Mention Mike Valentine or Chasing the Dragon, and you should (if you visit the UK hifi shows) think of the dragonesque firey orange and red colours of the clothes and an equally flamboyant bright personality that goes with it. His Chasing the Dragon and Vivaldi Four Seasons LP/CDs are part of my reference review sources. His background at the BBC and his love for reel to reels and ultra hi-quality recording gear go hand and hand with my own life experience, and whilst I don’t always agree with everything he records, I sure get the point of what he is trying to do.

Like the recording of the cellist in a church hall playing Bach Cello Suite No 1 and then played exactly the same but this time in a field in the middle of nowhere. Whilst the second recording is quite horrible, for obvious reasons, it does make a point. So, to be given “Big Band Spectacular” a dual – LP of The Syd Lawrence Orchestra, both containing identical songs but one recorded as a direct-cut vinyl and the other a multitrack analogue tape recording and mix down, I could see exactly what this great man was trying to do. And to make it even clearer the supplied DVD shows how it was all done. Syd_lawrence_orchestra

 

I remember when the fad for direct discs came in the 1970’s, particularly with Dave Brubeck’s Direct Cut Disc ‘A Cut Above’ in 1978. This particular disc is still used by me for reviewing, due to the precision of recording and the originality of the recording technique; an inverted Stanton Magnetics cutting lathe directly etching the master from which all copies are moulded, making for fewer moulding and recording paths and hence less hiss and distortion getting in the way. In a normal vinyl manufacture you record it onto disk, then make a “negative” of it, and mould all your 12” plastic from that. In this clever recording instead of the first process, a double stylus rides the upper edges of a groove whilst the stamper is rotated in the reverse direction of a normal record rotation, creating the etchings on the upper sides and from which the limited edition of copies is moulded. For Mike’s album, he used the conventional approach, with the infamous VMS80 Neumann Cutting lathe, that works much the same as a conventional player, requiring careful control to ensure that where wider and deeper grooves are needed for the loud sections so that they don’t cut into each other, the distance between each groove can be carefully, and manually, controlled. Similarly, if the groove is too shallow it could pinch the stylus out of the groove, so it needs to be adjusted. There are very few operators left who know how to work this machinery well, let alone finding many of the cutting lathes themselves. The VMS80 was the best of them, built in the 1980’s (the VMS70 was in the 1970’s).

As well as ensuring Mike had the best lathe operator, the orchestra had the additional worry that they could only have one go at this. There could be no retakes in a direct to disc recording. The lathe can only be halted between tracks, and at £50 a lacquer disc it was important to get it right first time. In this recording you hear page turns at the end of each track as the musicians get ready for the next track. I love this!

Playing the multitrack recording of disc 2 just took away the excitement that disc one had given. Not just that the sound level was significantly lower than that of the direct cut disc, some of that top end buzz and mid warmth was just not there. Despite the use of the same analogue Neve mixing desk from my own days at the BBC, no EQ or compression/limiting, Studer 24 track multitrack and 30ips master recorder (incidentally not using Dolby, which would add its own signature to the sound) and Gefell, Schoeps, STC, Neumann, Flea and AEA microphones, all brilliantly pressed onto 180g vinyl, some of that immediacy and intricacy of sound was somewhat lost, like the disappointment when you discover you didn’t have all the numbers for this week’s Lotto Rollover. Whilst this was indeed the same recording it sounded like a hundred miles from it. It reminded me of my youth recording a live Genesis concert broadcast on the Beeb. I recorded it on DAT with a back-up on cassette, but it was the cassette that sounded the most musical and exciting for me. Why that was is most likely to be due to the analogue distortion and mid-frequency warmth from my Akai GXC310D. And, much later, as a BBC sound engineer myself I always preferred recording as pure as possible, with a stereo coincident pair microphone set up with only a minimal amount of backup, rather than a whole orchestra of microphones. The latter often lost the musical detail as each microphone mixed with the next. Whilst both LPs used the same mixer and a fairly small sundry of microphones, the direct cut disc was for me one of the best sounding recordings I have ever heard. I did not mind having the same 8 tracks played twice, and whilst the Direct Cut disc was superior, even the more regular recording path was still an excellent recording to have in my collection, so if you accidentally scratch one disc, then at least you still have a backup. With no compression or limiting the brass is brash and cymbals sizzlingly good without any error in sound, something one has to be very careful when cutting a vinyl. Through my Wilson Benesch Arc/Torus/Townshend SuperTweeter trio, the Direct Cut disc was both real and exciting. The powerful “Sing Sing Sing” (Benny Goodman) that starts the affair off was followed by the melancholy “Moonlight Serenade” by Glen Miller. Despite the differing soundscape, both were equally enthralling for the listener. I always loved the use of woodwind on the front line of USA trombonist Glen Miller’s manuscripts, something that makes his big band composing and performing so different to anyone at the time, and since. The warmth from the clarinet is shown to the full in these LPs, particularly the Direct Cut version. Syd Lawrence set up his own orchestra in the UK to play works by Miller, Count Basie and others. Lawrence retired from touring in 1994 and died of an aneurysm in 1998. The band continues to this day, and it was great to hear them here at their very best. This album contains works by Benny Goodman, Glen Miller and Artie Shaw.

 

As well as great sound engineering from Jake Jackson at the Air Recording studios in London, made famous by George Martin, it is the brilliance of cutting lathe engineer John Webber really excels in this recording for me. As discussed earlier, this is an art. The operator needs to continually adjust the gap between each groove on the record; if the gaps between the groove are too small then the recording will be ruined as there won’t be enough depth in the groove for dynamics and stereo, and if the gaps are too great then you won’t fit four tracks on each side. Both LPs are excellent recordings, with frequency response and musicality showing off the true greatness of analogue. This is a truly good example of what an LP should be, and you will be able to decide for yourself which recording you feel is the best. For me, direct cut discs will always be my nirvana, and the extended frequency response and headroom on the 12″ plastic is apparent from the very start. This is a very special recording, and something I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending to hifi and music lovers alike. As Mike Valentine beautifully puts it “It’s better than sex, it’s wonderful.”

 

Janine Elliot

 

 

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