"What's The Right Pressing For This Album?"
As someone who's been doing large-scale shootouts for popular albums going back more than a dozen years now, the question in the title is one I get a lot. Any why not? Nobody wants to waste time and money chasing copies of their favorite albums only to find out after much effort and expense spared that there was a better or easier way to go. Unfortunately, it's very rare that there's a simple answer to the question of which pressing is best. Of course there are some exceptions, but in my experience the answer is found through the hard work of collecting copies, cleaning them, giving them a critical comparison and drawing your own conclusions. And while that may come off as if I'm trying to protect my proprietary cola recipe or hide my secret herbs and spices blend, there's really more to it than me being cagey for my own nefarious purposes. Recently I posted on Instagram about my experience with a wonderful copy of Ziggy Stardust I heard over a decade ago that was a bit of a game-changer for my interest in sound quality. Somebody asked me that old familiar question, and I responded with this:
"I wouldn’t say there is a single “go to” version. The album was pressed in the kind of numbers that means pretty wide variation between copies. I’ve heard great UK originals and ones that left me cold. The one pictured and the one I’m speaking of are both somewhat later German pressings, but I’ve heard those range from incredible to iffy as well. I wish there was an easy answer here but I’d hate to send you down the wrong road based on my luck with a specific copy. So my advice on this kind of question is never “here’s the one to chase” but to try some out and see what works for you. I imagine that’s not the answer you’re looking for, but it’s the one I feel right about giving."
On the other hand, if you asked me if there were certain pressings to avoid for a given album I would probably be happy to run my mouth until you were sorry that you asked! In my experience, there comes a point where you've heard enough bad copies of a specific version to safely assume that you need to look elsewhere. But one or two or even ten great copies of a given pressing is still no guarantee that every similar copy will be just as good. I realize this is a controversial idea in some record circles, but as someone who's been at this professionally for a long time I can assure you that it's not a crazy theory cooked up to sell more used vinyl. It's the reality I face every time I buy and play a record. You win some and you lose some. That's the nature of the beast.
I've critically listened to a ton of records over the course of my career, but I certainly haven't heard all of them! That means there's always a pressing out there that may surprise me or teach me something new, and I like to remain open to that. As soon as we start assigning titles like "best" to a version, we close ourselves off to the possibility that there may be something even better out there. And isn't that one of the truly fun parts of audio, those shocking finds that shake up your preconceived notions? I recently found something like that for one of my favorite albums and it was a thrilling experience, but I'm sorry to say that for now I am keeping those details locked in the vault. Some family recipes get taken to the grave, so I don't feel too badly about holding some of the knowledge I've gained from years of hard work close to the vest. What I find more helpful is sharing the kind of information that lets people make similar discoveries on their own. It's just like that old saying: "Give a man the stamper numbers and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to find the right pressings and you feed him for a lifetime."
I may have actually gotten that one wrong, but I'd rather listen to records than gut a fish every single time. By the way, you'd be wrong if you thought only one of those can be a messy endeavor!