Friday, November 6, 2009

Michael Fremer Review

I am very proud to continue our feature (look for this every Friday), music reviews that are written by the senior contributing editor of Stereophile magazine- Michael Fremer. It has been a pleasure to speak with Michael and learn more about audio sound and equipment. In fact, his new DVD, "It's A Vinyl World, After All" has hit the shelves and is selling out very quickly. This is a must have for anybody who loves vinyl, it is a true masterpiece.

Neil Young (new reissue)
Neil Young Official Release Series Discs 1-4 Box Set

Warner Brothers/Reprise 4 180g LP, numbered Box Set
Produced by: Neil Young, Jack Nitzsche, David Briggs, Elliot Mazer, others
Engineered by: various engineers
Mixed by: various mixers
Mastered by: Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering

Review by: Michael Fremer

When Buffalo Springfield broke up, Neil Young set about building his solo career. The high-production work with Jack Nitzsche that had created classics like “Expecting to Fly” and “Broken Arrow” brought Neil back to the producer/keyboardist/orchestrator, who gained fame working with Phil Spector but the results on Young’s eponymous debut album were not as memorable. In fact, many critics and fans alike back in 1969 considered the album a disappointment and a misstep.

The “overproduction” charge was compounded by two issues: first was the original mix that buried Young’s voice, second was the label’s disastrous choice to master using the Haeco-CSG system. Invented by Howard Holzer, A&M’s chief engineer, Haeco-CSG was about cost cutting not sonic improvement.

By the late ‘60s, stereo had taken hold among album buying youngsters but most rock was still heard on AM radio or FM in the car, which was mostly monophonic. Stereo records played back monophonically usually produced terrible results: folding stereo down to mono upped common L/R information by 3 dB, which is major. That means vocals placed in both channels so they’d appear in the phantom center channel would be way too loud in mono. Not many rock singers of the era needed that kind of exposure, so Holzer invented a system to deal with the problem.

Unfortunately, his solution was to phase-shift common L/R right information so that it didn’t get the 3dB boost. Imagine, though, what happened to image focus and soundstage clarity! It produced a sonic mess that ruined many releases of the era, including Neil’s debut and Roots The Everly Brothers’ superb “comeback” album that inexplicably hasn’t been reissued yet on vinyl.

Neil remixed the first album, made sure it was mastered without Haeco-CSG and put a wide banner with his name on it at the top of the front cover in an effort to save the debut but it was too late. The album never recovered. Relatively rare original pressings with the first cover, mix and Haeco-CSG processing were quite collectible for a time, going for hundreds of dollars. I’m not sure what the going rate is today.

Time has actually been kind to Young’s debut. “The Loner” and “I’ve Been Waiting For You” are fuzz-tone laden standouts. “I’ve Loved Her Too Long” maintains its warm grip and even the surreal, Dylanesque overreach of “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” with Young’s acoustic guitar center stage and his voice off on the right channel, arrives nicely burnished through the time tunnel.

One could argue that the first album isn’t a high priority but no one would say that of the next three in this four, 180g LP box set: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, After the Goldrush and Harvest.

With a set list that includes “Cinnamon Girl,” the title tune, “Round and Round,” “Down By The River,” and “Cowgirl In The Sand,” the second album with Crazy Horse is a hard-rocking, no-nonsense follow-up to the tentative debut and contains no filler. But surely you didn’t need to be told that.

Nor do you need to be told about the enduring folk/rock brilliance of After the Goldrush or Young’s greatest album chart success Harvest. If you do, you’re not forking over the big bucks for this 180g box set anyway. You’re more likely to opt for a 140g individual album or two.

What you’re really interested in hearing about is the sound quality of these reissues. But first a word about the packaging: Warner Brothers has gone to the trouble and expense of using deluxe paper over cardboard jackets that are authentic to the originals, though there are barcodes, new catalog numbers and updated mastering credits— all tastefully and respectfully done. All original posters and inserts are included. Pick up the new Harvest and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell it from the original, so perfectly does the new, thick outer paper stock match the original.

What’s very different about these reissues though, is the sound: I have multiple originals of all of them, including both the original Haeco-CSG version of the debut album and the re-do (obviously, though Warner Brothers and Young went with the original cover, the second mix was used) and I have to tell you, these reissues, mastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman and pressed at Pallas in Germany (buy a copy of my second DVD It’s a Vinyl World, After All and you can take a guided tour of Pallas, shot in high definition), sound far superior to the originals.

Look, I’ve been listening to these four albums for up to forty years now and I was not prepared for what I heard on all four of these albums. Grundman’s chain is sounding better than ever after what I hear are a series of upgrades.

Starting with the second album, Young arranged for multiple voices, often his own multi-tracked, but never before have the individual voices been so clearly locked in three dimensional space and timbrally distinct. The way the voices project into 3D space (including Young’s main centered one) is positively eerie (assuming your system can reproduced this, because trust me, it’s in the grooves in a way it’s not on the originals). Instrumental textures are far richer, fuller and better defined. Harmonics are fully fleshed out. Reverb trails extend to infinity before disappearing into background pitch blackness. There is so much more there there in every respect, it’s almost stupefying.

You can see Young before the microphone and experience every little vocal tick and breath pressurization. It’s not important because you can hear these details. It’s important because hearing them imparts greater meaning to the proceeding and certainly a greater appreciation of his singing and the deliberateness of his communications skills.

I wish I could tell you that the 140g versions, pressed, I assume, from the same stampers, sounded as good, but even correcting for the VTA/SRA differences, they don’t. They do sound plenty good, mind you, and better than the originals, but not quite as good as the 180g versions contained in the box set. And good as the Blu-ray versions are at 192k/24 bit, they don’t touch the vinyl.

So, my advice is: when the numbered, limited edition box is finally introduced shortly, if you’re as big a Neil fan as I am, don’t hesitate until it’s too late. Buy and enjoy this box set.

Warner Brothers, thanks to the tireless and meticulous efforts of Warner Brothers Senior Vice President and vinyl fanatic Tom Biery, demonstrates yet again, that it is possible for a major label to do vinyl correctly: cutting from analog masters, pressing at the best plants and packaging to provide fans with the genuine experience. It’s sad that the others don’t have the will to properly manage the task.

Copyright © 2009 & Michael Fremer All Rights Reserved/ Reprinted by Permission

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