Original Vinyl Pressings vs Reissues
What’s all the fuss about original/first pressings?
I think this is a question that can confuse some new vinyl record collectors. When I first started collecting records, I couldn’t quite understand why some seemed condemn at reissues and revere original releases and first pressings.
For me it was a question that I needed to understand more thoroughly, for the sake of our bank account. I love collecting things (as I’ve highlighted in my post about why I think people love collecting records here), so I have a tendency to get a little carried away with the idea of the perfect collection, and the thought of owning something just because it is rare or valuable. To quiet the raging collector inside me, I needed to understand the real difference between first pressings and reissues. I often have to fight myself not to get too carried away. It can be very costly and time consuming!
I found a huge amount of information and many different opinions online. I’ve tried to summarize what I’ve learnt and share the opinion that I’ve come to with you.
The real reason to buy First Pressings
Aside from those of the heart, there are a few legitimate reasons that some people covet first or early pressings. The main reason stated is the superior sound quality these albums have. Obviously, sound quality is important to everyone, but not everyone has the same level of audiophile finesse. Many, myself included, are unlikely to really hear the difference between a first pressings and a reissue in good condition.
There are many other factors that affect the sound quality of your record. If you really want to get the best sounding record possible, then it pays to do your homework.
Here are some things to keep in mind when doing your research:
- Mastering Engineer
- Source (i.e Master Tape, Digital Remaster, etc)
- Quality and weight of vinyl
- Era of pressing
- Pressing plant
An important thing to know when buying reissues of classic albums is the mastering. Sometimes a new mastering can be very different to the way an album originally sounded. This can be very upsetting. Record labels are increasingly being accused of ramping up the “loudness” in remastered versions. This is known as the “loudness war.” One example that comes to mind is the 2011 remastering of Nirvana’s Nevermind, which many fans said was too loud and too polished compared to Howie Weinberg’s original mastering. You can learn more about that particular remastering here, here and here – be prepared for some impassioned bad language from bloggers and commentators.
This isn’t necessarily always true though. Sometimes a new mastering can improve upon the original. Mostly, it’s about personal preference rather than an objective “better version”. It’s worth doing some research for albums with multiple re-releases to ensure you’re getting one that sounds best to you.
Any record label worth its weight will always try to use the best analog source available to them. In most cases, they will use original master tapes and the results will sound as good as ever. If you try to source a vinyl pressings from a CD, the resulting record will usually sound worse. This is often the case with pirated records. That being said, this might be the only way to own a copy of some albums, until the record company decides it’s time for a new repress!
Many people also believe that a digitally remastered vinyl record defeats the purpose of vinyl in the first place. This only really applies where the original source, before the digital remastering, was in an analog format. And since the 80’s, this is definitely not guaranteed to be the case. So really, again, it’s down to your particular preference. If you’re looking for classics from the 60’s and 70’s, I’d recommend steering clear of digitally remastered reissues from today where possible.
Quality and Weight
Obviously different releases can be pressed on different types of vinyl. The weight of a vinyl record can make a difference to the sound quality. Heavier records can help the platter to move at a more continuous speed and are also less prone to warping. So if you’re going for an older pressing, heavier is more likely to be in better condition.
It’s also believed that color variants or picture discs don’t play as well as black pressings. This idea is slowly shifting, and newer color records play just as well as those pressed on black vinyl. But again, if you’re looking for something in that 60’s-90’s time frame, perhaps an older color variant isn’t the way to go.
I personally steer clear of picture discs. One, they are notorious for being worse quality, and two (and also mainly), they confuse and scare me a little.
Some also believe that the earlier the pressing, the better condition the original metal stamper was in. Really popular records, like The Beatles or The Rollings Stones, were repressed millions of times, wearing down the stamper each time. A record from an earlier batch would therefore theoretically sound better than one pressed millions of records later. Whether or not this really holds up, I don’t know.
Era of Pressing
The era of pressing is something else to consider. In the 70’s, for instance, many producers opted for a cheaper and more efficient way to produce vinyl, called Dynaflex, which included recycled scraps of vinyl records. This was largely driven by the oil crisis during the time. Some of these records ended up being very low quality, containing bits of paper from previous record labels, or being so thin, they were practically floppy. Dynaflex records are widely accepted to sound far worse than pure virgin vinyl.
During the 80’s, vinyl sales were having a tough time due to the rise of the cassette tape and Compact Disc. The introduction of digital recording and mastering methods also changed the way records sounded. The once warm analog sound that is still touted as being the only way to listen to music, became more sterile, and “perfect” in quality as they try to emulate the digital output of CDs. If you’re looking at any releases from the 80’s, avoid pressings with phrases like “electronically enhanced” or “digitally remastered” – these tended to be popular at the time, although digitally remastered is still seen today, but they tend to be a bit better at it now.
In the 90’s, demand for vinyl records had pretty much dried up. Pressing plants closed, production equipment sat unused and poorly maintained, and experienced staff retired. This makes original pressings from the 90’s pretty rare, and pretty expensive, especially now that it’s being sought after by new collectors who grew up with this music (like me!). Buying well-made reissues is definitely a cheaper option.
And then the great vinyl resurgence of the late 2000’s happened. People are once again interested in music as an activity, immersive and tangible. However, it does come with a downside: the current demand for vinyl is greater than the capacity to produce them. The entire industry is supplied by a small number of pressing plants. There are only about 20 plants operational in the US. There hasn’t been any new vinyl-pressing machinery built in 40 years. Outdated machines are operating way above their means, and for the most part they are operated by people who are not as skilled as their forefather’s (yet). This can result in poorly pressed records.
In saying that, I haven’t actually seen any evidence of this firsthand. All of the new pressings and reissues we have bought have been really great quality and we have been really happy with all of them. It could just be that my ear is not as sensitive as other music lovers out there, but it works for me!
The location of the pressing can make a difference. In general, for records pressed (reissued or otherwise) in the 70’s and 80’s, you really can’t go wrong with a Japanese pressing. Other notable contenders are France, Germany and Holland.
Countries to avoid are Russia, Jamaica and Brazil.
For new releases, the same rules apply, but most records are pressed in the US or the UK and Europe.
Another top tip to remember is that different countries would sometimes get releases with different material. Japanese releases often have have bonus material not released in other countries. And sometimes the North American releases would differ from the UK releases, in both track content and cover art. You will probably want to investigate all of these things before deciding on your pressing of choice!
The most important piece of advice
No matter what your preference, original release or reissue, research is key. If your main concern is price and availability, you’re going to be buying reissues. The important thing here is to just check a couple of forums to make sure the new mastering and pressings will satisfy you.
If you’re dedicated to getting the best sounding vinyl record you possibly can, and don’t mind paying top dollar for early pressings, then you definitely need to do your research to figure out which mastering, from what era and which country you believe sounds best.
The internet is full of blogs and forums overflowing with opinions to help you make a decision. And of course Discogs is a great place to start.
In either case, you obviously need to make sure that the actual record you are buying is in top condition. If you are buying secondhand, make sure to get a near mint or excellent condition record if you really want to hear that well-researched sound quality coming through. If you are buying new online, hopefully the record arrives intact and un-warped!
And of course, in order to get the most out of your perfect and pristine records, you have a decent sound system setup!
So what’s the verdict?
Well the verdict for me is that it depends entirely on the album. We don’t have many first pressings, despite the little collection monster inside me whose whispering can sometimes keep me up at night. The ones we do have, however, are albums that are extremely important to us, and each of these purchases was a big deal. And I think for us and our collection, this is how it should be. All of it comes to down to opinion, to your particular taste, your ear and your collecting style. In all honesty, my ear is not as discerning as some, and in most cases I’m happy to just to hear the music that I love spinning on a turntable in the lounge while surrounded by family and friends. For me, collecting records is really all about the experience, and about music as an activity.
I do still have to fight that little voice inside me sometimes though, but for the most part, he’s quiet now in the face of cold hard logic.