Being it that I have many years of experience with vinyl in all of it's glory in the 1970s and 80s, and it's pros and cons in contrast to their digital counterparts, I decided to pin-point some of the complaints I hear and read about more and more these days. It's 2016, one would think we've reached the pinnacle of what is technically possible, and for everyone to enjoy. For a decent price. In other words, are these new waves of massively produced vinyl albums, often in 180grs vinyl, 'audiophile' quality products like many companies claim or hint on? Or are they just over-priced novelties?
Well, I guess you know where this is going by now. And here's why...
Since I have been a big KISS fan since 1978 and have played, scrutinized and transferred, restored and "remastered" many, many different pressings of the KISS catalog, I was of course excited when the Universal 2014 vinyl reissues were announced. I might not be the average Joe so to speak, since I am hunting for the ultimate sounding 'definitive' versions of these great albums for years. To each their anomalies right?! (;D)
|My beloved DENON turntable playing a vintage KISS vinyl...|
Not having that kind of money to spend on the complete catalog, I decided to buy a title whenever I had some money to break, and so in 2015 I had bought these new reissues up until the unmasking of the band in 1983. 12 albums, of which 2 double vinyl albums. Retail prices in the EU, 25 euro's for a single album. 30 euro's for a double vinyl one. Do the math, it's not a cheap ass hobby, but hey that's not my complaint.
First up, Universal Music Group and their hired guns did actually do a great job restoring as much as possible in the graphics department, the audio restoration and so forth. All of these replica albums do look very nice and contain most, if not all, of the inserts that were shipped with them on the initial releases. On these EU versions the printed artwork is a bit on the dark side but that is not that big of a deal. There is a tiny amount of none uniformity on them like credits and artwork that show tiny adjustments or errors, but overall, great job! The masters used for cutting these albums to vinyl are done nicely too. All of them are transferred from their analog 'mothers' to high resolution digital audio streams and de-noised and corrected and what not to gain the most pristine sounding audio. No complaints there, apart from the fact that the same masters are sold via High Resolution Audio re-sellers online, but are sadly clipped & compressed to a pulp. But that's a different story altogether.
So, moving on to the minus points on these EU 2014 reissues, pressed and manufactured by GZVinyl based in the Czech Republic. I need to stretch this, since the albums were also manufactured in Germany by Optimal and in the US by other manufacturers as well. Reports of both the Germans as well as the US pressed ones (especially the QRP plant pressings) show a very different picture, none of the commentary below does fly for those!
The sad part...
The vinyl compounds used for the EU GZVinyl pressings are too dirty, vinyl particals too rough. This can produce a kind of murmuring when listened to on headphones. Most of the produced coloured vinyl out there has this effect, with black vinyl this is kind of new to me. If you look upclose to the surface of the vinyl, holding it in different angles under daylight, you see a kind of crackling effect in the vinyl. Quite possibly the vinyl wasn't left to rest long enough and rushed into it's sleeve after pressing. The pressing time could've been too short and not hot enough too, at least, the surface looks rough although it is shiny. This could explain the surfacenoise that one hears when these are played on headphones. To give you an indication of how annoying this is, it's often twice as loud as any of my 80s "abused" records.
Why is this important in relation to the quality of the reproduced audio from vinyl albums like these? Because this is an analog media carrier, so it's prone to generation loss, and distortion because of the "direct contact transcription" of the medium. Thus we want the audio to be cut as loud as possible into the grooves, in order to go away from that noise floor as far as possible without doing harm to the dynamics of the content.
|1981 Original Dutch Phonogram 670 pressing|
|2014 EU GZVinyl 180grs reissue pressing|
Production of the matrixes or pressing plates is done on bad equipment or rushed since they contain rumbling and wooshy sounds, often in cycles throughout the whole surface of the record's sides. These sound mechanical to me, it's like hearing the platter spinning, fed back through the cuttinghead. Some of these GZVinyl pressings have this error up to -24 dB on a normalized scale. So, the peaks of actual audio are not limited in any way in the transfer I did and the image of the audio is then normalized to -0,5 dBFS.
I've never heard this effect on any of my hundreds and hundreds of vinyl albums. But most if not all my GZVinyl issues does have this in a certain amount. These KISS vinyls are all affected by this, though one title more than the other.
|2014 EU GZVinyl image unaltered|
|1977 US first issue image unaltered|
Cutting of the vinyl master plates...
In the old days, say the glory days of the seventies and eighties, there were technicians typically trained for this job, the cutting of the groove in the masterdisc.
He, (or she, but usually a he, why is that I wonder?) would methiculously try to make the groove as 'big' as possible, in other words as loud as possible to help the listener with this problem of the noisefloor that analog media carriers have. He would also try to use as much room for the groove as possible, in other words, the groove would use as much of the surface of the side of a vinyl record as tecnically is possible since then the groove can sound the loudest.
Sadly, these new 2014 issues, or at least the EU GZVinyl pressings, use standard cutting programs. In other words, most of these have lots of unused vinyl, what is called 'dead wax', the room between the ending of the contents of the music program but leaving unused vinyl where music could have been.
We need a small lead-out groove for the needle to safely return to it's resting post after the play but, as one by now can assume, the best is to leave that gap as small as possible.
Because these new 2014 reissues are cut softer, less loud than their original first pressing counterparts, we hear more surface noise in general, because we need to crank up the volume in order to get to the same audio sound pressure. So, in conclusion, twice as less 'high fidelity'. In the case where more audio was added to the content, as with '(music from) The Elder', this is of course even a bigger problem. Let alone the fact that it's typically this album that would've benefitted from a 'audiophile' approach, because it nearly a opera of sorts with lots of dynamics. This album has loud rocking parts, but also very near silent pieces, with orchestras, dialog and choirs.
|2014 EU GZVinyl image normalized|
|1977 US first issue image normalized|
Today, with digital reproduction we don't have this problem anymore since we have no noisefloor in the digital domain. (Or at least not this kind of 'generation-loss noise'.) But we do have a different problem since say 1995, and that is called brickwalling or the Loudness Wars. But that is a different story altogether. I am not going into that now, for a change. Although it's much more seriously bad for your ears, that's a fact!
Vinyl is immensely static and dirty on arrival. When I opened these shrink wrapped albums, I was amazed by how static loaded they were. Even those with the generic 'anti-static' inners were! And the amounts of dust and paper particles in there is ridiculous as well! I had one that looked like someone dropped it on the floor and thought, "oh well, that's a pity to waste" and placed it in a sleeve to get carried out... I had to 'seriously' clean all of these before playing. Luckily I have the knowledge and tools to do so, but one shouldn't have to, right?!
All of this makes removing the vinyl from the inner sleeve a hell of job without ruining or dirtying the vinyl. Typically for people who just start with playing vinyl, you can fairly say it's become a second hand vinyl, grade B- after you've only removed it from it's sleeve. It leaves the vinyl itself hugely static loaded too on first play if this load is not removed. This event will give ticks and pops on the first play that usually remain there forever.
BTW, Usually, ticks and pops are not so much a pressing error as more of careless manufacturing sloppyness as anyone can determine by now.
Manufacturers should consider using other inner sleeves and lose the shrink wrapping altogether. Often the longer the vinyl gets to 'rest' in a decent dust free environment before it is packaged the lesser these problems for the consumer.
Inner sleeves are too tight, vinyl maybe even too thick. Again, when you try to remove the vinyl from it's (plain thick sturdy paper, printed) inner sleeve you find it almost impossible to do this without scratching the vinyl or smudging it. That's not a good first listen experience! The generic anti-static one's are a bit too large. Once you've opened the sealed album, they don't get back in completely any longer.
Also, 180 grs vinyl is not necessarily a good thing for vinyl records. Some exotic pure analog vinyl labels make exquisitely beautiful sounding vinyl, often pressings on heavyweight 180grs 'virgin' vinyl but it's not necessarily just the use of more vinyl that makes this sound this good and pure. My 1980s Phonogram KISS albums were light in comparison, I guess they even used half of the amounts of vinyl for those, yet none of those were warped, concentric nor static loaded when I bought those back in the day. In comparison, even those that have been played a hundred times or more produce less distortion or vinyl noise than these.
These 180 grs new vinyls are ALL warped and some slightly concentric too. What does this mean? Well, a distorted signal, however slightly it may be. Sometimes even this serious that the needle is jumping out of the groove. This usually happens at the very beginning of the groove. Some of these have a warp that, did I not have the tools to correct this, would make them unplayable.
If a company ships out warped and concentric pressed vinyls, 180 grs does not get you anywhere. It still sounds like shit. Or it is simply not possible to play the album at all.
Of course, if some decides to press a CD master (this happens oftenly today too) it will sound worse than the actual CD. Maybe if done well, a bit more pleasant to the ear but technically, worse. So the actual audio contents are important for the final result in terms of quality. In this case there's nothing wrong with the audio contents, in fact, the catalog may have never sounded better. Kevin Reeves did a great job on restoring and remastering these if you'd ask me.
The sad thing is, at least with THESE GZVinyl versions, it was all in vein, since the end result is crappy, utterly crappy. Even if they just asked 13 euro's a title to begin with. But hey, that's my personal opinion...
Audio snippets and comparison material in a zip container can be downloaded here:
KISS - 2014 Vinyl Reissues Comparison (AAC-LC 512)
Feel free to drop me a line or two. Discuss, share your insights.
But most of all, think about what you spent your money on. It's not like you buy a package of chewing gum. If we all just keep on buying things without blinking or giving critique things will never change right?!
Eddy Lite, January 2016