I prefer a five-step rating system, typically used by book and record
collectors to grade physical condition rather than aesthetic concerns.
Not a number system, the ratings are: "poor" (P), "fair" (F), "good"
(G), "very good" (VG), and "excellent" (E). When grading pysical
condition, the E is usually replaced with "mint" or "near mint", but
this obviously doesn't apply to rating sound quality, so "excellent" it
is. I'll try to give some criteria for my ratings.
Note: studio tapes include soundboard (or PA), album sessions and studio outtakes, radio & tv broadcasts, home/apartment/party tapes, etc. Audience tapes include amateur concert recordings, open-mike recordings from a tv speaker or studio playback speakers (yes, there are such things!), rehearsal and soundcheck tapes from a distance, etc.
The ratings can mean different things depending on the source of the recording. For instance, a poor studio tape is very different from a poor audience recording. By its very nature, a studio tape is expected to sound much better than something recorded from a noisy audience on sometimes inferior audio equipment. The studio tape has the advantage of being recorded with (presumably) state of the art gear, and so if the resulting tape is poor sounding it must really be bad, i.e. somehow damaged or copied too many times or distorted or whatever. The audience tape, on the other hand, never really had a chance to begin with, and a decent sounding tape made under these circumstances will no doubt be judged less harshly. An excellent audience tape can still have a few flaws which would not be tolerated with a studio recording, but given the circumstances those flaws are excused if the sound is overwhelmingly good and nothing really distracts from the enjoyment of the music. There are really very few truly "excellent" audio tapes around, but there are many that come close enough to be given that rating anyway. Most studio tapes in circulation are what would be rated as excellent, and a rating of "good" for a studio tape is actually a backhanded compliment. If it's only "good" and not "excellent", then there must be something wrong with it.
My ratings and qualifications:
The difficulty with trying to develop a standard for sound ratings
starts with the fact that we all hear things the way we want to, plus
we all have different sound systems, with very different response!
I have to admit, my standards often vary based on what kind of mood I'm
in, whether or not I'm wearing headphones, and quite frequently, how
I'm expecting the tape to sound! The recent CDs that have come under
fire by myself and others don't exactly sound bad, but we thought they
they would be better than they actually are (the Dylan/Hawks '66 CD
sounds a heck of a lot better than the previously circulated tracks from
Melbourne '66, for example!)
Tough call. For example, the consensus is that the tape of 5/9/92 San Jose is an 'excellent' quality audience recording. I have two copies - one taped from the CD and one from tape dubs only, and both are only 'good' in my opinion. It gets even tougher when bridging the gap between PA and audience tapes - in light of a truly excellent PA tape, is any audience recording really that good? Some people would argue that, no, audience tapes are by their very nature inferior due to crowd noise; other would say that the interaction between performer and audience is essential, and that some PA tapes are therfore inferior! Even within the scope of PA tapes, it's still tricky. John Howells mentions Stuck Inside of New York as an 'excellent' quality CD, but there's a fair amount of tape hiss present on these discs - that might prompt some people to downgrade it to 'very good'...
>If no universal standard is used when reviewing recordings I suggest
I think to do that we'd have to distinguish PA tapes from audience tapes with their own rating system. Sounds simple enough, but a lot of the early tapes from club shows sound to me like they could go either way! After a while, I also seem to get used to certain types of flaws, like tape hiss or audience noise. Other people find these very distracting, but overlook other problems like dropouts, or too much bass response. There are so many different things that can be wrong with a tape that it becomes difficult to give much of a description in only a few words.
>To establish a common reference system would require the contribution
Keep in mind also that while we might have the same show, they could be very different generations of tapes, or even from different sources...
>Of course, establishing a review consensus can get complicated and
Another difficulty to factor in is the age of the recording. I try to be strict in my own grading, so a 1974 audience recording is not likely to ever rank 'excellent' or even 'very good' on my list; but many other people, rightfully so, would listen to, say, Toronto 1/10/74 and rate it excellent, since it is excellent - for a '74 audience tape! I know that makes some people cringe - 'excellent' to them means near-legit quality and nothing else, but it's overkill to try to force compliance to your own standards. My strategy is to try to understand the other collector on his own turf - this requires a bit of assumption, but it usually works (and when it doesn't, I ask!!! Most people are willing to give more information than the one-line descriptions on their list!) So, say I'm looking for good 1974 tapes. Let's say the other guy's list looks like this (just making it up, mind you):
Let's say I'm familiar with the tapes from Chicago, Philly, Toronto, and Boston, but none of the others. I know that the Boston tape is a soundboard, and is excellent on my scale as well as his. However, I rate Toronto as 'good' while he lists it 'excellent'. Also, I list Chicago & Philly as 'fair', but they're 'very good' on his list. Since I only know of two soundboards, one from Boston and the other from NYC, which he doesn't have, I am better off grading all his tapes down a couple of notches when comparing them on my scale. While Inglewood, Feb 14th still looks like the best sound quality, it's probably going to rank only 'good' with me. I would plan to avoid the Nassau, Bloomington, and Oakland tapes, since he doesn't rate them well by his own standards (some people only use the 'upper' grades, so 'good' is actually not so good...). I would also take the Atlanta tape to be 'fair', about dead-on average for a '74 audience tape.
The use of high grades only (G, VG, E, some people rarely use G, so they end up rating tapes like VG++ and E-, which gets pretty confusing...) is a holdover from commercial used record dealers, who inflate their ratings for better sales - "well, all your records are 'near-mint' and his are 'very-good-plus', so I'll buy from you" - which is usually B.S. It's always best to have reasonable skepticism of high ratings unless they're willing to back it up ("Yes, that Inglewood tape is really a soundboard...") in which case they'd better be honest if they want to continue their relationship with you! Grade-inflation is a bit annoying, but it's not hard to compensate if you are familiar with the material.
Beginners aren't going to have this basic familiarity - "You say Toronto is a 'good' 1974 audience tape, but how good is 'good'?" Unfortunately, the best way to learn what 'fair' and 'poor' sound like is by accidentally acquiring such a tape... As a general rule, though, if you want a good tape and don't know where to start, use only the top grade on his list, and pick something either recent or ask for a recommendation on older tapes. You may discover that even an 'excellent' 1993 audience tape from DAT leaves you disappointed; remember, these tapes are, on average, well below the high standards of Grateful Dead tapes - usually because they are recorded covertly...
When in doubt, ask for a recommendation! Most collectors are very happy to discuss their favorite tapes; if you get stonewalled, maybe you ought to look elsewhere. It's always frustrating when a rank beginner who is still learning the ropes badgers a busy expert for help, but sometimes it's best if no trade occurs in such a situation.
Adam K. Powers
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