As I mentioned in my previous article (Issue 142), I recently installed a new cartridge. Even though it is the exact same model as the cartridge I had used for the previous six years, I still had to go through all the necessary steps to make sure the overhang, alignment, azimuth, tracking force, vertical tracking angle, stylus rake angle and anti-skating were all set properly. To accomplish this, I used a protractor made specifically for my tonearm by the late Wally Malewicz, as well as a set of his set up tools from wallyanalog.com. Although Wally passed away in 2018, his assistant and his son joined forces to continue his legacy. I won't go into the details of these tools, but you can read all about them from turntable setup guru Michael Fremer by clicking on this Analog Planet article.
What I do want to talk about, though, are LPs that can help with the setup process. These come in two varieties; LPs with specific test signals for objective measurements, and demonstration LPs with a variety of music tracks that challenge different aspects of equipment performance. By listening carefully to these tracks, I can pick up problems and deficiencies in my system. For example, if the string tone sounds too strident, it could mean an incorrect vertical tracking angle or inadequate electrical damping at the input of the phono preamp. Problems at the low bass region could mean issues with resonance as a result of mismatched cartridge compliance and tonearm effective mass. It is useful to develop your own step-by-step process that is repeatable, to ensure all the bases are covered.
Telarc Omnidisc (Telarc DG-10073/74)
This is a two-record set that came onto the market in 1982. Side One has a mirrored surface, with a tracking line with perpendicular parallel lines 5 mm apart on either side. These parallel lines are meant to assist in setting the null points of the stylus (the two points on the record where the stylus will be precisely aligned; without getting too technical, because of tonearm geometry). It also has a scale on the record label that allows the user to measure the overhang of the stylus. This is really too crude to be useful, and you are better off having a specialized tool such as the Wallytractor or the Acoustical Systems Smartractor.
Side Two has a set of test signals that can prove very useful. It has single channel, in-phase stereo and out-of-phase stereo pink noise. These are good not only for identifying the channels and setting channel balance, but also for measuring crosstalk, and hence proper setup of the cartridge azimuth. It also has a pink noise sweep band, which is useful for quickly identifying any frequency response suck outs or humps in your system and listening room. The tracks of the low-frequency sine wave sweep and pulses are useful for identifying the tonearm/cartridge’s resonance frequency.
There is a band with 50 seconds of mixed tones at increasing amplitude, to test tracking and anti-skating. A cartridge should not start mistracking before 30 seconds, and anti-skating should be adjusted so that both channels start to mistrack at the same time. The disc also has a silent band for measuring turntable-generated noise, a 1,000 Hz reference tone for setting reference system playback level, and three minutes of full-band pink noise for measuring frequency response. There is also a full complement of 1/3-octave pink noise from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, which is helpful for system and room equalization, although CDs with these signals are common and more convenient to use.
Side Three is what makes this set famous. It has excerpts from five pieces of music, each repeated four times, each time at a level 2 dB higher than the last. Each excerpt was chosen to test particular aspects of the system, including the notorious digital cannons in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which few cartridge/tonearm combinations will be able to track cleanly (or at all) at +6 dB. The instruction manual lays out clearly what to listen for during these tests.
Side Four has a performance of the fugue from Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The unique tonal characteristics of each instrument and their placement in the recording space makes a good test for a system’s accuracy. The last track is a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” cut at pretty much the maximum dynamic range possible and with deep bass notes to examine the system’s bass response. [Editor’s Note: I once saw a tonearm/cartridge literally leap off the record when attempting to play this track.]
This is a worthwhile test record to have, as it offers some unique features unavailable elsewhere. The 1812 track always comes in handy if you want to frustrate your audiophile buddies.
Hi-Fi News & Record Review Test Record (issued by the magazine, HFN 001)
This test record was released by the venerable British hi-fi magazine in 1996. This fact alone is rather interesting, since this was at a time when everyone thought the LP was dead. It is a straightforward collection of test tracks, replicating many of the functions of the Omnidisc. It has the usual channel identification, balance and phase checking functions. The disc also offers a broadband pink noise track for frequency response measurements, a set of tracks at incrementally higher levels for setting anti-skating, and a low-frequency sine wave sweep to measure arm/cartridge resonance.
In addition, the disc has a vertically-cut (hence out of phase) 300 Hz sine wave track for setting cartridge azimuth. You can either set the preamp’s output to mono or use a Y connector to sum both channels, and then adjust the cartridge azimuth for minimum output. I use the free REW Room EQ Wizard software on my MacBook, which has a digital oscilloscope with a function to sum both inputs, together with an external sound card. I also use the real time analyzer function of the REW software to measure frequency response, using the broadband pink noise.
The one unique feature of this LP is the set of torture tracks for testing tracking ability. The tracks are placed at the outer, the middle and the inner parts of the LP to test for consistency of performance across the whole playing surface.
Cardas Frequency Sweep and Burn-In Record (Cardas Audio)
One side of this LP has a set of in-phase and out-of-phase frequency sweeps that aim to degauss a user’s phono cartridge. It also has a set of standard test tones for calibration and level setting. The other side has a set of locked grooves of pink noise that play continuously for system burn-in. The disc also includes a set of polarity tests, to determine whether your system is wired in the correct polarity.
Orchestrations Astromantic – Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra/Tadaaki Otaka (RCA RDCE-6)
During the 1970s, direct to disc recordings were very popular, with the Sheffield Lab label being the best- known. The D2D recording process presents significant challenges, both to the engineers and the performers. Since the music is recorded directly to the lacquer (rather than to recording tape, to be edited and played back later), there is no opportunity to correct any mistake in either the musical or the technical aspect of the recording. The tonal balance, reverberation, stereo spread and imaging rely solely on judicious placement of the performers and the microphones, as well as the skill of the mixing engineers. The luxury of having a preview head with computerized pitch control while transferring from tape to lacquer is no longer available. The engineer has to monitor the signal levels during the rehearsals and make notes alongside the music score, so that he knows how to adjust the pitch and depth of the groove manually in real time during recording. Any mistake and the lacquer goes into the trash and everybody has to start again. The performers are under pressure to give a perfect performance in one take, and this can lead to a lack of spontaneity and over-cautiousness. These are the reasons why many D2D LPs sound rather flat and uninteresting.
Why go through all this trouble? This is because the advantages of the process outweigh the risks if all goes well. Many recording engineers feel that the fidelity of recording to lacquer is even higher than that of recording to magnetic tape, and the background is quieter without the tape hiss.
RCA Victor in Japan released a series of direct to disc LPs during the late 1970s, mostly of small ensembles and solo instruments. Several of them are astonishingly great. The Orchestrations Astromantic LP consists of works played by a full orchestra (the Tokyo Philharmonic conducted by Tadaaki Otaka) in a symphonic hall, and represents the most ambitious D2D recording I know of to date. The pieces chosen are orchestral blockbusters, so taking on this project was not for the faint of heart.
An account of the process, including all the technical details, is printed inside the gatefold cover, and even includes a diagram of the microphone placement. The result is little short of miraculous. Apparently, the peak level on the final cut went all the way up to +14VU, pretty much the limit of the cutting system (a Neumann VMS-70 lathe with an SX-74 cutting head). In fact, during the production of the record, the system cut out on two occasions due to over-current, and they had to start again. The recording has the scale and dynamics of a master tape, but without the hiss. It has the feel of a live performance, in that there are rough edges and small imperfections. Apparently, by the time they got a satisfactory cut, the players were already quite tired, having played the same thing over and over again throughout the day.
Side One is a medley of popular pieces, played through without any break. The program starts with the introduction to Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, using a contrabassoon and a double bass to replace the organ at the beginning. The soundstage is wide and deep, with good separation of the instruments. The string tone is sweet, and there is a superb sense of space, an aspect that is so important for acoustic recordings. A guitar solo appears on the third piece, the ever-so-popular Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo. The plucking of the guitar strings is palpable, as if the soloist is sitting in front of you, and the harmonics are rich and colorful. Apparently, what was released was not the best take for the soloist, as he was very fatigued by this time, but the take was chosen because it has the best orchestral playing. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable performance.
Side One ends with two themes from Star Wars. This version is one of the most dynamic available on LP. The sound is full and the orchestra plays with verve. The massed strings in Princess Leia’s theme, which can sound strident in many other recordings, sound lovely here.
The quality is maintained on side Two, although the music is less exciting. The harp and violin solos in “Méditation” from Thaïs (by Jules Massenet) are beautifully played.
This LP is not well-known today, and it is not even on The Absolute Sound Super LP List, although few of the entries on that list can equal, let alone surpass it. That means you can still pick up a nice copy for a song.
A Journey Into Stereo Sound (Decca SKL4001)
This Decca LP appeared right at the beginning of the stereo LP era, and was meant to showcase the virtues of their ffss Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound recording process. It is most well-known for the recording of a train, of racing cars zooming round the Goodwood race track, and of dancing feet during a rehearsal. It also has a good selection of music of different genres. The pieces came from the best Decca recordings of the era (which means the best recordings ever), including the famous España LP conducted by Ataúlfo Argenta.
A narrator guides the listener throughout the whole LP, giving an introduction to each piece and injecting some (rather British) humor. This LP was released in 1958, and therefore all the recordings were made in the late 1950s (meaning only tube equipment was used!). It is astounding how great these recordings sound, even when compared to the best recordings of the following 60-plus years. The one complaint I have is the lack of level-matching between tracks. I have to constantly get up and adjust the volume control on my preamp.
The sound effects are quite fun to listen to, and the racetrack cut is a good test for a system’s soundstaging and imaging capabilities. The types of cars on the recording should have been mentioned, to test if a system’s resolution is good enough for listeners to identify each car. I am sure a motor racing enthusiast will be able to tell a Jaguar D-Type from a Triumph TR3 just by listening. The classical pieces on the record are of legendary status today, such as the Ansermet The Rite of Spring, the Solti Die Walküre (this came from the 2 LP set of 1958 with the incomparable Kirsten Flagstad. Sir George recorded a highlights disc in 1966, and then the full opera in 1984 for Decca), the Argenta Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, as well as the aforementioned España. As an aside, Argenta seems to have a disproportionate number of outstanding recordings on Decca, probably because Spanish music makes great hi-fi showpieces, and Argenta was the leading proponent of it.
It is worth buying this compilation if you don’t have the LPs of these classical works. The “popular music” pieces, however, are rather out of fashion now, and remind me of the old BBC black and white TV programs. All in all, I think this is a splendid showcase of early Decca stereo recordings.
Philips Digital & Analogue Recording Demonstrations (Philips 6851 153)
This Made in Japan LP was released in 1980, and was meant to showcase the then-new digital recording technology. One side of the LP is devoted to digital recordings, whereas the other side has pure analog tracks. Philips recordings are not particularly sought after for their sound quality, but I have always found them decent. In fact, they tend to do well with string instruments, and I love many of their chamber music records.
Philips made their first digital recording in 1979 using the Sony 1600 two-channel PCM system, recorded onto a U-matic video recorder. Remember, CDs would not be launched for another two years, and there were still no tools for digital mastering. The digital recorder simply replaced the Studer A80 or whatever other analog decks were used at the time, and the tapes would have been edited using videotape editing equipment. I suspect any mastering would have been done in the analog domain.
I had not listened to this LP for a long time, certainly not on my current setup. Originally, I remembered being quite impressed overall by the sound quality, and re-auditioning it only confirms this impression. Starting with the digital side, the sound immediately strikes me as being clean, powerful and dynamic. There is good stereo spread. However, it seems to lack depth and spaciousness. There is just a hint of the sheen I associate with early digital recordings. The pieces were chosen to showcase the strengths of digital, with large scale orchestral and choral pieces such as Star Wars, Pictures at an Exhibition, the Beethoven Symphony No. 9 and the Mahler Symphony No. 8. All the excerpts are loud. They are meant to be immediately impressive, which reminds me of the old single-sip Pepsi Challenge.
Only when I flipped over to the analog side did I realize the problems. This side starts with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The violin tone is quite similar to that of the digital pieces, and a tad more aggressive than I like. Ironically, this recording could be mistaken for a digital one. This is followed by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. I never thought this recording, conducted by Kyrill Kondrashin, could be in contention with the famous Reiner on RCA or Mehta on Decca, but this excerpt is superb. The soundstage is huge, with good depth, and the instruments have body. This is what has been lacking on the digital side. The instruments here have a three-dimensionality, whereas on the digital side, they are like cardboard cutouts. I think it all comes down to the ambiance cues that are missing from the digital recordings due to the loss of low level information in 16-bit recordings. The dynamics of these pieces are equal if not better than their digital cousins.
The next piece, Alfred Brendel playing Liszt’s Les Jeux D’eau à la Villa D’Este, has quite a realistic piano sound with superb transient attacks. This is followed by another exceptional excerpt, from Stravinsky’s Firebird by Sir Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw. It doesn’t have quite the dynamics of the Dorati on Mercury, but gets pretty close, which is saying something. The tone is rich and colorful, and the percussion has excellent transients. Next is the 1812 Overture, with Davis conducting the Boston Symphony, this time with wimpy cannons (especially after hearing the Telarc). The finale is exhilarating.
And you are not let off yet, getting a serving of The Rite of Spring with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This sounds like a cliché of an audiophile record, but what a trip. The final track is an excerpt from “Greensleeves,” played by a Japanese lute player. This is actually my favorite track. The rich overtones of the lute, the decay of the notes creating the natural sonic ambience, and the subtle nuances of expression are all superbly captured.
If the aim of this LP was to proclaim the superiority of digital recording technology, it failed miserably. The analog recordings have handily demonstrated the shortcomings of the then-new digital technology. This is a great analog demonstration record, one that will not cost you more than $25, and it has ignited my interest in exploring other vintage Philips recordings.