Audiophiles remember and still covet the UHQR pressings from JVC Japan from some 30 years ago. They were the pinnacle of high-quality vinyl, and UHQRs remain among the very most collectible and valuable LPs ever pressed. Now, Quality Record Pressings is reviving that long-gone name of excellence and adding to it an even higher standard of perfection. With the UHQR from QRP, we've applied all of the most innovative and ear-approved ideas ever introduced to vinyl LP manufacturing to create an ultimate LP. Never before has one record represented such singular superiority.
Each UHQR is pressed, using hand-selected vinyl, on a manual Finebilt press with attention paid to every single detail of every single record. All of the innovations introduced by QRP that have been generating such incredible critical acclaim are applied to each UHQR. The 200-gram records feature the same flat profile that helped to make the original UHQR so desirable. From the lead-in groove to the run-out groove, there is no pitch to the profile, allowing your stylus to play truly perpendicular to the grooves from edge to center. Every UHQR is hand-inspected upon pressing completion, and only the truly flawless are allowed to go to market. Your UHQR will be packaged in a deluxe box and will include a booklet detailing the entire process of making a UHQR along with a hand-signed certificate of inspection. This will be a truly deluxe product.
UHQR: Hand selected and hand inspected. Handmade and worth every dollar paid.
Much more information to come. Wait for it...
As we set out to make the world’s best vinyl record, we began by establishing a set of exacting standards to address all of the components that comprise an LP. We call our records made under these strict standards Ultra High Quality Records (UHQR). Most audiophiles would understand that the list of critical components in UHQR includes recording, mastering, plating, pressing and quality control. But some may stop short of considering the raw material used to make the record: the vinyl itself.
We did some research and learned some interesting things about the history of the iconic black vinyl record. The most compelling revelation to us was the fact that LP vinyl is not black in its pure state. The off-white color of the record you are about to listen to is the color of raw vinyl in its purest form (un-tinted vinyl). The black color you’re used to seeing is a colorant called “carbon black” that was part of the original compound formulation used in old shellac records. As vinyl compound replaced shellac-based compound, carbon black continued to be used as a colorant. We’ve expected our records to be black ever since.
To make the ultimate record, we decided to enhance sound quality by removing anything we believed could detract from it. Record styli vibrate (or jitter) on a microscopic level, and any particles of carbon black pigment that happen to be on the surface of the groove could introduce surface noise. By not adding carbon black to our Clarity Vinyl™, we eliminate the possibility of noise contamination due to carbon black particles. Instead, your stylus is allowed to effortlessly slide down a glossy and silky smooth groove wall.
When we purchased Classic Records, the brand name Clarity Vinyl came with it. We're proud to have resurrected, refined and trademarked Clarity Vinyl, the perfect canvas for our masterpiece: vinyl in its purest form.
More to come...
The Very First Title Pressed at Quality Record Pressings Is…
Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman
When word got out that we were beginning a pressing plant, customers began to call with questions. And the most common and full-of-anticipation question was inevitably: What will be the first title that you press? Well, we couldn’t possibly imagine hitting a bigger home run than to open Quality Record Pressings (QRP) with one of the all-time most classic audiophile records, Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman from 1970.
There are so many things perfect about this release. First and foremost, it’s a masterpiece of a record. It’s that rare record that couples breathtaking sound with hit after hit after hit. In fact, to list the hits would be to list the entire song list. We couldn’t pick a better vehicle for which to show off what we’re so confident will be the highest quality records ever pressed.
But here’s something else that’s cool: We scored the absolute original analog masters, and the tapes were in impeccable condition. It took an unbelievable amount of digging and research – and luck – to get this project done to the standards of Analogue Productions. But, wow, was it ever worth it! The tapes were last used in December 1999 when Ted Jensen at Sterling, along with producer Paul Samwell-Smith, remastered the Cat Stevens catalog for CD.
In 1970, Lee Hulko at Sterling Sound cut Tea For The Tillerman for A&M Records in the U.S. and Island Records in the UK using a Telefunken M10 tape machine and a Neumann VMS 66 lathe with a Neumann SX68 cutterhead. Hulko started Sterling in 1968 and was its original mastering engineer. He’s considered among the first engineers to advance mastering from just transferring music from tape to lacquer to an art where attention is paid to all the details that result in better sound. We actually found Hulko’s original mastering notes from more than 40 years ago. It’s incredible, but Sterling still has all of their notes filed away.
So, it was originally cut at Sterling – as were all of the early original Cat Stevens albums – and the tapes were last used at Sterling. How appropriate then that we should go back to Sterling for this monumental reissue. Using the original tapes, George Marino handled the mastering this time. He used an Ampex ATR-102 tape machine, another significant point of interest. While Ampex has long been revered for their sound, they had never made a preview version so that a mastering engineer could cut a lacquer from an Ampex machine. Mike Spitz at ATR Services made a unique preview modification for Sterling so that they could cut this record using an Ampex. Marino then used a Neumann VMS 80 lathe with a Neumann SX 74 cutterhead.
“I think we’ve gotten something quite a bit better than what was originally issued,” Marino says. “I think this version is much more representative of what was on the tape. And that’s not a criticism of what was originally done.”
Marino points out that since the original issue, there have been advancements in cutting lathe technology that make the improvements of this reissue possible.
“You didn’t have the same number of options that you have in the new Neumann electronics,” Marino says. “With the new one, they give you more variations to work with. Let’s say there’s a nice kind of present sounding acoustic guitar on the left channel and then all of the sudden there’s a drum peak with cymbal crashes and stuff and that stuff happens to be on the left channel. Being the vocal is down the center, you can drive the high frequency limiter from the right channel. So you can set a threshold on the right channel and grab the vocal without wiping out some of the musical peaks on the left channel. This is what I talk about when I say that we have technical advantages that they didn’t have.”
Marino also chose to use a wide-track stereo head for this project, which he said allows for better signal-to-noise than the normal stereo head.
Marino says that he is very pleased with the results.
“A great record. A classic,” he says. “And those tapes were in excellent, excellent condition. Musically, I think we’ve got something that sounds richer and more natural. It sounds more correct. I had to do very, very little to the tape regarding EQ processing or anything.”
To package this reissue, we’ve decided to do a facsimile of the original British Island gatefold jacket rather than the non-gatefold U.S. version. This British jacket also has a textured paper stock on the inside and is glossy on the outside. Additionally, we’re using the original pink Island label.
So there you have it. QRP is off and pressing in a big, big way! Finally, we’re ready to unveil the innovations in record pressing that we’ve been working on for more than a year. Among those innovations are the installations of microprocessors on the presses so that all of the presses functions are performed with absolute precision. For example, we’ve developed a dye with an imbedded temperature sensor that we can use to cycle the presses. Rather than having the presses close and open based on time – as it’s been to date – these presses will close and open based on temperature, the far more accurate indicator of when the record is ready. We also have a plating department in QRP, run by the best plating man in the business, Gary Salstrom.
Still to come from Analogue Productions pressed at QRP will be the Cat Stevens classics Teaser and the Firecat and Catch Bull at Four.
"This is why I got into this business." – George Marino, after working with the master tapes for Billie Holiday's Body and Soul
George Marino's mastered Don McLean's American Pie and all the original Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and AC/DC's Back In Black and Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction and Jeff Buckley's Grace and Coldplay's Parachutes and Michael Buble's Crazy Love and…yes, the list literally does go on and on. The man has won multiple Grammys. And while after more than 40 years in the business he's still passionate about his day-to-day work at Sterling Sound and adamant in his attitude of truly caring for the musicians who entrust him with their art, let's be real: quite a lot of what Marino listens to professionally would never make his playlist at home.
The point is that it takes something legitimately special to peg George Marino's meters.
"Just the experience of being able to hear these recordings in the studio with all of the original stuff, the way they were intended to be heard, it's…it's a joy," Marino says from Sterling Sound in New York.
He's talking of course about the 25 cherry-picked Verve titles that are being reissued as part of another milestone Analogue Productions series. And he's talking about them with a certain reverence that covers his personal musical tastes as well as his appreciation for breathtaking sound and historic performances.
"They've all been done very well," Marino says. "They did a great job with the miking. Everything was so controlled and consistent. Basically it's nice to hear that type of stuff to begin with, but then to hear a true performance, not something that's fabricated…You've really captured an emotion that you don't necessarily get nowadays. People still strive for it, but those were special artists."
Indeed they were. Verve assembled a monstrous cast of musicians during its heyday run in the 1950s and ‘60s, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Hodges and Charlie Byrd. The Who's Who roster reads as impressively as a George Marino mastering discography.
"And Ray Brown on the bass," Marino reminds us. "Anytime you hear a great-sounding, tasty bass from that time, you almost know it's him automatically."
This Analogue Productions series boils down all of those transcendent Verve titles to the 25 most essential. But here's the beauty: You think you've liked them to date? Marino thinks you haven't actually heard them yet.
"I think in almost every case we have made an improvement in what we've been able to get on the disc relative to what they got in those days," Marino says. "It's in some cases just getting what was on the tape onto the disc without having to take anything away from it because of the mechanical limitations they had back then. I think we're giving people a lot truer representation of what was intended back then."
While talking about a different Analogue Productions reissue – Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman – Marino explains one example of "back in the day" limitations that could also apply to the Verve catalog.
"You didn't have the same number of options that you have in the new Neumann electronics," Marino says referring to advancements in cutting lathe technology. "With the new one, they give you more variations to work with. Let's say there's a nice kind of present sounding acoustic guitar on the left channel and then all the sudden there's a drum peak with cymbal crashes and stuff, and that stuff happens to be on the left channel. Being the vocal is down the center, you can drive the high frequency limiter from the right channel (to eliminate vocal sibilance). So you can set a threshold on the right channel and grab the vocal without wiping out some of the musical peaks on the left channel. This is what I talk about when I say that we have technical advantages that they didn't have."
With more effective high frequency limiting, Marino can avoid the sharp, jagged grooves that are so difficult for playback cartridges to track. Couple that with all of the room he's afforded on a double 12-inch 45-RPM, and it becomes easy to understand why already amazing sounding recordings can now shine to their fullest potential.
Ah, but there's more. Sterling Sound has the only Ampex ATR-102 tape machine that has ever been customized to include a "preview" head. So Sterling can use the ATR-102 to feed a "preview" signal from the tape to the disc-cutting computer, which then in turn prepares the Neumann VMS 80 cutting lathe for the width and spacing of the grooves that will be required to properly cut an analog of that specific signal.
It's an advantage to use the Ampex ATR-102 machine, Marino explains, because that's the machine of choice by the engineering world. In other words, if mastering engineers could use an ATR-102 to cut with, they would. In fact, Marino said that most engineers do use the ATR-102 for CD mastering. But because Ampex never made a preview version, it couldn't be used to cut a lacquer. Mike Spitz of ATR Services and Sterling technician Barry Wolifson customized Sterling's one-of-a-kind model.
"The ATR seems to have a little magic going for it. I don't know if anyone really ever thought of having a machine customized before," he says. "That's a big advantage because it's such a great sounding machine. I think that helps a lot in the presentation of what is actually on these tapes (the Verves). I think a lot of them – they weren't recorded onto this particular model of machine, but they were recorded onto an Ampex machine. To me, a big part of these things is having the best starting point you can have. We really put a lot of emphasis on keeping the machines working to their utmost correctness. We're constantly checking the alignment of the machine against the tapes."
Marino credits Sterling technicians Wolifson and Phil Sztenderowicz for the indispensable role of keeping all the gear running optimally.
"Totally invaluable," Marino says. "That's the one thing about Sterling Sound. That's our history – technical support is key, it really is. These guys take so much care, and they are on top of everything. And kudos to the studio for investing in a maintenance staff. We never have anything break."
The job of working with such historic original master tapes as on this Verve project crosses the threshold from just ordinary work to a level of honor, and Marino says it does come with some level of stress.
"You definitely feel like you're walking on eggs," he says. "You never can put the tape on the machine, hit the rewind button and just turn around."
Marino says the Verve masters are in excellent condition, with just one exception.
"The one problem we had was an Oscar Peterson one – We Get Requests," he says. "We played through it and there was a lot of weirdness going on, and the tape was really deteriorating. But what happened was they got the original three-track on that, and the three-track was great. So it all worked out in the end. That was the one tape that gave us a headache."
So imagine that. We Get Requests, of course, is a timeless audiophile classic. But the stereo master was shot. Given that we know the three-track hadn't been used before, this means that all those great reissues of this record to date? They were made from copies of the master. Now we get to hear the original three-track master, cut at 45 RPM!
"And it's the best sounding of all of them," Marino says. "Excellent sounding record."
The same goes with another undisputed classic in this series, Getz/Gilberto. The original master tapes for that title hadn't been used since 1980 previous to this reissue. Also, for this Analogue Productions reissue the decision was made to master and present this album as it was originally mixed to master tape. With only one exception – the Speakers Corner reissue – all versions of this title to date have had the channels incorrectly reversed. And again, those reissues you've heard up until now – definitely still breathy, warm and rich – were made from something less than the master. Prepare to hear the veil removed.
Actually, that goes for all 25 titles in this Verve reissue series, according to Marino.
"I really think that the people who are willing to lay down their money for these reissues are going to get something really outstanding," he says.
Quality Record Pressings • 543 N. 10th St. • Salina, Kansas 67401