How to Listen: Roy Orbison
Roy Orbison had one of the most magnificent and distinctive voices of all time. It’s been called “operatic” so many times as to become the go-to cliché when describing it, but it’s true. He could hit stratospheric high notes or sing in a near-whisper. I saw him perform live more than 10 times, and his voice could vibrate you. More importantly, no one’s singing had as much emotional impact. Just listen to magnificent classics like “Crying,” “It’s Over,” and “Running Scared.” If you’re not moved, you’re dead.
The good news: Thankfully, Roy Orbison’s early albums on the Monument label are wonderfully recorded in stereo, with his voice captured in all its glory by the masterful Bill Porter, who sadly passed away in 2010. (Orbison recorded a number of
sides for Sun Records previously, but these were before his first hit, “Only the Lonely,” on Monument.)
Porter worked out of RCA Studios in 1960s Nashville and as such was one of the architects of “The Nashville Sound.” In addition to Orbison, Porter recorded Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, the Everly Brothers, and many others, including Elvis, for whom he also mixed live sound. He was exacting and expert enough to install room treatment in the RCA recording studio upon his hiring when he thought the acoustics weren’t good enough, and to create new vocal recording techniques. (I was fortunate to have met him a number of times, and he was also one of the kindest people I’ve ever known and generous to share his knowledge.) Later, he also recorded at Monument Studios, where “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “It’s Over” were produced.
Orbison released four albums in his classic Monument period: Lonely and Blue (1961), Crying (1962), In Dreams (1963) and Orbisongs (1965), which contained his last big hit, the titanic “Oh, Pretty Woman.” There are also a few original Monument compilation albums: Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (1962), More of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (1964), The Very Best of Roy Orbison (1966), and The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison (1972, 2-LP).
After that he went to MGM and never achieved his past chart glories—nor his Monumental sound.
The sound created by Porter, producer Fred Foster, and engineer Tommy Strong is breathtaking—full-bodied, lush, enveloping, and detailed but not in any hyped-up “audiophile” manner. It’s simply some of the best recorded sound you’ll ever hear, with a perfect balance of Orbison’s and the background singers’ vocals and instruments along with the room sound and some added reverb. This is all the more impressive considering most (or maybe all—I haven’t been able to determine this definitively) of these recordings were done “live” in the studio with all the musicians and singers performing together. The dynamic contrasts are also among the widest ever captured during the era—“Running Scared” was recorded with an astounding 25dB dynamic range.
Not that the sound is perfect. On the first Monument recordings, RCA only had the budget to install studio reverb on one of the two stereo channels, but Porter used it so artfully that you’d never know without listening carefully, and even good stereo systems may not resolve this.
HOWEVER: There are so many re-issues and remasterings of Roy Orbison’s material on vinyl, CD and streaming/ download that it’s virtually impossible to keep track of them. And the remasterings vary significantly in quality. Some of the worst-sounding re-issues, like the shamefully flat,
opaque, and bass-deficient 2013 The Monument Album Collection are available in 24-bit/96kHz Hi-Res Audio.
Which hammers home an even more important point: Just because an album is offered in high-resolution audio doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to sound better.
I know I’m going to sound like a vinyl snob here, but I’ve heard nothing that comes close to the sound of the original vinyl pressings and certain re-issues, like the out-of-print DCC Compact Classics LP remastering of The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison, which ranks among my personal all-time greatest sounding Orbison discs. (And not all vinyl pressings sound the same—check the postscript from my friend and colleague Michael Fremer of Analog Planet and Stereophile.) The first three albums, on Qobuz in 24/96 Hi-Res Audio, lose some depth and sparkle, though they’re pretty darn good. (Orbisongs isn’t available on Qobuz.)
As a result, all the following comments are made with the assumption that you are listening using good source material.
A quick test to see if your system is any good: It may be hard to believe but on the earlier songs, Porter felt Orbison’s voice needed some strengthening, so he added a “slap-back” tape delay to beef it up. An example: On “Only the Lonely,” towards the end of the song where Orbison sings, “but that’s the chance/you’ve gotta take,” on the “k” sound of “take,” you should hear a distinct, quick echo. It’s faint but if you don’t hear this, either your system can’t resolve it or you’re listening to a lousy remastering. You can also hear this slap-back effect on “Blue Angel” and other songs.
The Porter sound gives you a wide and deep soundspace, though you will hear some hard left and right panning, as on “In Dreams” where the electric bass and rhythm guitars are in the left channel and the strings and chorus in the right. It’s a big sound. The strings on all the Monument material should have extended highs but never be steely. Orbison’s voice should always be pure, present, and rich, with no mistracking or stridency whatsoever, ever. Since this material was recorded live in the studio, the balances have a natural “feel” to them—you can really hear that everyone’s playing together.
“Crying” has one of the most demanding tests for system resolution I know. At the beginning, there’s an acoustic guitar, some softly-struck tom toms—and a ride cymbal with rivets in it. On a good system, you should be able to get a palpable sense of the rivets in the cymbal “sizzling,” and on a great one, feel like you’re hearing the individual rivets. Sadly, on some remasterings, even including the Qobuz hi-res 24/96 version, you’ll be lucky to hear this.
On “Dream Baby,” the sax should have body and weight, sounding closer to someone playing a real sax than a recorded facsimile thereof. In “It’s Over,” listen for the “rush” of the strings in the left channel as they go in and out—it’s a subtle but thrilling effect. That song, along with “Oh, Pretty Woman,” was recorded in a different studio (Monument) than the others (RCA) and you can plainly hear this in the drier, less reverb-washed sound. On “Oh Pretty Woman,” the drums have a great natural-sounding presence and tone, especially the snare, which irresistibly drives this beyond-great song. And listen for the
Postscript: Roy Orbison on Vinyl
I corresponded with analog expert Michael Fremer to get his impressions on various Monument pressings. He responded:
The original LP of The All-Time Greatest Hits of Roy Orbison is not great. The DCC Compact Classics reissue of that album is good. Then there was the Mobile Fidelity reissue. But I’m not sure if any of those are as good as the original Monument mastering of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits and More of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits—but, only one original mastering of each of those is really good and there are three different masterings!
I have multiple copies of the original Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (catalog number SLP 18000). They have the early laminated covers with the yellow ‘flag” on top. There are two versions, both with the same green/yellow label, but one says “Hendersonville, Tennessee” at the bottom and one says “Monument Record Corp, Made in USA.” That one sounds like nothing compared to the “Hendersonville” one! [I have other copies with different nomenclature. Guess Fremer and I are going to have to have a listening party. —FD]
More of Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits (catalog number SLP19024) has “Hendersonville” on the label as well and sounds great! But there are also later copies that were mastered by Columbia Records with the “Columbia” stamp and those suck. STAY AWAY, even though the jacket is the older Monument one and looks similar, but it’s not laminated and doesn’t have the “flag” logo.
multiple electric and acoustic guitars, including a very subtle acoustic rhythm guitar that’s snuck in there.
Roy Orbison left Monument in 1964 and recorded many subsequent albums on MGM. As noted, he never had another hit while on MGM, or came close to the Monument sound. Or did he?
Original MGM LPs are seriously lacking in dynamics, transparency, and depth. However, in 2015, Universal Music/Roy’s Boys released Roy Orbison: The MGM Years, and it’s an absolutely superb remastering of every single album Orbison ever cut for the label. Where the original LPs range from mediocre to decent, the Qobuz hi-res versions are stunning—clear and detailed, with excellent depth and tonality. The comparison between the original vinyl and the new versions (available in various formats) is actually kind of shocking. Now this is an example of remastering done right!
The music ranges from some choice almost-hit cuts like “Crawling Back,” “Breaking Up Is Breaking My Heart”
and “Cry Softly, Lonely One,” to satisfying country material such as “You Fool You” and a cover of Don Gibson’s “(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time,” to just plain awful, like “Twinkle Toes” and pretty much the entire The Fastest Guitar Alive soundtrack. Still, there are a number of gems to be found.
After the MGM years, Roy’s popularity declined, until, as most of us probably know, his rediscovery and career resurrection in the mid-1980s. This is exemplified on the 1988 Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night DVD, now available remastered on Blu-ray, CD, and streaming. He released a number of post-MGM albums, although personally, I don’t find any of them sonically exceptional with the exception of one song, “Love s a Cold Wind” from 1979’s Laminar Flow (Asylum Records). This is late 1970s multitrack recording at its finest, a beautiful song beautifully recorded. His 1989 comeback album, Mystery Girl (Virgin), has (mostly) excellent songs served by good sound, with clarity and a deep soundspace, but the production is too “squared off” for my taste, with everything sounding like it’s locked to a grid. Sadly, after a life of personal tragedies and health problems, Roy left us all too soon in 1988 at the age of 52.
I am surprised that Roy Orbison’s life and legacy have not been honored with a definitive high-resolution remastering of the classic Monument catalog. Perhaps it will come.