Event Report: Michael Fremer at SFAS
Michael Fremer Event April 1, 2017
By Larry Deniston
SFAS had the honor and pleasure of having Michael Fremer join us for sessions in the morning and afternoon at Leslie’s audiophile garage. Mr. Fremer is an editor and contributor to Stereophile Magazine as well as the creator and editor of the all things analogue website Analogue Planet (http://www.analogplanet.com/). In the past Michael has shared his skills in turntable setup including cartridge installation and alignment. The events on Saturday, April 1, 2017 included some new topics close to Michael’s heart: vinyl record forensics and hi-fi equipment review ethics. The following is a synopsis of Michael’s talks.
The first topic, record forensics, was quite interesting. As a vinyl collector you may or may not have noticed numbers, letters and possibly some symbols in the run out grooves of your records. These hieroglyphics, when interpreted correctly, can provide the record collector a very large amount of information about the genealogy of a record. But before we dive into how to read the information in the run out grooves it would be good to understand, in general terms, how a record is made – if you already understand this process please skip the following paragraph.
Let’s begin with the product from the studio which is either a magnetic tape (analogue) or, shudder, a digital file. This information is sent to a mastering engineer whose job it is to ensure the sound of the final product sounds good and is representative of the artist’s vision. Mastering involves both technical knowledge and artistic technique. Results will depend upon the accuracy of speaker monitors and the listening environment used by the mastering engineer. Mastering engineers may also need to apply corrective equalization and dynamic compression in order to optimize sound translation on all playback systems. As you can surmise, the mastering engineer’s work has a tremendous impact on the sound of any recording. After the master tape or file is completed it is used to cut a lacquer, which is used to make the father plate. The father plate is used to make several mother plates which are then used to make stampers which make the records. Stampers have a finite life which means a limited number of records can be made or pressed from a stamper. The batch of records made from the first stamper is called a first pressing. Depending on the demand for a record numerous stampers and pressings can be made. Generally speaking early pressings have better sound quality. Additionally, tapes can be re-mastered and records re-issued which may sound better or worse than the original.
So, as you may have guessed, the code (often referred to as the matrix number) included in the run-out groove of records may contain quite a bit of information about the record. Information can include the pressing number, mastering engineer, who cut the lacquer, the lathe used, who plated and the generation of the mother. Additional information about matrix numbers can be found on line such as the following: http://www.queenmuseum.com/?p=1456 . Another link that shows how complex the matrix numbers can be to decode is the following for Elvis Presley records: http://www.keithflynn.com/recording-sessions/matrix-numbers/matrixnumbersexplained.html . The label on the records may also provide additional information such as the catalogue number plus the country and city where the records were pressed and when. Unfortunately, there is little consistency in the format of the matrix numbers between record labels which adds to the challenge (fun?) of tracing the genealogy of any particular record. And you may have also guessed that who cut the lacquers, pressing plants and mastering engineers have an impact on the sound quality of the vinyl produced. The following are a few of the tips Michael provided during his talk:
Good mastering engineers include, but are not limited to and in no particular order, the following: Robert Ludwig (RL), Ray Janos (RJ), George Peckham (Pecko Duck or Porky), George Marino (no initials after “Sterling” imprint), Bernie Grundman (BG), Lee Hulko (LH) and Allen Zentz (AZ).
Books are available of “labelography”, e.g., in the first pressing of Buffalo Springfield’s Again there is one issue from Columbia that does not sound as good as the issue from Atlantic.
Who cut the lacquers and where: Sterling Sound, British (UK) pink label Island Records are collectable as the plating was much better – e.g., Cat Stevens records. Artisan is a legendary cutting facility shown by an “A” with 2 arcs over the A (Exile on Mainstreet with the Artisan stamp is good). Masterdisk is another legendary cutting facility. TML Records and Strawberry cutting plant also produce quality records. ECM labels are uniformly great. Analogue Productions does great work with re-issues. Intervention records is good and every direct to disk on the Concord label is great.
Japanese and German mastering tends to be bright with less bass.
And a couple of tips: “If you’re streaming music for nothing, you know what you’ll have in 40 years?”, nothing”. Aquafina water is his favorite, better than distilled, for cleaning records.
Hi-Fi Equipment Reviewer Ethics
Review ethics was also a very interesting topic and one that was obviously close to Mr. Fremer’s heart. Michael prepared a list of 25 questions that were real-life examples of situations and actions taken by either other reviewers or Michael. Participants were given a pencil and paper and were asked to provide their opinion as to whether the situation or action was ethical or not. The questions involved topics such as: are long-term loans of equipment ethical; are discounts on equipment offered to reviewers ethical and how much of a discount would be OK; what types of compensation are acceptable (dinner, wine, trips, etc.); and is it OK for a reviewer to sell equipment that the manufacturer does not want returned? Some answers to the questions were quite clear while others were not so clear cut. The exercise evoked a spirited debate and some disbelief of some of the actions taken by other reviewers. During this candid conversation Michael did not name any names of the other reviewers nor did he try to present himself as a paragon of virtue. The conversation wrapped up with a recognition that questionable behavior by reviewers affects virtually all aspects of the audiophile community including the consumers, manufacturers and hi-fi publications.