Re-Assessing RVG

Sorry. This is not another Beatles thread.

A while ago I put up two posts about Rudy Van Gelder’s CDs, ‘RVG: Genius or Just Lucky’ and ‘Beating the RVG Horse’, suggesting that his recordings are really over-rated. Listening to the newer CD reissues is frustrating, with such high quality performances and such mediocre engineering. His catalog of music is astounding, including most of the Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse recordings of the 1950’s and 60’s.

First, let me start out by saying that you can’t turn Van Gelder recordings into miracle CDs. The piano still sounds like an upright recorded on its side in a closet, and the stereo recordings often have a very hard-panned left/right effect with the instruments. They rarely sound particularly natural. They are what they are. There are better jazz recordings from the era, notably IMHO the Contemporary Label.

However, I recently made some changes to my system that had a significant positive impact on the sound of these recording and I thought I’d share the results. First I swapped out my CD player and cables from a Jolida JD100 to a Cambridge 840C, and from Audioquest Copperheads to Nordost Blue Heavens. The clarity of the recordings improved immensely.

The final change though was the most significant. I adjusted my speaker position of my Spendor S8es so that instead of having them toed in directly at my seat, they are now on a crossing axis about four feet IN FRONT of my chair. The effects was not at all subtle. Scale, both width and height actually grew, maybe not in absolute width, but certainly in presenting a more natural soundstage. On recordings with hard-panned stereo imaging the effect was reduced. Stage Depth, not something Rotel components are good at, also improved.

Suddenly recordings like Bobby Hutcherson’s Stick Up, and Wayne Shorter’s Adams Apple sound really good. Not like the best audiophile recordings, but very nice indeed. A few of them still suffer from bad CD glare: The Ultimate Blue Train is really bright (and smoked by the 45RPM vinyl on every level) and A Love Supreme, while presenting a better image is also harsh sounding. Donald Byrd’s Byrd in the Hand is really good. Horns and cymbals sound great. That piano is hopeless on virtually every recording. Can you imagine recording Duke Ellington and NOT making the piano sound great?

I’ve really been enjoying these RVG recordings. There are a few clunkers, but for the most part they’ve become a staple in my listening rotation. Not nearly as bad as I thought they were.
You can't judge RVG's recordings by CD issues. Furthermore, if you do you must be careful about which ones you use. Have you noticed the differences between the early ca. 1987 Ron McMaster issues, the SBM Connoisseur series of the 90s and 2000s, Mosaic issues, and the current RVG series? Not to mention the current hybrid SACDs from the same series as the 45rpm vinyl. There are vast differences in compression, eq, and stereo spread.

For most audiophiles, RVGs are the worst sounding CD versions (though the 1987 ones suffer from poor converters). The favored issues, up to the Music Matters and Analogue Productions versions, have been the 1990s Japanese 20-bit remasters in the TOCJ series.
Yeah I also have critized these for there lack of quality sonics. As a jazz lover who listens to CD's, I've tried to avoid buying the Blue Note RVG's but always end up buying one more. There are just too many great jazz performances in the RVG series that are "must haves" if you're a jazz lover, bad remasters notwithstanding. Just no getting around it unless you're going to pay for the high dollar import CD's and I refuse (so far). Maybe if I get my system on a higher level of performance I'd be willing to pay more for some of the Japanese re-masters.
The few vinyl reissues that I have are excellent, but $50 a pop is a lot of money for a record. I understand that someone is issuing XRCDs of old Blue Notes shortly. That will be worth checking out.
Grimace The Hoffman 45 RPM re-ish series seems a bargain at $50 a pop.Compared to $30 price of many new LPs which 90% likely have digital somewhere in the chain.So what's the point of buying that on vinyl?The way the Steelers are playing,were I you,I'd be stacking up excellent vinyl to keep my spirits up.Just saying.
Your post raises the interesting question: Is it the CD that's bad, or is it my system?

Most of us with significant investments in equipment would rather blame the CD, and we usually do.

I think the truth is it's almost always the equipment that's the problem.
There is an inherent imbalance on all the Van Gelder stereo Blue Note recordings.This is by microphone set up during recording.By creating the "Blue Note" sound the same set up was used on almost all the sessions.In the "mix" the piano ends up in the center of the recording on virtually all sessions,the horns (say a trumpet and a saxophone) each share a separate channel with the bass on the left and the drums on the right.You have a nice balanced sound during ensemble passages and when the trumpet solos-you hear the trumpet on the left channel and the drums on the right,then the saxophone solos and the left channel drops out and creates a gaping imbalance.This is repeated over and over again by Van Gelder.Just listen to a mono BlueNote vs. a stereo and it will sound like a different record.
I am not criticizing Rudy,it is what it is.Other recordings by him for other labels at the time tend to favor a different set up,and listen to any Van Gelder session over the last 20 years and the recordings are balanced and very good.These classic,as we refer to them now,sessions were held in a few hours with a tight schedule and budget,little rehearsal and a "factory" like approach.It is a testimonial to the talent of the artists to have created something so lasting and important out of these circumstances.It was just the way it was done and the players knew how to deal with it and make the best of it.
Speaking with Maureen Sickler this past December in New York i addressed this microphone set up situation and the end result on record.Maureen has worked as Rudy's assistant on many sessions and her husband,trumpeter Don Sickler has recorded extensively at the Van Gelder studio.These classic Blue Note sessions were before her time but she knows the material well and replied "All those sessions were done so quickly and there just wasn't time" The magic on those records came together in 3 or 4 hour sessions and like some amazing burst of energy,imagination and artistry burned like a comet and then died out.What remains is a priceless legacy,continually re investigated, reborn with each generation,and with each rebirth the "need" to screw with the sound of the music.Please leave the music alone and enjoy it for what it is.We will not see it's likes again.
JimJoyce - in the case of RVG recordings I'd have to disagree. Jazzcourier is absolutely right. There are the odd RVG recordings that are more naturally mixed - Coltrane's Blue Trane comes to mind - but for the most part they were recorded as described.
Grimace: Your initial post talks about sound quality: glare, brightness, etc.

Jazzcourier's post is about mixing.

I responded to your post: I'm talking about sound quality, not mixing. Very few systems are going to get the mixing wrong. In contrast, most systems do get the sound quality wrong.

In initially thinking that the RVG recordings had bad sound quality, you wrongly ascribed the poor sound on your system to the recordings, when it fact you now acknowledge it was due to your system.

I think this happens a lot.
To follow up Jimjoyce25, on more than one occasion my system has been altered to get the most out of a given recording. My assumptions, so far correct, are that the recording is right and my system has some problems getting it right, maybe now it may be close to 50/50 but it takes time to get this far.
Sorry if I wasn't clear. As I said in the original post, for the most part the sound quality has gotten pretty good in my system, except for that horrid piano. That doesn't make them great recordings the way, say, Jazz at the Pawnshop or a good Telarc CD is good. RVG staging is - at least of this era - is very unnatural sounding, for all the reasons stated above.

As far as the CDs are concerned, many of them sound pretty good, given their inherent limitations. There are a couple that stand out as bright CDs (Ultimate Blue Trane and Love Supreme)but I think that has more to do with the pressings, and I don't think they'd be much better in another system unless the highs were being rolled off. I can think of at least one, Jackie McKlean's Devil's Dance that's just downright unlistenable.

I'm not suggesting that I now think these are great feats of recording engineering, but they sound better in my system now than I previously thought them capable of sounding.