Lyn Stanley: the audiophile artist
Lyn Stanley is an American jazz singer with a difference. Well, several differences as it happens. The most noteworthy difference for me is that in her recording career, she focuses entirely on making audiophile quality albums. Other interesting snippets include the fact that she was previously an international standard ballroom dancer, a college professor, and a Fortune 500 marketing executive!
The latter may help to explain the remarkable trajectory of Lyn’s singing career: she has gone from being an unknown in 2011 with her first stage performance with jazz legend pianist, Paul Smith, to now selling more than 40,000 albums worldwide since her first release in 2013. Her gross sales for 2017 totalled more than $200,000 with two new releases for her project, The Moonlight Sessions. Impressive.
I find the notion of an ‘audiophile’ jazz artist rather tempting. I love jazz and I’m obviously an audiophile, so having met Stanley at the 2018 Bristol Sound & Vision show, heard her duet with one of her master tapes and marvelled at the way she captivated the crowds, it was only a matter of time before I tried out one of her tapes at home in my own audiophile system.
The tape I acquired was Volume 2 of the aforementioned Moonlight Sessions. Released in 2017, it’s described as “a unique approach to 1920-1970s songs using classical music woven into unusual jazz and pop arrangements”. Now I’ll be honest, I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to jazz. Don’t get me wrong, I love the whole gamut – from trad to the avant-garde – but pop arrangements? Still, I was more than prepared to suspend any initial reservations when I saw the roll call of talent involved in this project.
Essentially The Moonlight Sessions Volumes One and Two is a project put together by Lyn herself, featuring the best of the best in terms of musicians (mostly very seasoned session guys) and production (mixed by Al Schmitt, mastered by Bernie Grundman). Al Schmitt and Bernie Grundman? Hell, these guys have normally reserved their uber-talents for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Joni Mitchell, so who am I not to get over myself and give this a listen?!
Jazz standards – and some
As it turns out, I find The Moonlight Sessions Volume Two to be a captivating listen. Cards on the table, it did take me a couple of sessions initially to get really into the groove of some of these arrangements (you know how it is, sometimes it takes a turn or two till we let go of our preconceptions). But sure enough I did.
At the same time, right off the bat it was the sound that knocked me out. And when I say knocked me out, I’m not kidding: we’re talking cartoon-style, jaw-on-the-floor with tongue hanging out here. The depth, weight and texture of the plucked bass, the brushed drums, and the muted trumpet (oh boy, just writing about it gives me goosebumps!). Sounds I’d typically hear most frequently on old 78s were suddenly there before my eyes (and ears obviously, but yes, eyes too) – so real, and I mean so real that it almost defies description. Almost, since I could quite easily waffle on for hours about the sheer quality of the playing, the recording and the reproduction. But I’ll spare you that degree of rambling and say this instead: it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever have a better sounding studio recording than this in your collection.
Lyn’s voice suits these old standards well. It’s not the sweetest, nor is it the most gritty – which I mean in a good way. A sweet-ish, rich and husky voice, Stanley loves to ride a rollercoaster melodically. And the texture of her voice: think burnt caramel, neither sweet nor savory, but extremely flavoursome, moreish and very much in vogue right now. My closest comparison would perhaps be Julie London, of whom I’m a big fan (and by way of an early P.S. I’m excited to learn that Lyn’s been working on two Julie London tribute albums, which sound very appealing indeed).
Going back to those arrangements I was initially unsure about… they’re certainly far from ‘vanilla’. Lyn has taken a bunch of old jazz standards and used interesting and genuinely fresh arrangements and, once I got over my early ‘I’m an old man and I know what I like’ position and relaxed into them, I found that they really bought something new to these old numbers. Some even have elements of classical music (Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel, Chopin and more) which I really found myself warming to. ‘Love Me Or Leave Me’, ‘Makin’ Whoopee’ and ‘That Old Feeling’ are particular favorites, though each and every track has its own particular attraction: none feel like they’re there as ‘fillers’ and each genuinely adds something unique to the old tunes. The musicianship is absolutely top-drawer, and the recording quality, well, that’s something we need to talk some more about…
How to produce an album: a masterclass in musical production
Bearing in mind that I came to hear of Lyn Stanley through the audiophile network, it came as no surprise that all of the elements that went into this recording are gold standard. In fact, the whole process put me in mind of building, say, a statement loudspeaker. You start with a very, very good design (the songs and arrangements) and then you create the final product using the absolute best components available. This is what Stanley has done in the The Moonlight Sessions.
The musicians include some of the greatest session men of the current era (including Mike Garson, Joe LaBarbera and Chuck Findley). And the albums are recorded and mixed by the one and only Al Schmitt (think Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Al Jarreau, etc etc), and then to top it off they are mastered and duplicated for sale by none other than Bernie Grundman (Joni Mitchell, Burt Bacharach, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson’s Thriller – among so, so many more). That’s one heck of a roll call.
At this point I should mention that Lyn offers two different versions of her master tapes. There’s the ‘Lyn Stanley Signature Series’ in which the tapes are duplicated in a highly respected, state-of-the-art studio using the highest quality standards. And then there’s the limited edition ‘Bernie Grundman Signature Series’ in which each tape (the actual tape that you buy and play) is duplicated from the multi-track master at Bernie Grundman’s own studios.
I got the latter versions and so, gracing the inside front cover of each tape box is an oh-so-special ‘Bernie Grundman Studios’ master tape documentation label stating the date, the levels, the EQs, the tape operative’s name, etc, for that specific tape. This really is a master tape from the original mastering studio. And not just any old studio – you’re investing here in a piece of the highest quality musical real-estate. Grundman worked on a quite frankly mind-boggling list of famous LPs, starting back in the early 1970s with Joni Mitchell, the Carpenters, Herb Alpert, Burt Bacharach, Free, James Taylor… The list goes on and on, there must be thousands of top-name albums that Bernie’s mastered over the past 50 years or so. The thought of holding a reel in my hands that was made by those same Grundman hands… well, suddenly the $700 asking price doesn’t seem quite so steep (and for that you do get two reels).
Note: The Lyn Stanley Signature Series version costs slightly less, at $550 for CCIR and $600 for NAB. But if, like me, you’re a sucker for the whole musical DNA thing, then don’t hang about – at the time of writing there are just a few copies left of the Bernie Grundman Signature Series!
All things being equal – or not: NAB versus CCIR
OK, so what I haven’t mentioned until now is that when these tapes arrived, there were two copies of the album (four reels). Why? Well, I was interested in a little experiment…
During the months between first meeting Lyn and receiving the tapes, I’d struck up a conversation with one of the most experienced and knowledgeable guys in the hi-fi and recording industry, the masterful Mr Tim DeParavacini. Tim was explaining to me that in his opinion, Studers didn’t do CCIR that well and that he has modified many of them for some very illustrious customers indeed (think as illustrious as it gets, and then add some). The man’s client list is famously triple-A-star, so who was I to argue?
So when Lyn mentioned that The Moonlight Sessions tapes were available in both CCIR and NAB versions, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to do a bit of a comparison.
Now, having carefully calibrated my Studer A812 for both EQs using my brand new MRL calibration tapes, my expectation was that any difference between the two would be minimal, of no real consequence.
Boy, was I wrong!
First, I listened to the CCIR version. The hi-fi quality was utterly outstanding. The clarity, sound-staging, fine levels of detail… everything was there in jaw-dropping clarity and transparency.
So then I loaded the NAB master, selected NAB replay, rewound the tape (the tapes are supplied ‘tails out’, as they should be), pressed play… and almost fell off my chair. The difference wasn’t subtle at all. It was almost like listening to a different session. The sound was noticeably less ‘hi-fi’, less startlingly clear, less overtly detailed but instead the timbre, the feeling and expression of the singer, the spaces between the singer and the musicians – holy moly. That space wasn’t as ‘black’ as in the CCIR version but it didn’t sound less real for it, in fact it sounded more real, as if the space between the players had air in it rather than a vacuum. All the elements seemed more natural, more like flesh and blood.
Of course the first thing I did having listened to the whole album in both EQs was to go back and check my repro calibration using the MRL tapes. Yep, everything was just as it should be – no mistake. Interesting…
Now, does this mean that from this day forward I’m a confirmed ‘NAB man’? Heck, no. Hi-fi, like life, ain’t quite that simple! For this particular tape, I’ll be keeping the NAB version and returning the CCIR (as excellent as the CCIR was, and with much gratitude to Lyn for initially supplying both so that I could compare and contrast). But that preference is a matter of taste and relates specifically to this particular recording. Others may prefer the sound of the CCIR version, as indeed I might on a different recording. Besides, many of my favourite contemporary recording engineers use CCIR almost exclusively and I fully respect that choice and have no doubt that they have well-informed reasons for making it. Similarly, the vast majority of my current master tape collection is CCIR and I’m very, very happy indeed with every single tape in that collection.
And here’s an interesting post-script… when I mentioned this to Lyn Stanley, she commented that Bernie Grundman does his mastering in NAB. Which got me wondering whether this is the reason I prefer the NAB version in this instance – because the NAB copy master is the same EQ as the source?
Either way, I’ll be curious to conduct a similar comparison another time with a different recording, just to see what occurs. That said, like all things audio, I doubt very much that it’s ever going to be a straightforward question of ‘x is better than y’. And rightly so, dear friends – for if that were not the case then whatever would we all talk / argue about till the wine runs out in the early hours, while spinning our favourite tunes…
On which subject, if you like jazz, particularly the cool vocal jazz typical of the 40s and 50s, and if you’d kill your granny for a snippet of the most superlative sound, then do yourself a favour and have a listen to The Moonlight Sessions. I can’t think of another tape that gets you closer into the A-list recording studio sound. This is analogue at the very highest level. Nothing I can think of sounds even close. May Lyn Stanley’s light continue to shine.
Note: Lyn will soon launch a 7.5ips version priced at $200. If you’re in the market, keep an eye on her website.
Discover more about Lyn and explore / buy her music at lynstanley.com