Absolute Phase / Polarität


Absolute Polarity
[Stan keeps a Hewlett-Packard Model 130C oscilloscope centered in his
playback area. He uses it to check amplitude, phase, channel balance and,
yes, absolute polarity. He finds it to be an invaluable tool.]
Dave: The very first thing we did today when I arrived at your place was to
listen for absolute polarity and do a little demo of that.
Stan: With one of Jan-Eric Persson's recordings. We played "Nobody's Blues
But Mine" and we played "Black Beauty." These are from Thomas Ornberg's Blue
Five, Opus 3, No. 9102 and Opus 3, No.8003, respectively. And the sonic
differences there are very evident when flipping the absolute polarity
switch on the Parasound D2000 D-A converter.
Dave: You could quite clearly hear the difference. Your favorite test of
absolute polarity is trumpet, correct?
Stan: It's certainly, for me, the easiest; any instrument that produces a
sawtooth or highly
non-symmetrical waveform will work. And the trumpet [or trombone] is so easy
because your hearing acuity is highest in the mid band, which is where these
sounds live. I remember one time helping a friend of mine here in town.
Tommy Pearl has a band here called The Burners, and it's basically like a
Chicago group. It's a rock band with brass [trombones and trumpets] and
saxophones in it. Tommy plays very good trumpet. He had this sound system
that was really quite good and I remember one time I was helping him get set
up at the Officer's Club, and he was playing his trumpet. Every time he
played his solo into one particular mic (pinching his nose) "it just sounded
like this." And he was having the guys run around back stage trying things
with EQ and gain structure and everything else. And he couldn't get that
really bad sound out. He took a break and he came down to where I was
sitting; we were talkin' and I said, "Tommy, I think you've got a polarity
inversion in that one cable." And he said, "Yeah, 'ya think so? Would that
make a difference?" And I said, "Yeah, you can you blow on your trumpet, and
the wave form is a sawtooth wave. You've got almost nothing here on the zero
volts line and then you've got these big spikes that go up. But they don't
go down below the zero-line. They just look like the dorsal fins on a
dinosaur, 'ya know." [Stan now knows that real dinosaurs, as opposed to
cartoon dinosaurs, didn't have dorsal fins, thanks to his friend Robert.
Even the dimetrodon had but one "sail" on its prodigious back...]
"Now," I said to Tommy, "if you can imagine yourself suckin' on your trumpet
to produce the polarity inversion of that, the negative going, that's what
coming out of the loudspeaker." (Pinching his nose again) "It sounded really
bad!" So he put in another cable and, "Wow-wee." It was there. Just 'ya
know, like Clark Johnsen'd say, "the difference between night and day." And
yes, it was, it absolutely was. It's something that literally everybody in
that band was able to hear, whether he was the drummer, or the keyboardist,
or anybody. And they were behind the loudspeaker system! Because the
loudspeaker system is along the front of the stage and they're all behind
it, they're only hearin' the back side radiation, and they could still hear
the difference!
Dave: Interesting, interesting. And I know that at the last two Sapphire
Club meetings I've been to at your kind invitation, it seems like everyone
there recognizes the value of absolute polarity. That should warm Clark's
heart. We could see that on your oscilloscope here, too.
Stan: Right, right. And I'm going to bring my string bass in here [the
cutting room] and set it up. It's got a pickup on it which I can plug into
the system and you can see the effect of downbow/upbow really, really
easily. And if you can see it, you can hear it. So we can record some of it
on the Panasonic SV-3800 DAT recorder and then play it back without the
effect of having the bass fiddle in the room.
Dave: You were talking earlier about piano recording and absolute polarity,
and how that ought to be done.
Stan: Piano is a peculiar instrument in that if you look at the way the
hammers attack the strings, the hammers come from in front, if it's an
upright or spinet-type instrument. They attack from the viewpoint of the
performer or the observer; they hit the strings, causing them to depart from
the listener. The string's first shock wave going at the sound board is in
the same direction, so when you look at the spikes on a piano that have been
recorded with microphones from in front of [at the player's location] the
instrument, you see a lot of negative-going energy. That's what we saw in
that one recording of the Ornberg Five, there from the Opus 3, where after
we reversed the absolute polarity, all the other instruments were
positive-going polarity, but when the piano did its solo, we saw
negative-going polarity. Now, if the microphone had been placed, if it's an
upright piano, at what we normally call the back side of the instrument, all
that would've been changed. Just turning the piano around 180 degrees or
miking from the backside would've alleviated that kind of problem. Some
folks would think that it's a minor thing, but it's one of those things
that, taken in totality with a whole bunch of other things, can make the
difference between really feeling like you're there and the feeling like,
I'm there but there's somethin' a little not quite right about this.
Concerning grand piano sound, the polarity goes the other [+] way because
the hammers strike the strings from underneath, displacing strings and
soundboard upward, presumably toward the mic diaphragm, giving positive
polarity at the output of a properly wired mic. And that gets us into this
positive polarity situation that I was talking to you about on the string
bass where the down bow and the up bow are of reverse polarity from one
another, which can clearly be seen on the oscilloscope.
One of the things that the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Eugene Ormandy, was
famous for, was the broad, rich string sound. Ormandy encouraged random
bowing in his string sections, especially on recording sessions, because he
knew that a down bow sounded different from an up bow. This is why, when you
want to accent a note, the composer/arranger writes it for a down bow. If he
wants three accented notes he'll write three successive down bows. Not down,
up, down. They sound different. They are different. And, not that the
musicians understand too much about the polarity of the output, but their
ears tell em, "Yeah, there's a difference in sound. I don't know why, but
there's a difference in sound and the down bow sound is what I want here."
If they want something quieter, like a quiet entrance to something, they'll
almost always specify an up bow. If they want something to enter gracefully,
its an up bow. It's an inverted polarity.

Liste invertierter Aufnahmen:
Miles Davis
Sketches of Spain
This record always sounded so thin and aggressive, with Miles' horn always somewhat pinched and sour, but now it sounds wonderful. Who knew this record could sound so good?

What Harry Thinks He Knows

Well, Harry Pearson maybe, since he put it on his TAS List not too long ago. Perhaps he knows what he's talking about for once, huh Mr. Smarty Pants critic of HP, MF and their audiophile ilk? (This refers to me of course.)

Actually, no, he doesn't know what he's talking about, because he apparently never noticed that Sketches of Spain is plainly, clearly, no-question-about-it OUT OF ABSOLUTE PHASE. Yes, his list of Superdiscs includes some Superdiscs that are out of phase and he doesn't even know it. (If he does know maybe he should consider sharing that information with his readers, no?)

What Those of Us Who Do Shootouts Know

Here's what we know. EVERY SIDE (with only one exception out of the twenty plus copies we played, a red label reissue with an in-phase side one) has its absolute phase reversed. I'm talking about Six Eye pressings, 360 Labels, Red Labels -- mono and stereo copies from every era have exactly the same phase reversal.

What Is This Absolute Phase You Speak Of? For thoughts on acoustical and electrical polarity, click here.

Reversed Phase Playback

We played all of these copies in the correct phase, which means reversed. Our comments reflect the fact that this record can sound amazing that way, and not so amazing when played back incorrectly. (This should go without saying, but we will say it anyway just so all the cards are on the table at the outset.)

Amazing Stereo

Mono versus stereo means tradeoffs, which are the ones everybody knows: less soundstage, depth and three-dimensionality than the stereo copies, but more palpable, solid, tonally correct sound to the instruments in mono. This copy managed to have the best of both worlds: solid instruments and super spacious sound. But only on side one. Side two was good -- A to A+ -- but not competitive with the best.

The sound of this recording when you get a Hot Stamper like this one is truly MAGICAL. (AMG has that dead right in their review below.) Tons of ambience, tubey magic all over the place, let's face it, this is one of those famous Columbia recordings that shows just how good the Columbia engineers were back then. The sound is lively but never strained. Davis's horn has breath and bite just like the real thing. What more can you ask for? Folks, it's all here!

Overall Sonic Grade:

Side One - A+++
Side Two - A+

Harry Belafonte  At Carnegie Hall

... than many of our early pressings, and the correct absolute phase means you don't have to go to any extra trouble to hear it sound just right.

I'm not going to say this has ALL the tubey magic of the very best originals, but it's sure got a good dose of it!
There's so much to like about the sound of this copy -- full-bodied vocals, amazing presence, cleaner sibilance, wonderful transparency, super low distortion and more. The sound is BIG, open, and spacious. We aren't used to hearing such shocking clarity on the early pressings, which tend to be a little smeary.
Side two was particularly good at A++, while the other sides were each just half a plus behind.

Score One for Harry Pearson

Harry Pearson brought this record to the attention of audiophiles with his TAS list a long time ago, and rightfully so: it's an amazing recording. This has to be, without a doubt, one of the greatest recordings of all time -- judged solely on the merits of its sonics of course. We happen to love the music of course, which makes it one of the most recommendable records we have ever offered. If you can find a better combination of demo disc sound, with music worth the hassle and expense of reproducing it properly, more power to you. We sure can't.
Because this is a live recording, because it has lots of natural instruments as well as a vocal, because it was recorded in the Golden Age by one of the greatest labels of all time, RCA -- for this and many other reasons, this has to be considered one of the most amazing recordings in the history of the world -- but only if you have the stampers that captured on vinyl the sound that the engineers recorded on tape.
Musically speaking, this is the pinnacle of popular music from that era. Belafonte has the audience in the palm of his hand for the entire concert. From an audiophile point of view, you get to hear live musicians and all the energy they bring to this music, all on the stage at the same time: strings, brass, percussionists and Harry Belafonte front and center. Tube mikes (and not too many of them), a tube tape recorder, RCA's superb engineering and all-tube mastering chain insure that the "breath of life" is captured intact. I know of no better live popular recording on the planet.

In Phase? Sure Thing!

When the phase is correct, from the opening brass fanfare until Harry Belafonte starts singing, the difference is immediate and dramatic. The brass has more weight, the strings are smoother and sweeter, there's a great deal more depth and ambience and most remarkable of all, when the audience starts applauding, it really sounds like applause. Without the phase correct the applause is aggressive, thin and grainy. In-phase the applause is rich, full and correct. As soon as Harry starts singing, not only does his voice sound better: richer, less sibilant, etc., but the orchestra is now correctly reproduced further behind him.
The recording is so good that even with the phase incorrect it's still excellent, which is probably why Harry, and no other audiophiles to my knowledge, have ever bothered to reverse the phase. Just for fun listen for the cough at the opening. Every time I make an improvement in my system that guy gets louder!

The best sounding versions we played are cut super-clean; the brass and strings have dead-on correct textures and timbres. Many of the originals (black labels, stampers under 10) have various kinds of distortions caused by crude mastering chains. These distortions prevent elements of the recording from coming to life the way they really should.
As good as some pressings are, the best pressings are clearly a step up in class. The brass has more weight and body and richness. Same with the strings. The voice gets fuller and sweeter and less sibilant, while still maintaining every nuance of detail. The presence is startling; Belafonte is absolutely in the room with you.

A Final Thought On Reversed Phase

If you suspect your copy has reversed phase, try this: Before you reverse the absolute phase, note whether the brass has a "pinched" quality, whether the applause is bright and aggressive, and note if Harry Belafonte has a "phasey", hollow sound to his voice. These are the signs. It's just plain unlistenable reversed once you hear what that does to the sound. (Keep in mind that many audiophile speakers are not especially phase-coherent, so if switching the phase doesn't do much, you have bigger problems than worrying about a Harry Belafonte record.)

How's The Vinyl?

Actually, it's not too bad. You can expect the occasional click or pop, but the music and sound are so wonderful that we doubt you'll mind. All sides here play mostly Mint Minus throughout, except for side four, which is between Mint Minus and Mint Minus Minus -- track two is a bit noisy. The disc with sides two and three os lightly warp, but that should not affect your playback. There are three loud ticks during the last song on side three.

The Classic Is Not Bad

How does the Classic heavy vinyl copy compare? It's been years since I played one, but I recall it being very good, and I'm pretty sure it's in correct absolute phase. The good RCA pressings are going to be dramatically better, but only the good ones. That's why we clean them and play them and let you know which ones are good -- it's the only way to get a Better Record.

Overall Sonic Grade:

Side One - A+ - A++
Side Two - A++
Side Three - A+ - A++
Side Four - A+ - A++

Vinyl Grade:
1) Mint Minus
2) mostly Mint Minus (ticky track four)
3) mostly Mint Minus (ticky track two, 3 loud ticks during track 5)
4) Mint Minus to Mint Minus Minus (noisy intro, second track is a bit noisy)
Cover Grade: 8 out of 10

Side One
Darlin' Cora
Sylvie Track Commentary
This is a wonderful song, sung by Belafonte with virtually no accompaniment. His voice should be rich and full-bodied with plenty of presence. In other words, he should sound like a living breathing person.
Cotton Fields Track Commentary
The liner notes say this song was introduced in the previous year in Las Vegas. Before I read that I noted that the uptempo arrangement has a jazzy feel to it. The walking bass is well up in the mix and the piano and few other instruments in the song are well behind -- it's pretty much Belafonte and bass. The bass is deep and very note like. (This is of course a big system record. Do not expect good results from small speakers.)
But what makes this one of the best Demo Quality tracks on the album is Belafonte's amazingly energetic performance. He really sells this song. As I was listening to the dynamics on this pressing, it makes me think about all the compressed to death vocals that are so much a part of the recording style of the modern era. Nobody gets loud anymore. Belafonte did back in 1959, and not too many followed him.
John Henry
Take My Mother Home
Side Two
The Marching Saints
Day O
Jamaica Farewell
Man Piaba
All My Trials
Side Three
Mama Look A Boo Boo
Come Back Liza
Man Smart (Woman Smarter)
Hava Nageela
Danny Boy
Merci Bon Dieu
Side Four
Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu Paloma

Pink Floyd
A Nice Pair (2 LPs)
This is a Minty Harvest British Import Double LP that combines the entire first two Pink Floyd albums: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets. It has some of the best sound we've ever heard for this music, and we...

Pink Floyd Atom Heart Mother
Eagles One Of These Nights
Dave Grusin Discovered Again

Kansas Left Overture
.. are those hard to find.) If you want a copy with killer sound on side one, where all the best music is anyway, this is the copy for you! It's their most consistent album, their masterpiece I might even venture to say, with BIG TIME ENERGY! This is the ROCK album they recorded; the average copy of Leftoverture only hints at the power of the band.
Folks, if you have the big speakers that a balls-to-the-walls rock record like this one demands, you are in for one serious audiophile quality prog rock experience. (Or is is Art Rock as the AMG likes to call it?) Wall to wall and floor to ceiling barely begins to do it justice. Like so many of the great rock recordings, the sound just JUMPS out of the speakers!
IF -- And Only If -- You Can Reverse Your Polarity
We discovered more than two years ago that the first track on side one is out of absolute phase. Here's what we wrote:
But last night (07/13/06) we made an AMAZING discovery. I was listening to another Sterling original, and the slightly aggressive, hi-fi-ish quality of the opening vocals made me think that maybe I had been putting up with a problem that I should have investigated further. What really sold me on the idea was listening to the vocals and noticing that the ambience was "disconnected" from the voices. It's hard to explain exactly what that sound is, but it's almost as if the ambience is added in on top of the voice instead of surrounding and resulting from the voice. I suspected reversed absolute phase.

Sure enough, WHAT A DIFFERENCE! Most of the phony processing on the vocals turned out to be a phase problem, not a recording problem. Now the echo and ambience around the voices sounded correct. The whole tonal balance of the recording shifted downwards, adding needed weight to the sound.

I remember really liking the sound of this album twenty years ago. Looking back, I wonder if my system was somehow reversed without me even knowing it. It stands to reason: I didn't know a lot of things back then that I know now. Hey, I only discovered the absolute phase of this recording a day ago. There's still plenty of interesting discoveries to be made it seems!

We owe a big "thanks for the heads up" to our good customer Chris Looby (proud owner of the previous Hottest Copy) who took the trouble to point out to us that only the first track on side one is reversed. (I hadn't bothered to get past that song once I determined that the phase needed correcting. Apologies for the oversight.)
RCA Living Stereo   Gilbert and Sullivan / Overtures / Ward
So one of two things was probably true. Either this was a bad stamper, or this record was mastered with its phase inverted. So I reversed the absolute phase in my system (which in my case is easiest to do by switching the headshell leads. The Triplanar arm makes it easy to get to the leads, thank goodness.) As soon as I dropped the needle, I heard the kind of sound I expected from this record -- big and beautiful.
Side two may be a little smoother and richer than side one. I would say side one is 90% as good as I've ever heard it.
The record plays M- most of the time. I should also note that if you don't have a good record of Gilbert and Sullivan's Overtures, you are really missing out. This is some of the most wonderful music ever composed. It's the kind of music that will immediately put you in a good mood. Here the Overtures are played to perfection.
For music and sound, this one gets a Top Recommendation.
This record has been cleaned with the Disc Doctor fluid, allowing me to evaluate the real sonic quality of the pressing by eliminating degradation to the sound caused by chemical sludge that has leached out of the vinyl over the years.
I firmly believe that any record that has not been thoroughly cleaned with the Disc Doctor fluid cannot be heard properly. For potentially superior pressings such as these, a good Disc Doctor cleaning is an absolute must.

Frank Sinatra
In The Wee Small Hours
Side one is lovely, with wonderful vocals. The bass is wobbly, but all these old Capitols have that problem. Tubes and bass are not a good combination. Side two has more presence than side one. Just drop the needle on 'What Is This Thing', it's OUT OF THIS WORLD.
I have never come across a clean quiet original of this album and this copy is no different. Side one suffers from sandpapery vinyl which gets worse as it goes in. Overall the record plays Mint Minus Minus to EX++. With a mono recording such as this, the music is in the center and the noise is to either side, which makes it easy to separate the two. They don't come quiet folks, and the CDs are a disaster. If you want to hear this classic Sinatra record, this is the only way to go.
The cover (with the old style paste-on front) shows some ringwear and the top seam is split nearly the whole way across. A little tape would fix it up nicely. It rates 7 out of 10.
AMG 5 Star Rave Review
The first 12" album recorded by Sinatra, Wee Small Hours was more focused and concentrated than his two earlier concept records. It's a blue, melancholy album, built around a spare rhythm section featuring a rhythm guitar, celesta, and Bill Miller's piano, with gently aching strings added every once and a while. Within that melancholy mood is one of Sinatra's most jazz-oriented performances he restructures the melody and Miller's playing is bold throughout the record... Sinatra's voice had deepened and worn to the point where his delivery seems ravished and heartfelt, as if he were living the songs.
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