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    The Best Version Of… Crosby, Stills & Nash Self-Titled Debut


    In the summer of 1969, Crosby, Stills, and Nash made their music synonymous with the so-called Woodstock generation. Following its release at the end of May, CSN’s self-titled debut steadily climbed the charts, sitting at number seven on the Billboard album charts when the band (with a decidedly reluctant Neil Young in tow) played a career-defining 3 a.m. set on the final day of the aforementioned festival. 


    Now, fifty years later, Crosby, Stills, and Nash are back in the spotlight with the release of not one, but two new CSN(Y) biographies (one by David Browne and one by Peter Doggett), a Cameron Crowe-directed documentary about Crosby, and the release of the band’s entire Woodstock performance for the first time as part of Rhino’s massive new Woodstock box set


    Thanks to the latest chapter in the infighting that has dogged the supergroup almost since its inception, there’s no new reissue of the band’s debut to mark the 50th anniversary of its release. But there already are several digital versions of CSN’s “couch album” — as its sometimes referred to among fans, thanks to Henry Diltz’s iconic cover photo — and enough debate about which of those versions is best to make Crosby, Stills & Nash the subject of the sixth installment of The Best Version Of…


    The roots of Crosby, Stills, and Nash lay in Crosby’s ejection from The Byrds in late-1967 and the disintegration of Stills’s band, Buffalo Springfield, early the following year. “I really needed another element [beyond performing solo],” Stills explained to CSN’s first biographer, Dave Zimmer. “And then I thought about Crosby and said to myself, ‘Now there’s a pro. That guy thinks just like I do.’” The decision to hook up with Stills was an easy one for Crosby. “I liked that he was cocky,” he told Browne. “He believed in himself. He believed he was good, so he would step forward and bite a chunk out of life, and I felt the same way.” 


    The castaways from two of L.A.’s premier folk-rock outfits were drawn together in what was then not yet a formal musical arrangement. “It’s funny,” Crosby told Zimmer. “Not a whole lot was discussed. But the minute we started playing together again, I knew we were gonna be hot shit.” Soon, it became clear they had the makings of a new band. “The chemistry that bubbled between us is something that neither one of us had experienced in a while,” Stills said


    Each musician brought with him a backlog of songs, and they began polishing them together. “We would get up around midday or so, trot down to one of the places on Sunset, and grab some shitty breakfast,” Crosby told Zimmer. “Then we’d get high and start playin’ guitar and singin’. And we would play guitar and sing all day, until we couldn’t stand up, until we’d fall down, exhausted. Then we’d go to sleep, get up, and do it all over again. That’s how we got so damn tight.” Several of those tunes would become their respective contributions to CSN’s self-titled debut, while others would find their way onto CSNY’s Déjà Vu or solo albums. 


    Among the songs Crosby and Stills committed to tape early on were Crosby’s “Long Time Gone” and “Guinnevere” and an early version of Stills’s “49 Bye-Byes,” then dubbed “49 Reasons.” 


    Written in the immediate aftermath of the June 5th assassination of Robert Kennedy, “Long Time Gone” was an angry denunciation of the state of the country in 1968. “It wasn’t just about Bobby…,” Crosby told Browne. “We lost John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and then we lost Bobby. It was discouraging, to say the least. The song was very organic. I didn’t plan it. It just came out that way.” The loose, funky demo of “Long Time Gone” cut at Western Recorders just eight days after RFK was shot established the working dynamic that would continue after even the duo added Nash. Stills handled most of the instrumental work, while Crosby adding vocals and occasional guitar. “Right away they started doing everything themselves…,” engineer Henry Lewy told Zimmer. “At one point, Stills was playing drums, then guitar, then organ. I’d seen other multitalented people before, but none as equally adept at every instrument.” 


    Stills, however, was absent for the take of “Guinnevere,” Crosby’s beguiling love song about former flame Joni Mitchell and current lover Christine Hinton, recorded two weeks later. Instead, Crosby’s multitracked guitars and vocals were complimented by Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady’s slinky bass and the Modern Folk Quartet’s Cyrus Faryar’s bouzouki. 


    Two weeks after that, Stills went alone to Wally Heider Recording’s Studio 3 in Hollywood and layered piano, guitar, bass, drums, and organ to create a version of “49 Reasons” that was at once Muscle Shoals-inflected and, thanks to Still’s swirling backwards guitar, psychedelic. “He had the guitar, and he said, ‘Turn the tape over and play it to me backwards,’” engineer Bill Halverson, who would go on to engineer Crosby, Stills & Nash, told me. “And I thought, ‘Well this is crazy.’ But..I went from the tail of the tape, I turned it over, and track 2 became track 7. I pushed record, and on the run-through he played guitar, and when I turned it back over there’s this brilliant backwards guitar part.”


    Seeking a record deal, Crosby and Stills had the three demos pressed on to an acetate for distribution to record companies. But a copy found its way into the hands of L.A. disc jockey B. Mitchell Reed, who began playing “Long Time Gone” and introducing the mysterious band as “The Frozen Noses,” a reference to the duo’s growing cocaine use. “I remember telling B. Mitchell Reed to stop calling us that,” Crosby told Zimmer. “I mean, it didn’t do a hell of a lot for our reputations. But the music was sounding so good, man, we could have been called anything and it wouldn’t have really mattered.”


    Despite the buzz growing around their partnership, Crosby and Stills still felt that they were missing an ingredient, one that they would eventually find in a disaffected member of a Mancunian pop band. 


    Exactly how Graham Nash came to become the third member of Crosby, Stills, and Nash remains up for debate. By some accounts, the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian — whom Crosby and Nash also invited to join their nascent group — was the first to bring up Nash’s name as a possible third harmony. “You know, Stephen, you really need a high voice to get over you, so you can sing the melody,” Sebastian recalled telling Stills around the pool at Sebastian’s L.A. home. “There are two great high harmony singers in the world right now. One of them is Phil Everly. The other is Graham Nash.” It’s not clear when Sebastian offered this observation or how early this idle commentary turned into a legitimate plan of action. Crosby had been friendly with Nash as far back as 1966. He told Zimmer, “I wanted to sing with Graham as soon as I heard [The Hollies’] ‘King Midas in Reverse.’ It was definitely in my mind to do that. I sent him a tape of ‘Guinnevere’ and ‘Long Time Gone.’ But I didn’t think he’d really leave the Hollies.” However, “Midas” was released in September of 1967, and “Long Time Gone” wasn’t written or recorded until more than eight months later. Moreover, both Zimmer’s and Browne’s books have Crosby and Stills contriving to “steal” Nash from The Hollies while hanging out together following The Hollies’ Valentines Day ’68 gig at the Whisky-A-Go-Go. But that story seems either apocryphal or, at best, a case of seriously uncanny foreshadowing. In February of ’68, Buffalo Springfield was just beginning work on Last Time Around, and Stills and Crosby hadn’t yet begun collaborating seriously.


    No matter how the idea of recruiting Nash solidified into an earnest plan for Crosby and Stills, executing it took a little serendipity. “We thought such an idea be preposterous,” Stills told Zimmer. “The only person who knew how unhappy Graham was Cass [Elliot].” The Mamas and the Papas’ Elliot had first introduced Nash to Crosby, and Nash had confided in her that he was unhappy in The Hollies. Nash was smitten with the California rock scene. “For me it was all a fantasyland,” he said in 2015. “People were asking me for my opinion, saying why don’t you try this harmony part. It was a very freeing time in Los Angeles. It was an incredible place to be, America.” He also felt that he’d found a kindred spirit in Crosby. “Crosby fascinated me,” Nash told Zimmer. “I’d never met anybody like him. He was a total punk, a total asshole, totally delightful, totally funny, totally brilliant, a totally musical man. And I enjoyed his company.”


    Depending on who’s recounting the story, Crosby, Stills, and Nash first sang together sometime between July and September of ’68. Maybe the harmonizing took place at Elliot’s house. “[David and I] would scheme about a band, and one night at the Troubadour I saw Cass, who I hadn’t seen for a while, and she said, ‘Would you like to have a third harmony?’” Stills told Vanity Fair in 2015. “I said, ‘I’m not sure — it depends on the guy, the voice.’ So she said, ‘When David calls you to come over to my house with your guitar, don’t ask — just do it.’ I knew that the queen bee had something up her sleeve, and, sure enough, David calls me and says, ‘Get your guitar and come to Cass’s house.’ I can see it now — the living room, the dining room, the pool, the kitchen — and we’re in the living room and there’s Graham Nash. Then Cass goes, ‘So sing.’ And we sang ‘In the morning, when you rise…. ” Or maybe it was at Joni Mitchell’s house. “Stephen’s completely out of his mind,” Nash countered to Vanity Fair. “I remember it clearly and so does David. It was not at Mama Cass’s. We did sing at Cass’s. But not the very first time.” (Other potential locations for CSN’s first harmonization include the houses of Stills, Sebastian, producer Paul Rothchild, or Troubadour owner Doug Weston.) 


    Wherever it took place, the effect was instantaneous. “This stuff coming out of the three of us was quite something,” Nash told CNSY biographer Peter Doggett. “I’m a harmony freak, and I’d never heard anything like it. We sang that one verse, and then started laughing hysterically — laughing with joy. We couldn’t believe what we’d found.” The other members of the L.A. scene who heard the sound Crosby, Stills, and Nash made together agreed. “Steven and Dave and I used to get together in California — just have informal sessions with whatever musicians were around at the time,” Sebastian told Record Mirror in December of ’68. “David has this great voice for harmony — he can follow a lead and really harmonize beautifully, come in right on pitch. And then suddenly Graham Nash appeared, and it was incredible. Dave has a high voice, but Graham would be about an octave and a half higher.” As Sebastian explained to Zimmer later, “I don’t think anything could have prepared me for how this particular trio of voices blended together. The sound was magical, otherworldly harmony, like nothing I’d ever heard before.” 


    At that point, Nash was still in The Hollies and scheduled to rejoin them in England to work on the band’s next record. But Crosby and Stills spent the remainder of Nash’s time in L.A. repeating the performance for anyone in the scene who’d listen. “For the next several days,” Paul Rothchild remembered, “they hit the road and played all the hippest houses in L.A. They threw their shit up the flagpole to see if anyone would salute. Well, not only did people salute, they fell down on their knees! At that point, Crosby, Stills, and Nash could have started a religion.”


    “In my mind,” Nash told Zimmer, “I had already left the Hollies.” All that was left was to make it official.


    Over the next several months, Crosby, Stills, and Nash began working out the songs that would compose their debut album. They cut “Helplessly Hoping” and “You Don’t Have to Cry” with Rothchild at the Record Plant in New York, but decided that The Doors’ producer wasn’t the right fit. (Judging by the slick, lackluster version of “You Don’t Have to Cry” eventually released on the band’s 1991 box set, they were right.) 


    When Nash again returned to London to tie up loose ends with The Hollies, Stills and Crosby borrowed money from Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun to fly over and continue woodshedding the trio’s new songs. There, Crosby, Stills, and Nash began inviting the London music press to hear what they were up to. “One Sunday before Christmas we went to a flat in Moscow Road to hear what Graham Nash had described on the phone as ‘one of the happiest sounds you have ever heard,’” Barry Miles wrote in the International Times. “The new supergroup of Graham, Dave Crosby, and Steve Stills had been the subject of much rumor and discussion — the living proof is even better than predicted.” Miles described the CSN sound as “high treble and low bass…[and] little middle register at all.” He called the not-yet-a-band “more important than The Cream” and predicted that “this liaison, if it ever gets on record, which it surely will, will be the most significant group of 1969.” While in England, the trio also tried out for the Beatles fledging label, Apple Records, but were rejected.


    They continued to rehearse in Sag Harbor, on Long Island, where Crosby, Stills, and Nash added drummer Dallas Taylor to the group, a decision that conflicted with Nash’s initial expectation that whatever the group’s record would be a primarily acoustic affair. “Stephen was pushing them to do a rock-and-roll record instead of a folk album because he was the electric guy,” Taylor told Browne. “He was a rocker. He wanted to play.” Stills also brought in bassist Harvey Brooks and keyboardist Paul Harris as potential additions, but it was instead decided (either for musical or business reasons, depending on the source) that Stills would handle those duties himself in the studio. 


    While the band was honing their songs’ arrangements, their new management team of David Geffen and Elliot Roberts were extricating them from their previous contracts and paving the way for the group to sign with Atlantic Records. “We were morally committed to Ahmet from the start,” Stills told Zimmer. “He was really like the mother superior of this group.”


    By the time David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills piled into Crosby’s Porsche engine-powered Volkswagen bus and descended on Heider’s Studio 3 in early February 1969, the nascent supergroup was rested, rehearsed, and ready to record. They were also riding the wave of a hype that began before the three had even committed the music that would make them famous to tape. “Yeah, I know it’s there,” Stills told Rolling Stone in April, “and it scares me, man.”


    In recording CSN’s debut, Stills would be reunited with Halverson, who would help the band craft the album’s distinctive sound. “I was running [Heider’s] L.A. studio when Atlantic called [to book time for] this unknown group that they’d signed,” Halverson told me. “I had done a lot of studio sessions…but I’d not done an album all the way through with an artist, and I really wanted to do an album. I had no idea who the artist was, but I asked if I could put my name on it, and they said, ‘We’ll get back to you.’ And when it got closer to the session time they called me and said, ‘You can put your name on it.’ So I did. I had no idea who I was gonna show up.”


    Heider’s new Studio 3 allowed Halverson and the band to work with the best technology available. Heider had Studio 3 designed to replicated Western Recorders legendary Studio 3, Brian Wilson’s favored studio. ‘Wally and his carpenter…booked an hour of studio time at United Western 3, measured it and figured out it would fit into the space that was available,” Halverson recounted to Sound on Sound in 2010. “So, that’s how Heider came to build his own Studio 3. He never did have a Studio 2. He actually had the balls to name it Studio 3.” 


    Studio 3 was outfitted with a custom Frank DiMedio‑designed 16-track console made with Universal Audio parts and two custom hybrid 300/350 Ampex two-inch tape machines. When Halverson had worked with Stills on the “49 Reasons” demo at Heider just seven months earlier, they were limited to eight tracks. Now, Halverson and CSN could made good use of the flexibility provided by the new 16-track machine. “Sixteen track was really a luxury in that we’d been doing eight track and trying to bounce stuff and everything,” Halverson told me. “So [with CSN] I actually had the drums on four tracks…. Occasionally there was a bunch of high-hat or something that was special I put it on separate tracks, but I just used four tracks for the drums and one for the bass and acoustic guitar.” That left Halverson and the band with plenty of room for multiple vocal tracks and, when needed, additional instrumental overdubs without bouncing. 


    The album was recorded at 15 IPS to give it the “fat” bottom end, as Halverson put it. Halverson also purposely recorded hot, with a bright sound, to mitigate against tape hiss in the equalization and mixing stage. “I like 15 IPS and of course there’s tape noise, so I always record it a bit brighter than I want it because I never wanted to add top end when we mixed,” he explained to me. “I’d rather take a little off when we mixed…. I also really saturated the tape. I mean, people would come in and see tracks that never got out of the red, and that’s just where I was at…. I had tape compression because…I never wanted to compress any more when I mixed because then I’d be compressing some tape noise.” The strategy worked. Compared to some of the other big albums of ’69, Crosby, Stills & Nash is a relatively quiet, dynamic recording.


    Fittingly, the first track recorded by the band would lead off the album — “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” “When they showed up, it was the three of them in David’s van, his Beetle [sic] van…,” Halverson told me. “We sort of small talk, and everyone said, ‘What are we gonna do?’ And they said, ‘Well Stephen wants to play guitar.’” According to Halverson, what happened next created a moment of panic for Halverson, who thought he’d made a mistake that would cost him the gig as engineer for CSN before it even started:


    We had a nice Neumann U67, and I set that up…. [Stills] started to play, and I went in and listened to it, and it was this really mellow sounding, almost dull-sounding, acoustic guitar. And, so, I started adding top end, and he said, ‘Turn out the lights.’ So I turned out the lights. Now I can’t see. I can just hear the guitar…. I just kept adding top end and taking away the way at the bottom and put a limiter on it and just compressed and compressed it, trying to get some edge to it ‘cause it was just really dull…. I punched record on the 16 track and thought, ‘Well I’ll just record a little, and then I’ll have [Stills] come in [to listen to the acoustic sound].’ And then David Crosby stuck his arm up above his head and did this twirling thing, which is the international sign for ‘We’re recording’…. There was this pause and then Stephen started to play, and my whole life went in front of me because it was just so bright…the needle [on the compressor] went all the way to the bottom and just stayed there, it didn’t bounce around at all. It was totally over-compressed…. There was no bottom end, it was really toppy. It was just this crunchy guitar sound I would have never gone for in a million years…. I was making excuses in my mind [for the sound], and he’s just playing, and [Nash and Crosby] are dancing, and I’m just sweating. And then [Stills] would pause and I would go to stop the machine and he’d start playing again. And basically he’s playing the basic track to ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,’ which is seven and a half minutes long. That was probably the longest time I’ve ever been in the studio just trying to make up excuses of how I could fix [a sound]…. It finally ends, and I hear him put his guitar down, and he’s coming towards the double doors, and the other two guys are going towards the double doors. The doors open, and they’re high-fiving and he looks up at me and says, ‘That’s the best guitar sound I’ve ever gotten. That’s the one I’ve been looking for’…. I said, ‘Thanks.’ I didn’t tell him it was a mistake for twenty years.


    Unbeknownst to Halverson, out in the dark of the studio, Stills was continually moving around, repositioning his guitar in relationship to the U67, taking a few strums and waiting for Halverson to adjust the sound in response to his movements until Stills got the tone to his liking. “What I found out later was that he had tried to get that guitar sound in Buffalo Springfield…[and on the] demos with Rothschild…,” Halverson said. “Everybody toned [his guitar] down, and finally somebody didn’t tone him down, so he was a happy camper.” 


    That first take made it all the way to the final mix, and the bright, compressed tone of Stills’s EEEEBE-tuned acoustic accentuates Stills’s percussive strumming, which propels the song forward through its four distinct sections. Following Still’s acoustic run-through, Crosby and Nash joined him in the studio to record the group vocals. “When they said, ‘Well now we wanna sing,’ I just raised that U67 up, opened it to the omni position…[and] got two more sets of headphones…,” Halverson explained. “I didn’t get up two more mics or anything, I just raised the one mic and figured, they’ll sing around one mic. Nobody said ‘no,’ so that’s what we started to do. And, of course, they started singing, and I was just blown away.”


    When Halverson heard what he thought was a good take, he’d keep it and record the next to a different track.  “All they’d hear in their headphones was what they were doing. They didn’t hear that I’d saved anything,” he continued. “And so they were out there singing for maybe an hour or 45 minutes or something like that, and they finally needed to take a break…. So they came in [to the control room] and…I knew I had saved three really good [takes]…. I thought, ‘What do I do? Do I play one track?’ And I thought, ‘No, I’ll just play them all three of them.’ So I brought up all three tracks and the acoustic guitar and played it. We just all got goosebumps. It was just crazy. I mean, that became CSN’s sound.”


    Multitracked live harmonies made Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s group vocals sound at once classic and modern — the Everly Brothers for a late-‘60s record-buying public accustomed to the studio experimentation of The Beatles and Hendrix. “We always sang them gathered around a big beautiful Neumann 87 [sic]…,” Stills told American Songwriter in 2008. “And you’d stand back from it, and the mic would capture the blend…. Where you stand from the mic is everything…. Often it would sound almost right and the engineer would say, ‘Okay, Crosby-take one step backwards,’ or ‘Graham, take one giant step backwards.’”

    By the end of the first day, the group had the foundations of both “Suite” and “You Don’t Have to Cry.” “They were really well rehearsed, and they could hardly wait to get it on tape and listen to it,” Halverson told me. “And once it sounded the way it did, we were just blown away.” 


    “What a joy those sessions were,” Crosby gushed to Zimmer. “We got a lot of air mixes [live harmonies]. Very often we’d walk in and get a song on the first try.”


    The rehearsed perfection of the trio’s vocals, however, presented one technical problem for Halverson. “They were so perfect that, if you brought the three vocal tracks up at the same level, the meters would phase…,” Halverson told Sound on Sound. “That's why, when we mixed it, there was this dance that I would do with the three levels of the three tracks so that they were never always completely equal, and the result is that it doesn't sound like three tracks all the way through all of the time — one track is usually slightly ahead of the others, and it is those tiny bits of movement in a track that keep it from phasing.” (“Halverson,” Stills said later, “taught me all I know about the electronic processes of production.”)


    Lyrically, “Suite” was one of Stills’s many songs about his estranged partner Judy Collins. “It started out as a long narrative poem about my relationship with Judy Collins,” Stills explained later. “It poured out of me over many months and filled several notebooks. I had a hell of a time getting the music to fit. I was left with all these pieces of song and I said, ‘Let's sing them together and call it a suite,’ because they were all about the same thing and they led up to the same point.” Stills made use of the Spanish he picked up while attending school in Central America as a teen with a final section that combined the song’s iconic “do-do-do-do-do, do, do, do-do” backing vocals with Stills’s lead vocal about the beauty of Cuba sung in Spanish. “The little kicker at the end about Cuba was just to liven it up because it had gone on forever and I didn't want it to just fall apart,” Stills noted. “I said, ‘Now that we've sung all these lyrics about one thing, let's change the subject entirely.’ And we did. Even did it in a different language just to make sure that nobody could understand it.”


    When Collins returned to L.A. for a May ’69 concert date, Stills performed “Suite” for her in her Holiday Inn hotel room. Collins recognized references to the days (“Thursdays and Saturdays”) that Collins, who was then struggling with alcoholism, went to therapy. “Afterwards, we both cried, and then I said, ‘Oh, Stephen, it’s such a beautiful song. But it’s not winning me back…,’” Collins reminisced to The Guardian in 2017. “I felt the song was flattering and heartbreaking – for both of us.” In Collins’s autobiography, which she titled after the song, she reflected, “Whenever I hear the song — in a grocery store, in an airport, on my own CD player — it resounds like a call from mystic lakes. It pierces the heart of this girl and all the other grown-up girls who think it tells their story. All great songs make you feel that way, as though they were written especially for you.”


    Though it failed to win Collins back, Stills’s “Suite” became the group’s most iconic Young-less tune and served as a showcase for both the group’s ethereal harmonies and Stills’s multi-instrumental acumen.  


    Stills fleshed out acoustic guitar-and-vocals foundation of “Suite” with the galloping bass guitar part that, in the final mix, is perhaps even more central to the song’s sound that the iconic acoustic track, as well as additional acoustic flourishes, a churning electric guitar part, and assorted percussion, including the vaguely conga-ish sounds in the third part of the “Suite,” which were accomplished by Still’s slapping the back of his Martin guitar. “I basically cut the acoustic part, and then we went and started doing vocals,” Stills recalled to Adam Reader in a recent interview. “And then I said, ‘Okay that’s good, guys. I’ve got some stuff I want to put on it [that] I’ve been thinking of’.... I’d do one take...on bass, then a little of this [and a little of] that.”


    Continuing the dynamic established when working as a duo with Crosby, Stills handled nearly all of the instrumental duties on CSN’s debut. “It was amazing to watch,” Sebastian, who dropped in on the sessions, told Zimmer. “Stephen was, ‘Here’s a guitar. Now I’ll play bass on it. Now it needs a little more guitar in this other part. Now I’ll put on some B3 organ.’ Stephen really made that whole album.” The decision to forgo adding additional musicians to the group beyond Taylor meant that Stills had free reign to arrange nearly the instrumental tracks as he saw fit. “I hadn’t found anyone who could play these parts like I heard them,” Stills recalled. “And I was just trying to get the best out of everyone’s songs. So they let me run with it. There were no egos. Everyone was surprisingly cooperative. We worked together and still gave each other room. I’ve never felt such support since.” While Nash and Crosby supplied rhythm guitar on their own tracks, they were happy to defer to Stills when it came to additional instrumentation. “[The studio versions of the songs were] a lot better than I thought [they] would be,” Crosby told Zimmer. “It was kind of startling. I didn’t know how good we would be at creating tracks. A lot of it was Stills. He was terrific.”


    Stills’s frenetic genius in the studio earned him the nickname “Captain Manyhands” from Crosby and Nash. The burden of tackling all of the non-drum instruments meant that Stills was left his own devices in the studio. “Sometimes Stephen just needed to work by himself,” Nash told Zimmer. “He’d say something like, ‘Listen, didn’t you say you were going to get a burger?’ And we would leave.” Thanks to Stills’s preference for working solo, Halverson was the one who spent the most time in the studio beside Stills. “Graham and David would come and go, but Stephen was obsessed,” Halverson told Browne. “The sound would be in his head, and he had so many ideas it was just a matter of ‘How quick can I get these down?’ As quick as I could rewind to another track, he was onto something else. You just had to keep up.”


    In a foreshadowing of the habits that would wreak havoc on the band in the years to come, some of Stills’s boundless energy in the studio was of the pharmaceutical variety. As Doggett notes, “The session tapes for their first album caught many occasions on which one of them would say…’Let’s go and snort and listen!’ Their drug intake would eventually coarsen their vocal cords and distort the texture of their harmonies.” But, as Halverson told me, the band’s cocaine use didn’t begin to interfere with the music until CSNY’s Déjà Vu. Nash agrees. “By the time we got to Déjà Vu and we’d snorted eighty pounds of cocaine,” Nash told Browne, “things were a little different.”


    When Dallas Taylor, who couldn’t attend the first week of the sessions, arrived at Heider he overdubbed drums on the second and fourth sections of “Suite.” Taylor, however, lobbied Stills to add drums to the whole song. “He finally talked Stephen into it,” Halverson remembered. “So we cut the first half of ‘Suite’ together with drums and put all the vocals back on it and did the overdubs and everything…. I edited the 16 track with the drums on it and everything, and we went ahead and finished it.” Eventually, Halverson says, Stills — who, per band rules, had the final call on which version of “Suite” would make the cut, since it was his song — “came to his senses” and decided to scrap the new version. “We listened to the two versions back to back and ended up using the original one,” Nash told Zimmer. “It was just better. And we didn’t want to fuck with greatness.” (Listening to the plodding, drum-laden mix of “Suite,” which made it onto the aforementioned ’91 box set, it couldn’t have been a difficult decision to stick with the original version.)


    The second track on Crosby, Stills & Nash, Nash’s “Marrakesh Express,” arguably sounds the most like its writer’s previous group, perhaps because it was intended for it. “In 1966 I was visiting Morocco on vacation to Marrakesh and getting on a train and having a first-class ticket and then realizing that the first-class compartment was completely fucking boring, you know, ladies with blue hair in there — it wasn’t my scene at all,” Nash told Rolling Stone. “So I decide I’m going to go and see what the rest of the train is like. And the rest of the train was fascinating. Just like the song says, there were ducks and pigs and chickens all over the place and people lighting fires. It’s literally the song as it is — what happened to me.” According to Nash, when he presented the song to his Hollies bandmates, they were less than enthusiastic about recording it, though they claim it was actually producer, Ron Richards, who nixed the song. Regardless, the icy reception the band gave “Marrakesh” has long been cited as one of the reasons that Nash was eager to leave The Hollies. It’s easy to listen to Nash’s demo of the song, released on the CSN Demos collection, and imagine it on a Hollies album. But with Stills’s trebly multitracked electric guitar part, which he intended to mimic a coronet section, and a jaunty drum track from Jim Gordon, who chipped in on the song for an absent Taylor, the band version of “Marrakesh” becomes distinctly Crosby, Stills, and Nash, even if it remains the most pop-y tune on the album. 


    The first side of Crosby, Stills & Nash is rounded out by Crosby’s “Guinnivere,” Stills’s “You Don’t Have to Cry,” and Nash’s “Pre-Road Downs.” 


    In an in interview with MusicRadar, Crosby told the story of “Guinnivere”: 


    It’s three women — three verses, three different women — one of whom is Joni [Mitchell]; one of whom is Christine Hinton, my girlfriend who got killed; and one is another girl whose identity I promised I wouldn’t reveal. You know, it’s hard to judge your own work, but I think this might be my best song — although I’m still trying to beat it. [Laughs] Musically, it’s really intricate and delicious. It goes 4/4, 6/8, 7/4, each verse in a sequence. I didn’t know it until one of the Grateful Dead guys said, ‘Did you ever count that?’ I like it musically, I like it lyrically, and I like the mood that it creates a lot. The guitar pattern, I can’t say how it came about. I just fooled around and it came out. It’s in a very odd tuning that a guy from the Midwest showed me one time. Nobody really owns tunings. I’ve shown it to thousands of people over the years, and they went off and wrote their own songs. I do think this one is beautiful. It could be my best.”


    As hypnotic as the trio’s harmonies are on the Crosby, Stills & Nash version of “Guinnivere,” Crosby’s demo version, which was released on the CSN box set, might be even better. “I love [the demo] version of ‘Guinnevere’ because of the beauty that Jack Casady and Cyrus Faryar brought to it…,” Crosby has noted. “I would have put the track on the first CSN album just as it is, but Stephen and Graham wanted me to try the song over again so they could add their own things to it. But Jack was such a brilliant and adventuresome player — he had incredible tone and sound, and played like no one else. A towering monster of a musician.”


    According to Halverson, the band was as indecisive about the arrangement of “Guinnevere” as it was with “Suite,” which created technical difficulties when it came to mixing the version that appears on the album. “We cut it just acoustic,” Halverson told me, “and then either David...or Dallas wanted it with bass and drums also. So Stephen’s playing bass and Dallas is playing drums, and then they’re doing live vocals and acoustic guitars…out in the [same] room. And we cut this track we really like, and then a few days later David goes, ‘I just hate the bass and drums. I just want to have it just be acoustic.’ I spent forever trying to get rid of the bass leakage and the drums leakage with filters and all kinds of stuff on the guitar…. I can [still] hear a little cymbal in a couple of places, and I hear a little bass note in the intro. But we finally got away with it where I was able to get rid of the bass and drums.”


    “You Don’t Have to Cry” was yet another of Stills’s tunes about Collins. “I was trying to say something to her about how disassociated her life was,” Stills explained in one interview. “She was always trying to do so many things and was so intense about it.” And “Pre-Road Downs” was another of Nash’s catchy contributions, this time augmented by the type of backwards guitar that Stills had tried out on his demo of “49 Reasons” with Halverson. “When Stephen said, ‘Bill, turn the tape over,’ I knew exactly what he wanted to do,” Halverson told me. “I turned the tape over…and I said, ‘Go ahead and play’…. [The album version is] the run through. That he could hear the changes backwards still amazes me.”


    Side two of Crosby, Stills & Nash open with what is sonically one of its most compelling songs and lyrically one of its most cringeworthy. From Stills’s liquid lead lines to Crosby’s unsettled 12-string rhythm work to Taylor’s at once delicate and propulsive drumming, “Wooden Ships” creates an enveloping sonic world. “I had this boat down in Florida… [Jefferson Airplane’s] Paul [Kantner] and Stephen showed up [to sail] at the same time,” Crosby told MusicRadar. “I had that set of [chord] changes. They’re pretty unusual, I must say. Stephen added to them, but the main changes I had. We started goofing around with them, and we all wrote the song…. It’s a post-apocalyptic story…. The idea was that we were sort of sailing away from that madness.” 


    Crosby, Stills, and Kantner’s desire to critique the political and environmental state of the world in the late-1960s was understandable, and the song’s sentiments are maybe even more relatable today. However, their execution was ham-fisted. The opening line of “Wooden Ships” (“If you smile at me, I will understand, ‘cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language”), which Crosby borrowed from a Florida church’s sign, is one of the album’s most memorable, but the rest of the sci-fi-inflected lyrics (“Say, can I have some of your purple berries?”) haven’t aged well. Moreover, the song’s narrative — rather than fighting against the evils of society, the wooden ship’s sailors were simply abandoning it — didn’t strike all of Crosby’s likeminded friends as humane. “‘Wooden Ships’ was from a very young and idealistic point of view…,” the Airplane’s Grace Slick told Zimmer. “‘Oh, after the bomb, I’m gonna sail away on my wooden sailboat and go eat berries on this goddamned island’…. Sure you are, you and all your radiated friends that are turning green.” (Jackson Browne, another of Crosby’s friends, was so frustrated with the song’s message that he wrote “For Everyman” in response.)


    The two songs that follow “Wooden Ships” dial down the volume and return the album, both musically and lyrically, to terra firma. Nash’s “Lady of the Island,” allegedly about Mitchell, is a delicate duet between Nash and Crosby, while Stills’s alliterative “Helplessly Hoping” features some of the trio’s most intricate harmonies.  


    The next track, Crosby’s “Long Time Gone,” showcases perhaps Stills’s best arrangement work and Crosby’s best vocal work on the album. After Crosby struggled fruitlessly to find a new arrangement for “Long Time Gone,” Stills sent Crosby and Nash home. Stills, Taylor, and Halverson worked throughout the night as Stills crafted an entirely new “Long Time Gone” that owed little to the demo he and Crosby had cut months earlier. When Crosby and Nash heard Stills’s instrumental track the next day, Nash exclaimed “Captain Manyhands does it again!” and Crosby quipped, “You make me ashamed of myself.”


    Stills’s slinky arrangement of “Long Time Gone” underscores the righteous indignation of Crosby’s lyrics and provides a foundation for Crosby’s most affecting vocal turn to date. As Doggett wrote, “Of the three men, Crosby was the master of vocal arrangement. The standard way of presenting three voices was for one to sing the melody, and the other two to add the third and the fifth notes in the scale, above or below the lead voice. Crosby would always look for an alternate way of voicing the harmonies, shifting the gap between the voices in a single phrase, daring to find an apparent discord that would resolve itself majestically in the following bar.” While Crosby had taken some solid lead turns in The Byrds, his lead vocals had never lived up to the power of his harmony contributions. That changed with “Long Time Gone,” which features Crosby in an entirely different voice from that used on songs like The Byrd’s “What’s Happening?!?!” “I finally found my voice,” Crosby told journalist Ellen Sander. “Five years I’ve been singing, and I finally found a voice of my own. Every time I had a great lead vocal part with The Byrds I choked up because I was scared. But these two [Nash and Stills] loved me enough to let me find my own voice.”


    Crosby, Stills & Nash closes with Stills’s “49 Bye-Byes.” While perhaps the most forgettable song on the album, Stills’s sprightly rearrangement of “49 Reasons” ends the album on a high note. “I haven’t the vaguest clue what the title refers to…,” Crosby has quipped. “I don’t know if Stephen knows what this title means, either. It was just fun to sing. The music [is] Stephen again taking pieces of things and weaving them together skillfully. He could have made two or three songs out of it… He makes parts go together in ways that other people wouldn’t have thought of.”


    Before the album’s mastering and release, the band had to fend off label attempts to change their debut’s sound. Early in the recording process, Ertegun visited Heider, where he heard largely unadorned takes of songs like “Suite” and “You Don’t Have to Cry.” When the band sent him rough mixes of the nearly finished album, he was disappointed by the fact that album’s more rock ‘n’ roll sound had diminished the centrality of the group’s harmonies. In response, Ertegun asked Tom Dowd to remix the album over the protestations of the band. In his book, Browne claimed that the final mix was Dowd’s, but that’s not the case. As Halverson told me:


    When Ahmet heard [the rough mixes], he called management and said, ‘Have the guys stay home tonight, Tommy is gonna come out to work with Bill tonight in the studio’.… Tommy and I went to the studio, and Tommy told me what Ahmed wanted — that he was still hearing the vocals out in front [like] he’d heard a couple of nights into the sessions and [that] all that music crowding out the vocals was not gonna work. The threat was if we didn’t make mixes that pleased him, he would take all the tapes and have Tommy mix it. It was a threat…. [But] Tommy said, ‘If you just get the vocals up that much Ahmed will be happy and everything will be fine.’ So I had to sit down with Stephen and say, ‘This is the way it’s gotta be or we lose control.’ Stephen went along with it because that was where the money was coming from. 


    Halverson and the band avoided a complete Dowd remix by elevating the vocals in their own mixes enough to get Ertegun’s approval. According to Nash, they also used other means to ensure that a last-minute Dowd remix didn’t take place. “We hadn’t given Atlantic the master two-track tapes,” Nash wrote in his autobiography, “because we didn’t trust record companies, even with Ahmet involved, to take care of something so precious.”1 


    When Crosby, Stills & Nash was released at the end of May, it entered an unforgiving rock landscape. “It was the year of the guitar player – Clapton and Hendrix,” Crosby said later. “Everybody wanted to go in that direction, and we had this completely different thing… We wanted to do this thing with our voices, because it worked.” As Ritchie Yorke put it in his review of the album, “It is the folksiest and unfunkiest rock album in the last 12 months, and completely unrelated to what’s selling at present — Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Creedence Clearwater.”


    That didn’t matter, though. Crosby, Stills & Nash shot up the charts and went on to sell more than four million copies. Hendrix himself called it “Western sky music…all delicate and ding-ding-ding-ding,” while The Eagles’ Glenn Frey remembered that Crosby, Stills, and Nash “struck me as being very American, even though I knew Graham was English, but the sound, man, it was like this massive ‘ahhhhhhh!’ coming from the heartland. And I’m telling ya, everyone who was playing in a power trio wished they could sing like those guys.”


    Crosby, Stills & Nash may have initially clashed with the sound of 1969, but it eventually redefined it, paving the way (for better or worse) for the polished, confessional California rock that would dominate the airwaves in the 1970s. 


    While the digital mastering history of Crosby, Stills & Nash is (relatively) straightforward, discussion of it been marked by several debates about tape sources and equalization that I hope this TBVO can clear up in the process of crowing a best version. 


    There are at least five digital masterings of CSN’s debut: 1) Barry Diament’s original Atlantic CD mastering, which is found on all Crosby, Stills & Nash CDs released until 1993; 2) Joe Gastwirt’s remastering, which was initially found on the 1993 Atlantic gold CD and was later released on several silver CDs; 3) Bernie Grundman’s 2006 Rhino CD remastering, which includes several bonus tracks; 4) Steve Hoffman’s 2011 Audio Fidelity CD remastering, and 5) a 2012 hi-res download with uncertain remastering credits.2 


    In posts online, Diament has commented that his original mastering was a flat transfer of the master tape. Likewise, in an email exchange with me, Gastwirt said that he generally avoids significant equalization when mastering and didn’t remember using any EQ on the CSN gold CD. “I can’t say I remember 100% that it was a flat transfer but that is what I think it was,” he concluded. 


    Despite this, there are notable differences in the frequency spectrums of the Diament (green) and Gastwirt (blue) CDs when examined as Har-Balaverage power” graphs3:



    Diament vs Gastwirt Har-Bal.gif



    While the overall shape of the graphs are similar for many songs on the Diament and Gastwirt CDs, the Diament CD is consistently more bass-shy and tilted towards the high end than the Gastwirt CD. It’s possible that one or both masterings strayed further from a flat transfer than the engineers remember, or perhaps they were working with different tapes. 


    Regardless of which is the case, both the Diament and Gastwirt sound CDs sound like clean, dynamic transfers.4 To my ears, however, the Gastwirt CD presents a soundstage that is at one wider and deeper than the Diament CD. Listening closely at matched volume levels5, the Diament CD places both vocals and instruments closer to the center of the sound field and exhibits significantly less front-to-back staging than the Gastwirt gold CD. 


    The Gastwirt CD pulls ahead of the Diament in frequency response, too. On several songs, the Diament disc sounds too treble-y and slightly grainy. On a few others, it can paradoxically sound somewhat bloated. Take “Long Time Gone.”. While the Gastwirt has significantly more sub-bass than the Diament, the Diament has more mid-bass than the Gastwirt, giving the song a tubbier, less clear sound, despite the fact that the Diament version also has more treble energy than the Gastwirt. 


    Overall, the Gastwirt CD is simply more resolving and more tonally correct than the Diament.


    Next up is the 2006 Grundman mastering. Comparing the Gastwirt CD (blue) and the Grundman CD (grey) in Har-Bal reveals the opposite dynamic from the relationship between the Gastwirt and the Diament:



    Gastwirt vs Grundman Har-Bal.gif



    For most tracks, the Grundman CD tends to have less treble energy than the Gastwirt. Sonically, this contributes to a generally duller sound with less apparent air and microdetail. Interestingly, the generally dull sound of the Grundman CD seems to hold even on songs, such as “Long Time Gone,” where the Grundman CD actually has more high end than the Gastwrirt CD. This suggests that the differences extend beyond EQ and that the Gastwirt CD’s transfer or tape source might simply be better than the Grundman’s. Likewise, while the differences aren’t always as significant as between the Diament and Gastwirt, the Grundman CD projects a slightly narrower and notably shallower soundstage than the Gastwirt CD.


    Thus far, the Gastwirt mastering has easily topped the other two contenders for the TBVO crown. However, the next entrant is the 2011 Audio Fidelity CD mastered by Steve Hoffman, whose Aja CD was named the best version of that album in an earlier TBVO column. 


    Hoffman makes no claims that his mastering is a flat transfer of the master tapes. Rather, Hoffman has called the Crosby, Stills & Nash master tapes a “sonic mess” with “wacky tonal variations” due to what he called “grossly inaccurate studio monitors.” Hoffman’s goal in mastering Crosby, Stills & Nash was to create a CD that would “bring out the ‘aliveness’ in the vocals for once.” 


    The combination of what he saw as the defects of the master tape and the desire to move the vocals front-and-center meant that Hoffman often employed creative use of equalization. “For ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ we felt compelled to piece together the several edited sections with different tone shapings so as to match the vocal tonality in those individual sections,” Hoffman told Analog Planet’s Randy Wells. “Now the changes between the edits are not so abrupt. The whole song sounds much more uniform.” 


    Most controversially, Hoffman claimed that his Audio Fidelity CD was the first digital mastering of Crosby, Stills & Nash to use the original master tapes. According to Hoffman, “The band gave Atlantic a dub for their ‘master’ back in 1969 and that EQ’d dub was used for over 35 years for all LP and digital versions after the initial cut.” In Hoffman’s telling, then, the Diament, Gastwirt, and Grundman CDs were all from this EQ’d tape copy, not the original master tape.


    It appears, however, that Hoffman’s claim about the tape is incorrect. The artwork for Gastwirt’s gold CD include images of the boxes of the tapes used in the mastering. Those boxes are identical to those in a photo, taken by Wells, of the tapes used in Hoffman’s mastering:



    Wells Photo.jpg

      Photo Credit: Randy Wells


    The notation and handwriting are the same, there are dots in the same places near “Wooden Ships,” and squiggle in the right margin of the side one box is the same. 


    To be certain, however, I asked Gastwirt about the tape source for his CD. He confirmed that he “definitely” had the original master tape. As Gastwirt told me, the mastering of the gold CD was an outgrowth of his work on the aforementioned 1991 CSN box. The entire band was involved, with Nash often working alongside Gastwirt. “The tape search was done during the box set, and we filled an entire studio at Sunset Sound with various master tapes,” Gastwirt wrote in an email. “This collection of tapes included tapes that were stored at Warner and Atlantic vaults as well as each band member’s personal collections.” Beyond the band’s help in securing the correct tape and the photographic evidence provided by the gold CD’s artwork, Gastwirt said he was sure he was working with the original master because they had to replace the old splicing tape on the tape’s edits. “Edits only appear on the original master, and are copied over on safety’s, which in itself proves I had the master,” Gastwirt explained. While, as Gastwirt noted, analog-to-digital conversion has come a long way since the early-1990s, Gastwirt also took care to get the best transfer of the tape possible at the time. “The master tape was…played back one song at a time, cleaning heads between each song,” he explained. “[And] it was transferred to a 44.1/24 bit custom A-D converter designed by myself and Dave Collins and constructed by Todd Wilson.”6


    Comparing the Gastwirt CD (blue) to the Hoffman CD (yellow) in Har-Bal reveals consistent differences:



    Gastwirt vs Hoffman Har-Bal.gif



    Like the Diament CD, the Hoffman CD is consistently brighter than the Gastwirt CD. Taking a look at the Hoffman CD (yellow) and the Diament CD (green) together, it’s clear that the Hoffman and Diament CDs are more alike than different:


    Hoffman vs Diament Har-Bal.gif



    On about half of the tracks, the Hoffman is brighter, and on the other half the Diament is brighter. But, particularly on the first six tracks, the differences are relatively small.


    Though they have similar sound signatures, the Hoffman CD generally improves on the Diament CD in both soundstage width and depth. 


    However, the Hoffman CD still falls behind the Gastwirt CD when it comes to soundstage and microdetail. On most songs, the soundstage is both deeper and more well-defined on the Gastwirt CD. While Hoffman succeeded in making the vocals more up-front, it’s easier to distinguish the individual harmony parts on the Gastwirt CD, a difference that’s particularly evident on “Suite” and “You Don’t Have To Cry.”  The Gastwirt CD also provides better separation between the instruments. This is true on most songs, including “Suite,” but is particularly noticeable on the dense “Long Time Gone.” Near the 3:25 mark, as Crosby is delivering the “You know the darkest hour…” line, the fret articulation on Stills’s bass is more apparent, the details of his Doors-esque keyboard line are clearer, and his lead guitar line is more distinct. The same dynamic extends to Crosby’s electric 12-string rhythm on “Wooden Ships.” The Gastwirt CD’s superior separation (along with, perhaps, a better transfer) also makes it easier to hear the room sound of Heider’s Studio 3, particularly on acoustic guitars, drums, and harmony vocals.


    The Gastwirt CD’s better staging and detail is complemented by its superior tonal realism.  On “Suite,” for example, Stills’s opening acoustic guitar is too bright on the Hoffman CD, robbing it of some detail and texture. Likewise, Stills’s electric licks in the right channel near the 1:50 mark and Taylor’s drums in the left channel during the song’s second section sound more lifelike and tonally correct on the Gastwirt CD. But perhaps the most dramatic difference in overall tonality can be heard on “Marrakesh.” The Hoffman CD’s comparatively scooped midrange and elevated treble gives the song a tinny tone in comparison to the Gastwirt’s more tonally neutral presentation. 


    More philosophically, the Hoffman CD’s elevation of the vocals is arguably more in line with the Ertegun’s vision of the album than the band’s.7 


    The final digital mastering of Crosby, Stills & Nash is a hi-res download released in 2012. It’s not clear who mastered this release, but CSN engineer Stanley Johnson blurbed it. “In preparing these titles for HD release, we needed to make time to listen to the original HD analog transfers done by the amazing John Nowland of Redwood Digital…,” Johnson said. “As soon as the first track off Crosby, Stills & Nash came up in HD, ‘Suite Judy Blue Eyes,’ I was hooked…. The clarity of the solo piano performance along with the pure , out-in-the open vocals form David, Graham and Stephen turned into one of the most rewarding sound and musical experiences for the ears in my house for some time!”


    It’s not clear if the Nowland transfer used for the hi-res download is the same one used for the Grundman CD. However, it is certain that Johnson’s effusive praise doesn’t accurately reflect the quality of the download, which is significantly over-compressed, as astute fans on Audiophile Style have noted


    Compare the dynamic range’s for each of the digital versions of Crosby, Stills & Nash, as measured by both crest factor DR score and R128 dynamic range:


    CSN Dynamic Ranges - Fixed.png


    With apologies to Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others. While the four other masterings are close to each other on at least one measure of dynamic range, the Hi-Res download scores lower on both measures for most songs. 


    A comparison of the next lowest scoring mastering, the Grundman CD (purple), with the Hi-Res download demonstrates just how compressed the download is:


    Grundman vs Download Wavforms.gif



    Sonically, the Crosby, Stills & Nash download’s equalization is solid. But the download’s level of compression is clearly audible, and it’s not offset by other positive qualities. Whether due to the compression itself or the transfer, the download’s overall sound is congested and lacking in detail. It’s disappointing, to say the least.


    Ultimately, Gastwirt’s mastering is clearly the best digital version of Crosby, Stills & Nash


    Whatever overblown “supergroup” hype clouded the CSN’s inception, however much the idealized image of Woodstock overshadowed the dubious reality, and despite the fact that CSN’s sky-high potential would crash into a disappointing mélange of drugs and discord, what remains is the quality of the music, evident nowhere else more so than on the band’s debut. As a Stills, using language that could’ve easily inspired Russell Hammond, mused to Rolling Stone the month before Crosby, Stills & Nash’s release, “I guess what it comes down to is the music. People will have to listen to the music and judge. I think the music’s good. We could be three cats out of the Hamburger Hamlet and it wouldn’t matter. Listen to the music.”


    So grab a copy of the Gastwirt mastering, and take a fresh listen the album that redefined the sound of rock 50 years ago this summer.


    October 2022 Update


    This month, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs released a new dual-layer CD/SACD of Crosby, Stills, & Nash, which MoFi says was remastered from the "original analog master tapes" by Shawn R. Britton. 


    I purchased a copy of the new MFSL release directly from the company. I ripped the CD layer with XLD and the SACD layer with the modified PS3 I bought specifically for ripping SACDs. (For those wondering, the CD and SACD layers are identical.)


    First, let's take a look at the dynamic range of the new MoFi issue:


    CSN MFSL Dynamic Range.png


    Whether viewed by DR score or R128, the MoFi CD/SACD is every bit as dynamic as the Gastwirt mastering that won the original TBVO showdown.


    Next, let's take a look at how the EQ of Gastwirt CD (blue) compares to the new MFSL disc (orange). As usual, for these graphs, I used Har-Bal's loudness-matching tool to bring both discs to the same level (though they were already extremely close):


    Gastwirt vs MFSL SACD.gif


    The differences in the discs' equalization are remarkably similar across all tracks. Oversimplifying a bit, the MFSL disc tends to have more energy both below 100 Hz and above 2 kHz, while the Gastwirt disc has more energy in between 100 Hz and 2 kHz.


    Aligning level-matched WAVs of songs from the Gastwirt and MoFi discs in Audacity, the dynamics look nearly identical, though the Gastwirt CD does have slightly higher peaks. For example, here's "Long Time Gone" with the Gastwirt (blue) on top and the MFSL (red) on the bottom:


    Long Time Gone Waveform - MFSL vs Gastwirt.png


    It's also interesting to note that the SACD runs a bit faster than the Gastwirt CD. The album's longest track, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" is about two second longer on the Gastwirt disc. For comparison, the Grundman CD comes in almost exactly at the MFSL version's speed, while the Audio Fidelity runs yet another second faster. Also of note, though not necessarily audible, is the fact that the Gastwirt and MoFi discs have opposite polarities. It's not clear which is correct, given that the Grundman mastering's polarity matches the Gastwirt CD's, while the Audio Fidelity disc's polarity matches the MFSL's. 


    Comparing the Gastwirt and MoFi versions of "Suite" using my Matrix X-SABRE Pro DAC, Auralic Tauris MKII headphone amplifier, and both Focal Utopia and ZMF Atrium headphones, it's clear that these are very, very different masterings. 


    At first blush, the MoFi has a more "hi-fi" sound thanks to its its elevated treble, and my initial reaction was one of a proverbial "lifted veil." The MoFi disc makes it easier to hear the room sound at Wally Heider's Studio 3, as well as the string articulation on Stephen Still's burbling bassline. However, the extra high end on the MoFi also makes Stills's slashing acoustic guitar in the left channel almost unbearable. This was true listening on the Atrium and even truer on the comparatively bright Utopia. Keeping the Matrix as the DAC but switching to my Dynaudio Contour 20i speakers plus SVS SB13-Ultra subwoofer, driven by my Bryston 4B3 power amplifier and Benchmark HPA4 headphone/preamplifier, that same unrelenting brightness persisted. The comparative lack of mid-bass on the MFSL disc also robbed robbed the electric bass of its rumble and shifted the balance between the mouth and chest on the trio's vocals as rendered by the Gastwirt CD decisively towards the mouth on the MoFi. In short, the MFSL disc presents the classic tradeoff of a somewhat "scooped" EQ. Because the upper-bass and lower-miss are no longer taking up much sonic space, the track initially seems clearer. However, it also sounds comparatively thin and brittle.


    I wasn't ready to render a judgment based on just one track, though. Turning to Crosby's "Guinneverre," the MoFi mastering is at first a better for for this track. Sure, the elevated treble increases tape noise, but it also focuses the annunciation on the vocals. Yet, when the Crosby gets to the "She'd walk down to the garden..." line and the following "Peacocks wandered aimlessly..." one, the MFSL mastering adds a huge dollop of sibilance. 


    Listening to "Long Time Gone" next, it's clear that this track perhaps best showcases the strengths of the MoFi mastering. The extra room reverb is appreciated in the instrumental intro and (despite leaning more towards the mouth) the MFSL disc adds a bit of clarity to Crosby's lead vocal. However, the weaknesses of the Mobile Fidelity disc are also still there. The harmony vocals on the chorus are much more sibilant on the MFSL version and the bass is too weak.


    Overall, the new MFSL version of Crosby, Stills, & Nash is a fine mastering, as I've come to expect from MFSL. But given that not only Gastwirt, but also Diament and Hoffman, it has stiff competition. The MFSL disc certainly presents CSN's self-titled debut in a way that's unique among all the masterings, but I don't think it's necessarily for the best. While I'm sure I'll turn to this version sometimes, especially on dark-tilted headphones, it can't top the original TBVO crown. Gastwirt's mastering remains the best.



    1. Nash erroneously refers to the potential for remixing as “remastering.” He also writes of an alternate Dowd mix supposedly done from an EQ’d tape copy. It’s not clear whether Nash is recalling discarded mixes Dowd and Halverson completed that night without the band or if the label did, indeed, get a copy of the master tape to Dowd to work with on his own. Regardless, Nash confirms that the final, released mix was the band’s work, not Dowd’s.

    2. Following the Aja TBVO, I considered comparing the CD versions against an original vinyl pressing of Crosby, Stills & Nash. I found several vinyl rips in various corners of the internet, and vinyl ripper extraordinaire “pbthal” kindly helped me track down more. However, these rips varied wildly in sound and equalization, making it hard to discern how Crosby, Stills & Nash sounded to listeners in 1969. Moreover, in his interview with me, Halverson noted that, to his ears, the original pressings mastered by Bob MacLeod at California’s Artisan Sound Recorders sounded much better than the pressings done at Atlantic’s New York facilities. Given all the uncertainty about what the original vinyl release of Crosby, Stills & Nash should sound like, I decided to abandon that comparison.

    3. When necessary, Har-Bal’s loudness matching option, which doesn’t affect the frequency response, was used to create clearer graphs.

    4. For the subjective analyses, all editions were ripped with XLD and played with Audirvana. The DAC/Amp combo was a Schiit Yggdrasil / Ragnarok stack. I also mixed in a Crane Song Solaris DAC, RME ADI-2 DAC, and Monoprice Liquid Platinum headphone. Most listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra Ultra subwoofer and a diverse set of headphones, including Focal Clear, Sennheiser HD800S, and MrSpeakers Ether 2.

    5. For the most critical listening, I used Har-Bal-produced level-matched files of songs from each version, aligned them in Audacity, and soloed each to get real-time comparisons.

    6. In our email correspondence, Gastwirt also firmly dispelled a bizarre claim, made solely based on hearing and speculation, that his gold CD used noise reduction.

    6. The Hoffman CD also features a glitch at 1:30 on "49 Bye-Byes." Hoffman says it's a "tape flaw." However, it doesn't exist on any other version of the album.









    About the Author

    jm.pngJosh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.



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    13 minutes ago, TubeLover said:

    I think eliminating them would be the logical and optimum choice. After all, they were shorter versions intended for vinyl, and this isn't a "what is the best vinyl" version of a track or album" series.



    That’s kind of my feeling, too. Were the original album the vinyl — with “extended” versions released later on CD — I’d want to include them all. But this was a digital album originally released on CD. The edited songs were a compromise for vinyl, in my understanding. 

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