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Jazz and the Vinyl Renaissance

Vinyl records continue to climb new sales heights, and jazz is at the heart of the trend

Joe Harley
Joe Harley of Music Matters and Blue Note’s Tone Poet series. 

THE TONE POET SPEAKS

Joe Harley is the man behind the sound of Music Matters Jazz and Blue Note’s Tone Poet series. Together with Kevin Gray of Cohearent Audio, he is responsible for placing original master tapes on Gray’s Studer A-80 tape machine, running their signal through a minimal processing chain, and cutting the lacquers which become the master discs for all reissue pressings.

“The labels pick these titles which I’m used to hearing on vinyl,” Harley explains. “I’ve got hundreds of originals; that’s what I’m used to hearing. I can’t remember one instance when Kevin and I put up a tape and we weren’t blown away by how much more is there on the tape [than appears on the original releases]. It’s always, ‘Oh my God, I thought I knew this!’ I always get excited. You get the sound of the original record locked in your mind. So it’s always fascinating to hear how much more is on the original tape.”

Harley and Gray aim to reveal the full glory of those original master tapes, and along the way they’ve discovered certain trade secrets. “1950s recording technology could reproduce low bass notes,” Harley states. Unfortunately, ’50s turntables couldn’t, so renowned recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder had to make compromises when mastering to vinyl: “He did what he had to do in order to make those LPs play without skipping while still giving them a sense of bass. He created a bass bump, generally around 70-100 Hz. That way he could roll off the real low end, the kind of thing that could cause records to ‘stick’ on the record players of the ’50s and early ’60s.

“And Rudy goosed the upper midrange to make horns, drums, and cymbals sound lively on the systems of the day. He applied compression overall, not just to treble frequencies. These are live to two-track recordings, so whatever you’re applying post-production, you’re applying to the overall presentation.”

Joe doesn’t care for budget-minded EU pressings: “For what I want to hear and what exists on these great master tapes, those EU releases are not the best way to get there. It’s like looking at a faded photograph of something where you’ve seen the original print. They’re cheap and they allow someone to get into the music, so I guess they serve a purpose. But then again, those reissues can turn people off. They might hear those and think, ‘I don’t get it.’”

Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.