Music Matters: The Blue Note Reissue Series
Starting with the introduction of the compact disc 25 years ago, collectors and audiophiles have kept a torch burning for needles and grooves, but in the mass music market vinyl records were as dead as the DeSoto. That began to change in recent years, partially out of nostalgia and a certain hipster factor, but also because when produced properly, records just sound damn good. Digital music, whether by CD or file sharing, disassembles music into ones and zeroes for storage, and then reassembles it for listening. By comparison, true analogtape to lathe to recordis a direct impression of the sound. From the outset Rambach and Harley believed that only a true analog copy of the Blue Note tapes would yield the sound quality they wanted, so they decided to release the series on vinyl only. They made the additional decision to release each title on two 180gram 45rpm LPs instead of one 33rpm platter because, in their estimation, the higher velocity of 45rpm rotation reduces the impact of distortion as well as the loss of high frequencies as the needle moves to the center of the album. It costs more, of course, as everythingalbums, covers and sleeves has to be doubled to include all the music, but they are convinced the effort pays sonic dividends. Frankly, it's hard to argue with the results.
Vinyl mastering and pressing is a dwindling art and there aren't many people left with the proper knowledge and equipment to make a really first class record. As they laid out their plans, Rambach and Harley knew exactly where to turn. Mastering duties were entrusted to Kevin Gray, owner of Cohearent Audio. With almost 40 years in the recording business, Gray has been the technical end of a number of recent, high-quality reissue projects. The Cohearent studio has an array of very high quality vintage components to facilitate transferring the music from tape to lacquer, including a modified Studer reel-to-reel deck, custom class A amplification, and a vintage Neumann cutting lathe, all heavy duty gear with the capacity to make first rate stampers. Despite decades of experience with this kind of material, Gray was still a little star-struck by the process. "It's an amazing window into history," he says. "The boxes have all of Rudy Van Gelder and Alfred Lion's hand written notes all over them." In some cases those notes, often from Lion to Van Gelder with production instructions, helped guide the remastering process as well.
Of course, remastering is only one step in a series of production links. Once the stampers are cut, they need to be pressed into hot plastic, and successfully managing that process takes some additional expertise. Anyone who remembers buying a record, only to find an off-centered hole, or a noisy, warped bit of wafer thin plastic, can appreciate the problems to be avoided in pressing a premium collection. Music Matters turned to the RTI pressing facility with a simple justification: according to Rambach, "RTI is the highest quality record plant in the country, period." Pointing to dead quiet vinyl and perfectly centered spindle holes he credits RTI's Rick Hashimoto and his team with really embracing the goals of the project to meet the high quality expectations. The success is easy to verify. As we'll get to in a moment, this is some of the finest vinyl you'll ever hear.
It was also important to Rambach that these albums look spectacular. Blue Note album covers had a distinct design language, and fidelity to that aesthetic was a top priority. The label's house look was defined by Reid Miles, whose bold, geometric color blockscombined with Francis Wolff's black and white photographscreated a modern and sophisticated motif. In the book Blue Note: The Album Cover Art (Chronicle Books, 1991), editor Felix Cromey offered an eloquent summation: "As Blue Note embraced the musical changes of its recording artists, so Reid Miles caught the slipstream, creating sleeves that transcended the mugshots and mysticism of other genres' sleeves." To capture all of the design elements of the original covers, Music Matters turned to printer Jack Sloughton, whose company has been making record jackets for over 50 years. Accurate reproductions required painstaking color matching, as well as touching up any fading or discoloration. All of the jackets are printed on heavyweight, acid-free board to ensure longevity. "There was a tremendous amount of effort in getting these covers as perfect as possible," says Rambach. "We're psychotic about it." Indeed, the covers, which could have been an after-thought, are beautiful, and Wolff's dramatic black and white photos in the gatefold provide an additional window into the recording sessions.