Extravagant claims were made by record labels on their unique sound quality and some were even true.
During World War Two, Decca developed the Decca Navigation system and was a radar pioneer, its military connections forming the basis of its later position as a major defence contractor. A side effect was its research into detecting submarines. They had to distinguish British and German submarines by their sound from the air. Existing recording techniques were not capable of producing a wide enough frequency range for reference recordings, and Decca developed a new recording system, ffrr or full frequency range recording. This was about as wide a range as cassette tape thirty years later: 80 cps ( cycles per second) to 15,000 cps, and not as wide as compact disc’s 20-20,000 cps. It was a startling improvement on existing recording, and Decca and its subsidiary labels carried the ffrr logo through to the the 1970s. In the late 50s, the logo ffss was added for stereophonic sound.
Decca’s stereo LPs of the era carry a warning on the inner sleeve:
When held at certain angles the surface of this FFSS record looks different than that of a monaural disc … it may even appear to be worn. Of course this only an illusion caused by the unusual way in which the grooves of this FFSS record are cut.
I’m amazed secondhand vinyl dealers haven’t leapt on this. If this disc looks worn, it is an illusion.
The superior sound quality enabled Decca to become a major exporter of discs to the USA under the London imprint from 1947, and London was fast in adopting US Columbia’s new LP format in 1949. Decca produced the first British LPs in 1950. They had enough sense not to follow EMI into rush-releasing 45s in 1952, but held back 45s until 1954 when enough players were on the market.
London had a name for innovation, following Columbia rapidly with 33 1/3 rpm LPs and RCA with 45 rpm singles. It also had a name for high fidelity, based on Decca’s ffrr recording process. U.S. London distributed smaller labels and found foreign distributors for U.S. companies.
Decca’s straight-laced stiff upper lip British image appealed to American companies, when so many of the local labels had dubious associates who might leave the odd horse’s head in your bed. Decca was obviously “reputable” and had a name for fair dealing. London has long been the collectors’ favourite with old singles commanding the highest average prices. This has an international dimension, as most London pressings are thought to be superior to the US originals from the late fifties. London sourced the master tapes until 1964, and Decca had a superior pressing system.
Decca’s claims bear the most scrutiny, but other labels had their own systems.
Around 1970, RCA claimed their ultra-thin Dynagroove LPs were superior, though the test of time definitely favours thicker and heavier records. RCA earlier 70s discs are really thin. They almost flex.
Some claims are impossible to judge, but interestingly they claimed to eliminate “inner groove distortion.” This was an effect on all LPs where the sound quality deteriorated on the inner grooves of the disc closest to the label. Producers would sequence records so as to have less dense material at the end of sides where possible. RCA did it with “electric brains” or computers.
There are some poor quality pressings from the late 70s. The budget labels were squeezing close to 30 minutes a side which meant no volume.
Case Study: 1979
The Beatles Concerto looks like an album where you’d expect pristine, shimmering sound. It had a Hipgnosis cover design, expensive inner sleeve. The Beatles Concerto was arranged by Ron Goodwin and featured pianists Rostal & Schaefer with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The other side has Six Beatles Impressions, arranged by John Rutter. It was recorded at George Martin’s Air Studios and mastered at Abbey Road. It’s not on K-Tel or Arcade, but Parlophone. It was released in 1979.
I found a battered copy and got rid of it, then I found a copy that looks Near Mint. OK, it could have been played once with a dodgy stylus, but I cleaned it and used a static gun. Even on 3rd play it crackles – not all the way, but at frequent intervals, which suggests it wasn’t one dodgy stylus, which would crackle continually.
I’d just played a 1967 Paul Mauriat Beatles cover, Penny Lane, on Philips from Blooming Hits, so similar lush orchestral treatments. The Mauriat is 50% louder on thick vinyl. The Parlophone disc is thin and flexible. My first reaction was that it was the K-Tel era and they’d forced too much on a side. In fact 22 minutes and 24 minutes. On the longer end, but not unusual. I’d take this as a poor pressing on poor vinyl.
This was happening so much in 1979, that they were almost begging for CD to sweep in and replace vinly.
This is why so much 21st Century vinyl revival boasts 180 gram virgin vinyl pressings.