Back in the summer I went up to Air Studios to see Mike Valentine who was overseeing the second stage of making his latest Chasing the Dragon release. This is a live recording of the Syd Lawrence Orchestra playing a selection of classic swing era pieces. What makes it different is that the vinyl only release comes on two discs both of which have the same versions of the same tracks. Why two? One disc was mastered from tape and the other cut live to the vinyl master as the session progressed, or direct to disc as it’s known.
Jake Jackson and Mike Valentine (see shirt) at Air
I couldn’t get to Air on the day the direct cut was made so went for the transfer and mastering of the tape version. The first stage of which involved mixing down the 24 track analogue master tape to two track, to do this engineer Jake Jackson played the two inch master tape on a Studer machine through a massive Neve mixing desk and transferred it to half inch, two track tape on an Ampex tape recorder. He used his own Genelec monitors rather than the big in-walls in the studio because he is familiar with their warts and all presentation. The music for each side of the disc was recorded in one take because it was cut live, so this approach was taken with the tape mix down. The tape version of the album does not however have the incidental page turning sounds heard on the direct version so John Webber the vinyl mastering engineer must have cut them one at a time and left silence in between.
24 track two inch Studer tape recorder
John works in a separate studio with a big TAD five channel monitoring system, a legacy of the time the Pioneer used George Martin’s former studio to tune its AIR electronics and speakers. John spent some time cutting test tracks to see how much dynamic range and level he could squeeze out of the vinyl. Cutting a lacquer is a technical challenge because you have to balance the amount of time and dynamic range required against the space available, while at the same time avoiding grooves getting too close to one another or too small to be tracked. It’s a fine art and to be able to do it live in a direct to disc situation must be a tricky operation even for a skilled mastering engineer. With the tape cut he has the opportunity to do a few test cuts to get the best results with the finished master disc.
This is the first time that anyone has released a record this way, and given it’s niche appeal probably the last, but the difference in sound quality between the two pressings is not small. If you play the tape based pressing first the sound matches the title, it’s spectacular. Superb dynamics, vitality and scale of image alongside verve and swing the like of which it’s hard to achieve with a domestic audio system. Even non fans of the genre like myself find it entrancing, the brass instruments are lifelike and have just enough blare to let you know they are real but not so much as to threaten your tweeters. If the tape version of Big Band Spectacular! was all there was you would be more than happy.
Mike Valentine restrains himself from touching that dial
But put on the direct to disc cut and the sound is in another league, it’s almost as if someone had put on a system costing twice, maybe three times as much. Or to be more specific, had replaced good solid state electronics with even better tube amplification. The D2D cut brings the life and vitality of the recording into your room in astonishingly realistic fashion, I have spent far too long listening to differences between audio components but rarely have they been this big. There are a few factors that contribute to this difference, the level is slightly higher with the D2D but this can be compensated for, what’s more surprising is that there seems to be a slight bump in the midrange response, a tube like bump albeit not a soft one. And then there is a warmth to the sound that is totally captivating, this is presumably due to the direct nature of the microphone to cutting head recording process but must be partly due to the second mixing desk that is a necessary part of the tape mastering process. Apparently Mike was unable to use the desk that he had made the D2D with for the mixdown because some band called Coldplay (me neither) had booked it. So that will be a factor but either way you have to hear the direct cut.
John Webber inspects the cut
Mike made his first direct cut last year when he recorded the Four Seasons and that is a phenomenal record, the best sounding classical LP I’ve heard. But the dynamics on offer from a 16 piece brass/woodwind, piano, bass and drum powered band is in another league to a chamber orchestra. This release lets you know all about it without the razor sharp mid and treble normally associated with trying to capture this much energy on two channels. Highly recommended even if you’ve never heard of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman.
Sing Sing Sing
Begin The Beguine
In The Mood
String Of Perals
Little Brown Jug