New vinyl repressings: Better or worse than vintage?

OVER AT THE MOJO INSTA the other day, Bryan, one of my all-time best pals, wondered aloud whether buying new digitally remastered reissues of records is “better” than purchasing originals. What, he asked, was my experience?

I’d just posted the red-vinyl variation — I don’t think it’s a reissue — of Les McCann Ltd Plays the Shampoo at the Village Gate pictured above at a flea market. Nevertheless, it got us talking: When do you upgrade, and what do you upgrade to?

Record people invariably run into situations similar to this: You find a record you want on the racks at your favorite shop. There are two copies, one a used original for $13, the other a new 180g repressing for $20. The vintage record looks pretty good, but it isn’t mint-sealed. Or maybe only the new reissue’s there with no vintage equivalent in a 50-mile radius of the store.

Bryan’s specific issue was that he’d been disappointed with the sound of enough remasters that he’s now hesitant to buy more. Secondarily, it’s hard to figure out which is the better “deal.”

First, determine your tribe

There’s no simple answer, unless you’re narrow-minded for audiophile, collector or scenester reasons and have some sort of credibility fetish that forces vintage-only buying decisions. If that’s you, have fun with that.

Certainly around the web, the lunch-room water cooler and at record stores, there’s a lot of opinion about the sound of digital remastering. Is it thin? is it fakey? is it true to the original? is it destroying the producer’s intention?

All of the above and none of the above.

[Here’s where I hype my next post, in which I interview a studio guru who created vinyl masters for numerous Run Out Groove LP issues and explains the technical reasons why some reissues sound great, and why some don’t.]

My own steez, as one wise record store owner once described it, is “buying the sound.” I’m not a collector in the price-guide sense. This explains how I can have 50-year-old, pristine Small Faces LPs shelved in such horribly water-damaged jackets that my dog, who crunches every shred of paper she finds on the floor for sport, won’t even touch.

There’s no simple answer, unless you’re narrow-minded for audiophile, collector or scenester reasons and has some sort of credibility fetish that forces vintage-only buying decisions. If that’s you, have fun with that.

“As long as it plays pretty good” is my tribe. When I’m dead, I’d love my family to recoup at least some of the five figures I’ve sunk into records, but when they shop the collection around, local dealers will cringe over some records, and they’ll make those slightly disturbing “mmmm” noises on some particularly rare-salable others.

One other caveat: Sound quality varies — and subtle differences harder to hear — from stereo setup to stereo setup as well as from room to room, so don’t let anyone tell you what you hear or don’t hear. Also, to put it politely, we’re all somewhere on the spectrum between perfect hearing and completely deaf. If you’re like me, you’ve been to a concert or two where the volume made Cape Canaveral sound like a babbling brook.

Just saying, don’t be sold an old copy of something at a premium price — or a fancy new reissue of something you’ve already got — because you’re fearing missing out what the cool people are hearing.

Tips for deciding repress vs. original LPs

Here is my personal rubric for buying repressings vs. vintage LPs, pretty much in order of how they occur in the moment. Some of these considerations also come into play when choosing vintage upgrade copies to things already on my shelves:

  1. How much? The discounted-to-$5 new repressing of Charlie Musselwhite’s Southside Band Stand Back! LP was a keeper. I’ve seen vintage copies for $20-$50 floating around. It’s an economic decision to buy uncommon LPs where the vintage versions cost so much more — at least on my salary. I love Prestige, Riverside and Blue Note records from the 1950s; I’ll drop $15-25 for repressings of those old records every day vs. paying the same for harsh-playing originals — or three to twenty times as much (not kidding) for better ones. No brainer.
  2. How good is the music? You’re attached to a record, you love the music. Your copy’s not so great, too many pops and crackles. Repressings guarantee (pretty much) a major upgrade that will make your rig sing. It’s just a matter of how long you want to hold out to find a better vintage copy in your budget.
  3. You are very used to this LP. You grew up with a particular record and know every nuance of the music and production — defects and all — it’s ingrained in your cuticles. Is it worth $20 or more to find out whether or not they ruined it and it sounds too flat, too bright or otherwise “wrong?” Probably not. Stick with the old.
  4. It’s a common record. No. Don’t get a repressing. If your copy doesn’t play well because it’s a late/bad pressing, or because of scratches or other damage, find a replacement.
  5. Flawed original mastering. You love the music but it just doesn’t sound right. Personally, I can’t find a copy or remaster of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass that doesn’t sound horrible (tinny and muddy at once) to me. The Giles Martin 50th-anniversary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was revelatory; maybe he can fix ATMP too. I’d buy it.
  6. Colored vinyl. Hey it’s a thing. If it’s something you love…this explains why I’ve got both a regular pressing of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo! and the Canadian-only gray-marble vinyl, which some Amazon seller was giving away, right? It’s OK to occasionally give into this whim in my book.
  7. International intrigue. Sometimes, Euro or Japanese repressings (some brand new, in-between then and now, such as my 1980s-era Japan Abraxas that blows me away) are made for more discriminating ears than those in the United States. You win.
  8. “Vinyl fiction.” Something didn’t come out on vinyl in the first place, so who cares? Getting  such a record is a historical travesty, so you’re selling out by just acquiring it in the first place. I love Marah and Wilco, and am glad they pushed their originally digital music out to vinyl, even though it might not be the purest purist move.
  9. The label. You were burned once by a repress from this company; stay away. You love something else from that label — take a chance. There are so many boutique labels (and tiny major-label indicias) appearing and disappearing in stores right now, if there’s a record from one that jumps out of your speakers and sends you into a vinyl trance, by all means take a chance on more. Everyone’s ears are different; I will buy in to the “Italian Doxy” label, but vinyl champion Michael Fremer will not. To each, their own.

This is my personal decision chart, not including those “what the hell” days where I have zero restraint and buy everything in the store.

Find your own way through this complicated situation. Just keep one thing in mind: If you spend $18-$40 on a reissue and it sounds bad, take it back to the store and demand a refund. You deserve better, and you might only get store credit back, but at least you don’t have to keep a record for which you paid a premium price. Know your rights, as the Clash put it.

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