Friday, November 20, 2009

Michael Fremer Review

I am very proud to continue our new 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.

The Beatles (new reissue)
The Beatles Boxes: Stereo and Mono

Parlophone/Apple stereo and mono box sets

Produced by: George Martin
Engineered by: Norman Smith, Geoff Emerick
Mixed by: various mixers
Mastered by: various mastering engineers
Reissue produced by: various producers

Review by: Michael Fremer

The Beatles Remasters: A Splendid Time Is Guaranteed For Most

How bad were the original Beatles CDs issued back in 1987? So bad that even the clueless conditioned to believe that CDs represented an automatic sonic step up from vinyl noticed something was terribly wrong.

Amusing to some observers was the nature of the complaints: “they sound tinny,” “they sound flat,” “they sound thin and bright,” “they’re harsh and edgy,” “where’s the warmth?” etc.

Why did it take The Beatles for these folks to notice how bad almost every attempt at re-mastering great analog recordings to CD sounded?

I can’t name a single CD reissue back then that sounded as good as the original LP version, never mind any that sounded better, yet the same folks who chucked their LPs and were happily munching on their crispy CDs somehow heard all of the problems with the 1987 Beatles CDs they might have heard with all of their CDs had they paid more attention.

Leave it to the mythical Beatles to pull down the CD format’s digital pants and expose its, er, shortcomings. Not surprising since the group has held a special place in the hearts, minds and souls of generations and not surprising considering how well recorded the albums were—even the “primitive” early ones, thanks to the EMI studios, engineers Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick and of course producer George Martin.

Add low rent, almost dismissive packaging for such hallowed musical ground and the curious decision to issue the first four in mono only, when both mono and stereo versions would have fit on a single disc and you have a truly shitty reissue program, one that thumbed EMI’s corporate nose at both the surviving Beatles and especially the group’s fans.

The New Remasters

As reported elsewhere on this site and all over the media, this time EMI was determined to do a much better job and by any standard they have, both in terms of the sonics and especially the packaging.

The stereo box is deluxe in every way, with gatefolded digi-pak style jackets, original label artwork, previously unseen photos and Quick-Time mini-documentaries accompanying each disc. An additional disc holds all of the documentaries so you can watch all of them without having to go through the individual discs. In addition to the original releases, the set includes a double CD of singles and EPs not appearing on the original UK sets, which usually omitted the singles.

One curious move was the decision to use George Martin’s 1987 re-mixes of Rubber Soul and Help! instead of the original stereo mixes. These were digitized at 16 bit/44.1K resolution using what today would be considered stone aged A/D converters.

So if anyone tells you that the “new” Rubber Soul and Help! reissues sound so much better than the 1987 issues, ask them what they weren’t smoking. Surely, mood enhanced they’d notice they were listening to the same mixes, only perhaps a bit louder and punchier due to the touch of compression applied to all of these stereo reissues.

Ironically, if you want to hear the original stereo mixes of Rubber Soul and Help! transferred without compression you’ll need to buy the mono box! Yes, the producers chose to tack the original stereo mixes onto the mono CDs of these two albums. More about that later.

The compression applied is so minor it’s not worth worrying about. Yes, these reissues do sound a bit “punchier” and “louder,” but overall the reissue producers have not messed around much with what was on the tapes that they transferred at 192K/24 bit resolution, with one notable exception: clearly they’ve boosted the bass on every one of these stereo masters and I don’t write that simply because I’m used to the LPs and perhaps the LPs had their bass slightly rolled off. I’ve heard the master tape of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and there’s more bass on these reissues than I remember hearing on that tape.

On a full range playback system, one that’s reasonably flat to 20Hz, the added bass, though tastefully done, can become oppressive after a while, but for most listeners both the added bottom and the “pop” provided by the compression will sound like pleasing “fresheners” instead of deal breakers. Don’t worry: these reissue do not sound like the “modernized” abomination that was 1.

What excites most listeners about the new reissues is the return of the tactile, warm sound, or some of it at least, found on the original LPs. These CDs do sound really good, with some expression of instrumental textures, depth and inner detail resolution. For folks who grew up on the ’87 CDs and who haven’t touched base with the original vinyl (or any vinyl since 1987), these CDs are a revelation.

They are as good as one can expect from CDs but surely the process of reducing 192k/24 transfers to 44.1k/16 has taken a toll on various aspects of the sound because the original UK vinyl still beats these CDs in most ways, by a narrow margin in some and by a much wider one in others.

For instance, on the cover of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love,” there’s a particular ring to the high pitched electric guitar lines that one hears live and on the original LPs that just doesn’t register on the CD. The ring should jump out at you as it does live and on the LP. On the CD it remains boxed in physically and is tonally truncated. And yes, you can be an aging boomer whose hearing may not be what it once was, and yet still hear it.

The handclaps sound very good but they just don’t sound fleshy-real as they do on the LP, nor do they inhabit the separate space they do on the LP. Nor do the vocals project into 3D space. The harmonies, so easily split into separate voices on the LP fuse into one on the CD. John Lennon’s voice has a chilling quality that cuts through you on LP throughout the Beatles catalog. It’s lacking on the CD. You can feel Lennon alive on the other side of the mic on the LPs, you don’t derive the sensation on the CDs good as they are.

The CDs are genuinely pleasing to listen to physically and intellectually, the LPs sound even better and they take you for an emotional roller coaster ride the CDs just don’t. That’s not just my reaction: it’s what everyone who’s listened here heard, including people who don’t have an analog axe to grind.

On the other hand, the closer the digital comes to the analog—and these CDs come closer than most—the more the differences between the two formats assert themselves, for better or worse. Listening to these excellent sounding CDs with their jet black backdrops and ultra-cleanliness means that when you put the records on, while they do sound better, you just wish you could have the superior sound of one and the pristine perfection and black backdrops of the other! Previously, what was there on the CDs was so bad sounding, the black backdrops were hardly compensatory. BTW: Magical Mystery Tour is in real stereo like the German original.

So, will a Blu-ray set mastered at full 192K/24 bit resolution (maybe with the bass turned down a bit too?) produce near perfection and sound superior to clean original LPs? I don’t know, nor are we likely to find out as such a release has not been announced.

LPs are supposedly coming next year and since Sean Magee and Steve Rooke, two of the engineers who worked on the project also are expert lathe operators (they’ve cut for Pure Pleasure, Warner Brothers, Steve Albini and others) and since Abbey Road has a very good sounding DMM lathe and since the full resolution files are right there, why wouldn’t they use the 192K/24 bit masters to produce the LPs? As The Doors box proved, once you’re at that resolution, it’s almost analog.

In the case of The Doors, the deteriorated tapes made a one pass digital transfer a necessity. The Beatles tapes are in excellent condition and the original tapes could be used to cut from analog but at this point in time you can be the powers that be prefer consistently across format lines to religious purity, so don’t expect AAA, though we can hope, as we can hope for fold-over laminated cover art as well done as the fold-over, laminated mini-LP CD sleeves complete with facsimiles of the original inner sleeves found in the mono box.

The Mono Masters

Given a choice of one box or the other, I’d opt for the mono box. For one thing, the transfers were apparently done without compression or augmented equalization. They are what’s on the tape, though again, the 192k/24 bit masters have been squeezed through the redbook CD sausage machine. The mono packaging is more authentic as well. The Beatles for instance, features a miniature duplicate of the laminated, double gatefold “top loader” fold-over jacket complete with black inner sleeves, individual color portraits and fold-open poster.

The “stereo’ mixes of the first two albums, with vocals on one side and instruments on the other, produced that way to allow for vocal/instrumental balance to be adjusted later, sound interesting on the stereo box, but they sound fuller and whole in mono.

A Hard Day’s Night sound better in stereo than mono in my opinion but the mono mix is fine too. I prefer Help in stereo too (the original mix found on the mono box for sure!) but not everyone agrees with that. For Sale is preferable in stereo too, but again, the mono mix offers its own pleasures.

As for Rubber Soul and Revolver the complexities of the arrangements required track bouncing. Track bouncing made a true stereo mix difficult so you a lot hard/left right stuff as on the first few albums, so overall the original mono mixes really are preferable but nostalgiacs whose genes are now encoded with the stereo mixes will probably stick with those, though the original stereo mix of Rubber Soul found on the mono box is preferable.

The mono mixes are strikingly different from the stereo ones, particularly on the later, more complex productions as anyone who has them on vinyl knows. More than just mix differences, are differing takes and parts that are highlighted in the accompanying booklet, though most of those are on the earlier albums. Some people revel in hearing and exposing these difference, like where John fluffs a lyric on one version and not the other, but that kind of thing has never excited me so you’ll have to look elsewhere for a catalogue of those.

Not many Beatles fans have heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Beatles in mono. These are the mixes upon which the band members lavished their full attention and that will be obvious when you hear them—not that there’s anything whatsoever wrong with the stereo mixes. When I compared the original stereo Parlophone LP with the new stereo CD, it wasn’t even close: the record is richer, fuller and far more tonally pleasing. Ditto the mono LP vs the new CD.

Oh, and you also get the original stereo mixes of Rubber Soul and Help! transferred from analog at 192k/24 bit, which you don’t get in the stereo box. Needless to say those two sound much better than the remixes found on the stereo box.

The Verdict

Both the packaging and sound of these two sets (the stereo albums are available separately) are digitized editions finally worthy of The Beatles. The packaging is superb, great care went into the mastering, which attempted to bump up the sound for modern ears without ruining the ride for those used to the original sound. In that the team has mostly succeeded.

The packaging of both boxes is truly deluxe and any Beatle fan, even those who own all of the original UK vinyl, will want to have these sets for the packaging enhancements alone.

Hopefully higher resolution digital and/or analog will follow. Sure, I’d prefer new vinyl cut from the analog originals and we can all lobby for it, but I doubt it will happen.

SOURCE: Reprinted By Permission

Music News & Notes

Mastodon Release Another Box Set

Atlanta metal monsters Mastodon have already released their crust-prog opus Crack the Skye as one badass special edition, but next month, they'll turn it into another big box. Crack the Skye's "Royal Edition" is available only from Mastodon's website, and it'll ship on December 15. And it's pretty fancy.

The Royal Edition will include both the full-length Crack the Skye album on CD and the Crack the Skye score on a second CD. You'll also get an exclusive lithograph (the first few of which will be signed by the band) and instant downloads of live versions of "Divinations" and "Colony of Birchmen". It'll all come in a gold-stamped foiled digi-book with new art from longtime Mastodon cover artist Paul Romano.

Order it here:


New Interpol Album Coming Next Year

Interpol haven't released a new album since 2007's middling Our Love to Admire. Since then, the members of the band have been pretty busy with extracurricular activities: singer Paul Banks' solo project Julian Plenti, bassist Carlos D's short film, drummer Sam Fogarino's band with Swervedriver's Adam Franklin, Magnetic Morning.

Now, Fogarino tells Paste that the snappily dressed NYC brooders spent spring 2009 recording a new album, which is due for release via Capitol early next year


JORN, WINGER, DANGER DANGER Limited-Edition Picture Discs Due In January

Inner Wound Recordings has announced the first releases on the label. JORN's "Spirit Black", DANGER DANGER's "Revolve" and WINGER's "Karma" will all be made available as limited 12" picture-disc editions, strictly limited to 250 copies. A deal was inked with the Italian label Frontiers Records and the release date is set for January 21 for the three releases.

The discs are available for pre-order here:


Eminem Releasing “Relapse: The Refill” Instead of “Relapse 2 ” in December

Eminem will release Relapse: The Refill — and not Relapse 2 — on December 21st, the rapper announced on his official website yesterday. The Refill will include the entire Relapse, plus seven songs that didn’t make the album. The DJ Hero exclusive “Taking My Ball” and the Drake/Lil Wayne/Kanye/Eminem collaboration “Forever” will be included on Refill, Rap-Radar reports, with the other five songs being previously unreleased.


Starr and McCartney Duet on New Ringo Album

The new Ringo Starr album is a star-studded affair, with a visit from the only surviving Beatle as well as other famous musicians.

McCartney shares the lead on the albums first single, "Walk With You," which was composed by Starr and Van Dyke Parks and plays bass on the cut "Peace Dream."

Starr told the story of the McCartney collaboration on "Walk With You" in a press release:

"Paul was doing the Grammys, so he came over to the house and was playing bass on ‘Peace Dream.’ So I played him this other track and Paul said, ‘Give me the headphones. Give me a pair of cans.’ And he went to the mike and he just invented that part where he follows on my vocal. That was all Paul McCartney, and there could be nothing better."

Also included on the album, either performing and/or as a songwriter:

•Joe Walsh who co-wrote "Fill in the Blanks," the album's opener, and performs the song with Starr.
•Joss Stone
•Richard Marx
•Ben Harper
•Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
•Dave Stewart
•Glen Ballard

The album is produced by Ringo who said in his statement

"I was the least involved in the production of the Beatle records and then with my solo records, I worked with some other great producers like Richard Perry, Arif Mardin, and Don Was. So it just seemed like that's the way that it goes. Then suddenly, it's another point in your life, and you say, 'I'm going do this now.' So I'll be producing anything I make from now on."

This Date In Music History-November 20


Norman Greenbaum (1970 hit "Spirit in the Sky") - (1942)

Mike Vernon - leading producer of the British blues boom in the late '60s (Vernon produced discs by John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack, Duster Bennett, Savoy Brown, and Ten Years After) (1944)

Roy Stiles - Mud (1946)

George Grantham - Poco (1947)

Joe Walsh - James Gang and the Eagles (1947)

Gary Green - Gentle Giant (1950)

Robert Poss - Band of Susans (1956)

Jim Brown - UB40 (1957)

Gail Ann Dorsey - bass guitarist and vocalist. Worked with David Bowie from 1993-96, recorded and toured with Tears for Fears and has also worked with Bryan Ferry, Boy George, Gwen Stefani and Seal (1962)

Todd Nance - Widespread Panic (1962)

Mike D (real name Michael Diamond) Beastie Boy - (1965)

Sen Dog - Cypress Hill (1965)

Rapper Q- Tip (1970)

David Marchand (Davey Havok) - AFI (1975)

Jared Followill - Kings Of Leon (1986)

They Are Missed:

Born today in 1946, Duane Allman, guitar, Allman Brothers Band. Killed in a motorcycle accident on 29th October 1971.

Allan Sherman, the great comedian/songwriter whose album "My Son, the Folksinger," sold well over a million copies in the early sixties, died of respiratory ailments in 1973. He was 48.

Born on this day in 1966, Kevin Gilbert, multi instrumentalist, songwriter, Member of Giraffe, worked with Sheryl Crow, co- wrote "All I Want To Do." (died on May 17, 1996)


In 1954, the bartenders' union in Hammond, IN, asked a local radio station, WJOB-AM, to stop playing the song "The Drunken Driver" by Ferlin Husky — about a drunken driver who kills two children — because it was hurting business. Amazing.....

The song that changed popular music history 'Rock Around The Clock' by Bill Haley & His Comets went to #1 on the UK singles chart in 1955. The song was used under the opening credits of the film Blackboard Jungle. The song entered the charts a further six times until 1974.

Also in 1955, Bo Diddley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show television show. The show had requested that he sing his version of "Sixteen Tons," but, when he appeared on stage, he sang his own song "Bo Diddley," resulting in him being banned from further appearances on the show.

Alan Freed, refusing to say he never accepted payola, was fired from WABC television in New York in 1959.

In 1961, Billboard reported on the global Twist Craze: WOR-TV, New York, has shot a series of one and five minute "Twist Lessons" with Chubby Checker to be shown hourly every day. Checker has also been inked for a British-American film production; Joey Dee & the Starlighters, whose album, "Doin' the Twist at the Peppermint Lounge" was released this week, have signed for the Paramount film, "Hey, Let's Twist"; Dion has signed to star in Columbia's "Twist Around the Clock"; and in France there are 45 different "Twist" records on the the market. Let's all twist!

Bob Dylan began recording his self-titled debut album in 1961.

The Four Seasons' "Big Girls Don't Cry" was released on Vee Jay Records in 1962. It goes up to #1, as does their first hit, "Sherry." Both songs feature lead singer Frankie Valli's falsetto.

Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence" was released in 1965.

In 1967, the Beach Boys "Smiley Smile" album featuring the song "Vegetables," produced by Paul McCartney and the Beach Boys, was released in the UK on Capitol Records and in the US on the band's own Brothers label. Unfortunately, the album doesn't make it to the top 40 in either country and the single would not chart at all, demonstrating the Beach Boys dwindling popularity and sending leader Brian Wilson further into reclusiveness.

Also in 1967, Time Magazine, reviewing the Doors second album, "Strange Days," reported that the group's music "takes its listeners not only past such familiar landmarks of the youth odyssey as alienation and sex but, into symbolic realms of the unconscious — eerie night worlds filled with throbbing rhythms, shivery metallic tones, unsettling images." Umm, OK, smoke some more of whatever you are smoking.....The album will soon hit #3 on the national chart.

Strawberry Alarm Clock were at #1 on the US singles chart in 1967 with "Incense And Peppermints." What's he smoking?

The Monkees film 'Head' opened in six US cities in 1968. Reviews were harsh and the picture was a box office disaster.

For the second time in 1970, Kinks singer Ray Davies flew to London to re-record one word in a new Kinks' single. Back in June it was to change "Coca-Cola" to "Cherry Cola" in the song "Lola." This time, Ray has to change a line from "Apeman," "The air pollution is a-foggin' up" which sounds too much like "a-fuckin."

In 1971, "Inner City Blues" became the third R&B #1 single from Marvin Gaye's, "What's Goin' On" album. The others are the title track and "Mercy, Mercy Me." The LP represents the first time a major Motown artist has taken a public stand on controversial social issues.

"Theme from Shaft" by Isaac Hayes became his only U.S. chart-topping single in 1971

Also in 1971: Led Zeppelin played the first of two "Electric Magic" shows at London's Wembley Empire Pool. The shows incorporated trapeze artists, performing pigs, and vaudeville performers with Bronco, Stone the Crows, and the headliners. Tickets for the shows sold out in four minutes. Why not? It's a circus!

In 1975, drummer Keith Moon collapsed twice during the first date of the Who's US tour, in San Francisco. First, he falls over his set during "Won't Get Fooled Again." Then after being tended to backstage, Moon plays for another ten minutes before he's carried off again, allegedly due to 'jet lag.' So, Pete Townsend asks for a volunteer from the crowd to replace him. The volunteer is Scot Halpin, then 19, who takes a shot of brandy and sits down at his idol Moon's drum kit. Halpin lasts for 3 songs, "Smokestack Lightning," "Naked Eye" and the anthem "My Generation."

George Harrison performed on Saturday Night Live (hosted by Paul Simon) in 1976. During the show, producer Lorne Michaels makes an appeal for the Beatles to re-form, saying he will pay them the union minimum to play on his show. Paul McCartney is currently staying with John Lennon at the Dakota and both see Michaels' plea, but they don't take him up on the jesting offer.

Manfred Mann's Earth Band's "Blinded by the Light" was released in 1976.

Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer were at #1 on the US singles chart in 1979 with "No More Tears, Enough Is Enough."

Prince's third movie, "Sign 'O' The Times" opened in 1987.

The Rolling Stones signed a $45 million deal with Virgin Records in 1991, making them rock's highest paid group thus far.

A new Beatles recording, "Free As a Bird," began airing on radio stations in 1995. The song had debuted on ABC-TV the night before.

In 1998 - Alanis Morissette did an in store performance for the opening of a Tower records store in Buenos Aires. The proceeds from the sale of her album for the day were donated to a local children's hospital.

The Kiss Deluxe Edition 5 disc box set was released in 2001. The set included 92 tracks.

Madonna's childhood home in Oakland County Michigan, sold at an auction in 2001, in just 12 minutes. The house, along with a few items of Rock memorabilia was purchased for $331,000.

In 2005, Robbie Williams smashed a Guinness World Record by selling more than 1.6 million tickets for his 2006 World Tour in one day.

U2 were profiled on CBS' 60 Minutes in 2005.

Also in 2005, the Foo Fighters released a six-track EP that's only available at Best Buy retailers. There's a live rendition of "Best of You," a demo version of "D.O.A." and a cover of Cream's "I Feel Free."

In 2007, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke admitted he was among the thousands of people who paid nothing to download the band's latest album In Rainbows. Speaking to BBC 6 Music's Steve Lamacq, Yorke said: "There wasn't any point. I just move some money from one pocket to the other." According to one survey, three in five people paid nothing at all for it. Yorke added that no one was allowed to have copies of the master recording in case it was leaked beforehand.