Monday, May 14, 2012

The Angel record label - a re-evaluation!

 Over the past few years as I've been trolling around the shops for classical LPs I have managed, through trial and error, to gather some good data about record labels and the pressing quality one could expect from those labels. Some patterns have emerged. For instance - it is with good reason that pre-Dynagroove RCA pressings, both Living Stereo and regular mono, are sought after. Found in good shape, those pressings have something special going on that is lost in later RCA pressings. The same can be said for most London Records (import - UK produced) pressings - especially those from the late 60s and early 70s. Great sounding discs from that era. One label that I usually avoided (until now) was the Angel imprint from Capitol / EMI - at least the 50s and 60s era discs. For the longest time I just could not find a single pressing on that label that didn't sound like, well......POOP!

As the years went on through the late 60s into the 70s and 80s, Angel records (basically Capitol Records) started to improve in pressing (and therefore, sound) quality. The label pictured above hails from a US pressing from the mid-to-late 1950s. In the early 60s, the label design changed from red to baby blue like this:
These pressings, many manufactured at the Scranton, PA factory,  were similar in quality to their red-label ancestors. Sometime in the late 60s, a modern logo replaced the blue one:
These brown-label jobs were a bit better than the earlier ones. By this time, the old mono cutting lathes (and practices) were discarded as the industry standard moved to a mostly-stereo format. By the mid-70s, a nice sunset-orange colored logo replaced the brown one - as seen below:
This design lasted into the 1980s, concurrent with an alternate black and tan colored label with the pressing quality improving along with all the other domestic Capitol / EMI releases of the era (shout-out to Wally Traugott and Ken Perry!).
I had picked up a few of the 50s era red-label pressings and was not wowed by any of them. I did, however, keep this one only since it was a pretty good performance of Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto, a pretty unusual recording and I like Emil Gilels. Plus, this record was manufactured in England, as opposed to Scranton. But all to no avail - the record looked clean, but was pretty yucky-sounding. Especially on side one where the first two movements got crammed on (with movement three taking up all of side two). When too much information is squeezed onto one side of an LP, the sound quality gets compromised no matter how talented the mastering engineer is. Here's that Gilels LP:
Notice how the label design features some unique elements - the "Recording Angel" legend as well as the "EMI" legend on the bottom perimeter. It really is a nifty variation on the more common domestic design. But, what good is any of this if the record sounds like a dog?

Over the weekend, I wound up at one of my usual haunts and discovered a bunch of mono Angel red-label pressings in the bins. And they looked stone mint too. Bugger! Here's what I brought home in hopes of better fortunes...........
All of these were domestic pressings with the red-label design. But here's where my record-freak brain kicked in.........they all looked UNPLAYED. How often can you get to hear a stone-mint, unplayed looking record from the 1950s? This is what drove me headfirst into classical vinyl in the first place. The music is great, in most cases, and the wow factor is pretty up there when exploring sounds cut onto vinyl over 50 years ago. In quite a few cases, the sound is really a joy and a wonder. When that happens - it's like a time machine! Years ago I had the chance to buy still-sealed, original black-label RCA Skeeter Davis records from the 1960s. Slicing open the shrink-wrap along the length of the record cover, pulling out the "new-old-stock" LP from the sleeve and playing a "new" vintage LP was such a total high - it was like opening the sarcophagus of King Tut's tomb for me! However, I digress..........

I also recently rescued another old turntable and decided to put this cart on it that I had lying around since the summer.
This is the Audio-Technica 120E. I picked this up used from an online forum I belong to last summer to see how it performed against the more expensive (and my personal favorite) AT 440 MLa  model. Well, I just didn't care for 120E very much so it sat in the box and I wrote it off as a loss. When the new rescue turntable came in, I decided to put 120E on the headshell just to see if it was a decent match. THEN, I played one of those Angel LPs and..........lo and behold! Pretty good sound! This tells me two things:

A.   I can safely pick up more of those Angel pressings if they look good............and............

B.  Most likely I need to replace the needle on my SONY Linear-Tracking turntable pretty soon. As much as I like that Grado Red cart - I can't deny that I've been running the same needle on there for the last five or so years! Though its only in the last year or so that I've put that Grado to work. But, still - time to replace the old stylus there.

As for the music................

Great to hear David Oistrakh performing that Khatchaturian Violin Concerto. Interesting piece (similar in quality to the Piano Concerto) and great tone from the soloist! I have a few other Brahms' Violin Concertos that I like very much. I never heard of Leonid Kogan before, but he's got a great tone too! And what can I say about Beecham? Really enjoyable Greig pieces on that disc. And I've been playing those three records a LOT with the AT 120E.

It just goes to show - better to check your gear before totally writing off a whole record label's output. Now that Angel records are fair game I don't have to shy away from taking a chance on them in the future.


  1. From about 1954 to Capitol's merger with Angel in c.'57, some US Angel pressings were made by RCA pressing plants. Naturally, in those days sound quality would have been hit-or-miss . . . I have one such pressing, of an album of Israeli folk songs by Sharona Aron, whose vinyl was considerably noisier than a UK Columbia pressing I have of the same record (Angel, natch', cut out a few tracks from their release).

    For the most part, up to about the '70's, Capitol had a "master/slave" setup of lacquer cutting, with one lathe initiating the cutting and a second, hooked up to a rod, doing a simultaneous cutting. In April 1963, Capitol altered their codes, revealing three such setups (two mono, one stereo) in Hollywood and four (one mono, one stereo) in New York, thus: F/G (mono, Hollywood), H/J (mono, Hollywood), A/B (stereo, Hollywood), P/T (mono, New York) and W/X (stereo, New York); presumably, the lower letters in each setup were the masters and the higher ones the slaves. The F/G setup was taken offline in spring 1969, with the former letter reused for a Neumann VMS-66 solid-state lathe starting that fall, and G reused for another Neumann beginning in 1975. A/B was retired about 1974, and H/J kept on keepin' on to about 1982 or '83. In New York, P/T lasted to the end of 1971, when that studio installed a Neumann lathe which cut lacquers with an R code; the W/X setup remained until Capitol shuttered its New York outpost in 1975. (Prior to '63, all lacquers cut in Hollywood were designated by D, named after their former base of operations at the Don Lee studios in Melrose where they had been located between 1949 and 1956, and New York lacquers were all marked N.) The stamped 'MASTERED BY CAPITOL' first turned up on both Hollywood and New York lacquers towards the end of 1973.

    1. Thanks for that great Capitol cutting lathe history! I'm a newbie to decoding matrix info etched into the deadwax on LPs so this is quite welcome information indeed! I'm always interested in learning more about the record cutting process and the equipment used since it can tell a lot about the potential sound of a record before you even play it. Thanks for stopping by and sharing that great knowledge! Cheers!

  2. Great research. I appreciate the time it took and enjoy the information.

  3. Thanks for stopping by and the kind words. Sorry I didn't notice your comment until today. I suspect the notifications I used to get are winding up in my spam folder unfortunately.