I get a lot of questions about first pressings of records. Specifically, “Are the first versions of an album more valuable?” And, “Do first pressings sound better?”
The answer to the first question is yes. First pressings of a vinyl record are generally more desirable. They’re seen as more “authentic,” and so vinyl lovers will generally pay more for that first edition. If there’s anything unique about that album — a special cover, a sticker, a band poster or an insert — it’s going to be in that first pressing. Record companies are cheap, so on subsequent pressings, those goodies are not always going to be included. So yes, first pressings generally command a better price. You can check out our video on valuing your records for a more in-depth discussion of how to determine which pressing you have.
What About the Sound?
The second question is: Do first pressings sound better? Is the audio quality better? The answer to that question is a big … it depends. Big picture, a first pressing is not automatically a guarantee of audio quality. Why? Because a lot of things have to happen for a record to sound great. A great-sounding record has a full dynamic range (you can hear everything from the lowest lows to the highest highs). There is also good frequency separation (not a muddy, jumbled mass of sound). For example, the vocals aren’t buried behind the drums. And finally, there are no extraneous sounds. No hisses and pops or audio nasties baked into the mix. One of my favorite albums, The Who Live At Leeds, is as legendary for its raw power as it is for its raw sound. The band used a sub-par mobile recording unit for the shows, and the result was crackles and pops throughout the original tapes. This resulted in the now-famous “Crackling Noises Ok – Do Not Correct” note on the record label (see image). Later remasterings of this classic 1970 release removed the offending noises. Yet, to me, Live At Leeds is the hands-down best live record of all time … because it sounds live (crackles and all)!
A Master Class in Mastering
So, what makes a particular pressing sound good? Well, the biggest variable in how good a record sounds is how it was mastered. The recording master is the metal plate that stamps out all those globs of hot vinyl into a record. Actually, before it’s a metal master, it’s a lacquer disc (see “The Plating Process” infographic at the end of this article). Basically, a mastering engineer uses a special lathe — a cutting head— to transform all those sound waves into grooves on a master disc. It’s a super-critical step in making a great-sounding record — so important that mastering engineers get their name on the album, right alongside the band and the producer. The mastering process is ultimately where an album’s overall dynamic and spectral balance is sculpted and polished. Mastering engineers also address more straightforward issues, like removing tongue clicks and vocal hiss. “Sibilance” is what they call it (the worst offenders are S, T and Z sounds). So, a good mastering engineer is blessed with both technical expertise and superb ears.
A Good Source Master Makes a Great Record, Every Time
Big picture, good mastering maximizes what an analog LP does best — create warm, natural and realistic sounding music. Some mastering engineers make a name for themselves by producing such excellent sounding records that aficionados will actually seek out their pressings. If you want to find out who mastered a particular record, just check the code in the runout, or “dead wax,” area of the vinyl.
A lot of time, the mastering engineer will actually hand etch their name or initials, or put some kind of message in there. Big names in mastering include Kevin Gray (KG), Lee Hulko (LH), Rudy Van Gelder (RVG), Bernie Grundman (BG) and George Peckham (Pecko Duck). Copies of Led Zeppelin’s second album with Robert Ludwig’s initials (RL) are especially prized because his original “hot mix” of Zeppelin II is considered the definitive pressing. Legend has it, he cut the album with so much bass that the needle jumped out of the groove on cheap turntables. People returned their records, thinking they were defective, and Atlantic Records brought in another mastering engineer to tame down the mix.
So, Where Does It Goes Wrong?
Ultimately, there are a ton of things that can impact the audio quality of a record. The stamper that stamps out all those discs is under ridiculous pressure. It might pick up scratches and flaws as the run progresses and press them into the record. There could be issues with the lacquer master — even the quality of the pellets that are melted down to form the glob of hot vinyl. All those things can make one pressing sound markedly different than another. As those records are re-issued, different pressings start floating around. A really popular record like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or The Eagles’ Hotel California or a Beatle’s record may be repressed a dozen times. Those pressings might sound dramatically better or dramatically worse than the first pressing — or there may be no discernible difference.
Dig Deep for the Best Sound
So, how do you find out about different pressings? The easiest place to find this kind of information is on a website like Discogs. Just decipher the code in the runout (the center of the record) and start digging. Audiophile forums, stereo magazines and fan forums like Reddit are another place to go. And if you’re buying an album online, there will often be some discussion of audio quality in the reviews and comments section. Warning: It can get kinda geeky to follow an endless debate about the virtues of one pressing over another.
So again, a first pressing is no guarantee of audio quality. It might be an amazing sounding record — and probably will be. But then again, the next pressing might be the better pressing. You just have to do your research.
Until next time, keep ’em spinning!