Just coming off the first spin of the Harrow & the Harvest and I’ve got to say — it’s a jaw dropping effort. I’m not talking solely about the music, which is as beautiful and stunning now as it was at the time of its 2011 release, but the care and craft that’s gone into making the finest pressing I’ve purchased new in recent memory.
Compared to the two Blue Note 75th Anniversary LPs acquired on the same day, the difference is shocking. The Blue Notes sound soft and distant without the sense of space and clarity present in their original form. Compressed. They appear to have been packaged by an hand that put down a greasy slice of pizza then picked up the LP to carelessly stuff it in the jacket. Like the plaque denoting the person who hand assembled an AMG motor, these discs are forever signed with the fingerprints of the indifferent individual who grabbed the vinyl fresh off the press. Scuffs and marks abound. Warps. Dust everywhere.
“The Blue Notes are only $22” goes the refrain online. “Meant for a different (indifferent?) audience”. Yes, I could buy a $85 pressing of Song For My Father and hope to find near perfection. I would expect that a $600 release of Mobleys Message be the absolute best sonics I’ve ever heard. But Harrow & the Harvest proves you can, for an additional $6 over the price of the Blue Notes, achieve all that 99% of vinyl listeners might ever want.
Welch and Rawlings achieved success where many others failed because they were willing to spend their most precious asset in service of a great release — time.
They waited through out most of the vinyl boom for their favorite studio to get a lathe. When that never materialized Dave Rawlings tracked down a Neumann VMS-80 and spent a $100K purchasing and refurbishing it. When suitable amplifiers could not be found custom Ortofons were built. Welch convinced a physicist with a side passion for mastering to leave his job and run their facility. When there was no availability at their desired plant to press they got in line at QRP and waited.
They believed in the chain of tape > lathe > vinyl to the point where this effort was worth the pain. Here’s Welch on the analog process:
“If you snapped your fingers and there was no more tape, it would be really hard for me to make records,” she says. “I don’t want to make records that way, at all. I’ve done it. Every now and again you’ll be asked to do a one-off for a tribute project or something, where you go in sing on someone else’s thing, and they’re working digital. But tape changes stuff. And that never happens on the digital. You don’t get that weird thing where suddenly it goes from a recording to art. It’s that same thing that film does. Film is not reality. Tape is not reality. Tape is paint. It’s an altered reality. It’s a beautifully altered reality, just as film is. That is not the way the world looks. The same thing with tape: That is not the way the world sounds. But it’s so beautiful. So, I don’t know how to work digitally. I suppose I could learn, but I have no desire to. Our entire process is built around the bravery and the brashness of tape, where you do not get to save everything. If you want to edit, you are slicing up your master. You’re destroying it to create something you are gambling is going to be better. And knowing that makes you tough, makes you sharp, makes you very opinionated. These are all good things when you’re an artist.”
It’s heartening to see (and of course hear) a reach for perfectionist vinyl from a current act. It can be done. It is amazing when it succeeds. Let’s hope more artists choose to make the effort.