The Golden Zone

Here I go with those expensive regular aluminum CDs again. Recently I've gotten hooked on the material from the Zounds label in Germany. I talked a bit about their stuff before. Now I've got four more to talk about, and they're all very good as well. Here's info on collections from The Allman Brothers Band, Blue Oyster Cult, Kansas, and The Alan Parsons Project.

All of the releases are over 70 minutes long greatest hits collections. The liner notes are extensive, but they're also only in German. The CDs will run you over $25 to buy copies of, since they're only available as imports. I've found some of them at the Best Buy electronics chain, but the most reliable US source I know of is Thoughtscape Sounds; they stock the whole line and can often get them delivered to you in a few days. The Swedish company Svalander has made the full track listing for the entire catalog available if you want to find out more on what's available. There's lots to like about their remastering, and the collections are selected fairly well. The sound quality is only exceeded by the very best you'll find from specialty remastering companies like Mobile Fidelity and DCC. About my only consistent complaint is that the jewel boxes they use don't ever seem to fit quite right, and I keep having the tabs break off. Oh well, that I can fix easily enough myself.

The Allman Brothers Band: Rambling Man (Best)

I'll admit to not being much of an Allman Brothers fan. Yeah, there's lots I like from the band, but my tastes run to more in the five minutes song category from them rather than the incredibly drawn out material that the real fans seem to love. No, my own collection from them consists of a much used ancient CD copy of Beginnings. Since that's certainly no audiophile masterpiece in its current form, I was interested to see what Zounds did with it. The first 6 tracks out of the 15 on their collection overlap, and I borrowed a 1992 Filmore East recording to compare those tracks, too (I'm not sure if I've got the remastered one of that recording or what, check the date on yours if you want to see if you've got the same one).

The problems with the early Allman Brothers recordings are numerous and typical. They sound dead and lifeless, like someone made a crummy cassette recording of the band that they just copied onto CD. All of the remastered tracks sound much more forward, alive, and dynamic. They still sound like early recordings, though. Take Whipping Post; on the original, the drums sound very indistinct, and that isn't totally fixed on the new version. By the time you get to material like Don't Keep Me Wondering, there's actually some decent treble extension to the recordings off Beginnings, but when you listen to the remaster it blows the old one away in that department. The fact that the recording was better made shows through on both versions, but it's obvious that it's actually very good on an absolute scale when listening to the Zounds release. No, it's never perfect, though. When listening to Midnight Rider, the vocals still sound muddled together, even though the guitar is hugely improved (and you can really hear the bongos now).

The quality of the Filmore East recordings are much better. There's really not much of an improvement for those tracks. They are a bit more detailed, and the bass guitar has less of a one-note quality to it. But these are minor differences, not the night and day comparison you get when Zounds works over the other early stuff.

For Allman fans looking for better versions of these recordings, Zounds is a viable route. I'm not so sure I'm totally content with the track line-up on this collection myself, but I'm not enough of a scholar on the band's history to really grade it too much on that scale. Collectors of their work will certainly want a copy, even if it isn't necessarily the best collection out there for casual fans like myself.

Blue Oyster Cult: The Reaper (Best)

I'm sure that when you think about high-fidelity rock recordings, Blue Oyster Cult is the first band that comes to mind. OK, maybe not. Truth is, BOC has some of the worst sounding recordings available on compact disc today. All their recordings before 1977 are hugely compressed in dynamic range. And even technology doesn't save them; 1988's Imaginos sounds like somebody cranked up the treble knob before mastering the silly thing.

One thing that I've learned about crummy sound quality on CD is that you can't always go blaming the band for it; there are so many places the record company can screw the master tape's sound up before it gets to you that it's a wonder that anything is listenable. This collection from Zounds is the first chance I've ever had to see which of the problems with the BOC sound quality were attributable to poor original quality and which result from crummy mastering. The Oyster Boys come out looking pretty damn good after all.

Let's go back to the beginning. If you listen to Cities On Flame With Rock'n'Roll off their first album in the late 60's, the recording is obviously a dud. It sound extremely closed in and undynamic. There's almost no top- end, and all the bass sounds like generic thuds instead of instruments. That album is the one in my collection most likely to get processed when I play it; I'm often known to drag out the old dbx dynamic range expander just so I make it sound better. Let me tell you, there's not need for any processing on the remastered version. Sure, on an absolute scale, it's a touch undynamic, but what do you expect from a recording this old. It's miles better, though, and all the instruments are finally there. The cymbals sound incredible, better than I thought I'd ever hear them. And the guitars are huge, just like I'd always figured they should sound. I am seriously thinking that I need to track these guys at Zounds down, take them hostage, and force them to remaster the entire first album, if this song is representative of what they could do with it.

OK, now onto the obligatory BOC trio. Any time you see the band play, they have to play all three of their big hits just to keep the casual fans happy. You have to expect that you'll find all of them on any greatest hits collection, and this one is no disappointment. The first from the sacred three is Don't Fear The Reaper. By 1976, the sound quality had become decent, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. The drums sound a bit dead and the soundstage is too small. The new version solves those problems, along with making the bass guitar far more solid and giving overall better dynamics. You can hear all of the reverb on the main guitar lines that drive the song forward now, which adds a lot to how alive everything sounds. 1977's Godzilla is from the first album by the band that I'm at least content with the sound quality of; sure, it's no real winner, but at least the huge bass guitar that many of the songs revolve around is good. The remastered release does add a bit, especially (again) to the guitar reverb. Sure, the drums are better, but by this album the original one was at least decent.

Moving along to 1981's Burnin' For You, we find what I think is the band's best recorded sound from the regular albums. There's a slick, smooth studio sound that is hard to fault. Zounds does improve it some. There's less compression on all the drum work, with the cymbals throughout the song being much more alive. There's also more separation between the guitars that are on the left and right sides, which makes the whole soundstage bigger. Now that we're done talking about the popular stuff, I'll mention the tracks from my personal BOC pet peeve. I Am the One You Warned Me Of, on the original Columbia release, sounds like it is coming from far away when you listen. It's like the band is a foot or two behind where I usually hear things playing from out of my system. And there are obnoxious sibilants that are ear piercing on a system prone to exaggerating them (which most lo-fi setups are, this used to drive me crazy before my last round of upgrading). Well, after going through the German audiophile treatment, the harshness is reduced a bit. And the band is moved back into the room again, a welcome improvement. I plan on getting this entire album remastered when I go take over Zounds, too.

So what do we have here? The best recorded Blue Oyster Cult sound there is, no question in my mind. It will give you new respect for the band's competence in the recording studio. I'm not 100% happy with the tracks selected; I could do without the live songs like R. U. Ready to Rock and the We Gotta Get Out Of This Place cover. I'd much prefer, say, a remastered Flaming Telepaths. But for now, I have to take what I can get, and I'm pretty happy with that. If you want something by this band, this is the collection to get; all the domestic hits collections are wimpy in comparison.

Kansas: Dust in the Wind (Best)

One of the first CDs I ever bought was the collection appropriately titled The Best of Kansas. To my mind, this is the consummate greatest hits collection. Ten tracks, no fluff; every song's a winner. And there's nothing I really like by the band they left off. It's all the Kansas I thought I'd ever own. Then those damn German remastering guys got involved, and I started to have doubts. Sure, the sound quality on the old collection is decent; above average for typical rock music from the period, but certainly no reference recording. When I found it in the Kansas bin at my local store, I had to have it, just to see what else I could get out of the band's music. After all, six out of those ten tracks show up in remastered form (along with a live version of a 7th, The Wall).

I've got a wide range of reactions to remastered recordings. At the bottom is the "I can't believe they screwed that up!" feeling (check out the recent Journey remaster series if you want to hear some that I prefer the originals of). Usually things that were already well recorded get a "gee, it's nice that they improved that a bit". Typical 70's rock fare receives "wow, that sounds better"; that's where the majority of the stuff from the Zounds catalog shows up. Now, the first track on both the moldy old Kansas collection I have and the shiny new collection under consideration here is Carry On My Wayward Son. This staple of classic rock radio is a song I've heard hundreds of times, everywhere from in my system to bouncing along in the car. I put the remastered Kansas in the player in my usual system and started it up. This got the highest reaction on the remaster scale, the "holy shit, did they record this again?" comment that gets me running back to my old copy in disbelief that it could be that improved. Sure enough, there really is that big of a difference. That whole vocal introduction? It's no longer a nice chorus of voices singing in aggregate harmony; you can pick out every singer, what they're doing, and where they are standing (or where the recording engineer put them at, as the case may be). When the kick drum starts going, instead of a nice round bass thump it jams you in the gut with the impact. And the guitars, they wail away like I've never heard them before. You can even hear some of the odd studio pans and such that give clues as to how they put the song together. It's phenomenal, and it elevates the experience of listening to that song above the high peak it was already sitting at. You wanna talk value for your dollar? I'd pay the $25 this collection cost me for a single of this song if that's what I had to do to get one, now that I know it exists. Worth every penny; there is no way I could even think of getting this kind of enhancement to my listening experience by putting that money into my system instead of the music.

OK, let's calm down a bit here. There isn't the same sort of incredible improvement on the rest of the songs here. Point of Know Return gives you a better resolution of the interplay between the stringed instrument (what is it I'm supposed to describe that instrument Kansas uses as, is it an electric violin?) and the keyboard line. The harmony vocals are more clear and there's considerably more sparkle to the cymbals. Fight Fire With Fire tightens up the bass a bit, and the slight harshness that I've always heard in the chorus is gone. Dust in the Wind gives you more atmosphere, it sounds more like a real event than a recording. Song for America is really strange; the bass guitar line actually sounds less prominent, and deeper instead, like there was some sort of bloated boost going on in the original mastering that isn't there anymore. Play the Game Tonight is the best recorded original that there's a remastered version for comparison, and it's the least changed. It's just as noisy in the quiet parts. There is more echo in the vocals, and along with increased dynamics the cymbals are more pronounced.

What do I think overall? I'm planning on making my own hybrid, mixing the remastered tracks in with older copies of the others (I'm unimpressed by any of the other material that shows up in the Zounds collection that I didn't already have). That's the only way I see to get my own more perfect version of the tracks I want to hear. While the German collection doesn't replace the domestic hits CD for me, it's certainly a very much welcome supplement that makes me enjoy some of the tracks even more than I used to.

The Alan Parsons Project: Prime Time (Best)

Me and Alan Parsons Project albums go way back. It's no exaggeration to say that my initial foray into high-end audio was primarily motivated by a desire to milk more out of their albums, particularly I, Robot. Parsons is always at or near the cutting edge of recording technology, and his work from the mid 70's is still top-notch even by today's standards. The only real problem is most of the Project albums came out fairly early in the cycle of CD releases, and accordingly were done with early mastering equipment. While it's not a dire need, the back catalog could use a freshening with more modern A/D conversion.

It's appropriate to look at the albums in order to follow some of the convolutions that the catalog goes through just to get the right background to evaluate the new recordings by. 1976's Tales of Mystery and Imagination has a long remastering trail behind it. When it was first released on CD in 1986, Parsons didn't just ship the master tape out. No, he did a complicated remastering himself, actually going back to earlier versions of the tapes when possible and digitizing everything. There were even some new parts added. The whole thing is actually different in ways that go above and beyond sound quality changes. That's the original version that came out on CD, and it really sounds great. A few years back, Mobile Fidelity kicked off their Ultradisc II with GAIN by including ToMaI in the initial batch of releases. They actually went back to the original 1976 recording and released a spectacular version of that one. It's a fantastic remastering. I have no hesitation is recommending either of these two versions of the recording as some of the best sounding rock music available.

Moving forward to the second album, Mobile Fidelity released a remastered I, Robot as one of their first CD Original Master Recordings many years ago. That aluminum disc did sound better (this was before the whole gold CD craze), with the biggest difference being improved dynamic range. But their equipment from that time period doesn't even approach what they get out of things with their newer Ultradisc releases, and while it's improved you’re obviously not getting everything there is to have out of that recording (after all, you'd expect it to sound at least as good as the previous album, and it's not even close).

In the last few years, Arista Japan took a shot at rereleasing the whole catalog. The Japanese remasters were decent in spots, but overall I wasn't very impressed. My review of their work on Eye in the Sky talks a bit about the problems I heard with that recording. In general, while I was impressed by the improvement in detail and bass, I found them to be far too harsh, especially the later recordings (Eye in the Sky, Vulture Culture, Ammonia Avenue). Alan's recordings are not in your face like that.

This brings us to today, with me listening to the APP collection from Zounds. The 18 tracks are a complicated study in remastering. First off, the easy ones to describe. Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and The Raven appear to be the versions released on the 1986 ToMaI, and I didn't hear any noticeable difference between them and my original CD. Urbania and Too Late are off of 1985's Stereotomy and 1987's Gaudi respectively, the last two official Project albums. By that time, Alan obviously had full control over the whole digital chain from him to the listener, with everything sounding just as good as the early analog work. Those two songs don't sound significantly different from the original CD versions, either (I suspect that they are in fact the same digital bits, although I need to do some more extensive tests before I'd say that for sure).

This leaves with two time periods left to cover. The songs from 1977's I, Robot are the most improved on the album. I have been trying to get a really high-fidelity version of I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You for close to fifteen years now, and this is the first copy of that recording that made it to me with enough of the master tape intact that I'm really satisfied. You can finally hear the cymbals just forward enough, without being harsh, and the bass is much more solid than any previous release. Hearing every detail to Ian Bairnson's guitar like I've never experienced before make this song an even more sublime 3 minutes and 21 seconds. Getting The Voice remastered has made Steve Harley's vocal sound even more paranoid and haunted, as it should. Even though I've heard it hundreds of times before, the robotic "he's gonna get you" actually got my skin to crawl the first time I heard it here; that out-of-phase effect was rendered so much better that it really spooked me to hear it like that.

The tracks on the collection from the other early albums Pyramid, Eve, and Turn of a Friendly Card all have similar improvements. The instruments sound more realistic, and there's an enhanced sense of the space to the recording that makes it sound less like a recording and more like an actual event happening in front of you. Compared with the original CD releases, the main obvious difference is that the treble is less rolled-off.

Next up are the early digital works from Eye in the Sky, Vulture Culture, and Ammonia Avenue. I've always thought these were the weakest three albums in the APP catalog from a sound quality perspective. The lush analog sound that goes with the earlier material is gone (the drums in particular seem abrupt), partly because the technology at the time didn't really make for a particularly good digital recording. Parts of Vulture Culture in particular scream of early digital harshness in every incarnation I've heard (the evil Sony 1610 digital system mentioned in the liner notes is not a piece of equipment you'd recommend by modern standards). The Zounds versions of these songs are a bit better. Eye in the Sky and Mammagamma are just a bit more detailed and exciting to hear. Prime Time and Don't Answer Me are slightly improved all around. Days are Numbers gets a bit of the edge taken off the sibilants compared with the old CD version, much to my relief (on the Japanese remastered release of this song, hearing "watch the Stars/...See so far/Someday..." from the chorus is enough to drive me out of the room, the treble is so exaggerated). Nothing spectacular on any of these, but the difference is nice and it makes these the best recorded versions of these songs I've ever found.

Let's count the totals. Four songs that don't really sound any different, nine early recordings that get your typical analog remastering improvement, and five early digital works that make it from the studio to us in slightly better condition than any previous release. Is it worth buying? That's a value judgment for you to make. There are few improvements here dramatic enough that I'd say this is a must-have, and it's not necessarily the best collection of songs out there for casual fans (you could go buy both of their domestic greatest hits collections for about the same amount and get 23 songs instead of the 18 here, albeit with recordings that aren't quite as good). For those of us at the intersection of audiophile obsession and Project fanaticism, though, this is an opportunity to get a better focused look into the studio sound behind this band than we've ever had before.

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