Music from the Archives for September 25, 2012: Grateful Dead, Sex Pistols, and More

Audiophile Pistols

When you say the words "audiophile release," people generally don't think first of the Sex Pistols. But don't forget that Never Mind The Bollocks... Here's The Sex Pistols was produced by two veterans of the golden age of British studio wizardry: Chris Thomas (who played on the White Album and recorded Pink Floyd, Badfinger, and Roxy Music, to name but a few) and Bill Price (who designed the legendary AIR Studios).

 So there is the promise of significantly improved sound to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the band's seminal first (and only) complete studio album release. The key point of differentiation this time is that (according to the band's website):

The original master tapes from the Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistolsrecording sessions in 1977 were thought to be lost for many years. Now thankfully rediscovered during the recent move from Virgin Records to Universal Music Catalogue in January 2012 the tapes have been remastered, for the very first time, by Tim Young under direction from original producer Chris Thomas. Some real treats have also been found along the way. The find that will perhaps excite fans the most is the lost 1977 demo studio recording of "Belsen Was A Gas," the only original Sex Pistols composition of the era thought not to be recorded.

For more information on this punk treasure trove, including a full track listing of the 3 CD+DVD +BOOK collection, work your way through the digital mosh pit known as the Internet to visit the official Sex Pistols website.

From the Bargain Bin

I was poking around the Music DIrect website this weekend and found some great buys on albums and box sets you may have missed:

Joni Mitchell's Court & Spark for under $20 on 180 Gram LP

Herbie Hancock's Gershwin tribute on SACD with a fabulous surround sound mix! For $10!

The Dukes of Stratosphear's ultimate box set for just $99 - includes 180 gram audiophile pressings and deluxe CDs, booklets and even a great T-shirt offer. These albums have never sounded better and the packaging is exemplary. Essential.

Morrissey's great Swords B-sides collection $20

PIL's Album on 180-gram vinyl for just $10 

Neil Young's Fork in the Road CD + DVD (high res on the latter) for just $13

Having a High-Def Time

Woo Hoo! The Grateful Dead are again happening in high def again courtesy of the good folks at Rhino Records and

Courtesy of HDTracks, I downloaded the large 96 kHz, 24-bit FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) files and did some comparisons to the CD reissue (from The Golden Road box set) one of Rhino's great LP reissues from earlier this year, as well as the high resolution DVD-Audio Disc version which came out in the early '00s. My LP was still sealed in fact, so I got a chance to compare as closely as possible, oranges to oranges.

Well. . . sort of. Here's what went down: First off, the LP got the immediate nod over the CD due to its overall fuller sound. Then I started playing the HDTracks files, and I smiled because it sounded pretty huge and quite nice. But. . . something sounded funny to my ear. So much so that I had to stop and double check my system to make sure something wasn't wrong: I was hearing all sorts of reverb and significant differences to the mix. I went back to the CD and LP and they sounded much closer to one another, a much more in-your-face mix.

I made sure all the settings to the VLC player I use were set as flat as possible (I had trouble getting Pure Music's player to update but in past experience, the difference between the players had been negligible, with the VLC getting the nod for simplicity of operation. Nonetheless I was still hearing the reverb and an alternate-sounding mix.

Concerned about the reverb issue, I went a step further and started to play some tracks which I'd personally recorded with my own band (including some demos made recently in my home studio) to hear whether the player was somehow coloring the music. I was relieved to find that the player was indeed not doing anything to "color" the tracks. In fact, I was pleased how great our song "Not Dead Not Dying" sounds (played through the AudioEngine D1 DAC, taking the feed from my MacBook). It is a well-made album, I humbly admit, mixed at The Record Plant to analog by engineer Justin Phelps (who as worked with everyone to Joe Satriani to Cake and beyond!).

The Long Strange Trip. . .

BUT THEN... I flashed back to the time when the DVD-Audio Discs were first released and remembered there was something of a hubbub amongst some folks grumbling about Mickey Hart's revisionist surround sound mix. He had indeed changed things intentionally, taking full advantage of the increased space of DVD-A to present the songs from American Beauty and Workingman's Dead in a relatively unedited form, bringing out different elements in the mix that had been buried for various reasons.

I, for one, love the surround mix so much that I actually had never even bothered to listen to the stereo mix on that disc! So, playing the stereo mix on the DVD-A of Workingman's Dead quickly revealed a mix has that same basic flavor as the HDTracks 96/24 version. I am not in a position to make claims that it is the same thing, but there is a pretty good chance they are from the same source. And it is a good sounding source indeed, a full bodied mix that works really well, adding a very nice sense of ambience to the music within the context of your two channel listening environment.

Therein, however, lies the rub: as much as I like it and as good as it sounds, I have to admit that this reverb-laden version does not faithfully reflect the original sound and feel of the album, the vibe which most of us know and love.

I first noticed the difference on "Casey Jones," with a markedly hotter snap to Bill Kreutzman's snare drum. Super clear high hats punctuate the mix. Some of the background harmonies during the solo portion of the song have been centered in the mix (vs. appearing toward the right channel in the original). The bass doesn't benefit as much on the new mix here – sure it has plenty of low end, but some of the fine edges of Phil Lesh's extremely lyrical playing have been rounded out and softened a bit.

"High Time" is another one that takes on a different vibe in the new mix. On the original album, it was mixed with such a hushed tone, it sounded as if Jerry Garcia was singing to your in your bedroom at 3 a.m. You are so close you hear the woodiness of his guitar while Phil's fat bass lines embrace you like a security blanket. The HDTracks version is more like you are listening to them playing from the back of an empty Fillmore. It sounds great. But it is a different experience.

The Rhino 180-gram LP brings out a beautiful sonic texture from the recording, delivering effectively that very woody, acoustic flair which complemented the cowboy aesthetic of the cover. "Cumberland Blues" is a perfect example of The Dead's facility in bridging psychedelic and country-western sounds - electric guitars seamlessly give way to acoustic guitars and banjo in the second part of the tune. When Bob Weir's vocal comes in on that second half he sounds like he's there in the room with you. On the HDTracks and DVD-A versions, there is again more of a concert-hall soundstage created with room ambience. Again, it's not bad - just different.

I also noticed that the HDTracks files play a wee bit more slowly than the LP or CD versions. I do not know for sure, but it is quite possible that when Mickey Hart was remixing the tapes he may have found that the master had been sped up a tad (as was common practice back in the day to lend a sense of excitement to a recording and stand out on the radio). Or perhaps the original tape machines were just off speed a bit - anything is possible. Again, it's not a bad thing. But it is different.

So, here's how things shake down:

  • If you are building a high-res digital collection and want some great, peak period acoustic rock music from The Grateful Dead - and you don't mind that it is not the original mix - then you will enjoy the HDTracks version of Workingman's Dead.
  • If you are a pretty hardcore Dead Head like me, you will want all the versions, as they are cool to hear - it's like having an alternate take of the whole album.
  • If, you are a purist, you probably will want to seek out the LP for an experience closer to what you remember from back in the day when the album was released.
  • If you don't have uber-audiophile ears or you "just want the tunes, man" then stick with the CD. It comes with some way cool bonus tracks and if you have an HDCD compatible player, it will sound pretty awesome.

Maybe someday, we'll get a Blu-ray Disc version of these albums with ALL the various mixes in one place. Then obsessive geeks like me and you - come on, admit it, you wouldn't still be reading this far into the piece if you weren't even a bit more than casually interested - will have everything we could want and more in one handy disc.

Till then, I hope you have a groovy week ahead!

And remember: when in doubt, twirl!