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About Me

  1. As suggested by the title, this is no substitute to much admired @Josh Mound ‘s TBVO. However, it’s a follow-up to comments/questions I appended to TBVO: Can we deduct the in-room response (and/or “ear”) of praised mastering engineers from comparisons? Isn’t our “in room” response (“” meant to include headphones) biasing best version into best fit? TBVO thoroughness can’t be beat and I don’t pretend I address source tape quality, transfer (machine, baking, ADC, etc) nor do I address dynamics, levels, compression, etc, I don’t even compare peaks while the attached comparison goes to show than peak treatments can display bigger differences than averaged power comparisons.
  2. I recently published my twofer TBVO on Cream's Wheels of Fire and Goodbye, as well as an update on my Steely Dan Aja TBVO. The former included audio samples of Goodbye, but not Wheels of Fire, while the latter didn't include any samples. For Wheels of Fire, here are edited clips of "Politician" using my level-matched files: Drake: Politician (Drake).wav Hoffman: Politician (Hoffman).wav 24/192 Download: Politician (Hi-Res).wav For Aja, are edited clips of "Deacon Blues" using my level-matched files: Hoffman: Deacon Blues (Hoffman).wav Brown: Deacon Blues (Brown).wav Grundman: Deacon Blues (Grundman).wav Let me know what you hear and think. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  3. Particularly with the growing popularity of surround sound and immersive audio, it’s easy to forget that two-channel stereophonic sound is itself a relatively recent invention. As any Beatles or Beach Boys fan can attest, many of the greatest albums of the 1960s were conceived of as monophonic releases. Stereo mixes, if they were pursued at all, were an afterthought. That’s because in the early-1960s, mass ownership of record players was an even more recent development. Prior to the Great Depression, the nascent record industry mostly catered to relatively well-off Americans, since few consumers even high-income developed countries like the United States could afford such a luxury. The industry didn’t make it easy on consumers, either. It remained hopelessly at war with itself, pushing both Thomas Edison’s cylinders and Emile Berliner’s discs on a confused public. Even after Berliner’s format won out, the industry remained embroiled in the “war of the speeds” until the 1950s. It took the adoption of the modern long-playing record and the post-WWII economic boom to solidify the recording industry’s place in modern American culture. But just as middle-class consumers were beginning to adopt mono record players, the industry introduced stereo recordings. This transition was a tough sell. The industry was asking consumers to chuck out what, for many, was a still-new major purchase. The fact that console-type players — which combined a turntable, amplifier, and speaker into one stylish cabinet — were a consumer favorite made the industry’s task even harder. Besides early audiophiles, who’d want to invest in a whole new three-component system, especially when it would be a larger eyesore than a single console? Ultimately, the industry needed to work hard to sell the benefits of stereo to a skeptical public that was perfectly content with mono. This was no easy task. It was made even more difficult because radio stations had no incentive to begin broadcasting in stereo when most listeners were still using a single speaker. Thus, even as the industry began marketing more and more albums in stereo in the 1960s, it had to account for the fact that many radio stations and consumers would be listening in mono. The best response to this conflict was simply mixing and releasing the same album in both mono and stereo. But this meant that labels had to pay for two mixes and two pressings. Even as the early postwar era’s steep top marginal tax rates, high union density, and modest executive compensation norms kept corporations’ profits-at-all-costs impulses in check (at least relative to today), the temptation to cut corners was overpowering. For an industry caught between a mono past and a stereo future, the Holzer Audio Engineering-Compatible Stereo Generator (Haeco-CSG) system was just such a shortcut. It promised to let labels avoid the costly process of mixing and releasing each album in both mono and stereo. By using Haeco-CSG, they could instead release one processed stereo album, which would be playable in mono, too. Sort of. You see, when a stereo album is played in mono, it messes with the mix. Depending on the phase relationships and panning of each sonic element, when a stereo mix is folded-down to mono, some sounds will get boosted while others will disappear. Haeco-CSG claimed to solve this by shifting the phase of one channel. The recommended setting was to shift the right channel’s phase by 90 degrees. However, the supposed solution of Haeco-CSG actually created its own problems. Not only did it not fully eliminate the cancellation and buildup issues of folding a stereo mix down to mono, but it also made the stereo mix sound off. Subjectively, for example, center-panned vocals on a CSG-processed album tend to sound like the singer is standing almost perpendicular to the listener, rather than facing them. The mercifully brief peak of Haeco-CSG occurred in the late-1960s. Unfortunately, one of the albums subjected to processing was Cream’s Wheels of Fire, one of the two Cream albums covered in my recent TBVO. In some cases, CSG-processing was not applied until the mastering stage, meaning that stereo master is unaffected. In other cases, including Wheels of Fire, it was applied to the stereo master. Thankfully, as I wrote in my TBVO, there’s a way to (mostly) undo the effects of CSG processing. I’m indebted to several other online audiophiles who’ve provided instructions for this process. I’ve mostly followed Steve Hoffman Forum member Alexlotl’s instructions, which can be found here. However, in the years since his 2019 post, several links he provides have died. While it’s far from an exact science, I also came to a slightly different conclusion about the best settings for this process. So how does undoing Haeco-CSG work? Well, since the main upshot of Haeco-CSG processing was shifting the phase of one channel by 90 degrees, we just have to shift them by another 90 degrees to return them to their original phase relationship. It’s not quite that simple, of course. I’ll explain why later. But before I explain the processing of (sorta-kinda) undoing Haeco-CSG, I want to note two things. The first is that it’s possible to do what I’m about to describe with other software, such as iZotope RX and Adobe Audition. Since both of those are fairly pricey, though, I’m going to describe a free alternative. (For those who have RX, though, it’s as simple as using the Phase tool.) One oddity with this free alternative, however, is that doing the same process on the same file two separate times produces resulting files that do not null with @pkane’s superb DeltaWave. Why not? I have no idea. It sounds great, and it almost nulls. But it doesn’t. Using RX twice, on the other hand, produces files that null in DeltaWave. Does that mean the Audacity+PhaseBug option is worse? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem to matter practically. Indeed, the resulting files from Audacity+PhaseBug and iZotopeRX sound identical to me. (If anyone knows why files produced with Audacity+PhaseBug aren’t bit-identical, I’d love to know.) The second is that the free version of this process needs to be done on Windows. It is possible, though, to do it on a Mac using CrossOver. Just be sure to install both the software and the plugin described below into the same “bottle.” To begin, we need an old version Audacity. Specifically, we need version 2.1.3. Old versions of Audacity, including the one we need, can be found on Fosshub. (Here’s a direct link to download 2.1.3 for Windows.) After that, we need to install the PhaseBug plugin. This software no longer exists. Fortunately, Archive.org’s Wayback Machine scraped it. (Here’s a direct link to download it.) If you encounter any issues installing the plugin, consult the instructions on Audacity’s site. Most likely, the plugin is just in the wrong folder. It’s also possible that you need to activate PhaseBug in Audacity. Both fixes are described at the link above. Once both Audacity 2.1.3 and PhaseBug are installed, you need to load a rip of one of the digital versions of Wheels of Fire with Haeco-CSG processing. As noted in my TBVO, only the (not great sounding) 2010 Japanese SACD lacks it. So chances are the version you have is encoded with Haeco-CSG. From your Wheels of Fire rip, you’ll need the songs: 1) White Room 3) Passing the Time 6) Politician 7) Those Where the Days 8) Born Under a Bad Sign 9) Deserted Cities of the Heart If your copy also has the “Anyone for Tennis” bonus track, that’s Haeco-CSG, too. Song by song, load each track into Audacity. Select the entire track. Go to Effect -> PhaseBug. Note that both the normal phase bug and the mono version are displayed. (Obviously, use the non-mono version.) Here’s what you’ll see: As the instructions note, you can drag the yellow bubble to change the phase on the left channel and the right bubble to change the phase on the right channel. Once you’ve adjusted each channel to the desired degree, you click Apply. The file on your screen is now “de-CSG’d.” From there go to File -> Export Audio, and export is as the lossless format of your choice. Most guides suggest using -90 degrees on the Right channel, given CSG’s recommended setting of shifting the Right channel by 90 degrees. However, changing the phase does slightly change the channel balance — not necessarily audibly, but enough to push some spikes into clipping. Given that mastering engineers were balancing the channels with CSG applied, my assumption was that either -45L and +45R or +45L and -45R would do the best job of avoiding clipping. However, after trying four combinations (-90R, +90L, -45L/+45R, and +45L/-45R) on “White Room” from both the Drake mastering and the 24/192 mastering, then running the resulting files through Apple’s afclip tool, I found that +90 on the Left channel minimized clipping in both instances. Is this definitive proof that across all tracks and all versions +90L is the best setting? Of course not. But at the very least it points to the fact -90R isn’t necessarily the best. The other issue is that, as noted in my TBVO, changing the phase of a track will change its frequency response slightly: Whether this is positive or negative will depend on the mastering. But assuming you’re starting with a good mastering, I suspect the odds are more likely that these effects will be negative. If you decide to “de-CSG” your Wheels of Fire, let me know in the comments what you think about the results. It’s an interesting exercise and definitely has some audible benefits. Yet I’m not sure if the benefits outweigh the costs. Of course, maybe it’s just that the Wheels of Fire I’ve heard for years has had CSG processing, so it sounds “normal” to me. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  4. I'm sorry that it's been several months since my last update. But that's because I can't seem to stop accumulating various degrees and certificates! Prompted, in part, by the widely reported literacy crisis in the U.S., I decided to pursue a literacy specialist degree this year, while still teaching full time and (when I have the chance) writing for Audiophile Style and designing t-shirts. The latter two pastimes are easily the most enjoyable, but for now the former two have consumed most of my time. Given that, I'm thrilled to say that my new twofer TBVO on Cream's Wheels of Fire and Goodbye is up on the main AS page. As promised in that TBVO, I'll have a Club TBVO post up shortly with instructions on how to remove CSG processing from Wheels of Fire for those who are interested in trying. I also just posted an update to my Steely Dan Aja TBVO, prompted by the new Bernie Grundman mastering. I'm calling it an "update," but in many ways this is a completely new TBVO, or at least the analysis portion of it. The Aja TBVO was one of my first, and I think I've gotten a lot better at it since then. So I wanted to do justice to the importance of this album with my update. Soon, I'll also be posting a much shorter update of my Bill Withers Still Bill TBVO in light of the new MFSL SACD. Finally, I have some new(ish) t-shirts, including Cream, Tina Turner, and Tim Buckley ones. I'll make a separate post at some point for those who might be interested in supporting Club TBVO by buying some cool music duds. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  5. Since I started Club TBVO, I've been meaning to write a few posts updating past gear reviews. Seeing an email in my inbox from Moon Audio announcing that the (now discontinued) Matrix X-SABRE Pro MQA is on sale gave me the nudge to write an update on my past DAC reviews. Here, in no particular order, are some updates on previous reviews: I reviewed the Matrix X-SABRE Pro (XSP) back in February of 2020. While my review was clearly positively, at the time I couldn't decide whether I preferred the XSP or my Schiit Yggdrasil A2 (now known as the "OG" Yggy). In that review, I commented that I thought the XSP pulled more detail from the recordings, but that the Yggy offered better timbre. However, in the months after writing that review, I continued to listen to both DACs, and I ultimately came to the conclusion that the XSP is superior. Specifically, I began to notice that the Yggy's lower treble has a certain grain to it. Once I noticed this, it was hard to get past it. The XSP, on the other hand, offers a smooth, clean presentation. For anyone who had experience with early SABRE DACs, the smoothness might come as a surprise. I remember listening to some early SABRE DACs that subjectively sounded thin and harsh. (This was before I'd ever heard the time "SABRE glare.") That's not true of the XSP. Ultimately, I sold the Yggy and kept the XSP. Combined with its beautiful industrial design and Matrix's responsive customer service, the XSP remains one of the best DACs going. At its current closeout price, it's an easy recommendation. Speaking of the Yggdrasil, I eventually picked up one of the "Less is More" (LiM) variants of the Yggy. There's no question in my mind that it's better than the "OG" variant. I hesitate to offer any definitive judgments vis a vis other DACs without undertaking some controlled level-matched listening. But to say my impressions of the LiM are positive would be an understatment. I've debated writing my own review of the LiM, but given that Audiophile Style already has two reviews of the LiM, I don't know if writing my own in the best use of my time (though given my enthusiasm for the LiM it still may happen). Suffice it to say, though, that I agree with @The Computer Audiophile, @JoeWhip, and Schiit's own digital guru Mike Moffat (@baldr). The LiM is the best Yggy of the bunch. (By a wide margin, in my view.) If you're looking for a modern R2R DAC, the LiM Yggy is the way to go. (What can you say about a company where the best variant of their top-of-the-line DAC is also the cheapest!?) Plus, few companies today can top Schiit's customer service and warranty. I reviewed the RME ADI-2 DAC in November of 2019. While I loved all of the RME's tools and features, I was less-than-impressed with its sound quality. I pitted the $1099 AKM-based ADI-2 against two other AKM DACs. The first was the $129 Modi 3, and the second was the $1949 Crane Song Solaris. It didn't take much critical listening to hear that the Solaris was the best of the bunch. Meanwhile, while the RME was better than the Modi 3, the difference wasn't quite dramatic enough to justify the price difference unless one really planned to make sure of all of the RME's bells and whistles. While I didn't hang on to the RME, I was still enamored with its various tools. So when the new SABRE-based ADI-2 was released this year (a change made, in part, due to the AKM factory fire), I took the plunge. After all, the aforementioned Matrix XSP was able the make the recent-generation SABRE chips sing. Could RME do the same? Unfortunately, the clear answer to my ears was "no." The SABRE-based ADI-2 sounded much more like the bad old SABRE DACs than the like the XSP. The treble was thing and brittle, and overall I felt it actually took a sonic step backwards from its AKM-based predecessor. Speaking of the Crane Song Solaris, in September of 2020 I wrote a review pitting it against another professional DAC, the Forssell MDAC-2a. That review was more-or-less a draw. The CliffsNotes version of my conclusion was that the Solaris was more incisive and detail-oriented, while the Forssell was slightly rounder and (for lack of a better word) warmer. Living with both for another year after writing the review, I came to appreciate the Solaris's virtues more and more and found myself listening to the Forssell less and less. To be sure, the Forssell is a great DAC. But I had other options for its style of presentation. The Crane Song, in contrast, offers a level of resolution that's hard to find, even in DACs several times its cost. I sold the Forssell to a fellow audiophile who's thrilled to have the now out-of-production DAC. Meanwhile, I still have the Solaris, and I can't ever envision selling it. Indeed, if I could only keep one DAC -- especially considering price -- the Solaris might be the one.
  6. A few weeks ago, a new Blu-Ray of The Hurting put out by Super Deluxe Edition hit my mailbox. I've ripped it, analyzed it, listened closely, and rendered my verdict in an update to my original TBVO: Spoiler: You're going to want to read (and hear) this one!
  7. A month or so ago, I had the pleasure of talking with Alex of BadDanTakes, the hugely popular Steely Dan-themed Twitter account. BadDanTakes has been central to the recent "Danaissance," so much so that Alex was featured in Rolling Stone. Alex invited me on his podcast to talk about Donal Fagen's The Nightfly, which was the subject of perhaps my favorite TBVO: Along the way, we discussed my TBVO series, why Steely Dan's music is so often used to test speakers and other gear, and why audiophiledom should (and can) be accessible to everyone regardless of budget. The episode was posted today. Please give it a listen and support Alex's endeavors if you can: https://gauchoamigos.buzzsprout.com/2146895/13147320
  8. I can still remember the smell of the Best Buy flier that would come in the Sunday newspaper. Back when the internet was in its infancy, the big box store's advertising circular was the best place to find out about upcoming album releases. For teenage me, that meant alternative and "grunge" CDs. Above all else, it meant Pearl Jam. Vitalogy was released in 1994, when I was 11. It was my first Pearl Jam album, and I was hooked. I quickly picked up the group's previous albums, Ten and Vs., along with every CD single I could get my hands on -- particularly the "Jeremy" single, which included more-than-album-worthy bonus tracks like "Yellow Ledbetter" and "Footsteps." When Pearl Jam's collaborations with Neil Young -- the Mirror Ball album under Young's name and the Merkinball EP under Pearl Jam's name -- came out in 1995, I heard about them from that Best Buy flier. By the release of No Code in 1996, which is still my favorite Pearl Jam album, my dad had the CD waiting for me on the kitchen table when I got home from school. By that time, I'd also started asking my dad to take me to The Record Connection in nearby Niles, Ohio, which had a vast array of bootlegs. He'd look for Van Morrison boots, and I'd peruse the Pearl Jam selection. (At this point in my life, I'd probably be more likely to join him in looking at the Van bootlegs, but back then I didn't quite fully grasp the genius of "Van the Man.") Many of the bootlegs I picked up there -- such as Pearl Jam's 1992 Moore Theater, 1994 Fox Theater, and 1995 Soldier Field shows -- have now been officially released by the band. In 1998, Pearl Jam released its first official live album, Live on Two Legs, and two years later the band began releasing "official bootlegs" for each of its concerts. My dad took me to see Pearl Jam for the first time on August 25, 1998. A piece of that concert made it onto Live on Two Legs, and I made sure to purchase the official bootlegs for the two shows I saw in 2000, along with a handful of others. Then and now, though, there's been a glaring hole in Pearl Jam's slate of live releases. To my mind, Jack Irons was Pearl Jam's best drummer and perhaps the most innovative drummer to come out of the era's alt-rock scene. Irons made a small contribution to Vitalogy and drummed throughout No Code, Mirror Ball/Merkin Ball, and 1998's Yield. However, his time performing live with the band coincided with the group's much-publicized (and, especially in retrospect, righteous) battle with Ticketmaster. In attempting to avoid Ticketmaster-controlled venues, Pearl Jam's touring schedule was relatively sparse during this period, and Irons left the group in early 1998 following a short tour of Australia. This touring era has gone almost wholly undocumented by the band. The aforementioned 1995 Solider Field show was the only official Pearl Jam live release to feature Irons on drums, and -- since that concert occurred well before the recording of No Code or Yield -- it includes only a few songs that Irons played a part in crafting. That all changed last month. But it should've changed a quarter century ago. I vividly recall perusing the Best Buy flier sometime in the spring of 1998 and getting excited about the upcoming August 8 release of Single Video Theory, Mark Pellington's documentary charting the group's rehearsals for the upcoming Yield tour. Even better, Best Buy promised that early purchasers of Single Video Theory would receive Give Way, a nearly-complete CD of the group's March 5, 1998, show in Melbourne, Australia -- one of the last shows Irons would play with the band. The Give Way promotional release never came to fruition, though, disappointing 15-year-old me and countless Pearl Jam fans. Depending on which source you believe, Best Buy allegedly didn't get the band's and/or the label's approval for the promotional release. The Give Way promotion was pulled, and all 50,000 copies of the CD were destroyed. In reality, of course, a few Best Buy employees were sneaky-smart enough to smuggle out some copies of Give Way. For decades, they could be found selling for big bucks on Ebay, and lossless rips reached the interwebs. So if enterprising Pearl Jam fans knew where to look, they've been able to get their hands and ears on Give Way for years. Nonetheless, Give Way existing in hard-to-find, quasi-official limbo was far from ideal. Thankfully, Pearl Jam decided to give it a proper release last month for Record Store Day. Now, Give Way should rank near the top of any Pearl Jam fans' must-listen live releases. As Spin's Jonathan Cohen aptly put it, "Give Way Is The Jack Irons Showcase We Always Needed." While neither version includes any mastering information, having found a bit-perfect rip of the Best Buy (BB) version of Give Way online many years ago, I immediately noticed that the new Record Store Day (RSD) version sounded markedly different. So which one is better? Let's start by taking a peek at the let’s take a look at dynamic range of each version, measured by both R128 dynamic range and crest factor DR score: The first thing to note is that the track lengths vary significantly on certain songs. That's because the 1998 BB version and the 2023 RSD version place banter and Pearl Jam's famous between-song "easter egg" riffs in different spots, with the 1998 release tending to place them at the beginning of tracks and the 2023 release tending to place them after tracks. So the best songs to look at when comparing these two releases' respective dynamic range are ones that retain roughly the same track length, such as "Brain of J," "In My Tree," and "Immortality." Those tracks consistently point to the 1998 BB version of Give Way having a slight edge on dynamic range by both measures. Is this difference in dynamic range obvious visually? For that, let's take a peek at a selection of songs in Audacity. The 1998 BB version is on top in blue, while the 2023 RSD version is at the bottom in red. We can see from these (non-level matched) waveforms that the 2023 RSD version of Give Way is ever-so-slightly more compressed. However, I certainly wouldn't classify these differences as deal-breakers. Before looking at each version's frequency balance in Har-Bal, I was curious about their spectra and true bit depths. For that, I popped two tracks from each version into MusicScope (RIP): We can see that both are true 16-bit recordings. The 1998 BB version has slightly more frequency extension than the 2023 RSD version. But, like the dynamic range data, this is at most a slight point in its favor, since the 2023 RSD version extends to 20 kHz. Now let's take a look at the frequency balance of the two versions in Har-Bal. In order facilitate accurate comparisons, the files for these graphs were level-matched. Additionally, since I didn't want track mark differences to limit my song choices, I edited several of the sampled songs down to the same length, so that empty space, banter, and the aforementioned "easter egg" riffs didn't skew the graphs. The EQ differences between the two versions are remarkably consistent across the sampled songs. Generally, the 1998 Best Buy version of Give Way has more energy below 40 Hz, between 100 and 300 Hz, and above 5 kHz, whereas the 2023 Record Store Day mastering has more energy between 400 Hz and 2 kHz. So which ones sounds best? For my subjective comparisons, I aligned the level-matched, trimmed files in Audacity, which allowed for instantaneous switching. Listening was done primarily with my Focal Utopia headphones, (previously reviewed) Matrix X-Sabre Pro DAC, and (also previously reviewed) Flux FA-10 Pro headphone amplifier. First up is "Brain of J," the dynamic Mike McCreedy-penned rocker that opens Yield. Toggling back-and-forth between the 1998 BB and 2023 RSD masterings, I was struck by how dramatically different they sound. Much more different than the Har-Bal graphs suggest. In fact, one could easily be fooled into thinking these are different mixes. However, I strongly suspect that they're just dramatically different masterings. There are huge tonal differences between these two versions of "Brain of J," which I'll get to in a minute, but the first thing that I noticed was that the BB version seems to project a much wider soundstage, whereas the RSD version is much more center-focused. My hunch was that these differences would be visible by looking at side (left and right) equalization in Har-Bal, as opposed to the above graphs, which show the mid (center) frequency response. To test that hunch, here's what "Brain of J" looks like in Har-Bal's side view: Aha. We can see that the tonal balances of the two versions are very different when we look at the side frequency response. The mid view, which is usually the most relevant, showed that that the 1998 Best Buy version had a moderate subbass boost and a modest high-end boost. The side view, in contrast, shows that the 2023 RSD version has much more low-end energy, while the 1998 version's treble boost is even larger. The combination of these EQ choices pushes the RSD version's image towards the center relative to the BB version, because outside low-end tends to make the soundstage narrower, whereas outside high-end tends to make the soundstage wider. While this is a matter of taste, I pretty strongly prefer the soundstage on on Best Buy version. Listening on my Utopia's McCreedy's opening riff is slightly beyond my left ear on the 1998 mastering, whereas it's somewhere between my left ear and eye on the 2023 mastering. This narrowing of the soundstage makes everything sound a little scrunched together on the RSD version, which contributes to some details getting lost in the mix. For example, as McCready kicks off his opening riff, rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard adds a droning whammy bar flourish on the far right. Because Gossard's guitar (like McCready's) is pushed more towards the center on the RSD release, it's easier to miss this Gossard's clever little contribution. These side-EQ differences impact the perceived height of the soundstage, too, with the BB mastering sounding much taller than the RSD mastering. On the former, Vedder's voice is right around eye level. On the latter, it's close to the tip of my nose. The overall EQ differences between the two renderings of "Brain of J" tend to accentuate the differences created by the 2023's more cramped soundstage. The RSD mastering simply sounds too dull. Its rolled-off high end not only takes some of the bite out of the electric guitars, but it also renders some of Irons's inspired drum work almost inaudible. For example, his rapid-fire ride cymbal strikes in the right channel during the song's chorus come through crystal clear on the BB disc, but I have to strain to hear them on the RSD release. Next up is No Code's "In My Tree," which is perhaps my favorite Pearl Jam song, as well as one of the tunes that most bares Irons's influence. His opening polyrhythmic drum pattern shows better dynamics and resolution at both ends of the spectrum on the Best Buy version. You can hear the rebound of the skins on Irons's mounted toms. His floor tom has more authority, too. Beyond Irons's drum work, Gossard and McCready's synchronized churning guitars have more definition on the BB rendering. Perhaps the only downside to the 1998 CD's brighter presentation is that it reveals more sibilance on Vedder's voice. However, even on a bright-neutral pair of headphones like the Utopia, it only rarely edges into unpleasant, and the costs of the 2023 disc's more muffled presentation aren't worth the slight reduction in sibilance. Finally, "In My Tree" reveals a flaw in both versions, which is that Jeff Ament's bass should really be higher in the mix. (This seems to be a recurring problem in Pearl Jam live releases from this era.) Vedder's superb Vitalogy tune, "Corduroy," is my next audition track. Throughout the song's opening riff, played by Vedder, it's hard to tell which mastering presents the most accurate version of Vedder's guitar. Should it be more bridge or neck pickup? Where's the tone knob? At this point in the song, it's impossible to know. However, as soon as the rest of the band kicks in, it's clear that the 1998 mastering is more accurate. When Gossard and McCready enter on the 2023 release, it sounds as if all three guitarists have their wah-wah pedals engaged and tilted slightly towards them. This dull honk stands in sharp contrast to their tone on the Best Buy disc, which sounds much more like what I remember when seeing them live, as well as what I'd imagine any guitarist would want their "neutral" tone to sound like. "Even Flow," the barn burner from the band's 1992 debut, Ten, is up next. The Melbourne rendition is a particularly [William Miller voice] "incendiary" version of this cut. McCready's solos are slashing, and Irons provides an unbelievable hi-hat/kick/snare groove. (There's also a welcome shaker in there, too.) Moreover, you can really feel the band feeding off of each other. Though "Even Flow" was, by 1998, an obligatory song that you could sometimes sense Vedder, in particular, wasn't fond of playing yet again, his enthusiasm during this performance in palpable. The 2023 RSD mastering acquits itself better on "Even Flow" than on the previous cuts. But the 1998 BB version is still notably superior. On the latter, I feel as though I'm on stage with the band. On the former, I'm somewhere fairly close in the pavilion, but I've got a substandard set of earplug in. While the 2023 version's blanket-over-the-speaker vibe doesn't do Irons's intricate playing any favors on "Even Flow," it's McCready's blistering solo that suffers most. At his best, McCready's playing exhibits the effortless liquidity I associate with The Rolling Stones' best lead guitarist, Mick Taylor, and McCready is absolutely doing his best Taylor impression on this version of "Even Flow." It deserves to be heard in the best light, and that's undeniably on the Best Buy CD. Given that this is an Irons show, "Given to Fly" must be considered. His propulsive drumming is what takes McCready's intriguing "Going to California"-homage riff and transforms it into a song that's wholly unique. Like "Even Flow," I don't find the 2023 mastering's depiction of "Given to Fly" to be atrocious. But the 1998 disc is just better. The soundstage is taller and wider, the guitars have more detail, Vedder's vocals are more articulate, etc. Most significantly, the intoxicating stick-click pattern that Irons introduces at the beginning of the second verse is almost buried on the 2023 disc. Perhaps the biggest flaw in this performance of "Given to Fly" is that (again) Ament's bass is mixed too low and (at times) Irons's snare sounds a bit too loud relative to the rest of his kit. However, the 2023 mastering doesn't fix either of these flaws. Instead of Irons's snare sounding a bit too loud on the BB disc, it sounds too loud and kind of muffled on the RSD disc. My penultimate test track is No Code's "Hail Hail." This song has a special place in my heart. Not only does it come from my favorite Pearl Jam album, but I also remember hanging out with my friends the night that PJ played it on Letterman and making them be quiet so I could hear the performance. (If I recall correctly, I was videotaping it on the VCR at home, too.) Toggling back and forth between the 1998 and 2023 masterings of "Hail Hail," the same guitar tone issue crops up again. On the RSD disc, the guitars just sound too honky and muffled. Likewise, Irons's cymbals simply sound more tonally correct on the Best Buy disc. While I don't think there's too much left to be said at this point, I also compared "Immortality," Vitalogy's oddly rousing downer. Irons's cymbals? McCready's solo? Vedder's vocal? Yet again, the 1998 Best Buy prevails. Is the RSD version all that bad? No. But it's just not as crisp, lifelike, and dynamic as the original canceled Best Buy release. As should be obvious, the 1998 Best Buy version of Give Way is by far the definitive version of the release, which is too bad. Pearl Jam would've been better off just duplicating the original as-is. However I have a great idea for how they can make amends -- release (at least) one show from the No Code tour!
  9. When I write my TBVO articles, I tend to focus on the the version that presents the original album in its best sonic form. Occasionally, I’ll mention bonus tracks, but those tend to be relegated to a secondary concern. Given that, I’d like to use Club TBVO to highlight some superb bonus material from various releases. In particular, I’d like to focus on demos and alternate versions that present a track in a form that’s arguably superior to the official release. Few late-‘70s debut albums were better than The Cars’ self-titled 1978 release. Produced by the great Roy Thomas Baker, The Cars had a polished-yet-immediate sound that built on Badfinger’s No Dice and Big Star’s #1 Record in defining the sound of power pop. The Cars’ partnership with Baker continued for three more albums, and The Cars’ leader Ric Ocasek would prove to be pivotal in bringing this sound to a new generation of listeners through his production of albums by Weezer and No Doubt in the 1990s. However, The Cars radically changed their sound after their fourth release and a two-year hiatus. As the band worked on demos at their home studio in Boston, Syncro Sound, they auditioned producers, including Steve Lillywhite. Ultimately, the band decamped to London’s Battery Studios in mid-1981 not with a Brit like Baker or Lillywhite, but with South African producer “Mutt” Lange. By 1981, Lange was coming off of a series of slick hard-rock chart-toppers like AC/CD’s Back in Black and Def Leppard’s Pyromania. To say that Lange represented a change in sonic direction from Baker — best known for working with Queen, Hawkwind, and Devo — is an understatement. Wheres the sessions for the first four Cars albums with Baker had been relatively short and organic, Lange favored a laborious, overdub-heavy process that stretched on for almost six months. As Ocasek told David Fricke, “I remember asking [Lange] how long we were going to be in London, and he’s going, ‘A couple of months.’ It wasn’t until we got there that we realized his policy was, ‘I don’t care if it takes five years. Everything’s going to be perfect.’” Unsurprisingly, the sessions took a toll on Ocasek and the band. for As a posthumous Rolling Stone profile of Ocasek noted: [T]he album’s nearly yearlong recording with pop-metal producer Robert “Mutt” Lange left Ocasek drained, and he later expressed those frustrations to recording engineer Chris Shaw, who worked with Ocasek on some of his later solo albums and outside projects. “I grilled Ric about working with Mutt,” Shaw says, “and he said, ‘I never want to make a record like that again. You spend four days getting a bass sound for one song. It’s really demoralizing.’ I think the process took a lot out of him.” When it was finally released in March of 1984, Heartbeat City was a hit, reaching number three on the Billboard 200 and selling four million copies in the U.S. alone. However, in retrospect it’s hard not to cringe at Lange’s production. From the album’s opening reverse-echo, heavily processed vocals on “Hello Again,” Heartbeat City sound inescapably of its time — unlike The Cars’ Baker-produced albums, which still sound fresh today. As Ocasek told Fricke, Heartbeat City “sometimes feels stiff.” Few tracks on Heartbeat City are able to transcend this mid-‘80s techno-sheen, but if any does, it’s “Drive.” ”Drive” was penned by Ocasek but sung by bassist Benjamin Orr. For a songwriter known best for sly irony, “Drive” is one of Ocasek’s most unabashedly yearning ballads. “I was very emotionally attached to the lyrics in ‘Drive,’” Ocasek wrote in 2018. “To me, it was a sad song. Like your expectations of what you are going to find are not that good.” “Drive” peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and played no small part in making Heartbeat City a smash. The official release of Heartbeat City was more-or-less the last word on the album’s material until 2018. That year’s release of an expanded edition of the album in both Redbook and Hi-Res formats added seven bonus tracks, including four demos and early versions. These four songs are simply superb. My favorite might be “One More Time,” an early version of “Why Can’t I Have You.” With its simple production, droning organ, and muted electric guitar, it could fit comfortably alongside the best tracks from The Cars’ Baker-produced albums. In comparison, the Heartbeat City version of “Why Can’t I Have You” is almost unlistenable. But perhaps the most intriguing of these four early versions is the demo of “Drive.” In place of the album version’s triad of bass throbs and tinkling synth chimes, the demo places a warbly keyboard wash over a bizarre cha-cha programmed drum track. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Orr’s rawer, drier vocals on the demo underscore the plaintive message of the lyrics, particularly at the moments where his voice begins to fray. Freed from Lange’s polish, “Drive” sound like nothing so much as a great lost Suicide song, which makes sense given that Ocasek produced Suicide’s superb 1980 album. “In a way, Ric almost would’ve been happier if he could have been in a band like Suicide,” Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes told Rolling Stone. “A more or less artier, outside band. Some of the pop fame embarrassed him.” Listen to the demo of “Drive” on Qobuz, YouTube, or wherever you stream your music. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  10. I’m not one who attributes much sonic impact to cables, especially digital ones. I look for well-constructed cables that don’t add any noise to the system and do what they’re supposed to do. That last, most basic qualification, though, is particularly hard to come by when one uses Apple products. For all their advantages (and I’m an erstwhile Windows user turned Apple adherent), Apple puts a lot of proprietary tech into its products, which can make things difficult when one wants to use somewhat niche accessories — like, say, audiophile-quality DAC/amp dongles — with Apple products. As I’ve discussed in my budget IEM review, the use case that sold me on IEMs was the ability to listen to music in bed on my iPad. What began with using the Qobuz app on my iPad morphed into using Roon remote to access both my own collection and Qobuz’s service. It’s now a nightly ritual to listen to music for an hour on so before I go to sleep using a pair of IEMs, Roon Remote on an iPad, and an external DAC/amp. The stumbling block in this setup proved to be the combination of the last two pieces. While battery-powered DAC/amps tended to work fine with my iPads regardless of the digital cable I used from the iPad to the DAC/amp’s input, this wasn’t the case with DAC/amp dongles that draw power from the iPad. This was particularly true on my older model iPad with a Lightning output. Quality DAC/amp dongles often include a short Lightning-to-USBC cable that will power the device without issue. This was the case with both the iFi Go Bar and the Muse M3. However, many otherwise good DAC/amp dongles don’t include a Lightning-to-USBC cable, and the ones included with the Go Bar and M3 are only a few inches long. That length works well if you’re planning to, say, rubber band the dongle to a smartphone and stick it in your pocket. But it works less well when, like me, you’d like to set the dongle next to you in bed while holding the iPad. That led me on a quest to find a longer Lightning-to-USBC cable that would actually meet Apple MFi specifications for communicating with the iPad while also providing enough power for a power-hungry device like the Go Bar. Plenty of such cables advertised on Amazon claim to meet these specs, but a cursory look at their reviews shows it not to be true. Moreover, several without red flag reviews that I tried simply didn’t work. After several frustrating purchases, I took a chance on the DD ddHiFi MFi06 Lightning-to-USBC cable, which can be had in its 50cm iteration for $35 from Audio64 and $29 from ShenzenAudio. While I’d certainly rather this cable be $15 or $20, I can’t say I’m unhappy with the purchase, because… it just works! The cable seems well-built, and it actually powers both the Go Bar and M3. I was so pleased with it, I also bought the USBC-to-USBC variant to use with my newer USBC-equipped iPad Pro. Were any veils lifted or highs sharpened? No. But I found a digital cable that seems well-built and does what it’s supposed to do. For any other Apple audiophiles struggling to find a good Lightning-to-USBC cable, the ddHiFi MFi06 is the way to go.
  11. A few weeks ago, Audiophile Style published my review of five budget ($50 or less) IEMs. One affordable IEM not included in that roundup is the 7Hz Salnotes Zero, which can be had for a scant $20 USD on sites like Amazon and Linsoul. Based on the suggestions of readers, I bought a pair of the Zero to augment my previous review. Like many Chinese-produced IEMs, there’s not much information online about 7Hz. However, the company’s products are relatively well-known among IEM enthusiasts thanks to its extensive line of IEMs, such as the $220 Timeless IEM, which has received wide praise as one of the best sub-$500 IEMs on the market. Is the Salnotes Zero comparably impressive for its price bracket? Let’s find out. The Zero features a single 10mm metal composite dynamic driver. According to the company, “The metallic composite diaphragm used in this product is made of high-quality materials, making it easier to resonate or vibrate along with sound waves. It was constructed with ease of use in mind as each part has been designed with precision accuracy so that they will not hinder audio transmission.” Physically, the Zero has a smooth, contoured plastic body fitted with a stainless-steel faceplate. The plastic housing is available in black, blue, white, red, and orange. While, unlike some budget IEMs, the Zero isn’t going to fool anyone into thinking it’s a megabuck IEM, I find the simple styling appealingly inoffensive. Indeed, I purchased the powder-blue version precisely because I like its vaguely LEGO-esque vibe. The Zero’s nozzle is plastic. However, it terminates in a metal grille. Overall, I found the Zero to be light and comfortable. My only nit to pick is that the combination of a short nozzle and rather broad body makes for a somewhat shallow fit. How true this is for you will, of course, depend on your individual ear shape. I found that tips with a somewhat tacky texture, such as the (kind of tacky) Moondrop Spring or (very tacky) AZLA SednaEarfit XELASTEC. That means buying tips that are almost as costly as the IEM, but that’s almost unavoidable at this price point. The connector for the Zero is of the flush-mount two-pin variety. The left/right color-coding near the terminals is a nice touch. The Salnotes Zero’s impedance is spec’d at greater than 32 ohms and its sensitivity at 108 dB. However, as will be discussed below, I found them to be somewhat easier to drive than this specs suggest. As should be expected for 20 smackeroos, the Zero is short on accessories. However, the Zero’s cable is well above average for this price point. Indeed, I’d rank it below only the TinHifi T2 DLC’s cable among the IEMs covered in my aforementioned review. Beyond the cable, the Zero comes with six pairs of pretty chintzy silicone tips and no case. However, I think the 7Hz made the right choice in investing in the IEM and cable instead of the tips or the case, since the latter items tend to involve a greater degree of personal taste. Measurements of the Zero can be found all across the interwebs. But I still wanted to take my own measurements with my MiniDSP EARS fixture. I calibrated my EARS with an IEM-adjusted version of Marv from SBAF’s compensation curve, where a perceptually flat frequency response is represented by a flat line. Since the Kiwi Cadenza was the runaway winner of my budget IEM roundup, I placed the Zero alongside it and that roundup’s second-place finisher, the KZ ZS10 Pro in my graph: As the graph (normalized to 500 Hz) makes clear, the Zero measures very well. It has somewhat less bass than the Cadenza and — with the exception of the area near 12 kHz — it generally has more treble energy than the Cadenza, but less than the bright-leaning KZ ZS10 Pro. I also want to show where the Zero ranks among the other IEMs reviewed in terms of sensitivity. As noted in my budget IEM roundup, I used pink noise to discern each IEM’s relative drivability for level-matching. I made the Kiwi Cadenza my baseline IEM (at the EARS’ recommended 84 dB), then measured the other IEMs’ deviations: 82 dB — Truthear x Crinacle Zero 84 dB — Kiwi Cadenza 85 dB — 7Hz Salnotes Zero 85 dB — TinHifi T2 DLC 89 dB — QKZ x HBB 91 dB — KZ ZS10 Pro The Zero is, in other words, a bit more sensitive than the Cadenza. Subjectively, I felt that it sounded even more sensitive than this single-dB difference suggests, perhaps due to the Zero’s overall brighter tonal balance. As in my multi-IEM review, I decided to use “America” from the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's CD of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends to provide a subjective comparison of the Zero and the Cadenza. A good transducer should be able to separate the mix’s interwoven elements — such as the duo’s layered harmonies — without making the dramatic percussion too boomy or Simon’s somewhat sibilant vocals too harsh. While I certainly gave the Zero a less scientific listen with a variety of other material, I found that “America” provides a good illustration of the IEM’s strengths and weaknesses. Before evaluating the Zero’s presentation of “America,” I want to quote my evaluation of the Cadenza’s rendering of this track: The Cadenza’s tonal balance sounds closest to neutral of all the IEMs under consideration. Simon’s vocals still had perhaps a little too much sibilance compared to neutral headphones like the Sennheiser HD6XX or speakers like the KEF Reference 1. However, the Cadenza’s deviation from neutrality in this area is nitpicking, in that it’s not far off from the presentation of the aforementioned Utopia. The Cadenza’s bass is authoritative and nimble, with none of the Zero’s tubby lethargy. I could discern every inflection in Joe Osborn’s churning bassline during the complex buildup to the chorus in “America.” This fact hints at what really impressed me about the Cadenza: its technical performance. It projects a wide soundstage with good depth and does a superb job of allowing the listener to pick apart the various components of the mix, even during busy passages. Through the Cadenza, I could hear the individual vocal overdubs in the hummed intro and separate Simon’s voice from Garfunkel’s in the verses. Instead of blending together in a mass, the strings, background vocals, and cymbal crashes, during the chorus were all easily discernable. Adjusting the volume down a decibel and firing up the Zero, I immediately noted that the Zero seemed to have as much low bass as the Cadenza, but less midbass — an observation that’s not apparent in the measurements. Turning my attention to the upper reaches of the spectrum, I was struck by the fact that the Zero doesn’t sound subjectively as treble-heavy as the measurements would suggest, either. To be sure, it has more energy in that range than the Cadenza does, but it’s mostly inoffensive, perhaps due to its relatively smooth texture. On the positive side, I appreciated the Zero’s additional “air,” as evidenced by room ambiance and reverb. However, this did come at the expense of some added sibilance on Simon’s lead vocal and Hal Blaine’s cymbals. Again, though, I felt that the Zero stayed below the wince-inducing threshold, though other listeners might disagree. Turning to the Zero’s technicalities, I felt that it had a bit narrower soundstage than the Cadenza and presented a somewhat flatter image despite its greater sense of air. Due to the tuning, the Zero at times seemed to render a bit more overt detail than the Cadenza, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that its tonality was just a little off and slightly one-dimensional compared to the more refined Cadenza. The prominent shaker in the fadeout of “America,” for example, just doesn’t sound quite right. Is this a deal-breaker for $20? Of course not. But it does mean that while the Zero can fool you into thinking it’s a much pricier IEM based on frequency response, it doesn’t do so to the same extent when it comes to that ineffable realism that the best transducers deliver. One interesting element of the Zero’s presentation is that its presentation comes across as a little disjointed, meaning that the separation between the instruments can come across as slightly exaggerated. I tend to associate this trait with extreme W-shaped tuning. Again, that’s not at all evident in the Zero’s measurements, but it does align with my sense that it had as much low bass as the Cadenza but much less midbass. Ultimately, this flavor of sound can lend itself to slicing and dicing a mix, but can also make it feel a little uncongealed. Again, is this a deal-breaker for $20? No way. Overall, I think the Zero ranks second only to the Cadenza among all of the sub-$50 IEMs. The ZS10 Pro might tie it for this honor. But given that the Zero is $15 less than the Cadenza and $25 less than the ZS10 Pro, this is a superb showing. If you want a budget IEM that’s cheaper and/or brighter than the Cadenza, the 7Hz Salnotes Zero is a fantastic choice. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  12. In my pre-audiophile days, I did silly things. I went to concerts and played in my (pretty not good) high school band without ear plugs. Fortunately, these stupid decisions haven't cost me too much in the hearing department, though it's impossible to say how much better my hearing would be without those errors. When I began my audiophile journey in earnest eight or so years ago, I started to think seriously about my hearing. That meant making sure to get quality hearing protection that attenuates sound evenly across the frequency spectrum so that I could enjoy concerts safely. It also meant checking my hearing health. Initially, I tried various hearing test iOS apps and websites. Undoubtedly, resources like AudioCheck are great at helping you determine the highest frequency you can hear. (Warning: If you're over 30 -- or if you're younger than that but have been cranking those AirPods up -- don't expect to hear much beyond 15 kHz.) However, the main flaw in every hearing test app or site is that it isn't calibrated to the correct volume. Most suggest some hack to attempt to correct for this. AudioCheck, for example, instructs users to do the following: First, we need you to adjust your computer's level to match a known reference. Here is the trick: rub your hands together, in front of your nose, quickly and firmly, and try producing the same sound as our calibration file. You are now generating a reference sound that is approximately 65 dBSPL. As you play back our calibration file, adjust your computer's volume to match the sound level you just heard from you hands. Proceed back and forth - preferably with your eyes closed, to increase concentration - until both levels match. Then, do not touch your computer's volume knob anymore. Calibration is done: your computer's volume knob has been set to match 65 dBSPL. This procedure should give us a confidence of approximately 10 dBHL in the next hearing test. While this method is better than winging it, I hardly want the accuracy of my hearing test to depend on whether I've been properly moisturizing my hands. Frustrated with online tests I'd found, I scheduled a professional test with an audiologist. This alleviated my concerns about my hearing, but I didn't want to have to pay for an audiologist visit every time I wanted to check my hearing, given that everything from medications and supplements to sinus infections to aging can impact our hearing. Then I happened upon the Etymotic ER120-HHT at-home hearing test. The ER120-HHT comes with a thumb drive containing the testing software, a calibrated USB DAC/amp, a pair of Etymotic earbuds, various foam and silicone tips, and a carrying case. After installing the software, the main screen provides instructions as well as the test itself: When you begin the test, the software warns you not to adjust your volume: The actual test consists of a series of tones. Like a professional test, you simply indicate whether you do or don't hear the tone: One unique and positive feature of the ER120-HHT test is that it's at least somewhat random, unlike various apps and online tests. This is helpful because if a test is predictable, you can't really be sure if you're hearing something or just expecting to hear something. After the test is complete, you're presented with a results sheet: The results can vary somewhat from test to test, of course, based on a variety of factors, including the level of background noise in your room and your concentration. The right ear 2 kHz dip above, for example, is an outlier. In line with my general IEM rule of thumb, I've also found that using the foam tips tends to lower my 500 Hz score, while the silicone tips tend to lower my 8 kHz score. That said, when I first used the ER120-HHT, I thrilled to find that its results were almost identical to my professional results. The only downsides to the ER120-HHT are that it's Windows-only and the earbuds are uncomfortable. (Etymotic makes great sounding products, but comfort isn't something I associate with them.) It would also be great if the test went up into higher frequencies, though I'm not surprised that it doesn't, since that's not what professional hearing tests care about. Unfortunately, it also looks as though the ER120-HHT is out of stock on most sites. I sincerely hope that Etymotic hasn't discontinued it. If so, we need a grassroots campaign to get this invaluable tool back in production.
  13. A few of my first Club TBVO posts dealt with how to be an ethical music fan in the age of streaming. In the second of those articles, I concluded that ethical music consumers should purchase in-print media, but that the ethics are a bit murkier when the release in question in out-of-print. In this Club TBVO entry, I'd like to lay out how I research my TBVO columns and how I acquire all of the necessary releases in light of these rough ethical guidelines. My research always begins at Discogs. While the Discogs page for a given album occasionally misses a very new or exceedingly rare release, it's the best resource for all of an album's physical releases. Using Discogs, I'll look at the scanned liner notes from each physical release to determine which CDs, DVDs, and SACDs contain the same mastering. Any release where I cannot definitively nail down the mastering goes on my "to buy" list. Discogs does less well when it comes to download- or streaming-only versions. To suss out those, I look at Qobuz, HDTracks, 7Digital, Acoustic Sounds, and ProStudioMasters. With some exceptions, these sites tend to have the same selection, but occasionally one will have a unique release or more identifying details about a particular release. (Acoustic Sounds and ProStudioMasters tend to provide better source information, in my experience.) Finally, I'll read relevant discussion threads on sites like Steve Hoffman Forums, Audiophile Style, Quadrophonic Quad, and other audiophile sites to make sure I haven't overlooked a release. In the process, I'll also take notes on what fans think are duplicate masterings, but absent clear proof, I won't use others' claims to cross a release off my list as a duplicate. My final master "to buy" list will include release that I know to contain unique masterings, as well as ones whose mastering lineage is unconfirmed. From here, I begin the often costly process of purchasing all of these releases. For in-print releases, a purchase is automatic, especially when the release is the product of an audiophile or boutique label that needs audiophiles' support to stay afloat. When it comes to out-of-print releases, I can in theory avail myself of rips that can be found in various dark and not-so-dark corners of the interwebs and still comply with the aforementioned ethical audiophile consumer code. However, in reality things aren't so simple. The goal of TBVO is to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the often copious number of releases for each classic album. Prior to writing my TBVO on Steely Dan's Aja, for example, it was unclear which CDs contained what's thought to be (perhaps erroneously) Steve Hoffman's mastering. Moreover, CDs containing this mastering were believed to be incredibly rare, with only a few thousand existing in the world. Making matters more difficult, one could only differentiate these CDs by looking at the matrix information etched into the inner-ring of each disc's underside. The artwork and catalog numbers were the same. What I found is that, despite different track lengths and peak levels, many of these discs actually contained the same (possible) Hoffman mastering. However, I could've never come to that conclusion unless I actually confirmed each disc's matrix info. Needless to say, most pirates don't take the time provide a hi-resolution scan of the underside of the CD whose rip they're placing online. Instead, it's likely that they'll only provide the catalog number and perhaps a scan of the front and rear of the jewel case. In most cases, this isn't nearly enough information for a TBVO. As a result, I end up purchasing the vast majority of the releases analyzed in each TBVO. The total cost for each TBVO varies, depending on the number of known different masterings and undetermined masterings, as well as how common or rare each is. My TBVO of Kate Bush's Hounds of Love came in at the lower end, with a grand total of just over $150. Tracking down all of the relevant releases for my TBVO of Muddy Waters's Folk Singer, on the other hand, cost just under $350. While I haven't added up all of the other TBVOs' cost, I can comfortably say that Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which I've been chipping away at for several years, is shaping up to be the costliest. Here's just one section of my Discogs purchase for that upcoming TBVO: The above represents only a third of the single-disc copies that I've purchased thus far. I've also had to buy two copies of the Shine On box, for more than $100 each, plus the recent "Immersion" Dark Side box. Ultimately, the math for each TBVO is tricky. For Hounds of Love, I spent less on versions than I made writing the TBVO. For Folk Singer, I spent a little more than I made. And all this isn't factoring in things like purchasing books, or the time I spend writing (though the fact that I find writing each TBVO fun means that it doesn't feel like "work" in the traditional sense). I don't expect to make a profit on every TBVO, but I'd like to do my best to break even. That, in part, is why I started Club TBVO. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  14. In the course of researching my recent TBVO on Pharoah Sanders's album Karma, I tracked down two digital rips of the original vinyl release. However, I didn't mention them in the TBVO. Why? At times, I've used vinyl as a sort-of shadow comparison in order to see how the digital masterings compare to the original mastering, particularly if that original mastering was lauded. I did this for the TBVO on Steely Dan's Aja. I don't do this often, however, because I've found that two rips of the same vinyl mastering rarely match each other. For example, here's a comparison of the two vinyl rips of "Colors" from Karma: Are these discrepencies this due to different turntables? Different cartridges? Variations in the initial pressing process ("hot stampers," etc.)? Historical wear? I have no idea. But it's one of the many reasons why, as discussed in an earlier post, I'm a digital person. I just couldn't tolerate this kind of copy-to-copy variance. That said, in the comments on the Karma TBVO, @bbosler raises a good question: Are the two CDs of Karma as dynamic as the original album? With the caveat that noise on vinyl can make it falsely appear that a record has more dynamics than a digital release, it's clear that the CDs have very similar dynamics to the original vinyl. Here's what the dynamics of the ‘89 CD (blue), ‘95 CD (red), and original vinyl (black) look like for the same track: Both the '95 CD and vinyl appear to have a bit more compression than the '89 CD does. Because it was mastered louder, the '95 CD also includes some peak limiting, which you can see in some of the flat tops on the waveform. However, it's such mild peak limiting that it's hard to say that it's audible. It's certainly not significant enough to swamp the '95 CD's other positives. (It's also interesting that this vinyl rip is tilted significantly towards the left channel. I have no idea why that's the case. Neither the other vinyl rip nor the two CDs have that imbalance. The vagaries of vinyl strike again!) Finally, how about some audio samples?! Here's the same two-minute section of "The Creator Has a Master Plan" from the '89 CD, '95 CD, and one of the vinyl rips. I picked this section because it's the one where I think the '89 CD's slightly brighter sound causes the shaker to crowd out the vocal. 1989 CD: 01 - The Creator Has a Master Plan Part I [1989, MCA, MCAD-39122] (clip).flac 1995 CD:01 - The Creator Has a Master Plan Part I [1995 Mound Edit] (89 Loudness) (clip).flac Vinyl: A1 The Creator Has a Master Plan (Part I) (1989 CD Loudness) (clip).flac Let me know what you hear/think in the comments!
  15. Hello Club TBVO Readers, I apologize for the inactivity of late. My wife and I have been flattened by COVID-19 the past week-plus. All I can say is that I'm happy I was vaccinated and boosted before we caught this. I can't imagine what it would be like pre-vaccine. A new full-length TBVO and an amplifier review from me should be up on the main page shortly, and I hope to have some new blog posts soon, too. In the meantime, I thought everyone would get a kick out this clipping a found when helping my parents move last summer: A budding audiophile!
  16. Welcome to the first “Mini-TBVO.” These Mini-TBVO blog posts allow me to publish an analysis of the best masterings of a classic album in a shorter format. The biggest difference between a Mini-TBVO and a full-length TBVO is that I’ll provide (sometimes much, much) less background information about the artist and the recording of the album and will instead skip right to the technical analysis. An album might wind up being a Mini-TBVO, rather than a full-length TBVO, for several reasons. There might only be a few masterings of the album. Or there might not be much information about how an album was recorded. Or a recent event might make it desirable to post about that artists or album quickly (whereas a normal TBVO takes many months of research and writing to complete). In most cases, an album will become a Mini-TBVO due a combination of those three factors. Audiophiles rejoiced when news broke in September that Analog Productions would be releasing Bernie Grundman-mastered versions of the complete Steely Dan catalog on vinyl and SACD. Subsequently, it was revealed that these new Grundman masterings also would be available on streaming services and download sites. Well, the first of these, Steely Dan’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy a Thrill, popped up on sites like Qobuz last week. Given my predilection for the Dan, it’s no surprise that my immediate response was to see how Grundman’s mastering stacked up against previous digital versions of Can’t Buy a Thrill. Steely Dan’s debut is an odd album. It contains the three Dan songs most likely to be heard on classic rock radio — “Do It Again,” “Dirty Work,” and “Reelin’ in the Years” — but it’s arguably not even a top-five Dan album. (It wouldn’t make my top five, but no less than Aimee Mann ranks Can’t Buy a Thrill as not just her favorite Dan album, but one of her five favorite albums of all time. So who am I to disagree?) It’s also the only Steely Dan album to feature lead vocals by David Palmer, who was brought in to sing “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn” because Donald Fagen wasn’t confident in his singing voice. Yet, with the team of producer Gary Katz and engineer Roger Nichols — both of whom would stay with Steely Dan for nearly its entire run — at the helm, Can’t Buy a Thrill is undoubtedly an audiophile-quality album. Over at Steve Hoffman Forums, member “bmoregnr” has done the yeoman’s work of listing all of digital the versions of each Steely Dan album based on the peak levels of each disc. By that metric, there are six versions of Can’t Buy a Thrill. However, different peak levels don’t necessarily indicate a unique mastering. Often, different discs simply contain level-shifted versions of the same mastering. I’ve been able to track down all of the versions listed by bmoregnr, along with one that I don’t think made his list. Despite the variety of peak levels, analysis with Har-Bal suggests that, prior to the release of the new Grundman mastering, there were only two digital masterings of Can’t Buy a Thrill. The first version can be found on all of the Can’t Buy a Thrill CDs released between 1985 and the early-‘90s. The ones I’ve been able to confirm include: MCAD-37040 (.92 first-track peak) MCD-01769 DMCL 1769 (.92 first-track peak) MCLD-19017 (.89 first-track peak) MCAD-31192 (1.00 first-track peak) The second version can be found on the 1993 Citizen Steely Dan box set mastered by Glenn Meadows. In 1998, all of the Steely Dan albums were re-released on CD. These discs supposedly contained new masterings, but actually seem to have a level-shifted version of Meadows’s mastering. This mastering has also been used on Japanese SHM-CDs released in the 21st century. Finally, a few discs that look otherwise identical to the original ‘80s CDs also have the Meadows’s mastering, including: MCAD-31192 (.88 first-track peak) MCAD-31192 (.94 first-track peak) The third version is the new mastering by Bernie Grundman. None of the three versions above are dynamically squashed. So let’s skip right to examining their respective equalizations in Har-Bal. Up first is the original mastering (yellow) versus the Meadows mastering (orange) using a sampling of tracks: The Meadows mastering consistently has more energy above approximately 5 kHz, and it often has more bass, too. Next, let’s look at the Grundman mastering (pink) compared to the original mastering (yellow): The Grundman mastering consistently has more bass than the original CD. However, the differences above 500 Hz or so are hard to summarize. Generally, the Grundman mastering has a bit less energy between 1 kHz and 2 kHz. Above that region, the two masterings vary in inconsistent ways. Whereas the Meadows mastering altered the ’85 CD in fairly predictable ways across tracks, Grundman seems to have taken a track-by-track approach. So does Grundman’s remastering breathe new life into this classic? In short, yes. Emphatically so. While neither of the previous versions of Can’t Buy a Thrill can be called bad masterings, the new Grundman transfer of the master tape pulls out previously-buried details, while his equalization choices sound balanced and natural. Examining just the three most famous tracks on the album: “Do It Again”: The channel balance on both the ’85 and Meadows CDs sounds a little tilted to the right, whereas Grundman’s channel balance re-centers the song. Fagen’s double-tracked vocals, which are panned far left and far right, sound a little wider and much clearer on Meadow’s mastering than on previous versions. Likewise, instrumental elements like the hypnotic auxiliary percussion and Denny Dias’s electric sitar solo have more texture and realism (and sound less tinny) than on both previous masterings. “Dirty Work”: The differences on this track are simply enormous. The original ‘85 mastering sounds excessively rolled-off in the treble, which makes everything from the horns at beginning to Jim Hodder’s hi-hat to the various reverb trails sound muffled. So extreme is the treble roll-off that the acoustic guitars that enter on the chorus are barely present on the ’85 disc unless one listens closely. Meadows’s Citizen remaster improved this track significantly, but Grundman’s new mastering is head-and-shoulders above both previous versions. Not only is the realism restored to aforementioned elements like the horns, hi-hat, and acoustic guitar, but also Jim Hodder’s kick drum has never sounded better, and one can easily separate the layered vocals on the chorus, which tended to blend together somewhat on even the Citizen remaster. “Reelin’ in the Years”: The differences between the three versions aren’t quite as dramatic on this track, but the Grundman mastering is still the clear winner. Besides the by-now-common edge on vocals and drums, the new remaster reveals the low-mixed left-channel rhythm guitar better than any previous mastering. In short, audiophiles simply need to check out Bernie Grundman’s new mastering of Can’t Buy a Thrill, which is now available on streaming services like Qobuz and will be released on SACD soon. If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  17. I just posted an update to my TBVO on Crosby, Stills, & Nash's self-titled debut album. This update adds the recently-released Mobile Fidelity dual-layer CD/SACD to the mix. While it's a solid mastering, it didn't really come close to knocking the crown from Joe Gastwirt's 1993 mastering. While ADC technology has improved dramatically in the intervening decades, this isn't the first time that an old Redbook CD has topped more recent hi-res masterings. The same was true for Cat Stevens's Tea for the Tillerman and Muddy Waters's Folk Singer. As I did with my recent TBVO on Pharoah Sanders's Karma, I wanted to complement the update to Crosby, Stills, & Nash with some audio files. Here are level-matched samples from the Gastwirt and MFSL disc's renderings of "Suite Judy Blue Eyes" and "Long Time Gone": "Suite" (Gaswirt) Suite Judy Blue Eyes - Gastwirt.flac "Suite" (MFSL) Suite Judy Blue Eyes - MFSL (Gastwirt Loudness).flac "Long Time Gone" (Gastwirt) Long Time Gone - Gastwirt.flac "Long Time Gone" (MFSL) Long Time Gone - MFSL (Gastwirt Loudness).flac While I still preferred the Gastwirt mastering, I was curious about whether the new MFSL transfer might actually be superior to the Gastwirt CD's transfer, given the aforementioned improvements in ADC technology. In other words, is the Gastwirt better because of it's EQ, its transfer, or both? In order to test that, I used Har-Bal's "IntuitMatch" feature, which attempts to bring one sound file's EQ into alignment with a reference file's EQ. In this case, I tried to impart the Gastwirt CD's equalization onto the level-matched MFSL version of "Guinnevere." While IntuitMatch isn't perfect (it tends to work best from about 50 Hz to 10 kHz, but less well above and below that range), it's an interesting exercise. "Guinnevere" (Gastwirt) Guinnevere - Gastwirt.flac "Guinnevere" (MFSL) Guinnevere - MFSL (Gastwirt Loudness).flac "Guinnevere" (MFSL + IntuitMatch to Gastwirt EQ) Guinnevere - MFSL (Gastwirt Loudness + EQ Match).flac Let me know what you hear in the comments below. Did I get the pick right? Do you think the Gastwirt's advantage is mainly about the EQ, the transfer, or both? If you'd like to support Club TBVO, please use the link below to donate.
  18. Note: I have a few book-length projects in various states of planning. One is dedicated to Steely Dan. As TBVO readers know, I'm fond of writing of Walker Becker and Donald Fagen, in both their Dan and solo incarnations. Below is a short excerpt of the book-length work-in-planning, which deals with how the image of Backer and Fagen as anti-rock stars so seamlessly supports the experience of listening to Steely Dan's perfectly crafted studio albums -- an alignment of image and sound not true of many of their contemporaries. Listening to Steely Dan isn’t like listening to any other band. To truly hear a recording, you have to consciously embrace the artifice of studio. The entire purpose of modern recording is to trick listeners into forgetting that artifice. To cite just one example, drums can be mixed from the perspective of the audience, not the drummer. This sonic image, in turn, invites us to recall the band on stage, playing together in the same place, at the same time, facing you, the audience-cum-listener. When you hear Robert Plant growling “Black Dog” or cooing "Stairway to Heaven," you picture him on stage at Madison Square Garden in The Song Remains the Same. Insofar as you picture Plant anywhere else when listening to Led Zeppelin IV, it’s not in front of microphone at Island Studios. No. It’s from the top of the mountain suggested by the pile of reverb on his vocals. To visualize Plant belting out “And it's whispered that soon / If we all call the tune / Then the piper will lead us to reason / And a new day will dawn / For those who stand long /And the forests will echo with laughter” at the same microphone where Harry Nilsson recorded “Without You” and Cat Stevens cut “Peace Train” is not only vaguely comical, it also seriously undermines the inherent grandiosity and ineffable mystery that surrounds Led Zeppelin IV — a grandiosity and mystery that the band actively worked to cultivate over years. But unless you’re willing to picture Led Zeppelin IV being tracked in the same place that unabashed pop-rock studio creations were cut, you can’t really hear all of the strained vocal overdubs stacked in the center of “The Battle of Evermore,” the left-to-right delayed echo on that vocal, or the rather boxy snare sound on “Stairway to Heaven.” Once you picture the studio, all of the decisions that went into capturing and crafting every sound come into view. Page isn’t up there on stage at MSG playing his wonderfully ostentatious six- and twelve-string double-neck Gibson SG. No, he’s sitting on an office chair beside a carefully positioned acoustic baffle on Island Studios' floor. He’s laying down track after track of guitars. Electric, acoustic, six-string, twelve-string. You name it. That burbling keyboard buried deep in the center channel of “Stairway,” blending almost seamlessly with one of Page’s most chorus’d sounding twelve-string electrics? That’s John Paul Jones sitting at a Fender Rhodes in London's Notting Hill neighborhood. The image of the artist in the studio serves to render a band like Zepplin slightly diminished. In contrast, to imagine Steely Dan in the studio is to imagine them I’m their natural element. The canonical image of Steely Dan is of two scruffy, sneer-smirking reticent geniuses who rarely ventured outside of the carefully controlled, airless confines of the studio. They weren’t the first artist to master this technological environment, of course. Famously, The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beach Boys’s Pet Sounds were studio creations. However, listeners still had an image of the candy stripe shirt-clad Beach Boys boys bopping along in harmony fresh in their minds. Even more indelibly, record buyers could vividly recall those four loveable mop-tops shaking their heads in unison on the Ed Sullivan Show. “Woooo!” Sure, in it’s six-piece iteration, Steely Dan may have toured a little in the early years and appeared on Don Kirscher’s Rock Concert and Midnight Special. But it’s not like most of Steely Dan’s fans came to them in the time of “Dirty Work” or “Any Major Dude.” No. The Dan’s bestselling albums were made by the studio duo of Becker and Fagen. When you hear “Peg or “Hey Nineteen,” you don’t imagine Becker fingering his bass on Madison Square Garden’s stage or Fagen belting his vocals from the top of Kilimanjaro. No. You imagine them overseeing meticulous overdubs at The Village Recorders Studios in Los Angeles. Of course the Fagen you’re hearing was standing in a vocal booth, not sitting at the piano in a smoky bar. Of course Walter Becker is plunking on his base DI’d into the studio console, not hooked into a Ampeg stack in front of adoring fans. Everybody knows that. Steely Dan’s image isn’t diminished by visualizing Becker and Fagen in the studio. It’s enhanced. Becker and Fagen’s achievements are those of pluck, persistence, and technological prowess. Their successes aren’t witnessed by throngs gazing at the stage; they’re achieved alone in a studio, seen only by engineer Roger Nichols. In that way, Steely Dan is more like us. We can’t imagine commanding a crowd of thousands, but we can convince ourselves that, just maybe, with the help of a lot of technology, a lot of time, and a lot of patience, we could create something great. It doesn’t matter whether that’s true. It feels true. Or at least it feels truer than placing yourself in Zeppelin. Becker and Fagen are the kind of guys you’d find looking through albums at the record store, not the kind of guys whose photos adorn those records’ sleeves. Because of this, it’s easy to hear the minute, perfect detail in every Steely Dan record. It’s not just that they were better-recorded than almost every other album. (Though, of course, they were.) It’s also that there’s no mental picture besides the studio to distract you from hearing each sound as the contrived stimuli that it is. Even better, it’s precisely because Steely Dan's albums are so meticulously recorded that to draw your attention to these details is to deepen your awe for each song. In contrast, to actually pay attention to the artifice of Led Zeppelin IV is to gaze at the stitches, to notice the join marks and the flaws that are audible even in a sonic masterpiece like IV. Listening to Steely Dan isn’t like listening to any other band because when you picture them in the recording studio, that’s where you’re supposed to picture them. It’s the only place they could be. Because of that, you can really hear the sonic brush strokes on Aja or Gaucho in a way you'll always struggle to hear them on an album like Led Zeppelin IV. That's part of what makes Steely Dan the ultimate audiophile band. That's part of what makes their albums so good.
  19. As those of you who bought a TBVO shirt know, I've gotten into t-shirt design during the pandemic. I started drawing shirts because I'm a music t-shirt fanatic, and I had ideas for shirts that I wanted to wear but couldn't find, such as my Judee Sill shirt. Many of my favorite music t-shirts come from Austin's Feels So Good. In particular, they have a great collection of oddball Steely Dan shirts. Given that, I'm delighted to say that FSG is printing and selling "Silver Springs" Fleetwood Mac shirt design, which is a parody of Andrea Solari's "Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist." The shirts on my own site are print-on-demand. I ordered test shirts from a bunch of printers to make sure I got the best quality possible, but there's still nothing like the traditional silk screening that FSG does.
  20. Over in the forums, new member @Wonderer poses a great question: After some excellent responses, Wonderer rephrased the question: I'm sure to no one's surprise, this is something I've thought about a lot, and as I've interviewed various audio luminaries for my TBVOs and Interview Series, I've put versions of this question to them, too. The first thing worth underscoring is that the digital recorders introduced in the late-'70s and early-'80s all fell somewhere around what would become the 16/44.1 Red Book standard for CDs, which debuted in 1982. The Denon Denon DN-034R was 14/47.25, both the the SoundStream and the 3M digital mastering system were 16/50, and the Mitsubishi X-80 was 16/50.4. Despite promises that such recorders would never be "obsolete," there were issues with recording at 16 bits. As Elliot Scheiner told me, when recording Donald Fagen's The Nightfly on the 3M system, he found that he needed record a little hotter than usual, since the dither noise on the machine was audible when recording at low levels. To Scheiner this made the recording sound "harsh." Today, most digital recordings are aren't done at 16/44.1. While there's some debate about the best sample rate, almost every engineer agrees that 24 bits are necessary. Unlike tape, where clipping can actually sound good by creating a form of soft compression, digital clipping often sounds horrendous. That means that recording digitally, you lose a few bits, practically speaking, because you have to avoid clipping. Further processing might cause you to lose a few more. For all intents and purposes, 24 bits are needed to create a recording that's truly 16-bit. So, while 16/44.1 may be completely sufficient as a consumer bit-depth and sample-rate, it might not be enough at the recording stage. That said, there are plenty of all-digital recordings done at or near 16/44.1 that sound wonderful. The Nightfly, Peter Gabriel's fourth album (often called "Security"), and Tracy Chapman's self-titled album all sound great to my ears. Before recording The Nightfly, engineer Roger Nichols held exactly the type of analog-versus-digital shootout that Wondered asks about. According to Nichols: It was Studio D at the Village Recorder in West L.A. We had the musicians and we had a brand new 3M 32-track digital recorder and we had a brand spanking new Studer 24-track analog machine. We recorded the takes on both machines at the same time. We had a representative from Studer there for the analog machine. We had a representative from 3M there in case anything happened to the digital machine, and all the maintenance guys were there. Everybody wanted to hear what was going on.... So when we finished the take, “Boy, that’s a good take. Let’s listen back to that.” The plan was to listen to the difference between the analog machine and the digital machine to decide how we wanted to record The Nightfly album. I added, “Wait a minute. Let’s try A-B-C [comparison].” We had the musicians stay out there and play along, the analog and digital machines were synchronized so they’d play back together so, you know, they were in the same place in the song all the time.... The musicians are playing along with it. So we could listen to the musicians in the room, the playback of the digital machine, the playback of the analog machine…. Nobody could tell the difference between the musicians playing live and the playback of the digital machine. But you could hear a big difference with the playback of the analog machine. It…seemed like too big of a difference. We’d never heard digital playback before. It seemed like too big of a difference.... So we stopped, had the Studer guys readjust the machine — and even cheat a little bit — make it just a little bit brighter on playback. And we did the whole thing [again]. They went out and recorded again, we did it to both machines, and the same thing happened. At that point we went, “Okay. That’s it. You can take the Studer machine out we’re going to do this album digitally.” The Steely Dan crew continued recording digitally into the early 2000s. Both Donald Fagen's 1992 solo release, Kamakiriad, and the band's Grammy-winning 2000 reunion album, Two Against Nature, were recorded digitally. Kamakiriad was recorded using the same 3M model as The Nightfly, but in my opinion it sounds markedly better than The Nightfly. Two Against Nature was recorded using Pro Tools (presumably at 24-bit, though I'm not certain). It, in turn, arguably sounds even better than Kamakiriad. However, when it came time to record the follow-up to Two Against Nature, Becker and Fagen were working with Scheiner alone, sans digital advocate Nichols. Scheiner wanted them to switch back to recording to tape. So he set up his own shootout between a Pro Tools-based digital system and a Studer A827 24-track. This time, Becker and Fagen picked the Studer. As a result, Everything Must Go is an analog recording. That brings us back to the fact that tape distortion, unlike digital distortion, is pleasing. As noted above, when a signal hits the tape too hard, it creates a pleasing compression (sometimes replacing the need for additional outboard compression). Some artists just prefer this effect. Wilco, for example, began Pro Tools recording with their 1999 album Summerteeth. However, by the early-21st century, Wilco had switched back to tape. Wilco's lead singer/songwriter, Jeff Tweedy, was one of the artists profiled by the Wall Street Journal in its 2005 report on a shortage of tape. In that article, the great mastering engineer Joe Gastwirt said, "It's a much more musical medium than digital could ever dream of being. It actually does something to the music." Now almost 20 years later, Tweedy and Wilco continue to record to tape. Even a very tech-savvy band like Radiohead, which regularly uses Pro Tools for editing, includes tape in its recording process simply for the sonic effect. That said, the consensus from engineers I've interviewed -- even those that prefer tape -- is that digital today sounds much better than early digital, and some say it sounds as good (or better than) tape. So while it may have been relatively easy for many in the industry to prefer tape to early digital machines like the 3M, that call is probably much harder today. Moreover, whereas audiophiles usually want to play back albums with as little distortion as possible, the act of recording involves all kinds of intentional distortion and manipulation. Given that, the tape versus digital debate is mainly one of artistic taste. While both albums are now over decades old (and digital has improved since then), audiophiles could do worse than to listen to Two Against Nature (digital) and Everything Must Go (analog) back-to-back to see if they can detect which recording format sounds better to them. What do you think?
  21. A few weeks ago, Acoustic Sounds accidentally published the listing for an upcoming UHQR vinyl release of Steely Dan's Katy Lied mastered by Bernie Grundman. Shortly thereafter, an eagle-eyed fan on Steve Hoffman Forums found that by changing the numbers in the URL, one could find unlisted pages for both vinyl and SACD releases of every Steely Dan album album through Gaucho. Both the SHF thread discussing these releases and the inadvertently published Acoustic Sounds pages have been deleted. But screen captures and Google Cache have preserved at least some of the information. Needless to say, Analogue Productions SACDs of the Steely Dan catalog would become immediate contenders for the best sounding versions of each of these albums. Keep your fingers crossed that the hidden pages on Acoustic Sounds represent real upcoming releases that will be made public shortly. Needless to say, I'll be punching every one of the SACDs.
  22. In this first part of this two-part blog post, I looked at the difficult economics facing all but the biggest stars in the streaming era. Flatting some nuance, that post concluded that purchasing merchandise directly from artists is often the best way to make sure your dollars are reaching them. It also outlined other important actions that fans can take, such as selecting a streaming service that pays artists the highest rates per stream and advocating for models of divvying up streaming revenues that are more likely to help small- and medium-sized artists. Physical media was the elephant left in the room at the end of that post. Why? Because — outside of specific circumstances, such as artists who sell self-release albums through Bandcamp — it’s unlikely that the purchase of physical media is going to generate much income for the average artists. However, it’s even more unlikely that most audiophiles and dedicated fans will be content subsisting on streaming alone. As TBVO readers know, the best sound version of an album is, at least as often as not, available only on physical media. Moreover, we live in a “Super Deluxe Edition” edition age, where many artists are trying harder to make physical releases meaningful by including everything from elaborate books to memorabilia and clothing. There’s another good reason for audiophiles, in particular, to purchase physical releases. It’s common — and, when it comes to major labels, often understandable — to focus primarily on the artist’s share of revenue. But other folks, such as engineers and producers, rely at least partly on sales for their incomes. Moreover, many of the best labels going — from audiophile labels like Mobile Fidelity, Analog Spark, and Analog Productions to reissue labels like Light in the Attic, Esoteric, and Numero Group — are far from hulking corporate behemoths. That means that, in addition to factoring in the incomes of producers and engineers, we also need to add the survival of small audiophile and reissue labels into our moral calculus. In other words, how much Todd Rundgren is getting from Analog Spark’s audiophile-grade remastering of Something/Anything or whether any distant relative of Karen Dalton is making a penny from Light in the Attic’s elaborate reissue of In My Own Time are almost secondary concerns to the survival of the niche labels and dedicated engineers doing the yeoman’s work necessary to put out audiophile remasterings and resissue obscure and out-of-print albums. So, when it comes to in-print releases on labels like Mobile Fidelity or Light in the Attic, it seems clear that the ethical audiophile should shell out the money to buy them, even if they’re available on streaming (though, in most cases, they aren’t). It goes without saying that pirating such releases isn’t fair to the labels. It’s also not in the best interests of audiophiles. After all, if audiophile and reissue labels go out of business, audiophiles will be worse off. What about in-print releases from major labels? It’s not uncommon for fans to grumble something to the effect of, “How many times will Sony ask me to re-buy Kind of Blue?” It’s tempting to follow up that grumble by asking, “Does it really matter to Sony if I download this reissue off of some dubious site?” When the artist is deceased or when a shady manager is the one actually collecting the royalties, that query might gain even more force. Fortunately, most new major-label reissues can be found on streaming sites. But in the rare circumstance that it’s not streaming, though, fans may be tempted by piracy. What then? Given that the incomes of the mastering engineer, liner notes writer, and others are wrapped up in that reissue, too, I still strongly believe you should purchase any in-print album that you can’t (or aren’t content to) stream. Just as audiophiles would be worse off if Mobile Fidelity went belly up, they’d also regret it if major labels stopped paying people like Tim Young, Miles Showell, and Steve Wilson to remaster or remix classic albums. Of course, in a world where increasingly extravagant “uber“ reissues sell for many hundreds (or thousands) of dollars, students, pensioners, and others on low fixed incomes might honestly say that they can’t afford them. It’s not my place to judge those people’s actions if their choice is literally between piracy or nothing. But it’s important to avoid Fat Tony-esque “bread and cigarettes” rationalizations. With the general rule that the ethical music fan should try to purchase in-print releases, let’s turn to the trickiest scenario: used media. Neither artists nor labels nor engineers get a penny from used media sales. Under what’s known as the “first sale doctrine,” “an individual who knowingly purchases a copy of a copyrighted work from the copyright holder receives the right to sell, display or otherwise dispose of that particular copy, notwithstanding the interests of the copyright owner.” This is the law that makes selling your old books on Amazon or old CDs on Discogs legal, even though the no one involved with publishing the book or producing the CD you’re selling will benefit from those sales. While this process seems completely natural and uncontroversial to most people today, it’s long been lamented by authors, musicians, publishers, and record labels. As early as the ‘70s, record labels mobilized to push legislation that would’ve required payment of royalties on the sale of used media. Their efforts failed, but that result was at least partly mitigated by the knowledge that both vinyl and tape was prone to wear over time, theoretically reducing the appeal of used albums in those formats. CDs changed that. The companies behind the creation of the CD — Sony and Phillips — pitched their new invention to music fans as offering “pure, perfect sound forever.” While the indestructibility of CDs was somewhat exaggerated, it was undeniable that the CD was much more durable than the formats that preceded it. Ironically, this durability opened the door to used media sales on a scale that the industry had never before contemplated. As Peggy Bachmann noted in a 1994 law journal article: Ironically, the used CD bonanza has been made possible by manufacturers of CDs themselves by introducing CDs as “virtually indestructible.” Unlike vinyl albums and cassettes that deteriorate in quality over time, CDs will continue to have the same impeccable sound quality as long as they are not physically damaged. In addition, thanks to the protection of the “jewel cases” in which CDs are sold, they will also continue to look new over time. The industry made used sales all the more appealing by working to keep CD prices high. As Steve Knopper explained in his superb 2009 book, Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, the combination of low production costs and high sales prices for CDs allowed labels to fatten their bottom lines, creating a boom era for the industry. Even before used CDs or digital piracy became a major concern, labels fought retailers like Best Buy that sought to cut prices on new discs. By publicly working to keep new CD prices as high as possible, labels seemed like they were thumbing their noses at consumers and daring them to turn to the used market. As Entertainment Weekly’s David Browne wrote in 1993: [I]n some ways, the thriving used-CD market is the labels’ own fault. It is common knowledge that CDs now cost as little to manufacture as LPs once did — about $2 per disc. Yet retail disc prices continue to escalate. And the record business enticed consumers to abandon LPs by telling them the CD would never wear out, and now that promise has come back to haunt the labels. If a used CD is as good as a new one, why not pay half the price? Record labels and distributors largely ignored sales of used CDs when they were confined to small independent stores. But when larger chains — such as Wherehouse, a California-based chain with over 300 stores nationwide — began selling used CDs in the early-’90s, they began to take notice, setting off what the Washington Post’s Richard Harrington dubbed “the Compact Disc War of 1993, pitting retailers who sell used CDs at reduced prices against the Big Brothers of Distribution, who maintain that such sales not only keep royalties out of the pockets of artists and producers, but undermine the ‘perceived value’ of new CDs and cut into manufacturers’ profits.” The four big distributors — CEMA (Capitol/EMI), Sony Music Distribution (Columbia/Epic), UNI (MCA), and WEA (Warner Bros./Electra/Atlantic) — announced in the summer of 1993 that they would withdraw millions of advertising dollars from retailers that sold used CDs. In a letter justifying the decision, WEA wrote that “our main purpose in extending advertising dollars to our customers is to generate consumer traffic...exposing the consumer not only to the featured advertised items, but to all of our product.... We believe the sale of used CDs of WEA product lines will diminish consumer interest in, and the perceived value of, our new releases and catalogue products.” The argument that used sales needed to be crushed to protect the “perceived value” of new CDs hardly seemed likely to win over skeptical consumers. But in July 24 Billboard op-ed, CEMA president Russ Bach argued that “like apples and oranges, new and used product simply don’t mix.” Laying out the industry’s concerns, Bach predicted: If left unattended, the used-CD business will grow to approximately 20 percent of unit volume by 1998. This means creative people will get 20 percent less in royalties, if the price of good remains unchanged, and the record companies will lose 20 percent of their income stream. To consumers who felt that a disc that cost a few dollars to make shouldn’t retail for $17, Bach claimed that CD prices were lower in the U.S. than overseas. Still, he conceded that “variable pricing” — such as temporarily discounting new releases in order to reward early purchasers — may be in order. “Reissues should also come out at lower prices,” he wrote. (One wonders how today’s label executives, who rely on a seemingly never-ending stream of back catalog reissues — which are usually priced higher than new releases — would respond to Bach’s comment.) Michael Green, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, likely gained more sympathy when he focused on used CDs effects on artists. He told Billboard, “The used-CD market could grow to as much as 20 percent of unit volume in the next five years, and that loss of income will spell disaster for the majority of those in our artistic community who already live perilously close to the edge of financial ruin.” The anti-used CD coalition got a big boost when country superstar Garth Brooks “declare[d] war on used-CD stores,” as one headline put it. Brooks pledged not to let any record store that sold used CDs stock his new album. “The writers are getting nothing [from used CD sales], the labels are getting nothing, and the artists are getting nothing,” Brooks said. “I don’t know how anyone can stand for it…. This is how songwriters make their living, how they feed their children, and now they are rewarded for their hard work by getting kicked in the teeth.” (Retailers, for their part, made clear that Brooks’s threat didn’t faze them. “The idea that we’re going to stop selling used CDs just so we can sell Garth Brooks records is beyond silly,” one retailer told Billboard.) Shortly after the four distributors announced their withdrawal of advertising from retailers that sold used CDs, both Wherehouse and the Independent Music Retailers’ Association, which represented approximately 2000 “mom and pop” music stores, filed lawsuits alleging that the distributors’ actions violated antitrust laws. Within months, Brooks dropped his threat and the distributors restored advertising dollars to stores that sold used CDs, provided that the receiving retailer: “1) does not sell used CDs that are currently featured in the co-op ads; 2) displays used and new CDs in separate areas of retail stores; 3) does not sell CDs marked for promotional purposes; 4) does not advertise the sale of used CDs with new CDs.” The ironic outcome of the distributors’ war on used CDs is that it helped to draw federal regulators attention to the industry’s minimum pricing practices. In response to retailers like Best Buy slashing new CD prices, the labels adopted “Minimum Advertised Pricing” (MAP) policies that pulled advertising dollars from retailers that sold new CDs at below MAP — a threat identical to the one the distributors attempted to wield against used CD sellers. The Federal Trade Commission charged that such policies violated antitrust laws and cost consumers nearly a half a billion dollars over three years. In the face of the FTC’s investigation, the labels settled for nearly $150 million in penalties and the cessation of MAP policies. The industry’s concerns about used CD sales persisted into the early-2000s. But by then piracy had begun to create the worst-case scenario that labels had always feared. During “the Compact Disc War of 1993,” many observers pointed out that the industry’s fight against used CDs was actually a surrogate for its real concern: piracy. “What the record companies are really afraid of with the used-CD market is that it encourages consumers to duplicate a new product and resell it quicker,” entertainment lawyer Don Engel told the Washington Post in ‘93. Labels had fought against home taping in the late-’70s and early-’80s. Even before home CD duplication was possible, CDs made piracy more appealing. After all, copying a CD to a cassette tape sounded a lot more like a commercial cassette than copying either vinyl or another cassette to cassette did. In his Billboard op-ed, Bach argued that used CDs made it easier for consumers to do just that. “Renting CDs is illegal,” he wrote. “In many cases, we believe a retailer’s sale and repurchase of used CDs constitutes a disguised rental in economic effect. It would be easy for a consumer to purchase a used CD on day one for $6, tape it at home, and return it on day two or three for $3. If this isn’t a ‘rental,’ I don’t know what is.” But the real threat was the looming development of the ability to copy CDs bit perfectly at home. Don Kulak, executive president of the Independent Music Retailers Association, told the Washington Post in ‘93 that the used CD kerfuffle simply foreshadowed digital copying. “The communications industry’s love affair with the so-called information superhighway could soon quiet the CD sales debate,” the paper paraphrased Kulak. “Consumers may someday create their CDs at home with sophisticated entertainment technology.” While Kulak’s predicted method (“televisions with minidisk ports”) was off, he wasn’t far from the truth when he predicted, “Down the road, retail is obsolete.” With the mid-’90s release of the first sub-$1,000 CD-R drives and the late-’90s rise of Napster and other peer-to-peer file sharing networks, digital piracy eclipsed discussion of used CD sales. But the ethical issue of used CDs never went away. It’s still common to find deep, passionate discussions on audiophile sites about of the ethics of buying used CDs, given that neither artists nor producers and engineers see a penny from their sales. The path not taken was the creation of “droit de suite” (“follow-up right”) that would ensure that royalties were paid on used CD sales, too. Such rights exist for fine art in many European countries. However, as Bachmann pointed out, they’re harder to enforce on mass-produced products like CDs, since “there is only one painting or sculpture, but there are thousands of CDs that constitute the same ‘work.’” However, with justification, she believed that royalty collection societies such as ASCAP and BMI could handle used CD royalties just as they handle radio play royalties. Absent “droit de suite” rights, buying a used CD deprives the music’s creators of income they deserve. So what’s an ethical audiophile to do? When it comes to in-print releases, it’s hard to argue that purchasing a used copy is as ethically sound as purchasing a new copy. But what about out-of-print CDs? Things get murkier here. Many audiophiles would argue vociferously that purchasing a used out-of-print CD is ethically sound, but that downloading that same out-of-print CD from one of the myriad piracy sites isn’t. This argument makes a certain intuitive sense. We’re conditioned to believe that paying for a physical album justifies ownership. But when we’re talking about intellectual property, is that really the case? If the creators of the music contained on that album aren’t receiving any income from our purchase of that physical album, is it really any better than piracy? I doubt that it is. That said, there may be other good reasons to believe that purchasing used media is ethically superior to piracy. As I’ve written before, visiting independent record stores (and small chains) is one of my favorite pastimes. Insofar as used CD sales are helping keep those stores afloat, I think that’s a good thing. However, that doesn’t obviate the fact that — in terms of generating income for labels, artists, engineers, or producers — used sales are no different from piracy. Given that, it’s hard for me to fault someone who downloads the 1984 “Black Triangle“ CD of The Beatles’ Abbey Road rather than pay hundreds of dollars for a physical copy on Discogs or Ebay. As TBVO readers know, the best version of an album may be out-of-print. So securing these releases (by whatever means) is necessary for many audiophiles. Given that, an ethical solution may be to buy merchandise from the artist whose used out-of-print CD you’re buying or downloading. (Think of it as the musical equivalent of a “carbon offset.”) In an addendum to this two-part series on how to be an ethical audiophile, I’ll discuss why I often shun pirated rips of out-of-print CDs when writing my TBVO columns, outline the cost of buying the various digital releases for each TBVO column, and explain how those costs (at least in part) inspired me to create the donor-supported Club TBVO to help offset them.
  23. Being an ethical music lover in the age of streaming can feel bewildering. We have almost all of the music ever recorded (though not necessarily the best-sounding versions of it) at our fingertips all of the time. But we have no idea how much, if at all, our clicking “play” will benefit the people who created it. It’s a well-known fact that musicians, even seemingly popular ones, make very little from streaming. That’s not because there’s no money in streaming. It’s because that money is going to the platforms and (especially) the labels, not the artists. This has made it difficult for even moderately popular artists to eke out a middle-class living. Without that, it’s hard to see how music as we know it persist. As David Byrne wrote in an insightful 2014 essay, “If consumers and corporation owners are benefiting from this technology — which seems to be the case — but artists, the people who actually create the stuff, are losing out — then the current model wouldn’t seem to be sustainable: the content will run out eventually.” What should the ethical music fan do to forestall that dim fate? Given that streaming is here to stay, a good first step is selecting the service that pays artists best. The biggest player in the streaming industry, Spotify, is among the worst offenders when it comes to underpaying artists. By most accounts, Qobuz pays artists the highest rates per stream. For audiophiles, it also has the added bonus of offering true — that is, non-MQA — lossless hi-resolution audio. Beyond choosing the best service, fans can support artist-led organizations, like the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, pushing for higher streaming royalty rates and more equitable models of divvying up streaming revenues. At first blush, it might seem like buying music is the solution to the economics of streaming, but it’s not as simple as that. Today, only six percent of the average musician’s income comes from streams and sales of their recordings. “Consider, for example, U2, which made $54.4 million and was the highest-paid musical act of the year in 2017…,” Business Insider noted. “Of their total earnings, about 95%, or $52 million, came from touring, while less than 4% came from streaming and album sales.” It’s tempting to blame that on the rise of streaming. However, history is full of examples of famous artists who got ripped off in the “good old days” before streaming. The reality is that most musicians have never made much from the sale of their music. According to The Root, “for every $1,000 [of physical media] sold, the average musician gets $23.40.” Even that’s somewhat misleading, since it’s decade-old data and an aggregation of the entire industry. Many artists end up with much less, or even in debt to their label. For artists, the economics of physical media are bleak. As Bandzoogle’s Chris Vinson illustrated: Let’s say your CD is for sale in stores at $16.00 and that you are a band of 4 that also writes their own material. Your deal is to receive a royalty rate of 11%, but your producer takes 3% of that. So in the end you make 8% net royalty. $16.00 – $8.32 (30% for retailers, 22% for distributors) = $7.68. Let’s round this off to $8.00 (a very optimistic round up by the way) $8.00 - $2.00 (25% for packaging deducted by the label) = $6.00 X 8% = $0.48. So you make $0.50 per CD sold. Now let’s say you sell 500,000 copies. So that means you have $250,000 coming to you, right? Nope. Let’s see what else is taken off. In many cases the record label will take another 15% is deducted for promotional and review copies for radio and magazines. $250,000 – $37,500 (15% for promo copies) = $212,500 In addition to that the record label has to take their royalties. That’s another 30% of $212,500. $212,500- $63,750 (30% for record label royalties) = $148,750. Not as common anymore, but still in practice is the deduction of freebies and returns. What usually happens is that a retail store will [order] X amount of copies, but what happens when they don’t sell? They get returned. And who ends up paying for this? Yup, you guessed it, the artist. $148,750- $14,875 (10% for returns) = $133,875. Then there are recording studio costs that include the engineer, equipment rentals, and studio costs. With the advancements in the digital recording world studio costs have decreased, but let’s just say you spent $75,000. $133,875- $75,000 = $58,875. And who got you the deal? If a manager was involved, you can guarantee he will take 20% commission. If you are a multi-platinum selling artist, then maybe the rate drops to 15%. $58,875- $11,775 (20% to manager) = $47,100. And now let’s say you split the band’s earning evenly. Since there are four members in the band, you’ll split the amount earned 4 ways. $47,100 / 4 = $11,775. As Vinson notes, illustrations like the above understandably make music fans cynical about whether it really matters if they turn to streaming or even piracy instead of clicking “buy.” As I’ll discuss in the second part of this post, there are still plenty of good reasons (ethical and otherwise) to buy music in the age of streaming. (For starters, it’s important that producers, recording engineers, and mastering engineers get paid, and — especially for audiophiles — that high-quality reissue labels stay in business.) When it comes to supporting artists, however, the reality is that fans need to find more direct ways than streaming or buying music through common retailers. One way is to purchase music through Bandcamp and other outlets that give much larger shares of sales to musicians. However, if the music on Bandcamp was put out by a label — as opposed to artists themselves — then the artist might not get much of that revenue, either. In recent decades, touring has been the most dependable source of revenue for artists. According to a 2018 Citigroup report, total “consumer outlays” on music reached an all-time high of $20 billion in 2017. Artists made just one-fourth of that total, and the “bulk” of that came from touring. According to Future of Music Coalition data, live performance composes 27 percent of musicians’ income, the largest single share. Like much of the music industry’s economics, it’s almost impossible to cite firm, generalizable figures. While it seems clear that artists get a far larger share (perhaps even a majority) of gross ticket sales than gross album sales, the profitability of touring varies widely by the type and size of artists. While superstars and some legacy acts can sell out arenas with three- and four-figure ticket prices, netting millions, smaller musicians may struggle to break even at the end of a tour once food, lodging, transportation, and other expenses are subtracted. As Dawn Barger, the manager of The National — a band I once saw with my dad and 50 other people in a Cleveland bar — explained to NPR, “If you look at the finances of having a band on the road at the small club level...you're barely covering costs in a lot of cases…. I mean, if you're selling out every night, you're probably supporting yourself and you're able to quit your job, but you certainly have roommates, you're barely getting by, you're watching how many hotel rooms you get each night.” So, while you can be confident that (most of the time) the artist is getting a larger percentage of your ticket purchase than your album purchase or stream, live performance isn’t a certain moneymaker for every artist. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this. That leaves one more big way to support artists you love: merchandise. Merch tables at concerts have always had the potential to make or break the profitability of a tour for an artist. But, particularly during COVID, online merch sales have become an even more central revenue stream for artists. Today, an artist’s record may, in economic terms, become a money-losing vehicle for selling money-making merch. As Fader magazine’s Shaad D’Souza quipped, “The fact that the sale of t-shirts has become as (if not more) important than the sale of digital downloads or CDs is a bizarre and unlikely reality.” That’s because, even though it may involve some risk due to up-front costs, merchandise offers a relatively stable and controllable profit margin per item to artists. As Vanessa Ferrer, a former artist manager and founder of Merch Cat, told Mel magazine, “It takes around 3,400 streams on Spotify to make $15. You can make $15 selling one shirt.” According to Ferrer, t-shirts and tote bags tend to have the best return on investment for an artist, because they cost less to produce than hoodies and other items. In most cases, then, hopping onto your favorite artist’s website and buying a t-shirt might be the best way to support them in the streaming era. Artists are also finding new ways to use technology to connect with fans and make a living, like pay-per-view performance streams or Patreon and Substack subscriptions. Like buying merch, those can be great ways to give money directly to artists you love. Finally, fans can also become more understanding of artists’ accepting endorsement deals or allowing the use of their songs in commercials. As someone who came of age with the pejorative “sellout” entrenched firmly in his mind, I still cringe when I hear a beloved artists’ music in a commercial. Back in 2007, one of my favorite artists, Wilco, had to release this frank statement explaining their decision to license their music to Volkswagen: As many of you are aware, Volkswagen has recently begun running a series of TV commercials featuring Wilco music. Why? This is a subject we've discussed internally many times over the years regarding movies, TV shows and even the odd advertisement. With the commercial radio airplay route getting more difficult for many bands (including Wilco); we see this as another way to get the music out there. As with most of the above (with the debatable exception of radio) the band gets paid for this. To a certain extent, Wilco’s need to defend itself seems quaint 15 years later. When Bob Dylan — who clearly doesn’t need the money — is appearing in commercials left and right, it’s hard to fault struggling smaller artists with grabbing whatever income they can. Meanwhile, the constant slurry of sponsored content and targeted ads populating our social media timelines has made the once-clear distinction between art and commerce seem ever-more-blurry. So, where does that leave the ethical music fan? They should be mindful of the real economic struggles facing most artists and work to contribute what they can, when they can, by the most direct means possible. That might be subscribing to a newsletter, buying a t-shirt, or purchasing a Bandcamp download, depending on the particular artist. (But buying merch directly from an artist’s site is usually a safe bet across-the-board.) This might seem like it’s a bleak conclusion for audiophiles who prize owning media. But in the second part of this post, I’ll lay out why buying music is still important and how I think about piracy and used sales in the era of streaming. In the process, I’ll go over the ethical and practical considerations that go into tracking down all of the various digital copies of albums for my TBVO columns, how the cost of that contributed to my creating the donation-supported Club TBVO, and why (despite that) I’d still rather you buy something from your favorite artist than donate to Club TBVO (though I won't argue if you do both!).
  24. As I noted in the introduction to Club TBVO, writing my TBVO columns has underscored that -- while there's much to be said for the convenience of our streaming era -- the best sounding version of an album is, more often than not, still contained on physical media. Ebay and, especially, Discogs have made tracking down even the rarest physical media infinitely easier than before, too. But there are certain items that, even in the vastness of the interwebs, are impossible to track down, despite the fact that they must exist somewhere. (I'm still trying to lay my hands on a physical copy or bit-percfect transfer of the MFSL PCM VHS/Betamax of Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, which exists but doesn't even have a Discogs entry! A sealed copy sold on Ebay for $1,000 in 2017.) There's also something to be said for walking into a record store and finding a gem in the flesh, even if it's one that you could've bought online. First, there's that moment of recognition. "Here's that release I've been looking for! Wow! I can't believe they have it!" Then there's the fact that you get to actually inspect the copy yourself, rather than taking a seller's description on faith. Finally, you also might end up getting it for a bargain price, in contrast to the internet, where (for better or for worse) "what the market will bear" tends to operate more strictly than in the murky world of brick-and-mortar shops. A few weeks ago, I had one of those experiences. Shortly after moving to Charlottesville, I began checking out its two main record stores: Plan 9 and Sidetracks. Especially for a small town, these are two superb stores with excellent selection, even in the (possibly passé or possibly rebounding) CD format. Both get most new releases, with Sidetracks tending to do slightly better at stocking obscure rock releases. However, Plan 9 usually has the better used selection and (when it comes to both new and used) has a simply world-class Soul and R&B section. Over the years, I've found great stuff at both stores. At Sidetracks, I've bought a slate of pristine out-of-print Van Morrison remasters, along with a sealed copy of the rare Yes 1972 tour box set at a price far below what I would've had to pay for a new copy online. At Plan 9, I've pocketed more obscure out-of-print and Japan-only Funk releases than I can count, along with oddities like a promo-only Donald Fagen interview disc and a great KTS label The The live bootleg. But this local CD bin-diving also brought one near-miss that I couldn't let go. At Plan 9, I came across a copy of the 1990 MFSL release of Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story. This is a classic album. Subjectively, I love it. Historically, it's significant. Practically, there are many, many masterings. In other words, it checks all of the boxes as a certain future TBVO. At the time I came across the MFSL, I'd already bought a half-dozen versions of Every Picture Tells a Story. I'd also heard a rip of the MFSL I'd found online (more on the ethics and perils of this later), so I knew it sounded great. The price was fair. Buying the disc at Plan 9 was a no brainer. Alas, I opened the jewel case and discovered that someone had performed the once fashionable but pointless practice of coating the edge of the disc with an "audiophile" permanent green marker. The store offered to give me a discount on it, but I decided I wanted an un-"improved" disc. Since then, I've looked for the MFSL CD of Every Picture Tells a Story at every record store I've visited. We're talking dozens of stores across multiple years, including a trip to the (wonderful) Austin Record Convention with my lifelong best friend (the one that I used to visit CD Warehouse with constantly in high school and who still has the collecting fever, too). Yet, I never came across another copy of Every Picture Tells a Story. Sure, I could've bought one on Discogs. But I just couldn't bring myself to click "purchase" when I'd been so close to an in-person find. However, after years of fruitless searching, it was getting to the point that I was ready to buy it online. The hope of finding one in a record store had receded. That all changed a few weeks when my wife and I took a trip to Chicago to visit friends. There, I stopped at Reckless Records. Naturally, I scooped up a bunch of cheap Van Morrison and Steely Dan early pressings, hoping (as always) to discover a unique mastering. As I was getting ready to check out, I realized that I'd neglected to do my obligatory Every Picture Tells a Story search. At most stores, "audiophile" pressings are placed behind the counter, or at least displayed. That's how I immediately spotted the markered copy of Every Picture Tells a Story at Plan 9. It's rare to just find out-of-print (and usually more expensive) MFSL or DCC discs in the bins with run-of-the-mill recent remasters. As I sauntered over to the "Stewart, Rod" card, I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be funny if this was the place that finally had the MFSL disc, and you almost walked out without looking?" Sure enough, there it was! Not only that, it looked as though it had barely been touched since its release in 1990. Nary a scratch or scuff. The price, while slightly higher than the cheapest (uncertain condition) copies online, was more than reasonable. I added to my pile and strolled to the front desk, grinning ear-to-ear (not that anyone could necessary tell below my KN95). It may make me a dork to say so, but it was exhilarating to find that copy of Every Picture Tells a Story. Moreover, unlike the CDs I buy online, which tend to blend into an indistinguishable mass of "stuff that gets set on my porch," I'll always remember exactly when and where I got this superb copy of a classic album. The TBVO on Every Picture Tells a Story is coming. I have no idea whether the MFSL is the best-sounding digital version. It has stiff competition. But it sure was fun to find.
  25. “I know that this revelation of Mobile Fidelity cutting from transfers made to digital is sort-of anathema to some of our purest fans, and I understand that strictly from what you might read on a piece of paper. But the truth is that us cutting from digital transfers that we ourselves made is not an example of us losing our way, it’s actually an example of us adhering to it adhering to the purest aesthetic and perfecting things beyond anything in the past and the past goes back now 45 years…. Preserving the tape.” — Rob LoVerde, Mastering Engineer, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs The talk of the audiophile world the past few weeks has been the controversy over Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs’ vinyl releases. In short, it’s been revealed that MFSL has been including a digital step in its “One-Step” vinyl releases. Up until this week, the impression that MoFi’s promotional materials gave was that the company created the lacquer for each “One-Step” release directly from the original master tape: This seemed plausible to buyers when the company was pressing only a few thousand numbered copies of each “One-Step” release. That’s because each stamper is good for around 1,000 records, at best. Briefly, the “One-Step” process involves the mastering engineer playing back the master tape and making their equalization, compression, and other moves directly to a lacquer. That lacquer is then used to create a stamper, which contains the inverse (negative) of the lacquer’s (positive) grooves. However, this process damages the fragile lacquer. In the mass production of records, as opposed to “One-Step,” the lacquer is used to make intermediate “Fathers” and “Mothers,” depending on the number of steps, which can then be used to produce more stampers, each still good for 1,000 or so records. As Vinyl Moon explains, “A stamper will wear out after creating about 1000 records. A mother can produce around 10 stampers, and a father can produce about 10 mothers. This means that with the two-step process, about 11,000 records can be created before you need to start the entire process over with a new lacquer (remastering). The three-step process can produce about 100,000 records before remastering.” In the “One-Step” process, though, one has to go back to the master tape after the (single) stamper wears out. Buyers could imagine this return to the master tape was happening with something like MFSL’s lauded “One-Step” of Santana’s Abraxas, which was limited to 2,500 copies. But as the numbers crept up, doubts crept in. The damn broke with the “One-Step” release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, for which the company pressed 40,000 copies. Would Sony really let MoFi run the precious master tape of the best-selling album of all-time forty times? It seems the first skepticism was voiced by Michael Ludwigs of 45 RPM Audiophile on July 11th. In a video on his YouTube channel, Ludwigs wondered whether the Thriller ”One-Step” could really be all-analog with that many copies being pressed. While it seems Ludwigs’s video was based on speculation, Mike Esposito of The ‘In’ Groove (a Phoenix record store and a YouTube channel) confirmed the speculation a few days later based on sources at MoFi. Esposito followed up that video on July 20th with an interview, recorded at Mobile Fidelity, with mastering engineers Shawn Britton, Krieg Wunderlich, and Rob LoVerde. That conversation is fascinating and informative, with lots of great observations and tidbits, especially to a geek like me who loves hearing about how audiophile-quality masterings are made. But the headline for most viewers was that MFSL’s engineers admitted that some the “One-Step” releases involved converting the original master tape to 4x DSD, then mastering from that digital flat transfer. The engineers gave several reasons for this. The first is that sometimes it’s just not feasible to run a precious master tape that many times. As a digital consumer, I appreciate that. I don’t want the master tape of Thriller ruined for a “One-Step.” (In fact, I wish that record companies would take even better care of their tapes!) “There are certain tapes on the ‘One-Step’ process that you don’t want to play repeatedly,” Britton told Esposito. “That’s not the best thing for the tape.” “And if we can’t get the tapes, well we can’t put out the records,” Wunderlich added. “And that wouldn’t sound very good would it?” The other reason for the DSD step offered by the MoFi engineers is that many labels will not let their tapes be taken off-site. This means that engineers who want to make an audiophile-quality mastering don’t have the time necessary to do so if they’re working solely from the master tape on-site (as opposed to making a flat copy that they can with them back to MFSL headquarters). LoVerde: “When we have to go to Sony to capture master tapes…what we are really endeavoring to do is to create a Mobile Fidelity environment in the space where they’re allowing their masters to reside. So all we really need from them is a power outlet, you know, and the rest is our equipment that we ship over from here — that we use here — and also a technician who works here as well…. If we can’t bring the tape here we bring here to the tape. We’re trying to really optimize the work under the conditions that are specified sometimes by the record label. The ‘the less is more credo’ still stands — minimal cable lengths, no unnecessary circuitry in the system, and the like — to get the cleanest, flattest transfer that that we can then bring back here to work on from the mastering end. So the work off site is all about transfer. It’s not really about any editorializing. It’s about just creating a literal clone of the master as neutrally as possible and then bringing that clone here to say, ‘Okay, this is as if we had the master tape here at Mobile Fidelity.’ So that is what we do when necessitated.” Given all this, should buyers of MFSL’s vinyl “One-Step” releases be angry? There’s a technological angle to that question, and then there’s a consumer transparency angle. Taking the latter first, it’s understandable that someone who bought a MoFi “One-Step” vinyl believing that it was all-analog feels misled when they find out that a digital step was involved. Even as someone who’s digital-only, I understand. You thought you were buying one thing, and you got another. Clearly, it would’ve been better had Mobile Fidelity been transparent from the beginning about the digital step. However, I applaud the company’s response to this controversy, which — beyond the interview with Esposito — is to make the full path clear for each release. That’s something that’s already happening, not just for new releases, but also for old ones. MFSL’s updating the web pages for past releases to make clear which ones had a DSD step. That’s the right thing to do. That leaves the technological angle. For many analog fans, digital is (in the immortal words of Žižek) “violence!“ They want all-analog releases because they don’t want their sound to ever reside as bits. This feeling may come from the mistaken belief that digital, as a process of discrete sampling, is somehow unable to reproduce a continuous sound, meaning that vinyl records with a digital step will sound worse than ones with an all-analog signal path. For example, Michael Fremer (whose writing I enjoy) went on Ludwigs’s YouTube show to criticize Esposito’s interview with the MoFi engineers. Among other claims, Fremer says, “When people say, ‘Well you can’t hear the difference [between all-analog vinyl and vinyl with a digital step],’ I tell [them], ‘If you play the Analog Productions [Stevie Ray Vaughan] Couldn’t Stand the Weather cut from a tape versus the ‘One-Step’ cut from a DSD master…you can hear the difference. There’s a softness to it. There’s this lack of something.” However, it’s worth asking how true that is. Fremer gushed in his review of MoFi’s “One-Step” of Abraxas. He rated the sound an eleven out of ten and wrote: Halfway through this ‘One-Step’ side one I said to myself, “This might be the best record I’ve ever heard.” I meant by that the technical quality of the record and how much it resembles tape in four critical parameters: the wide dynamics and low bass response, the unlimited dynamic range, the tape-like sense of flow and especially the enormity of the soundstage presentation…. I had to refresh my sonic memory with the alternative versions I have here that include two originals, a German pressing from the 1990s and the Columbia “Mastersound” half-speed mastered version. First of all, about half of this record is magnificently recorded and hard work would be necessary to make it sound bad but this “one step” version is mind-glowingly better than any of the other versions I have beginning with the earth shaking bass that extends to near-impossible depths, moving on to the enormity of the stage width and especially depth and the transparency and the dynamic slam plus the blackest backdrops you’ll hear on a record. I’m telling you, if you love the album it’s worth spending $100 on it. Compared to this version the half-speed mastered Columbia sounds like a cassette tape. Yet, in the interview with Esposito, the engineers said[*] that the “One-Step” Abraxas included a DSD step. This has been confirmed as MoFi has updated its site with source info. The old release page for Abraxas said, “MOBILE FIDELITY’S PREMIER ULTRADISC ONE-STEP RELEASE: MASTERED FROM THE ORIGINAL MASTER TAPES, REACHES SONIC HEIGHTS NEVER BEFORE ACHIEVED BY ANALOG.” The new one adds, “1/4” / 15 IPS analog master to DSD 256.” In other words, Fremer thought a release with a DSD step, rather than being “soft” or suffering from a “lack of something,” sounded like “best record [he’d] ever heard.” Putting aside this (in my opinion, misplaced) dislike of digital sound, other consumers of MoFi’s “One-Step” releases may feel cheated because they’re motivated by a simple desire to keep things analog. After all, why buy analog music if it’s sourced from digital? That’s not for me to judge. Audiophiles are persnickety perfectionists by their nature. I know I am. That’s actually why I’m a digital-only audiophile. Vinyl suffers from a limited dynamic range and various kinds of sonic limitations and distortions. That would bother me. Making matters worse, my OCD (and I don’t use that colloquially) couldn’t abide knowing that other copies of the exact same release I own (not a different mastering or pressing) could sound better than mine. Fewer clicks and pops. A “hot stamper.” Etc. Vinyl is simply too fickle and fragile for someone like me. Beyond its dynamic range and clean playbacks, I love digital for its ability to be copied losslessly. In the comments on the post announcing this blog, @Rexp reasonably wondered why TBVO (The Best Version Of…) isn’t known as TBDVO (The Best Digital Version Of…). The above is part of the answer. The other part is that I simply couldn’t write TBVO the same way — or maybe at all — if I were to include vinyl. For some TBVO columns, I’ve used one (or more) vinyl-to-digital rips as a shadow comparison. The reason I haven’t done that more is that I’ve experienced downloading two, three, or even four rips of what’s ostensibly the same pressing, only to have them vary in equalization more than distinct CD masterings. Wear to the stamper, wear from use, different styluses…. There are just too many variables. That’s not to say that someone with a great vinyl setup couldn’t do a TBVO-like column — I’d even license them the TBVO moniker for a small (large) fee! — but I’m just not that person. What I think is clear is that the MoFi engineers believe that what they were doing gave them the best chance to make the highest-quality product, and I agree. (Ultimately, if I have any criticism of MoFi’s decisions, it’s that I prefer hi-res PCM to DSD, but I realize that’s a controversial take.) LoVerde: “I know that this revelation of Mobile Fidelity cutting from transfers made to digital is sort-of anathema to some of our purest fans, and I understand that strictly from what you might read on a piece of paper. But the truth is that us cutting from digital transfers that we ourselves made is not an example of us losing our way, it’s actually an example of us adhering to it adhering to the purest aesthetic and perfecting things beyond anything in the past, and the past goes back now 45 years…. Preserving the tape.” Britton: “One of the things that we do without getting into too much detail again is we try in our transfers — I think we achieve; we don’t just try — we recreate what the original recorder alignment was. So that requires a skill set that we learned from Stan Ricker himself. These techniques have been handed down, and I want to emphasize that. The MoFi that you know and love from back in the day from the ‘70s, that methodology has not changed. The technology has certainly, and Mobile Fidelity is, no pun intended, on the cutting edge of technology in that we keep up with new trends. But we have that same ethos, that same way of transferring the tapes.” It’s worth noting that MFSL could’ve brought an analog copy of the master back to Mobile Fidelity headquarters, thereby keeping the process all-analog. But — and this is where the technological angle perhaps trumps consumers’ preferences — the engineers feel that a digital copy sounds better! Wunderlich: “The 30 IPS analog [or a tape of any sort] is not actually as accurate as the 4x DSD. It’s truly a very transparent format. With the pre-emphasis and de-emphasis in the analog tape machine, yes it is analog, but it is another generation of analog that [is] another thumb print between the master tape and the lathe, and it’s a thumb print that we really don’t want. We’ve tried it. We auditioned several different [options] — 30 ips, 15 ips, one-inch, half-inch, Dolby SR, no Dolby, all of these things… maybe in some cases it’s a little bit of a benefit, [but] in other cases it does change things. It’s best in this case to get absolutely as close to the master tape as you can. To not change things, and then bring that to the lathe and let it do its magic.” To be sure, Mobile Fidelity should’ve been transparent about the DSD step from the beginning. But it’s worth noting that — for the vast, vast majority of releases, analog or digital — consumers usually have no idea what the source is. Mobile Fidelity’s dedication to tracking down the actual master tape and playing it back on a properly calibrated machine is to be applauded. It’s common for commercial releases to be sourced from copies of the master tape. Often, it’s not even clear what should properly be called the “master tape.” Back in the analog era, some labels sent copies of the flat two-track master around the world for various regional pressings. That meant that each of these pressings had a different mastering. Other companies made EQ’d “cutting master” tapes from the flat two-track masters. These cutting master tapes were sent around the world to ensure that the mastering on each regional release was (roughly) the same. Some not-so-great sounding early CDs were made from these cutting masters, which had been equalized for vinyl’s limitations. Things get more complex when the original master tape is worn. In that case, a safety copy might sound better. And on and on. Getting the best available transfer of the actual master tape (or the best surviving copy) is crucial, and that’s the first thing that separates and audiophile-quality release from the others. Britton: “Getting those original tape transfers right makes a greater difference than some of the differences between analog and digital…. I’m not going to name any mastering houses. There’s a lot of people doing great stuff out there…. It’s not like the old days of MoFi where it was easier to redo an album and the commercial versions were lacking…. [But] the DSD transfers that we do are accurate representations of that tape. Now if somebody’s mastering at a commercial mastering house, and they’re paying $500 an hour, they don’t have the time to swap out cables or, as I mentioned earlier today, adjust Dolbys in two-tenths of a dB increments until you get that alignment spot on, just right. So we have the luxury of time, and that difference that we make is what makes the Mobile Fidelity records so great.” The next step is having the time (and desire) to make sure that the final consumer release sounds as good as it possibly can. Even if the MoFi digital release isn’t always my favorite version, it’s always dynamic, and it’s essentially never a bad mastering. LoVerde: “I would much rather have a copy — and this is not saying we use copy tapes — [but] I would rather have a copy tape and all the time in the world than [to have] the master tape in a day, because if you’re not doing your job properly [then] the master tape is completely irrelevant… I’d rather do my best job with a copy of the master tape than a rush job with the master tape itself. And being that we make the release schedule… we don’t call a mastering facility and say, ‘Hey we’d like to book time. Can we come in? What’s your hourly rate?’ And then somebody hears, ‘Oh this is gonna cost two thousand dollars. Get in there. You’ve got four hours, Shawn. We’re on the clock. Do it!’ That doesn’t happen there…. That just feels good that when you walk away from the project at the end you can say, ‘No stone was unturned. I wasn’t rushed.’” Britton: “One of the things that we do have is the luxury of time. We say this over and over, but it’s true. And using the DSD — the 4x DSD — transfers allows us that opportunity to do incremental adjustments and not [be] constrained by trying to do something on the fly.” If nothing else comes out of this controversy, I’m glad that consumers are getting clarity. That’s a good thing. I also appreciate Esposito’s conversation with the MoFi engineers, which is worth watching in its entirety even if you don’t care about the sourcing of the “One-Step” releases. Britton, Wunderlich, and LoVerde provide all kinds of behind-the-scenes insights about the mastering process. To cite a few examples: LoVerde explains that transferring to another format before mastering to vinyl is necessary in some cases, because there are different calibration tones for each track. He cites Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On as an example. The master takes could also be split across multiple reels. In both cases, one can’t easily master directly from the tape to the lacquer. The engineers stress the necessity of reading previous engineering notes carefully due to things like reverse channels. (Something I encountered when writing the TBVO on Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair.) Sometimes extra leader is inserted into master tapes to make it easy to master for singles. However, if they don’t account for that, the gaps between tracks won’t match the original album. So they have to go back to the original album to measure the silence between the tracks. There’s a fascinating discussion of how the uncompressed versions of the released takes sometimes sound like a remix, due to the drastic effects that compression had on the original release. (I definitely experienced this when writing the TBVO on Peter Gabriel’s So.) While the original Mobile Fidelity company went bankrupt in 1999 and was then bought and relaunched by Jim Davis, the owner of Music Direct, the engineers (some of whom span this changing of the guard) emphasize the continuity between the “old” Mobile Fidelity and the “new” company in terms of philosophy and gear. Finally, my favorite quote from the interview — and one of the best quotes I’ve ever read about mastering — comes from LoVerde. It’s something that all audiophiles should keep in mind: One thing that I think is worth noting is that — you know, because I’m a consumer too… we all used to just be consumers [before] we became engineers, but I’m still a consumer — consumers want things to be very black and white. Is it analog? Is it digital? Is it flat? Did you EQ it? Is it compressed? Is it not compressed? Because that’s easy to comprehend, and there’s a psychological satisfaction that derives from that certainty. The reality is that it’s never that black and white — almost never that black and white. If somebody says, ‘Did you transfer that flat?’ Well, that to me means that I didn’t equalize it. ‘Okay, yes, so it’s transferred flat.’ Well what was the calibration of my reproducing amplifier? Was that flat? Okay, flat to what? To an MRL calibration tape? To the project tones that came with that master tape? Who defines flat? What defines flat? All of these things are factors that understandably the average consumer would not [or] should not consider. It’s when we’re approached by those consumers and they want answers then it becomes, ‘We’d love to give those to you, but it’s actually a long story.’ It’s not yes or no. It’s not black or white. There’s a story. [*] It seems there’s some longstanding beef between Fremer and Esposito. This seems to have prevented Fremer from being fair to Esposito, which caused him to miss key points in the interview. In the video with Ludwigs, Fremer claims that Esposito failed to get the MoFi engineers to tell him whether the famed Abraxis and Miles Davis “One-Step” releases used DSD when, in fact, the engineers do say in the video that both the Abraxis and Miles Davis releases were from DSD.
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