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JoshM

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  1. Were you friends at Bard? I’m sure we’d all be interested in any stories you’d be willing to share. It’s neat to know that he was an audiophile even back then!
  2. Check this thread over at SHF. If you want a Hoffman, you want a 3, 6, or 7, according to that thread’s numbering. The complexity is that some “37214” discs are actually the Nichols’s ‘84 mastering, while some are Hoffman’s. It takes more digging to distinguish the two. All “1745” discs, at least according to that thread, are Hoffmans. If you want to be absolutely sure, you can ask Discogs or EBay sellers to confirm the peak levels. You can also post a “Wanted” ad over at SHF saying that you’re looking for a Hoffman Aja (or clone). I got several of the discs for the column that way.
  3. Haha. I can assure you that it’s not 100,000 words, which is the length of Hunger Games or To Kill a Mockingbird. I also can’t quite say I expected complaints about too much free content! That said, this is definitely my longest installment of TBVO thus far, and I doubt many in the future will be as long. But there are lots of great stories about the making of this album, and the digital version history is incredibly convoluted. There are easily hundreds of pages spread across multiple audiophile forums dedicated to identifying the various Aja CDs and debating their relative merits, and I don’t think either issue was close to settled despite all of the digital ink spilled. I knew this would be an involved column, but I though it was worth the effort. My sense is that some people read the columns mostly for the album history, while others are more interested in the version analysis. I don’t want to short-change either reader, but I understand if some people skim one section or the other.
  4. Yes, using EAC or XLD (or the Computer ReplayGain feature in Audirvana) to get the peak levels is the easiest way to tell. The big debate was whether the “clones” of the Hoffman were actually any different from the Hoffman. As I noted in a footnote, they don’t look any different in Har-Bal. I think the only difference is different track markers and the silence between songs.
  5. With his permission, I wanted to post Meadows’s entire story of the mastering of the Citizen Steely Dan box: Steely Dan Citizen Steely Dan History Here’s the story of how the mastering of Citizen Steely Dan came to be. The story actually starts at the original transfer of the analog masters to CD. At that time, the CD masters were initially prepped/mastered by Bob Ludwig at Masterdisk in NYC. Many days were spent matching master tapes to different brand analog ¼” machines to get the best transfer possible One album (don’t know which), was missing the alignment tones, and took quite some time to get the playback EQ and level properly matched to the noise reduction used on the master tape. It was also realized at that point, that the analog tapes were in VERY poor condition due to continuous use for cutting master lacquers to keep pressing records. There were also EQ tape copies that were used for cassette duplication (and 8track going WAY back). At the end of the mastering, it was also decided to do a 1 pass FLAT transfer of the analog masters (after each album was mastered for CD), would be made to the 3M 4Track digital recorders. This was in the VERY early days of Digital recording. The masters that were created for CD were done with the Sony PCM 1600 system. 1 master tape of each album was created, and MCA delivered those to the CD plant in Japan. At that time, there were no plants active in the USA, and CD’s were being manufactured in 2 countries outside the USA. Move forward several years, there were now several domestic CD plants in operation, and MCA decided to move manufacturing from overseas to domestic US plants. What happened, was that a request for a new set of CD masters was sent to the MCA studios. Not realizing that there were NO copies of the Ludwig created masters in their files, the studios pulled the 15IPS Dolby EQ tape copies, and transferred THOSE tapes to the Sony digital tapes, and sent those to the US plant(s) for replication. Nobody ever compared the US made CD’s to the original CD’s, since it was assumed they were all the same. Fast forward to mid 1990’s. Roger Nichools is now living in Nashville, and I (Glenn Meadows) have been working with him mastering projects for him. MCA decided to add 4 cuts to the then 8 cut Steely Dan Gold CD. Roger asked for the master tapes be sent to Nashville so that he and I could master the 4 additional cuts and create new CD masters. When the tapes arrived, they were a stack of ¼” analog Dolby copies (see above), as well as the 1 1630 master that was the 8 cut Solid Gold album. Roger realized that they had sent the wrong original album masters had been sent. He made some phone calls, and told the MCA vault that they needed to find Sony Digital masters made at Masterdisk, and that they were the correct CD master source tapes. What he subsequently found out, was that the wrong tapes had been used YEARS earlier when production switched to the US. Panic ensued, and Steely Dan management threatened to sue, and MCA stopped all CD manufacture. Roger was able to locate the FLAT 3m 4 track masters that were recorded when the fist mastering was done for CD release. Those were sent to me in Nashville, were there is/was still a working set of 3M digital recorders. It was at that point that the re-mastering that later became the box set occurred. All 7 of the CD’s were remastered at that time to update ALL CD releases. Transfers were made from the 3M system for mastering. The oldest albums were of course in the worst shape at the time of the analog transfers. Processing included all digital EQ/Compression signal processing. Also, several functions of CEDAR was used. On the older albums, a light processing of De-Noise was applied. This was used in conjunction with the EQ processing so that when the noise was removed, there was also no loss of hi-end (a typical false accusation about CEDAR, the reality is an overly aggressive application of the process). The final CEDAR process was their “Phase Correction”, which in reality is a digital azimuth correction. It works similar to what mastering engineers have used for years to fine tune azimuth on tape playback (reverse polarity then mono and null the HF content in the middle). This was a subtle improvement, but was obvious when taken in and out of the signal path. That was how all 7 albums were re-mastered, and re-released. The ONLY notation was a sticker that said “Recently Re-Mastered by Artist” During the time of re-master, Roger, Walter and Donald were in Hawaii working on the final mixes/recoding of Kamakeriad, and approval was done by sending CDR’s to them via Fed Ex for approval. All mastering was done by myself, with the instructions to “pretend you’ve never heard the albums before, and do what you feel appropriate”, and we’ll listen and advise as you go along. Albums were approved as initially presented to them, no changes. The box set was simply a re-edit adjusting sequence to match that provided by MCA to fit on 4 CD’s. Since we were about a year and ahalf later, there were some improvements in the CEDAR system, and there were several tracks that I was unable to completely remove the tape his without having resulting “space monkey” artifacts. With the later version of CEDAR, I was able to successfully remove the last vestiges of the tape hiss. That’s what the final box set was created from. And that’s the whole story.
  6. Let me take a look at what’s on streaming and add a comment here about it. I believe one of them is the ‘99 Nichols, but I don’t know about any others. From now on, I’ll try to add info about streaming in the articles or as a footnote when possible. You have one of the Hoffman “clones.” Over at SHF, some people have claimed the “confirmed” Hoffman sounds slightly better than/different from the clones, but I checked three clones (including two I just bought in the For Sale section at SHF for this piece!) against a confirmed Hoffman and the EQ is identical. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that some of the clones fix a track mark issue, where the first second of the next track is actually at the end of the previous track if you rip the CD. Some of the clones also might have silenced the gaps between songs more than others. But the actual musical content, as far as I can tell, is identical. I didn’t consider the Cisco only becuse I was just using the vinyl rips as a baseline of artist intent to compare the digital editions against. So I only wanted original Grundman masterings. Also, while I understand some people might like vinyl rips as their digital version of an album, I’m with Nichols: I prefer digital to vinyl. Plus, the vinyl rips are all unofficial releases, which isn’t something I want to get into (beyond the odd need for a vinyl comparison, like this case), for ethical and practical reasons. The lineage info for the CSM rip says it’s the 1977 AB-1006 pressing. I believe there’s an AA-1006 pressing. The people over in that SHF thread uniformly laud the AB-1006, though. As far as I know, Grundman was the only mastering engineer for the original vinyl, so I’m not sure what would account for any sonic differences in the pressings (beyond the inherent variation in the pressing of vinyl, “hot stampers,” etc.). I just tried to compare all the original vinyl rips that claim to have the Grundman mastering that I could find to figure out what was the normal representation of the Grudman vinyl mastering. The fact that both the CSM and Japanese pressings (both of which are praised by audiophiles) were high-quality rips with nearly-identical graphs in Har-Bal song-for-song made me feel confident that I knew what the Grundman mastering looked like.
  7. When Walter Becker passed away in September 2017, it marked the end of one of the most quixotic music partnerships in modern American popular music. The only constant members of Steely Dan, Becker and co-conspirator Donald Fagen created some of the most lyrical intelligent, musically intricate, and sonically impeccable albums of the past 40 years. For both record buyers and audiophiles, none looms larger than 1977’s Aja, the subject of the third installment of “The Best Version Of…” (TBVO). Together with longtime producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nichols, Becker and Fagen marshalled their (in)famous attention to detail to make Aja their best selling and best sounding release. Aja was Steely Dan’s first platinum album, moving over three million copies and spawning three top-25 singles (“Peg,” “Deacon Blues,” and “Josie”) in the year of Rumours, Saturday Night Fever, and Never Mind the Bollocks — no small feat for a set of intricately crafted, jazz-inflected meditations on nostalgia, mortality, and failure. Aja also quickly became a standard audiophile reference album for testing equipment. As Bowers & Wilkins’s Doug Henderson recently recalled, a common experience for anyone leading an equipment demo at a trade show became “anticipat[ing] the usual Steely Dan requests but want[ing] to avoid looking glum at the umpteenth playing of [Aja’s] ‘Josie’[.]” The road to Aja began in 1967, when Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley. As Fagen remembered, “We started writing nutty little tunes on an upright piano in a small sitting room in the lobby of Ward Manor, a mouldering old mansion on the Hudson River that the college used as a dorm.” Their experience at Bard also served to heighten Becker and Fagen’s already keenly-developed outsider orientation. “I noticed that everybody had a car, except me and Donald,” Becker said later. “I reluctantly had to conclude that not all socioeconomic groups were equally represented.” Like many suburban white kids of their generation, Becker and Fagen admired the black music of the era. But unlike many of their peers this didn’t draw Becker and Fagen into the often-derivative white blues-rock milieu. Instead, Becker and Fagen blended their love of Howlin’ Wolf and Duke Ellington with influences as diverse as the Great American Songbook, Dylan, “Brother Ray,” and Leiber and Stoller to create a singular sonic amalgam that had as much in common with the hermetic studio creations of Todd Rundgren and Stevie Wonder, the cynical singer-songwriting of Randy Newman and Warren Zevon, or the glistening pop-funk of Earth, Wind & Fire (whom Dan aficionado Pharrell Williams once dubbed “the black Steely Dan”) as with their supposed “jazz rock” peers like Weather Report and Chicago. (“I’m not interested in a rock/jazz fusion,” Becker told Rolling Stone in 1974. “That kind of marriage has so far only come up with ponderous results. We play rock and roll, but we swing when we play. We want that ongoing flow, that lightness, that forward rush of jazz.”) Becker and Fagen combined this unique musical mélange with a love of “W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman,” as Fagen put it, to create songs that were as lyrically obtuse as they were musically complex. “I’ll tell you what I like about our group,” Fagen said in a mid-‘70s interview. “What I like about us, outside of our technical accomplishments, is that our music scares me more than anybody else’s. The combination of the words with the music — like a cheerful lyric and a sad or a menacing melody, or vice versa — I find that irony frightening…. Not music about doom and melodrama — that kind of stuff isn’t really frightening. What’s really frightening is mediocrity. The mediocrity of everyday life, the mediocrity we see around us. That frightens me.” The “frightening” irony of Steely Dan’s lyrics wasn’t lost on those listening closely, even if it was missed by many casual fans. “Steely Dan [was] a group who served as the house band for every 1978 West Coast singles bar,” writer Chuck Klosterman quipped, “despite being more lyrically subversive than the Sex Pistols and the Clash combined.” As with Dylanologists, the elisions in and obscurantism of Becker and Fagen’s lyrics would send dedicated Dan-o-philes scurrying to decode their meaning. “We don’t construct them as puzzles,” Fagen claimed to Rolling Stone in 1977. “We try to tell a big story in a very short period of time. Naturally we have to exclude some information. We don’t discourage any speculation.” Nonetheless, Becker and Fagen were loath to explain their songs to interviewers, preferring to allow conjecture to run rampant. Both musically and lyrically, Becker and Fagen’s songwriting partnership was a true collaboration. “I usually come up with germinal musical idea, and then we will arrange to meet…,” Fagen told the New York Times. “t is really a collaboration. It’s not one of us writing the music, the other lyrics. And it’s not like Lennon and McCartney, who as I understand it usually just wrote a song by themselves and then put both their names on it. It is a collaboration: we think very much the same musically. I can start songs and Walter can finish them.” The songwriting duo took their first serious stab at making a career of it when they left Bard and moved to New York City, harboring hopes of becoming Brill Building-style songwriters. Save for placing a tune with Barbara Streisand that was “altered beyond the point where we would have to take responsibility for it,” according to Becker, Becker and Fagen’s efforts were largely fruitless. But their songwriting impressed Kenny Vance of Jay and the Americans (whom Becker and Fagen sometimes backed on the road) and Katz, who landed Becker and Fagen jobs as staff writers for ABC Records in Los Angeles. Eventually, Becker and Fagen’s continued inability to write tunes suitable for other artists (“We’re not particularly good popular-song writers,” Fagen explained to one interviewer) led to the realization that they were the only ones who could perform their songs. So, with Becker on bass and guitar, Fagen on keyboards and vocals, Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter on guitar, and Jim Hodder on drums, Steely Dan — a name borrowed from a dildo in William Burroughs Naked Lunch — was born. Steely Dan’s debut, Can't Buy a Thrill, was released in November 1972 and peaked at number 17 on the Billboard pop album charts, buoyed by top-20 singles “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In the Years.” Dan followed Can’t Buy a Thrill with Countdown to Ecstasy in July 1973, which peaked at number 35 on the charts, and Pretzel Logic in February 1974, which peaked at number eight. The former featured a minor hit about their time at Bard, “My Old School,” and latter spawned their biggest single, “Rikki Don't Lose That Number, which reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100. Despite Steely Dan’s success, the bookish and mordant Becker and Fagen couldn’t have had less in common with the charismatic and photogenic duos (Page and Plant, Jagger and Richards) behind the early-‘70s other big acts. Indeed, the era’s music press seemed to take great joy in describing Becker and Fagen’s appearance in the least flattering terms possible. Rolling Stone, 1974: [Becker] wears smoked glasses, accenting a somewhat gnomish face marked by high cheekbones and an upswitched nose. He has the fool, slouched posture and crooked, potentially menacing smile of somebody who was probably a sarcastic outcast in junior high school. Donald Fagen…has [the] pinched rectangular face of his photos, which…in person turns out to be dominated by an alarmingly long nose, wide mouth and high forehead, giving him the aspect, perhaps, of a mad scientist. The New York Times, 1977: [Fagen] looks like Victor Mature reflected in a funhouse mirror that widens and elongates. He speaks in a slow, laconic New Jersey drawl (he was born in Passaic), and when his wide mouth smiles, the grin resembles a sneer…. Walter Becker is the fast talker and wisecracker. A small slender New Yorker, longhaired with a wispy moustache and beard, he looks like Peter Pan impersonating Fu Manchu. When music journalist-turned-director Cameron Crowe — who also colorfully described Becker and Fagen’s looks in his ’74 Rolling Stone profile of the band — had one of the groupie characters in his 2000 film Almost Famous proclaim “Wow, they’re cute” while watching the Steely Dan play “Reelin’ in the Years” on “Midnight Special,” it was unambiguously understood as a punch line. By the mid-1970s, Becker and Fagen’s evident discomfort in the spotlight was fracturing Steely Dan as a functional unit. With each succeeding album, Becker and Fagen’s desire to tour decreased and their desire to use studio musicians to augment (and, eventually, supplant) the band’s other members increased. “The situation just sort of evolved into having a band and making records with them…,” Fagen explained. “But after a couple of records, we decided that the situation was too limited for the kind of music that we were writing, so we arranged to have other musicians brought in. And that finally evolved into a situation where we could hire whomever we wanted to play individual songs.” The band played its last live date in July 1974 and the original lineup dissolved, leaving Becker and Fagen as the only two full-time members of Steely Dan. By 1975’s Katy Lied, Steely Dan was Fagen and Becker augmented by Los Angeles’s top studio musicians, including Chuck Rainey (who’d already recorded with Yusef Lateef, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, and Aretha Franklin) on bass and Jeff Porcaro (who would go on to record with Boz Scaggs, Hall and Oates, Jackson Browne, Pink Floyd, and Aretha Franklin) on drums. (Dias, who nominally remained Steely Dan’s third member, played on only one of Katy Lied’s tracks.) Becker and Fagen’s increasing use of studio musicians in the pursuit technical virtuosity was matched by their growing desire for sonic perfection, aided by Katz and Nichols. “I think one of the best things about rock and roll as opposed to jazz is precision and a professional sound,” Fagen said in ‘77. “That’s what I like about popular music. We strive for that sort of slick sound.” A side effect of the band’s embrace of “slickness” was that Becker and Fagen became the poster boys for the “L.A. Sound,” even though they had little use for their adopted home city. (“I don’t love L.A. particularly,” Fagen lamented in 1974. “I mean, it’s comfortable to live here, but you know they’ve got it all set up so you never see any poor people? You never have to drive through Watts, say. When we moved out here, after a while we realized we hadn’t seen any black people — it really stuck out. ‘Where’d half the people go?’”) By design, each succeeding Steely Dan album seemed to sound better than the last. “The strive for true hi-fi was common ground with Donald and Walter and Gary — we’re all perfectionists, especially Walter with his quad electrostatic speakers at home and the latest tone arm,” Nichols told Dan biographer Brian Sweet in 1993. When a mishap with the new DBX noise-reduction system damaged the Katy Lied tapes, the band undertook herculean efforts to fix the snafu and were devastated when the album’s original fidelity couldn’t be completely restored. (Katz: “I can’t listen to it. I hate to hear an album that we’re involved in that’s not up to our standards. It was the best-sounding thing I ever heard before it was ruined.” Becker: “If you had heard that album the way it originally went down on tape, you would have heard something else.”) But a sonic debacle by Steely Dan standards was still audiophile quality for its time. “It is a testimony to their studio prowess that the ‘flawed’ sound on Katy Lied is still much advanced compared to any of the competition,” Crowe mused in his ’77 piece. Despite the sonic advances of Katy Lied and 1976’s The Royal Scam (which took more than three months and over $100,000 to record), Steely Dan’s commercial prospects had dimmed since they stopped touring. Both albums charted lower than Pretzel Logic, as did each album’s most successful single. (“Black Friday” from Katy Lied reached number 37, and “The Fez” from The Royal Scam peaked at 59.) Aja would change all that. Becker and Fagen began recording Aja in Los Angeles in January 1977. It would mark the apotheosis of their quest for studio perfection. “I thought Aja itself was dangerously ambitious,” Becker told Musician magazine in 1981. “I really did.” Aja required a budget that made The Royal Scam’s look like “chicken feed” and took longer to record than any previous Steely Dan album, even though with only seven cuts — “Black Cow,” “Aja,” “Deacon Blues,” “Peg,” “Home at Last,” “I Got the News,” and “Josie” — it contain the fewest songs of any Dan album. (It didn’t help that only one of the cuts clocked in at less than four minute and two clocked in at over seven.) Most of that time was spent on endless attempts at the same parts. When Crowe asked Becker and Fagen how they spent their days, Becker quipped: “Overdubbing. We overdubbed a lot of the overdubs over.” “Yeah, we did,” Fagen added. “We just kept adjusting our standards higher and higher,” Becker explained to GQ in 2014. “So many days we’d make guys do 30 or 40 takes and never listen to any of them again, because we knew none of them were any good. But we just kept hoping that somehow it was just going to miraculously get good.” “Every track, every overdub, had to be the perfect overdub,” engineer Elliot Scheiner told Newsweek in 2017. “They didn’t settle for anything. They were always looking for the perfect. As a result of their snowballing perfectionism and unlimited access to L.A.’s top players, Becker and Fagen’s own musical role on Aja diminished. “It wouldn’t bother me at all not to play on my own album,” Becker told Crowe with utter seriousness. “Around the time we made Aja we figured out what it was we sort of wanted to do, you know, musically,” Fagen explained in the Aja episode of the Classic Albums series. “We realized we needed session musicians who had a larger palette of things they could do.” “Donald and I had more of an idea that comes from an East Coast Brill Building tradition, of an almighty producer, when you had a Leiber and Stoller, or at its extreme a Phil Spector, who knew exactly what they wanted,” Becker elaborated in 2000. “What Burt Bacharach did with Dionne Warwick. He was looking for a diva to front his outfit and found her singing in a gospel group in New Jersey. His music was very difficult, and he needed someone who could execute what he was looking for.” Becker and Fagen could be tough taskmasters in pursuit of their idea of perfection. “They are the most demanding group of people in the industry that I’ve worked for,” guitarist Larry Carlton, whom Becker and Fagen trusted to write many of their arrangements, told the Times in ’77. “Nothing goes with flutter on it. If three of the guys are cutting the part great and one doesn’t feel just right, they’ll call in a whole new band and redo the whole thing.” But according to Katz, there was a method to their madness. “I was always amazed that they pretty much heard in their heads what it was gonna be like completely…,” Katz said in the Classic Albums episode. “[A]ll through the project, they would know, ‘Nope, that’s not it. That’s not working. This what I want.’ And it was amazing that, when the thing got done, finally I could see what everything was gonna be like. But they knew from the very beginning.” On Aja, Becker and Fagen integrated their diverse musical influences more effortlessly than ever before. As Winston Cook-Wilson gushed in his Spin piece on Aja’s 40th anniversary: Guitars provided auxiliary punctuation and effects-less solos rather than the brunt of the song; a stew of acoustic piano and electric keyboards, reminiscent of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, were at the warm center of the mix. Aja’s sound was a direct offshoot from jazz and fusion, steeped in its harmonic language, as well as that of turn-of-the-century modernist classical music (Debussy and Stravinsky, especially). The particular musical syntax on Aja was in many ways uniquely Dan’s, however, the misbegotten result of Becker and Fagen’s own self-taught musical education. Their chordal sense was central to the issue: The complex changes left the average rock listeners’ ear out in the cold, pointing toward whole new keys for choruses and away from easy resolution. The musical complexity of Aja spawned academic studies of Steely Dan’s chord changes and prompted a Berklee College of Music songwriting course analyzing Becker and Fagen’s oeuvre. (For those interested in a slightly less academic, but no less detailed, analysis of the musical and lyrical intricacies of Aja, pianist Don Breithaupt’s short book on the album for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series is highly recommended.) Aja works so well together as a whole that singling out individual songs seems almost perverse. However, “Deacon Blues,” “Aja,” and “Peg” are not only among the album’s highlights, but also illustrate some of the musical and lyrical elements that make Aja so special. For two lyricists who shied away from songs that allowed for easy interpretation, “Deacon Blues” was surprisingly clear and direct. “Deacon Blues is about as close to autobiography as our tunes get,” Fagen admitted in the Classic Albums episode. The song’s protagonist is man of presumably advancing age (Becker called him “a broken man living a broken life,” though Fagen has sometimes referred to him as a “kid”) who looks at his staid suburban life and longs to throw it all away in order to play saxophone in dive bars, even if the ultimate price is death. “You call me a fool, You say it's a crazy scheme / This one’s for real, I already bought the dream,” he argues with his skeptical partner (or, perhaps, his own better judgment). “So useless to ask me why, Throw a kiss and say goodbye / I'll make it this time, I'm ready to cross that fine line / Learn to work the saxophone, I play just what I feel / Drink Scotch whiskey all night long, And die behind the wheel.” It’s a pipe dream, and the protagonist knows it. He can’t even play the saxophone. “The protagonist is not a musician,” Becker explained. “He just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire. And you know, who’s to say that he’s not right?” With “Deacon Blues,” Becker and Fagen narrated not only their own pre-Steely Dan lives (and what may have remained their lives had Katz never gotten them their ABC gig), but also the lives of many of their fans, for whom Steely Dan’s music provided the same dreams of escape that the songs on late-night jazz and R&B radio stations once provided to Becker and Fagen. “You know we were both kids who grew up in the suburbs,” Fagen said. “We both felt fairly alienated. Like a lot of kids in the ‘50s we were looking for some kind of alternative culture — some kind of escape, really — from where we found ourselves.” For the protagonist of “Deacon Blues,” as for Becker and Fagen, that alienation isn’t something to be lamented; it’s something to be embraced. “I think that a lot of kids our age were very alienated,” Becker explained of “Deacon Blues” in a revealing 2008 interview. “To this day when I read some text that somebody writes about alienation, I always think to myself, Gee, they make it sound like it’s a bad thing!” For Becker and Fagen, alienation was the fulcrum around which their discovery of music revolved. “[The protagonist] turns to jazz and hip culture as something to grab on to,” Fagen told Sweet. “And the basic idea is that there’s a kind of culture of losers that he’d rather be part of than the general way of life in America.” Ultimately, “Deacon Blues” is a tribute to the other working- and middle-class kids like Becker and Fagen who, through music and the entire “alterative culture” that comes with it, learned to reject the façade of the American Dream and embrace their outsider status, even if they remained “losers” by the standards of the kids who drove “Porsches and Jaguars” around the college campus. “You know, they’ve got a name for the winners in the world, and the losers should have some sort of franchise as well,” Fagen has explained. “And the name that he has chosen that conveys a certain power is ‘Deacon Blues.’” (Becker and Fagen landed on the name for the winners, “Crimson Tide,” by asking former tour manager Warren Wallace for the names of successful college football teams and choosing the University of Alabama’s moniker.) Musically, “Deacon Blues” is marked by Carlton’s supple rhythm guitar, saxophonist Tom Scott’s hypnotic horn arrangement, and Pete Christlieb’s improvised sax solo. “They just told me to play what I felt…,” Christlieb told the Wall Street Journal. “[So I] recorded my first solo. We listened back and they said it was great. I recorded a second take and that’s the one they used. I was gone in a half-hour. The next thing I know I’m hearing myself in every airport bathroom in the world.” Christlieb also solos over the song’s slow fadeout, which stretches over 30 seconds. “The song’s fade-out at the end was intentional,” Fagen said in 2015. “We used it to make the end feel like a dream fading off into the night.” Becker and Fagen refused to edit out Cristlieb’s solo to shorten the seven-plus minute cut to more suitable single length. ABC released it anyhow, and it became a top-20 hit despite its length. “‘Deacon Blues’ was special for me,” Becker marveled years later. “It’s the only time I remember mixing a record all day and, when the mix was done, feeling like I wanted to hear it over and over again. It was the comprehensive sound of the thing: the song itself, its character, the way the instruments sounded and the way Tom Scott’s tight horn arrangement fit in.” While the meaning of “Deacon Blues” is fairly straightforward, the cryptic “Aja” has been meticulously dissected by writers and fans. In the Classic Album episode, Fagen calls “Aja” “a journey in space and time…[about] the sort of tranquility that can come of a quiet relationship with a beautiful woman.” Musically, “Aja” is an example of how Becker and Fagen’s pairing of studio musicians could result in spontaneous magic. The song’s highlight is the interlocking solo by saxophonist Wayne Shorter — who had played on innumerable classics by Miles Davis and Art Blake but who usually eschewed pop music — and New York session drummer Steve Gadd. “The title song I like…,” Becker told Sounds magazine in 1977. “We’d gotten this drummer we didn’t know but had heard a lot about, named Steve Gadd…. We had a chart for the tune, and it was like eight pages long — three music stands in front of every musician. What’s on the charts is very specific for some of the players…but very open for others…particularly the drummer — he really had to outdo himself on that one.” “There was a little mark on the chart for Steve Gadd to ad-lib through a certain part and add a couple of different parts that we figured we’d talk about [after the initial takes] and so on,” Fagen explained to Sweet, “but [Gadd] just ripped right through it on the first take and we kept it.” Gadd’s tempestuous solo has become legendary among drummers, who’ve dissected its every nuance (including a beloved stick click near the five-minute mark that has generated much debate — intentional or accidental?). Shorter’s biographer Michelle Mercer also credits Gadd for helping to inspire Shorter’s equally legendary solo, which she calls “majestic and stately, tracing a mountainous arc with cleverly displaced references back to the vocal melody.” If the solo on “Aja” illustrated the magic of first takes, the solo on “Peg” demonstrated how Becker and Fagen’s willingness to overdub (and overdub and overdub) with different musicians could also yield transcendent results. “Peg” was the last tune recorded for Aja, cut in New York while the rest of the record was being mixed. The tight, infectious groove laid down by Rainey and drummer Rick Marotta was almost automatic. “We had done stuff with them before so we knew what to expect,” Marotta said. “Chuck and I had played together so much that we got into a groove… [Y]ou could have hung a coat up on the groove.” (In the process of laying down that groove, Rainey smartly defied Becker and Fagen’s instructions not to play slap bass by erecting a studio partition so that they couldn’t see that he was slapping.) The guitar solo on what Becker and Fagen called a “pantonal 13-bar blues with chorus” didn’t come nearly as easily. “[‘Peg’] I think is infamous among studio players in that we hired a couple guitar players to play the solo,” Fagen said in the Classic Albums episode, “and it wasn’t quite what we were looking for until we got through three or four, five...six or seven, eight players.” They tried Elliott Randall, who’d played the “Reelin’ in the Years” solo, along with former McCoy’s frontman Rick Derringer, who’d played on Countdown to Ecstasy and Katy Lied. But Becker and Fagen weren’t happy with the results. “Rick Derringer was there for about three or four hours,” remembered engineer Elliot Scheiner. “We got something out of him. The minute he left, Walter looked at me and said, ‘Erase it.’ I said, ‘OK.’ You never questioned it. You didn’t say, ‘Come on, really?’ It was over. “We were embarrassed for them and for us,” Fagen admitted to Breithaupt. “We felt silly spending all this money for this one brief blues solo.” They finally brought in L.A. session guitarist Jay Graydon, who’d played on albums by Marvin Gaye, Joe Cocker, and Wayne Shorter. “I found out I was the seventh guy. For about an hour and a half, I’m playing my hip, melodic kind of jazz style. Then Donald says to me, ‘Naw, man. Try to play the blues.’… [So] I play bluesy for a while. I get melodic for a while. I get bluesy again. Then I get melodic and bluesy,” Graydon told Newsweek in 2017. “The whole thing probably took about four, five hours…. When I walked out of the studio at the end of the night, I didn't know it was a keeper. I turned the radio on one day, and there it is.” (As Aja’s first single, “Peg” was all over the radio in 1977, reaching number 11 on the Billboard charts during its 19-week run.) While “Deacon Blues,” “Aja,” and “Peg” are some of my favorites, deep cuts like “Home at Last” (which Fagen called “a little blues about Ulysses”) are just as good. And if you read Breithaupt’s book or watch the Classic Albums documentary, it becomes clear that every song on Aja has a compelling story, because every note and every word was intentional. “An album like Aja matters not just because it contributes to civilization a handful of date-stamped audio treasures, but because it puts into sharp relief the dreck that surrounds it,” according to Breithaupt. “How else to know the true banality of ‘Come Sail Away,’ ‘Hot Legs,’ and ‘Three Times a Lady’ (all of which shared chart space with songs from Aja)?” With the fanatically pursued perfection of Aja, Becker and Fagen exposed the “mediocrity” that so terrified Fagen. That’s why it’s worth it for true Dan-o-philes to pursue the perfect digital version or Aja — or as close to it as we can get. The digital mastering history of Aja is complex, the differences between the masterings are notable, and debate on the interwebs about which is the best has been particularly heated. But the basic story is that there have been (at least)1 seven digital masterings of Aja: 1) a 1984 CD mastered by Steve Hoffman, 2) a 1984 CD mastered by Nichols, 3) a 1984 Japanese CD with uncertain mastering credits, 4) a 1988 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CD remaster, 5) a 1993 remaster by Glenn Meadows found on the Citizen Steely Dan CD box set, 6) a 1999 CD remaster by Nichols, and 7) a 2010 “flat transfe[r] from Japan[ese] original analogue master tapes” by Hitoshi Takiguchi at Tokyo’s Universal Music Studios, used for both a 2010 SACD and several subsequent CDs. Aja’s path to digital began years before the first CD release of the album. With the help and encouragement of Nichols, Becker and Fagen had been early adopters of digital technology in the studio. (They deployed “Wendel,” Nichols’s pioneering digital sampler for drums on 1980’s Gaucho.) Nichols was just as enthusiastic about the possibilities of digital for home audio. As Nichols wrote 1991: I originally got involved in recording music because I hated clicks and pops on record. I figured that the only way that I was going to get good quality recordings to play was to record them myself. I could then bring home two-track 15 ips copies to play on my stereo…. When the Compact Disc became a reality, I was beside myself. I was also close by the side of any record company exec who could get me any discs to play on my new found CD player. Since CDs preserved all the characteristics of the original master tape, I could now enjoy music without the drawbacks of black vinyl. Not surprisingly, Nichols was proactive in preparing the Steely Dan catalog for CD release. In either 1981 or 1982, Nichols transferred all of the Steely Dan master tapes to Scotch 3M digital tape using a Sony PCM 1600 system, with the intention that these digital flat transfers, not the original analog masters (which Nichols later said “were in terrible shape, due to improper storage, and had poor fidelity”), would be used for all subsequent CD releases. (Notably, the master tape for the b-side of Aja could not be found, and a tape copy was used for the digital transfer.) However, when it came time to master Aja for its first CD release, Steve Hoffman mastered it at Bruce Botnick’s Digital Magnetics studio in Hollywood from the original analog tape, not Nichols’s digital transfer. According to Hoffman, the Aja master tape “sounded quite dull” and had a “midrange suckout problem,” which he attributed to it being mixed on horn speakers that exaggerated the midrange. So, Hoffman’s mastering “fill[ed] in the midrange hole” by boosting the mids a bit, but was otherwise a flat transfer of the analog master. MCA pressed around 5,000 CDs with Hoffman’s mastering, but as many as 4,000 of them were destroyed when the band decided they wanted Nichols to have control of their CD releases. While Hoffman’s mastering wasn’t supposed to be released, some nonetheless eventually found their way into stores. When Nichols mastered the first run of Steely Dan CDs, including Aja, he used the digital tapes he’d prepared a few years earlier. On some songs, Nichols’s mastering differs little from Hoffman’s. But on most tracks, Nichols’s ’84 mastering has more upper-midrange and treble than Hoffman’s, leading to a brighter sound, as the GIF below comparing Nichols’s (light blue) and Hoffman’s (purple) masterings of “Aja,” “Deacon Blues,” “Home at Last,” and “Peg” using Har-Bal’s “average power” graphs demonstrates: (click on image to see the animated comparison) Despite the significant differences in sound, it’s difficult to visually distinguish Hoffman-mastered ‘84 CDs from Nichols-mastered ‘84 CDs, since the liner notes don’t list the mastering engineer. But online sleuths have gone to great lengths to figure out which CDs contain the Nichols mastering and which contain the Hoffman mastering based on catalog and matrix numbers. Making matters more complicated, there’s also a mastering on some ’84 Japanese CDs that’s neither Hoffman’s nor Nichols’s. (Thankfully, it’s easy to identify by its catalog number.) This Japanese mastering is overall more similar to Hoffman’s mastering than the Nichols’s, but it’s much more midrange-focused than Hoffman’s mastering, as the GIF below comparing Hoffman’s mastering (purple) to the Japanese mastering (pink) shows: (click on image to see the animated comparison) The next digital release of Aja came in 1988, when Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab released a new mastering of the album sourced from the original analog masters (a fact that irked Nichols). As the GIF below shows, the MFSL mastering (orange) has more high-end and low-end, but less midrange, than Hoffman’s mastering (purple): (click on image to see the animated comparison) In 1993, Steely Dan released the Citizen Steely Dan box set, which featured new masterings of the band’s entire catalog by Glenn Meadows. Meadows’s remasters were sourced from Nichols’s 1982 digital tapes. According to Meadows, he was instructed to “pretend you’ve never heard the albums before and do what you feel appropriate” and given an almost open-ended time frame from Nichols and the band to put together the box. “Processing included all digital EQ/compression signal processing,” Meadows told me via email. “Also, several functions of CEDAR was used. On the older albums, a light processing of De-Noise was applied. This was used in conjunction with the EQ processing so that when the noise was removed, there was also no loss of hi-end (a typical false accusation about CEDAR — the reality is an overly aggressive application of the process). The final CEDAR process was their ‘Phase Correction’…. This was a subtle improvement, but was obvious when taken in and out of the signal path.” According to Meadows, his Citizen Steely Dan mastering was approved by Nichols and the band with no changes. Ultimately, Meadows’s mastering of Aja (which is unfortunately split across two CDs on the box) differed little from Nichols’s ’84 CDs, aside from less tape hiss and a little more treble on a few songs, as can be seen in the GIF below comparing Meadows’s Citizen mastering (dark green) with Nichols’s ’84 mastering (light blue): (click on image to see the animated comparison) Ever frustrated with how the Steely Dan catalog sounded on CD, Nichols began remastering the entire catalog yet again in the late-1990s with the intention of creating the “definitive” Steely Dan CD releases. These CDs were once again sourced from his 1982 digital transfers. Interestingly, however, Nichols’s new mastering of Aja (dark blue), which was released in 1999, was nearly identical to Meadows’s Citizen mastering (green), aside from a slight volume difference: (click on image to see the animated comparison) Nichols’s 1999 remaster of Aja remained the last word on the album until 2010, when a new Japanese SACD featuring a “flat transfe[r] from Japan[ese] original analogue master tapes” by Hitoshi Takiguchi was released. From the release’s description, it’s not clear whether the tape used for this release was the U.S. master tape, a Japanese copy of the master tape, or even an EQ’d “cutting master.” But Takiguchi’s mastering (red) differs from all previous masterings, being slightly less bass-centric than Hoffman’s (purple), but not nearly as bright as the Nichols or Meadows masterings, as midrange focused as the previous Japanese mastering, or as “scooped” in the midrange as the MFSL mastering: (click on image to see the animated comparison) Evaluating the different Aja masterings is easily the most difficult task I’ve tackled in a TBVO column so far. None can be easily dismissed based on a lack of dynamics. Whether measured by crest factor DR score or R128 dynamic range, all of the masterings have very similar dynamics, registering a DR score between 13 and 15 and an R128 between 6.5 and 7.9 dB. The 1999 Nichols remaster is ever so slightly less dynamic according to DR score (12), but slightly more dynamic according to R128 (8.0 dB). Likewise, the Takiguchi mastering is somewhat more dynamic than the 1999 Nichols remaster (and in line with the previous masterings) according to DR score (13), but is the least dynamic according to R128 (5.0 dB). Ultimately, none of the masterings can be considered overly compressed or “brickwalled.” A comparison of the waveforms of the Hoffman mastering (purple) and the Takiguchi mastering (red) shows that the latter is slightly louder and has ever so slightly shorter peaks, but is far from compressed2: (click on image to see the animated comparison) There’s a better case for throwing out some of the masterings due to technical flaws. Overall fidelity is not the issue, despite the constant kerfuffle over whether the analog masters or Nichols’s digital transfers should be used, debates about noise reduction, and uncertainty about what tape was used for the Japanese remaster. While the Citizen Steely Dan box and Nichols’s 1999 remaster have less tape noise on songs like “Home at Last” (and Meadows is correct that the noise reduction is mostly tasteful), the noise level isn’t an issue on any of the CDs sourced from the analog tapes. With very close listening on the most resolving gear, there are small differences in clarity between the various versions that seem to go beyond fact that each mastering’s EQ emphasizes different details.3 I’ll get to these differences later, but overall the level of clarity on each CD clears the bar to keep them in contention. Some masterings, however, possess notable glitches. Masterings sourced from Nichols’s 1982 digital transfer — including Nichols’s original ‘84 mastering, the Citizen Steely Dan box, and Nichols’s ‘99 remaster — have several bursts of noise in the left channel near the 2:18 mark of “I Got the News.” There’s also a click in the left channel near the 1:03 mark of “Black Cow.” These don’t appear in any of the versions sourced from analog tapes, including the Hoffman, ’84 Japan, MoFi, and Takiguchi masterings. The Mobile Fidelity CD has its own glitch, too. Near the 2:10 mark of the title track, the sound stage shifts slightly. This is more noticeable on headphones than speakers, and it might just be a case of one of the many edits in the song being more apparent on the MFSL than on other masterings. In my view, the “I Got the News” error is reason enough to remove both Nichols masterings and the Citizen Steely Dan mastering from the running. But there are also other reasons to do so that raise fundamental questions about what makes for a definitive mastering, questions that thus far haven’t been explicitly addressed in TBVO: Is the best mastering the one that (subjectively) sounds best to the listener, the one that reflects the sound of the master tape, the one that captures the intent of the artist, or the one that sounds like what listeners heard when it was first released? I would argue that, by necessity, the first question trumps the others, but doesn’t render them obsolete. We rarely know the sound of the master tape or the intent of the artist, and it’s sometimes the case that what listeners heard when an album was first released was compromised in one way or another, either due to technical limitations or errors. But when information about the master tape or artist intent is knowable and when the album’s initial release wasn’t marred by poor production or mastering, it’s important to all of those factors take those factors into account, even if we filter them through the somewhat subjective lens of what sounds best to our ears today. In the case of Aja, the album’s initial release was regarded as an audiophile masterpiece, and we know a great deal about the band’s intent and a fair amount about the sound of the master tape. If one’s ideal mastering is a pure reflection of the master tape, then it’s likely that the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab mastering of Aja is the best choice. The MFSL’s slight midrange dip comports with Hoffman’s description of the master tape and Mobile Fidelity’s reputation for putting out (mostly) flat transfers of the analog master. However, Hoffman is right that the album sounds more natural and balanced with some of that missing midrange added back. Moreover, we know that the MFSL’s presentation of Aja, even if it matches the master tape, isn’t how Aja sounded to listeners in 1977 — a sound that made Aja a go-to audiophile test record. The original ’77 release of Aja was mastered by Bernie Grundman. I reached out to Grundman, and he explained that Becker and Fagen didn’t simply sign off on his mastering. Rather, Nichols, Becker, and Fagen actively participated “in the mastering session with [Grundman] and [Grundman, Nichols, Becker, and Fagen] did the album together.” Given that we know that the initial mastering of Aja both reflected the band’s artistic intent and made Aja an audiophile landmark, it’s worth investigating how the digital masterings compare to the original vinyl Aja. I was able track down three high resolution digital transfers of original Aja pressings attributed to Grudman. Two of the three — an ABC AB 1006 Santa Maria pressing and a Japanese YX-8114-AB pressing — featured EQ that was remarkably similar according to Har-Bal. They also sounded virtually identical, despite the inherent variation in vinyl pressings and the number of variables that can skew how vinyl sounds, especially in the process of transferring it to digital. Those pressings also happen to be two of vinyl audiophiles’ favorites. Comparing both of Nichols’s masterings and the Citizen Steely Dan mastering — all of which, as noted above, feature very similar EQing — to the vinyl, it’s clear that they’re much brighter sounding than the original mastering that Grundman worked on with Nichols, Becker, and Fagen, as this GIF of the ’84 Nichols mastering (light blue) versus the vinyl (grey) illustrates: (click on image to see the animated comparison) The ’84 Japanese mastering (pink) is much closer to the vinyl (grey), though it still displays a more midrange-focused, bass-light tonality that’s even more apparent with close listening: (click on image to see the animated comparison) Hoffman’s mastering is extremely close to the vinyl on several tracks and more bass-heavy on others: (click on image to see the animated comparison) Finally, the 2010 Takiguchi mastering (red) is almost identical to the vinyl (grey), further hinting at the possibility that the Japanese tape is a vinyl cutting master: (click on image to see the animated comparison) Taking both the Har-Bal analysis and close listening into account, the Takiguchi and Hoffman CDs are closest to the original vinyl’s EQ, with the Takiguchi being slightly, but notably, closer on several tracks. One of the most significant differences, for example, comes on “Deacon Blues.” Hoffman’s master has more low-end, which tends to make it sound slightly bloated on some gear, relative to the original vinyl or the Takiguchi mastering. However, the slight, but undeniable difference in fidelity mentioned earlier favors the Hoffman mastering.4 Likely due to Hoffman’s use of the original U.S. master tape, as opposed to the Japanese tape copy, the Hoffman mastering sounds clearer and more three-dimensional when played on resolving gear. Gadd’s floor tom strikes in the right channel of “Aja,” to cite one example, sound more resonant and lifelike on the Hoffman mastering. The same is true for Rainey’s bass on “Peg,” despite the fact that the song’s equalization on the Hoffman and Takiguchi CDs is nearly identical. The crown in the third installment of TBVO, then, is a near-tie between the Hoffman mastering of Aja and the Takiguchi mastering of Aja. A slight EQ edge goes to Takiguchi, but the fidelity edge goes to Hoffman, giving the Hoffman the overall win by a small margin. If you want the absolute best digital mastering of Aja, try to get your hands on a Hoffman CD (or one of its “clones”)5. But the recent Japanese CDs and SACDs with the Takiguchi mastering are also an excellent choice. Whichever version of Aja you pick up, our grotesquely cartoonish historical moment is the perfect time to listen to some Steely Dan (preferably on a nice set of speakers or pair of headphones). As Dan Moffett put it in his meditation on how he became a Dan-o-phile, “The more absurd life gets, the more sense Steely Dan makes sense.” 1. There are dozens of CD releases of Aja, including some very obscure Japanese and Russian pressings. To my knowledge, all of the existing releases as of this writing feature one of the seven masterings mentioned above. The only mastering excluded from this list is a new MQA CD release. It’s excluded not only because of questions about the fidelity of the MQA format, but also because it’s exceedingly rare. Despite my skepticism about MQA, if I manage to get my hands on a copy of the MQA CD, I’ll update this piece. 2. Audacity was used for waveforms. 3. For the subjective analyses, all editions were ripped with XLD and played Audirvana Plus. The DAC/Amp combo was a Schiit Yggdrasil/Ragnarok stack. Most critical listening was done on a diverse set of headphones: NAD HP50, Sennheiser/Massdrop HD6XX, and Focal Clear. 4. I wondered if the Hoffman’s seeming edge in fidelity had to do with differences in EQ. To test this, I used Har-Bal’s mastering-cloning feature to apply the Hoffman mastering’s EQ to the Takiguchi file. While there are limits to what Har-Bal’s filters can do (the Hoffman master still had more low bass), it was relatively difficult to tell the resulting files apart when comparing them side-by-side in Audacity, and I doubt anyone could detect differences in clarity between the two a blind test. 5. There’s been great debate as to whether “Mastering 3” and “Mastering 6” as defined in these posts is the same as the confirmed Hoffman mastering (“Mastering 7” in the posts). Some of the CDs listed have slightly different peak levels, and the track times on many differ slightly. (On some versions, the end of one track even contains the first moments of the next track.) However, if the audio files are trimmed to contain the exact same parts of the songs, the three different graphs available in Har-Ball all show that masterings three, six, and seven are all Hoffman’s mastering, at least according to the copies of each that I have. About the Author Josh 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.
  8. The summit of hi-fi headphones has usually been occupied by open cans. But the past few years has seen companies like Focal, Audeze, and Sennheiser attempting to turn some of their best open headphones into audiophile-grade closed cans. Over the new few months, I’ll be reviewing a few of these new entrants into the closed-back market. Today, we’re going to start at the top, both in terms of price (U.S. MSRP of $2,399) and in terms of expectations, with Sennheiser’s HD820. As Sennheiser’s lead designer Axel Grell has explained, “Open type headphones are better by principle because sound that is radiated by the diaphragm to the rear can leave the system and the sound that is reflected from the ear can also leave the system.” As a result, Sennheiser’s closed cans have traditionally been aimed at professionals like studio musicians and DJs who require isolation, while their audiophile line has focused on open cans. According to Grell, the aim of the HD820 was to create a “closed-type for audiophiles.” The path to the HD820 began in 2012 with a simple attempt to close the company’s flagship open-back, the HD800. After testing different cup materials, Grell and his fellow designers settled on Gorilla Glass due to its rigidity. They made the Gorilla Glass panels in the cups convex to direct reflections into dampened chambers so that “reflected sound waves have virtually no chance of disturbing the movement of the HD 820's advanced 56 mm transducers and of compromising the precision of the audio reproduction,” as Sennheiser puts it. Underneath its fancy Gorilla glass exterior, the HD820 shares much in common with Sennheiser’s open flagship HD800 and its revised incarnation, the HD800S (U.S. MSRP $1,699), which I’ll be reviewing in this piece to provide a comparison with the HD820. The HD820 uses the same 56-mm “ring radiator” as the HD800S. Both have the same nominal impedance (300 ohms) and nearly the same sensitivity (103 dB for the HD820 and 102 dB for the HD800s). Physically, the HD820 also resembles the HD800S. If you like how the HD800S looks (and I do), you’ll also appreciate the HD820’s black-and-silver color scheme and build that mixes high-strength plastic and aluminum. While the added cup material causes the HD820 to weigh in at 360 grams compared to the HD800S’s 330 grams, neither is a heavy headphone. Like the HD800S, the HD820’s clamping force is minimal, and with proper adjustment both the HD820 and HD800S are comfortable over long listening sessions. Like the HD800S, the HD820 comes in a rigid storage box. Befitting its extra cost, Sennheiser has included three cables (rather than the HD800S’s two) with the HD820: an unbalanced 1/4-inch stereo cable, a balanced XLR-4 cable, and a balanced 4.4mm Pentaconn cable. If the HD820’s build and presentation share much in common with the HD800S’s, its sound is where it deviates. In his 2018 CanJam presentation, Grell graphed the frequency response of the HD800S and the HD820, which was still just a prototype at the time, to illustrate how the HD820’s response would deviate from the HD800S’s. The HD820, according to Grell, would have a small dip between 150hz to 200hz in order to compensate for the resonances of closed-back cans, allowing the the HD820 to possess the extra bass thump of closed cans without “blur[ring]the mid details.” This dip, which slopes down from about 150hz and bottoms out around 300hz, is visible in every measurement of the HD820, including Sennheiser’s own: While everyone agrees there’s a dip, its size has been debated. In some measurements it’s as much as 15 db. In others, it’s as little as 3 db. Given the debate about the HD820’s dip, I was anxious to measure the HD820 with my MiniDSP EARS. While there’s reason to be cautious about any oddities found in a budget measurement rig like the EARS, the EARS acquit themselves fairly well in comparison to much more advanced measurement gear. For the HD820 (red) and HD800s (green) measurements below, my EARS were calibrated with a slightly modified version of Marv from SBAF’s compensation curve, where a flat frequency response is represented by a flat line: With the EARS, the the HD820’s upper-bass/lower-mids dip appears to be what the kids call “lorge.” However, the size of the dip as captured by the EARS is in line with other other measurements of the HD820. Also very apparent in the measurements is the HD820’s bass quantity. Especially in comparison with the HD800S, which exhibits a mostly flat frequency response except for a slight boost in the highs, it’s clear that the HD820 isn’t tuned to be a neutral set of cans. If your preference is for a (mostly) neutral set of cans (as mine is), the bad news is that the HD820’s dip is clearly audible when listening to frequency sweeps. (Grell’s claim that the HD820 is “good and linear” enough to be used audio professionals strikes me as unlikely.) The good news is that the HD820’s dip doesn’t sound quite as large as it measures. Nonetheless, the upper-bass/lower-mids dip of the HD820 clearly affects how it reproduces music. I listened to the HD820 over four weeks and compared it to the HD800S and several other cans using a Schiit Yggdrasil/Ragnarok stack, with lossless files played via the OSX version of Audirvana Plus. (While I put the HD820 and HD800S through the paces using a variety of music, from jazz to pop to rock, I was in a Who mood when writing this review, so the examples in this review will be drawn from their early-‘70s catalog.) Like any daring and controversial deviation from neutrality, the pros and cons of the HD820’s unique presentation become apparent very quickly. Listening to “Baba O’Riley” from the clear and dynamic mid-1980s mastering of Who’s Next, the tonal contrast between the HD800S and the HD820 is marked. With the HD800S, Sennheiser has fixed the treble peak that marred the HD800 and sent modders searching for solutions. Freed from the sometimes piercing high end of the HD800, it’s easy to enjoy the HD800S’s impressive soundstage (or “headstage”), which is arguably the widest and deepest of any set of cans currently available. On “Baba,” the opening synthesizer line is crisp and tonally accurate on the HD800S. When the band enters, Keith Moon’s cymbals project far left and Pete Townshend’s guitar far right without any sense of exaggeration. While the HD800S is still a slightly bass-light headphone, its low end has enough heft to render Moon’s kick drum and John Entwistle’s bass accurately. Compared to the Focal Clear (U.S. MSRP $1,500), which is arguably the HD800S’s clearest (pun intended) competition in the open-back audiophile category, the HD800S (green) is slightly brighter, while the Clear (blue) is slightly warmer: The Clear and the HD800S are remarkably close when it comes to factors like transient response, dynamics, and overall clarity. The Clear’s tonal balance is more neutral than the HD800S, which still leans bright. Despite the Clear’s extra bass, its bass is also cleaner than the HD800S’s. However, the HD800S is slightly better than the Clear in retrieving microdetail (even accounting for the HD800S’s brighter character), and the HD800S’s significantly more spacious soundstage also allows for better separation between instruments than the Clear can muster. In short, with the HD800S, Sennheiser has turned the flawed HD800 into a more balanced, more competent all-around headphone that now has to be the go-to set of cans for audiophiles seeking out the best detail and soundstage possible. Switching to the HD820, it’s immediately clear that Grell and his team at Sennheiser succeeded in one of their top goals, which was creating a closed set of cans with the soundstage of an open pair. The HD820 projects incredibly wide and relatively deep, rivaling (and even exceeding) the soundstage of many good open-back headphones. As Sennheiser intended, the controversial upper-bass/lower-mids dip reduces muddiness in most (but not all) recordings. Instruments and voices are easily placed in space and are remarkably clear, likely owing to the HD820’s remarkably low distortion. However, the effect of the HD820’s dip on tonality is serious. Electric guitars lose some of their fullness, string articulation on bass guitars is lost, and drums sound hollow. The opening synth line of “Baba O’Riley” sounds “scooped out” on the HD820, suppressing harmonics that are usually front-and-center and revealing others that are usually inaudible. As the piano and drums kick in, the impressive bass slam of the HD820 becomes obvious, but so does its somewhat disjoined presentation. The dip creates a separation between the bass and the mids that, besides affecting tonality, leads to a notable sonic incoherence. While the dip seems to accentuate the instrumental separation and reduce muddiness with well-recorded, well-mixed material, the HD820’s unique frequency response makes some sonically less-than-stellar material even cloudier. Keeping with The Who, the Mobile Fidelity mastering of Quadrophenia presents that somewhat murky mix at its best. On most headphones – even warm ones like the ZMF Atticus – the murkiness is evident, but not overwhelming. But the HD820’s elevated lower bass and upper-bass/lower-mids dip renders Quadrophenia a bassy mess. Switching to a more neutral set of cans, including the HD800S, is a sonic breath of fresh air. Like any non-neutral set of cans, the ear becomes more accustomed to the HD820’s presentation the longer you listen to it, making it easier to appreciate its strengths. However, there’s a good case to be made that world class headphones shouldn’t have a flaw that you need to acclimate your ears to before you can fully enjoy them. That’s even more true when those headphones come with the HD820’s hefty price tag. There’s also the fact that, despite being a closed can, the HD820 (red) don’t isolate better than vented closed cans like the aforementioned Atticus (orange), which lacks the HD820’s soundstage, microdetail, and low bass extension, but bests the HD820 on overall dynamics, smoothness, and (crucially) tonal balance: Whereas the HD800S can now stand toe-to-toe (and often best) any open can in its price range, the HD820 are hard to recommend over another warm-leaning closed can like the Atticus, which (at a U.S. MSRP of $1,099) happens to come in at less than half the price of the HD820. So, just as Sennheiser has nearly perfected its flagship open can by revising the HD800 into the HD800S, it’s also introduced a technically impressive but tonally flawed top-of-the-line closed can in the HD820. Hopefully, as was the case with the HD800, Sennheiser will release a revision of the HD820 in the not-too-distant future that remedies its flaws and keeps its strengths. About the Author Josh 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.
  9. I’ve owned (past tense) the Mezes, 1540s, MSR7s, and Aeon Flows. The Meze and 1540 both have really flabby bass. (Supposedly the initial Meze run didn’t. But since they changed the pads, they’ve suffered from this problem. Read Tyll’s analysis of the early and later pads on Innerfidelity.) The MSR7s sounded thin to my ears and the build quality felt cheap. The Aeons are nicely built, but the ear pads are odd, and I found the sound to be just so-so for the price. It’s really hard to find good closed-back headphones! The NAD HP50, which Mich reviewed here, remain a great pair, and well under your budget. I also think Monoprice’s M565C are underrated (better price to performance for a closed planar than the Aeons, IMO), and they’re easy to try yourself given Monprice’s return policy. (I still own both.) To to get to really excellent closed cans, you probably need to exceed your price range, but ZMF Atticus and Eikon can be had used near the top of your range, and both will readily exceed the sound and build quality of anything mentioned above.
  10. KEF Ref 1 with an SVS 12” subwoofer rounding out the bottom, calibrated for a flat response in the listening room. Most of my listening is done on this system. But I try to check my column’s conclusions with common headphones, like Focal Clear, since more people are likely to own them, and headphones eliminate more variables. The slightly overdone bass is a small issue with the MoFi SACD, which I still think is a great choice, as the column makes clear. Once I’ve narrowed down the choices to a few, little differences end up being decisive. But I wouldn’t say that someone with the MoFi who doesn’t feel like buying another copy of What’s Going On should think they’re missing out on a dramatically improved experience by not owning the HiRes download.
  11. I should note that I listened to all of the versions on my speaker setup (which includes a 12” SVS subwoofer), too. The bass problem with “Mercy Mercy Me” is worse in speaker setups. Listening with a bright-leaning headphone, like the HD800S, mitigates it, though.
  12. That's one of my all-time favorites and is definitely on my list for future TBVOs!
  13. Nearly 50 years ago, Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On, an album that was not only an undeniable artistic leap forward for Gaye, but also a revolutionary statement of political agency and artistic freedom (especially for a Motown artist). Like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, or Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, What’s Going On is a singular, genre-defying expression of musical auteurship. For the first time in his career, Gaye wrote or co-wrote every song. Blending pop, soul, jazz, and funk, Gaye created a flowing, interconnected suite of music that told the story of a black serviceman – loosely based on Gaye’s own brother, Frankie – coming back from Vietnam only to discover his city and country riven with segregation, poverty, and pollution. Critically acclaimed and commercially successful at the time of its May 1971 release, What’s Going On has only gained in stature since. When Rolling Stone asked “271 artists, producers, industry executives and journalists to pick the greatest albums of all time” in 2003, What’s Going On landed at number six, making it the only album by an African American artist to crack the top ten. This combination of consumer love and critical acclaim has led to a dizzying array of What’s Going On reissues, remasters, and anniversary editions, making the album a perfect candidate for the second installment of TBVO. Unlike the album analyzed in the first TBVO, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, What’s Going On is a clear and dynamic recording that ranks closer to the best-sounding albums of 1971 (Tapestry, Who’s Next, Every Picture Tells a Story, Blue) than the worst (Percy, Songs of Love and Hate, Byrdmaniax, High Time). And whereas Surrealistic Pillow suffered from a dearth of quality masterings, the digital offerings of What’s Going On are closer to an embarrassment of riches (albeit with a few sonic clunkers sprinkled in). But What’s Going On almost became the sonic classic that never was. By the end of the 1960s, Marvin Gaye was coming off a series of hits that had exposed the flaws in Motown head Berry Gordy’s charts-focused “Quality Control” system. Gaye had been one of the first Motown artists to record the Norman Whitfield-Barrett Strong classic, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” But to the consternation of Gaye and Whitfield, who produced the track, Gaye’s smoldering, paranoid rendition was rejected by Quality Control. Whitfield cut a new, more upbeat arrangement of the song with Gladys Knight & the Pips, and it shot to number one on the R&B charts and number two on the pop charts. Whitfield kept pushing for the release of the version he recorded with Gaye, which he felt could be an even bigger hit. Finally, Gordy relented, allowing it to be released not as a single, but as filler on Gaye’s 1967 album, In the Groove. Deejays started playing Gaye’s “Grapevine,” however, and it shot to number one on the pop and R&B charts, staying there for seven weeks, and becoming Motown’s biggest seller to date. Even with the success of “Grapevine,” Gaye faced the same resistance from Motown with “Baby I’m for Real,” a song he wrote and produced for the Originals. Quality Control panned the track, preferring to put out the insipid “Green Grow the Lilacs” as a single instead. “Lilacs” promptly flopped. But the Originals convinced a disc jockey at Detroit’s WCHB to play “Baby I’m for Real.” It became a smash in Detroit, then went national, reaching number one on the R&B charts and number 14 on the pop charts. Though Gaye had proved Quality Control wrong twice, Gordy had little desire to indulge the political turn Marvin would take with “What’s Going On.” By the time the 1970s began, Marvin was neither emotionally nor intellectually inclined to continue churning out the love songs that had made him the “Prince of Motown” and the label’s bona fide sex symbol. In October 1967, Tami Terrell – Gaye’s duet partner for hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” – collapsed into his arms during a performance in Virginia. Terrell was diagnosed with a brain tumor and would pass away in March 1970 after eight unsuccessful surgeries. Terrell’s death sent Gaye into a deep depression, one that was worsened by the death and destruction Marvin saw on the news and read about in Frankie’s letters. “In 1969 or 1970, I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say,” Gaye would later say. “I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.” In one of the many instances of serendipity that would shape What’s Going On, it just so happened that another Motown artist, the Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson, was seeking a home for a song-in-process that explicitly asked listeners to “take a look at what was happening in the world.” Inspiration had struck Benson during a 1969 Four Tops tour stop in San Francisco, where he witnessed police clashing with Berkeley students over the fate of “People’s Park.” “They had Haight-Ashbury then,” Benson told Ben Edmonds, “all the kids up there with the long hair and everything. The police was beatin’ on them, but they weren’t bothering anybody. I saw this, and I started wondering what the fuck was going on. What is happening here? One question leads to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets here? And so on.” Despite his enthusiasm, Benson’s fellow Tops weren’t interested in the tune. Benson then offered it to Joan Baez when the two met during a Top of the Pops filming. According to Benson, Baez seemed interested, but the collaboration never came to fruition. It was then that Benson took his song to Gaye, who would ultimately receive one-third of the songwriting credit for “What’s Going On,” along with Benson and Motown songwriter Al Cleveland. But just how much of a hand Gaye had in writing “What’s Going On” is still unclear. Detroit Lions running back Mel Farr claims that Gaye came up with the song’s title after a round of golf with Farr and fellow Lion Lem Barney. “We went back over Marvin’s house on Outer Drive,” Farr told Gaye’s biographer David Ritz. “We’d hit the ball especially good that day and we were all feeling good, sitting around and kibitzing, when I said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ Marvin said, ‘You know, that’d be a hip title for a song. I think I’ll write it for the Originals.’ He started fooling at the piano and when we dropped by to see him the next day he was still fooling with it.” But according to another version of the story, Benson came up with the title and hook for “What’s Going On” while driving along Lake Michigan. Regardless of the specifics, Benson says that Gaye earned his third of the writing credits by finishing and reshaping the song that Benson had begun devising back in Berkeley. “Marvin Definitely put the finishing touches on it,” Benson explained to Edmonds in an interview for the latter’s excellent book on the album. “He added lyrics, and he added some spice to the melody. He fine-tuned the tune, in other words. He added different colors to it. He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song.” In “fine-tuning” “What’s Going On,” which Gaye would produce himself, Marvin pulled from a diverse set of influences, including the aforementioned Miles Davis and mellow singer-songwriter James Taylor. Bitches Brew and Sweet Baby James had been released just a few months before Gaye went into the studio on June 1, 1970, to begin work on “What’s Going On.” The former moved Gaye to adopt a looser, jazzier feel to the instrumentation for “What’s Going On,” while the latter convinced him to adopt a softer, more conversational singing style. In yet another of the moments of serendipity that would shape the “What’s Going On” single and the album that followed, Gaye rolled tape on alto saxophonist Eli Fontaine’s warmups. When Gaye heard Fontaine play the lick that opens “What’s Going On,” he knew he had what we wanted and told Fontaine that his work was done. When Fontaine protested that he was just goofing around and wanted to do a proper take, Gaye replied “Well you goof exquisitely” and sent the saxophonist home. Gaye’s unique layered vocals on “What’s Going On” were also the result of an accident. Whereas doubling the same vocal (often to cover up imperfections) was commonplace, each of Marvin’s multi-tracked vocals on “What’s Going On” represent a distinct delivery, creating the effect of Gaye duetting with himself. “That double lead voice was a mistake on my part,” engineer Ken Sands told Edmonds. “Marvin had cut two lead vocals and wanted me to prepare a tape with the rhythm track up the middle and each of his vocals on separate tracks so he could compare them. Once I played that two-track on a mono machine, and he heard both voices at the same time.” (As with other parts of the What’s Going On story, though, the details of how Marvin came to hear both vocals at once is debated. According to Sands’s fellow engineer Bob Olhsson, “A couple of us think we were the first who Marvin asked to play the different tracks at once.”) However it came about, the technique allowed Gaye to put his “three voices” – “a very rough voice, a falsetto, and my natural and smooth mid-range,” as he explained to one interviewer – into both tension and conversation with one another. It became Gaye’s signature sound, not only on What’s Going On, but also throughout the rest of his career. But when Gaye turned the “What’s Going On” single in to Motown, Berry Gordy reportedly told Motown’s VP of sales, Barney Ales, “This is the worst record I’ve ever heard.” “Berry just didn’t feel that it was the material that reflected Motown,” Motown’s Joe Schaffner has explained. “It wasn’t universal enough. It was a ghetto thing. It was very political at a time that Berry was promoting American music – music that sounded good, that everyone could dance to and appreciate and had no real message.” As musicologist Mark Clague has noted, however, the notion that “What’s Going On” would have been unprecedentedly political for Motown is largely a myth. While overtly political songs had not predominated among the label’s releases, they’d been a part of Motown since at least 1961. Moreover, some nominally apolitical songs, like “Dancing in the Street,” took on a radical political valence once they were already out in the marketplace. By 1970, Motown was becoming more, not less, political. In the six months before Gaye presented “What’s Going On” to the label, Motown released Martha and the Vandellas’ “I Should Be Proud,” the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” and Edwin Starr’s “War.” It’s possible, then, that Gordy wasn’t so much opposed to “message songs” as to the fact that Gaye, specifically, wanted to release a political single, given his status as Motown’s male heartthrob. Indeed, Gordy has admitted as much himself: “I said, ‘Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career? Why do you want to put out a song about the Vietnam War, police brutality and all of these things? You've got all these great love songs. You’re the hottest artist, the sex symbol of the sixties and seventies.’” Part of the opposition to “What’s Going On” also seemingly had to do with with the song’s jazz-inflected style. Harry Balk – who’d been hired by Motown to oversee the label’s foray into the white rock market, Rare Earth Records – was one of the song’s few fans at the label. When he tried to persuade Gordy to put it out, the label head responded by saying, “Ah, that Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting, it’s old.” Indeed, according to Balk, almost no one at the label liked it. “I played it for the hot producers – Norman Whitfield, Hank Cosby, Frank Wilson – and got nothing but negative opinions,” Balk told Edmonds. “The only one that was really knocked out with it, the only one, was Stevie Wonder.” Whatever the reason for Motown’s refusal to release “What’s Going On,” Gaye wasn’t having it. He went on a de-facto strike in response, vowing not to turn over any more material to Motown until Gordy relented and put out “What’s Going On.” Gaye’s strike worked. Desperate for a new Gaye release, the label relented and put out the “What’s Going On” single on January 21, 1971, six months after most of the sessions for the song had been completed. According to some accounts, Gordy – who’d been spending most of his time in Los Angeles by the early-1970s – wasn’t consulted before the Detroit Motown office decided to release “What’s Going On.” “Berry went crazy when he found out we’d released ‘What’s Going On,’” according to Ales. “He didn’t like the record at all.” But when the single rocketed to number two on the pop charts and number three on the R&B charts, Berry changed his mind. Suddenly, Gordy wanted a whole album from Gaye. With only “What’s Going On” and B-side “God Is Love” completed and pieces of a few other songs, Gaye went on a songwriting binge that would turn the powerful, yet amorphous, protest of “What’s Going On” into the opening track of a suite of songs about a returning Vietnam veteran confronting an unjust and decaying United States. “I felt that I had to write about Vietnam, because the brutality was so extreme. I knew that this record could in no way be light-hearted,” Gaye said later. “It had to be a concept album. At first I fought against that notion because the concept I had of America back then was so dark. The concept was depressing and, to be honest, I was seriously depressed.” In crafting the remaining songs for What’s Going On, Gaye drew upon both his own frustrations with the state of domestic politics and what Frankie had told Marvin of his experiences overseas. “I cried a lot during our talks,” Frankie told Edmonds. “War is hell, believe me. The value of life is unbelievably low. Nothing you’ve ever experienced can prepare you for the terror.” The album’s most literal expression of Marvin’s conversations with Frankie took the form of “What’s Happening Brother,” the album’s second track (following opener “What’s Going On”). With “What’s Happening Brother,” Gaye “link[ed] foreign hostility…to domestic suffering,” as scholar Michael Eric Dyson has written. “What’s Happening Brother” is a poignant indictment of a system that would both traumatize a solder by sending him to Vietnam (“War is hell, when will it end?”) and offer him few opportunities to rebuild his life when he returns home (“Can’t find no work, can’t find no job my friend / Money is tighter than it’s ever been”). In crafting the words to “What’s Happening Brother,” Gaye turned to an unlikely collaborator. James Nyx was the elevator operator at Motown’s Woodward Avenue building in Detroit, but he was also an aspiring lyricist that few at the company took seriously. Instead of ignoring Nyx’s ambitions like most of his Motown brethren, Gaye turned to Nyx for help with “What’s Happening Brother,” “God Is Love,” and the album’s standout final cut, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” “Marvin had a good tune [for ‘Inner City Blues’], sort of blues-like, but he didn’t have any words for it,” Nyx remembered. “We started putting some stuff in there about how rough things were around town.” The memorable opening couplet Gaye and Nyx devised (“Rockets, moon shots / Spend it on the have-nots”) echoed the sentiments of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” in contrasting the seemingly limitless government funding available for the military and space program with the country’s paltry safety net. By the end of the song Gaye and Nyx had addressed everything from taxes and inflation to police brutality and the Vietnam draft. In between “What’s Happening Brother” and “Inner City Blues,” Gaye placed songs exploring drug addiction (“Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)”), environmental degradation (“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”), and economic inequality (“Right On”). With “God Is Love” and “Wholy Holy,” Gaye brought the spiritual subcurrent that would run throughout What’s Going On to the surface. By weaving this naked spirituality between songs recounting more earthly concerns, Gaye “made it clear that social justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public,” as Dyson put it. Marvin put these new songs to tape (and heavily reworked both “What’s Going On” and “God Is Love”) in a flurry of studio sessions between March 17th and March 30th. Once again acting as his own producer, Marvin was determined to made What’s Going On sound different from other Motown releases. Rather than having the drums drive the songs, as with most Motown releases, Gaye brought in Eddie Brown, Earl DeRouen, and Bobbye Hall on bongos and congas, Jack Ashford on tambourine and wood block, and Jack Brokensha on vibes. Together, their polyrhythmic tapestry floats above jazz drummer Chet Forest’s kit, ensuring that What’s Going On’s rhythmic foundation is closer to the heavens than the earth (at least until the startling-yet-powerful opening thumps of “Inner City Blues”). Bassists Bob Babbit and James Jamerson reinforce the album’s ethereal vibe with their sinuous basslines, which seem to dart and weave through the songs. And instead of using all of Motown’s legendary “Funk Brothers” on the sessions, Gaye combined some of the Funk Brothers with outside musicians. After seeing him perform in a Detroit night club, Gaye asked tenor saxophonist “Wild Bill” Moore to improvise across the album’s tracks, and Moore’s horn became one of the album’s signature sounds, most memorably on “Mercy Mercy Me.” Gaye also asked teenaged flautist Dayna Hartwick – who had performed on songs like the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” but who wasn’t a jazz flautist – to play over the funky “Right On.” Though Hartwick was apprehensive, her soaring flute is one of the albums sonic highlights. The final touch to the album came in the form of a score by Motown arranger David Van De Pitte. Gaye provided Van De Pitte with general directions about how he wanted strings to sound, but gave the arranger a wider berth than most artists. The result was a subtle, flowing score that helped give the album a sonic unity that mirrored its conceptual coherence. “The strings really completed the character of the whole thing,” Ohlsson, who engineered the string sessions, told Edmonds. “Dave was out in the studio conducting. Marvin came into the booth and sat down. Halfway through the first run-through, I saw that his eyes were a little moist. Soon the tears were streaming down. I think that was the first moment that he understood how well Van De Pitte had captured the musical thoughts in his head, and that this album was really going to be everything he’d wanted it to be.” Gaye mixed the album with Steve Smith in Detroit on April 5th, then left for Los Angeles, where he was scheduled to shoot the forgettable grindhouse revenge flick “Chrome and Hot Leather.” But while Gaye was in California he decided that he wasn’t done with the album and had Motown fly the tapes to L.A., where he added more overdubs and remixed the album with Lawrence Miles at Motown’s “Hitsville West” studios on May 6th. Less than three weeks later, on May 21, 1971, What’s Going On would be in stores. Even its packaging would be unique for Motown. Whereas most of the label’s packaging was bare bones and the studio musicians were anonymous, What’s Going On’s stylish gatefold sleeve included complete lyrics and credited Van De Pette, the “Funk Brothers,” and the rest of the studio musicians. What’s Going On few off of the shelves, reaching number one on the R&B albums charts, number six on the pop albums charts, and becoming Motown’s best-selling album to date. The first digital release of What’s Going On occurred in 1986. Since then, it’s been subjected to numerous remasterings and reissues. Not surprisingly, given What’s Going On’s lofty status, there’s been heated debate on the interwebs regarding the best-sounding mastering of the album. There are at least eight digital masterings of What’s Going On. The first is the John Matousek mastering from the mid-1980s, which is most often (though not always) found on the “Motown Compact Classic” CD releases. The second is another mid-1980s mastering, this time by Tom Baker, found on the What’s Going On/Let’s Get It On twofer. The third is a Scooby-Doo mastering, in that its source is a mystery. It’s found on a 1993 CD release with a “530 022-2 03 +” matrix. (Confusingly, editions of the same CD with a “5300222/H 01” matrix have the Matousek mastering.) But despite the mystery surrounding this mastering, it’s fairly common. The fourth mastering was done by Gavin Lurssen in the early-1990s for the “Motown Master Series” and has been reissued (sometimes with slight volume differences) several times since. The fifth is the first mastering by Kevin Reeves – done at 24/96 resolution at Universal Mastering Studios-East in the early-2000s – found on the two-CD “Deluxe” edition of the album, as well as a few single-disc releases. The sixth is the mid-2000s Mobile Fidelity DSD mastering done by Rob LoVerde and released as a 2008 MoFi SACD (as well as, apparently, two Japanese SACD releases.) The seventh is an anonymous mastering – billed as an “HR cutting from the DSD master which was newly flat transferred from US original analogue master tapes in 2013” – found on several Japanese SHM CD releases. The eighth is a second Kevin Reeves mastering, done in the early 2010s at Sterling Sound NYC and advertised as “using the original masters from the Motown Records vault...played on a modified Studer A820 with Wolke Butterfly heads and converted to digital at 192khz/24bit resolution using the DCS 904 converter and...the most direct signal path[.]” This mastering is used for the 2012 high-resolution downloads of the album and the Blu-Ray of the album released a year later. Finally, there’s what might be another Kevin Reeves mastering on the 2011 “40th Anniversary Super Deluxe” edition of the album. According to the booklet, this mastering was done at Universal Mastering Studios-East, like the 2002 “Deluxe” release. However, it sounds nothing like the 2002 “Deluxe” release and instead more closely resembles a heavily compressed version of Reeve’s high-resolution transfer, which was supposedly done at Sterling Sound NYC. More so than many other classic albums, a flat transfer of the What’s Going On master tape should be the ideal mastering. According to Ohlsson, “In the Detroit era at Motown we kept mixing until the mix could go across virtually unprocessed in mastering.” “If a flat transfer didn’t sound good,” Olhsson told me in an interview, “we did another mix.” However, there’s no doubt that many of the CDs weren’t a flat transfer, based on the often wildly divergent sonics of the various masterings. Let’s wade into this morass of masterings by crossing off a few of the weakest links. The first to get thrown out is the Matousek “Compact Classic” mastering. While the Matousek masterings has its fans, it’s far too bass shy for an album that showcases the masterful work of Funk Brothers Babbitt and Jamerson. For example, take a look at a comparison of “Inner City Blues” from the “Compact Classic” (red line) and MoFi (purple line) releases using Har-Bal mastering software1: While (as we’ll see) the MoFi has the most low end of any What’s Going On remaster, the “Compact Classic” release has anemic bass even when compared to another relatively bass-light mastering, as the comparison of the “Right On” from the “Compact Classic” (red line) and the mystery 1993 mastering (pink line) shows: Some fans of the Matousek mastering have argued that it sounds the same as the master tape, which is supposedly also bass-shy. However, various sources over the years have suggested that both the Baker and Matousek masterings were sourced from EQ’d tape copies, and rips of early vinyl pressings possess more bass than that found on the Matousek CD. The Baker mastering also was allegedly sourced from EQ’d second- or third-generation master tapes. In terms of frequency balance, the Baker mastering has slightly more low end than the Matousek, but is otherwise identical, as a Har-Bal graph of “Inner City Blues” from from each version (Matousek in red, Baker in orange) reveals: Compared to other masterings, however, the Baker is still too bright, a fact that a comparison of Baker’s mastering (orange) and Reeve’s HiRes mastering (blue), which isn’t even the most bass-focused mastering, makes clear: Critical listening bears out the Baker mastering’s superior low-end, relative to the Matousek mastering. But it also reveals more tape hiss and a lack of clarity relative to other masterings, a sonic reality that perhaps supports the idea that it’s sourced from a tape copy. As a result, we can cross the Baker mastering off of our list, too. The next version that can be discarded easily is the Lurssen “Motown Master Series” mastering. Whether measured by crest factor DR score or R128 dynamic range, the Lurssen mastering is squashed, receiving the lowest or second lowest scores on both metrics of any What’s Going On mastering. A waveform2 comparison of “What’s Going On” from the Lurssen (green waveform) mastering against the HiRes download (blue waveform) makes the difference clear: (click on image to see the animated comparison) Another mastering that can be junked due to squashed dynamics is the “40th Anniversary Super Deluxe” edition. While the track times indicate that this edition could be sourced from the same digital transfer used for the HiRes download, the “Super Deluxe” mastering sounds brighter and harsher and frequency comparisons bear this out. It’s possible that its brightness is the result of different EQ choices, or that the songs are so radically compressed that it meaningfully affects the timbre of the songs. In either case, we can safely dismiss the “Super Deluxe” mastering, which is an even worse “Loudness War” offender than the aforementioned Lurssen mastering, as a comparison of “What’s Going On” from the Lurssen (green waveform) mastering and the “Super Deluxe” mastering (black waveform) shows clearly: (click on image to see the animated comparison) Unfortunately, in tossing out the “Super Deluxe” edition of What’s Going On due to its atrocious level of compression, we’re also tossing out three versions of Gaye’s excellent (and forgotten) commentary on the ‘72 presidential election, “You’re the Man,” which was released as a single in April 1972. While there’s little else to recommend the “Super Deluxe” edition, those bonus cuts alone make it worth tracking down for serious Gaye fans. The final mastering that we can reject quickly is the 2013 Japanese “DSD master” edition. While some might describe it as “warm,” the Japanese transfer significantly rolls off What’s Going On’s top end, as these frequency graphs of “Right On” (“Deluxe” in yellow, Japanese in grey) from Har-Bal demonstrate: The difference is even more apparent in listening tests, where the Japanese edition lacks “air.”3 This winnowing down leaves us with four masterings: 1) the 1993 mystery mastering with the “530 022-2 03 +” matrix, 2) the early-2000s Kevin Reeves mastering found on the 2CD “Deluxe” editions, 3) the mid-2000s Mobile Fidelity mastering by Rob LoVerde, and 4) the early-2010s Reeves mastering used for the 2012 HiRes download and the 2013 Blu-Ray release. Each of the remaining four has its virtues and arguably any of them is a solid choice for someone looking for a great mastering of What’s Going On. Unlike some of the already-rejected masterings, each has sufficient dynamic range: 1993: DR 11, R128 7.1 dB Deluxe (excluding bonus tracks): DR 10, R128 7.5 dB MoFi: DR 11, R128 6.7 dB HiRes (excluding bonus tracks): DR13, R128 5.9 dB In my view, the weakest link of the bunch is the 1993 mystery mastering, which comes across as just a little too bright relative to the other masterings. On certain songs (such as “Mercy Mercy Me”) this brightness works. On others (such as the title track) it results in unnecessary sibilance on the vocals. Compare “Right On” from the 1993 release (pink) and the MoFi release (purple): In purely sonic terms, the second weakest is probably the Reeve’s mastering on the “Deluxe” edition. On many tracks, it’s only very slightly less bright than the 1993 mastering, as this graph of “Inner City Blues” from the 1993 release (pink) and “Deluxe” (yellow) shows: However, the bonus tracks on the 2CD “Deluxe” edition make it worth owning. It’s the only digital release to feature the original “Detroit Mix” of the album, and it also includes Gaye’s long-awaited return to the stage on D.C.’s “Marvin Gaye Day” at the Kennedy Center on May 1, 1972, which features a captivating performance of What’s Going On (despite the fact that a terrified – and stoned – Gaye accidentally played the album out of order). To top it off, the “Deluxe” edition also includes the single versions of “What’s Going On” and “God Is Love,” as well as the B-side to the “Mercy Mercy Me” single, “Sad Tomorrows.” Putting aside bonus content, however, that leaves LoVerde’s MoFi SACD mastering and Reeve’s HiRes mastering to fight it out for the TBVO crown. Both are clean, dynamic masterings. The main difference between the two is the bass, with the MoFi release (purple line) consistently featuring more bass energy than the HiRes release (blue line), as the comparisons of “Right On” (top) and “Inner City Blues” (bottom) demonstrate: While Reeves’s HiRes mastering sounds a touch smoother and sweeter up top, MoFi’s extra bass works well on some tracks. Unfortunately, it can sound bloated on others, particularly “Mercy Mercy Me,” a song that consistently sounds better on masterings with more high end, even when listening on brighter gear. Ultimately, Reeves’s HiRes mastering wins the TBVO crown by the slightest margin. Not only does it avoid the bass bloat on songs like “Mercy Mercy Me,” it also includes “Sad Tomorrows” and the single mixes of “What’s Going On” and “God Is Love” as bonus tracks. Fans would do well with either the HiRes or MoFi version, however, and anyone who prefers a CD-compatible release to a digital download shouldn’t hesitate to pick up the MoFo SACD. (Indeed, owners of bass-light systems – bookshelf speakers without subwoofers, bright headphones, etc. – might ultimately prefer the MoFi mastering.) Regardless of which edition you choose, pick one up and listen closely. The concerns that motivated Gaye to create What’s Going On are more relevant than ever. 1. These are Har-Bal’s “Average Power” graphs. 2. Audacity was used for waveforms. 3. For the subjective analyses, all editions were ripped with XLD and played Audirvana Plus. The DAC/Amp combo was a Schiit Yggdrasil/Ragnarok stack. Most critical listening was done on a diverse set of headphones: NAD HP50, Sennheiser/Massdrop HD6XX, and Focal Clear. About the Author Josh 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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