Before we get into some sonic histrionics of this storied British Label and its British Artists, let’s get into some history. Hopefully, the following will reveal some clues as to what makes Lyrita unique. Please feel free to comment with contributions and we will update this post.
In October 1959, Lyrita began mail order subscription of Lyrita Recorded Edition. Founder Richard Itter, businessman and record collector, was determined to make quality recordings. Itter produced, engineered, edited, and recorded these early Recorded Edition releases in the music room of his own country home. Pianist Margaret Kitchin recalls recording Michael Tippett's Fantasy Sonata with the composer lying on the floor during takes. At the lunch Itter's mother had cooked, "Michael talked a lot," Kitchin remembered, adding "Michael spoke French quite badly." Clearly Itter was intimately involved early on with all of the Lyrita recordings.
By the early 60s, Itter had expanded his efforts, contracting Decca for orchestral recordings and preferring the services of legendary recording engineer Kenneth Wilkinson, a "wizard with mikes - nothing sounded artificial - his subtle technique was fabulous". In reality, a host of Decca engineers were used and we’ll try to make note of them in our reviews by referring to the recent excellent CD releases with their engineering notes. Lyrita issued the monaural RCS series, and stereophonic SRCS series beginning at SRCS.31.
Phil Rees Record Buying Guide states, "Despite what has been said in some sources about Lyrita pressings, I have never heard any bad sounding Lyrita, regardless of pressing. The earliest were pressed by Decca and were, in my view, the best. Then came Nimbus pressings. Finally there were a number of different pressing sources including EMI.
The basic rule is that the lower the SRCS number the more likely it is to be a Decca pressing. Conversely, with the higher SRCS numbers it is increasingly unlikely to be a Decca pressing. Beyond SRCS116 most were never pressed by Decca at all, but were pressed by Numbus. So it can confidently be said that there is either a Decca or a Numbus pressing for every Lyrita.
The Decca pressings are easily recognised by the fact that the engraving on the vinyl carries a stamper number in the standard Decca SXL typeface, and is of the form ZLY-nnnn-na, e.g. ZY-5069-G2. This engraving will be found on the vinyl on both sides of the record.
Nimbus pressings are also readily identified (though more care is needed): Somewhere on the vinyl you will find engraved the word "NIMBUS" on top of the word "ENGLAND", but this engraving is very small.
The pressings after this have 'hand written' scrawl on the vinyl and are easiest identified by the negative fact that they have neither Decca nor NIMBUS engravings."
We will comment on the pressings and recordings as we go through our Lyrical Lyrita Series. Unfortunately, little is known of the history of Mr. Itter’s involvement in the Decca recording process. I suspect he was there offering encouragement and input for many of the recordings. Perhaps he stayed hands off, unlike Decca which did have some requirements/standards in the recording process, but I suspect he was quite involved in some choices which would account for the unique Lyrita sound.
And with our history complete, we move onto some sonic histrionics. Lyrita has always been a label with an elusive sound quality. By that I mean, one where others say it is great, but it never quite seems so great on one’s own system. Mr. Salvatore of Supreme Recordings fame admits that it might be consistently the best label, but only the best Lyrita’s are in the third tier basic list:
ALWYN/BUSH/BERKELEY/MACONCHY-LYRITA SRCS 57
ARNOLD-ENGLISH, SCOTTISH AND CORNISH DANCES-LYRITA SRCS 109
HOLST-JAPANESE SUITE/BLISS-MELEE FANTASQUE-LYRITA SRCS 50
None make the Supreme Recordings Divinity or Demi-God list.
Lyritas have been elusive for me until some recent noise/sound floor improvement, but that still only got me to the point where I thought Salvatore had them classified correctly. They had a decent sound floor, but they clearly were not great. My ears were opened a few months ago on a friend’s quad system. Here were the lyrical Lyrita highs with a truly unique sound quality that one could call fast.
At the same time I also brought over some recently acquired basic list Decca recordings. Why do I mention this? Because all Lyrita releases were recorded by Decca engineers and most of the LPs were pressed by Decca in their original incarnations. And what of those Decca recordings? On my system they seem fine, but with a bit of a “recordy” sound (like an old LP, as in a bad one). On the Quads, they might be even less remarkable and so once again we are back to the elusive Lyrita and the question of why do they sound so different from Decca?
I’ve been playing Lyrita’s recently as I’ve made system improvements, but the lyrical Lyrita of the Quad’s still eluded my grasp. Twice this last week I’ve taken over Lyrita’s and Decca to the Quadophile’s system to further explore the situation. There all Lyritas were awesome. The Decca Lyrita pressings played favored the highs slightly less than the Nimbus or EMI pressings, but were still Lyrical extending this feeling into the midrange. Finally this weekend, something changed in my system (I believe a retuning of some speaker levels with the right midrange L-pad moving up 3 dB). Now, the Lyritas appear to be eminently lyrical on my own system which has spurred the commencement of this Lyrical Lyrita Series of reviews (40 releases on hand.)
At this point, clearly to my ears, Lyrita is underrated in the Supreme Recordings. I’ll be listening back and forth on both systems as much as I can in order to decipher what might be the key parameters and attributes required for a system to speak Lyrita. At this point, the hypotheses are:
1. Low sound floor – important, but perhaps not the key sonic requirement
2. Fast transducers – planar speakers like Quads seem to do well, but still at best only part of the picture.
3. Flat in room bass response – I measured the bass response of the Quads at the listening position and the flatness of the bass response was scary. Good luck achieving this with dynamic subwoofers and speakers; you’ll need a lot of bass traps ($).
4. Bass definition – really the whole spectrum cannot have any tube flabbiness or the clarity will be smeared. I suspect this is the least critical factor, but may be where my system has closed the gap the most.
It will be fascinating chasing down the elusive Lyrita sound in the upcoming series and hopefully this will be of help in maximizing our reader’s enjoyment of this fine label.