Soundstage! - The Golden Zone

The two CDs this month in the Golden Zone aren't actually gold, for once. Both are remastered discs from foreign markets (Japan and Germany). I'm looking at them with the same quality and value standards I hold the domestic gold CDs to, because by the time they get imported to me they end up costing over $25 even if they are aluminum. Both are somewhat difficult to track down; I got copies from Thoughtscape Sounds, an excellent CD importer to deal with.

The Alan Parsons Project: Eye in the Sky

1995, Arista (original 1981, Arista)

The Alan Parsons Project CDs have languished, ignored in the sound quality department, by Arista in the US. There's not a remastered one to be found that improves on the regular CD release (the Mobile Fidelity Tales of Mystery and Imagination is actually a different recording than the regular version). And it's a shame; Parsons is well known as an impeccable engineer, and there's definitely way more quality on the master tapes than you'll hear on the regular releases, which I'd describe as excellent but not quite superb. For some reason, when Arista did go about remastering things, they only released all the discs in Japan. Everything but ToMaI is available in remastered form there; Eye in the Sky and Ammonia Avenue are the most recent to appear, and they were remastered with the K2 20 bit remastering process. I'd love to tell you more about just exactly what K2 involves, but that section of the liner notes (like everything but the lyrics) is in Japanese. In any case, it seemed appropriate to compare the sound quality improvements of this Japanese product to more familiar remastering processes like Sony's SBM or Mobile Fidelity's GAIN system. This is probably the most approachable of the Project albums, and you're very likely to find a number of songs you recognize; I put it on my listing of great obscure rock albums from the 80's if you'd like more information about the music itself.

The first track, Sirius (known to many as the Chicago Bull's introduction music), starts out with these huge Fairlight programmed bass notes. The differences between releases is obvious right there; the bass is extended much deeper and has considerably more authority on this remaster. As the opening fades in from the silence, you can hear quite a bit more noise on this newer version; then again, more noise is usually indicative of better top-end extension, and you'll find plenty of that here. The cymbal passages on Eye in the Sky are clearer and more detailed, along with being a touch louder, enough so that they seem a bit too much "in your face" to me. This increase in detail is all around on this disc; you can even hear subtle variations in the synthesizer work that are barely noticeable in Arista's original CD. Tracks like Children of the Moon, which already had very prominent cymbal work, didn't get any louder, just more accurate.

This is pretty much the scene you'll find all around this new release. All the bass notes go deeper when appropriate (quite improving songs like Step by Step), and all the treble is more exaggerated-- sometimes to good effect, sometimes a bit too much so. The regular release never seems too harsh or too busy no matter what volume you play it at, but I noticed that tracks like Psychobabble got uglier on the complicated parts. The high-frequency content is exaggerated enough that it becomes grating on your ears, especially at higher volumes (and who wants to play that track at anything but higher volumes!). This is a common problem I've noticed with rock releases done with Sony's 20 bit SBM process, apparently the bit reduction algorithm in the K2 process suffers from similar limitations. The processing even lends a bit of harshness to Colin Bluntstone's vocal on Old and Wise which wasn't there before, and this is normally never something you hear from his voice. Contrast this with how he sounds on the DCC release of The Zombies Greatest Hits, where his voice is fabulous and sounds more like it does on the older CD version of Eye in the Sky.

Really, though, the majority of things sound the same. For the most part, the vocals don't appear any different. Complicated harmony vocals is one area that remastered releases tend to improve, but on this album things like the parts on Gemini were already very well rendered, and they aren't appreciably improved. There is more noise all around the place. The original version of Silence and I was already noisy at the beginning; on the K2 processed version, it gets even nosier, but there is a huge benefit in that the piano notes in that opening sound far more realistic. Similar improvements are found in the piano and orchestral parts in Old and Wise. The piano notes there are heard to fade cleanly out instead of the unnatural type of weird sustain I'm used to hearing from this song.

Overall, I'd have to say this one is a mixed bag. I'd say it's strictly average in the remaster market, being about the same level and type of improvement I'm used to hearing from Sony SBM processed material while not quite getting the same effortless sound you often find on gold releases from DCC or Mobile Fidelity. Judging from this release and the similar K2 processed Ammonia Avenue, I'd have to rate the K2 processing as good, but it's nothing the top American remastering companies need to lose sleep over. Yes, there is a lot to like about how much more of the instruments you can hear, but there are some weird sound quality artifacts introduced that I'm not fond of. If your system has a forgiving treble, you'll probably love this version much more than the original. On my systems, which tend more toward a forward sound, this are some pieces to this remastered release that I'm not especially happy with. You know how your system sounds. If the original already sounds too harsh, you certainly won't like this new version. But if the regular version sounds dull to you, like it does on some setups I've heard this album on before, this one will be much better.

For completeness sake, I'll mention that the other remastered Project albums available from Arista Japan I've heard so far (like the spectacular sounding I, Robot remaster) all sound better to me than the K2 ones do; the processed sound I'm complaining about isn't there, but the increased bass depth and improved detail are.


Foreigner: Juke Box Hero (Best of)

1994, Zounds (original 1977-1987, Atlantic)

What's this? A greatest hits collection? And a foreign one at that, if you can excuse the pun. Foreigner is one of those bands that I've never quite liked enough to go buying all their albums. Sure, some of the better ones (like Double Vision) are good all the way through, but I honestly don't want everything they've ever done. A good collection of their popular work is sufficient. The problem has been that all the US collections that have come out are woefully incomplete. There are at least 9 Foreigner tracks that I find essential, and none of the domestic greatest hits collections (and there have been a number of them) quite hit all of them. I've been listening to the Records compilation for years now (it was one of the first CDs I ever got), and while it's almost complete the sound quality is woefully inadequate (this is true of almost all of the early CDs I got).

This release, from the Phono Music Zounds label (a part of Time-Warner), is the collection I've been waiting for. 16 tracks, running over 65 minutes, including all the songs from the band I've ever wanted. Here's a quick track listing (since this information is always difficult to find for imports):

Feels like the first time, Cold as ice, Starrider, Hot blooded, Blue Morning Blue Day, Double Vision, Dirty White Boy, Women, Head Games, Juke Box Hero, Waiting for a girl like you, Urgent, That was yesterday, I want to know what love is, Say you will, I don't want to live without you

Yep, that's just about all the good ones. I personally would have left out Women and used Long long way from home myself, but this one is damn close to perfect as far as the track listing goes. And they have it laid out in my favorite order for collections--by release date, so you can listen to the band change over time in a nice organized fashion. But what about the sound quality? Zounds claims to aim at the "audiophile" market, which is a marketing claim I'm always suspicious of myself.

Their advertising may seem a bit pretentious, but they deliver the goods (Delivering the goods is a cool Judas Priest song, which is another band I much prefer to sample only in greatest hits collection size bites). When I first put on this collection, it opened with Feels like the first time. Now, as one of the songs I've been living with for close to a decade on the Records collection, I've heard this song hundreds of times. The version on this German remaster was so incredibly improved that I barely recognized it! All the instruments sound so monstrously different because of the huge fidelity increase that it almost sounds like a different recording.

The original Records collection rolled off all the highs to keep the noise down. This newer release doesn't do it's damage in that fashion. There is a "NoNOISE" processed used on about half the tracks (I can't tell you more about it because all the descriptions are in German). On early tracks like Cold as Ice, the boring treble and uninteresting drum work is replaced by a very engaging sound that not only shows off all the drums from top to bottom, it makes for a much cleaner guitar and very improved vocals; Lou Gramm's voice has a realism and presence that is nowhere to be found on the earlier collection. This is typical of every song here. Songs like Head Games sound like they are being played back on a cheap boombox on any system when I listen to my earlier version; the Zounds release brings them back to life, with a world of things you can't even hear before suddenly come forward. I feel the tracks that weren't processed with NoNOISE sound a bit more alive than the ones that weren't, but I can't blame that on the processing--it's probably the fact that the originals were of worse quality in the first place that got that process used to scrub them up. The noise level on every track is very low compared with the huge dynamic sound. I'm not one to normally get wrapped up with imaging and soundstaging, but there's a night and day difference in that area on every track as well. Even later material, like tracks from 1987's Inside Information (which I always thought was well recorded) like Say You Will are far more dynamic and alive. It's not just the older material that is much improved.

I'm sure you're already gotten the impression that going on with a track-by-track review is sort of silly here. This German release creams any domestic Foreigner release I've ever heard; I don't know how it compares with the recently remastered versions of some of their albums that have been trickling out, but I can't imagine them being significantly better than the Zounds version. With it's terrific collection of tracks, it's all the Foreigner many people would ever want, and the sound quality really does deserve the "audiophile" label. It's every bit as good as the best American remastered material I've heard. If you're only going to buy one CD of material from this band, this is the one to get.

As a parting note, Zounds has a huge selection of similar material from popular classic rock bands in this series. I also picked up the compilation of Golden Earring material. Unlike Foreigner, I find the domestic Continuing story of Radar Love greatest hits by this band to be excellent, both in selection and sound quality. The German collection does improve the sound a bit, with a more open soundstage and cleaner deep bass. I'm not especially happy with the tracks on that one (come on, they have a 19 minutes long cover of Eight Miles High instead of including classic hits like Twilight Zone), but the sound does live up to their claims. Thoughtscape can provide you with track listings if you want to check that out, but from the samples I've seen the sound quality is going to be superb on all of them.

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