In business, it can be advantageous to cut out the middle man. In vinyl record production, too, less can be more. The latest mini-trend in the audiophile world is one-step recordings, which eliminate two parts of the manufacturing process.
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab dropped its first one-step record in 2016 with Santana’s Abraxas, followed early this year by the Bill Evans Trio’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Both quickly sold out. This fall, MFSL added Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly and reportedly is planning a handful more in 2018. Jazz singer Lyn Stanley, meanwhile, issued two one-step albums this year, The Moonlight Sessions, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, and vocalist Jacintha has put out a one-step tribute to Ben Webster, Here’s to Ben, on Groove Note.
All of these are extremely limited-edition LPs, because the one-step process is not suited to mass production. This translates into retail price tags of $80 to $125 and manufacturing runs that often create anywhere from fewer than 1,000 up to about 6,000 LPs.
What makes one-step, at least in theory, promise better sound? The basic idea is that, like the grade-school game where a message is whispered down a line of children, information can be lost or changed with every extra step.
Traditional record manufacturing is designed to produce massive amounts of LPs as inexpensively as possible. To do that, a three-step process is standard. This involves using the source material to create a lacquer, followed by a “father,” or negative, and next a “mother,” or positive. The final stamper is made from the mother and is used to form the vinyl.
The key here is that one mother can create more than a hundred stampers, with each stamper capable of pressing hundreds or even thousands of vinyl records. Collectors generally seek early copies of first pressings, because those are thought to have the best groove integrity. The closer you get to a pristine mother, and the earlier the LP is made with a new stamper, the better.
One-step, however, ensures there’s little degradation by bypassing the father and mother altogether. The source material is used to produce a lacquer, which engineers plate to make a special stamper, called a “convert.” Theoretically, this protects the shape and accuracy of the groove, which is only about the size of a human hair. But the method also is not without its hair-raising dangers.
“You don’t know if the metal stamper is going to last for 100 records or 500, and when it’s gone, it’s gone,” Lyn Stanley, who monitored the production of her Bernie Grundman-mastered Moonlight albums, told me in a recent interview.
Because of the risks and costs of the one-step process, marketers have sought to use it for special, lavishly packaged releases. Typically, other audiophile considerations are applied as well, such as employing 180-gram vinyl and spreading the album over two 45-rpm discs.
Step by step
So, does one-step do what its sellers advertise? To find out, I listened to several recent releases, MFSL’s UltraDisc Nightfly reissue and Stanley’s two SuperSonicVinyl Moonlight albums. I auditioned the records in my reference system, which at the moment includes Pass Labs X600.8 monoblocks, a Pass Labs X12 preamp (reviews on both to come), Revel Studio speakers and a Rega RP40 anniversary-edition turntable with a Dynavector high-output 10X5 MC cartridge.
I ran the Rega into the tubed phono stage of my mid-1960s Marantz 7C preamp because, although I have solid-state alternatives, when I want to really wallow in analog glory, that’s what I do. The tape out from the Marantz was fed to the Pass X12.
CD versions of the albums were spun on a Musical Fidelity M1 into a Mark Levinson 30.5 DAC. Wire was a mix of AudioQuest Sky interconnects (XLR), Merrill Audio interconnects (RCA) and Transparent Reference XL speaker cable.
In 1982, Donald Fagen was reeling after years of singing hits with Steely Dan, the band he formed with Walter Becker, a guitarist he’d met at Bard College. Following a string of smooth but lyrically subversive jazz-pop albums that made the reclusive pair superstars, Becker lost control of his vices. He dissolved his partnership with Fagen and retreated to Hawaii to clean up and escape the pressures of the music business. This left Fagen, who famously didn’t even like to take vacations, to fend for himself.
Fagen recruited producer Gary Katz and engineering godhead Roger Nichols from the Dan days and decamped to several New York and Los Angeles studios to cut a solo album. Fagen’s concept for the album was to recreate the moody vibe of the late-night jazz and soul radio programs he listened to as a kid. Rather than emulating the scratchy sound of those old broadcasts, though, he wanted his tunes to have the same sonic sheen Steely Dan albums were known for.
Digital recording at that time was beginning to make inroads with studios and artists. Ry Cooder had cut the first all-digital album, Bop Till You Drop, in 1979. It was recorded on tape to a 3M 32-track machine. In addition, Fleetwood Mac mixed its enigmatic opus, Tusk, digitally that same year at Village Recorder in LA.
The meticulous Nichols began the Nightfly sessions at Village Recorder by tracking band rehearsals on both a 24-track Studer A-80 analog deck and the 3M 32-track. The latter was running 1-inch tape at 45 ips. After comparing both on playbacks, Nichols, Fagen and Katz thought the 3M sounded better. It was used for the sessions, with a 4-track 3M machine employed for mixdown.
Fagen is on record saying that, since there weren’t any 20-bit digital-to-analog converters developed yet in 1981, a 12-bit Burr-Brown device was used, augmented by 4 bits of an 8-bit DAC to get 16 bits.
Some online commenters have wondered why MFSL would choose this recording for one-step reissue, when there are so many all-analog titles available. That thought came to my mind as well, so I got out my note pad and began my listening sessions.
The new Nightfly one-step represented my fourth version of the record. Prior to getting the release in the mail, I had dug out the original pressing I bought in 1981, along with MFSL’s half-speed mastered version, which came out in 1982. I also had the CD on hand.
I started by cuing up the original pressing. Back in 1981, when I listened on a Yamaha receiver and JBL L36 speakers, I usually recorded my vinyl immediately after purchase, using a Technics SL1300 turntable and a Technics DBX cassette deck. So, as a result, my original Nightfly is still mint. Indeed, the sound generally was good — warmer than I had remembered, especially considering the digital recording — but it had some issues. The biggest was the common ‘70s-era habit of making kick drum and snare sound muffled and indistinct. There is a thud-thud-thud quality to those parts that contrasted with other generally crisper percussion instruments. The high frequencies on the original also seemed a bit dull and reverberation trails were thinner and shortened.
Next, I tried the half-speed mastered version. Coming only a year after the initial release, MFSL engineers were able to get their hands on the tape while it was still fresh. They seem to have worked some magic, as the snare gains a little snap (although it’s hardly prominent), high frequencies are more extended and the instruments add some weight, texture and clarity.
I switched to the new one-step. While not a breathtaking difference, the new version definitely carried over the half-speed’s enhancements and improved on most of them. Immediately, I noticed the vinyl sounded quieter, with a “blacker” background. Highs were even more extended, individual instruments had increased character and air around them, and the soundstage expanded in both width and depth. Individual notes were sharper and percussion had a sparkle missing from the other two pressings.
On the single, “I.G.Y.,” Fagen’s vocals — recessed in the mix as Nichols liked to do with Steely Dan — were better defined and more palpable. The performer’s synthesizer playing also was slightly more prominent, and bass was deeper and more tuneful. In particular, you could better hear when Katz doubled the bass line.
There were other differences I noted. On “Ruby Baby,” the organ had more power and resonance, while on “Green Flower Street,” the separate guitar noodling in the left and right channels could be more easily followed, and backing vocals were better heard as individual voices harmonizing.
The 45-rpm speed on the one-step improved the pacing of many songs. “I.G.Y.” and “New Frontier,” for instance, both seemed to move along with more pep in their step. Kick drum and snare gained another bit of impact, but still were somewhat subdued.
The packaging on this disc also was spectacular, with a heavy-gauge, gold-embossed box containing the two discs, each in heavy plastic sleeves, along with outer jackets, lyrics and an info sheet from MFSL explaining one-step.
The CD, meanwhile, fell somewhere between the original vinyl and the MFSL half-speed release. It was crisper overall, but also cooler and more two-dimensional, with more poorly-defined bass.
As for MFSL choosing an all-digital recording — and an early one at that — for one-step treatment, I can’t really fault them. Even with a run of only 6,000 copies, they had to be pretty sure the title would be popular enough to overcome the $100 price tag. Nightfly is a platinum-level seller, so there you have it.
From my comparison, I would argue that the engineering and mastering of an album matter just as much as the recording technology. Yes, Fagen’s Nightfly originally was ones and zeros, but the guy who put those digits on tape — Nichols — was a genius. This is a pretty terrific-sounding album in all its formats, and the new one-step is the best version available outside someone slipping you a dub of the master tape.
Jazz chanteuse Lyn Stanley has been performing for just under seven years. Over that time, she’s made five albums, with the later two coming out this year. The Moonlight Sessions Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, released a few months apart, find this late-bloomer showing impressive growth both as a vocalist and an artist. When Stanley was encouraged to cut her first LP in 2013 by her mentor, piano legend and longtime Ella Fitzgerald accompanist Paul Smith, she found that established labels had little interest in a middle-aged beginner. So, she applied the same business acumen that had taken her to the top of the advertising industry and started her own cottage industry.
Early on, Stanley had the good sense to seek out Al Schmitt, known for engineering and mixing Frank Sinatra’s best albums, and Bernie Grundman, the go-to mastering guru for many popular musicians. With more than a little chutzpah, Stanley drained her retirement account and hired A-list jazz pros to back her in a top-notch studio. Upon hearing the results, Grundman told her she should pursue the audiophile market.
With each subsequent release, Stanley has been learning more about how to achieve ever-greater levels of resolution on her records. Her debut album was recorded digitally, but since then it’s been all analog.
When planning Moonlight 1 and 2, Stanley had separate creative and production brainstorms. Artistically, she decided to blend classical elements into the arrangement of some of the jazz standards she’d selected. And to get an even better-sounding product, she asked Grundman to prep masters for one-step vinyl pressings.
State of the Art
I first heard Vol.1 in April at AXPONA is Chicago. Stanley brought a pre-production lacquer to the Valve Amplification Co.-Von Schweikert Audio room. The two companies had assembled a stunning $750,000 USD system (not a misprint — all those zeros are correct) that included the $318,000 Ultra 11 speakers/subwoofers and $120,000 in tubed monoblocks.
Stanley herself conducted the demo, placing the delicate lacquer on a Kronos Audio Pro turntable with a Kronos SCPS-1 power supply, an Andre Theriault Black Beauty tonearm and a ZYX Audio Ultimate 4D cartridge.
The sound on that setup was gorgeous. The presentation had digital-like resolution with analog’s warmth and emotional connection. As I wrote in my room review: “Instrumental images were life-size, full-bodied and arranged precisely on a wide, deep soundstage. The extraordinary bandwidth portrayed percussion with polish and air, and bass had both tunefulness and extreme depth.”
It was the best illusion of live music I’d ever heard, outside a few master-tape playbacks. But now the question was, how much of that realism was due to the state-of-the-art components and how much to Stanley’s one-step recording?
Bringing it home
Ensconced in my own listening room with my more modest (in comparison) rig, I removed disc 1 of the full-production pressing of Vol.1 from its sleeve and put it on the Rega. A few songs in, my jaw still was hanging down. The beautiful tonality, impressive micro- and macro-dynamics, and alluring textures I’d heard in Chicago were now in my home. My system didn’t magically morph into the VAC-Von Schweikert setup, but within the Pass-Revel rig’s own considerable capabilities, it was singing as it rarely had before. I switched to Vol. 2 and got the same reaction.
I compared the one-steps to hybrid SACDs of the same albums. These silver discs, prepared with Stanley’s equal attentiveness to the format, sounded great, but still came up short of the vinyl. The one-steps had a lusciousness, liquidity and emotional connection that was addictive.
I know I said the MFSL Fagen one-step was very, very good. But here with the Stanley discs I was having a full-on, Maxell-ad, hair-blown-back-while-wearing-shades-indoors moment.
I think the reason is the differences in the source material. Fagen’s LP was recorded with 1981 digital technology and the tapes have been sitting around for 35 years. It’s a wonder it sounds as good as it does. Stanley’s albums, however, were meticulously planned as all-analog audiophile recordings from the get-go, using a mix of traditional and modern technology. Then the tapes were taken directly to the manufacturing plant, where the artist was so picky she paid extra to have a brand-new stamper made every 300 copies to ensure ultimate groove fidelity. When you buy Vol. 1 or Vol. 2, you can’t help but get a low-generation pressing.
Stanley also put a lot of effort into her packaging, which includes beautiful photographs, extensive liner notes, detailed musician credits and a poster. All are printed on heavy stock.
As a result of all that, I would say if there are better, more accurate or engaging audiophile LPs than Moonlight Vol. 1 and 2, I haven’t heard them. And, while hard-core gearheads often can get enamored with playing certain titles to ooh and ahh about their rig’s attributes, despite the actual music — well, let’s not mince words — sucking, Stanley’s albums are a true pleasure to listen to.
Far from a Diana Krall clone, on Moonlight Vol. 1 and 2, Stanley’s phrasing, pitch control and modulation all are approaching that of some of the seminal female vocalists of the 1940s and ‘50s. Stanley knows it, too, singing with confidence and taking chances that pay off more often than not. It takes courage, for instance, to merge Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive” with Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor,” as she does on Vol. 1, or to substantially rework “Makin’ Whoopee” and position it as her Vol. 2 opener.
In other words, the content and performances on Stanley’s albums warrant attention all on their own. The fact they are demonstration-worthy audiophile recordings is icing on what already is a very tasty cake.
It appears the one-step trend will only grow, at least for a while. MFSL, for example, appears poised to ramp up its one-step reissues in 2018. I haven’t seen any official announcements, but sources tell me titles being prepped include Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood and Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Bill Evans’ Portrait in Jazz.
So, what to make of one-step records? From my recent auditioning of three new releases, plus my experience with the MFSL Bill Evans Trio Vanguard set, I would report that they indeed can take listeners closer to the original performance.
There are some considerations. Price is one. The MFSL Fagen one-step retailed for $100 and appears to have sold out. As I wrote this in mid-December, Amazon was showing offers at $300 each and low-numbered copies were advertised on eBay at up to $500. Stanley’s one-step albums, available at her website (www.lynstanley.com) and retailers such as The Elusive Disc and Acoustic Sounds, are $125 each and going fast.
Something else I noticed about listening to these one-steps is that you have to be committed to really focus during your listening session. With a single album spread over two 45-rpm vinyl records, some sides might hold just two songs. You can’t settle into a magazine (or start reading one of my notoriously long reviews in Part-Time Audiophile). There’s going to be a lot of frequent tonearm lifting, record flipping, cleaning, etc., involved. And, another gripe is that for releases at this price level, there usually are no bonus tracks.
Still, if you are really into vinyl, and especially if you have a carefully assembled analog rig to play it on, one-steps likely will bring you a significant improvement in sonic enjoyment. Whether that’s worth the dent in your wallet is up to each audiophile. I personally think $30 is outrageous for garden-variety vinyl, but it doesn’t stop me from buying it. Despite temptation, I wouldn’t sell my much more expensive one-steps, either, despite the crazytown eBay quotes ($450 for Bill Evans!). Try some. You likely won’t want to part with them, either.