Thursday, 19 May 2016

Abbey Road Half Speed Mastering

Abbey Road Half Speed Mastering


It may not have escaped your attention that some of the releases I’ve recently championed (The Zombies Odessey & Oracle & The Who’s Brunswick Box Set being two) have been half speed mastered at Abbey Road. 

Six new releases have just been released and for reasons that will shortly be clear, The Police’s 1981 LP Ghost In The Machine has joined two other copies in my collection.


Like many other topics I pick up on, Half Speed Mastering is nothing new, even before Mobile Fidelity made it their standard practice in 1977, DECCA records had already been using the process for some of its classical output for nearly twenty years. As the name describes, you run the master tape at half speed, if it runs at 30 inches per second ( ips) you play it back at 15ips while the cutting lathe runs at 16 2/3 rpm. There are some well-known issues with this process, low end roll off and more difficult de-essing being two. Low end roll off means losing some bass at the deeper end of the sound spectrum and de-essing being a way of correcting the distortion on vocal sounds using “S” and “T”. 

A&M Pressing

Trying to improve on Ghost In The Machine is certainly a tall order, the original album (released on A&M) sounds terrific and I remember listening to it on my friends Dads posh hifiback in the early eighties, being mesmerised that recorded music could sound so good. 

Four or five years ago, I picked up a second hand copy that was released on the Nautilus Recordings label, released the same year as the original it was half speed mastered and marketed as a “Super Discs – Listen To The Difference”. Having read lots of conflicting opinions on the benefits of half speed mastering I thought it would be interesting to hear it for myself. Supposedly, by running the lathe slower it has more time to accurately cut the groove, whilst this sounds like it should make sense it could also be audio snake oil. Now this version certainly sounded better, I thought the bass had more clarity and the treble seemed crisper. Whether this was down to being mastered at half speed or just being mastered with more care and superior equipment, there is no clear evidence to say, but I’m happy to reap the benefits either way. 

The new Abbey Road half speed masters have somewhat controversially been using hi-res digital masters to cut the new re-issues. Mike Showell who oversees the half speed masters has spoken about why he feels that using new hi-res digital copies of the original master tapes to make these records is superior to cutting directly from tape-

The greatest variable in all of this is the replay of the master on the tape machine. Just about all of the limitations of analogue cutting from tape are made twice as bad at half-speed. For this reason I firmly believe careful and sympathetic high-resolution digital capture from a well-cared for and customised (i.e. improved) American tape machine will ultimately yield better sounding records which is the sole reason for this series of releases. There is no perfect solution, but I feel by some distance this is the best way to proceed.

Mike Showell talking with Michael Fremer

For full interview visit


Well the proof of the audio is in the listening, so after listening to the Nautilus version I pop the new Abbey Road version on the turn table. It’s a revelation. Virtually all the bass sounds deeper and clearer, everything sounds more defined and it still retains a real “depth” of sound over the rather flat sounding CD version. Whilst the improvements to the treble are quite subtle, they become more obvious on the soundscape intro to “Secret Journey”. The dynamics seem improved too, the explosive start of the chorus of “Invisible Sun” sounds bigger than ever. 

From what I’ve heard so far from the Abbey Road Mastering Team I’m mightily impressed and thoroughly recommend these re-issues.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Concentric Grooves

Concentric Grooves

Those who first purchased Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief album in 1973 were in for several surprises when they pulled the album out of the sleeve. After the first shock of the aforementioned male accessories being attached to a dead man, lovingly created by Terry Gilliam on the inner sleeve, the purchaser then had the record label to contend with having both sides labelled “FREE RECORD, given away with Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief - Side 2”. After listening to both sides and having a good chuckle, it would be neatly filed away for next time. When it did return to the turntable to be replayed, it may then have been an amazed listener who was hearing a completely different recording of Python material.*

How could this be? 
The concentric groove.

The Concentric groove, sometimes called a double or parallel groove is simply more than one groove that is cut into the disc (think of the difference between a single carriageway road and the lanes on the M25, maybe it would be a more interesting motorway if it just spiralled in on Central London) and depending on where the needle lands in the leadoff area you will hear one of whatever that groove contains. Whilst on this Python offering this was kept quiet, probably for the self-amusement of the team, concentric grooves were often marketed as a selling point. The earliest example is a 1901 78rpm on the Victor label, demonstrated on this You Tube video.

 Since the 30’s various “Horse Racing” games have employed the double groove to bring in the random element that you can bet money on.  Examples of which can be seen here
The first vinyl release I can find is a 7” 45rpm on the RCA Victor label by “The Fontane Sisters” called “Fortune Teller Song”. Released in 1951, on what became known at the time as magic records, this contains four different endings depending on which of the four grooves your stylus fell into. 

The earliest stereo records were also produced using concentric grooves and a special double stylus; one groove had the right channel and the rest you can work out for yourself. These were little more than test pressings that were quickly superseded by the single stereo groove in 1957. 

The first concentric groove record I bought was on a 12” 45rpm. “Pop Music” by  “M” was released in 1979, side 1 contained the A side “Pop Music” and  the B side “M Factor” on the coin flip concentric groove which must have driven DJ’s mad. Side two had a single groove with a disco mix of “Pop Music” (bravo chaps).
Throughout the eighties various 7, 10 and 12 inch records were released with various combinations of concentric groove. The prize for the most however goes to the octo-groove flexi disc issued with Mad Magazine in 1980. It’s not Lennon & McCartney standard song writing, but hats off for getting 8 grooves on a flexi disc.  

The latest and bravest use of a concentric groove is on Side 2 of Jack White’s Lazaretto, which for the first song starts off on concentric grooves, giving you either an acoustic or electric intro before the stylus is corralled into a single groove for the rest of the song. It almost works! With the acoustic version it plays through fine, only with the electric intro is there a small repeat of the word “just”, but full marks for effort. It would have worked better if the whole track was on concentric grooves and merged quietly between the banding. 

However many grooves you find, enjoy them, and if nothing else, next time a smart alec tries to assert their cleverness on you with the question "how many grooves are there on a record" you can tell them.

*This was only on the real second side of the original pressings and it’s quite plausible that it could have taken many more plays to discover this extra material. In fact there may be some who still haven’t discovered this. 

Matching Tie & Handkerchief on the Charisma Label
Side 1 - Matrix / Runout (Runoff A): CAS 1080 A-1U
Side 2 - Matrix / Runout (Runoff B): CAS 1080 B-1U A PORKY RAY ADVENTURE
And yes, Porky Ray is the infamous George "Porky" Peckham, one of the finest master disc cutters in the land.