an essay by Bas Möllenkramer
Flames audio restoration from vinyl to digital media
A report by Bas
Many CD’s you buy in the shops or online are made by first locating the original master tapes that the artists recorded in the studio and then transferring these to the digital domain for CD manufacture. Sadly it isn’t possible to use this process to make excellent sounding CD’s of those wonderful old Flames records, for the simple reasons that the needed master tapes were lost is a factory fire in the early 70’s. So if we want to hear the Flames music with the best possible sound quality, we have to resort to alternative solutions.
Here at the Flames collection we have been attempting to transfer Flames music from vinyl to CD for a number of years and with each successive attempt the technology and our skills improve, delivering better results. Recently it was decided to implement a quantum leap in audio improvement by exchanging the CD-standard 16-bit equipment for new 24-bit systems. Put simply, digital equipment changes smoothly flowing sound waves into little steps like piled-up toy bricks. The change from 16 bits to 24 bits means the steps become far, far smaller thereby achieving a closer approach to the original sound wave.
SACD or DVDA
The familiar compact disc or CD has two new competitors, Super Audio CD or SACD and DVD-Audio or DVD-A. Both sound superb, delivering sound far superior to normal CD’s. The SACD format is impregnable for DIY use and therefore the DVD-A format was chosen. With the appearance of new cheap-and-cheerful software it has been possible to create DVD-A’s at home, starting with 24-bit audio files.
Burning Soul and Soulfire
The two Flames albums from 1967 and 1968, Burning Soul and Soulfire are landmark recordings, showcasing the Flames superb musicianship and also the producer’s and engineer’s ability to deliver stunning sound with fairly limited equipment. Both albums were widely available in mono, with true stereo versions being rather rarer due to their late market introduction. It was decided to transfer the stereo versions to the new 24-bit format and then to DVD-A.
The Flames collection has a near-mint copy of Burning Soul, on the South African Rave label. This was played on a Technics SP 10 Mk-II deck fitted with an SME 3009 Mk-II arm and an Ortofon MC-20 moving coil cartridge. The arm was also fitted with the viscous damper modification to reduce resonances. The sound from this album was so clean that very little declicking was required. While it was tempting to introduce modifications like making quiet tracks a little louder, it was ultimately decided to change nothing. So all the tunes are at their original levels relative to each other and even the times-between-tracks have been maintained.
The Soulfire album proved harder to get right. The Flames collection has three apparently identical stereo pressings on the original black Rave label. All three show some wear and all three gave a noisy response when played on the record deck mentioned above. It seems likely that the superb Ortofon cartridge traces the groove fairly deeply, thereby picking up a lot of noise from dirt.
Maarten de Boer, musician and audio engineer with a lifelong experience in live and recorded sound, owns and runs The Masters. This Netherlands-based company turns studio tapes into CD master tapes on a routine basis, as well as performing specialised non-standard jobs like transferring vinyl to CD. What sets Maarten aside from so many of his colleagues is his ability to listen both technically and with his heart.
We took those three copies of Soulfire to Maarten and asked for his help. The results were truly astounding. First all three records were critically auditioned to assess which was the best candidate. Besides the usual groove crackle, Maarten was also able to hear which record showed the least wear. Although all three came from the same factory they nevertheless sounded different, and by closely examining the shape of the black plastic under the labels, it could be proven that the discs were actually pressed on three different machines.
A suitable candidate was finally chosen and then cleaned on a professional record cleaning machine, made by Keith Monks. A liquid cleaner is brushed into the grooves under pressure while the disc rotates rapidly. A small vacumm cleaner then removes the residu leaving a record as clean as the day it was pressed.
This cleaned record was then played on Maarten’s own Technics SP10 Mk-II plus SME 3009 Mk-II-with-damper combination, this time fitted with the top of the Ortofon range, the legendary Jubilee. The signal was fed to a Lehmann Audio Black Cube preamplifier and from there to some very esoteric and totally unaffordable digital studio equipment manufactured by Swiss company Weiss. The monitoring was done through two Bowers and Wilkins Model 808 loudspeakers powered individually by two Bryston amplfiers set up in bridge mode. Even after cleaning, some crackle and noise will always remain on a vinyl disc. Maarten is able to deal with crackle in real time using the Cedar Audio declicker.
At this point we should mention that this audio system is no accident and has been assembled over many years by selectively choosing the best sounding device for each purpose. Maarten’s system delivers truly staggering audio performance, generally sounding far better (and louder) than many so-called “high-end” systems. The room acoustics, or lack of them, are also a vital part of this system. The room was designed by Sean Davies, one of the foremost studio designers in the UK. This setup is consistently able to reveal new musical information previously buried or unheard.
Maarten transferred the Soulfire album to digital storage using 96 kHz sampling and 24-bits digital resolution. Never before has this great Flames album sounded so good. Due to the master tapes being lost, one is left with an overpowering feeling that “This is as good as it gets”. Being present during this transfer process has been most educational. If you truly go to extremes, then superb sound is possible from vinyl. After editing and some further cleaning the files were burnt to DVD+R using the DVD-Audio-Solo software from Cirlinca. The result is a moving musical experience.
The Flames collection extends a very special thank you and fond gratitude to Maarten de Boer of The Masters in the Netherlands from helping to preserve the Flames music at the limit of attainable audio quality.
So how far do we go to restore the Flames? All the way!
The Flames http://www.the-flames.com
The Masters http://www.themasters.nl/
Bowers & Wilkins http://www.bwspeakers.com/
Keith Monks http://www.keithmonks-rcm.co.uk/
DVD-Audio Solo http://www.cirlinca.com/
DVD-A vs CD http://www.howstuffworks.com/question344.htm
This piece about Blondie Chaplin's records was published by www.sarockdigest.co.za early in 2001
How many great rock singers do you know? Quite a few, right? And how many of them write all their own tunes? Perhaps you realize that the playing field is becoming a little less well populated. And of those left in play, how many also play superb acoustic guitar, electric guitar and wonderfully tasteful compact guitar solos? And keyboards and bass? And out of that small community, how many do you know who are true originals, with an instantly recognizable style that appeals to a broad range of rock tastes? Let’s write their names down for fun: Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Lindsay Buckingham, Pete Townshend maybe……come on think hard now……..no it’s gone. Oh yes, Trevor Rabin. Now add the prodigiously talented Terence William “Blondie” Chaplin to the list. It’s a mystery why he isn’t at the very pinnacle of his chosen profession. Perhaps he is totally satisfied putting out an average of one album every ten years, and in between supporting other stars in their endeavors. Blondie Chaplin is due to turn 50 this year, having played a leading role in the successful export of the Flames from South Africa to England and America, after joining them at the very tender age of 16. He also helped form the best 70’s albums produced by the Beach Boys, giving voice to the classic Sail On Sailor. Between his departure from the Beach Boys in late 1973 and the present day just three solo albums were recorded, Blondie Chaplin, Ostrich Man (with the band Skollie) and Fragile Thread. Only the first two of these have seen the light of day, the third being anticipated any day now.
Blondie Chaplin (often mistakenly titled “Rock
& Roll”, due to the graffiti on the sleeve photo)
Asylum Records 1977
On this first solo outing Blondie Chaplin is bursting with energy. The list of guest musicians is impressive, featuring amongst others Richard Tee and the Band’s Garth Hudson. The drums are played by none other than old Flames and Beach Boys ally, Ricky Fataar. The album is dedicated to Henry Chaplin, shown in an old sepia coloured photo, playing a banjo. Presumably this is Blondie’s father, providing the musical heritage. On the whole the album has a overproduced feel, with Blondie trying to find his own musical direction. There are a few stand-out tracks, like Can You Hear Me, with its backward guitar solo and Lonely Traveler with its atmospheric piano introduction. But on the whole, the album would have benefited from a looser, more open mix or perhaps even a live recording. The album’s main flaw is that Blondie Chaplin is trying to write songs in an existing mold. He is deliberately writing for his audience, instead of for himself, and catering for what he believes they want. Still it makes a good listen, even after nearly a quarter of a century.
Ostrich Man (recorded with the band Skollie)
PVB Records 1992
This South African release reveals that Blondie Chaplin has succeeded in finding his own voice and writing uncompromising songs for himself. In this respect Ostrich Man is an immense step forward from the first solo album. Despite it’s brief playing time and poor availability, this is a terrific Blondie Chaplin record, featuring fresh new songs, challenging playing and great recording quality. Although there is strong evidence that Blondie Chaplin was influenced by Sting’s Dream Of The Blue Turtles and Paul Simon’s Graceland, both of which were still fresh in everybody’s mind at the time of Ostrich Man’s release, he nevertheless manages to leave his peers behind in a flurry of originality. Blondie Chaplin displays his consummate mastery of a wide range of guitar styles, from huge heavy rhythmic riffs to gentle backing melodies played on a Leslie’d Les Paul, vaguely reminiscent of George Harrison. Ostrich Man is a fine record, and if you can find one it is warmly recommended to all Blondie Chaplin fans. Wait for the goose bumps to hit on the power-ballad No Victim No Crime. The ultimate Blondie Chaplin album however, waits patiently in the wings….
Fragile Thread First release expected very soon
Any day now we may look forward to the new Blondie Chaplin solo album, nine years after Ostrich Man. Rumours abound that Blondie Chaplin has a bit of help on this album, from a few members of the Rolling Stones, with whom he toured extensively a few years ago. Fragile Thread is a tremendous record, and we find Blondie Chaplin creating a whole new playing field all for himself. The quality of the singing and playing and the warmth of the songs themselves, make this a definitive statement. One of the albums up-tempo songs “52 Letters” has already received its live debut on an obscure charity concert video recorded in Chicago by the Nicolas Tremulis band a few years ago. Due to the appearance of the Band’s Rick Danko, the concert is suitably titled The First Waltz. Another very powerful song “Semolina” was played live by the three remaining Flames in South Africa as part of their reunion concert appearance in late 2000. Regrettably this reviewer was unable to attend the show, in part due to the small matter of 15 000 km. And a third song, “Where I Should Always Be” was premiered on the Band’s comeback album, High On The Hog, from 1996 on which Blondie Chaplin participated. One of the albums heart-stopping moments is the sparsely accompanied “When I’m Walking” where we hear just Blondie’s voice and acoustic guitar, superbly driven on by some stunning Hammond organ playing, and nothing else, no bass, no drums, nothing. So we continue to wait patiently for Fragile Thread to hit the shops. If you only have money for one new CD this month, then hold everything, and put it aside for Fragile Thread, from the incomparable Blondie Chaplin.
(this review was added after the publication by www.sarockdigest.co.za )
Picaresque by Ray Ohara
Eastworld Records 1988
Japanese bass player Ray Ohara is known as a member of the Sadistic Mika Band and also as a member of the Bump Band, which accompanied Bonnie Raitt for a time. In 1988 he recorded a hard-to-find solo album which was released in Japan only. All the songs have English-language lyrics and all are sung by Blondie Chaplin, making this almost another Blondie Chaplin solo album. There are ten tunes in all and the entire album has a typical over-produced 1980's high-tech feel. This is due both to the actual songs and the technical production. Happily there are some standout Blondie Chaplin performances, notably on the superb ballad Everything I Ever Had, which has the added bonus of a gorgeous slide guitar played by none other than Bonnie Raitt. She sings on it too. This tune alone makes the album well worth seeking out. Good luck!
This is the Flames' first album. There is no date to be found so 1966
seems the most reasonable estimate, since the second album is from 1967. The album
features two Beatles and two Buddy Holly covers. The title track is thought to be the
b-side of Buddy Holly's Rave On single, and it must have been a popular slow
song at dances. Other covers are from Manfred Mann, Ray Charles and the Everly Brothers
(misspelled in the sleeve notes). The opening number is of course Roy Orbison's classic.
The song line-up provides us with a look in their record cabinets.
Remarkable facts about the album is that Ricky Fataar, the drummer, was 12 years old
at the time, having started music at the tender age of nine. The band was so proud of
their new instruments that they displayed them on the front and wrote about them on the
back. Brother Fataar is seen with a Paul McCartney style Hofner violin bass. Steve Fataar
has a double cutaway Gretsch Country Gentleman and Fredericks a Gibson ES-335. Presumably
Ricky's drums and all the amplifiers were similarly serious stuff. They must have been in
debt up to their eyeballs. On the plus side the record has some fine playing, Ricky's
drumming sounding advanced for his age and Steve already a serious lick-puller. The whole
band has effortless command of harmony singing, and the song selection must have made it a
great party album. My copy has certainly seen many battered gramophones and blunt needles.
Note: the liner notes for the album were written by Bing Kinsey
This is the Flames' contribution to the summer of love, being released in April 1967. Although there are no group credits on the sleeve, it would appear that Edries Fredericks was given another chance to tune up his singing. And it is marginally better. But nothing compared to the stunning singing Blondie Chaplin was to bring to the group later, but that's jumping the gun. The repertoire is already starting to shift slightly from pop-tunes like the Beatles, towards Motown and Atlantic soul, featuring songs by the Temptations, the Four Tops and Otis Redding. There's even a song by the Merseybeats. The album features the first attempt to cover Jerry Butler's fifties classic For You Precious Love, staying true to the original format, therefore minus spoken intro. But the killer track is oddly an intrumental, Ramsey Lewis' the "In" Crowd. It's over four minutes long, symphonic by 1967 standards, and features a seriously grooving Steve Fataar, obviously delighted at the terrific sound his guitar is giving him. Brother Fataar even attempts a mini-solo on the bass. Now why do I keep thinking of the Grateful Dead when I hear this? The front sleeve is abstract, and the rear features advertisments for the Flames' first album and a bunch of Fontana artists, being the Troggs, the Spencer Davis Group, the New Vaudeville Band, Manfred Mann, the Mindbenders (with a very young pre-10cc Eric Stewart) and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Micky and Tich. There are no production credits anywhere. So it's a toss-up between Heatlie and Beggs.
According to the historical sleeve notes of the recent CD issue, this album went gold in two days. While we might credit the record company executives with fertile imaginations, it is nevertheless possible to believe, because it's without doubt a killer album. There's a problem with dates though. The stereo version of this and the subsequent Soulfire album both state August 1968, while the mono copy of Soulfire states April 1968 and the mono copy of Burning Soul states October 1967. So in both cases the mono versions were available well in advance of the stereo, perhaps explaining the rarity of good stereo copies. Everyone already had the mono records! The stereo copy of this album was cut in London by Philips/Phonogram, as proved by the 420 inscription in the "mirror", the clear part between the end of the music and the paper label. Perhaps Teal were on the verge of introducing stereo locally. Burning Soul is a stunning soul compilation introducing for the first time the bluesy voice of newcomer Blondie Chaplin. He gave the band a much more recognizable and unique sound. Later he would contribute the same individuality to three Beach Boys' albums. Listen to Leaving This Town from In Concert. The songs on Burning Soul are covers from Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Aaron Neville, Joe Tex, Eddie Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. The playing has vastly improved, featuring a keen rhythmic interplay between Blondie Chaplin on rhythm guitar and Steve Fataar on lead guitar. The srereo mix is very much locked in the sixties, with the drums all the way over on one side and both guitars on the other side. But the album still sounds terrific. With the characteristically thin punchy bass guitar sound typical of the era, the bass drum has an equally prominent bass contribution. But the studio owner must have been very proud of his new reverberation equipment, because reverb is added liberally to this record. This great album paved the way for the pinnacle in the Flames' career.
This is my favourite Flames album and one of my desert island discs. For many years I had to make do with a worn mono copy, until I managed after eighteen months of internet surfing to locate and purchase a stereo copy, which revealed the arrangements in all their glory for the first time. The stereo version was not cut in the same studio as the record above, so maybe locally. I suspect the songs were recorded at the same time as Burning Soul but the repertoire is more varied, and there is more liberal use of razor-sharp brass arrangements. There are covers of songs by Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and two by Jerry Butler. A second stab is made at For Your Precious Love, this time with a spoken monologue intro, which may well have evolved as a night club act. This is the version which on release as a single took the Flames to the number one slot for weeks on end. In fact in Southern Africa this song is associated more with the Flames than with Jerry Butler. For the first time three songs are credited to Fataar, although we aren't informed which one. My guess is Steve Fataar, often seen as leader of the band. The first is Useless Illusions, in which the melody is stolen outright from Nights In White Satin by the Moody Blues. The second is Wishes, an album filler of no special note other than a ferocious drum cadenza to end it off. This drum break most clearly demonstrates the incredible reverb which gives these records such atmosphere. The third, Solitude, is an obvious reference to George Harrison's Within You Without You from Sgt. Pepper. The instruments are mostly sitar, with a typical Indian sounding melody. It's a lovely track, helping very much to vary the pace before the concluding song of the album. The name Fataar is Indian and it is my belief that the Fataar brothers are musically demonstrating their Indian heritage here for the first time.Perhaps they played sitar in family circles. Soulfire's closing track is a cover of a cover. The Supremes had a hit with You Keep Me Hanging On. The Vanilla Fudge did some radical surgery on the song, transforming it into a six-minute drama piece. I'm tempted to believe the Flames first did it as a straight cover, Supremes style, then flipped on hearing the Fudge's 1967 debut album. On the rear of the otherwise abstract sleeve, the Flames are shown wearing traditional Indian tunics, more references to their heritage. All the tracks on this album shine in one way or another. If You Think You're Groovy was first recorded by P.P. Arnold on her First Lady Of Immediate album, where she is supported by the Small Faces. The song is written by Marriott and Lane. The original is poorly recorded, starting much too quietly and never quite getting off the ground. The Flames more than do the song justice, injecting a few thousand volts of energy and tearing the refrain to pieces, generally producing some serious goosebumps. And so it goes on. I don't know where the song Restless comes from. But they'd sure love to hear the precision brass playing which gives the breaks their potent frenzy. And Useless Illusions, despite being stolen, turns out to be more moody than the Moody Blues themsleves.
This in many ways is a mixed up album. Lead singer is Una Valli. All I know about her is what I can learn from this record. One thing is sure. She a major fan of Aretha Franklin and not a bad singer herself. On the album she is backed by two major South African soul bands, the Flames and The Peanut Butter Conspiracy. I suspect this is a different group to the American group of the same name. The album sleeve differentiates the songs played by each of these bands. The Flames songs are Satisfaction, Tell Mama, Reach Out I'll Be There, You Are My Sunshine, Take Me For A Little While and Stop Thief.. I'll wager all six were on the Flames own repertoire. I haven't seen or heard a stereo copy of this record, but I suspect it's out there, it's catalogue number being slap-bang in the middle between Burning Soul and Soulfire. In fact all three albums form sort of time-locked tryptich of Durban Soul. The record features the same walloping reverb as its counterparts. Its fun to listen to, and Ms. Valli, whatever her real name is, does all these soul standards justice, except Yesterday, which just gets by.
This is a compilation album from 1970, probably cashing in after the group had gone to the United States to work for and with the Beach Boys. It's a typical cash-in album, as demonstrated by the following. First the sleeve is a poor remake of the excellent abstract sleeve for That's Enough, with a smaller picture, crass lettering and non-glossy paper. Secondly, the album features the Flames biggest hit For Your Precious Love, as claimed in the subtitle on the front. But they used the older version, not the hit-single version. So many buyers will have been dissappointed to hear a lesser known version of the monster hit. Thirdly, the sleeve claims that this is a stereo record, but it's mono. In fact claiming stereo is preposterous, since all the songs are from the early part of their career, when only mono was available to them. All but two tracks are from the first two albums, the exceptions being Don't Play That Song, a 1965 single and Glory Of Love. As a compendium of early Flames material it is nevertheless a good record, focusing on the best tracks.
Teal records in South Africa assembled songs from Burning Soul and Soulfire into what should have been an excellent Flames compilation. Unfortunatley the master tapes of the Flames albums are lost for good (see "The Lost Tapes" elsewhere on this website) and so this Compact Disc had to be mastered from records. It would seem by listening to the CD that the engineers at Teal only had a mono copy of Soulfire available to them, in addition to a stereo copy of Burnign Soul. It's feasible to make CD's from records, but it requires high preformance computers and software to get rid of pops and clicks without disturbing the music. This was demonstrated succesfully back in 1976 when Soundstream restored Caruso recordings from the beginning of this century. The Flames CD was mastered using second rate equipment and the result is disappointing. It is my belief better results can be obtained using top of the line declicking and denoising equipment, and searching for mint condition copies of the original records in true stereo.
This CD cannot unfortunately be recommended. If it is your only way to hear the Flames then buy it, but be aware the records sound far better.