Written by 6:00 am Audiophile, Audiophile Music

Bettye LaVette’s New Blackbirds On Vinyl

Mark Smotroff wonders what is it about vinyl that appeals to the ear?

AR-BettyeLaVetteVinyl450.jpgThis review is not a slag on digital media as I’ve certainly heard many really great digitally presented albums over the years. And I know that many times these days even if an album was recorded “analog” that doesn’t necessarily ensure a pure analog sound as many audio processors and such employed along the way are digitally based. So we’ll avoid that granularity here. 

But there is a palpable “thing” that happens to a recording when it gets prepared for presentation in the vinyl medium.  And I’m not talking about all that language of “lets you hear what the artists heard in the studio” and such.  But, I do wonder about the notion of hearing music “as the artist intended” and whether vinyl more closely approximates that feel.  

AR-BettyeLaVetteBlackbirdsCoverVINYL450.jpgSo lets put aside all that good talk about frequency response and analog vs. digital and such and just consider the notion of a medium that has brings with it 100-plus years of learning and experimentation behind it. A medium which when handled properly can deliver a sonically appealing presentation of the music which feels inherently… for lack of a better phrase, lets call it … “right” and “true” … at least to my ear…

And as much as I love a great surround sound remix — a whole other thing entirely — for basic Stereo listening, I keep coming back to the notion that the vinyl playback medium is the choice. Picture yourself as fairy tale princess-to-be Snow White and you are exploring the Seven Dwarves home… and when you get to that bed we know as long playing vinyl records, it just feels … right and true. 

AR-BettyeLaVetteVinylPlayingThree450.jpgEarlier this month I previewed Bettye LaVette’s wonderful new album — Blackbirds, click here to read it — based on high resolution streams on Tidal and Qobuz.  The album sounds great there, streaming in 96 kHz, 24-bit MQA and Hi Res formats, respectively. And depending on the nature of your gear, those may be more than adequate for your listening needs and perhaps will fit better in your lifestyle (small physical footprint, cloud-based, reduced clutter, etc.).  I get it.

All that said, I finally got my hands on the vinyl version and I’m not disappointed. I don’t know exactly how Blackbirds was made — I think it may be analog as I’ve heard some tape hiss-type sounds on quiet parts of a track or two — but it was recorded at some spiffy studios and has a rich sound to it.  

AR-BettyeLaVetteSmilingVINYL450.jpgThe thing I like about hearing Blackbirds on vinyl is that everything feels a bit tighter than on the digital streams I’ve heard. The tracks “Blues For The Weepers” and especially “Book of Lies” are among of my favorites on this album. Producer and drummer Steve Jordan’s Al Green / Hi Record- flavored loose-snare drum sound punches more powerfully on the LP version and the kick drum hits like a heartbeat pulse.  On the digital versions streaming, those sounds are not as pronounced and driving. Its all there, but the feel is better on the vinyl version. The ride cymbals floosh mystically in the background without stepping on Bettye’s vocals. 

I suspect this difference has to do with the combination of the warm production techniques coupled with that special magic which goes into mastering a physical disc. Here done by the legendary Greg Calibi at Sterling Sound, Blackbirds comes into tighter focus on this new vinyl release.


Whether its that addition tasteful level of compression applied to the final master when cutting the disc lacquers (used for making the LP pressings) or additional EQ applied to optimize the music for vinyl, I don’t know for certain. But whatever magic mojo spell Mr. Calibi cast on this, its all good.  

Fortunately, additionally, the standard weight black vinyl is quiet and well centered so the music lifts off and any apparent noise floor disappears. 

So, if you enjoy Bettye LaVette’s music and like the vinyl experience for reasons stated above, do check out Blackbirds.  Any way you listen, its a great album.  On vinyl the experience is that extra bit more. 

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