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Club TBVO will look at out-of-print CDs and the latest digital releases, revel in the fun of collecting, and try to separate myth from fact when it comes to tracking down the best digital versions of beloved music.
  1. What's new in this club
  2. When new editions of classic albums are released, audiophiles rightly obsess about the source. For pre-digital recordings, it's assumed that the original master tape is the best source for any new remaster. But as the new Still Bill CD/SACD from MFSL shows, that's not always the case. If you want to find out why, scroll to the bottom of my Still Bill TBVO to read the newest update:
  3. I recently published my twofer TBVO on Cream's Wheels of Fire and Goodbye, as well as an update on my Steely Dan Aja TBVO. The former included audio samples of Goodbye, but not Wheels of Fire, while the latter didn't include any samples. For Wheels of Fire, here are edited clips of "Politician" using my level-matched files: Drake: Politician (Drake).wav Hoffman: Politician (Hoffman).wav 24/192 Download: Politician (Hi-Res).wav For Aja, are edited clips of "Deacon Blues" using my level-matched files: Hoffman: Deacon Blues (Hoffman).wav Brown: Deacon Blues (Brown).wav Grundman: Deacon Blues (Grundman).wav Let me know what you hear and think. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  4. Particularly with the growing popularity of surround sound and immersive audio, it’s easy to forget that two-channel stereophonic sound is itself a relatively recent invention. As any Beatles or Beach Boys fan can attest, many of the greatest albums of the 1960s were conceived of as monophonic releases. Stereo mixes, if they were pursued at all, were an afterthought. That’s because in the early-1960s, mass ownership of record players was an even more recent development. Prior to the Great Depression, the nascent record industry mostly catered to relatively well-off Americans, since few consumers even high-income developed countries like the United States could afford such a luxury. The industry didn’t make it easy on consumers, either. It remained hopelessly at war with itself, pushing both Thomas Edison’s cylinders and Emile Berliner’s discs on a confused public. Even after Berliner’s format won out, the industry remained embroiled in the “war of the speeds” until the 1950s. It took the adoption of the modern long-playing record and the post-WWII economic boom to solidify the recording industry’s place in modern American culture. But just as middle-class consumers were beginning to adopt mono record players, the industry introduced stereo recordings. This transition was a tough sell. The industry was asking consumers to chuck out what, for many, was a still-new major purchase. The fact that console-type players — which combined a turntable, amplifier, and speaker into one stylish cabinet — were a consumer favorite made the industry’s task even harder. Besides early audiophiles, who’d want to invest in a whole new three-component system, especially when it would be a larger eyesore than a single console? Ultimately, the industry needed to work hard to sell the benefits of stereo to a skeptical public that was perfectly content with mono. This was no easy task. It was made even more difficult because radio stations had no incentive to begin broadcasting in stereo when most listeners were still using a single speaker. Thus, even as the industry began marketing more and more albums in stereo in the 1960s, it had to account for the fact that many radio stations and consumers would be listening in mono. The best response to this conflict was simply mixing and releasing the same album in both mono and stereo. But this meant that labels had to pay for two mixes and two pressings. Even as the early postwar era’s steep top marginal tax rates, high union density, and modest executive compensation norms kept corporations’ profits-at-all-costs impulses in check (at least relative to today), the temptation to cut corners was overpowering. For an industry caught between a mono past and a stereo future, the Holzer Audio Engineering-Compatible Stereo Generator (Haeco-CSG) system was just such a shortcut. It promised to let labels avoid the costly process of mixing and releasing each album in both mono and stereo. By using Haeco-CSG, they could instead release one processed stereo album, which would be playable in mono, too. Sort of. You see, when a stereo album is played in mono, it messes with the mix. Depending on the phase relationships and panning of each sonic element, when a stereo mix is folded-down to mono, some sounds will get boosted while others will disappear. Haeco-CSG claimed to solve this by shifting the phase of one channel. The recommended setting was to shift the right channel’s phase by 90 degrees. However, the supposed solution of Haeco-CSG actually created its own problems. Not only did it not fully eliminate the cancellation and buildup issues of folding a stereo mix down to mono, but it also made the stereo mix sound off. Subjectively, for example, center-panned vocals on a CSG-processed album tend to sound like the singer is standing almost perpendicular to the listener, rather than facing them. The mercifully brief peak of Haeco-CSG occurred in the late-1960s. Unfortunately, one of the albums subjected to processing was Cream’s Wheels of Fire, one of the two Cream albums covered in my recent TBVO. In some cases, CSG-processing was not applied until the mastering stage, meaning that stereo master is unaffected. In other cases, including Wheels of Fire, it was applied to the stereo master. Thankfully, as I wrote in my TBVO, there’s a way to (mostly) undo the effects of CSG processing. I’m indebted to several other online audiophiles who’ve provided instructions for this process. I’ve mostly followed Steve Hoffman Forum member Alexlotl’s instructions, which can be found here. However, in the years since his 2019 post, several links he provides have died. While it’s far from an exact science, I also came to a slightly different conclusion about the best settings for this process. So how does undoing Haeco-CSG work? Well, since the main upshot of Haeco-CSG processing was shifting the phase of one channel by 90 degrees, we just have to shift them by another 90 degrees to return them to their original phase relationship. It’s not quite that simple, of course. I’ll explain why later. But before I explain the processing of (sorta-kinda) undoing Haeco-CSG, I want to note two things. The first is that it’s possible to do what I’m about to describe with other software, such as iZotope RX and Adobe Audition. Since both of those are fairly pricey, though, I’m going to describe a free alternative. (For those who have RX, though, it’s as simple as using the Phase tool.) One oddity with this free alternative, however, is that doing the same process on the same file two separate times produces resulting files that do not null with @pkane’s superb DeltaWave. Why not? I have no idea. It sounds great, and it almost nulls. But it doesn’t. Using RX twice, on the other hand, produces files that null in DeltaWave. Does that mean the Audacity+PhaseBug option is worse? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem to matter practically. Indeed, the resulting files from Audacity+PhaseBug and iZotopeRX sound identical to me. (If anyone knows why files produced with Audacity+PhaseBug aren’t bit-identical, I’d love to know.) The second is that the free version of this process needs to be done on Windows. It is possible, though, to do it on a Mac using CrossOver. Just be sure to install both the software and the plugin described below into the same “bottle.” To begin, we need an old version Audacity. Specifically, we need version 2.1.3. Old versions of Audacity, including the one we need, can be found on Fosshub. (Here’s a direct link to download 2.1.3 for Windows.) After that, we need to install the PhaseBug plugin. This software no longer exists. Fortunately, Archive.org’s Wayback Machine scraped it. (Here’s a direct link to download it.) If you encounter any issues installing the plugin, consult the instructions on Audacity’s site. Most likely, the plugin is just in the wrong folder. It’s also possible that you need to activate PhaseBug in Audacity. Both fixes are described at the link above. Once both Audacity 2.1.3 and PhaseBug are installed, you need to load a rip of one of the digital versions of Wheels of Fire with Haeco-CSG processing. As noted in my TBVO, only the (not great sounding) 2010 Japanese SACD lacks it. So chances are the version you have is encoded with Haeco-CSG. From your Wheels of Fire rip, you’ll need the songs: 1) White Room 3) Passing the Time 6) Politician 7) Those Where the Days 8) Born Under a Bad Sign 9) Deserted Cities of the Heart If your copy also has the “Anyone for Tennis” bonus track, that’s Haeco-CSG, too. Song by song, load each track into Audacity. Select the entire track. Go to Effect -> PhaseBug. Note that both the normal phase bug and the mono version are displayed. (Obviously, use the non-mono version.) Here’s what you’ll see: As the instructions note, you can drag the yellow bubble to change the phase on the left channel and the right bubble to change the phase on the right channel. Once you’ve adjusted each channel to the desired degree, you click Apply. The file on your screen is now “de-CSG’d.” From there go to File -> Export Audio, and export is as the lossless format of your choice. Most guides suggest using -90 degrees on the Right channel, given CSG’s recommended setting of shifting the Right channel by 90 degrees. However, changing the phase does slightly change the channel balance — not necessarily audibly, but enough to push some spikes into clipping. Given that mastering engineers were balancing the channels with CSG applied, my assumption was that either -45L and +45R or +45L and -45R would do the best job of avoiding clipping. However, after trying four combinations (-90R, +90L, -45L/+45R, and +45L/-45R) on “White Room” from both the Drake mastering and the 24/192 mastering, then running the resulting files through Apple’s afclip tool, I found that +90 on the Left channel minimized clipping in both instances. Is this definitive proof that across all tracks and all versions +90L is the best setting? Of course not. But at the very least it points to the fact -90R isn’t necessarily the best. The other issue is that, as noted in my TBVO, changing the phase of a track will change its frequency response slightly: Whether this is positive or negative will depend on the mastering. But assuming you’re starting with a good mastering, I suspect the odds are more likely that these effects will be negative. If you decide to “de-CSG” your Wheels of Fire, let me know in the comments what you think about the results. It’s an interesting exercise and definitely has some audible benefits. Yet I’m not sure if the benefits outweigh the costs. Of course, maybe it’s just that the Wheels of Fire I’ve heard for years has had CSG processing, so it sounds “normal” to me. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  5. I'm sorry that it's been several months since my last update. But that's because I can't seem to stop accumulating various degrees and certificates! Prompted, in part, by the widely reported literacy crisis in the U.S., I decided to pursue a literacy specialist degree this year, while still teaching full time and (when I have the chance) writing for Audiophile Style and designing t-shirts. The latter two pastimes are easily the most enjoyable, but for now the former two have consumed most of my time. Given that, I'm thrilled to say that my new twofer TBVO on Cream's Wheels of Fire and Goodbye is up on the main AS page. As promised in that TBVO, I'll have a Club TBVO post up shortly with instructions on how to remove CSG processing from Wheels of Fire for those who are interested in trying. I also just posted an update to my Steely Dan Aja TBVO, prompted by the new Bernie Grundman mastering. I'm calling it an "update," but in many ways this is a completely new TBVO, or at least the analysis portion of it. The Aja TBVO was one of my first, and I think I've gotten a lot better at it since then. So I wanted to do justice to the importance of this album with my update. Soon, I'll also be posting a much shorter update of my Bill Withers Still Bill TBVO in light of the new MFSL SACD. Finally, I have some new(ish) t-shirts, including Cream, Tina Turner, and Tim Buckley ones. I'll make a separate post at some point for those who might be interested in supporting Club TBVO by buying some cool music duds. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  6. @JoshM I don't recall if I've posted fully about a DAC comparison done by myself and a friend during Covid, so I can't link to anything. But, I mention it because you might be interested in giving the Denafrips Pontus II (not the 12th Annie version) an audition, if only as a point of reference as it seems to have won the ears of many online. My friend and I tried the Chord Qutest vs Pontus II vs Yggy OG. And I eventually got a LiM as well as would go so far as to say, it's a very different sound than the Yggy OG - enough to be considered a different DAC altogether. And yes, considerably better than OG (which has its appealing attributes but ultimately falls short of the LiM, for me). The Denafrips sound perhaps comes in part due to the lack of output stage in the Pontus DAC. I speculate that this results in the DAC's uncanny ability to render ritardando like I've not heard in any DAC, let alone digital playback in general (of course I've not heard everything out there). Still, the Pontus came across for me as a bit too rounded or polite compared to the Yggy and for my taste in music and sound, the Yggy LiM is the way to go (especially with the Shunyata Delta XC power cord, incidentally).
  7. Hi @JoshM, I've been listening to the 7.1.4 Atmos of this. Great stuff!
  8. A month or so ago, I had the pleasure of talking with Alex of BadDanTakes, the hugely popular Steely Dan-themed Twitter account. BadDanTakes has been central to the recent "Danaissance," so much so that Alex was featured in Rolling Stone. Alex invited me on his podcast to talk about Donal Fagen's The Nightfly, which was the subject of perhaps my favorite TBVO: Along the way, we discussed my TBVO series, why Steely Dan's music is so often used to test speakers and other gear, and why audiophiledom should (and can) be accessible to everyone regardless of budget. The episode was posted today. Please give it a listen and support Alex's endeavors if you can: https://gauchoamigos.buzzsprout.com/2146895/13147320
  9. A few weeks ago, a new Blu-Ray of The Hurting put out by Super Deluxe Edition hit my mailbox. I've ripped it, analyzed it, listened closely, and rendered my verdict in an update to my original TBVO: Spoiler: You're going to want to read (and hear) this one!
  10. I can still remember the smell of the Best Buy flier that would come in the Sunday newspaper. Back when the internet was in its infancy, the big box store's advertising circular was the best place to find out about upcoming album releases. For teenage me, that meant alternative and "grunge" CDs. Above all else, it meant Pearl Jam. Vitalogy was released in 1994, when I was 11. It was my first Pearl Jam album, and I was hooked. I quickly picked up the group's previous albums, Ten and Vs., along with every CD single I could get my hands on -- particularly the "Jeremy" single, which included more-than-album-worthy bonus tracks like "Yellow Ledbetter" and "Footsteps." When Pearl Jam's collaborations with Neil Young -- the Mirror Ball album under Young's name and the Merkinball EP under Pearl Jam's name -- came out in 1995, I heard about them from that Best Buy flier. By the release of No Code in 1996, which is still my favorite Pearl Jam album, my dad had the CD waiting for me on the kitchen table when I got home from school. By that time, I'd also started asking my dad to take me to The Record Connection in nearby Niles, Ohio, which had a vast array of bootlegs. He'd look for Van Morrison boots, and I'd peruse the Pearl Jam selection. (At this point in my life, I'd probably be more likely to join him in looking at the Van bootlegs, but back then I didn't quite fully grasp the genius of "Van the Man.") Many of the bootlegs I picked up there -- such as Pearl Jam's 1992 Moore Theater, 1994 Fox Theater, and 1995 Soldier Field shows -- have now been officially released by the band. In 1998, Pearl Jam released its first official live album, Live on Two Legs, and two years later the band began releasing "official bootlegs" for each of its concerts. My dad took me to see Pearl Jam for the first time on August 25, 1998. A piece of that concert made it onto Live on Two Legs, and I made sure to purchase the official bootlegs for the two shows I saw in 2000, along with a handful of others. Then and now, though, there's been a glaring hole in Pearl Jam's slate of live releases. To my mind, Jack Irons was Pearl Jam's best drummer and perhaps the most innovative drummer to come out of the era's alt-rock scene. Irons made a small contribution to Vitalogy and drummed throughout No Code, Mirror Ball/Merkin Ball, and 1998's Yield. However, his time performing live with the band coincided with the group's much-publicized (and, especially in retrospect, righteous) battle with Ticketmaster. In attempting to avoid Ticketmaster-controlled venues, Pearl Jam's touring schedule was relatively sparse during this period, and Irons left the group in early 1998 following a short tour of Australia. This touring era has gone almost wholly undocumented by the band. The aforementioned 1995 Solider Field show was the only official Pearl Jam live release to feature Irons on drums, and -- since that concert occurred well before the recording of No Code or Yield -- it includes only a few songs that Irons played a part in crafting. That all changed last month. But it should've changed a quarter century ago. I vividly recall perusing the Best Buy flier sometime in the spring of 1998 and getting excited about the upcoming August 8 release of Single Video Theory, Mark Pellington's documentary charting the group's rehearsals for the upcoming Yield tour. Even better, Best Buy promised that early purchasers of Single Video Theory would receive Give Way, a nearly-complete CD of the group's March 5, 1998, show in Melbourne, Australia -- one of the last shows Irons would play with the band. The Give Way promotional release never came to fruition, though, disappointing 15-year-old me and countless Pearl Jam fans. Depending on which source you believe, Best Buy allegedly didn't get the band's and/or the label's approval for the promotional release. The Give Way promotion was pulled, and all 50,000 copies of the CD were destroyed. In reality, of course, a few Best Buy employees were sneaky-smart enough to smuggle out some copies of Give Way. For decades, they could be found selling for big bucks on Ebay, and lossless rips reached the interwebs. So if enterprising Pearl Jam fans knew where to look, they've been able to get their hands and ears on Give Way for years. Nonetheless, Give Way existing in hard-to-find, quasi-official limbo was far from ideal. Thankfully, Pearl Jam decided to give it a proper release last month for Record Store Day. Now, Give Way should rank near the top of any Pearl Jam fans' must-listen live releases. As Spin's Jonathan Cohen aptly put it, "Give Way Is The Jack Irons Showcase We Always Needed." While neither version includes any mastering information, having found a bit-perfect rip of the Best Buy (BB) version of Give Way online many years ago, I immediately noticed that the new Record Store Day (RSD) version sounded markedly different. So which one is better? Let's start by taking a peek at the let’s take a look at dynamic range of each version, measured by both R128 dynamic range and crest factor DR score: The first thing to note is that the track lengths vary significantly on certain songs. That's because the 1998 BB version and the 2023 RSD version place banter and Pearl Jam's famous between-song "easter egg" riffs in different spots, with the 1998 release tending to place them at the beginning of tracks and the 2023 release tending to place them after tracks. So the best songs to look at when comparing these two releases' respective dynamic range are ones that retain roughly the same track length, such as "Brain of J," "In My Tree," and "Immortality." Those tracks consistently point to the 1998 BB version of Give Way having a slight edge on dynamic range by both measures. Is this difference in dynamic range obvious visually? For that, let's take a peek at a selection of songs in Audacity. The 1998 BB version is on top in blue, while the 2023 RSD version is at the bottom in red. We can see from these (non-level matched) waveforms that the 2023 RSD version of Give Way is ever-so-slightly more compressed. However, I certainly wouldn't classify these differences as deal-breakers. Before looking at each version's frequency balance in Har-Bal, I was curious about their spectra and true bit depths. For that, I popped two tracks from each version into MusicScope (RIP): We can see that both are true 16-bit recordings. The 1998 BB version has slightly more frequency extension than the 2023 RSD version. But, like the dynamic range data, this is at most a slight point in its favor, since the 2023 RSD version extends to 20 kHz. Now let's take a look at the frequency balance of the two versions in Har-Bal. In order facilitate accurate comparisons, the files for these graphs were level-matched. Additionally, since I didn't want track mark differences to limit my song choices, I edited several of the sampled songs down to the same length, so that empty space, banter, and the aforementioned "easter egg" riffs didn't skew the graphs. The EQ differences between the two versions are remarkably consistent across the sampled songs. Generally, the 1998 Best Buy version of Give Way has more energy below 40 Hz, between 100 and 300 Hz, and above 5 kHz, whereas the 2023 Record Store Day mastering has more energy between 400 Hz and 2 kHz. So which ones sounds best? For my subjective comparisons, I aligned the level-matched, trimmed files in Audacity, which allowed for instantaneous switching. Listening was done primarily with my Focal Utopia headphones, (previously reviewed) Matrix X-Sabre Pro DAC, and (also previously reviewed) Flux FA-10 Pro headphone amplifier. First up is "Brain of J," the dynamic Mike McCreedy-penned rocker that opens Yield. Toggling back-and-forth between the 1998 BB and 2023 RSD masterings, I was struck by how dramatically different they sound. Much more different than the Har-Bal graphs suggest. In fact, one could easily be fooled into thinking these are different mixes. However, I strongly suspect that they're just dramatically different masterings. There are huge tonal differences between these two versions of "Brain of J," which I'll get to in a minute, but the first thing that I noticed was that the BB version seems to project a much wider soundstage, whereas the RSD version is much more center-focused. My hunch was that these differences would be visible by looking at side (left and right) equalization in Har-Bal, as opposed to the above graphs, which show the mid (center) frequency response. To test that hunch, here's what "Brain of J" looks like in Har-Bal's side view: Aha. We can see that the tonal balances of the two versions are very different when we look at the side frequency response. The mid view, which is usually the most relevant, showed that that the 1998 Best Buy version had a moderate subbass boost and a modest high-end boost. The side view, in contrast, shows that the 2023 RSD version has much more low-end energy, while the 1998 version's treble boost is even larger. The combination of these EQ choices pushes the RSD version's image towards the center relative to the BB version, because outside low-end tends to make the soundstage narrower, whereas outside high-end tends to make the soundstage wider. While this is a matter of taste, I pretty strongly prefer the soundstage on on Best Buy version. Listening on my Utopia's McCreedy's opening riff is slightly beyond my left ear on the 1998 mastering, whereas it's somewhere between my left ear and eye on the 2023 mastering. This narrowing of the soundstage makes everything sound a little scrunched together on the RSD version, which contributes to some details getting lost in the mix. For example, as McCready kicks off his opening riff, rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard adds a droning whammy bar flourish on the far right. Because Gossard's guitar (like McCready's) is pushed more towards the center on the RSD release, it's easier to miss this Gossard's clever little contribution. These side-EQ differences impact the perceived height of the soundstage, too, with the BB mastering sounding much taller than the RSD mastering. On the former, Vedder's voice is right around eye level. On the latter, it's close to the tip of my nose. The overall EQ differences between the two renderings of "Brain of J" tend to accentuate the differences created by the 2023's more cramped soundstage. The RSD mastering simply sounds too dull. Its rolled-off high end not only takes some of the bite out of the electric guitars, but it also renders some of Irons's inspired drum work almost inaudible. For example, his rapid-fire ride cymbal strikes in the right channel during the song's chorus come through crystal clear on the BB disc, but I have to strain to hear them on the RSD release. Next up is No Code's "In My Tree," which is perhaps my favorite Pearl Jam song, as well as one of the tunes that most bares Irons's influence. His opening polyrhythmic drum pattern shows better dynamics and resolution at both ends of the spectrum on the Best Buy version. You can hear the rebound of the skins on Irons's mounted toms. His floor tom has more authority, too. Beyond Irons's drum work, Gossard and McCready's synchronized churning guitars have more definition on the BB rendering. Perhaps the only downside to the 1998 CD's brighter presentation is that it reveals more sibilance on Vedder's voice. However, even on a bright-neutral pair of headphones like the Utopia, it only rarely edges into unpleasant, and the costs of the 2023 disc's more muffled presentation aren't worth the slight reduction in sibilance. Finally, "In My Tree" reveals a flaw in both versions, which is that Jeff Ament's bass should really be higher in the mix. (This seems to be a recurring problem in Pearl Jam live releases from this era.) Vedder's superb Vitalogy tune, "Corduroy," is my next audition track. Throughout the song's opening riff, played by Vedder, it's hard to tell which mastering presents the most accurate version of Vedder's guitar. Should it be more bridge or neck pickup? Where's the tone knob? At this point in the song, it's impossible to know. However, as soon as the rest of the band kicks in, it's clear that the 1998 mastering is more accurate. When Gossard and McCready enter on the 2023 release, it sounds as if all three guitarists have their wah-wah pedals engaged and tilted slightly towards them. This dull honk stands in sharp contrast to their tone on the Best Buy disc, which sounds much more like what I remember when seeing them live, as well as what I'd imagine any guitarist would want their "neutral" tone to sound like. "Even Flow," the barn burner from the band's 1992 debut, Ten, is up next. The Melbourne rendition is a particularly [William Miller voice] "incendiary" version of this cut. McCready's solos are slashing, and Irons provides an unbelievable hi-hat/kick/snare groove. (There's also a welcome shaker in there, too.) Moreover, you can really feel the band feeding off of each other. Though "Even Flow" was, by 1998, an obligatory song that you could sometimes sense Vedder, in particular, wasn't fond of playing yet again, his enthusiasm during this performance in palpable. The 2023 RSD mastering acquits itself better on "Even Flow" than on the previous cuts. But the 1998 BB version is still notably superior. On the latter, I feel as though I'm on stage with the band. On the former, I'm somewhere fairly close in the pavilion, but I've got a substandard set of earplug in. While the 2023 version's blanket-over-the-speaker vibe doesn't do Irons's intricate playing any favors on "Even Flow," it's McCready's blistering solo that suffers most. At his best, McCready's playing exhibits the effortless liquidity I associate with The Rolling Stones' best lead guitarist, Mick Taylor, and McCready is absolutely doing his best Taylor impression on this version of "Even Flow." It deserves to be heard in the best light, and that's undeniably on the Best Buy CD. Given that this is an Irons show, "Given to Fly" must be considered. His propulsive drumming is what takes McCready's intriguing "Going to California"-homage riff and transforms it into a song that's wholly unique. Like "Even Flow," I don't find the 2023 mastering's depiction of "Given to Fly" to be atrocious. But the 1998 disc is just better. The soundstage is taller and wider, the guitars have more detail, Vedder's vocals are more articulate, etc. Most significantly, the intoxicating stick-click pattern that Irons introduces at the beginning of the second verse is almost buried on the 2023 disc. Perhaps the biggest flaw in this performance of "Given to Fly" is that (again) Ament's bass is mixed too low and (at times) Irons's snare sounds a bit too loud relative to the rest of his kit. However, the 2023 mastering doesn't fix either of these flaws. Instead of Irons's snare sounding a bit too loud on the BB disc, it sounds too loud and kind of muffled on the RSD disc. My penultimate test track is No Code's "Hail Hail." This song has a special place in my heart. Not only does it come from my favorite Pearl Jam album, but I also remember hanging out with my friends the night that PJ played it on Letterman and making them be quiet so I could hear the performance. (If I recall correctly, I was videotaping it on the VCR at home, too.) Toggling back and forth between the 1998 and 2023 masterings of "Hail Hail," the same guitar tone issue crops up again. On the RSD disc, the guitars just sound too honky and muffled. Likewise, Irons's cymbals simply sound more tonally correct on the Best Buy disc. While I don't think there's too much left to be said at this point, I also compared "Immortality," Vitalogy's oddly rousing downer. Irons's cymbals? McCready's solo? Vedder's vocal? Yet again, the 1998 Best Buy prevails. Is the RSD version all that bad? No. But it's just not as crisp, lifelike, and dynamic as the original canceled Best Buy release. As should be obvious, the 1998 Best Buy version of Give Way is by far the definitive version of the release, which is too bad. Pearl Jam would've been better off just duplicating the original as-is. However I have a great idea for how they can make amends -- release (at least) one show from the No Code tour!
  11. When I write my TBVO articles, I tend to focus on the the version that presents the original album in its best sonic form. Occasionally, I’ll mention bonus tracks, but those tend to be relegated to a secondary concern. Given that, I’d like to use Club TBVO to highlight some superb bonus material from various releases. In particular, I’d like to focus on demos and alternate versions that present a track in a form that’s arguably superior to the official release. Few late-‘70s debut albums were better than The Cars’ self-titled 1978 release. Produced by the great Roy Thomas Baker, The Cars had a polished-yet-immediate sound that built on Badfinger’s No Dice and Big Star’s #1 Record in defining the sound of power pop. The Cars’ partnership with Baker continued for three more albums, and The Cars’ leader Ric Ocasek would prove to be pivotal in bringing this sound to a new generation of listeners through his production of albums by Weezer and No Doubt in the 1990s. However, The Cars radically changed their sound after their fourth release and a two-year hiatus. As the band worked on demos at their home studio in Boston, Syncro Sound, they auditioned producers, including Steve Lillywhite. Ultimately, the band decamped to London’s Battery Studios in mid-1981 not with a Brit like Baker or Lillywhite, but with South African producer “Mutt” Lange. By 1981, Lange was coming off of a series of slick hard-rock chart-toppers like AC/CD’s Back in Black and Def Leppard’s Pyromania. To say that Lange represented a change in sonic direction from Baker — best known for working with Queen, Hawkwind, and Devo — is an understatement. Wheres the sessions for the first four Cars albums with Baker had been relatively short and organic, Lange favored a laborious, overdub-heavy process that stretched on for almost six months. As Ocasek told David Fricke, “I remember asking [Lange] how long we were going to be in London, and he’s going, ‘A couple of months.’ It wasn’t until we got there that we realized his policy was, ‘I don’t care if it takes five years. Everything’s going to be perfect.’” Unsurprisingly, the sessions took a toll on Ocasek and the band. for As a posthumous Rolling Stone profile of Ocasek noted: [T]he album’s nearly yearlong recording with pop-metal producer Robert “Mutt” Lange left Ocasek drained, and he later expressed those frustrations to recording engineer Chris Shaw, who worked with Ocasek on some of his later solo albums and outside projects. “I grilled Ric about working with Mutt,” Shaw says, “and he said, ‘I never want to make a record like that again. You spend four days getting a bass sound for one song. It’s really demoralizing.’ I think the process took a lot out of him.” When it was finally released in March of 1984, Heartbeat City was a hit, reaching number three on the Billboard 200 and selling four million copies in the U.S. alone. However, in retrospect it’s hard not to cringe at Lange’s production. From the album’s opening reverse-echo, heavily processed vocals on “Hello Again,” Heartbeat City sound inescapably of its time — unlike The Cars’ Baker-produced albums, which still sound fresh today. As Ocasek told Fricke, Heartbeat City “sometimes feels stiff.” Few tracks on Heartbeat City are able to transcend this mid-‘80s techno-sheen, but if any does, it’s “Drive.” ”Drive” was penned by Ocasek but sung by bassist Benjamin Orr. For a songwriter known best for sly irony, “Drive” is one of Ocasek’s most unabashedly yearning ballads. “I was very emotionally attached to the lyrics in ‘Drive,’” Ocasek wrote in 2018. “To me, it was a sad song. Like your expectations of what you are going to find are not that good.” “Drive” peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and played no small part in making Heartbeat City a smash. The official release of Heartbeat City was more-or-less the last word on the album’s material until 2018. That year’s release of an expanded edition of the album in both Redbook and Hi-Res formats added seven bonus tracks, including four demos and early versions. These four songs are simply superb. My favorite might be “One More Time,” an early version of “Why Can’t I Have You.” With its simple production, droning organ, and muted electric guitar, it could fit comfortably alongside the best tracks from The Cars’ Baker-produced albums. In comparison, the Heartbeat City version of “Why Can’t I Have You” is almost unlistenable. But perhaps the most intriguing of these four early versions is the demo of “Drive.” In place of the album version’s triad of bass throbs and tinkling synth chimes, the demo places a warbly keyboard wash over a bizarre cha-cha programmed drum track. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Orr’s rawer, drier vocals on the demo underscore the plaintive message of the lyrics, particularly at the moments where his voice begins to fray. Freed from Lange’s polish, “Drive” sound like nothing so much as a great lost Suicide song, which makes sense given that Ocasek produced Suicide’s superb 1980 album. “In a way, Ric almost would’ve been happier if he could have been in a band like Suicide,” Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes told Rolling Stone. “A more or less artier, outside band. Some of the pop fame embarrassed him.” Listen to the demo of “Drive” on Qobuz, YouTube, or wherever you stream your music. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  12. I’ve got one DD ddHiFi product, an adapter between the balanced stereo pin for my IEMs and the different size balanced stereo output jack from my portable DAC. It, too, Just Works.
  13. I’m not one who attributes much sonic impact to cables, especially digital ones. I look for well-constructed cables that don’t add any noise to the system and do what they’re supposed to do. That last, most basic qualification, though, is particularly hard to come by when one uses Apple products. For all their advantages (and I’m an erstwhile Windows user turned Apple adherent), Apple puts a lot of proprietary tech into its products, which can make things difficult when one wants to use somewhat niche accessories — like, say, audiophile-quality DAC/amp dongles — with Apple products. As I’ve discussed in my budget IEM review, the use case that sold me on IEMs was the ability to listen to music in bed on my iPad. What began with using the Qobuz app on my iPad morphed into using Roon remote to access both my own collection and Qobuz’s service. It’s now a nightly ritual to listen to music for an hour on so before I go to sleep using a pair of IEMs, Roon Remote on an iPad, and an external DAC/amp. The stumbling block in this setup proved to be the combination of the last two pieces. While battery-powered DAC/amps tended to work fine with my iPads regardless of the digital cable I used from the iPad to the DAC/amp’s input, this wasn’t the case with DAC/amp dongles that draw power from the iPad. This was particularly true on my older model iPad with a Lightning output. Quality DAC/amp dongles often include a short Lightning-to-USBC cable that will power the device without issue. This was the case with both the iFi Go Bar and the Muse M3. However, many otherwise good DAC/amp dongles don’t include a Lightning-to-USBC cable, and the ones included with the Go Bar and M3 are only a few inches long. That length works well if you’re planning to, say, rubber band the dongle to a smartphone and stick it in your pocket. But it works less well when, like me, you’d like to set the dongle next to you in bed while holding the iPad. That led me on a quest to find a longer Lightning-to-USBC cable that would actually meet Apple MFi specifications for communicating with the iPad while also providing enough power for a power-hungry device like the Go Bar. Plenty of such cables advertised on Amazon claim to meet these specs, but a cursory look at their reviews shows it not to be true. Moreover, several without red flag reviews that I tried simply didn’t work. After several frustrating purchases, I took a chance on the DD ddHiFi MFi06 Lightning-to-USBC cable, which can be had in its 50cm iteration for $35 from Audio64 and $29 from ShenzenAudio. While I’d certainly rather this cable be $15 or $20, I can’t say I’m unhappy with the purchase, because… it just works! The cable seems well-built, and it actually powers both the Go Bar and M3. I was so pleased with it, I also bought the USBC-to-USBC variant to use with my newer USBC-equipped iPad Pro. Were any veils lifted or highs sharpened? No. But I found a digital cable that seems well-built and does what it’s supposed to do. For any other Apple audiophiles struggling to find a good Lightning-to-USBC cable, the ddHiFi MFi06 is the way to go.
  14. A few weeks ago, Audiophile Style published my review of five budget ($50 or less) IEMs. One affordable IEM not included in that roundup is the 7Hz Salnotes Zero, which can be had for a scant $20 USD on sites like Amazon and Linsoul. Based on the suggestions of readers, I bought a pair of the Zero to augment my previous review. Like many Chinese-produced IEMs, there’s not much information online about 7Hz. However, the company’s products are relatively well-known among IEM enthusiasts thanks to its extensive line of IEMs, such as the $220 Timeless IEM, which has received wide praise as one of the best sub-$500 IEMs on the market. Is the Salnotes Zero comparably impressive for its price bracket? Let’s find out. The Zero features a single 10mm metal composite dynamic driver. According to the company, “The metallic composite diaphragm used in this product is made of high-quality materials, making it easier to resonate or vibrate along with sound waves. It was constructed with ease of use in mind as each part has been designed with precision accuracy so that they will not hinder audio transmission.” Physically, the Zero has a smooth, contoured plastic body fitted with a stainless-steel faceplate. The plastic housing is available in black, blue, white, red, and orange. While, unlike some budget IEMs, the Zero isn’t going to fool anyone into thinking it’s a megabuck IEM, I find the simple styling appealingly inoffensive. Indeed, I purchased the powder-blue version precisely because I like its vaguely LEGO-esque vibe. The Zero’s nozzle is plastic. However, it terminates in a metal grille. Overall, I found the Zero to be light and comfortable. My only nit to pick is that the combination of a short nozzle and rather broad body makes for a somewhat shallow fit. How true this is for you will, of course, depend on your individual ear shape. I found that tips with a somewhat tacky texture, such as the (kind of tacky) Moondrop Spring or (very tacky) AZLA SednaEarfit XELASTEC. That means buying tips that are almost as costly as the IEM, but that’s almost unavoidable at this price point. The connector for the Zero is of the flush-mount two-pin variety. The left/right color-coding near the terminals is a nice touch. The Salnotes Zero’s impedance is spec’d at greater than 32 ohms and its sensitivity at 108 dB. However, as will be discussed below, I found them to be somewhat easier to drive than this specs suggest. As should be expected for 20 smackeroos, the Zero is short on accessories. However, the Zero’s cable is well above average for this price point. Indeed, I’d rank it below only the TinHifi T2 DLC’s cable among the IEMs covered in my aforementioned review. Beyond the cable, the Zero comes with six pairs of pretty chintzy silicone tips and no case. However, I think the 7Hz made the right choice in investing in the IEM and cable instead of the tips or the case, since the latter items tend to involve a greater degree of personal taste. Measurements of the Zero can be found all across the interwebs. But I still wanted to take my own measurements with my MiniDSP EARS fixture. I calibrated my EARS with an IEM-adjusted version of Marv from SBAF’s compensation curve, where a perceptually flat frequency response is represented by a flat line. Since the Kiwi Cadenza was the runaway winner of my budget IEM roundup, I placed the Zero alongside it and that roundup’s second-place finisher, the KZ ZS10 Pro in my graph: As the graph (normalized to 500 Hz) makes clear, the Zero measures very well. It has somewhat less bass than the Cadenza and — with the exception of the area near 12 kHz — it generally has more treble energy than the Cadenza, but less than the bright-leaning KZ ZS10 Pro. I also want to show where the Zero ranks among the other IEMs reviewed in terms of sensitivity. As noted in my budget IEM roundup, I used pink noise to discern each IEM’s relative drivability for level-matching. I made the Kiwi Cadenza my baseline IEM (at the EARS’ recommended 84 dB), then measured the other IEMs’ deviations: 82 dB — Truthear x Crinacle Zero 84 dB — Kiwi Cadenza 85 dB — 7Hz Salnotes Zero 85 dB — TinHifi T2 DLC 89 dB — QKZ x HBB 91 dB — KZ ZS10 Pro The Zero is, in other words, a bit more sensitive than the Cadenza. Subjectively, I felt that it sounded even more sensitive than this single-dB difference suggests, perhaps due to the Zero’s overall brighter tonal balance. As in my multi-IEM review, I decided to use “America” from the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's CD of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends to provide a subjective comparison of the Zero and the Cadenza. A good transducer should be able to separate the mix’s interwoven elements — such as the duo’s layered harmonies — without making the dramatic percussion too boomy or Simon’s somewhat sibilant vocals too harsh. While I certainly gave the Zero a less scientific listen with a variety of other material, I found that “America” provides a good illustration of the IEM’s strengths and weaknesses. Before evaluating the Zero’s presentation of “America,” I want to quote my evaluation of the Cadenza’s rendering of this track: The Cadenza’s tonal balance sounds closest to neutral of all the IEMs under consideration. Simon’s vocals still had perhaps a little too much sibilance compared to neutral headphones like the Sennheiser HD6XX or speakers like the KEF Reference 1. However, the Cadenza’s deviation from neutrality in this area is nitpicking, in that it’s not far off from the presentation of the aforementioned Utopia. The Cadenza’s bass is authoritative and nimble, with none of the Zero’s tubby lethargy. I could discern every inflection in Joe Osborn’s churning bassline during the complex buildup to the chorus in “America.” This fact hints at what really impressed me about the Cadenza: its technical performance. It projects a wide soundstage with good depth and does a superb job of allowing the listener to pick apart the various components of the mix, even during busy passages. Through the Cadenza, I could hear the individual vocal overdubs in the hummed intro and separate Simon’s voice from Garfunkel’s in the verses. Instead of blending together in a mass, the strings, background vocals, and cymbal crashes, during the chorus were all easily discernable. Adjusting the volume down a decibel and firing up the Zero, I immediately noted that the Zero seemed to have as much low bass as the Cadenza, but less midbass — an observation that’s not apparent in the measurements. Turning my attention to the upper reaches of the spectrum, I was struck by the fact that the Zero doesn’t sound subjectively as treble-heavy as the measurements would suggest, either. To be sure, it has more energy in that range than the Cadenza does, but it’s mostly inoffensive, perhaps due to its relatively smooth texture. On the positive side, I appreciated the Zero’s additional “air,” as evidenced by room ambiance and reverb. However, this did come at the expense of some added sibilance on Simon’s lead vocal and Hal Blaine’s cymbals. Again, though, I felt that the Zero stayed below the wince-inducing threshold, though other listeners might disagree. Turning to the Zero’s technicalities, I felt that it had a bit narrower soundstage than the Cadenza and presented a somewhat flatter image despite its greater sense of air. Due to the tuning, the Zero at times seemed to render a bit more overt detail than the Cadenza, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that its tonality was just a little off and slightly one-dimensional compared to the more refined Cadenza. The prominent shaker in the fadeout of “America,” for example, just doesn’t sound quite right. Is this a deal-breaker for $20? Of course not. But it does mean that while the Zero can fool you into thinking it’s a much pricier IEM based on frequency response, it doesn’t do so to the same extent when it comes to that ineffable realism that the best transducers deliver. One interesting element of the Zero’s presentation is that its presentation comes across as a little disjointed, meaning that the separation between the instruments can come across as slightly exaggerated. I tend to associate this trait with extreme W-shaped tuning. Again, that’s not at all evident in the Zero’s measurements, but it does align with my sense that it had as much low bass as the Cadenza but much less midbass. Ultimately, this flavor of sound can lend itself to slicing and dicing a mix, but can also make it feel a little uncongealed. Again, is this a deal-breaker for $20? No way. Overall, I think the Zero ranks second only to the Cadenza among all of the sub-$50 IEMs. The ZS10 Pro might tie it for this honor. But given that the Zero is $15 less than the Cadenza and $25 less than the ZS10 Pro, this is a superb showing. If you want a budget IEM that’s cheaper and/or brighter than the Cadenza, the 7Hz Salnotes Zero is a fantastic choice. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  15. In my pre-audiophile days, I did silly things. I went to concerts and played in my (pretty not good) high school band without ear plugs. Fortunately, these stupid decisions haven't cost me too much in the hearing department, though it's impossible to say how much better my hearing would be without those errors. When I began my audiophile journey in earnest eight or so years ago, I started to think seriously about my hearing. That meant making sure to get quality hearing protection that attenuates sound evenly across the frequency spectrum so that I could enjoy concerts safely. It also meant checking my hearing health. Initially, I tried various hearing test iOS apps and websites. Undoubtedly, resources like AudioCheck are great at helping you determine the highest frequency you can hear. (Warning: If you're over 30 -- or if you're younger than that but have been cranking those AirPods up -- don't expect to hear much beyond 15 kHz.) However, the main flaw in every hearing test app or site is that it isn't calibrated to the correct volume. Most suggest some hack to attempt to correct for this. AudioCheck, for example, instructs users to do the following: First, we need you to adjust your computer's level to match a known reference. Here is the trick: rub your hands together, in front of your nose, quickly and firmly, and try producing the same sound as our calibration file. You are now generating a reference sound that is approximately 65 dBSPL. As you play back our calibration file, adjust your computer's volume to match the sound level you just heard from you hands. Proceed back and forth - preferably with your eyes closed, to increase concentration - until both levels match. Then, do not touch your computer's volume knob anymore. Calibration is done: your computer's volume knob has been set to match 65 dBSPL. This procedure should give us a confidence of approximately 10 dBHL in the next hearing test. While this method is better than winging it, I hardly want the accuracy of my hearing test to depend on whether I've been properly moisturizing my hands. Frustrated with online tests I'd found, I scheduled a professional test with an audiologist. This alleviated my concerns about my hearing, but I didn't want to have to pay for an audiologist visit every time I wanted to check my hearing, given that everything from medications and supplements to sinus infections to aging can impact our hearing. Then I happened upon the Etymotic ER120-HHT at-home hearing test. The ER120-HHT comes with a thumb drive containing the testing software, a calibrated USB DAC/amp, a pair of Etymotic earbuds, various foam and silicone tips, and a carrying case. After installing the software, the main screen provides instructions as well as the test itself: When you begin the test, the software warns you not to adjust your volume: The actual test consists of a series of tones. Like a professional test, you simply indicate whether you do or don't hear the tone: One unique and positive feature of the ER120-HHT test is that it's at least somewhat random, unlike various apps and online tests. This is helpful because if a test is predictable, you can't really be sure if you're hearing something or just expecting to hear something. After the test is complete, you're presented with a results sheet: The results can vary somewhat from test to test, of course, based on a variety of factors, including the level of background noise in your room and your concentration. The right ear 2 kHz dip above, for example, is an outlier. In line with my general IEM rule of thumb, I've also found that using the foam tips tends to lower my 500 Hz score, while the silicone tips tend to lower my 8 kHz score. That said, when I first used the ER120-HHT, I thrilled to find that its results were almost identical to my professional results. The only downsides to the ER120-HHT are that it's Windows-only and the earbuds are uncomfortable. (Etymotic makes great sounding products, but comfort isn't something I associate with them.) It would also be great if the test went up into higher frequencies, though I'm not surprised that it doesn't, since that's not what professional hearing tests care about. Unfortunately, it also looks as though the ER120-HHT is out of stock on most sites. I sincerely hope that Etymotic hasn't discontinued it. If so, we need a grassroots campaign to get this invaluable tool back in production.
  16. Acoustic Sounds just released a new vinyl version as part of their Acoustic Sound Series. I have the others in this series. They are all very well done so looking forward to hearing this one https://store.acousticsounds.com/d/169514/Pharoah_Sanders-Karma-180_Gram_Vinyl_Record don't currently have an ADC or I would send you a rip
  17. A few of my first Club TBVO posts dealt with how to be an ethical music fan in the age of streaming. In the second of those articles, I concluded that ethical music consumers should purchase in-print media, but that the ethics are a bit murkier when the release in question in out-of-print. In this Club TBVO entry, I'd like to lay out how I research my TBVO columns and how I acquire all of the necessary releases in light of these rough ethical guidelines. My research always begins at Discogs. While the Discogs page for a given album occasionally misses a very new or exceedingly rare release, it's the best resource for all of an album's physical releases. Using Discogs, I'll look at the scanned liner notes from each physical release to determine which CDs, DVDs, and SACDs contain the same mastering. Any release where I cannot definitively nail down the mastering goes on my "to buy" list. Discogs does less well when it comes to download- or streaming-only versions. To suss out those, I look at Qobuz, HDTracks, 7Digital, Acoustic Sounds, and ProStudioMasters. With some exceptions, these sites tend to have the same selection, but occasionally one will have a unique release or more identifying details about a particular release. (Acoustic Sounds and ProStudioMasters tend to provide better source information, in my experience.) Finally, I'll read relevant discussion threads on sites like Steve Hoffman Forums, Audiophile Style, Quadrophonic Quad, and other audiophile sites to make sure I haven't overlooked a release. In the process, I'll also take notes on what fans think are duplicate masterings, but absent clear proof, I won't use others' claims to cross a release off my list as a duplicate. My final master "to buy" list will include release that I know to contain unique masterings, as well as ones whose mastering lineage is unconfirmed. From here, I begin the often costly process of purchasing all of these releases. For in-print releases, a purchase is automatic, especially when the release is the product of an audiophile or boutique label that needs audiophiles' support to stay afloat. When it comes to out-of-print releases, I can in theory avail myself of rips that can be found in various dark and not-so-dark corners of the interwebs and still comply with the aforementioned ethical audiophile consumer code. However, in reality things aren't so simple. The goal of TBVO is to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the often copious number of releases for each classic album. Prior to writing my TBVO on Steely Dan's Aja, for example, it was unclear which CDs contained what's thought to be (perhaps erroneously) Steve Hoffman's mastering. Moreover, CDs containing this mastering were believed to be incredibly rare, with only a few thousand existing in the world. Making matters more difficult, one could only differentiate these CDs by looking at the matrix information etched into the inner-ring of each disc's underside. The artwork and catalog numbers were the same. What I found is that, despite different track lengths and peak levels, many of these discs actually contained the same (possible) Hoffman mastering. However, I could've never come to that conclusion unless I actually confirmed each disc's matrix info. Needless to say, most pirates don't take the time provide a hi-resolution scan of the underside of the CD whose rip they're placing online. Instead, it's likely that they'll only provide the catalog number and perhaps a scan of the front and rear of the jewel case. In most cases, this isn't nearly enough information for a TBVO. As a result, I end up purchasing the vast majority of the releases analyzed in each TBVO. The total cost for each TBVO varies, depending on the number of known different masterings and undetermined masterings, as well as how common or rare each is. My TBVO of Kate Bush's Hounds of Love came in at the lower end, with a grand total of just over $150. Tracking down all of the relevant releases for my TBVO of Muddy Waters's Folk Singer, on the other hand, cost just under $350. While I haven't added up all of the other TBVOs' cost, I can comfortably say that Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which I've been chipping away at for several years, is shaping up to be the costliest. Here's just one section of my Discogs purchase for that upcoming TBVO: The above represents only a third of the single-disc copies that I've purchased thus far. I've also had to buy two copies of the Shine On box, for more than $100 each, plus the recent "Immersion" Dark Side box. Ultimately, the math for each TBVO is tricky. For Hounds of Love, I spent less on versions than I made writing the TBVO. For Folk Singer, I spent a little more than I made. And all this isn't factoring in things like purchasing books, or the time I spend writing (though the fact that I find writing each TBVO fun means that it doesn't feel like "work" in the traditional sense). I don't expect to make a profit on every TBVO, but I'd like to do my best to break even. That, in part, is why I started Club TBVO. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  18. Hello Club TBVO Readers, I apologize for the inactivity of late. My wife and I have been flattened by COVID-19 the past week-plus. All I can say is that I'm happy I was vaccinated and boosted before we caught this. I can't imagine what it would be like pre-vaccine. A new full-length TBVO and an amplifier review from me should be up on the main page shortly, and I hope to have some new blog posts soon, too. In the meantime, I thought everyone would get a kick out this clipping a found when helping my parents move last summer: A budding audiophile!
  19. Yes, that’s absolutely true! A “weak” Steely Dan album is still a classic by objective standards.
  20. Thanks, Josh. Confidence inspiring. I am about to dip my toe in the vinyl waters for the first time in decades, and looking forward to buying the new Grundman vinyl. But when you say "not even in Steely Dan's top 5", isn't that like saying "not one of Dylan's better efforts", or "my least favorite Beatles album"? Still better than just about everybody else's best! Cheers
  21. Welcome to the first “Mini-TBVO.” These Mini-TBVO blog posts allow me to publish an analysis of the best masterings of a classic album in a shorter format. The biggest difference between a Mini-TBVO and a full-length TBVO is that I’ll provide (sometimes much, much) less background information about the artist and the recording of the album and will instead skip right to the technical analysis. An album might wind up being a Mini-TBVO, rather than a full-length TBVO, for several reasons. There might only be a few masterings of the album. Or there might not be much information about how an album was recorded. Or a recent event might make it desirable to post about that artists or album quickly (whereas a normal TBVO takes many months of research and writing to complete). In most cases, an album will become a Mini-TBVO due a combination of those three factors. Audiophiles rejoiced when news broke in September that Analog Productions would be releasing Bernie Grundman-mastered versions of the complete Steely Dan catalog on vinyl and SACD. Subsequently, it was revealed that these new Grundman masterings also would be available on streaming services and download sites. Well, the first of these, Steely Dan’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy a Thrill, popped up on sites like Qobuz last week. Given my predilection for the Dan, it’s no surprise that my immediate response was to see how Grundman’s mastering stacked up against previous digital versions of Can’t Buy a Thrill. Steely Dan’s debut is an odd album. It contains the three Dan songs most likely to be heard on classic rock radio — “Do It Again,” “Dirty Work,” and “Reelin’ in the Years” — but it’s arguably not even a top-five Dan album. (It wouldn’t make my top five, but no less than Aimee Mann ranks Can’t Buy a Thrill as not just her favorite Dan album, but one of her five favorite albums of all time. So who am I to disagree?) It’s also the only Steely Dan album to feature lead vocals by David Palmer, who was brought in to sing “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn” because Donald Fagen wasn’t confident in his singing voice. Yet, with the team of producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nichols — both of whom would stay with Steely Dan for nearly its entire run — at the helm, Can’t Buy a Thrill is undoubtedly an audiophile-quality album. Over at Steve Hoffman Forums, member “bmoregnr” has done the yeoman’s work of listing all of digital the versions of each Steely Dan album based on the peak levels of each disc. By that metric, there are six versions of Can’t Buy a Thrill. However, different peak levels don’t necessarily indicate a unique mastering. Often, different discs simply contain level-shifted versions of the same mastering. I’ve been able to track down all of the versions listed by bmoregnr, along with one that I don’t think made his list. Despite the variety of peak levels, analysis with Har-Bal suggests that, prior to the release of the new Grundman mastering, there were only two digital masterings of Can’t Buy a Thrill. The first version can be found on all of the Can’t Buy a Thrill CDs released between 1985 and the early-‘90s. The ones I’ve been able to confirm include: MCAD-37040 (.92 first-track peak) MCD-01769 DMCL 1769 (.92 first-track peak) MCLD-19017 (.89 first-track peak) MCAD-31192 (1.00 first-track peak) The second version can be found on the 1993 Citizen Steely Dan box set mastered by Glenn Meadows. In 1998, all of the Steely Dan albums were re-released on CD. These discs supposedly contained new masterings, but actually seem to have a level-shifted version of Meadows’s mastering. This mastering has also been used on Japanese SHM-CDs released in the 21st century. Finally, a few discs that look otherwise identical to the original ‘80s CDs also have the Meadows’s mastering, including: MCAD-31192 (.88 first-track peak) MCAD-31192 (.94 first-track peak) The third version is the new mastering by Bernie Grundman. None of the three versions above are dynamically squashed. So let’s skip right to examining their respective equalizations in Har-Bal. Up first is the original mastering (yellow) versus the Meadows mastering (orange) using a sampling of tracks: The Meadows mastering consistently has more energy above approximately 5 kHz, and it often has more bass, too. Next, let’s look at the Grundman mastering (pink) compared to the original mastering (yellow): The Grundman mastering consistently has more bass than the original CD. However, the differences above 500 Hz or so are hard to summarize. Generally, the Grundman mastering has a bit less energy between 1 kHz and 2 kHz. Above that region, the two masterings vary in inconsistent ways. Whereas the Meadows mastering altered the ’85 CD in fairly predictable ways across tracks, Grundman seems to have taken a track-by-track approach. So does Grundman’s remastering breathe new life into this classic? In short, yes. Emphatically so. While neither of the previous versions of Can’t Buy a Thrill can be called bad masterings, the new Grundman transfer of the master tape pulls out previously-buried details, while his equalization choices sound balanced and natural. Examining just the three most famous tracks on the album: “Do It Again”: The channel balance on both the ’85 and Meadows CDs sounds a little tilted to the right, whereas Grundman’s channel balance re-centers the song. Fagen’s double-tracked vocals, which are panned far left and far right, sound a little wider and much clearer on Meadow’s mastering than on previous versions. Likewise, instrumental elements like the hypnotic auxiliary percussion and Denny Dias’s electric sitar solo have more texture and realism (and sound less tinny) than on both previous masterings. “Dirty Work”: The differences on this track are simply enormous. The original ‘85 mastering sounds excessively rolled-off in the treble, which makes everything from the horns at beginning to Jim Hodder’s hi-hat to the various reverb trails sound muffled. So extreme is the treble roll-off that the acoustic guitars that enter on the chorus are barely present on the ’85 disc unless one listens closely. Meadows’s Citizen remaster improved this track significantly, but Grundman’s new mastering is head-and-shoulders above both previous versions. Not only is the realism restored to aforementioned elements like the horns, hi-hat, and acoustic guitar, but also Jim Hodder’s kick drum has never sounded better, and one can easily separate the layered vocals on the chorus, which tended to blend together somewhat on even the Citizen remaster. “Reelin’ in the Years”: The differences between the three versions aren’t quite as dramatic on this track, but the Grundman mastering is still the clear winner. Besides the by-now-common edge on vocals and drums, the new remaster reveals the low-mixed left-channel rhythm guitar better than any previous mastering. In short, audiophiles simply need to check out Bernie Grundman’s new mastering of Can’t Buy a Thrill, which is now available on streaming services like Qobuz and will be released on SACD soon. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  22. Note: I have a few book-length projects in various states of planning. One is dedicated to Steely Dan. As TBVO readers know, I'm fond of writing of Walker Becker and Donald Fagen, in both their Dan and solo incarnations. Below is a short excerpt of the book-length work-in-planning, which deals with how the image of Backer and Fagen as anti-rock stars so seamlessly supports the experience of listening to Steely Dan's perfectly crafted studio albums -- an alignment of image and sound not true of many of their contemporaries. Listening to Steely Dan isn’t like listening to any other band. To truly hear a recording, you have to consciously embrace the artifice of studio. The entire purpose of modern recording is to trick listeners into forgetting that artifice. To cite just one example, drums can be mixed from the perspective of the audience, not the drummer. This sonic image, in turn, invites us to recall the band on stage, playing together in the same place, at the same time, facing you, the audience-cum-listener. When you hear Robert Plant growling “Black Dog” or cooing "Stairway to Heaven," you picture him on stage at Madison Square Garden in The Song Remains the Same. Insofar as you picture Plant anywhere else when listening to Led Zeppelin IV, it’s not in front of microphone at Island Studios. No. It’s from the top of the mountain suggested by the pile of reverb on his vocals. To visualize Plant belting out “And it's whispered that soon / If we all call the tune / Then the piper will lead us to reason / And a new day will dawn / For those who stand long /And the forests will echo with laughter” at the same microphone where Harry Nilsson recorded “Without You” and Cat Stevens cut “Peace Train” is not only vaguely comical, it also seriously undermines the inherent grandiosity and ineffable mystery that surrounds Led Zeppelin IV — a grandiosity and mystery that the band actively worked to cultivate over years. But unless you’re willing to picture Led Zeppelin IV being tracked in the same place that unabashed pop-rock studio creations were cut, you can’t really hear all of the strained vocal overdubs stacked in the center of “The Battle of Evermore,” the left-to-right delayed echo on that vocal, or the rather boxy snare sound on “Stairway to Heaven.” Once you picture the studio, all of the decisions that went into capturing and crafting every sound come into view. Page isn’t up there on stage at MSG playing his wonderfully ostentatious six- and twelve-string double-neck Gibson SG. No, he’s sitting on an office chair beside a carefully positioned acoustic baffle on Island Studios' floor. He’s laying down track after track of guitars. Electric, acoustic, six-string, twelve-string. You name it. That burbling keyboard buried deep in the center channel of “Stairway,” blending almost seamlessly with one of Page’s most chorus’d sounding twelve-string electrics? That’s John Paul Jones sitting at a Fender Rhodes in London's Notting Hill neighborhood. The image of the artist in the studio serves to render a band like Zepplin slightly diminished. In contrast, to imagine Steely Dan in the studio is to imagine them I’m their natural element. The canonical image of Steely Dan is of two scruffy, sneer-smirking reticent geniuses who rarely ventured outside of the carefully controlled, airless confines of the studio. They weren’t the first artist to master this technological environment, of course. Famously, The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beach Boys’s Pet Sounds were studio creations. However, listeners still had an image of the candy stripe shirt-clad Beach Boys boys bopping along in harmony fresh in their minds. Even more indelibly, record buyers could vividly recall those four loveable mop-tops shaking their heads in unison on the Ed Sullivan Show. “Woooo!” Sure, in it’s six-piece iteration, Steely Dan may have toured a little in the early years and appeared on Don Kirscher’s Rock Concert and Midnight Special. But it’s not like most of Steely Dan’s fans came to them in the time of “Dirty Work” or “Any Major Dude.” No. The Dan’s bestselling albums were made by the studio duo of Becker and Fagen. When you hear “Peg or “Hey Nineteen,” you don’t imagine Becker fingering his bass on Madison Square Garden’s stage or Fagen belting his vocals from the top of Kilimanjaro. No. You imagine them overseeing meticulous overdubs at The Village Recorders Studios in Los Angeles. Of course the Fagen you’re hearing was standing in a vocal booth, not sitting at the piano in a smoky bar. Of course Walter Becker is plunking on his base DI’d into the studio console, not hooked into a Ampeg stack in front of adoring fans. Everybody knows that. Steely Dan’s image isn’t diminished by visualizing Becker and Fagen in the studio. It’s enhanced. Becker and Fagen’s achievements are those of pluck, persistence, and technological prowess. Their successes aren’t witnessed by throngs gazing at the stage; they’re achieved alone in a studio, seen only by engineer Roger Nichols. In that way, Steely Dan is more like us. We can’t imagine commanding a crowd of thousands, but we can convince ourselves that, just maybe, with the help of a lot of technology, a lot of time, and a lot of patience, we could create something great. It doesn’t matter whether that’s true. It feels true. Or at least it feels truer than placing yourself in Zeppelin. Becker and Fagen are the kind of guys you’d find looking through albums at the record store, not the kind of guys whose photos adorn those records’ sleeves. Because of this, it’s easy to hear the minute, perfect detail in every Steely Dan record. It’s not just that they were better-recorded than almost every other album. (Though, of course, they were.) It’s also that there’s no mental picture besides the studio to distract you from hearing each sound as the contrived stimuli that it is. Even better, it’s precisely because Steely Dan's albums are so meticulously recorded that to draw your attention to these details is to deepen your awe for each song. In contrast, to actually pay attention to the artifice of Led Zeppelin IV is to gaze at the stitches, to notice the join marks and the flaws that are audible even in a sonic masterpiece like IV. Listening to Steely Dan isn’t like listening to any other band because when you picture them in the recording studio, that’s where you’re supposed to picture them. It’s the only place they could be. Because of that, you can really hear the sonic brush strokes on Aja or Gaucho in a way you'll always struggle to hear them on an album like Led Zeppelin IV. That's part of what makes Steely Dan the ultimate audiophile band. That's part of what makes their albums so good.
  23. As far as I know, the Love Over Gold LP is the only album for which MFSL used Plangent. (I remember reading somewhere that it was used because of some issue with the original transfer.) Plangent is listed in that album’s credits on MoFi’s site, but I haven’t come across Plangent in the credits for any other MFSL release. Both the folks at MoFi and Gastwirt are very meticulous about making sure tape transfers are done properly. (I recommend this great old article on Gastwirt’s methods from 1997.) Given that, I’m inclined to believe the hiss differences are largely about EQ. The fact that the IntuitMatch-processed version of the MFSL’s “Guinnevere” has much less hiss than the original MFSL file supports the idea that it’s mostly a question of EQ.

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