Music Features

Tracking Force - 1

With so many people hopping (back) on the vinyl bandwagon I thought it was time to write a column for the folks out there wading through the record stores, inevitably experiencing varying degrees of pressing quality and condition. There’s a lot out there and nobody, least of all me, knows it all, but I’ve listened to enough records on a decent enough system to know what I like and what I don’t, or tell a quality copy from a clear dud. I’ll report on what I’m currently listening to and maybe give a few pointers on what to look for and what to avoid. This will in no way be a complete or even thorough survey as who has the time for that kind of thing? But maybe you’ll walk away with a couple tips you can use online or in your local record store, sifting through the shelves in search of audio nirvana.


For those who care about this kind of thing, I’d like to share the details of my current vinyl rig. I’m spinning a Michell Tecnodec turntable fitted with a Tecnoarm and a Sumiko Celebration Pearwood Signature cartridge. This is routed through a Tom Evans Audio Design phono stage and a Krell 300iL amp, out to Martin Logan Vista electrostatic speakers. I have Blue Jeans silver interconnects, but my speaker wire is from Home Depot. Now with the formalities suitably dispensed with, let’s get started…

Mingus Ah Um

I’m not an afficiando, but I have a decent size jazz collection which is mainly made up of the usual essential suspects, going deeper on only a few artists like Miles and Coltrane. I have 6 or 7 Mingus albums which is enough for me to consider this one some kind of peak, at least of his output from the 50s. I’m also a big fan of the wild freakouts of Black Saint and the Sinner Lady from 1963, but though released only 4 years later, that’s already a different era. 1959 was a pivotal year in many ways (see Fred Kaplan’s book, 1959: The Year That Changed Everything), but especially in the history of jazz, ushering in popular experimentation in time signatures (Dave Brubeck’s Time Out), modes (Miles Davis’ A Kind of Blue), and harmony (Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come). Mingus doesn’t seek to break new ground with this record, he just has a crack band that he pushes to the limits of recorded exuberance. Charles Mingus is one of the great eccentric characters of jazz, and nowhere is that as apparent as here, where you can often hear him hooting and hollering to get the band pumping. I picked up a recent reissue on Columbia/Legacy, intrigued by the sticker that proclaimed it was mixed from the original three track tapes. Well, this turned out to be one of those caveat emptor situations, since while the vinyl is thick and pleasantly quiet, the performance just lies there, revealing none of the excitement produced in the studio. I have a 70s Columbia pressing, which though a touch bright for my taste, still crackles with life. All of that air has been sucked out of this pressing, which leads me to the sneaky suspicion that it actually comes from the CD master released a few years back. So it’s a good idea to keep a heads up when reading that some key part of the process is left out of the sales pitch. Sure it was mixed from tapes, but how was it mastered. They don’t say, but if they’d gone to the trouble of doing a full analog mastering, they probably would have told you. I suspected as much, but since a good original copy is now going for a couple hundred bucks, I figured I’d take a chance. Oh well, or should I say, ah um.

Roger the Engineer

Everything missing from the Mingus record is alive and well on this UK first pressing of the classic Yardbirds album from 1966. Keith Relf is right there in the room with you, accompanied by, and occasionally outshone by, Jeff Beck’s killer guitar. This is the first Yardbirds record with Beck firmly established as the band’s guitarist, and his influence is palpable. The blues are still the driving force but Over, Under, Sideways Down and Hot House of Omagarashid are definite moves into pyschedelia, then the budding trend. The blues could never contain Beck’s wilder inclinations and the band has no choice but to move with him, his instrumental personality being so dominant. This pressing is on Blue Columbia with the fold over flap jacket and is in near mint condition. If that sounds like sales pitch it’s not, because I’m keeping it. I have a US copy on Epic from the 80s that frankly pales in comparison, sounding brittle and harsh – the hi-hat cymbals on Rack my Mind might just make you get up and leave the room. Funny how you don’t notice this stuff sometimes until you hear it done right.