Saturday, 25 May 2013

Kind of Blue - Miles Davis – Vinyl Grading for Collectors

From time to time I would like to talk about other interesting aspects beside hifi. So I will try to discuss some aspects of music, its culture, as well the todays format questions and as a part of it the vinyl  record collecting. Longer than I am interested into hifi, I am interested into music. At the begining it was classical music as well some jazz, but living in Germany makes the use and the collecting of jazz records (if you are on original releases) almost impossible so I collected classical music in the first stage. Everything changed with ebay.

One of my absolute favorite jazz albums always was and still is "Miles Davis - Kind of Blue". The original recording was made by Columbia in march/april 1959. This record entered in august 1959 the market as CL1355 pressed in mono and alternativly as stereo edition CS8163, both with a wrong sequence of the takes of "All Blues" and "Flamenco Scetches" for the first 50000 (collectors!) on the label and cover. The following pressings corrected the mistake at the label but Columbia never noticed or changed the misspelling of Adderleys name on the cover before the CD release. This record is originally a true stereo recording and not the for that time typical mono record, which was later electronically enhanced for a stereo use. Since 1958 stereo was a new thing in the marketing of music, so almost every company offered than recordings in both versions, were the stereo edition always was sold more expensive.

5 times almost the same record, from left: modern aniversary reissue from 2009, 3 issues of the first stereo release CS8163 and in background one CL1355, the first mono release

"Kind of Blue" is one of the most important jazz albums from the 20th century. It is commonly known as the very first initial piece of modal music in jazz history. Whole books have been written about that record in order to classify its significance. So its not on me here to write about its dimension for the jazz music at all.
I really do like this music a lot, so once in the 1990ties I started to look for the original recording in the early ebay days. At this time I was driven by the understanding, that only the first release of a recording will capture all original qualities of its content, like dynamics, space, air and tonal richness. I did know that record companies stored the original master tapes in their archives after the first pressing. For later pressings the most of these companies used 1:1 copies of them, so I believe that the copy already is characterized by a degradation of the original dynamics. Firmly taken by that idea, it seemed to be logic to me that only first releases will garantee the best possible reproduction of the original recording available. In my collection several examples of jazz records from this time do acknowledge my theory of best quality on vinyl.
So I hunted for the mono recording of "Kind of Blue" in these days of the late 90ties at I always tried to get a copy for 50$ or less, but this amount was never enough to make me a winner. The auctions ended always at a minimum of 85$, sometimes far beyond the magic 100$ line. I didn't know anything about "goldmine gradings" and all the little necessary informations for collectors in these days. So I never got one of this beloved records.

The cover of the versions vary by the double arrow symbol for the stereo issue and behind without arrow for the mono version

In 2001 I was invited to teach as guest professor at a well known university in Cambridge, MA. I moved for a year over there. From the first day I realized a vinyl record shop every 300 m at any main street there, this is definitive a record collectors ground. Every shop had a very good jazz department with a good variety of vintage records, for a german a unknown "vinyl heaven". The prices ranged between 2.99$ and 20$ for quite rare first releases. And than Boston next door, were the story continued with several good shops. I only want to mention the "Loony Tunes"-shop at the opposite street side of the famous Berklee College of Music which has unfortunatly closed in the meanwhile?!.
I did buy every week 20 jazz records, mostly first relases from the time between 1950 to end of the 1960ties. In my time in Camebridge I did not see one copy of the first "Kind of Blue" in the shops, while I bought almost 1000 first releases of other jazz music.

The CL1355  "6-eye" mono version, the deep groove iindentation is clarly visible on the label

The CS 8163  "6-eye" stereo version with arrow, the deep groove indentation is clarly visible on the label

Back in Germany in 2002 I started my hunt again on ebay in order to get finally one copy. I did increase my input and got the first mono pressing CL1355 for 85$ plus shipping. I was happy to manage this old dream. Some weeks later I could hold the record in my hands and was very exited to play it on my turntable. When the stylus slipped into the first groove it was clearly noticeable, that the music was not the foremost content of this record. I could not really believe what I did hear, the record was in such a bad condition, that almost three pops per second sounded like a fireplace concert instead of the well known music. I went back to the auction and it was advertized as: "VG+, some surface noise might be audible". OK, I had understand, even if I learned in the meanwhile about the goldmine gradings. But I had to learn that ebay competition changed the interpretation of the grading. A VG graded record is meant as "only for display use", while a MINT- is some adaquat condition for use. So I looked out for the next one. This time I looked for the stereo version, which was normally more expensive in this days. A MINT- copy went for 290$ to a asian collector, puhh...?!. I got a copy of the stereo version CS8163 for 136$ plus shipping sometime later on. It was offered as VG++. A MINT copy rarely appeared at ebay, I saw one going for 450$, that was definetly out of my reach. Some weeks later the VG++ record arrived and I was very impatiend to listen to it. To be honest, it was almost the same like the first one. Cracks and pops all the time, for a record with some very calm passages a real "no go". I contacted the seller and he told me that with goldmine grading only mint or MINT+ marked records will garanty a noise free play. Ok, I decided to look for the second release version. So far I had two copies with the legendary 6-eye label, the next will be a 2-eye version. The prices for this version decrease a lot comparing the first releases. I got a MINT- copy for 32$ plus shipping. I was happy, but I did not know if the second release will be as good as the first one. Unfortunatly the record never appeared, it had got lost on its way over the atlantic. Two month later I started again my hunt. I was succesfull and got a 2-eye copy for 24$ in mint condition. This time it came out well and I received the record. It sounded good, almost without any surface noise, but I had the impression that the former releases do have a wider dynamic range than the second releases. Miles  trumpet was a lot better focused and the other instrumentation had a deeper soundstage. With the 6-eye  version you can hear the space between each musician, were the 2-eye is missing it. So after a while I started again my hunt to find a MINT- copy of the 6-eye version. I spended 180$ plus shipping and was succesfull. The record came and it was really in good condition, it sounds amazing comparing it to the later versions. I was happy to get a good copy at the end. Alltogether I had spend a good 1000$ on that record, I did buy 6 records to get one good one, only addicts will act this way ...?

In 2009 this record celebrated its 50ties anniversary. Columbia released a newly (digital?) remastered version of this recording on 180 g vinyl, with all "absolute necessary" improvements and with all  "record colllector blah-blah" and inclusive a limitation of the edition. I got weak and did buy a copy. When I played this new version, I could not believe what I do hear. A dramatical reduced dynamic range comparing it to the original first release, almost no more realistic space of the former set up and a typical tonal degradation of several instruments. "The most important record of the 20th century (Columbia) has gotten even better" sounded now exactly like the very poor cd-pressing, which was existing for years.

Cover print of the CS8163 stereo version back side with the wrong order of tracks

Imprint in dead wax at CS8163 indicating a very early matrix pressing, for the collector it is heaven: 1AA

Record collecting in the 21st century, the time of the media free music and "unnoticable compression" is showing its perspective for the years to come. Nobody soon will remember how it once sounded with "true fidelity equipment", real master recordings and their pressings, nor that somebody has the opportunity to check the former audible qualities on his own perception. Since once american companies have mixed cd's for the use in cars in the 1990ties, todays music is mixed for cell phones and its dedicated ear pluggs. Amen.

Ebay has changed a lot the collectors market and its today options to buy vintage records. When in the beginning years the most vintage records were sold in open auctions and the hot collectible records sometimes skyrocketed (prices from 450$ to 2500$ per record), todays offers at ebay are "buy-it-now-auctions" at fixed prices for the standarts. The highly collectible records have completely disapeared, since the gobal  collectors market seems to be saturated. As with vintage hifi, the generation of its initial interest is going to retire, the younger generations are aimed into other topics.

Soon I will write about a diy record cleaning machine for the real vinyl collector, which really cleans and dries without loud noises, so stay tuned, Volker