand for your hi-fi will provide a sturdy base, but you’ll also need to further isolate your turntable (and amplifier, if you feel so inclined) in order to improve playback, eradicate skipping, and prevent feedback. A turntable should be placed on top of an isolating platform that is rigid and inert, which in turn should be placed on top of isolating feet, specifically designed for hi-fi use. A bamboo butcher’s block can be procured from IKEA or Argos, and is the perfect budget solution. Granite, marble, or stone are not recommended as they vibrate at very low frequencies which are harder to dissipate. Attach some adhesive isolation feet to the block and you’ll have yourself a very sturdy, vibration free throne upon which to proudly place your incoming turntable! The area that you’re dedicating to LP playback should be free of clutter and extraneous noise.

Choosing a turntable:
The market for both new and used turntables is booming and picking the right one for your needs might seem challenging, but there are a number of rules to follow that should at least steer you clear of the junk:

  1. Keep It Simple, Stupid: Turntables are now coming replete with built-in pre-amps, USB outputs, speakers, USB inputs, radios, bluetooth, etc. None of this is necessary for good sound, and it will all negatively impact upon your record playing experience as the manufacturing cost is distributed amongst needless additional gadgets. If you’ve got a fixed budget then you’ll want to buy the turntable that does the simplest things really well, rather than buying something that tries to do a multitude of things poorly. Look for a turntable that has zero gimmicks: you’ll need a tonearm, cartridge, and platter but nothing else. The entry level models from Pro-Ject and Rega are very easy to recommend and are well regarded by the hi-fi press. If you’re looking at the entry-level end of the market, the Vinyl Factory has a good article about eight budget turntables that won’t ruin your records. These models play records well, and they don’t do anything else. This is what you want from a good turntable. Those looking at the higher end of the market will want to consult the product reviews at Stereophile and Analog Planet, paying close attention to the technical measurements performed by the websites.
  2. Used/vintage: If this is your first experience with a turntable, I would highly recommend buying a new product from a manufacturer that specialises in turntables at a budget of at least £200-£300 (feel free to spend more, turntable quality improves the higher up the price ladder you go). That said, there are many excellent bargains to be had on the secondhand market where your budget will go much further if you buy wisely. If you’re shopping for a secondhand turntable: avoid products made by companies that also make white goods, research any prospective purchase meticulously to gauge whether or not it’s any good, enlist a knowledgeable friend to help you audition the turntable before purchasing, and be aware that you will have to – no matter what the seller says – buy and mount a new cartridge on the tonearm that is of a standard that complements the quality of the turntable.
  3. Set a reasonable budget: Vinyl playback requires an investment of time, research, and above all money. Vinyl is the most expensive playback medium and if you think you’re going to get it right with a £50 piece of plastic junk then you should give the hobby up now. Rather than setting an arbitrary budget based on what other home entertainment products cost, research turntable reviews on What Hi-Fi and figure out how much you’re willing to spend based on what the various price points offer.

Choosing an amplifier:
Whilst turntables are enjoying quite the revival at the moment, ancillary hi-fi products are not nearly as popular and, consequently, there are great bargains to be had on the secondhand market. The job of the amplifier is to boost the electrical signal produced by the stylus as it traverses the grooves of a record and send it to the speakers. As vinyl is our primary playback medium for the purposes of this article, it is important to procure an amplifier with a competent built-in phono stage. Let’s keep things simple and say you have two options at this point:

  1. Purchase a new amplifier that is known for possessing an excellent phono stage. The Rega Brio-R is one such example, whilst the Yamaha AS series provides better value for money.
  2. Purchase a used amplifier from the glory days of home hi-fi, roughly 1977-1982. It’s crucial to focus on this timespan as it’s prior to the mass introduction of CD, and thus the phono stage was still the most important input on an amplifier. The equipment manufactured during this period was generally of a high standard and should still work perfectly today. There are thousands of potential amplifiers matching these criteria and you should seek out ones built by dedicated hi-fi manufacturers with long lasting reputations and good online reviews from the vintage enthusiasts over at Audiokarma. There is one amplifier that often stands out as the budget audiophile amplifier, the NAD 3020. It came in a number of guises and was hugely popular amongst audiophiles in the 1980s. Above all, it is notable for having an excellent phono stage. A NAD 3020 in mint condition should set you back no more than £100 and will sonically beat any new amplifier in the same price bracket. The 3020b and 3120 models are equally commendable. If you can find one (there are loads of them), make your hi-fi life easier and just buy it. The 3020’s sound is warm, earthy, and involving. It is perfectly suited to jazz, rock, and acoustic instruments and will frame your music in an excellent glow.
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NAD 3020b Stereo Amplifier.

Choosing speakers:
In a similar fashion to amplifiers, the used market is crammed full of speakers of varying prices and qualities. You might consider listening to a variety of speakers in your chosen budget at your local dealer and buying new, or you could use the information garnered from the audition to buy something used. All speakers sound different and you will want something that matches your listening space. If you have a small space, you won’t need enormous speakers with loads of bass lest they overwhelm the room with size and sound. Conversely, a large room will need something with a bit of oomph to get the sound moving appropriately in the room. If you’re buying used, go with a company that has a good reputation. Models from the ’80s and ’90s by the likes of: Wharfedale, Mission, KEF, and B&W are easy to recommend (watch out for dried up speaker cones though). Buying new won’t get you ‘as much’ speaker, but you’ll be able to audition a few models back to back and pick the one you like best (you’ll also benefit from advances in speaker manufacturing and trickle-down technology). Remember though, the way a speaker sounds in the demonstration room isn’t necessarily the way it will sound in your room. Be prepared to experiment here to get the best sound!

Getting everything connected:
Once you’ve got your three components you’ll want to buy some quality but not extortionate interconnects from Fisual, and head to your local hi-fi dealer for an adequate length of speaker cable. Cambridge Audio makes some decent cabling that won’t break the bank. If you live in a place with old or shared electrics, you might also consider buying a multi-plug with surge protection for peace of mind. If you find that turning on appliances, lights, or dimmers results in an audible hum through your loudspeakers you should purchase a mains conditioner and plug your components into that. Ensure that your turntable is out of the firing range of your speakers, this is to prevent acoustic feedback through the cartridge. If you are really pressed for space and you’ve had to put your speakers on the same shelf as your hi-fi components, it is imperative that you isolate your speakers from the shelf in order to prevent the resonance of your speakers from vibrating your shelf and, by proxy, your hi-fi equipment. By isolating your speakers you’ll be hearing more of the speaker’s sound, rather than that of the shelf’s. This will also prevent vibration artefacts from blurring the mid-range via your turntable. The cartridge acts like a tiny microphone, picking up vibrations without prejudice and feeding them to your amplifier. No doubt you can appreciate the importance of preventing non-musical vibrations from reaching the cartridge if you want to achieve accurate vinyl playback.

Correct speaker placement:
When you place a loudspeaker in a room, the energy created by the loudspeaker excites modes in the room. This can be heard as a swelling or booming of bass around certain frequencies as the modes hang in the room longer than frequencies that don’t excite the room’s modes. Play a song with a slow, steady, and easy to hear bass, such as “Ballad of the Runaway Horse”, and you will hear that certain notes sound bloated whilst others sound neutral. In a perfect rendering of this song, none of the bass notes should resonate. It’s possible to calculate your room’s modes, and it’s also possible to position your speakers in such a way that they excite the room’s resonant modes as little as possible. Speaker placement philosophies rely on simple geometric equations that place your speakers in such a way that they are not equidistant from the main and side walls (thus preventing a build-up of resonant frequencies). Consequently, every room will have two or three ‘perfect’ loudspeaker locations that you should follow if you want to get the best performance from your speakers. This includes: correct stereo imaging, accurate front to back positioning of instruments, and an even tonal balance. By isolating your speakers from the room’s resonant modes, you’ll hear the speaker as the manufacturer intended, rather than the sound your room makes when it’s exerted upon by your speaker. The three most popular methods of speaker placement are the Rule of Thirds, Golden Ratio, and 38% rule. Thankfully, the good people at NoAudiophile have designed a series of online speaker placement calculators that will allow you to easily review the various speaker positions suitable for your room. I personally find the Rule of Thirds gives the most ‘holographic’ representation of a band playing music in my room; this is also useful if you choose to use your speakers in a home theatre set-up in addition to music. Correctly positioned speakers will create a 3D soundstage upon which musicians will appear to perform (with the right recording). Accurate speaker positioning is by far the best tweak you can make to your hi-fi without spending any money.

Having positioned your speakers correctly, replay “Ballad of the Runaway Horse” and listen for the difference in resonant bass frequencies. The sound of Wasserman’s double bass should be more even and the finger work more realistic, whilst Warnes’ vocal should be dead centre. The backing vocals will appear to float around the edges of the speakers. Of course, your room will still house inherent resonant frequencies that you will only be able to manage through the use of bass traps. Room treatments are however beyond the scope of this article.

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Speakers set up in a Rule of Thirds configuration.

Vinyl:
All record collectors have their own tried and tested techniques for sourcing high quality vinyl. Some focus solely on first pressings, some seek out pressings that were mastered by specific engineers, some collect audiophile reissues. Be aware that, if you want to get the best sounding pressing, you will need to do some research online to figure out which one is right for you. A classic album from the 1970s that has been reissued many times on vinyl is not going to sound the same across every pressing. Each time a record is reissued, it is re-mastered so that new stampers can be made to manufacture the vinyl. Mastering engineers will be working with different sources and will have their own sonic preferences when it comes to framing the music. The Steve Hoffman Music Forum is an invaluable resource, populated by audiophiles who obsess over different versions of the same records. Search for any album there and you’re bound to stumble upon a lengthy discussion comparing the sound of an original first pressing to a Japanese reissue, for example. Researching purchases in this manner might seem like quite a lot of effort just to listen to music, but if you’ve made the decision that you want to do vinyl the justice it deserves then you might as well put in the time to hunt down the right pressing rather than settling for a dud. You’ll curate a great sounding collection and also learn a lot about the music along the way.

If you have purchased a used turntable you must get a new stylus for it. You don’t want contaminants from a previous owner messing up your records. A good ballpark figure for how much you should spend on a cartridge is to find out the turntable’s original value, adjust it for inflation, and divide the result by two. This will ensure you get a stylus that is a good quality match for your turntable. Spending too little in this area will negate the engineering benefits built into your tonearm and turntable, spending too much will be overkill. Remember, the stylus is the most important element of vinyl playback as it is here where the sonic information is collected. Information lost at this crucial stage can never be regained further up the chain. Each manufacturer has its own ‘house sound’ that will slightly alter the overall sonic impression you get from your records. In my subjective experience, Ortofon cartridges have a more rounded bass-oriented sound, Audio Technica is slightly leaner/neutral by comparison, and Grado cartridges are known for their expressive mid-range. Buy one that complements your other components. For example: if your speakers are bass heavy, consider a leaner sounding Audio Technica cartridge to even out the sound. I recommend at least purchasing an elliptical stylus (not a conical one). The more exotic micro-line styli have a refined tip for extracting further detail from the groove and they are generally immune to sibilants and inner groove distortion. The current cheapest micro-line stylus is the Audio Technica AT440MLb and is highly regarded. Mounting a cartridge can be tricky so I recommend watching as many YouTube videos on this subject as possible. Buy a turntable where the tonearm has a removable headshell. The benefit here is that you might choose to have a selection of cartridges depending on the type of records you’re playing. Having multiple headshells that you can easily swap out is useful.

No serious vinyl playback set-up is complete without some method of washing records. Records conduct static electricity which attracts dust particles, and used records can have anything on them: fingerprint oil, cigarette residue, hairspray, pet hair, even mould. If you let any of this detritus come into contact with your stylus you will cause premature wear to the stylus and, perhaps more importantly, you won’t be getting the full sonic benefits of the record as it will be masked by a layer of dirt. Do not wash your records in the sink with an abrasive sponge and washing up liquid as this will cause contaminants to become embedded in the record’s grooves. Have you ever rinsed a glass with tap water and left it to dry? The grime left by water droplets is not what you want smothering your records. Records should be cleaned with distilled or de-ionised water (sold at pharmacies) and some form of record cleaning fluid, generally made with isopropyl alcohol. The cheapest proper record cleaning kit is the Knosti Disco Antistat. This will clean your records as good as any vacuum based Record Cleaning Machine, but the process can be somewhat laborious. I wrote a review for the original Knosti here, which gives equal results to using an RCM but without the convenience provided by a dedicated machine. For a more serious cleaning solution, the machines offered by Okki Nokki and Pro-Ject are commendable.

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A batch of freshly cleaned records.

You should purchase a carbon fibre cleaning brush to remove any stray dust particles from the playing surface before and after play, as well as a stylus brush, digital stylus gauge to ensure you have your tracking weight set correctly, and small spirit level to ensure your turntable is straight. These are all fairly inexpensive accessories that will improve the vinyl playback experience. Playing a clean record on a properly calibrated system will exhibit no intrusive crackle, minimal to zero surface noise, no discernible wow and flutter, and stable speed throughout.

In order to ensure that your turntable is operating accurately, rather than just assuming it is “by ear”, you can purchase a test LP with various tones and ‘torture tracks’ that will allow you to dial in accurate vertical tracking force and anti-skate, as well as provide you with some useful tracks for checking your hi-fi’s stereo balance and phasing. Even if your turntable was preset at the factory, it is worthwhile double checking it in your own listening environment with some objective tests.

None of the methods described in this article should take very long to complete and they are not difficult. They require patience and a little research, but taking a few hours to ensure your vinyl rig is optimised will reap sonic benefits. There is a very useful video on YouTube that covers the basics of turntable set-up, I believe this video complements this article well and should be viewed by anyone who is serious about vinyl playback. It covers many things that I haven’t touched upon and is perhaps more crucial than anything I’ve discussed here.

Analogue vs. Digital:
As you research vinyl playback you will probably come across a number of debates that pit analogue (generally represented by vinyl) against digital (generally represented by CD) methods of audio reproduction. The important thing to remember here is that none of the benefits of either method are of any use to us if the mastering is flawed. You could record the best sounding song in the most high-spec all-analogue studio, but if the vinyl pressing is somehow flawed or defective then it will never sound better than a well-executed CD alternative. Similarly, a great sounding digital production can be ruined on CD if it is brick-walled during the mastering stage. If, in this instance, a non-brick-walled master is used to cut the vinyl version – and your LP playback is up to scratch – then the vinyl record will trump the CD for sound quality. It’s important to remember that – unless explicitly stated on the packaging – the majority of modern vinyl releases and reissues are cut from digital files of unknown provenance. This fact says nothing about how a new record will sound, but if you’re picky about your analogue provenance then you will definitely need to do your research before buying. It’s also worthwhile to note that by 1978 vinyl mastering studios had begun to use digital technology in the record cutting process in the form of digital delay lines. This means analogue sourced master tapes might have gone through an Analogue-to-Digital and Digital-to-Analogue conversion during the cutting stage. None of this should really matter in your pursuit of good sound but it might be useful for some collectors.

The bottom line is, vinyl sounds great but you do have to put some effort into getting your rig calibrated in order to enjoy it to its fullest potential. If any of these processes seem beyond the pale then I highly recommend considering a digital playback set-up, assuming ultimate sound quality is your primary goal. You can get bit-perfect resolution for as little as £100 and CDs are exceedingly cheap nowadays. Hook a competent CD player or DAC up to your amplifier and speakers and it can sound just as good as vinyl (and probably better). It’s impossible for vinyl to compete with digital on such a low budget, but it’s important to remember that there are many recordings and unique mixes and masters out there on vinyl that never made it to CD. If you’re willing to invest the time and some cash (buy wisely and methodically, you don’t have to spend loads to get accurate sound) into vinyl playback then you will be rewarded for your efforts.

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Happy Listening!

Updated 10 November 2017.

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Reviews

Living With Savages Syndrome (Fuckers Review)

 

fuckers

There’s those of us that have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Savages. Some would claim a hate/hate relationship but, after every new twist and turn of “The Savs” very short corkscrew to the top of the heap, these people always seem to come out of the woodwork with very deeply researched opinions and comments. I include myself in this category by the way.

So who are we, these sad sufferers of Savages syndrome? Savages are a raging musical success that just… appeared – seemingly with no back story or justification. Everyone (or at least, everyone that cares about such things)  is loosely aware that they’re from “East London” (or near as damn it) but that’s where the buck stops. This is fair enough, there’d be no need to mention John and Jehn but for the fact that Johnny Hostile is still a very active member of the behind the scenes crew. There’s nothing to be gained from mentioning Partly Faithful either and no one in the world remembers Hindly(?) anyway.

So why get all riled up? Band’s get famous all the time. There’s a new sensation every week. Terry Pratchett puts it beautifully in one of his recent essays on social justice disguised as a fantasy novel: Crab Bucket Syndrome. Those of us that remember the cynical, well timed, well planned launch of Savages into the big bad world are all instinctively feeling Crab Bucket Syndrome. Every time a crab in a bucket of crabs makes a break for the rim of the bucket, all the other crabs grab onto its legs and try and pull it back down.

Apart from irrational jealously and spite, there’s also the very legitimate gripe that so many bands from the same time and place could (and should) have been just as big, but they just weren’t good looking/fashionable/self serving/well managed enough to do so. But its hardly Savages’ fault that they, unlike every other rock band ever, managed to stack the odds in their favour.

So, for a few paragraphs, I’m going to put away the incredulity, the jealousy and the self-righteous punditry and just talk about their latest single: Fuckers.

This is a 12″ single on which both the A and B side clock in at over 8 minutes and were both recorded live at the same concert. A show of audacity from a band that, having gained their success (deserved or undeserved), are now willing to really flex their muscles. The once obsolete 7″ single format has, over the last decade, been well and truly revived as the industry standard statement of intent. It was the cheapest and easiest way of distinguishing yourself from the seething mass of unrefined musical ooze that quickly and completely coated the surface of the shining new seas of the digital music revolution. But now that every single 2-bit indie band has realised that they need to put out a 7″ to be listened to by anyone other than their mothers, how can the musical elite pull rank over the lower divisions?

The resurrection of the stupidly extended 12″ single now seems inevitable. It’s not cost effective, its not convenient to listen to and the elongated arrangements they inevitably feature are always down right self indulgent (remember Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Temple Of Love… Blue Monday!?). Savages have gone and done it anyway and, what’s more, they’ve done it with live recordings. They did something of this nature with the I Am Here EP, but this latest effort feels slicker and better executed. Again, credit to them, it shows they’re willing to refine and perfect a concept rather than just throwing gimmicks out into the world to see what hits home.

 

 

So what about the actual songs? They’re actually pretty good too. I still find Jehnny Beth’s phrasing slightly annoying and smug. When she sings “Don’t let the fuckers bring you down” it doesn’t make me want to fight the power, it makes me want to go be a fucker and bring someone down, which I suspect is not the effect they were trying to create. None the less, the song justifies it’s 10 minute lifespan – building in intensity throughout. The ultra controlled rhythm section cleverly holds the song back, constantly reigning in the  more raucous vocals and lead guitars. This creates a constant tension throughout the song, like stretching fabric to the point where you can feel it’s just about to rip, but isn’t. Even though they retain their post-punk by numbers sound pallet, this built in tension feels more like listening to Funhouse era Stooges than any new wave pop. If anything, it almost has an edge of the shamanistic, trance-like throb of latter era Fields Of The Nephilim (think Psychonaut or Summerland).

Dream Baby Dream is a clever choice of B side. Although they’ve always been cool, I get the feeling that Suicide are about to be “rediscovered” by London’s ever shifting, ever hungry music scene. In much the same way that  The Jesus And Mary Chain’s first record suddenly became the most essential go-to reference point for all music ever, despite basically being a bunch of unlistenable noise, I think Suicide’s early albums are due to be placed on a higher pedestal any time now. There was absolutely no need to introduce the track as “this is a song written by Alan Vega and Martin Rev from the band… Suicide” though. They aren’t from the band Suicide, they are the band Suicide, you’ve name checked every member. It’s the Savages smugness resurfacing again. None the less, it’s a very neat translation of an electronic anthem into a slightly more conventional rock and roll format that remains interesting throughout.

Sadly, this cover just isn’t as unrepentant and awesome as Bruce Springsteen’s version of the song released 6 months earlier – presumably as a lament  for the recently deceased Marty Thau. I’d like to think that Savages chose the track with a similar reverence in mind but, as before, I can’t help feeling that more cynicism and less and heart and soul has gone into the decision making process. Is this hero worship, or is it clever marketing? Despite this being an outstanding single that was well worth the purchase, I’m once again left with another dose of Savages Syndrome.

On that note, I leave you with this:

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