Tape ratings

From: John Howells
Subject: Re: Reviewing Standards
Date: Wed, 30 Jun 1993 15:36:02 GMT
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:

  • P - For "poor". For an audience recording, a rating of P means that the tape or CD is virtually unlistenable. This could be because the audience is much too loud, the music is too far away from the recording device, there is too much distortion, or any number of other problems. In any case, it's painful to try to listen and ultimately turns out to be an excercise in futility. Only the most historically significant recordings with this rating are worthwhile. For a studio recording, P means that it actually sounds worse than the worst audience tape. With a poor audience tape you might at least be able to get some of the ambience of the concert, but with a poor studio tape you just have garbage. The "party tapes" deserve more leeway because it's presumed that the equipment used isn't really studio quality. Since I don't have any CDs which would rate a P, I can't give any examples, but there are many vinyl boots from the early days that would rate, including much of the classic Great White Wonder.

  • F - For "fair". F means that there is a lot of audience noise and chatter but at least the music can be heard fairly well. Generally a solid enough recording, but only good enough to fill the gap until a better one comes along. The recording level is probably a little low, resulting in a fair amount of hiss, or the level could be too high, resulting in some distortion. Audience noise is a big factor in my ratings. If the sound of the music is loud and clear with a nice balance between bass and treble, and yet there is some asshole yelling his ass off for "Desolation Rowwwwww!!!" thoughout the performance very near the mike, it won't rank very highly with me. Another qualification for anything above F would be the tone and balance of the music itself. If a full band, the bass should be loud and clear - but not enough to drown out other instruments - and there should be a good balance between the high and low end. If this isn't satisfactory, it would rate F at a minumum. In fact, most F audience recordings have a dull sound to them and seem to be lacking in bass or treble. I don't think studio recordings (other than party tapes) would rate F. If they're not "good" then they're "poor". Most concert bootleg lps from the '70s would would receive an F rating.

  • G - For "good". Most present day audience recordings would fall into this category. G means that the audience is noisy and intrusive at times, but the music is clearly heard and bass, guitars, drums, keyboards, and voice(s) are all well blended and sound reasonably crisp. There will be some flaws here and there, such as an occasional dropout of one channel, or maybe a poor edit or incomplete song or two, but the flaws don't detract from the generally good sound quality. Recording level is loud but not distorted. Overall, a very decent addition to anyone's collection. A studio recording with a G rating would probably mean lots of hiss and some occasional wobbles, and maybe a bit of distortion here and there, but all in all a good sounding tape or CD. Example: All the Way Down To Italy (CD).

  • VG - For "very good". An otherwise excellent audience tape or CD only slightly spoiled by some audience noise during the quieter moments, or static or tape transport problems resulting in brief moments of inferior sound. Generally, VG is what an "excellent" tape or CD would sound like if only that guy three rows back would stop whistling every time Dylan ends a chorus of "It Ain't Me Babe", as if it were some sort of massive achievement. All instruments are clear and well balanced. The voice is right upfront and there is absolutely no distortion and very little (if any) hiss. VG studio tapes are just one official release shy of perfection. Some hiss, but not so much that you'd really notice unless you deliberately went out of your way to listen for it. Examples: most of the recent '92 and '93 audience recordings now on CD would rank VG. These are otherwise excellent DAT sources that have a little too much audience presence for my liking. Also, Before the Crash I & II would probably rank VG because of the vinyl crackling heard throughout - unavoidable because of the original acetates used as a source.

  • E - For "excellent". The Holy Grail of audience recordings. I have quite a few audience recordings that I rank E, but truthfully only a very few actually deserve it. An E audience recording has absolutely no audience presence at all, or at least very little - so little that you really have a hard time telling the difference between audience and soundboard. Occasionally an excellent audience tape will sound better than an equivalent soundboard. No one can be heard yelling out requests; applause sounds as if it's coming from someplace other than next to the tape recorder; no coughing; no comments on the songs or performance from instant rock critics; and the tone of the instruments is nothing short of glorious. Studio/soundboard tapes/CDs are ready for release, with no flaws whatsoever. In fact, some labels like KTS and Swinging Pig have actually gone out of their way to try to correct percieved flaws to create a release-ready product that rivals in every way anything that CBS-SONY could ever hope to do. Examples: Stuck Inside of New York, Wanted Man, Now Ain't the Time For Your Tears, Manchester Prayer, etc.

    John Howells

  • From: Adam K. Powers (akp1@quads.uchicago.edu)
    Subject: Re: Reviewing Standards
    Reply-To: akp1@midway.uchicago.edu
    Date: Tue, 6 Jul 1993 18:40:55 GMT
    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!)

    mwhite@opie.bgsu.edu writes:
    >This difference in opinion (what constitutes an "excellent" recording)
    >got me thinking about how recordings are reviewed and rated. Is there
    >any universal standard used by members of rec.music.Dylan
    >when reviewing and assessing recording and performance quality of
    >"rare" CDs and LPs? I notice that reviews of recordings are often
    >accompanied by a numeric rating, however, such a rating is of little
    >use if we all have different definitions of "excellent", "poor", etc.

    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
    >we try to establish one. A common reference for assessing the
    >quality of a recording would be more useful then the present system.
    >I'm not suggesting that we get rid of the numeric system of review, but
    >rather that we define what exactly constitutes a "3" or an "8", etc.

    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
    >of many people, in order to make the system meaningful. With
    >discussion we should be able to define just what a "10", for example,
    >means in terms of recording quality. The easiest way to establish this
    >common reference system would be to come to a consensus about what CD
    >and LPs we think are "10's" or "5's" or "1's" and use this as a type of
    >scale when judging other CDs and LPs.

    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
    >would probably mean establishing scales for different recording types
    >(soundboard recordings, PA recordings, analog audience recordings,
    >DAT audience recordings, etc.)

    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):

    1974 tour w/ the Band
    Chicago 3 Jan - VG 100
    Phila. 6 Jan (a) - VG 90
    Toronto 10 Jan (a) - EX 90
    Boston 14 Jan (a) - EX 90
    Atlanta 21 Jan - VG 90
    Nassau 28 Jan - G 90
    Bloomington 3 Feb - G 90
    Oakland 11 Feb - G 120
    Inglewood 14 Feb (e) - EX 110

    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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