Reference Recordings Returns to Vinyl With a Bang!

Note: the review below was written and posted before we received a technical note that was supposed to have been included in the review LP. The note from Reference Vice President Marcia Martin says there were both analog and digital masters of this production. When the analog tape is still in good condition it will be used as the source for these new Reference Mastercut LPs. In this case and for From the Age of Swing the analog tapes were transferred to 176.4kHz/24 bit digital and the file was used to cut the lacquer. This is safer, Ms. Martin says, when dealing with older tapes.

She writes, "Some purists will worry about this, but from our testing and listening the sound is not degraded at all, due to the high resolution of the digital transfer, played back through the incredibly accurate (to 1 part per million) Pacific Microsonics Model Two converter."

Engineer Johnson adds "Also, session takes, the "masters," almost always need some balance and EQ work. When we made LPs in the 1970s-1990s, we used analogue master tape, consoles and analogue circuits and almost always, some adjustments or settings were made and documented during the cutting process. We still have the option of running our original equipment, the three channel analogue tape recorder I built my first year in college as well as discrete-circuit parametric EQ. We can re-create the historically accurate analogue system and documented post-production changes we made for our early LP releases. 

However, now we find varying amounts of transient edge losses that over tens of years have taken life from most of these analogue recordings. We were very fortunate to choose a raw tape stock that has held up physically very well, so we don't have a situation where past LPs could sound better than master tapes in the vault. These days, we can make subtle corrections that employ high-resolution time domain processes to reduce degrading edge smear and to restore playback accuracy from analogue masters.

Paul Stubblebine and I collaborated on the cutting lathe we are using. We created a direct cutter feed system that operates without the superfluous circuitry and the many electrical interactions one finds in traditional cutting systems. The system we use is designed for half-speed cutting, and each channel operates with just three analogue amplification devices. Simplicity and inherent stress-free operation allows the mechanical and electrical parts of the cutting chain to impart well-defined groove walls that are free of motional artifacts. Microscopes show all parts, top to bottom, move together. Then precise tracking and resolution are possible from a good cartridge.

Both features require high-resolution digital file processing and now that this capability is at hand, a more complete and precise post-production is possible. We can restore life, cut a better LP and be more resourceful. These days, Digital Signal Processing can be superior to older methods, particularly the analogue equalization we had used in the past. Consequently, the improvements we have encountered so far are much greater than any conversion artifacts from the Microsonics digital converters. Test cuts on the new series we have examined are technically and sonically superior to the original masterings.—ed.


Back in the "old days" (as in the 1980's) one could count on Reference Recordings to regularly issue musical and sonic spectaculars on vinyl, usually pressed in Japan. Reference demanding the highest quality in everything it did, from the musicians to the engineers. Most were recorded by the now legendary (actually he was always legendary) Keith O. Johnson using a custom-built R2R analog tape recorder.

But some were also recorded by the legendary Elite Recordings team of Marc J. Aubort and the late Joanna Nikrenz, including a wonderful series featuring Leonard Slatkin and The Saint Louis Orchestra recorded at Powell Hall. Some were issued at 45rpm well before that became popular. If you ever see an older Reference Recordings LP in the used bins (I never have) pick it up even if you think you don't like classical music (there are some jazz titles too) because the sonics will knock you down.  

When it could no longer get the pressing quality it demanded and as the market for vinyl seemed to be waning, the company stopped issuing vinyl but continued recording and issuing music on CD—with many productions recorded digitally at 176/24 using custom built electronics designed by a Keith O. Johnson led team. Somewhere trapped inside the pressed polycarbonate were great recordings looking for an escape hatch.

With the advent of high resolution digital downloads and USB DACs, Reference was able to market full resolution, master quality recordings with its HRx series but the company was built upon a vinyl foundation and the folks at Reference always hoped they could find a way back if only...

If only demand returned and if only a reliably quiet pressing plant could meet their needs.

Well, that time is now, with the release of this album and another one, a reissue of Dick Hyman's From the Age of Swing (RM-1501), which was originally pressed on vinyl back in 1994. 

While RM-1501 was recorded in both analog and digital, I suspect this "Firebird Suite"/"Song of the Nightingale" was a high resolution digital production and that this LP was cut from that source. I suspect that because while other Reference Records say "A Prof. Johnson Pure Analogue Recording." Ones recorded by Elite have an "AAA" on the jacket and recording information. This one has neither.

But don't let that stop you!

Keith O. Johnson is a brilliant engineer in whatever format he's using and 176/24 is very "analog-like" even if it's not realy analog. And I suspect the D/A converter used to produce the analog signal that drove the cutter head surpasses the one you've got at home. 

So in typical Keith O. Johnson fashion, this Firebird plays out on an enormously wide soundstage that you'll experience from a comfortably mid-hall seating position that will allow you to experience the grand sweep of Stravinsky's ballet. You're not going to be watching it, but you might as well be, so evocative is the piece. The rhythms are erratic, the instrumentation and harmonic structure unusual, and the orchestral dynamics explosive. Even if you think you don't iike classical music, you'll be able to pull a film score out of your head listening to this and if you read the annotation that describes what you're hearing, so much the better. 

Assuming your system does deep bass, there's a big bass drum hit that will scare the shit out of you and once the adrenalin flows, the piece  will snap into focus. It also has the advantage of being a short twenty minute or so ride since this is the revised "suite" version and not the original longer ballet. "The Song of the Nightingale" is equally evocative and short. It's also a gorgeous piece of music.

I've heard other Keith O. Johnson recordings that exhibit greater transparency and especially instrumental layering and three-dimensionality and I attribute that to the digits—call me a "digiphobe" but this is still a sonic spectacular and the performance while not quite as light and feathery as the complete ballet version by  Dorati and the LSO on Mercury, which remains the "gold standard" for many, is still first rate.

As for the pressing, it's a 200g record pressed at Chad Kassem's Quality Record Pressings using the plant's completely refurbished and rebuilt FineBuilt hand press. Yes, these are pressed by hand and the results are incredible. My copy was not "hand selected". It was sealed like all of them.

The opening section is extremely quiet musically—and the first minute or so of a 200g LP is the most difficult to press quietly—yet the copy I got was absolutely dead, black silent...just like Japanese pressed records were back in the "old days."

Highly recommended, digitally sourced or not.

Music Direct Buy It Now

oregonpapa's picture

Michael ... 

How would you compare the performance with the "Stravinsky conducts Stravinsky" recording on Columbia? For my tastes, I haven't heard a performance that tops the Columbia, including the Mercury. 

mundsoln's picture

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