Super Freak Thursday

“Super Freak” by Rick James. In its full version, as it was meant to be heard.

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Trackability Test Records?

I know my opinion may be unpopular, but I have found it has merit.

When setting up a cartridge, I often turn to my Shure Audio Obstacle Course LP to help with the setup.  It has a helpful track for setting the anti-skating.  In addition, it has a set of test tones that help you determine the trackability of your cartridge.

While I have heard the argument that I shouldn’t play test records to test the trackability, I have found a direct correlation between the test record and the records I actually play day-to-day.  My old Shure V15 Type V-MR could, on its best days, play all six of the trackability grooves without ever breaking up.  And it played every record I owned flawlessly, especially those which are cut on the “hot” side of the scale.  Sibilance just simply is not an issue–it played everything without any tracking distortion whatsoever.

Nothing else I’ve owned has come close.  The Shure M44-7 was the absolute worst tracker I’ve ever had in my system; thankfully I only use its 78RPM stylus, so it’s not a worry.  My old Grado GF3E+ could only play the first three (out of six) trackability signals, as could the crappy Dynavector DV10X3 I owned.

Any time I start reading reviews, I keep hearing about what great trackers these cartridges are.  Yet I bet few if any could get past the test tones.  Do reviewers ever listen with vinyl that will actually push a cartridge to its trackability limit?  Even some LPs that I didn’t suspect of mistracking still can, such as the 180 gram Van Morrison Moondance, which the V15 glided through but nothing else has successfully.  When I hear an “s” being slurred like a bad lisp, cymbals sounding like a mistuned FM radio, or cymbal hits that “pop” with distortion, I know a cartridge is falling short of my expectations.

So far there isn’t a review out there which pits the cartridges against a set of test tones that were designed to push the cartridge to its limit.  And no, I don’t listen to test records all day, but for me the test tones are a proven way to quantify what I am hearing.  And sure enough, if a cartridge won’t track the full set of test tones, then it also does not track the records I own and play daily.  I’ve done it.  I’ve proven it.

Enough said.

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Lost Classic — Ira Stein & Russel Walder: Elements

For a brief while in the 1980s, I was sampling some of the Windham Hill recordings.  I admit that some of what I’d heard wasn’t all that exciting to me (some of it could be too “new-agey” or precious), but a few artists and groups stood out.  I liked the freshened-up fusion approach of Shadowfax, and was amazed at how Michael Hedges could manipulate his way around a guitar.

One that flew under the radar of most folks was the duo of Ira Stein and Russel Walder.  I had first purchased their second album, Transit, thanks to one of the tracks being on a Windham Hill sampler I owned.  (A feature will be forthcoming on this album.)  That album featured the duo, but with a little extra instrumentation (and some vocals) for sweetening.  A few months later, I picked up a copy of their first album, Elements, which is strictly the duo of oboe and piano…a 1932 Baldwin, no less.  Just a few weeks ago, I found a mint copy via Discogs and have been rediscovering this album again.

This evening while filing away albums and inspecting others, I remembered that this album was pressed on premium vinyl.  KC-600, if I recall.  This one has the dark purple translucent glow to it.  This in itself is a good sign.  It was while looking at the dead wax that I noticed a familiar inscription:  “JH/2″.  Turns out this album was half-speed mastered at JVC in Japan, where all of those early-era Mobile Fidelity LPs were mastered.  The mastering engineer was none other than Jack Hunt.  In addition, the album was pressed back here in the U.S. at Record Technology, Inc. (RTI).  Other than a bit of flotsam and jetsam (the record still needs a good cleaning), it plays back nicely.

The oboe and piano were both recorded with Crown PZM microphones, and the whole chain was “audiophile” with no compression or limiting, so this is a very nice sounding album.  The tones of the oboe and piano are indeed very natural.  As an LP, this is nearly demo material, provided you can find one that is in excellent condition.

Musically, I will be the first to admit that it is not everyone’s cup of tea.  The album consists of only four lengthy songs, plus a very brief fifth.  And yes, it is strictly oboe and piano.  Yet it is not sappy or precious like much of the new age genre was.  What I notice are elements of both classical and jazz here.  Classically, some of the works remind me of a theme and variations.  Yet once the theme is established, either Stein (piano) or Walder (oboe) is improvising, building upon the original theme.  Stein, especially, reminds me a bit of the style of Lyle Mays, where he can just take off and soar, building the original song into something completely different.  Very spontaneous and free-form at times, yet they never fail to bring a song back to earth by its end.

Definitely recommended if you can find a nice clean copy on vinyl, or seek out the CD.  It’s enjoyable if you prefer something quieter and out of the ordinary.

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Quick cartridge pin tip

Here is a quick tip.  Have you ever broken a wire trying to take the clips off of the back of your cartridge?  Read on

First of all, you should never be pulling on the wires.  Ever.  Given how thin some of today’s wiring is, at the very least you will be soldering that wire back on.  At the worst?  You snap the wire off inside the tonearm.  Time to ship it back and have it rewired, unless you are so brave to try it yourself.

Needle nose pliers pulling on the metal clips is a good way to do it also.  But keep in mind again, you should be pulling on the metal clips, not the wires.

So, what does Rudy use?  A screwdriver.  I never put my clips fully onto the cartridge.  There is plenty of length to the cartridge pins, and many of the clips engage quite well further out on the pins.

Here is my trick:  I put a flat blade jeweler’s screwdriver between the cartridge body and the clip (which as I said, is not fully pushed onto the pin).  I then gently pry or push the clip off of the pin with the screwdriver.  Do NOT scrape along the cartridge pin if at all possible–gold plating is very thin.  I have used this method many times and my tonearm clips and wiring are fully intact.

Have one that is difficult?  Use a knife blade.  I had to use this when the pin was too close to the cartridge body.  Yet again, be careful not to scrape that pin.  You can easily pry the pin off without scraping too much, and nudge it off only far enough to finish up the task with the screwdriver.


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Lost Classic — Basia: Time and Tide

Have you ever put on an LP or CD you haven’t heard in several years, and it was like rediscovering that album?  I’m sure you have, but if the gap is long enough, it is almost like rewinding to that first moment when you began playing an unknown album, not knowing what to expect and being pleasantly surprised.

File:Basia - Time And Tide album cover.jpgI had that feeling today listening to Basia’s debut album, Time and Tide.  I bought it originally when it came out.  When I spooled up the first track and began playing it, I had that same feeling I did the first time I played the CD and “Promises” led off.  I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into, but once that samba beat started up, I knew I was onto something.  Her style is reminiscent of late 80s pop, jazz, and Bossa Nova, even going so far as to sing an ode to the Brazilian vocalist Astrud Gilberto with “Astrud.”  Like her albums to follow, much of the accompaniment was provided by Danny White on synths.  Peter White (yes, the same Peter White who rose to infamy with Al Stewart, and has since forged a highly successful $mooth jazz career) provided many of the guitar licks on the album.  I must say that after these years, songs like “Freeze Thaw,” “From Now On”, “New Day For You” and “How Dare You” hold up frightfully well.

Through my current system, I must say that the Oppo tends to help smooth out some of that harsh digital CD sound that was so prevalent back in the mid to late 80s.  I am currently looking for a clean vinyl copy of this album, hoping it will add some needed warmth.


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