The Long and Winding Road Continues
(9/30/08 6:00 pm pst)
The long and winding road continues here at Classic Records with our ongoing pursuit to make the best quality records possible. To that end, we have made some changes that have been in the market now for most of 2008 including a slight modification to our Super Vinyl Profile. Some background is in order here before I explain. Originally, what has come to be known as Classic's "Super Vinyl Profile"
|QUIEX-SVP without groove guard||QUIEX-SVP II with groove guard|
RTI 180 gram pressing
(SV-P) was borne out of an attempt to replicate the profile of an original mono Blue Note LP from the mid 1950's. We cut in half a beat up copy of an original RVG pressing and had dies made specially to replicate the "no groove guard" and "deep groove" center label characteristics of the original pressing. Along for the ride, in terms of recreating the original mold came the weight (200 grams) and the profile (flat) that was inherent to the original pressing. We had NO idea of the importance of the profile during this development process. RTI agreed to convert a press over to the new die configuration to test the new "no groove guard" profile with "deep groove" centers. With a fair amount of effort on the part of RTI's plant manager Rick Hashimoto, the first test pressings of BN 1568 were successfully pressed using RIMTECH vinyl and ready to listen to. I remember, assembling a group of Classic Records employees in my home listening room for the playback on my Kuzma Stabi XL turntable with Kuzma Reference Tonearm and Cardas Heart / Benz cartridge. We played the newly minted Hank Mobley test pressing and were all delighted with the quiet surfaces, detail and resolution we heard. Just for fun, we played a 180g conventional profile RTI test pressing, made using the same metal parts and vinyl formulation and without adjusting the volume or making any other changes. It immediately sounded different – less detail, less bass response and apparently lower in volume than the new profile test pressing. The differences were not subtle and everyone agreed something was amiss. At first, someone speculated that something must have changed – maybe the volume was turned lower by accident. So we put the 200g pressing back on without touching the volume and replayed it. To all of our shock, the 200g pressing was apparently louder, much more detailed, transparent, realistic and the bass was tighter! But how could this be – the same metal parts were used which meant the volume level locked into the groove modulations had to be the same. We did the same comparison at Bernie Grundman mastering for Bernie, Chris Bellman and Beno May and everyone easily identified the new profile pressing as being MUCH better in all ways.
Still unable to explain the difference we cut the pressings in half and discovered that the 180g had a different profile than the non-groove guard 200g pressing. In fact, for the first time, we realized that a conventional profile is NOT flat in its profile across the playing surface of the LP. That is, the thickness of the record is NOT the same across the grooved area of the record. Instead, it is the same thickness at the groove guard and at the center label and convex in between the outer edge and the spindle hole with a portion of the center of the play surface being flat. Have you ever had the experience that the cut in the center of an LP side sounds better? Well it is not just the fact that the tracking error of a pivoted tonearm is minimized in this area but also that the playing surface is flat allowing the stylus to be perpendicular to the grooves. This is also an explanation of the differences we heard between the 200g profile and 180g profile pressings. The mechanics are as follows: effectively, a lacquer is a flat surface and leads to flat metal parts (stampers) that are distorted in a conventional pressing mold commonly called a pressing die. The stamper distortion caused by the die profile, albeit slight, is enough to cant the grooves on the first and last thirds of an LP side so that they are NOT perpendicular to the surface plane of the record and platter. The result is that the stylus has no chance to be in proper contact with the groove walls in these canted segments of a conventional profile LP because the grooves are askew relative to the stylus. This "tracking distortion" is NOT the fault of the cartridge and results in the smearing of musical detail across the frequency spectrum. Further, the apparently lower volume level of the conventional profile LP versus the flat profile LP made from the same metal parts is also easily explained. A cartridge is an electro-mechanical generator that produces a continuously variable voltage output during playback. If the cartridge stylus is not tracking the groove exactly then its output voltage will be lower as a result in the same way that a cartridge with improperly aligned azimuth will have lower output than when azimuth is optimal. As an aside, it is easy to see why cartridge azimuth, even properly set, will only be optimal on flat profile records or in the center third of a conventional profile LP. A thought might be for those using conventional profile pressings to make sure that the best tunes on the LP are in the center of a side for the best playback and sound!
So, for the past six years, Classic Records has pressed the vast majority of our LP releases and re-releases on our Super Vinyl Profile (SV-P) with varying degrees of success. While our efforts to replicate the original Blue Note "non-groove guard" profile were immediately successful, the decision to extend using the non-groove guard Super Vinyl Profile to "all" subsequent Classic Records releases immediately lead to problems which we have battled with some success ever since. We first had real issues trying to press STEREO records where we encountered both "stitching" and/or "non-fill". "Stitching" is a situation where a portion of a record groove is torn or damaged during the release portion of the record pressing cycle when the press "opens up". Stitching is often a more prevalent issue when pressing heavy -weight records and can be solved using press adjustments or in some cases by using a different vinyl formulation that is either stiffer or softer depending on the circumstances. "Non-fill" is, as the name suggests a situation where the molten vinyl does not fill all the voids in between the grooves of a stamper. Although not always the case, often non-fill occurs nearer the outer diameter of a pressing and is usually in an area where the music transitions between loud and soft. Modern record presses have a number of adjustments that most often enable the press operator to "adjust out" the non-fill by adjusting the steam temperature and duration of the cycle along with other adjustments. Non-fill is also thought to be avoided somewhat or kept at bay, so to speak, by the groove guard at the outer rim of an LP pressing. What happens is that when the molten vinyl (280° Fahrenheit) is squeezed between the stampers from the center label area towards the outside diameter, the vinyl is squeezed into the grooves of the stamper and then encounters a channel (the groove guard) formed into the dies and the stampers. When the vinyl travels down into the channel and up the other side it creates what is referred to as "back pressure" in the mold and helps all the grooves modulations in the stamper to be properly filled. Even with a groove guard, there is the opportunity for non-fill in areas where the music moves from a quiet passage to a loud passage. In the louder passage the mountain range on the stamper is higher and wider than the hills of the quieter passage that precedes it. When molten vinyl is flowing towards the outer diameter during pressing it encounters the bigger grooves first and can flow over top of the smaller adjacent grooves without filling properly and resulting in non-fill. The non-fill groove sections of an LP have a crackly sound because the groove is malformed. These non-fill issues are rarely a problem with our Blue Note Mono pressings because all the mountain tops are the same height given that our mono cutting is "pure mono" and hence there is NO vertical variation across the peaks of the grooves. Pure Mono grooves only have horizontal variation – no up and down. This explains why we had immediate success with pressing 200g non-groove guard Blue Note Mono LP's that looked authentic and sounded better than 180g conventional profile pressings of same. It also explains why the attempts at pressing heavier (200g) STEREO records on a non-groove guard profile were somewhat problematic. Another complicating factor is record weight – non-fill tends to be a more prevalent issue when pressing heavy weight records. Again, when you have a groove guard to create back pressure along with press adjustments, non-fill can most often be remedied by skilled pressmen.
With this background, it becomes clear why our original Blue Note record profile caused problems with many STEREO records. The considerable success we had at pressing 200g Super Vinyl Profile Stereo LPs was a testament to the determination and experience of Rick Hashimoto, the tireless plant manager at Record Technology Inc. However, the overall success at pressing 200g SV-P records came with the price that a great number of defective pressings were rejected at RTI to produce the generally very good but occasionally inconsistent remaining records from a pressing run. Some titles pressed flawlessly while others were a constant source of trouble for Rick and RTI. Some time in the Winter of 2007, I had a conversation with Rick at RTI and he said that we had to do something to address the higher reject rate of our 200g records. I was surprised to hear that they had been shielding me from some of the pressing issues preferring to deal with them without consulting me. I immediately agreed and set to work on finding a solution…
One day, while out for a run, I had an epiphany and rushed home to dig out a JVC pressing from the 1980's pressed for Herb Belkin's Mobile Fidelity. The Mobile Fidelity UHQR pressings were always revered as sounding better than the standard weight pressings from JVC – but why I thought? To find out, I cut a UHQR pressing in half and guess what I found? First, it weighed 195 grams and IT WAS A FLAT PROFILE! I cut a 120g JVC pressing in half and found that it had the conventional profile that, with small variations, seems to be a record industry standard and is convex in it's profile – NOT FLAT. So, that is why the UHQR JVC pressings sounded better than their standard profile pressings and further confirmation of why our Flat Profile pressings sound better than 180g conversional pressings! But, there is a difference in the original Blue Note Mono flat profile and the JVC UHQR profile. While both are flat across the groove area, the JVC pressing had a groove guard! I sent half of the JVC UHQR pressing to our Super Vinyl Profile die maker and had a new set of dies made with a variant of the JVC UHQR groove guard. In mid 2007, RTI installed the new dies and immediately had success with the groove guard Flat Profile producing records which did not sound any different than non-groove guard Flat Profile pressings! We immediately changed over to pressing on what we are now calling Classic Records Super Vinyl Profile II (SV-P II) at RTI. Problems with stitching and non-fill were dramatically reduced and the reject rate at RTI also declined to below normal levels. Finally, we had found our way to greater consistency in terms of pressing quality! But there were other forces at work that would ultimately lead us away from pressing at RTI that would prove to be beyond our control.
As is usually the case when trying to make the best possible product possible, circumstances beyond your control interfere with the pursuit and so is the case with Classic Records. After six months of pressing on the new groove guard Flat Profile, RTI took our SV-P II dies off of the press that that had been devoted to pressing Classic Records Flat Profile pressings for over five years! The reason, we were told was in order to give RTI the flexibility to press a very large job involving a seven record set from a legendary Rock Band. We were told that it was a temporary situation and that we would be back on press as soon as the big order finished. Well, we never got back on press and finally in February of this year we were told that RTI would not be pressing any 200g records henceforth with no explanation. We were told that RTI would be happy to press our records on 180g if we so chose presenting us with a Classic Hobson's Choice so to speak! As I have said before on many occasions, RTI's conventional profile 180g records are the best in the country, but under no circumstances do they sound as good as our 200g Super Vinyl Profile for reasons I have clearly outlined above. We have since concluded that RTI has made the business decision to press conventional 180g records for the Major Record labels that have re-entered the LP business and overwhelmed the available production capacity. Pressing at RTI is now a 10 week wait and they are rumored to be backlogged over a half million units which should make Michael Fremer happy!
In hindsight, the general production capacity shortage we find ourselves in currently was predictable three years ago when the Universal pressing plant in Gloversville, NY closed forever and with it about 20% of the total US production capacity to press records disappeared. A year later another 40% of the remaining pressing capacity was lost when the former Warner Pressing Plant in Pennsylvania, renamed 33 1/3 was closed. More recently, a large pressing plant in New Jersey formerly named Hub Servall was dismantled and sold to a Canadian businessman who has not put the capacity back into service as yet further contributing to the production shortage in the US.
I can say that RTI generally, and Rick specifically, made the best of a difficult situation trying to make consistently good 200g records over the first five years after we introduced the 200g Super Vinyl Profile. We are grateful for the efforts of Rick Hashimoto and RTI in helping us develop and struggle to perfect the Classic Records Super Vinyl Profile. Unfortunately, given the aforementioned situation at RTI with regard to 200g pressing, Classic Records, in order to survive, was forced to find pressing capacity elsewhere after twelve consecutive years of being one of, if not the largest RTI customer – a sad day for Classic that would turn out to be somewhat fortuitous. We discovered some ancient semi-automatic presses at Bill Smith Custom Records in El Segundo, California near Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and worked with the owner Kevin Smith, the late Bill Smith's son, to put the idle presses back into production. We had multiple sets of book dies made using both the groove guard Flat Profile and the non-groove guard Flat Profile and started learning how to make 200g Flat Profile records on machines that undoubtedly made Blue Note LP's in the 1950's.
|Setting up stampers for a new title||Cleaning stampers before first pressing|
We found out that among other things, pressings from the semi-automatic presses sounded better than pressings from automatic presses using the exact same stampers and vinyl! How could this be? Kevin Smith explained that the semi-automatic presses employ a Temperature driven cycle and automatic presses generally have a Time driven cycle. He continued that, it has always been known, in record pressing circles I suppose, that semi-automatic presses make consistently better sounding records than automatics because of the reliance on temperature rather than cycle time. When I asked why automatics were deployed over time, Kevin answered simple – "To avoid Monday and Friday pressings" which he explained resulted from operator variability on those two days of the week historically. We had accidentally found another LP production innovation that made pressing more reliable with fewer rejects but resulted in a loss of fidelity in the finished product.
|Stampers installed, ready to press||Inspecting a pressing hot off the press|
We had found our way back to the mid 50's in terms of pressing quality – imagine that. While I'm at it, you might wonder why, like semi-automatic presses, the flat profile used in early mono records was replaced by the conventional convex profile in common use today. The answer is obvious when viewed in the context of the problems Classic encountered and struggled with until the Super Vinyl Profile II modification – STEREO records! This is another example of the point I have been making for years now that quality from a pressing plants perspective is not exactly aligned with that of listeners generally and audiophiles specifically. Pressing Plants, understandably strive for consistency in pressing with a minimum of rejects so automatic presses and conventional convex pressing die profiles are the norm. Ah, but if you want to make the best sounding records then you must press them using a Flat Profile die on a semi-automatic press which is exactly what Classic Records has been doing almost exclusively since March of 2008! I might note that due purely to a shortage of stock and the need for product did we make a business decision and opt to press a few titles since March of this year on 180g conventional profile at RTI. Let me be clear on this point, while the RTI 180g pressing are very good pressings, and in the absence of 200g pressings to compare would be deemed perfectly acceptable, they are NOT as good as a 200g pressing made at RTI and not nearly as good sounding as a 200g Flat Profile pressing "Hand Made" on the semi-automatic presses at Bill Smith Custom Records (BSCR).
|Classic black vinyl formula and new Clarity vinyl pellets|
The change we are most excited about is a move toward a new vinyl formula with some unique characteristics. We have named our new formulation Classic CLARITY VINYL and it is exclusive to Classic Records. The genesis of the new formula came as a result of a visit to High End Audio's self proclaimed Vinyl Guru Michael Fremer's Analog Laboratory in suburban New Jersey. After being shown a large number of garage sale "finds" that Mikey picked up for a quarter each, I sat down for a listen and was, as many before me, suitably impressed with the sound presented there. Mr. Fremer, as I like to refer to him in deference to his analog tenacity, then proceeded to demonstrate for me a Furutech LP demagnetizer on the Classic 200g Flat Profile of "Masked and Anonymous" using "Most of The Time" performed by Sophie Zelmani (track two on side 2) which I know very well and is a personal favorite as well as a great demo tune.
We started by playing the cut at a realistic level on his infamous Continuum Turntable and I thought "this is pretty darned good sounding". Without muting or touching anything, Mikey then placed the LP, b-side down, on the demagnetizer and pushed the button that turned on a red light that changed to green after about 30 seconds of silent operation. As he put the LP back on the turntable, I thought to myself, "here we go again with another tweak that will change something that I can hear but can't explain nor determine whether the difference was better or worse". Skeptically predisposed, I listened as the perfectly cued stylus touched the lead in to the song. My mouth dropped open from the first note and remained opened throughout the entirety of the tune! The vocal had so much more texture, bass definition and clarity of every nuance of the recording was vastly improved and there was more low level information than I had ever heard in the recording. I felt like, for a moment, that Sophie was in the room singing to me having suspended my disbelief that this was a recording and having been fooled into believing it was real. I had not heard such a dramatic difference in LP playback since the first time I heard a flat profile Classic LP versus a conventional profile of the same title. In much the same way as with the initial Super Vinyl Profile versus Conventional Profile comparison, I was left puzzled trying to figure out why the demagnetizer had the sonic effects I clearly heard on a piece of plastic.
|Extruded 280°f Clarity vinyl biscuit||Clarity biscuit on stamper ready to press|
The answer was to come soon after that fateful day in the "Vinyl Temple" when, at the Consumer Electronic Show, I asked the Vice President of Furutech for an explanation. Through an interpreter, he explained very simply "the carbon black that is ADDED to vinyl for LP manufacture contains trace metals that become randomly magnetized and interfere electrically with the cartridge hanging overhead during play". I shared with him that when I heard the effects of his machine on my LP's that it was quite an "ear opening" experience, which I think he appreciated being told about.
|Blank single-side with strobe label||Clarity vinyl pressing, blank side|
I obtained Furutech demagnetizers for both home and Classic Records and became and remain one of the converted. Then one day, I was out running and I was struck by another epiphany – if carbon black and the trace metals contained therein caused playback distortion in the cartridge then why not take out the carbon black altogether? I sourced samples of clear vinyl and did some tests against our normal Black Kenan 550 compound made in Columbia. Not surprisingly, what I heard was that the clear vinyl sounded like the demagnetized black vinyl in all the same ways – better detail, better bass, more low level ambient detail and generally more clarity throughout. Working with vinyl manufacturers, we experimented with a number of formulas and finally decided upon a formula we now refer to as our CLARITY VINYL formulation that we are proud to announce to the market.
|Classic Records Clarity Vinyl 45 RPM Deluxe Edition|
Initially, we are introducing CLARITY VINYL on our single sided 45 RPM releases which have been upgraded to include special packaging in the form of a box for each release in the CLASSIC CLARITY VINYL 45 RPM SERIES – all pressed on our Super Vinyl Profile II. The first two releases will be:
Also, coming soon on CLARITY VINYL will be:
In terms of future releases and re-pressings of back catalog on CLARITY VINYL, we will proceed slowly and keep you informed. We would be happy for you to tell us what you hear!!!!
Thank you for your continued support,
Michael Hobson – President, Classic Records Inc.