Friday, March 13, 2009

Michael Fremer Review

I am very proud to continue our new feature (look for this every Friday), music reviews that are written by the senior contributing editor of Stereophile magazine- Michael Fremer. It has been a pleasure to speak with Michael and learn more about audio sound and equipment. In fact, his new DVD, "It's A Vinyl World, After All" has hit the shelves and is selling out very quickly. This is a must have for anybody who loves vinyl, it is a true masterpiece.

Additionally, make sure to stop by his site, and bookmark it for further exploration. I certainly want to thank Michael for the exclusive rights to reprint his fantastic material.

Stevie Wonder (REVISED review 2/21/09)
Songs In the Key of Life

Tamla/Speakers Corner 06007 5303833 2 180g LPs+7" EP

Produced by: Stevie Wonder
Engineered by: John Fischbach and Gary Olazabal
Mixed by: N/A
Mastered by: Maarten de Boer at UMG Berliner

Review by: Michael Fremer

Editor's note: this review has caused quite a dust-up, in part because of the sonic description and in part because of this, which you'll find further down in the text:
"..but the mastering is just plain weird.

A layer of crunchy ice has been added on top and the bass has been boosted, producing a garish sonic mix. The result is an unpleasant edgy grit to Wonder’s voice. You know something's wrong when the triangle on "Love's In Need ..." is louder than Wonder's voice! And believe me, it is.

One would hope an analog source was used, but whatever was the source, this reissue sounds nothing like the original and represents an unnecessary, unwarranted revision that I’m sure would appall Stevie Wonder."

Mastering engineer Maarten de Boer has responded, first on the Steve Hoffman forums:

Steve Hoffman Forums

and then to me personally. Here's what he wrote:

"Being the engineer who mastered and cut this record I think I am the only one who can put this record straight.

1. never will a digital source be used as a master for Speaker Corner records

2. the master is an analog copy run at 30 ips on virgin tape. So if the copy is done correctly it will be pretty close to the original.

3. I did use a very slight touch of EQ, 0,5dB at 700 Hz with a Q of 2.5. Just to enhance depth a bit . This is a typical 70's recording so it is very dry and lacks depth. I had to use the de esser so anybody could play the album without distortion.

4. No dolby has been used and the copy was obviously from a non dolby tape. Believe me after 30 years of disc cutting and mastering I can tell the difference.

5. If I EQ an old analog master there has to be a good reason for that otherwi9se I won't and if I EQ it it will be minimal and it will probably most of the time midrange. EQing low and top is totally useless and ruins practically everything.

What bothers me about this discussion is the amount of presumptions instead of knowledge and fact. One of the problems with vinyl is the playback system and difference in quality and sound between all these systems. I'm glad Mr Grant shows the right way to approach the record as it was cut and mastered. As long as you haven't heard the real master tape and we probably never will you will never know what the truth is. What I can tell you is that for a lot of cuts I do get the absolute original and when I compare these to the original release I am glad they masterd it originally before cutting it."

Maarten de Boer
Emil Berliner Studios

There were many posts on the thread, some accusing me of having "an agenda" (not spelled out, of course) and others telling people that my word shouldn't be taken "as gospel" (no shit!).

My response was this:

"Now that I have Mr. de Boer's email address, I will ask him before presuming anything. However, I don't think my review presumes anything and I don't think Mr. de Boer had aimed that at me. I don't think it's fair to say that I "trashed" the Wonder reissue. I reported on what I heard, comparing the original, the Japanese copy I have and the Speakers Corner reissue.

In my experience, when a reissue sounds very different from an original, it is the reissue that is the revision. This is not always the case, but usually is. If you read a lot of reviews of reissues, you will find that there are many reviewers who are biased against reissues, and of course there are the usual dingbat re-sellers of original pressings who say the same thing, and then accuse me, who sells no records, of having an "agenda."

I have no "agenda" here. There are also reviewers who love everything. I am not one of those reviewers either.

I have never asked anyone to take my word as "gospel," so when I read posters saying "why are you taking Fremer's word as 'gospel' " I agree with them, though I defy them to show me where I've ever claimed to be the light.

I state my opinion and I don't mince words---or at least I try not to.

In this case, the Speakers Corner reissue is much brighter than the original. That is not my opinion, that is a fact. And the brightness is in this one narrow zone.

Now, I am also sure Mr. deBoer has no agenda here other than the truth.

Then the issue becomes, as it has always been, is the master tape "the truth" that should pretty much be transferred to lacquer or DMM untouched? Or is it merely a tool to be manipulated to achieve a particular result.

Often, master tapes include original "notes," wherein the original mastering engineer explains what he did AT THE DIRECTION OF THE ARTIST OR PRODUCER to create the original lacquer from which the original pressing was created.

In that case, an original pressing, not the master tape, should be considered the "original document."

For instance, Sundazed's Bob Irwin told me when he mastered Love's "Forever Changes" for vinyl reissue he consulted the original notes he found. Arthur Lee insisted that the first song on the record start out very low in level and build. It's what Arthur Lee wanted. The tape wasn't produced that way but when Irwin remastered it, he conformed to the artist's intentions.

So if you compare an original gold label Elektra pressing to the Sundazed reissue, you will hear that same slow fade-up (along with dozens of other subtle "moves" found in the notes).

There was a later Elektra "butterfly" pressing mastered by someone who simply rolled the tape. The level is higher at the beginning, more uniform throughout and the cut misses all of what Arthur Lee intended for his record to sound like.

Yet I've read message boards and reviews claiming THAT was the best version of the album because it was the loudest and most dynamic and whatever....too bad it wasn't what Arthur Lee intended.

Now, as for the Stevie Wonder album under discussion here: clearly the Speakers Corner reissue is brighter in one particular region than the original, that produces an icy crust over Wonder's voice and over the voices of the background singers. It literally makes the triangle on the opening tune sound louder than Wonder's own voice!

I have no doubt Mr. de Boer's transfer is faithful (with the exception of the minor EQ tweaks he mentions) to the tape copy he was given to use as a source and we can assume it was a flat transfer and that his mastering produced a result faithful to that tape.

That does not mean, however, that the result is necessarily what Stevie Wonder, or his producers, or whoever was originally responsible for the final vinyl's sound, wanted!

Is everyone with me on this?

So in conclusion:

1) The Speakers Corner reissue was cut from an analog source

2) The Speakers Corner reissue was not a wild "revision" of that source (my wrong presumption that I will revise in my review)

3) The Speakers Corner reissue sounds much different than either an original RCA/Motown or Japanese pressing, being icier and brighter, perhaps in the "Aural Exciter" range (presumption warning) than either of those and also having a more robust bottom end.

4) Without consulting either the original mastering engineer, the original engineer Mr. Orazabal or Stevie Wonder himself (who was at CES in the Venetian Towers and who I have been told will soon take delivery of a pair of Hansen King speakers), it is impossible to determine whether the sound of the original pressing was their intent and that they desired to tame and soften the edge around Wonder's vocals and curtail the bottom end a bit, OR whether those changes happened as a result of sloppy mastering, or technical limitations of the gear at the time (neither of which I believe to be true).

5) I was present at the mastering for Classic's reissue of "Tommy." I brought along an early UK Track original for them to compare to the tape (which was the original master---photo available upon request) and as we rolled the tape and played the record in real time, we discovered that in the original mastering, the tape playback speed was actually increased at certain points to add "excitement." It was decided to reproduce that speed differential in the reissue to remain faithful not to the tape, but to the original LP, which was considered the "document of record."

5) In conclusion: I stand by what I heard as the major tonal differences between the original and reissued "Songs in the Key of Life" --it's not opinion, it is FACT.

6) How these differences will play out on your system or how your senses will react to them, is something I obviously don't know.

7) It was not my intention to trash the reissue. it was my intention to honestly tell you what it sounded like compared to an original and that's what I did.

8) As I wrote in the review, the reissue is pressed on much better, quieter, thicker vinyl. It is a meticulously done reissue in every way and well worth the money if you like the music and if you are prepared for an edgier sound than you might be used to.

9) I DON'T HAVE A FRIGGIN' AGENDA other than trying to be truthful and informative.

I'm Michael Fremer and I approved of this message"

So here's the original review, please consider what Mr. de Boer has written above as "gospel" and discard my conjecture below.

However, I stand by the sound of the reissue. It was never my intention to "trash" the reissue. Just be prepared for it to sound edgier an grittier around the vocals than you might have become accustomed to on the original, that is for sure. And be prepared for far quieter surfaces and improved dynamics.-MF (2/21/09)

Unfortunately, at the time Stevie Wonder released this sprawling career pinnacle in the fall of 1976, RCA’s pressing quality had reached its nadir. It was a Dynaflex world of paper thin, flexible records pressed from what sounded like recycled BIC pens. Yikes! Some youngsters reading this might not even know what a BIC pen is/was!

Tamla/Motown had used RCA’s mastering and pressing facilities from the label’s inception and during the great pressing days of the 1960’s Motown released some great sounding records, thanks to the mastering, pressing and the engineering.

Beginning in the mid 1960’s, most of Motown’s releases were issued in both mono and stereo, which was unusual for a label catering to the “youth market.” Still, the mono releases were more important and often, the stereo versions were delayed and sometimes featured alternative takes. But I’m rambling and writing in the passive tense. Sorry.

It took Wonder over an hour’s worth of material that filled two LPs and a four song 7” EP to get off his chest what was occupying the music of his mind between 1974’s introspective, some would say dark and definitely neglected Fullfillingness’ First Finale and this, his most acclaimed and accomplished work. Mr. Wonder never regrouped after this album to produce anything as masterful as this or the four great albums that preceeded it.

With the state of the world and the tribulations of his people on his mind, Wonder moves between the opener, in which he says that even love is in need of love in 1976 (and that the listener had better send some in “right away” because hate’s going around), and the bleakness of “Village Ghetto Land.”

Wonder doesn’t point fingers: he merely asks “Tell me would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land?” Side one ends with Wonder’s passionate tribute to music generally and Duke Ellington specifically.

The album veers between the personally joyous and tuneful (“Isn’t She Lovely”) to the non-militant pride of “Black Man.” Throughout, Wonder produces wondrous melodies, particularly on the slow movers like “Joy Inside My Tears.”

Both the music and the arrangements move away from the rock and funk of earlier albums towards more complex mainstream jazz and pop.

As with many productions of the era, there was a noticeable decrease in sound quality on this album compared to earlier Wonder releases, though no doubt the engineers thought they were making better sound here with “more”: more compression, more use of effects, more tracks and newer, more complex boards, but what was really happening was less transparency, diminished dynamics, narrower and flatter soundstages and especially less extension. This production sounds closed in, distant and listless. Bass lacks real thrust and extension and there's little shimmer from the cymbals. "Boxy" is the operative adjective.

Add the noisy Dynaflex (or whatever RCA was or was not calling it at the time) and despite the superb music making, I remember being disappointed by the clogged, flat sound, though had I known how bad sound was going to get a few years later, I would have been more than happy with it!

When a Japanese edition arrived at my local vinyl emporium back then I snapped it up and it produced a big improvement in every way. Unlike many Japanese pressed albums, the mastering did not brighten the top and/or cut the bottom and of course the pressing quality was superb.

I wish I could say that this Speakers Corner reissue was revelatory or even excellent but it’s not. Of course the Pallas 180g pressing is perfection and the packaging is absolutely stellar (complete with full-sized booket and 7" 4 song EP), but the mastering is just plain weird.

A layer of crunchy ice has been added on top and the bass has been boosted, producing a garish sonic mix. The result is an unpleasant edgy grit to Wonder’s voice. You know something's wrong when the triangle on "Love's In Need ..." is louder than Wonder's voice! And believe me, it is.

One would hope an analog source was used, but whatever was the source, this reissue sounds nothing like the original and represents an unnecessary, unwarranted revision that I’m sure would appall Stevie Wonder.

It’s very “hi-fi” and might sound exciting or “lively” on a dull system, but it’s plain wrong and difficult to recommend. Speakers Corner usually gets it right. Unfortunately, on this wonderful album, SC gets it very wrong.

In a misguided attempt to inject some life into what was a relatively dull production to begin with Mr de Boer has injected too much bass on bottom and way ice in a very thin region on top.

Copyright © 2008 & Michael Fremer - All rights reserved

SOURCE: Reprinted By Permission

Pick up Michael's DVD's Here:

Classic Rock Videos

The Beatles - Hello Goodbye

Vinyl In The News

Another great story about vinyl, let's hope the trend continues:

Baby, it’s cold inside
Frigid Records prepares for grand opening


By: Brent Thompson

There is no denying technology’s impact on the music industry. The Internet, iTunes, satellite radio and customized ring tones are but a few of the avenues that have brought healthy doses of excitement and fear to the industry. But while it’s convenient to download an album for $9.99 while sitting at your computer, there are listeners out there (myself included) that think sifting through piles of CDs and LPs is a great way to spend an afternoon. Anyone who can relate to the characters in the film High Fidelity understands this notion.

That’s where Ryan and Erin James come into this story. On Saturday, March 14, the couple will unveil Frigid Records, an independent music retailer looking to scratch the itch of local music lovers.

“We just love music and we love collecting vinyl,” Erin James says, speaking by phone. “We were just talking one night on the front porch and we said it would be awesome to have a record store. We said, ‘Well, let’s just do it.’ We got the ball rolling from there – we started calling distribution companies and getting deals with them.”

Fortunately, the couple has realistic expectations for Frigid Records and will slowly bring the store onto the local music retail scene. Currently, the store is housed inside Magic City Motor Scooters at 1305 Second Ave. North. The store can also be found online at Though the idea of placing a record store inside a scooter retailer is unusual, James feels the two sides complement each other.

“One of our best friends is Matthew Myers and he owns Magic City Motor Scooters. He said, ‘I have space in the shop – why don’t you just move here for a while?’ So that’s our storefront now and we’re sharing that space with him. We’re into the scooter scene and I think scooters and music go together. We’re definitely wanting to get our own space soon. We’re just really small now and we want to have our own store as soon as we get the money to do it,” she says.

Besides its limited space, Frigid Records has a limited schedule; the duo plans to expand store hours in the coming months. While James acknowledges the challenge of advertising on a limited budget, she feels that Saturday’s grand opening event will be a proper introduction for the store.

“Right now, we only do it on Saturdays from 11 to 5. We both have full-time jobs and go to school. I’m a teacher, so we’ll be open a lot more during the summer. This coming Saturday, March 14, we’ll be open from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. We’re going to have a DJ and a raffle to benefit the APT show, We Have Signal,” she says.

Whether by design or default, an independent record store ultimately forges an identity with respect to specialties and selection. James and her husband have a clear vision for Frigid Records and its niche in the marketplace.

“What we’re striving to do is specialize in punk and hardcore with some psychobilly and rockabilly. Right now, we’ve got a mixed bag of rock and roll. We’ve got some CDs, but mostly vinyl and we want to keep it like that. There are a couple of other record stores in town, but there’s nobody you can go to and get old punk. I know that there are people that want to find really good vinyl. Some people think we’re crazy because people are buying MP3s now, but there will always be that core group of people that really cares about vinyl and wants to keep it alive,” James says.

To speak with James is to feel her unbridled enthusiasm for music and her desire to share that passion with like-minded listeners.

“When we decided to do this, we knew we weren’t going to make a lot of money,” she says. “We just want to give people an opportunity to get really good music. We’re both obsessive about music, so I get happy when somebody comes out and buys a record because I know they’re going to go home and be blown away by that album.”

Frigid Records is located inside Magic City Motor Scooters, 1305 Second Ave. North. The store is open every Saturday 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. You can become a fan of the store on Facebook or visit


Music News & Notes

Ciara's 'Fantasy Ride' Official Cover Art

An official cover art for Ciara upcoming third studio album "Fantasy Ride" has come out. The cover art mainly shows a close-up look at the singer with her name and the title of her new album attached on the corner of the artwork.

"Fantasy Ride" was previously slated for U.S. release on April 7. Produced by T-Pain, The-Dream, Ne-Yo and Justin Timberlake, the record has been pushed back and now set to be released across America on May 5.


That's Your Opinion

Van Morrison told The New Yorker that the Beatles seem to be a major turning point for music in the U.S. but says they just weren't that important historically in the U.K.

"I don't think 'pre-Beatles' means anything, because there was stuff before them. Over here, you have a different slant. You measure things in terms of The Beatles. We don't think music started there. Rolling Stone magazine does, because it's their mythology.

"The Beatles were peripheral. If you had more knowledge about music, it didn't really mean anything. To me, it was meaningless."


Aerosmith Music

Aerosmith is set to hit the studio later this month to begin work on their new, Brendan O’Brien-produced album, Blabbermouth reports.

“I’m really quite impressed with some of the new music we’re putting together — we’ll have a true-to-the-spirit-of Aerosmith record on our hands,” guitarist Brad Hamilton said.

This Date In Music History- March 13


Mike Stoller of the Leiber & Stoller writing team ("Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock") was born today in 1933.

Neil Sedaka (1939)

David Draiman- vocals- Disturbed (1973)

U2 bass player Adam Clayton (1962)

They Are Missed:

Lyn Collins, one of James Brown's "Funky People," died in Los Angeles in 2005 (age 56). The singer, nicknamed the "Female Preacher," was sampled on Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock's hit "It Takes Two."

Judge Dread (Alex Hughes) died after collapsing on stage during a performance in Canterbury in 1998. He achieved 10 UK hit singles during the 70's.


The Elvis Presley album was released today in 1956. Most cite it as the first million-selling album.

The Kinks released "Tired of Waiting for You" in 1965.

The Four Seasons started a three week run at #1 on the US singles chart in 1976 with “December 1963, (Oh What A Night),” the groups 5th US #1, also their only UK #1 hit.

"Live at Massey Hall," an album documenting Neil Young's '71 solo concert in Toronto, was issued in 2007. "This is the album that should have come out between "After the Gold Rush" and "Harvest," says Young.

Rick Nelson recorded "Travelin' Man" in 1961.

On this week's Cash Box chart in 1965, the Beatles held down the top four positions, with "Eight Days a Week" at #1. (the groups 7th US #1 hit). Meet the Beatles has become the all-time best-selling album in the U.S., having sold 3.5 million copies already.

Also in 1965- Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds over their new "pop" direction.

In 1999, Cher started a four week run at #1 on the US singles chart with “Believe,” making Cher the oldest woman to top the Hot 100 at the age of 53.

Police feared a Beatles connection when a terrorist organization calling itself Revolutionary Force 9 takes credit for three bombings in New York in 1970.

In 1987, the first cassingle was released and it's ... Bryan Adams' "Heat of the Night."

The Recording Industry Association of America introduced its awards for record sales in 1958. The Beatles hold the record for being awarded the most with 76 platinum certifications.

Johnny Preston was at #1 on the US singles chart in 1960 with “Running Bear,” also #1 in the UK.

Working at Abbey Road studios in London in 1967, six members of Sounds, Inc. recorded the horn parts for The Beatles song ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ (three saxophones, two trombones, and one french horn).

Harry Nilsson was at #1 on the UK singles chart in 1972 with his version of The Peter Ham and Tom Evans song 'Without You'. The song was also a #1 for Mariah Carey in 1994.

The Jackson 5 moved from Motown to Epic Records in 1976 and amend their name to the Jackson's.

Rush released “Fly By Night” in 1975.

A drunken John Lennon and Harry Nilsson (also wasted) were forcibly ejected from the Troubadour in L.A. in 1974. The fun-loving pair throw a few punches before hitting the pavement. This is another of Lennon’s “Lost Weekend” adventures while separated from Yoko Ono.

Here's an unlikely combination. Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Sex Pistols and Blondie are inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2006. Sabbath is introduced by Metallica frontman James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, who say, "Sabbath is and always will be synonymous with Heavy Metal." Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne calls the honor "an achievement I'm really proud about." Kid Rock inducts Skynyrd then performs with the band. The night also has Deborah Harry refusing to let former members of Blondie perform with the group. The event takes place at New York's Waldorf-Astoria.