Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Walt Dickerson Direct-to-Disc

In the 1970's, a market arose for "audiophile" recordings - records intended to deliver the best possible sound quality. One of the techniques adopted by some companies to improve sound was actually a very old one - direct-to-disc recording. Up until late 1940s, when recording tape became common, practically all recording was direct-to-disc: the audio signal was fed to a needle which cut a groove directly into a wax or acetate master record.  Tape made for flexibility and convenience - you could splice and overdub - but there were drawbacks in terms of sound. Tape added its own noise to the recorded sound. Bypassing the step of recording onto tape and sending the audio signal directly to a cutting head was seen as a way to improve dynamic and frequency response.

And it worked - there are some truly spectacular-sounding albums of the period which were created with this technique. But it was expensive and inflexible - the musicians had to record an entire LP side at one time, with no chance for corrections. A mistake meant that the entire side had to be recorded again from the beginning.

But the direct-to-disc technique proved to the perfect way to record a solo album by vibraphonist Walt Dickerson. His music is free and improvisatory, so there is no rigid, "correct" box he has to fill. And his unusual, gorgeous tone is perfectly captured on this 1978 album, Shades of Love, which was recorded directly to disc at Media Sound in New York City. Dickerson's music alternates ringing chordal passages with scampering runs, and the recording shows off his wide dynamic range - from a metallic shout to a whisper. Anyone who thinks avant-garde jazz is harsh should hear this beautiful album, either in its original form or as reissued on CD.

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