When you hear the term ‘Sonic Blockbuster’ the image of a full sized Romantic period orchestra, Wagnerian in size with 100 plus pieces, usually comes to mind. We expect the ‘Power and Majesty’, the soaring crescendos, the incredible dynamics and tonal range that only this combination can bring. All other forms of ensembles will pale by comparison with only the solo Piano (occasionally) being able to just barely enter these dizzying heights of power and emotions. As a result, almost all of the music we use to demonstrate the capabilities of our systems is of the Classical genre. It is very difficult for Jazz or Rock to compete with these Classical giants when pure power, emotion and dynamics are considered.
Rock music starts out having both hands tied by not only the nature of the music itself but also by the recording and pressing techniques that were imposed. Consider for a moment the target audience that Rock records were aimed at. It was usually the youth market ranging from about 12 to 19 years of age. This group had the most discretionary income to spend on records but most often had some of the worst equipment for playback so the record companies had to ‘compensate’ for this by making their LPs playable on even the worst tracking record players (and often record changers!). They did this by compressing and limiting the recorded signal enough so that the grooves on the LP would not present any tracking problems for the amateur players of the day and thus insure total compatibility. Little wonder then that there are not many Rock LPs considered ‘Sonic Blockbusters’.
However, as with most things in the audio hobby (and in life, for that matter), there are exceptions. In 1976 a little known Canadian band called Rough Trade had the distinction of recording the world’s first Direct-to-Disc Rock LP on the Umbrella label and the result was pure magic. For those not familiar with the Direct-to-Disc process let me just briefly describe what this is. In a normal analog recording the music is first recorded to a multi-track tape recorder and then mixed down to 2 channels. This is then fed to a computer that controls the disc-cutting lathe for the master lacquer that is then used to create stampers that ultimately produce the final record. In the Direct-to-Disc process there is no intermediate stage of recording to tape, but rather the music is sent directly to the cutting lathe that must be operated by a living person in real-time, thus eliminating most compression and other sound-limiting practices. The end result being a live, real-time performance as close to real as is possible. The down side to this process is that the musicians must perform each side of the LP completely in one take – there is no possibility for editing or re-doing any track individually – so, needless to say, it is very demanding on the artists and the cutting engineer to get it right the first time or the whole side of the LP must be re-done. Is it worth the time and effort? Hardly likely for a mainstream label but amongst the ‘specialist’ high-end market – absolutely. There is no other recording format that can even approximate the quality of sound as afforded by the Direct-to-Disc method and, unfortunately, none so demanding and costly.
Thus we arrive at the real subject of this article, Sonic Blockbusters #2. As stated earlier, this recording was produced in Canada in 1976 by Umbrella Records and is titled Rough Trade Live – Umbrella UMB DD1. It was released as a Special Limited Edition with only 30,000 copies made and each one numbered (although I have seen a few which were not numbered but equally excellent). Rough Trade has been billed as “Crude, lewd, rude and socially unacceptable” (which is probably an apt description considering the 1976 time frame) but they would be considered much less avant-garde by today’s standards.
So what exactly makes this LP stand out so much from the rest of the pack? Simply put it is three essential parts – the Direct-to-Disc process, the actual rawness and power of the Music itself and the live sounding, in-your-face quality which was captured by the masterful production of Jack Richardson and the artful disc cutting by George Graves – this is a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of it’s parts. In sonic terms, the best description would be to say that if you closed your eyes you would find yourself transported to a small to medium club, sitting at about the fourth row of tables from the bandstand and listening to a live and extremely powerful performance from a great ‘Bar Band’ (a la early Springsteen). All the immediacy, the fabulous micro-detail and gut wrenching power of the Bass Guitar and kick Drum are there in spades and will grab you and pull you into the Music. One can almost sense the enjoyment and emotions of the performers as they become immersed in their performance – it is that real. There are no special effects, no over-dubs, no weeks of editing to output a slick commercial product, just a raw, gut-wrenching performance with plenty of punch and drive which, if it doesn’t leave you open-mouthed with awe, will certainly leave you and your listening friends with a new appreciation for the capabilities (or lack thereof) of your audio system.
One note of warning – if you have not listened to this LP previously be careful on setting your initial volume level as the first track on side one starts off fairly mild until the Bass and kick Drum cut in – then all hell breaks loose! Ultimately you want to listen to this LP at life-like volumes for the best sound and imaging but start cautiously as there is significant low-level energy.