Written by 6:00 am Audiophile Music, Audiophile, Audiophile News, Vinyl

Why Do Record Collectors Quest For Original Pressings?

Mark Smotroff dreams of a taste recorder and other things…

There is a phenomenon among some collectors of vintage vinyl record albums to seek out the earliest possible pressings (or “editions” for those of you out there reading new to this hobby). There seem to be multiple reasons for this… 

Some audiophile collectors like them because in theory they are the closest to the original master recording back in the day and many will pay premium coin for a pristine copy.  A snapshot of a moment in time, this lets you hear the music as originally cut and presented to the universe. This is before the pressing “stampers” (used for mass duplication) became worn out and new ones had to be made (thus the notion of a “second” pressing).  And this is well before any degradation of the magnetic master tape from decades of remastering — and perhaps even remixing. Magnetic tape wears out over time naturally and with repeated use (especially if the tapes haven’t been cared for properly, which happened a lot back in the day).

Some collectors like the original incarnations of the album because of (for lack of a better phrase) what I’ll call visual aesthetics. So for example, the first pressing of Frank Zappa’s Freak Out album included a mailing address on the inner gate fold where fans could write to receive a special bonus (a “Freak Out Hot Spots” map for LA). This was deleted on later pressings.  

First pressings of The Velvet Underground’s self titled debut album are coveted — the one with the peel-able banana on the cover which many fans consider something of a “holy grail,” if you will — because the back cover photo was changed due to a lawsuit, resulting in an instant collector’s item.  Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde had a inner gatefold photo changed as well for similar reasons but that version seems to be of less interest to people these days…

Or, take the case of a rare Bill Evans record that I found at a thrift shop recently which has smaller size label (which were used by some record companies in the 1950s and ‘60s). Some folks get off on these little details.

And, yeah, I’m one of those folks… actually, I am kind of all of the above and more…

Even though the Evans album is not in perfect condition I will keep it (at least until I find a better upgrade copy) because I know it is perhaps as close as I’m going to get to hearing that music on a first pressing. 

Recently, I was telling a non-collecting but music appreciative friend about the Bill Evans record and he asked, sincerely: why was I excited about this? He wanted to know if it was simply the potential resale value of the record? He was trying to get at the essence of why I was excited by owning a true first pressing in almost any condition.

This exchange got me thinking about our motivations as music fans and led me to write this little thought piece to see what you — Dear Readers — think about this. 

If I had to prioritize these points I would probably say in the instance of this Bill Evans record excitement-wise, it is as much about the visual aesthetic of owning that first edition — and all that comes with it including artifacts of inevitable wear and tear — as well as to hear what the album sounded like in 1961. I can use my imagination to listen through the sounds of wear to imagine what a crisp original pressing might sound like. And in those instances where the disc sounds good, that will often prompt me to more actively seek out an upgrade copy… its a process, folks.

I would certainly love a better condition copy which I hope to find some day at a price that won’t bankrupt me. But, at least now I have a benchmark to refer back to which I can judge future pressings against. Even with the ticks and pops of this well worn and played record, the basic grooves are still in remarkably good shape and the record plays through quite clearly, especially when I’m using my mono cartridge (if you want to understand more about that phenomenon, click here to read the article I wrote about the Denon DL-102 cartridge some years back).

In a way, I am a bit like my mother who was always trying to get her cooking to emulate the original source of her inspiration for certain dishes. If she could’ve recorded her taste buds for later playback I’m sure she would have – can you imagine what it would be like to have a taste recorder that allows you to capture in playback flavor? Can you imagine having a smell recorder that allows you to capture and playback smells?

But I digress…. 

That is kind of what audiophiles are trying to do with sound. In our minds when we listen to this recording we can taste the performances if the recording is good enough. We can feel the vibe of the recording studio and the air around the players on the session.  We can put ourselves in the fifth-to-tenth row, dead center in a concert hall for a good orchestral recording — the sweet spot in many theaters.

I know that I am not alone in this next notion: even from the scratches ’n scuffs we might find on a used record we can feel the joy that the original owners of this record might have had from playing it over and over on their players back in the day…  This is especially true when I find an old  — I call it — “well loved” jazz or soul album…. or some ‘60s psychedelic record that has seen a lot of action yet is still enjoyable after being cleaned.  I just know these albums were cherished back in the day and part of the original owner’s lifestyle.  

I often joke about this to other collectors commenting that if these albums could talk they’d have lots of stories to tell us about what they’ve been through. And that alone is something I’ve come to respect and cherish as a visual aesthetic in my collection.

I think one reason that some of the recent reissues from Universal Music (Tone Poet and Acoustic Sounds series) and Craft Recordings have been so successful is that they have struck a strong balance between audiophile authenticity and original pressing visual aesthetics. I have explored many of these releases here on Audiophile Review (search for key words such as Blue Note, Impulse and Verve records to find them) and most times it is this combination of great sound with the authentic look and feel of the originals that make these reissues so appealing to collectors. With some of these albums being rare as hen’s teeth (if you’ll pardon the cliche), the reissues are the next best thing for most of us who can’t afford to spend an entire paycheck on one rare album. We effectively get the look, the sound and the feel of the originals in our hands.

In their own way, I understand this language of record collecting. It speaks to me.

How does it speak to you?

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