Michael Fremer Event, September, 2019 by Jay Selwitz
Fremer DJs for SFAS
On September 28, Michael Fremer once again joined SFAS for a program that celebrated the musical fun and endless lore relating to great and no-so-great vinyl. In prior visits, Michael has covered topics ranging from turntable setup to favored labels to the ethics of audio reviewing. This time, Michael was a traveling DJ, lugging a choice collection of records cross country to play for the SFAS crowd while commenting about various mixes, media, and the things that went right or wrong with reissues.
Members and guests nicely filled the conference room at The Shops at Hilltop, and the SFAS music system worked well to demonstrate Michael’s selected tracks (making allowances for the size of the room). Special thanks to Joe Hakim for loaning his Pioneer Exclusive P10 turntable, Air Tight cartridge, and Whest phono stage. We used these with the equipment on loan from Don Naples, including Orion-4 speakers, three Pass Labs power amps, an analog signal processor, and assorted cabling and other parts. Thanks Joe and Don!
Although Michael was there to DJ, our members pressed for answers to various equipment questions as well, starting off with hot topics such as the Kirmuss and Audio Desk record cleaners. Michael thinks that the Kirmuss is very effective at cleaning records, a two-minute process, though Charles Kirmuss provides endless commentary that, ahem, results in people shaking their heads. Note: two minutes is the cleaning cycle only, not the whole process. Michael said, “I believe this thing works. If you want to spend a half an hour for every record, you’ll only play a few records in your life. But so what, they’ll be clean.” The Kirmuss product worked well cleaning Michael’s 50-year-old UK version of Abbey Road when he was asked to provide a reference for the team working on the new 50th anniversary release.
Regarding Audio Desk, Michael was not impressed with the $100 charge for the four rollers that are consumables and require periodic replacement. He suggested that members could visit Dick Blick Art Materials and try the 2 for 4.99 mini paint rollers, but afterwards, on his Analog Planet website, he concluded that unfortunately there is a fit issue with the cheap rollers.
At the request of some of our members, I will go into more detail than usual summarizing the recordings that Michael DJed. Michael played digital files (record rips, of course), records, and acetates.
Pivoted vs tangential tonearm
We compared digital files of tangential (linear tracking) and pivoted arms playing “Rhapsody In Blue” (Boston Pops, Fiedler conducting, with Earl Wild on piano). We were asked to pick the recording with more distortion and the one that sounded better. Our members generally thought that the linear tracking arm sounded better though apparently other groups had picked the pivoted arm (in each case, not knowing which was which when listening). Michael said that the pivoted arm was actually cleaner as the linear tracking arm’s air bearing constantly moved in different directions, and therefore was not really playing tangential to the groove. By comparison, he thought the pivoted arm had a cleaner sound, with less of the fake atmospherics provided by the tangential arm. Michael thought the SFAS choice may have been influenced by the acoustics of the large conference room.
Deciding whether to buy a $2 record
Next up was Lightnin’ Hopkins – Lightnin’ Strikes, a record on the Tradition Everest label that sold used for $2. Why buy it? Recorded in October 1965 in Los Angeles, the album also included Earl Palmer on drums and Jimmy Bond on bass. Michael noted that every studio in LA during that era was great and reasoned that the record likely would be pretty good for $2. He played the “Mojo Hand” track and proved his point.
When reissues go bad
Michael demonstrated the disappointing sound of some reissues that really should sound great.
For example, Desmond Blue, by Paul Desmond, was a 1962 release reissued by Classic Records. Bernie Grundman worked with the original master tapes and the results were great. And there are a couple of other well-done reissues. But then there is the “Analog Limited Edition” with a mono RCA Victor logo on the Pure Pleasure label (even though the recording is stereo). The title track that Michael played was lifeless, shallow sounding, and boring (i.e., reissue gone bad). The Ryan K. Smith version from Sterling Sound, played for comparison, was much more engaging, with a greater sense of presence and dynamics.
Next up was the Sonny Rollins Way out West reissue. On the original recording, the engineer boosted the high frequencies in the recording process and then in the mastering process the high frequencies were rolled off to achieve a flat response. Bernie Grundman understood this two-stage process and took the boost/cut into account when mastering a reissue, which unfortunately exists only as a test pressing. Contemporary released a reissue from a digitized version of the same tape (likely not knowing how the recording was originally made) and we listened to that. Next, Michael played the test pressing that wasn’t released because of a dispute between Chad Kassem and Concord Records. While the Contemporary version released by Concord sounded bright and tizzy, the test pressing was much better, with very natural sounding cymbals. (Michael said that the earlier OJC release is also good.)
Another stalled release was a recent reissue of Who’s Next by The Who. Classic Records released its reissue of Who’s Next in the early 2000s at 33⅓ rpm and Michael said it was great. This recording was also cut at 45 rpm and released a year or so after to “keep things going.” Chad Kassem also had it ready for release at 45 rpm and pressed a few samples on Clarity vinyl. Michael said he doesn’t think this version will ever come out, quipping that UMe will wait for the 50th anniversary and then release the record from a digital master using a bad pressing plant. Michael then played “Baba O’Riley” at 45 rpm on Clarity vinyl, which sounded impressive.
Finally, in the good and bad reissue category, Michael weighed in on The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. Everyone complains about the quality of various versions. The good version is the one mastered by Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab for export only. Look for this version on German and UK pressings listed on Discogs with a hand-written “T.M.L.” in the inner groove area. Michael played the T.M.L. “Brown Sugar,” which he finds better sounding than any other version he has heard.
Other items DJed
o Art Blakey’s A Night in Tunisia on Music Matters, originally Blue Note 4049. Kevin Gray gave a 45 rpm acetate (LP-sized version of a lacquer) to Michael, who immediately digitized it. After playing the acetate again recently, Michael realized how much the digitization took away from the music. Acetates have a limited number of plays, and this one, with a limited lifespan, still sounded great
o A radio commercial that Michael made for K&L Sound, a stereo store in Boston in 1974.
o A digital file of a Classic records experimental pressing at 78 rpm using RIAA equalization. We heard Pictures at an Exhibition, Fritz Reiner / Chicago SO, from 1958. It was very clean sounding.
o A lacquer from 1957 with a promo for The Red Skelton Show, lavishly produced with an orchestra and surprisingly clear sound
We heard some interesting comparisons of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Michael played “Here Comes the Sun” from his digitized version of Side 2 of the original UK release, with pops and clicks not very evident after 50 years of play.
Next, he played the new 50th anniversary version from the 3-LP boxed set. Comparing to the original is hard because the new version is better in some ways and worse in others, and vintage listeners already have a strong reference because the original has been around for so long. Michael called the 2019 version a technocratic mix. It doesn’t move him like the original but he’s sure this is because of 50 years of listening. A number of attendees preferred the needle drop UK version. But if you only have the 2014 version, Michael thinks that the 2019 release is a no-brainer and is twice as good.
Next, Michael played some of the outtakes from the new release. The outtakes seemed to have oomph and life. Attendees were pretty impressed with the sound quality.
[Question: I have the 2014 version, an older UK Apple release that is a little scratched, and two Capitols. Do I need another copy? Probably. What would you do?]
Michael played a curated selection of other interesting recordings:
o Classic Records’ Stairway to Heaven on 45 rpm, never released
o Acetate of Duke Ellington playing “Cotton Tail”, from Duke’s Big 4 on Pablo Records
o Digitized version of the apparent inspiration for the Star Wars theme: Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s soundtrack for “Kings Row,” starring Ronald Reagan
o Lacquer of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love”
o Digitized lacquers of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” and “Every Day”
o Digitized 45 rpm lacquer of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard”
o Tube and solid-state masters of John Coltrane’s “Coltrane” (Prestige 7105) as the meeting wound down
All in all, this was a fun DJ-ing session that probably only Michael Fremer could do. SFAS members were rapt listeners, spontaneously applauding after some of the tunes. And we achieved our goal of having a good mix of discussion and music. Thanks to Michael for journeying cross country and lugging recordings to share vinyl insights with SFAS once again.
After multiple trips, what else is there for Mr. Fremer to cover (provided he wants to come back)? It’s obvious that his DJ demos are not even scratching the surface of interesting vinyl topics, so I think there’s little cause for concern.
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