A brief overview of the production of vinyl records to precede a review as to why all vinyl records are no longer equal!
A source is used to produce a lacquer, that source is called the master. Regardless of the format [of that master] it remains the general term used for whatever is used at the beginning of production of a record. The lacquer [can be of varying size, 7”, 10”, 12” and 14”] produced by way of cutting a metal [often aluminium] disc coated in nitrocellulose on a lathe which is then “plated”. Each lacquer is one sided and goes to make up a single side of a record.
The plating of the lacquer is a process which sees the lacquer disc passed through various stages to produce a “metal part”. This involves the lacquer being coated in a thin layer of silver nitrate [the finer this is applied the better the end product], the disc is then washed in stannous chloride before being electroplated with nickel. The end product when the lacquer is removed from the plate is a metal disc that has ridges rather than grooves, a negative to the positive cut lacquer.
Records can and sometimes are pressed from this plate [if formed into a stamper], often referred to as the “one step” process. The amount of records this stamper can produce is limited with that limit being of an unknown number that often varies. This plate is called the “father” or sometimes referred to as the “master plate” and dependent on the number of units required in the “one step” process this may necessitate the need for multiple lacquers being cut per side of the record, clearly a more costly method of production.
More common to record production is the “three step” process. This is when the father plate is used to form a mother plate, by oxidizing the father and re-plating, producing a metal disc that duplicates the lacquer, a metal playable disc. This “mother” is again oxidized and then produces the required stamper plates.
A rough guide to what can be produced per plate is something like this:
One father can produce up to 10 mothers.
One mother can produce 10 stampers.
Each stamper is used to produce approximately 1000 records.
That’s the “one step” and “three step” process; there is a “two step” process which involves utilising the master plate, the initial “father” produced in the plating process and producing a mother [for future use] and forming the “father” into a stamper. Again, the numbers of records than can be produced from this stamper varies from very low numbers to a few hundred.
A brief note on Direct Metal Masters, DMM. As these discs have a copper layer they do not require the “silvering” process and can have the nickel directly applied. A DMM is preferred over a lacquer as it allows for deeper cut grooves required in some music and for longer “programs”. While a sapphire is used to cut lacquers a diamond is used in DMM.
That covers the broad overview, a fairly straightforward process but within that there are numerous options open to artists [those managing the catalogue], licencing distributers, mastering engineers and pressing plants in getting a vinyl record out to the customer. From choice of “master”, mastering decisions based on the choice and availability of the master used, speed of master, type of cut, type of vinyl etc. Even opting for quieter vinyl pressings is an option [which of course will have an impact on what we hear on the finished record]. Just based on these options available it is patently clear that all vinyl is not equal. Though these are often clear and obvious calls; “We’ll put this popular title out as coloured vinyl with a number / half speed master and cut at 45rpm / pressed to one sided “raw” vinyl”. The mix and match approach is gaining momentum to present the customer with “the best” pressing and or collectors piece. Vinyl weight is the biggest thing across the pressing board these days, if it’s not a minimum 180 gram it’s not worthy of an “audiophile” tag it seems! A tag seemingly now strangling the industry as it was simply applied to bolster the price point of records.
Yet, if any of these processes have an error then it makes for a substandard record. I’ll continue to say, quality control through the production process is and does make for the biggest impact on the final record. One of the reasons I think a process such as utilising a “manual” press makes such a big difference, something QRP in Kansas are doing for their Ultra High Quality Pressings, allowing for that improved quality control is key for me in this process and helps to tie in any and all of the other vinyl production choices. But even after a record is pressed all the good work that goes into that can be undone by rushing the cooling of these higher weight pressed records.
So, just why is all Jimi Hendrix vinyl not equal? The truth is, it’s not just Hendrix it is across the board. What applies here can be applied to many artists. That’s marketing for you.
This piece is intended in its design to give the buyer a little more information as to what they may well be purchasing. As a general rule, businesses as such rely on customer ignorance and seemingly deliberately foster that ignorance through ambiguity and of course by not being transparent in what they sell, old news I know. This piece is here to switch the balance a little and empower the small corner of the Hendrix record buying customer with a little more knowledge. Of course, there are those who don’t care as to what they buy as long as it is a Jimi Hendrix record, while there are those who are more than happy to buy records that are sourced from or include [one way or another] digital. Fine, I’m not looking to alter that in any way, I have plenty of digital sourced records in the collection that are outstanding as are some that contain a digital step within the process.
While the vinyl purist wants AAA [being nothing other than All Analogue from start to finish if that audio began life in the analogue domain]. I fall a little between the purist and the “don’t care” group, in acceptance of digital in an analogue format. I simply want a bloody good record to play, period. But it is important to me that I know the lineage of the record, if I care to want to know that is! Hendrix? I want to know, for no other reason as to know where to buy from to get the most “honest” record available of any given title. I certainly don’t mind paying a little extra for a genuine All Analogue record or All Analogue Mastered record [as long as the latter is a genuine analogue cut]. What I don’t like is buying something that is clearly not what it says it is, especially when that’s simply at my expense and the convenience of a business.
It is considerably cheaper to produce records from a digital High Resolution file [HiRez file] than it is to preserve, to any degree, the analogue origins of a recording. So, why is an All Analogue Mastered and cut record then dropped into the digital world for it to be then mastered and cut to vinyl record half way around the world and then touted to the customer as something it could not possibly be?
For this piece I’ve referenced records bought over the last 20 plus years from both the EU and the US though the most telling of these records for this piece are the pressings from 2010 onwards. There are a couple of points that I should cover before going into the record details as those points are key to a lot of what we buy and certainly as to what we hear.
Sony Music Entertainment took over the distribution licence of the Jimi Hendrix catalogue in 2009, or at least 2009 were when that change from Universal / MCA was announced. Subsequently the renewal of that distribution licence was undertaken on July 19 2017. This initial move from Universal to Sony is the most telling of changes for anyone living outside of the USA as this is when, in 2011, things became a little more “different” for the same titled records that were being cut, pressed and distributed at and from more than one facility.
The other key change was the swap from RTI to QRP for US pressings, again this had a direct impact on what was pressed and distributed for the global customer. Clearly the two changes are directly linked as Sony operate on a more global basis than Universal it seems, at least when it comes to vinyl.
Universal had RTI press the Hendrix titles but as Universal appear to not have an EU arm for cutting vinyl they supplied EU pressing plants with the required metal parts to produce stampers, where it was felt applicable. In short, same record pressed on two different continents. Sony on the other hand operate [or at least have the capacity to operate] vinyl mastering, cutting and pressing across the globe. Sony Entertainment display their name in two differing ways, dependent as to where the vinyl is produced. Sony Legacy appears on USA records and Sony Music appears on product from the EU. The Sony Music credit can and is often shown alongside a reversed “C” style logo.
What this all means is that QRP do not have to supply the EU [or anyone else for that matter] with metal parts from which record stampers are formed. Sony simply has an EU based company cut the record [from a digital file] and produce the metal parts and so forth for their records. But now we have moved away from the original mastered and cut record. Yes, mastered originally by, let’s say Bernie Grundman but now, no longer a Bernie Grundman cut. This is key to what is made available, what we buy and hear. In short, if you have sourced the record from the EU, a different mastering engineer cut the record along with this being cut on a different lathe as to the “original” US cut record. What can be and is now confusing the record buying public is the appearance of BG in the run out grooves of EU records! Something that had confused me back in 2013 and continues to do so for some buyers right up to now, 2019!
QRP are the sole pressing plant outlet for the US [Sony Legacy] utilising [in the Hendrix instance] lacquers produced at the Bernie Grundman mastering facility in L.A. While the EU [Sony Music] has both Record Industry and Sector5 as options to master and cut lacquers [or DMM]. The EU has and uses four pressing plants; Music On Vinyl [MOV] in The Netherlands, Optimal in Germany, MPO which is based in France and WMfono, based in Poland.
Now either Grundman has even more extraordinary super powers over and above the ones he demonstrates through his mastering skills, having grown exceptionally long arms that stretch across to another continent or that someone else is etching his initials into the run out groove of EU cut [manufactured] Hendrix records! Of course, claiming Grundman mastered a record on a sound bite sticker and in any credit note within the liner notes is fine if that is the case, but EU vinyl? Yes, the EU mastering originated with Grundman but clearly not his cut, impossible unless the metal parts were supplied to the EU. A sticker making claims to the record being a Grundman mastering leads a buyer to naturally assume the actual record is from Grundman.
In support of this label anomaly is the inclusion of BG in the run out grooves of EU vinyl. Added to simply convince the buying public of this being a Grundman master and cut? I do know it has led to a lot of confusion for the customer and has highlighted and fostered the ignorant state the industry wants their customer to remain in, in equal measure.
A difference in product is one thing as is utilising customer ignorance for sales, what is a concern to me is the deliberate action to mislead. Deliberate? For me, yes as that is how it is coming across as is shown by the BG initials in some of the vinyl records produced in the EU.
If I see any initials or mark contained in the dead wax that indicate a specific mastering engineer then I take it as read that not only was this record mastered by that engineer it was also from the lacquer cut by that specific engineer and not a third party at a different facility. Or is that an out dated old fashioned and quaint way of reading this detail? Fifty years down the line and someone is looking at this information, will they simply assume it’s a Bernie Grundman cut?
At the end of the day, I’ll leave it with each of you to conclude for yourselves as to what is going on here but at least you will now have a little more information to base that conclusion on other than reading the detail from one or two records that are bought from a single continent. Or worse still, simply assuming, based on what has been fed to the customer! Hopefully the detail included here should go a long way toward a more honest and balanced outcome of opinion.
Over a number of years Jimpress, that long running Jimi Hendrix Fanzine has continued to support independent comment from fans of the man and his music. That a number of articles have been produced for that fanzine on this topic is telling. Going back a number of years we have had comment on individual vinyl releases, differences between US and EU pressings even shrink wrapper sound bites has seen inclusion in this publication.
Of course, some may carry some inaccuracies as new information becomes and continually becomes available, though it is important to understand the basics of these articles remain both unchallenged and fundamentally accurate.
It is worth reiterating, Hendrix titles do not have a monopoly on all of this as it is seen across the board. I noted how some recent Pink Floyd were hyper blurbed on a wrapper sticker recently with US noted mastering engineers. Small print on the rear of the covers / box, product of the EU!
So, Hendrix and the records run out and sound bite information:
I still have doubts as to what those sound bites actually mean, the vagueness is astonishing. Misleading is possibly the best way to describe them. The trouble began [for me at least] with sound bites when I was reading the same detail on both US and EU pressed vinyl when it was clear both records, from checking run out groove detail and listening, that there were some considerable differences in same title pressings. And yet when tracing things back it was patently clear how the spin was being applied and that despite that, there was at least a kernel of truth to those sound bites, or at least to some of them!
I became distrusting of pre-release blub and those short sound bites on the plastic LP wrapper a long time back and it was the Monterey release from EH / Sony [Legacy and Music] that things began to unravel. I was never convinced of anything of which I was being informed of from that point onward through things like sound bite advertising. It is here that I decided to simply rely on the run out detail in the dead wax, which would turn out to be a big mistake on my part it seems.
So, maybe the best way forward to clear this all up would be to ask, I did and was met with silence. A silence so loud it put the blackness of an SME 30 series to shame! I expected some return from articles printed in Jimpress over the last half dozen years but I was to be disappointed in that expectation too. I do like to be corrected when I’m incorrect or slightly off with some detail but was getting nothing by way of return.
Monterey from 2014 was a pivotal release. Just to be clear as I know not everyone reads Jimpress and those who do may want a little refresher, Monterey on vinyl was covered in issue #104 with a cover date of Winter 2014/15 , a potted overview of what I found in those grooves and stickers that made me so distrustful has been included here:
Beside the fact that the US pressing is 200grm as opposed to the 180grm found from the EU the differences are much greater than that. At least this weight difference was never an issue as both were correctly stated as such. The biggest difference is that they are different records; though the music titles remain the same the pre, between and post chat on these records are completely different edits. Couple that with the fact that the US pressing had both the outer sticker and the pre-release comment for RSD of that year [April 2014], clearly make claims of All Analogue Mastering. Unfortunately, that detail that appeared on the US wrapper sticker was transferred to the EU pressed release [with the vinyl weight corrected as per release]. While BG appears in the US pressing run out grooves there is no sign of these initials in the EU pressing despite the sticker and booklet claims of a Grundman mastered record. In fact it was pressed at MPO, France and likely cut at Record Industry in The Netherlands.
LIVE AT MONTEREY SONY LEGACY / EXPERIENCE HENDRIX 88843042031
US 200 GRM PRESSING RELEASED 2014
A: 88843042031-A BG
B: 88843042031-B BG
LIVE AT MONTEREY SONY LEGACY / EXPERIENCE HENDRIX 88843042031
EU 180 GRM PRESSING RELEASED 2014
A: MPO 88843042031 A
B: MPO 88843042031 B
While the US pressing sounded very much an analogue cut as claimed on the sticker; “ALL ANALOGUE MASTERING BY BERNIE GRUNDMAN”, this is simply letting us know that an analogue source was utilised as the master from which the lacquer was produced along with the cut being done on an analogue cutting lathe. It also sounded very, very good. Both surprisingly and somewhat unfortunate for both Experience Hendrix and the customer, it was highlighted in Jimpress that the audio had at some point been in the digital domain, pro tools for editing no doubt. This was patently clear when Purple Haze on this US pressing presents a repeated 12 second section. Certainly that does not appear in the rendition of this song on tWhe EU pressing.
So while not being misleading with the All Analogue Mastering comment for the US, it did lead some to feel this was maybe an All Analogue release, in fact some folk still claim it is despite the over whelming evidence to show it is not. Experience Hendrix has never claimed it to be an AAA. It is simply the applied ambiguity that we are attempting to get past.
More importantly, the same mastering claims are included on the EU sticker as seen along with the omission of BG in the dead wax area of the record. If the EU mastering suite did in fact cut this lacquer from a tape and that is highly unlikely it still is not all analogue as the lathe utilised would have a digital pre-reader, in short adding a digital step to the process. But without a doubt, here we have a record cut in the EU that utilised a HiRez file. It begs another question, who did in fact master the EU record master source? If it was Bernie Grundman why then two different edits and why the error in Purple Haze on one master and not the other?
I noted back at release date of this Monterey record in the Jimpress article, one of the records sounds more digital than the other. That “more digital” sounding record of course is the product from the EU. I have heard some in the profession claim that is not possible to hear “digital” like this. I guess that is simply something they would like rather than a factual claim. There are a number of reasons as to why a self-same titled record produced across two continents may well sound “different” of course. Be it the mastering engineer, the lathe itself [even if both are capable of all analogue cuts], the master source [again even if both are analogue]. Even the pressing plant itself can give us some differences. So I do acknowledge that there is often more at play here than simply a digital step of some sort and yes, it can and is difficult at times to distinguish the reasons for these differences accurately simply from listening to records. Not so with the Monterey release I feel. There is quite a distinct digital “edge” to the EU cut.
To bring these releases back into release order we need to go back to 2010.
Sterling Sound had, up to 2009 cut vinyl with an adapted lathe, utilising a digital pre-reader. That all changed in that year and mastering engineers like George Marino were able to cut All Analogue at this facility. These Hendrix titles were cut on an all analogue lathe at Sterling Sound. A good deal of the pre-release comment was made up of this as was the sticker claim of “ALL ANALOGUE. CUT FROM THE ORIGINAL 2-TRACK MASTER TAPES”.
With the exception of the We Are Vinyl and the FNAC all wrapper sticks shown here are US. The first is the MCA Back To Black ABAL.
Are You Experienced 2010 stereo and later issue from Newbury Comics which failed to note the All Analogue pressing comment! Along with Axis. Bold As Love stereo 2010 and re-issue from We Are Vinyl. below. From L to R: 2010 US AYE, Newbury logo sticker from AYE 2014, ABAL 2010 US and EU 2017 reissue of that US
Electric Ladyland from 2010 plus later re-issues, with the FNAC from France not displaying the All Analogue claim. Plus showing the Newbury sticker that was included with the All Analogue sticker.
About as clear a claim as I have read on those 2010's. Of course I bought into that and despite the shenanigans along the way I guess I still do, for this set of releases only. But what about the EU pressings of these core titles? They too carried the same claims, well they did initially but in 2015 a re-issue of Axis. Bold As Love from We Are Vinyl did not display any claim at all on this EU pressed record. Interestingly these appear to be the last records that were pressed up from the same metal parts made and utilised in the US at RTI. This is shown by the duplication of run out detail between the US and EU pressings, identical in every detail where that detail is shared.
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX / SONY LEGACY 88697 62396 1
US RELEASED 2010
A: 88697623961-A 18782.1(3) [STERLING STAMPED]
B: 88697623961-B 18782.2(3) [STERLING STAMPED]
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX / SONY LEGACY LC 02361/88875134521
180 GRM “WE ARE VINYL” STICKER ON COVER.
EU RELEASED 2015 [2010 ON REAR COVER / BOUGHT 2017]
A: 88697623961-A [STERLING STAMPED] 18782.1(3) .- 13984 1A
B: 88697623961-B [STERLING STAMPED] 18782.2(3) .- 13984 1B
On very close inspection of the We Are Vinyl record run out it is patently clear, though impossible to show via a photograph, that the added detail [.- 13984 1A and .- 13984 1B] has been added to the metal plate. Clearly not etched into soft lacquer as it fails to display the depth of mark or ridge of soft lacquer that can clearly be seen in the rest of the detail.
In this same year as the core releases  we had Valleys of Neptune issued. I’ve included this [along with the following two in this “trilogy” of releases in applicable year] for sticker claim reference. In this instance I only have the US pressing to show.
Following on from the 2010 core set and Valleys Of Neptune releases we had the second show from Berkeley pressed to vinyl in 2012, this was a reissue of the title from 2003, then mastered by George Marino. This 2012 Grundman mastered re-issue did make claims on the shrink wrap sticker of the US, “200 GRAM ANALOGUE AUDIOPHILE VINYL”. Six years later we have John McDermott stated that this record is “All Analogue” in the internet interview from here, www.thevinylguide.com Episode 115 from March 5th 2018. Only a short time earlier from this release, 2010 had Experience Hendrix going to great lengths to have the “core” three albums [stereo versions where applicable] cut AAA at Sterling Sound, N.Y. and proudly proclaim that point, marketing they shied away from with the Berkeley release. There is county mile between how this and the core set where presented, yet all are professed to be All Analogue and released with two years of each other.
The only change being the point of cutting and pressing vinyl outside of the US.
Berkeley wrapper stickers, US first.
In 2013 we had Miami Pop released. While in this instance I only picked up the US pressing having deemed that this record, as with Valleys Of Neptune was a product of pro tools editing and that the best option would simply be the US cut as that was being touted as an “ALL ANALOGUE MASTERING BY BERNIE GRUNDMAN”. The EU pressing does indeed carry BG in the run out grooves which indicates that either Bernie went to The Netherlands to cut this from tape [and took and set up his own lathe] or that the stampers were shared between the US and EU. Clearly the former did not happen and as we see elsewhere, QRP do not share the metal parts so the latter cannot be correct either. The best we can offer here is to treat this release as with others and it is not a Grundman cut album. Certainly an improvement on how the wrapper sticker reads from the earlier Berkeley set.
People Hell and Angels, US [shown first] and EU from 2013 for reference.
Also from 2013 the mono Are You Experienced [shown first here] and Axis. Bold As Love Grundman mastered issues. Only the US stickers to show. The Newbury Comics slightly later re-issue of this mono Axis. Bold As Love displayed the same "Authorized" sticker along with its own Newbury logo sticker.
Beside the Monterey releases in 2014 we also had Rainbow Bridge and Cry of Love being made available both in the EU and US. These two titles also had another issue in 2018 in the EU on coloured vinyl from France. While the 2018’s did not have any wrapper sticker claims , the run out groove detail matched that of the EU 2014’s, identically. This is the pair of records from 2014 that had me start looking a lot closer to what was appearing in the run out grooves of these US and EU Hendrix pressings and it was a huge eye opener. Both sets of stickers claim “REMASTERED FROM THE ORIGINAL 2 TRACK MASTER TAPES” “ALL ANALOGUE MASTERING BY BERNIE GRUNDMAN”. Rainbow Bridge, US first followed by the EU and EU colour issue.