I don’t know about you folks out there in audiophile music listening land, but one of the reasons I started collecting “original” vinyl LP pressings back in the day (as a teenaged, aspirant music geek getting deeper into music) was very basic: I wanted to find records that sounded good. In the Mid-1970s, new vinyl was at an arguable low point in terms of pressing quality, particularly due to the oil crisis (oil being a key ingredient in making vinyl for records). Even on my early stereo gear — actually, it was mostly my brother’s stereo for many years — I started noticing that earlier pressings I found at used record stores like Looney Toons in Maplewood, N.J. sounded better than the “new” versions I bought at Sam Goody in Livingston, N.J. Later I found I could buy used records at garage sales for mere pennies (well, quarters) which fit my non-existent-teenaged-budget perfectly.
Fast forward to these 21st Century times and many of those old pressings I picked up for pocket change are now changing hands (online and in brick ‘n mortar retail stores) to a new generation of well heeled global collectors for sometimes pretty hefty coin!
When I considered reviewing a new reissue of Muddy Water’s rare 1957 album, the first thing I did was to check on Discogs.com to see what original pressings are going for these days. It proved to be an eye opener, but not entirely surprising. “VG” condition copies start at more than one hundred dollars and go up to nearly five hundred! Now, I don’t know about you, Dear Readers, but I don’t really have that kind of disposable income available for a recording like this. Don’t get me wrong: I love vintage blues records and Muddy Waters is one of the all time greats, so I am interested in hearing his music in as authentic a presentation as possible. But, I don’t really need a “first pressing” at this stage of my blue collecting. I mean, if I really — really — get into the record on a deeper level (which might well happen someday!), well then perhaps then I might spring for an original pressing if I have some disposable cash. Of course, if I happen upon a copy out in the wilds of crate digging, I would most surely welcome it into my world.
This album was effectively a compilation to begin with. According to the Muddy Waters’ official website it is “an essential collection of 78 RPM recordings made between 1948 and 1954 for Chess Records that would go on to launch a revolution in modern popular culture.” So to truly have the “original” pressings of these recordings one would need to collect those old 78s! At this stage, however, I know that I simply want a respectable representation of his earliest recordings in my collection on an analog format. Fortunately for my non-existent music-reviewer’s budget, the good folks at Universal Music Group kindly sent me a copy of the new 60th Anniversary reissue of this great bluesman’s debut recording for review consideration.
The Best Of Muddy Waters contains many of Muddy’s legendary tunes including “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” “Hoochie Coochie,” “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” “Rollin’ Stone,” and more. Twelve songs that arguably helped shape the face of modern Blues, Pop, R’n B and Rock ‘n Roll.
So how does The Best of Muddy Waters sound? Well, first I gave the album a spin on Tidal to hear how it felt in CD quality (it is not available there in MQA format at this stage, though you can find Muddy’s 1964 album Folk Singer there in that format — it sounds quite nice in 24-bit, 96 kHz fidelity, skewing a bit crisp and bright). For the most part, the stream of The Best of Muddy Waters sounds pretty good. It is a simple raw blues recording so the things I am listening for are how realistic the guitars sound, whether the feel of the studio is coming through the speakers and — where applicable — whether one can hear the warm tube tone of the vintage amplifiers and the thump of the drum heads being hit. I am also listening for anomalies that are not likely part of the original recording. On this stream, there is fair amount of bluesy amp tone evident and the harmonica is bathed in reverb so it has a huge sound to it. Muddy’s voice has some hard edges around his vocals as he belts out higher and louder phrases he’s singing. But in general, it’s a pretty enjoyable listening experience via the Tidal stream.
However, when I put on the new 60th anniversary reissue vinyl — which itself probably endured some level of digitization in the reissue food chain– I heard a much clearer recording and the anomalies on the 16-bit, 44.1 kHz stream became more apparent. Notably there was a sort phase-y wonkiness (if you will) dancing around the edges of Muddy’s vocals. So, for example, words like “to” and “want” take on an odd resonance in the stream that is not apparent on the LP version, when he utters lines like:
“I don’t want you to, be no slave
I don’t want you, to work all day
I don’t want you to be true
I just want to make love to you”
On the streaming version of “I Want You To Love Me” the recording sounds a bit drier than on the LP version — that is, there seems to be less reverb and studio room sound present or at least less is coming through from the compressed CD-quality files. Something is going on. So no, it’s not perfect but I can’t necessarily point blame to the stream as there are other factors may be involved including the quality of the source material provided to Tidal. If they only have a compromised set of files to work with as provided by the record labels, well then it is up to the label to fix that issue. Also, I still wonder with streaming whether there might be some impact on the sound of the file simply due to the Internet, especially for non-MQA titles. Is what I’m hearing “really” what the artist intended or is this uncharacteristic sound a type of distortion gained along the digital highway of the world wide web? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case.
Is the LP pressing better than the stream? There are trade offs no doubt, but generally yes. The vinyl pressing sounds good and is quiet and well centered and all those good things we audiophiles tend to appreciate. This is raw rockin’ blues music so don’t go into this expecting sonics akin to a vintage RCA Living Stereo classical LP.
I’ll put it this way: if you find the reissue of The Best of Muddy Waters at a reasonable price, pick it up. And it does seem to be available for price most every music collector can afford. When I last checked, it was selling for just about $15 up on Amazon Prime and for a collection of some of the songs that changed the face of popular music, that is a very fair deal.