Phono Equalization B.S. Continues!

A recently posted review of a phono preamp on a website that is not deserving of mention here once again makes the specious claim that curves other than the RIAA were used in the mastering of stereo records. This is simply not true.

Yes you can use these pre-stereo curves such as the Capitol, Columbia and FFRR on stereo records but they will be used as TONE CONTROLS and just because one might make a particular album sound 'better' does not mean it is the correct playback curve!

The review asserts " but records from Deutsche Grammophon, Capitol, Angel, EMI, Decca/London, and Columbia all have unique characteristics that require their own specific EQ curves to sound best."

This is bologna! In the stereo era Capitol mastering used the RIAA curve. PERIOD. As did Decca/London! How do I know that? I ASKED Ron McMaster as he sat at the mastering board in Capitol's mastering suite. As for London/Decca you can just LOOK at the jackets. They say "use the RIAA curve" but if that's not enough for you, I asked veteran Decca mastering engineer George Bettyes who mastered between 1957 and 1972. If you have a London/Decca record whose lacquer number is followed by the letter "L" George Bettyes did the cut.

He told me IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS that there is NO SUCH THING as the "FFSS" curve. "FFSS was a marketing tool like 'Living Stereo' or 'Living Presence'. It is NOT an EQ curve." He also insisted that Decca used the RIAA curve. On another subject of contention he also told me that Decca and London records were identical. I was sent a production order for a classical title that backed up that claim.

As for the notion that the Columbia curve used in the early LP days for mono LP playback (and useful for those records today) somehow continued being used in the stereo era, this too is simply NOT TRUE. I received this from someone who was there:

"When Sony closed 54th Street, we discovered a large amount of old Columbia documentation. Binders full of memos, schematics, etc... I've taken it upon myself to scan all of these documents for posterity. I came across one that answered the burning RIAA/Columbia curve question from a few months ago.

It was a document from William (Bill) Buchman, Director of Electronic Engineering and Research. He states some general facts about the Columbia curve and how the competition has tried to alter their curves to mimic the Columbia curve. This has forced a standard to arise, the RIAA curve, which is identical to the NARTB standard.

He plots a graph to show the similarities and discusses the differences between the two. He goes on to state that the differences in production can account for a greater difference than the difference between the two curves (italics mine).

And here's the kicker...He says the RIAA curve is ideal for playback of Columbia LPs and that a gradual change over to RIAA should be carried out without distinguishing the differences between the RIAA and Columbia pressings.

This document is not dated, but it's wedged in between a memo from 1955 and 1956.

I feel this is the document which clarifies that Columbia dropped their curve in the mid-50's and quietly gravitated toward the RIAA curve and was not using the proprietary curve in the 70's."

Yet there are still deluded individuals claiming that Columbia used its own curve into the '70's and '80's even though at that point much of Columbia's cutting was farmed out to independent mastering houses, which means these deluded individuals are basing their conclusions on the COLUMBIA LABEL being slapped on the record.

And then there was this, which came directly from a veteran Columbia mastering engineer:

I can absolutely, positively say, there was no "Columbia curve" (in use during the stereo era). I suggest whoever came up with this BS should stop smoking crack and get down to earth, take a walk in Central Park and smell some fresh air. Is this the case of another clueless as...le trying to write the book about the music business, while working at the Good Year Tire Center changing oil full time? Tell that Columbia was doing the same thing every other studio was doing: using RIAA curve, period. This has to be the most ridiculous crap I have ever heard."

The review goes on to claim that Vanguard, Motown, Pablo, Prestige, Impulse! Roulette and other labels require specific curves.

Vanguard and Motown records were originally mastered by RCA. There is ZERO difference between an original Vanguard and an original Motown and an RCA "Living Stereo", which absolutely positively used the RIAA curve. Second Vanguard pressings (orange label) were mostly mastered at Columbia. The paper label color means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. You cannot decide the appropriate curve based on the "label". Pablo was also manufactured and distributed by RCA but many Pablos were mastered at Kendun. Check your Pablos. Again the label means NOTHING.

Prestige, Impulse! and others listed in this review were mostly mastered by Rudy Van Gelder ("RVG" or "Van Gelder"). His lathe cut Blue Notes too. The only difference is the label art. How can label art determine EQ curve???? All were cut using the RIAA curve. Roulette? Mostly cut at Bell Sound. RIAA curve too. Interesting lathe according to lathe guru Sean Davies but RIAA.

Prestige OJC series were cut by George Horn at Fantasy. They were cut using the RIAA curve not some "fantasy" curve for Prestige records.

Do you want to know why audiophiles get a bad rap in some circles? You have your answer.

Ortofan's picture

it's u-l-t-r-a. My bologna has a second name, it's a-u-d-i-o.

The review of the Zanden phono preamp in question mentions that the designer, Kazutoshi Yamada, has "conducted extensive additional research, gathering documents, speaking with experts..." about EQ curves.

Although your research appears to be quite definitive, maybe Yamada would be willing to disclose the names of the "experts" he consulted and share those documents with you so that you can compare notes and either verify or disprove his sources of information.

Michael Fremer's picture
You are correct on all counts. I have great respect for Mr. Yamada's phono preamps other than his EQ opinions, which are illogical unless something is lost in translation. I mean, how can you make definitive statements about the label "Vanguard" when the same record is first mastered by RCA and then by Columbia? That's just for starters. I'm sure at CES I can talk with him or his American importer. I hope they will be more gracious to me than some are about opinions (in this case facts) I've expressed. It can get ugly as it did during an encounter at the New York Audio Show, However, I'm well-prepared.
Ortofan's picture

...(aka preamp) tends to corroborate your findings about Colombia adopting the RIAA EQ curve sometime about the mid-1950s. One of the lever controls on this preamp has positions identified as 'old 78', 'RIAA' and 'old Col LP'. The manual - dated April 1959 - advises that "the 'RIAA' [position] is correct for almost all records of the last few years, including stereo disks. Many of the earlier playback curves can be very closely approximated with minor adjustment of the tone controls. The 'Old Columbia LP' position should be used with those earlier LP discs which were recorded to this curve."

Audiocrack's picture

Mister Fremer, have you actually listened to the Zanden phonostage under controlled circumstances? I have been using my Zanden 1200 mk III phono with various high quality turntables such as the Forsell and DaVinci Audio Gabriel mk II (and top cartridges like Koetsu coral stone and Lyra olympos) for many years and the differences of the various curves on certain records of eg sixties and seventies Decca and Emi recordings are profound. Differences relate to eg tonality, dynamics, soundstaging. I cannot explain why these differences can be heard on some of these Decca and Emi recordings while other Decca and Emi recordings fare better with the riaa curve. But the differences using different curves (and phase shifting btw) are quite obvious. So I am wondering if your view is based on listening test?

Michael Fremer's picture
Yes I reviewed a Zanden phono stage but that it's a Zanden is not the issue. Any phono stage with various curves will produce the results you obtained just as will any set of tone controls. EQ curves only affect tonal balance. They have nothing whatsoever to do with dynamics or sound staging other than as byproducts of tonal shifts. Phase shift (better called "polarity") is another subject entirely and has NOTHING whatsoever to do with EQ curves. Simply miked recordings in particular can produce profound sonic changes by changing polarity. But again, that has nothing whatsoever to do with curves. My opinion here is based on FACTS not "listening tests". As I said at the outset, if you like the sound of a particular record better using the wrong EQ curve that's your choice but in no way should you confuse your preference with that somehow being the correct curve for that label!
Jazzfan62's picture

I recently picked up an iPhono and am really diggin it. It has some of this curve adjustment as well. I have messed around with it, but it never sounds "right" when I move it from the RIAA curve. It sounds different, to be sure, but never right. I tube roll all of the time and can see how some might prefer the sound of the characteristic of one tube over another. Sometimes I swap them out to get something different. This curve stuff, however, is not like that. I can't imagine anyone preferring anything other than the RIAA setting.

Michael Fremer's picture
Some have more fanciful imaginations than do you!
Jazzfan62's picture

What I did like was hearing the difference. It is interesting, I suppose, to be able to switch away from RIAA and hear It's effect....even though the switch will never get used again.

Catcher10's picture

I would rather see a list of albums that were mastered with a non-RIAA curve. That should eliminate any confusion, I imagine the list is rather short after the 1960's and may not be relevant anymore

Michael Fremer's picture
Mono Columbias, London/Deccas, Capitols and others from the mono era used their own curves. Those MONOS will sound better played back using the correct curve!
jmlattu's picture

I would really like to know a little more detailed information about those different labels' mono curves, like, when they switched to RIAA and what is the timeframe for the "mono era".

Regards from Finland

Barretter's picture

I read your comment this morning and totally concur with your comments on all the nonsense talked about non-RIAA equalization continuing way after 1955, even into the 1970s. Then I went out and picked the October issue of Stereophile where Herb Reichert regurgitates the nonsense. Talk about irony! You must be somewhat galled

Ian M. Gordon's picture

Thank you for your information about the RIAA curve. I am wondering if there has been a publication of the mono curve specifications for pre RIAA mono releases that you could share based on non-Columbia labels? I never knew, for example, that Capitol Records did that and thick original pressings sound very rich and wonderful with the right equipment. I can imagine the improvement with a mono cartridge and the right preamp settings. Great information to be shared with my audio society.

BOBo's picture

Thank You Michael for not mincing words here to set the "Record" straight. I have had several customers lately who questioned why our store didn't sell "High End" phono stages that used other than the RIAA curve. I have tried unsuccessfully to politely explain this issue, but to no avail. Luckily, you can use stronger language in print than I can use in our store. Keep up your great work!
Robert G. Bobo, Jr. / Overture Ultimate Audio Video

dhyman's picture

fremer, just because someone tells you something doesn't mean it's true! :) there are no such things as facts. everything is conjecture. who knows? maybe those eq curves are certain records are the right curves. i get wrong answers from experts in the know every day.

dhyman's picture

this is about roy gregory! :)

Barretter's picture

Yes, and he's at it again in the new issue of Hifi Plus in his review of the Karan phono preamp. As far as I can tell he now seems to think that the only LPs cut with RIAA are "post 1980s pop and 180gm reissues". Apparently any other LPs in your collection are possible non-RIAA pressings but it seems to be quite random. It also appears that using RIAA decoding inappropriately totally destroys the musicality of an LP rather than changing its timbral balance a bit. I don't know why HiFi Plus continues to publish this rubbish.

Michael Fremer's picture
But more, I don't know why Roy continues spouting this rubbish because surely he knows better.
Barretter's picture

I think the current editor of Hi-Fi+ is very protective of his predecessor. I did write to them about RG's review of the Zanden phono preamp but they put up the defence of one sentence in Peter Copeland's Manual of audio restoration, viz., "If anything could go wrong, it did go wrong" as if Large companies like Decca and EMI would just allow their employees free rein as to whether they conformed to the standard the company had espoused. I think you nailed the Decca case with the statement on the back of London (US) issues saying "Use the RIAA curve" and this is reinforced by these words on the back of the "Decca stereophonic frequency test record" (SXL 2057, published in 1958): "Frequency curve within +/- 1/2dB of the RIAA (B.S.1928:1955) characteristics".
Now RG makes much of the "EMI" curve on the Karan preamp saying it rescues a "postage stamp" pressing of ASD 2305 (Barbirolli : English tone pictures". It would be interesting to have his reaction to an article on pp.439-40 of the April 1956 (yes 1956) issue of Gramophone magazine entitled "HMV, Columbia and Parlophone recording and replay characteristics". The key sentences are "The recording characteristics used by the EMI Record Division have been stabilized, and since no change is contemplated in the future, so far as can be foreseen, the information given here can be used with complete confidence. Microgroove 331/3 and 45 rpm: The replay characteristic for microgroove recordings is the sum of a 75 microsecond top fall, a 318 microsecond bass rise, and a 3180 microsecond bass fall", precisely the RIAA (B.S.1928:1955) standard.
I have similar evidence which gainsays any so-called "Teldec" curve being used for DGG stereo (or even Telefunken stereo) disc but I have taken enough space.

Ortofan's picture meet with Mr. Yamada (or the importer of his products) at CES to reconcile your differing viewpoints on the various EQ curves?

Michael Fremer's picture
Yes. I visit their room every CES. There's no reconciling our differences but we keep it cordial. How can Prestige and Blue Notes use different curves when they are mastered by RVG on the same lathe? How can "Vanguard" have a curve when they are mastered at various places including RCA, Columbia and elsewhere, etc.?
T W Huning's picture

I wonder how many people can actually hear the difference and tell when the playback curve does not precisely match the cutting curve? If one is using the exact EQ curve, what about the response of the cartridge? Is it perfectly flat? The loudspeakers or headphones? Perfectly flat and uncolored? After reading about equalization curves used for 78's, I concluded that for listening to 78's the RIAA curve was close enough for me, and that trying to find the precise playback curves would for me be a waste of time. By the way, Mr. Fremer, could you tell me how to connect my stereo cartridge for playback of vertically cut discs? Thank you.