Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why Most 1960s Era 45 RPM Original Pressings Don’t Sound Good?

From a 21st Century audiophile’s perspective, why most 45 RPM vinyl singles from the 1960s are not as they are cracked up to be in terms of sound quality?

By: Ringo Bones

Even though some of them may fetch thousands of dollars if their cardboard box are in pristine condition, have you noticed that original pressings – i.e. those run-of-the-mill original standard pressings sold in record stores all over – of 45 RPM vinyl singles and EPs from the 1960s tend to not sound as they are cracked up to be from an audiophile perspective, although there are exceptions like those from Capitol Records were assured of better sound quality than most competing products. While 45 RPM vinyl reissues of 1960s era music that were released during the 1990s more often than not sound much better than Redbook Specification CDs – even better than HDCD and Sony Super Bit Mapping Redbook Specification CDs – an overwhelming majority of 1960s era 45 RPM vinyl singles and EPs sound terrible and if you don’t completely know what you are doing when you are setting up your turntable, could end up irreparably damaging the stylus assembly of your 1990s era 500 US dollar moving coil vinyl cartridge. But why do most of them sound bad? 

During the 1960s, many 45 RPM popular music singles – and even some 33 1/3 RPM LPs – were cut “hot”, as in at highly modulated levels. It almost seemed as though there were a contest among the major record labels / major record companies to produce the loudest sounding records. Some original pressing vinyl discs of the era will never sound good because the signal level is so high that the cutting stylus actually damaged the very grooves it was producing via overmodulation. Fortunately during the 1990s, conscientious vinyl mastering / cutting engineers with an eye for sound quality had noted the excesses of 1960s era vinyl mastering and cutting to produce a way better 45 RPM vinyl reissue since then in comparison to the overmodulation plagued 1960s era original pressings. And better still, if you own original 1960s era 45 RPM vinyl pressings, there are ways to make them sound better on your current turntable set up – and without damaging the stylus of the vinyl replay cartridge you currently have. 

To cope with such discs, set the tracking force for your cartridge a bit heavier than that recommended by the manufacturer. Too light a tracking pressure will result in mistracking of highly modulated vinyl discs. Mistracking means that the stylus, rather than following the undulations in the grooves, will tend to take shortcuts. It will bang against the groove walls, etching the distortion permanently into the walls. Tracking at a somewhat heavier stylus force will produce less damage in the long run than using too light a force. 

Are 45 RPM Vinyl Better Than The 33 1/3 RPM Vinyl Long Play Record?

A truism it may be, but why is it that in the audiophile / high fidelity audio world that anything bigger than necessary and run faster than necessary always result in better sound quality? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Some say the propensity of over-engineering everything – i.e. building something bigger than necessary and running it faster than necessary - in the high fidelity audio / audiophile world is nothing more than hype over common sense, but we with the requisite ears begs to differ. As in open reel master tapes run at the manufacturer’s maximum recommended speeds tend to sound way better than master tapes recorded at a much slower speed in inches per second. On the subject of turning a band’s / musician’s master tape into something that the general public can play in their homes – i.e. music playback medium may they be vinyl LPs, CDs, cassettes, MP3s, etc. – being a little more conscientious than your typical egotistical big wig record label owner when it comes paying attention in the mastering and pressing phase really pays dividends when you aim for a good sounding product whose sound quality is way better than average.  And when it comes to the subject of vinyl releases, does the 45 RPM record really sound better than the 33 1/3 RPM vinyl LP? 

During the latter half of the 1990s when I was involved in one of our local punk rock band’s toe-in-the-water exercise to release their master tapes in vinyl form, I’ve noticed that the 45 RPM singles sound much closer to the original master tape compared to the 33 1/3 RPM vinyl LP compilation pressing – especially at the frequency extremes of the audio band. Strange how something I’ve read a few years earlier in The Absolute Sound magazine seems to jibe with my first ear witness experience. 

Back in March 1994, The Absolute Sound magazine’s editor-in-chief Harry Pearson was one of the first folks to listen to Michael Hobson’s initial 45 RPM test pressings of iconic the Golden Age of Stereo era Classical music recordings – i.e. the Reiner recording of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. At the time, Hobson was wont to dispense 45 RPM versions of the RCA reissues to record critics, which then included Pearson. As vinyl enthusiasts now know, the 45 RPM vinyl record contain about half of the music per side of an equivalent 33 1/3 RPM and are, for all practical purposes, makes the 45 RPM sounds as close to the original master tapes as ordinary mortals are ever likely to get. 

As Harry Pearson went into Bernie Grundman’s mastering room that has an audio system that allowed one to A/B comparison between the original work parts – as in the original open reel master tape - and a master disc being cut from those recordings. At 33 and 1/3 RPM, the difference between what was on the vinyl and what was on the master tape were so pronounced – notes Pearson – that it was laughable, the 33 and 1/3 RPM pressing being a pale imitation, like a faded movie print from a visual perspective, when heard directly against the original master tape. Pearson notes that the amount of musical information that was lost was, poetically speaking, more than an order of magnitude and he also notes that certainly part of these differences could be attributed to the old Shure V-15 Type Whatever vinyl replay cartridge Grundman was using at the time, but there was no denying that the vinyl LP at 33 1/3 RPM was simply not an acceptable replica. However, a simple switch of the cutting lathe from 33 and 1/3 RPM to 45 RPM and out of blue from Pearson’s perspective, the differences between the original RCA master tapes and the vinyl pressing disc were reduced to the minor. So does a faster running speed more often than not result in improved sound quality? 

As a further insight into why 45 RPM vinyl sounds better than its 33 1/3 RPM long-playing counterpart, consider this intriguing explanation of the 45’s advantage from Mary Cardas – daughter of the great George Cardas – and one of the first record critics who got one of Michael Hobson’s first 45 RPM test pressings. According to Mary Cardas: “As the stylus moves through the groove, it makes an attempt to precisely trace each `peak’ and `valley’ it comes across, given the same one-second section of music cut at the same level, the amount of groove modulation is the same whether the lathe is moving at 33, 45 or 79. The difference is in the slope of those modulations. The best analogy is that of a ski slope. Compare a 500-foot drop over a distance of 1,000 feet (a more pleasant slope). My own recovery in order take the next drop would be substantially different – whether or not you factored in a 25 percent increase in speed. For a cartridge, there may not be enough time after finishing one slope to mechanically recover and be able to completely track the next, By cutting at a faster speed, we are able to `soften the terrain’ with precisely the same information being transferred. The audible differences between a record cut at 45 and the same at 33 are generally heard in more clearly delineated instrument placement and sizing, and greater low-level detail (one of the first things to suffer in mistracking). The drawback is that the amount of music one can press on one side of a record is cut by almost 50 percent.”