Written by 5:00 am Audiophile Music

Pianos and Vinyls and Flutters, Oh My!

Digital tends to tickle Mark Smotroff’s fancy over analog when it comes to piano music

Y’all know that I luv my old skool vinyl records. Yet, sometimes I hate them too simply because of certain anomalies in the manufacturing process which — if handled sloppily — can ruin a listening experience.

AR-barrydouglas1.jpgI’m primarily talking about recordings that are pressed off-center, where one of the pressing plates have not been aligned perfectly with the other, resulting in one side (or both) to waver when played back on a turntable. On rock music and some jazz, this is often not a big deal. However, when you get into classical and pop, or any music where the solo instrumentalist relies on dramatic chording and long held notes, the off center disc can utterly ruin the listening experience.

For me, at least, that is…

This has become such a big deal for me that I have become very selective on which piano-centric discs I’ll keep in the collection on vinyl vs. a digital format (ie. CD, SACD, Blu-ray, high res download). For the most part, I have gotten rid of most of my Keith Jarrett LPs in favor of digital incarnations. I still keep a lot of Oscar Peterson on LP however as for the most part they sound good and his playing style often features dizzying sheets of notes flying by, so the occasional off center disc hasn’t proven utterly detrimental. However, many pop recordings featuring piano are better represented digitally in my collection these days (Elton John, Carol King, Eric Carmen, Moody Blues, etc.) than LP.

Here are some a couple piano discs I’ve obtained in a digital format recently which I suspect I would be hard pressed to find a perfect pressing on vinyl even if I could:

AR-LauraNyro.jpgLaura Nyro – Spread Your Wings And Fly is a 2004 archival issue from the Columbia Legacy label delivering a spectacular complete performance live at the Fillmore West (May 30, 1971). It is a stirring performance and amazing really that a solo singer songwriter pianist can hold an audience in rapt silence for much of the show, hanging on her every word and note. And it is those notes that I’m talking about which make this CD so special because Ms. Nyro milks every one of them for what they are worth and then some. That this is an archival recording prepared from a surviving damaged master tape adds to the wonder of the fidelity — occasional drop out be damned, this disc sounds great! On it she delivers a virtual greatest hits performance as well as stirring reinterpretations of then still popular soul pop hits (“Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” “Oooh Child,” etc.). If you want to hear the singer / songwriter that Elton John singled out (on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle program) as having had a major influence on his song writing, you need to dive into Laura Nyro’s music. This live disc is not a bad place to start!

AR-barrydouglas2.jpgBarry Douglas – Brahms Works for Solo Piano Vol.1 & 2 – These two CDs were sent to me by the good folks at Chandos based on the quality of the performances and such. I was not familiar with Mr. Douglas before this — he’s an internationally renown performer — but that is not surprising as I am not a classical reviewer. What I did enjoy about these two CDs of solo piano music, however, is simply the purity of the recording. Sure, its probably all digital but there is a really nice sense of air around the piano, so you get a sense that you are in the room with him while he is working his magic in the West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge (England), where these were made. This is not a close-mic affair — you hear the piano and player in the room and that is what makes it extra special. It is interesting to note that these volumes were made in two separate sessions, roughly a year apart yet there is a remarkable continuity of sound. It was recorded at 24-bit depth which (in layman’s terms) means they captured much more information going into the master recording than if it had been made at 16-bit, resulting in a more natural and believable sound. Everything still gets chopped down to 16-bit in the CD format, of course, but it still sounds real nice and not overly harsh.

AR-billevans.jpgBill Evans Trio With Symphony Orchestra – Ok, so this is not a new disc nor even a new disc to my collection but it is a prime example of one of those recordings that easily gets ruined by a bad LP pressing. As this is one of my favorite Bill Evans recordings (and one of my favorite albums overall), you can imagine I have been through many copies in search of a perfect version. I have yet to find it. Most recently I purchased a yellow label DJ pressing from a dealer on eBay and while its not bad, the pressing has some slight off center issues and more surface noise than I care to hear on this recording. Thus the CD version I have remains the best incarnation to date. Mine is pressed in West Germany and the tape used has a fair amount of hiss — if ever there was an album that could benefit from a proper restoration, this is it, one of the rare hybrids of jazz and classical that for the most part works and works well. Here you will hear (from the liner copy) “brilliant interpretations of works by Bach, Chopin, Scriabin, Grandos, Faure and Evans performed by Evans and his trio with string orchestra.” Its really some gorgeous — admittedly borderline easy-listening — stuff, despite the rather boxy, dry sound of the close mic’d piano (the absolute opposite of the aforementioned Barry Douglas recording). Curiously, the orchestra sound is very open and lush with nice dynamic range and there is a good sense of air around the drums too. I’m guessing that the piano and bass required very close microphone placement techniques due to the proximity of the piano being in the same room as the orchestra during recording (per the photo in the CD package). Regardless, once you get used to the sound on the disc, the performances shine and sparkle. And until I find a perfect LP pressing — or it gets reissued as a high resolution download — this CD will have to suffice.

Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.

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