Soundstage! - The Golden Zone

Boston - Third Stage

1993, Mobile Fidelity UDCD 582 (original 1986, MCA)

Boston is an interesting study in remastered sound quality. What other band has had every one of their releases from 1976 to 1986 remastered and available on spiffy gold CD? None that I can think of, but then again most groups active over that ten year period released more then a sparse three albums. Their huge selling, self-titled first album was really in the most need of reworking (and I'm less then totally happy with the job Sony did on their Legacy series remastering of it), but even their third album, with the unoriginal title Third Stage, always sounded to me like it didn't come out quite as well as it should. After all, the thing took six years to make, you'd think it would sound better.

I've got a fairly big stack of Mobile Fidelity gold CDs, and it's obvious that they are constantly improving their methods and equipment. The original Ultradisc titles were good, far better then the standard record company releases, but overall not quite top-notch on an absolute scale from the samples I've heard. The Ultradisc II series that this title comes from are considerably better, enough so that I really started populating my collection with them (I never really had that desire with the older releases). The latest Ultradisc II with GAIN releases are really superb, but that's another topic, as this Boston release predates that treatment.

With all that in mind, what I expected was a minor but noticeable improvement in quality for this 1986 album (it's the 70's stuff that MoFi's handling really improves over the stock releases). After my first listening, I was a little underwhelmed; I continued to listen to it while thumbing through the box. As far as the packaging goes, the only difference I noticed is that there are a couple of extra pictures of the band littering the liner notes booklet. You get the typical gold CD jewel box, with the bizarre lifting/locking spindle. Am I the only person who hates these things? It may just be a lack of manual dexterity on my part, but I'm constantly having problems with these damn things. Everything from dropping the disk if I've got it tilted too far from horizontal when opening to having the hinge get off track and not being able to close the case.

Anyway, going back to just listening again, everything sounded pretty much the same, but there was more noise then I remembered. Popping the original back on for a reference it became obvious what has happened. MoFi's version captures significantly more of the high frequencies in the recording. The biggest difference is in the cymbals; all the drum sounds are rather dull on the original release in comparison (to pick an audiophile word out of my jargon dictionary, all the cymbals have far more air on the gold). Since most analog tape noise is of high frequency, that noise was attenuated along with the cymbals on the regular release. Maybe this was all done intentionally, maybe not, who knows. The increase in audible noise is a bit disconcerting, as it highlights some of the recording details--you can hear the noise moving around the tape edits. After all, since some of the songs on this album were recorded over a period of six years, you expect a Frankenstein's monster like collection of tape cuts in portions, and the seams stick out more with the extra hiss highlighting them.

Everything else sounds a bit better. Some of the big guitar sounds are cleaner (most sound the same). Some of the vocals are more detailed. The imaging seems the same, which is not very much; I get the impression that any soundstage you get out of this recording is the result of panning the console controls around rather then any real space, so there really wasn't much information to be recovered here.

I find it difficult to quantify if the bass is improved. Real bass sounds (as opposed to synthesized bass notes) have higher frequency transients that go along with them. Much of what we perceive as bass quality (things we describe as snap or punch) is shaped not only by how well the bass itself is rendered but by how well the these higher frequencies are reproduced. Try it out; play something with some good bass in it (drums are ideal), turn down the treble, and listen to how much worse the low frequency stuff sounds (those owning equipment so distinguished with audiophile quality that they are lacking a treble control will have to find a lesser system on which to experiment). The MoFi version of the recording sounds like it has more snap, punch, and depth to the bass, but I can't put a finger on whether it's because of improvement in higher frequencies or a real improvement in the bass itself.

What we have from MoFi, then, is a version of the recording with more air, more pleasant bass, and more noise; consulting my jargon dictionary again, you could describe those features as making this recording sound more analog instead of coldly digital. If you go for that sort of thing and happen to be fond of Boston, you should consider picking this one up. Be warned that the differences were subtle enough that I needed to frequently go back to the regular release to verify my impressions. Third Stage is not a recording that gets a night and day improvement from the remastering process, but there are a number of things to like about how Mobile Fidelity has improved it.

(Check out Greg's
Rock Remaster Reviews page for more reviews like this one)

Indigo Girls

1994, Epic (Legacy/Mastersound SBM Reissue)

The first time I ever heard this album, it was on a crummy cassette copy my roommate had made off someone's CD. But like most music made with some intention of getting radio air play, the majority of what makes up the Indigo Girls' sound comes right through even when the fidelity is less than perfect.

When I later bought my own CD copy of this eponymous first release, I was a bit surprised to find that the sound wasn't all that much better than that cassette copy. The main thing that keeps me centered on CDs and away from the vinyl many audiophiles prefer is that I can't stand having the dynamic range of the music I listen to compressed. But that's how the original Epic release of this title sounded on CD, compressed, and more dull and lifeless than it should have because of it as far as I was concerned.

Recently, I've come to realize that lots of people like their rock music compressed. Here's a simple test--do you like to hear rock music in your car as much as or more than on your home stereo? Lots of people do; radio stations love to compress the stuff they play because of it. You can't help it in your car because noise levels are so high compared with a decent listening room, compressing dynamics is the easiest way to compensate. I've had a number of people tell me that for some reason they also like hearing the Indigo Girls CD in their car more than at home after I asked about it.

Back to the main issue at hand, then. Given that the original release had some of the impact sucked out it (for whatever reason), what about that fancy new gold CD version? Sony has been culling through its vaults for the last few years, looking for top selling records to reissue as part of their Legacy MasterSound series. They appear to have (at least) two intentions: sell fans deluxe versions of the CD with better sound and packaging, and show off their Super Bit Mapping. SBM is a technology takes 20 bit digital recordings and converts them to CD standard 16 bit recordings while preserving as much of the higher resolution digital master as possible via noise shaping and similar mechanisms. The MasterSound series carries a ga-ron-tee that the earliest available (usually analog) master tape was used as the source of the data the 20 bit recording constructed from. I wasn't a fan of the whole series at the beginning: earlier MasterSound releases (like Boston, Meatloaf Bat out of Hell) didn't sound as good as I'd hoped, and the original packaging left you without standard sized liner notes to keep with the CD jewel box. The latest few I've gotten (ELO Face the Music, Blood Sweat and Tears Child is Father to the Man) have featured much better sound (evidence as far as I'm concerned that the improvements stem more from controlled mastering processes than the coveted SBM treatment). And now they fit full album size artwork into the jewel box using a 3x3 fold-out.

The new reissue of Indigo Girls fixed all the things that used to bug me about the regular release. The dullness that kept the CD from sounding quite the way it should is gone, everything is sharp and crisp. There's a number of details that I never really routinely picked up on before--mostly background percussion sounds that stand out better. The acoustic guitar playing that compromises most of the characteristic Indigo Girls sound is better resolved, where you can hear more of the strings themselves instead of just the notes being played.

Overall, I'm very content with this new release. There's still a fair bit of background noise you can pick up on the very quiet passages, but it's nowhere near the distraction threshold. I don't quite give this one a unqualified rave, though. The differences between releases are not at all dramatic. Playing them both back on a less than totally revealing system I've got connected to the computer I'm typing this on, it's very difficult to pick out exactly what the differences are. Under the magnifying glass of my more expensive equipment, it's more obvious, but still not dramatic. Kind of like the difference, say, between quality $500 and $1000 power amplifiers--yeah, the expensive one sounds better under the right circumstances, but it's certainly not night and day. Now, given that we're only talking $25 or so for this CD, it's a whole lot easier to justify than a more expensive amplifier might be. But like any gold or remastered CD purchase, there's a cost/benefit ratio to be considered for the extra cash you'd outlay. I'd say the SBM Indigo Girls is a good value for those who are fans of Amy, Emily, and company and have quality equipment to play it back on. But I certainly wouldn't buy this one just to listen to in my car.

(Check out Greg's
Rock Remaster Reviews page for more reviews like this one)

Robbie Robertson

MFSL - Gain System
Originally released by Geffen, 1987

In order for me to chuck down $25 US for a gold disk I have to:

  1. ....have just been paid
  2. ....not have spent all my money in the bar the night before
  3. ....have my full stock of Corona
  4. in a really gullible mood
  5. ....already own the disk on silver and know that it sounds sooooo awful anything would be better
  6. the music an awful bunch

So it should come as no surprise I don't own many of these little golden treasures. Up here in Canada, releases from DCC, MFSL, and the such cost upwards of 40-50 beans! They are soooooo ludicrously priced that they should come branded with the mark "Steal Me."

But I have found that with the releases from MFSL and DCC you are paying for three things:

  1. A gold disk. I have no illusions that gold sounds better than silver (aluminum actually). Nowhere have I seen real evidence that a gold disk is any easier to read. Besides, apart from the jitter thing, read errors aren't really a problem at all in digital audio. To me, making it gold is simply to add perceived worth to justify the extra cost. How else could you!
  2. A nifty jewel box. This is definitely a bonus! The case, when opened, tilts the disk up and unlocks it for you. Very, very cool, but again, probably didn't cost anywhere near $15-20 difference in price to implement. We're talking the same cheap plastic molded into something a little more functional.
  3. Some serious-ass remastering. That's really what's happening here. Someone has taken the care to make sure the best sounding bits make it on the platter. The end result of this is that in most instances I've found that MFSL and DCC disks do sound better, sometimes amazingly better, than standard issue from the record companies. In the case of MFSL it is their Mike Moffat designed GAIN analogue to digital converts which makes sure all the bits get made 100% correctly from the original master tapes. If the record companies took care of business right in the first place these guys would have no reason to be around.....but obviously they are and probably making some good money at it!

In the case of this disk I bought the disk at the 1995 Stereophile Show in L.A. for $20 US. This somewhat of a sale price still made me choke because I can buy this same disk in its silverized version for the equivalent $5 US back home in Canuck-land. The real clincher for buying was in three parts, a) it's mastered with the much ballyhooed GAIN system, which I simply wanted to hear, b) I ended up with an extra 20 bucks that was burning a hole in my pocket on the last day, and c) I really like the music - nuff said.

So does it sound four or five times as good? Well, that's pretty subjective, but right off the bat I must say that I was somewhat disappointed with the MFSL release. I guess it speaks well for the regular release to say that it sounded pretty darn close in frequency response, dynamics, etc. This was in direct contrast to some of the DCC releases, such a 'Hotel California' by The Eagles, that sound a world apart in the dynamics and clarity departments in comparison to their 'standard issue' counterparts.

But all was not lost, it just needed some time. After some careful listening I found the MFSL version to have a wealth of detail the regular disk was missing. My favourite track, Broken Arrow, showed amazing presence in the vocals amidst a wall of wonderful Lanois induced ambience. Somewhere Down the Crazy River was tighter, better defined, and the background vocals were much easier to discern. The nifty surround your listening chair keyboard effect at the beginning of Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight was much cleaner and smoother. Overall, there was much more information there, as well as being a tad smoother and less aggressive sounding.

So overall, let's try and put this into perspective. I didn't find this disk from MFSL to be a world of difference better. This probably speaks well for the original release and isn't a criticism of MFSL. There is only so good it can possibly be, right? That said, there is in fact way more detail, plus a level of smoothness and clarity that sets the MFSL apart from the original.

I'm not saying that this disk is a definitive sonic standard, rather I'm going to try quantify the difference between the two. If the MFSL is a 10 out of 10 sonically, then the original is an 8. If I had a ghetto blaster, or a lower grade, low resolution system I wouldn't even consider buying the MFSL disk given the price difference. But audiophiles are a different bunch, aren't they? In a day when $1000 interconnects aren't considered extraordinary, $25 to clean up the source end to get a whole lot more music travelling down the pipe isn't too much to ask.


Eagles - Their Greatest Hits

1993, DCC Compact Classics

Some people think gold CDs are too expensive. But when you're talking about the Eagles, even the highest priced versions of their albums are cheap compared to what the band charges for concert tickets nowadays. Now, there's good reason for that; with most of the band members keeping in musical shape via extensive solo careers after the band's original break-up, the Hell Freezes Over tour (showcased by the excellent live CD of the same name) showed that they all could still keep up with the material written by younger versions of themselves.

This brings us to the Eagles Their Greatest Hits release, which features the core collection of hit songs off the band's first four albums. Back before they were producing studio slick albums like Hotel California (you know, back before Don Henley started preaching in all the songs he wrote), the Eagles released an amazing collection of rock songs that defied simple classification. Take the Desperado album; just when you think you've got them pegged as a regular old country-influenced rock band, the title track comes along with a solo piano opening ending up with an orchestral accompaniment. Before it's over all the standard guitars and drums join in as well. A bit unorthodox, but it works.

Now the problem with being such a successful band is that the greedy folks at the mainstream record companies know that tons of people will buy anything they release by that band regardless of its recording quality (anyone who's watched the recent spectacle around the Beatles Anthology should agree with that). DCC tells me that the regular old Asylum release of Their Greatest Hits was mastered onto CD from the n-th generation copy of the master tapes that was used to produce the single versions of these songs. Add in the fact that this was one of the earliest things to get released in the CD format (no surprise, as this is one of the top selling albums of all time) and accordingly went through some of the earliest and crudest of CD mastering equipment, and it's amazing that the regular CD sounds as good as it does.

The majority of the Eagles sound comes from the mix of guitars and vocals. Since both of these are sitting in that area of the midrange that is resilient to damage by bad equipment, the Asylum release doesn't really sound bad when you listen to it. What you notice when comparing it with DCC's superior version is how the top and bottom of the frequency spectrum are rolled off on the original release. The bass guitar seems muddy and undefined in comparison; the DCC release goes deeper and hits harder. The biggest improvement is in the drums. There's a realistic snap to all the drum sounds that you just don't hear on the original releae. The rolled off top end of Asylum's verion dulls the sound of all the cymbal work considerably.

Along with these obvious improvements, there's quite a bit more refinement in the all those little details audiophile types like to listen for. The additional clarity on the plentiful acoustic guitar sounds lets you hear more of the strings along with the note itself. Harmony vocals sound like a bunch of individuals singing together (where you can pick out where each singer is placed) instead of the more blended mass of vocals on the aluminum release. There's also quite a reduction in the level of background noise on most tracks along with a corresponding improvement in dynamic range. When I go back and read the case of my original copy, I get quite a laugh at the "because of its high resolution, however, the compact disc can reveal limitations of the source tape" disclaimer; it should read "can reveal the limitations of our mastering equipment and how little we really care about sound quality".

Browsing through the jewel box further shows off the care DCC puts into with their releases. The cheap bastards at Asylum give you these tiny little liner notes listing only the songs, writers, and producers. They don't even tell you who's in the band! The DCC version actually gives full page pictures of each band member (I never knew myself before which one was Don Felder and which was Bernie Leadon), details about which album each song came from along with pictures of them, even reproductions of the track listing in the middle of the original LPs. Still no song lyrics, but you can't blame DCC for that.

The masses that the big record companies cater to can keep their aluminum CD releases with their rolled off highs and lows. They may even sound better on typical tinny consumer systems with the bass turned up too high; after all, if they had real deep bass in the recordings they play those poor little woofers would go crazy. I'll keep (re)buying all my favorites from companies like DCC that obviously put some care into keeping all the sound from the original master tapes (even with their "limitations of the source tape") intact. In my collection, The Eagles Their Greatest Hits goes right next to the superb DCC Hotel California release. If this is the music you like to listen to, paying the extra money to get these superior releases is small change, considering you're more likely to get a significant improvement in sound quality this way then with that pricey equipment upgrade you've been considering. After all, buying better CDs is the logical extension of the whole "start at the source" mindset popular in high-end audio lately. Anything else you try and do is limited by the quality of what you start with. And besides, the money you'd drop for the remastered, gold versions of both these albums would barely pay even for the nosebleed seats to see these guys in concert (if you could even buy them).

(Check out Greg's
Rock Remaster Reviews page for more reviews like this one)

Albert Collins - Cold Snap

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, UDCD 635

Albert Collins "Cold Snap" was released on Alligator Records, in 1986. I've had a few of his Alligator discs, and I always wished they had a little better sound. Mobile Fidelity has done a fine job fulfilling my wish, with this remastered version.

Nobody does the Texas blues guitar, like Albert Collins. His riffs are a trademark; his solos are screaming. Albert also knew how to tell a story. On "I Ain't Drunk" (I'm Just Drinking!), you know the world is hammering him about too many hours spent bending the elbow; but he manages to convince you there ain't no problem. Check out the sound effects he makes on his Stratocaster on "Too Many Dirty Dishes". He makes it sound like the water's running, and he's scrubbing them pots!

"Cash Talking" (The Workingman's Blues), is in the vein of one of his bigger hits, "Mastercharge." Money's a problem, and he's a softie to the wifes spending habits. Damn good reason to have the blues. The standout, slow blues track on this disc, is "Lights Are On But Nobody's Home". As Johnny B. Gayden lays down a heavy blues bass line, Albert attacks the strings of his Fender with a passion. All finger picking here; giving a smooth, flowing, sound to them six strings.

Take a few extra bucks outta your wallet, and buy the MoFi release of "Cold Snap". A legend such as Albert deserves the best production available. It's a little on the thick sounding side, but all in all, Mobile Fidelity earns every premium dollar with this one. "The Master of the Telecaster" will be sorely missed, but this disc is a fine tribute to his memory.

.....Workin' Man