NEW QUALITY RECORD PRESSINGS
CAT STEVENS : TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN
OK, I finally found a few hours to compare the various masterings of Cat Steven’s Tea For the Tillerman that I have in my collection.
First, let me say that I am both a fan of this album and Chad Kassem’s efforts as the producer of this new Quality Record Pressings LP reissue. Whether that disqualifies me from being objective, I will leave up to the reader.
In my mind, being a fan of an album ensures that you have listened to it repeatedly, and you are likely to be intimately familiar with the music on it. If you are also an “audiophile”, you probably have already gone through the trouble of acquiring more than one copy, and may have even compared these copies to see which one sounds best to you, maybe on numerous occasions. Guilty on all counts.
Being a fan of Chad’s work simply means I will give him the benefit of the doubt, nothing more. And despite the fact I have shot a few photographs for him in years past, if Chad produces a stinker, I will let you know.
As a side note, it has always struck me as odd that a reviewer who admits to not being a fan of an artist’s work would think that he (or she) would be able to offer an authoritative opinion when it comes to comparing the latest reissue to others produced over the years. Everyone has an opinion of course, but some are arguably more educated than others – like those from someone who has collected every different lacquer of Rubber Soul on UK vinyl and knows those variations’ audio presentation by heart. But I digress. Lets get back to Tea.
Here are the pressings of Tea for the Tillerman that I currently own:
LPs: Pink Label Island UK (original -3U lacquer, Sterling LH), Pink Rim Sunray Island UK (-4U lacquers, Sterling LH), US WLP (original T1 lacquers, Sterling LH), regular early US tan-brown label (Monarch pressed, Sterling LH), MFSL Regular and UHQR, a recent German reissue, and the latest Quality Record Pressings reissue (Sterling lacquer with Marino mastering).
CDs: early US AM+, MFSL, and the Universal 2000 US remaster (apparently the same mastering as the recent Deluxe).
To help those who are unfamiliar understand this album and its historical significance, I will begin by providing some background information (always a good thing when it’s applicable to the sonic signature). This album followed Mona Bone Jakon, and was one of the first to reveal Cat’s growing strength as a singer-songwriter and his fascination with the audio quality of his records.
Reportedly, original test pressings of Tea were auditioned by Cat on Magnepan speakers, the same brand of planar speakers that I used in my review. Not necessarily relevant, since the speaker’s design has changed somewhat, but interesting nonetheless. Let’s just say he was striving for the best audio quality possible at the time, and judging by the way this mostly acoustic album has achieved iconic audiophile status, I’d say he accomplished that easily.
So how has this legendary recording been made available over the years?
Tea was recorded at Morgan Studios in London in July of 1970 and lacquers were first cut by Lee Hulko at Sterling Sound in New York. These lacquers were then sent to pressing plants in the US and the UK. As a result, both these countries’ original LPs have “Sterling” stamped and “LH” handwritten in the dead wax. Why is this important? It’s only important because the audio quality of the pressings made from those lacquers have stood the test of time in sounding better than all others up to this point. Hope I’m not giving too much away…
With that in mind, let’s look at the listening notes I made today (playing “Hard Headed Woman” at a peak 80 dB volume level for each pressing). System was mid-level audiophile: a Rega P25 turntable with Clearaudio Maestro cartridge, Linn Ikemi CD player, Cary phono preamp, VTL electronics, Magnepan 3.6 speakers, fancy wire and power conditioners in a dedicated listening room.
First up was one of the most respected and hard to find LPs of Tea for the Tillerman – the original UK first pressing using handwritten 3U lacquers on a Pink Island Label. I know this pressing by heart. It presents a very natural and dynamic audio presentation that you could probably live with forever. Everything is balanced. It has realistic vocals and acoustic guitars with nice “air” around them, shimmering cymbals, clearly discernable and layered background vocals and strings, explosive drums, extended bass, exceptional microdynamics, and great detail without being harsh at all. The midrange in particular is liquid smooth. The overall tone is sweet, warm and slightly recessed. Unlike all others, this mastering never calls attention to itself.
Next up was the Pink Rim Sunray Label Island UK LP with 4U handwritten in the dead wax. This second pressing still has Sterling and LH marks but is cut from a second set of lacquers. It provides much of what the 3U does with a couple of exceptions. The vocals on the 4U are just a tad brighter, and at times a touch harder. The guitars do sparkle though. Secondly, the macrodynamics are simply astonishing. The example I have on hand is clearly the best at conveying the powerfully wide swings in volume that occur mid-song on “Hard Headed Woman” (the acid test track on this album and hence the one I used). The bass is the tightest and the drums are the most impressive. Could be the overall winner on some systems.
Third up was a Whitel Label Promo US LP with T-1 lacquer numbers and the same Sterling/LH notations in the run out area. This has been my go to pressing for many years simply because it sounds great and is very quiet. For whatever reason this example escaped the wrath of the DJ or home listener and sounds pristine like it was pressed yesterday (although it doesn’t look that way). It has all the realism of my UK copies but is slightly more delicately detailed, clean and clear, but without as much mid-bass slam. It could be deemed better than either of the UK LPs on some systems and a third runner up on others. It‘s that good. A common regular US first pressing on tan-brown A&M labels with a Monarch stamp sounds very similar and can be found for $3-6 in the used bins. Later pressings (even some on tan-brown labels with Sterling stamps) can sound congested in comparison.
So why do we need another reissue of Tea on audiophile vinyl? Here’s why. For one, it’s an all-time classic (#206 out of the top 500 albums according to Rolling Stone). Secondly, the somewhat easily found good sounding tan-brown label A&M US pressings are invariably noisy. So are most early UK copies. After all, they are 35+ years old, and there are lots of quiet sections on this album. Also, the previous audiophile reissues, the MFSL regular and UHQR LPs, simply don’t sound as good – hyped treble, no bass. And my German EU LP reissue (have not heard the more recent Back to Black release) sounds even worse. Without going into detail, let me just say those particular MFSL LPs are sonically far less natural with squashed dynamics, and the German LP I have on hand is thin, one-dimensional, artificial and basically a waste of money.
Here’s another reason why you might be interested in a new LP of Tea that sounds real good. The Pink Label Island will set you back over $100 in decent shape and the Pink Rim UK is about $50. That’s more money for a likely somewhat noisy LP than what you would spend for the following new vinyl contender at $30.
Quality Record Pressings is a large-scale vinyl pressing plant built by Acoustic Sound’s Chad Kassem in the United States. The vinyl revival warranted that Chad refurbish old school pressing machines and construct a plant to accommodate his plans for providing record lovers and audiophiles with the best LPs possible today. For more info go to my previous blog here:
So how does this much talked about Quality Record Pressings (QRP) reissue compare to the great US and UK originals?
First, you need to know that this mastering is sourced from the original analog master tapes. Chad doesn’t cut from Pro Tools digital files, so there’s little chance he will be cutting the new Beatles vinyl! Secondly, Chad chose George Marino at Sterling Sound (the original vinyl mastering studio) to cut this record. George is well known for his sensitivity to not only his client’s wishes but also to what will actually sound best.
The result is nothing if not revealing of what is possible in cutting lacquers today. The QRP LP I bought is perfectly flat and pressed on center. Sonically, it is better in every area compared to all previous releases except for a few. It reveals inner details not audible on any other copy I own. It provides superior “air” and front to back depth to the soundstage. Micro dynamics are without peer – in this regard it is simply astonishing and like hearing the album for the first time. Thump from the bass is eerily good. Treble is extended. Midrange is very realistic. The pressing is utterly silent without any surface noise.
Now for the caveats: This new solid state cutting is more modern in a way that the vocal hardness which cropped up on the 4U UK pressing is more evident. The drums are not quite as explosive as the best US and UK pressings. Vocals and guitar are very natural but not as warm and “organic” as the Pink Label Island. If this sounds like I’m being very picky, I am. That’s why I get the big bucks…
OK, back to reality. Tea is a GREAT record, one worthy of the best reissue possible. This QRP LP is certainly the best reissue of this title I’ve heard, and you can buy it now. A QRP SACD is due to be released shortly.
As an added bonus the QRP LP offers a pink label, a heavily laminated album cover and flat textured inner gatefold that nearly matches the UK original. There’s also a nice full-size inner pamphlet that talks about how this pressing was made.
How about the CDs of this album you ask? Well, here’s the scoop. If you have a record player you probably don’t need the CDs any more. But if you are “analog challenged,” the MFSL is the best going for a rich, warm tone. The AM+ is a bit more immediate but also slightly brighter, and the 2000 USA Universal remaster is a typical modern version but done with taste from the original tapes (apparently matches the more recent Deluxe version).
Oh, I almost forgot. I’m not going to bitch about how boring Chad’s choice of this title is for a reissue because I want an opportunity to buy his upcoming Teaser and the Firecat & Catch Bull At Four releases. Disclaimer: I didn’t weigh the QRP LP and I am over 55 years old.
(Photographer: David Bailey)
9/7/11 Update: Since my initial review I have played this QRP LP on my Rega P9 with a Koetsu Rosewood Signature cartridge. Those with an all tube system and a similar cartridge may find any “vocal hardness” much less evident (except on the song “Miles from Nowhere”). This LP was reportedly cut with an SME/Koetsu system in mind.
12/10/11 Update: As much as I’ve praised the QRP as the best reissue of this title I’ve heard, I have to say it has not ended up being the copy I play most often. That role continues to be filled by the Pink Label Island UK original, especially since I recently found a mint copy. There is just something more satisfying about that pressing to me, which sounds warmer and more natural. I’m noticing this phenomenon more and more with new reissues, although I am thankful to have them, especially when the originals are so expensive (over 5X more expensive in this case) and very hard to find in near perfect condition…