The above quotation comes from Mark Knopfler's song, "One World," appearing on the Dire Straits smash hit album, Brothers in Arms. Judging from my initial reaction to this CD in its newly remastered version, audiophiles who are hoping to hear this album, finally, with the fancy notes they have always hoped for will still be searching for the antidote to its lackluster sound. It and five other Dire Straits albums -- Dire Straits, Communique, Making Movies, Love Over Gold, and On Every Street -- are now available in newly reissued SBM remasters at mid-price. Because they are almost completely devoid of technical details in the liner notes, one has to look closely to find that all six of these were remastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering. I thought there may be some readers who have been itching to get their hands on them, so here are some impressions.
Mark Knopfler, leader of Dire Straits, is one of the most interesting songwriters of his generation. His music embodies much from the '60s and '70s rock groups that preceded him, with biting lyrics similar to those of a Paul Simon or Bob Dylan richly portraying his often somber senses. Many of his songs deal in very subtle ways with the inequities of living in the modern world; others are not so subtle. The album titles often carry a connotation of the subject matter within, as is the case with some of these six remasters. Indeed, the group's name itself might harbor some implication of Knopfler's world view.
I started with Communique (Warner 47770-2), the group's second album. As the album title suggests, there is an urgent message contained herein. Unlike Dire Straits' first album, Communique offers social commentary and introspection through the use of diverse images and situations. Into the Rotel it went; I sat down to listen and then pushed the start button on my remote. Seconds later I was jumping from my chair to back the volume way down. This has to be one of the loudest CDs in my collection. The volume control on my SP-9 is usually set between the 9:30 and 10 o'clock positions to listen to CDs, but I had to take it down to about 8:00 to get the volume to a comfortable level (7:00 is as far down as it goes). At this level, the average SPL is somewhere in the low 90's, with peak levels extending as much as 3-6 dB more.
On the British vinyl pressing, Communique offered some amazing audiophile sonic delights from start to finish, and is, perhaps, the best-sounding of their six studio releases. In short, this import pressing of the album is transparent, musically natural-sounding and dynamic -- far more so than on the domestic pressing. Knopfler's slightly Morrison-like voice has air around it, with a clarity that allows listeners to hear the subtle shadings in his vocal articulations (especially on consonant sounds like the "w" and "th" in the word "with" -- as in "if you ain't with me, girl ..."). In this example, there is an elongation to the "w" giving it the proper "uwa" sound we hear in normal speech, and we hear the "th" trail off properly too. One of the problems with most recordings of vocal music is that such acute enunciation is somehow masked or veiled, either through equipment that cannot capture such subtle details adequately, or through improper equalization when the sound engineer makes the working masters. At times, one can hear the vibrations of his vocal chords in the lower octaves almost as well as if Knopfler were standing about six feet in front of the listener. Background vocals sound just as background vocals should: they are placed distantly enough in the soundstage to offer the illusion of a live performance. Instrumentally, the lines of the bass player on the LP show more dynamic and harmonic contrasts, especially on the first two tracks, "Once Upon A Time In The West" and "News," than either version of the CD. Not only are the bass notes more distinguishable as the bassist moves up and down the scale, but there are larger differences in levels as well. The drums on the vinyl are also far more open and natural sounding than on either CD. This is especially noted near the end of "News," where the bass drum exhibits an airiness and punchy, speedy, quality not present on either version of the CD. In my younger days, I used this track to assess the strengths or weaknesses in a speaker's ability to reproduce the bottom end with requisite depth and speed. Both versions of the CD sound less articulate and a bit bloated by comparison in this respect, and both CDs sound remarkably similar.
The biggest differences between the LP and both CD versions of Communique boil down to transparency. This is most obviously noted on the final track of the album, "Follow Me Home." Here, the original engineer used the sounds of crickets and incoming waves on a beach to transport the listener from the mental image of the previous song into the next. Critcal listeners might imagine themselves walking on a south sea island beach just after dusk; one can almost sense the dense, humid tropical air. Readers who have walked along a beach will have a good recollection of the roar of the incoming surf as the waves come on shore, and of the bubbles in the surf popping as the water recedes. Because the level contrasts between the immensity of the incoming surf and the subtlety of the popping bubbles as it recedes are nearly non-existent on the CDs, the sound falls quite a bit short of the vinyl. As noted above, all of the sound qualities that made the original recording superior to the reissues in the first two tracks continue on throughout the album. I can assume only that they were made from second or third generation copies that do not capture all of the subtleties of the original tape. When comparing the older CD to the newer one, the similarity in sound would suggest that the degradation in sound when compared to the analog original cannot be attributed to differences in the equipment used to create either of the CD masters. Nor would I think that Bob Ludwig might have taken a different approach in creating the new digital masters, intentionally masking these details.
All of this is just as true in assessing the sound quality of Love Over Gold (Warner 47772-2), Knopfler's tour de force commentary on social maladies. Even the title of the album gives one a hint of the subject matter he will find here. Like Faulkner's short story, "The Bear," the first selection on the album, "Telegraph Road," presents us with an account of the destruction of nature through the onslaught of civilization, and the degradation in the quality of individual freedoms that follows. In "Private Investigations," Knopfler speaks of the mistrust pervading much of social interaction and its psychological effects on people. In "Industrial Disease" we are faced with more of the consequences of modern life and a critique of socialism. As an artistic whole, Love Over Gold may be the best of the six reissued albums despite the fact that its popularity among record buyers was lower than the others. Peaking at number 19 on the Billboard album charts in October, 1982, the album did not enjoy the commercial success of any that preceded or followed it. As for the sound, the original analog versions (I have the domestic and German pressings) are almost as transparent as Communique, and in a few exceptional moments they're even better. The long, low-frequency synthesizer bass introduction on "Telegraph Road" is deep and spatially expansive on the vinyl. On my Velodyne ULD-12 subwoofers there is a quality to it that reveals a clear distinction in depth and a greater sense of changes in octaves than there is on either CD. The acoustic guitar and piano at the beginning of "Private Investigations" are rich in ambiance and with a degree of transparency, again, missing from either CD version. And later in the same song, the shattering glass appearing deep in the background of the left channel (at 5:40, my CD player tells me) is clear and palpable, but almost completely missing in both of the digital transfers. Each of these instances demonstrates the lack of inner detail and transparency common throughout this reissue when compared to the original vinyl. Readers who are familiar with the album will know of what I write. As with the Communique reissue, this one is rather dry and bright sounding, showing no improvement over the original mid-'80s CD release, which was itself no match for the superior sound of the record (please don't kill the messenger).
Brothers In Arms (Warner 47773-2) was released originally in the spring of 1985. The album is the group's most popular by a wide margin. It was on the Billboard album chart for more than a year, and peaked at number 1 for nine weeks beginning June, 1985. Strangely enough, two of its three singles hits are, in my opinion, the weakest songs on the album, while its three most interesting songs, "One World," "Ride Across the River" and "Brothers In Arms" apparently went unnoticed (perhaps record buyers never bothered to flip over to side two). Many of Dire Straits's fans might consider this album to be a continuation of Knopfler's despair running through all of Love Over Gold, especially in consideration of those three songs I just mentioned. The LP's content differed slightly from the CD in that three of its songs were shortened to allow all of the songs to fit on one record comfortably.
I can recall the disappointment I felt upon first hearing the LP. Unlike the group's four earlier albums, this one sounded thin and tipped up throughout much of the midrange and treble, and grossly lacking in dynamic contrasts. It sounded very homogenized. Upon buying the CD version of the album two months later, though, I discovered that the two sounded almost identical. Any differences I heard were probably a result of my equipment and not the software. The CD version of Brothers was the very first CD I bought, and since the CD compared so well with the vinyl I was positively impressed with the then-new medium from the outset. I didn't consider at the time that the new album's sound differed so greatly from the earlier LPs because it, as the album's jacket so proudly proclaims, is "a full digital recording," but only that my one CD sample, by its similarity to the vinyl, must be indicative of the medium's promise. It was, I thought, just that the album was recorded relatively poorly. Since many of the first CDs I bought were reissues of music I had always enjoyed on record, I was soon to discover that while the promise was there the fulfillment was not.
Considering Brothers has been the most difficult part of this presentation for a number of reasons. While in the midst of writing this, I stopped to contact our editor with questions on the subject of early digital audio recording systems. KWN has one of the most impressive memories I've ever encountered, so I figured he might be in a position to point me to a source on the web that could provide the sort of data that I sought. I contacted other sources too, none of which could cite a definitive source. In pieceing together the bits of information I was able to gather here and there, I have come up with this one bit of tangible information: During the early days of digital (that period during which the LP still outsold the CD), there were several recording systems available to the music industry. Some of these recorded below the then-soon-to-be-adopted 16-bit standard, but none that my sources knew of could surpass the standard, even by as little as one bit. One noted that the industry was cautious of the new medium, and often archived its original digital recordings to analog safety backups because it was not known how well digital tapes could survive in storage. The point of my effort is important because the majority of music reissues these days contain very little technical information. Even the three-letter designations (such as AAD or DDD) that were common on early digital releases do not appear on most current CDs. It is nearly impossible, then, for music buyers to determine the original sources for much of the music they are buying. Are some coming from these analog safety backups? But more importantly, the issue of how an early digital recording was originally made casts some doubt on its serviceability as digital recording processes improve, and improve they have. Unless the goal were to modify the original source through equalization or some other such alteration of the original sound, using current 24/96 technology to remaster a digital source originally recorded at 16/ 44.1 or below would be meaningless. The result would be nothing more than a 16-bit recording passed through a 24-bit system.
If you've heard "Money For Nothing," a song that equates the banal life of an appliance salesman to that of a rock musician, too many times to ever want to hear it again, though, you'll be happy to read here, that, other than its higher volume level, the newly remastered CD is nearly impossible to distinguish from the original. Although I consider the song, "One World," to be among Knopfler's most important compositions, the album as a whole is not as creative as the four that preceded it. The inference in "Money For Nothing" that many pop musicians "sell out" is not imagined. Unless you are a completist, you won't have to buy this new remaster. Brothers In Arms will probably continue to be the most popular of these Dire Straits albums notwithstanding, and outsell all of the other five titles combined.
That leaves the self-titled first album, Making Movies, and On Every Street without reviews. My guess is that these three will offer the same sort of sound as their originals on CD if they are commensurate with those mentioned above. Keep in mind that the last Dire Straits album, On Every Street, was released in 1991, and is probably a pure digital 16-bit recording (although there's nothing on the CD or in the notes to confirm this). The new reissue, then, should not sound any different either, nor could it benefit from any improvements the higher sampling rate or word length could possibly provide, assuming no tricks with equalization are employed.
I should also mention that I neglected to list details of the mastering of the originals on both LP and CD. As it turns out, Bob Ludwig did the mastering for the American pressings on vinyl of both Love Over Gold and Brothers In Arms. There is no mention, however, of his contribution to any of the earlier recordings on vinyl. Ludwig is also credited with the mastering of On Every Street on compact disc (the only one of these releases of which I do not have the LP copy), but his name is not listed on my CD versions of the two former titles. This might be because my copies of the CDs were purchased prior to the existence of any CD pressing plants in the USA, and the albums digitally mastered somewhere else. Although pressed for the American market, my copies of these two come from Japan and Germany respectively. If there are any noticeable differences between these very early CDs and those that were pressed here later, then it is likely that the new remasters could be slightly different if not better.
A few days after I had written my notes on these reissues, I remembered that I had not compared the new reissues to one other CD, the hits compilation released in 1998 titled Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits (Warner 47130-2). I had not reviewed this release previously because I was not particularly happy with the selections that the producers had chosen for it. Several of the tracks are severely truncated -- at least three from Brothers In Arms (they might be the singles versions created for radio broadcast, as they differ from the shortened versions on the LP), along with nearly two minutes missing from "Private Investigations" from Love Over Gold. Several more are from two live albums not considered here. To put it succinctly, comparing just the few songs appearing here from Communique and Love Over Gold, the sound on this collection is much better than that from either the new remasters or the original CDs, and coming much closer to the sound on the original analog recordings. After much thought, I conclude that the engineer's different approach to mastering and its HDCD encoding, perhaps, contribute to the better sound on this CD. Since I have not sampled it on a non-HDCD player, I could not guarantee that readers without HDCD capability would achieve the same results.
"You say yes, I say no ..." (Lennon/McCartney: from "Hello Goodbye")
Just in time for the first holiday season of the third millennium arrived Beatles 1 (Capitol/Apple 29325-2), a new collection of 27 hits spanning the Beatles' career. The big yellow number 1 emblazoned on the bright red background tells us that here are all of the group's number 1 hits on one CD. Checking my copy of The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, I found that there were 20 of their tunes to reach those lofty heights in the US of A; the seven additional songs on the CD peaked at number 1 in England. The selections are presented chronologically by their recording date, and not necessarily by the date that they charted in either the US or UK.
The Fab Four were, of course, a recording phenomenon in Europe for more than a year before they established a real foothold on this side of the Atlantic. My recollection of first hearing "Love Me Do" on the radio (from the Vee-Jay album, Introducing the Beatles) was in July, 1963, five months before they received any popular notice in the States. The following December, Capitol records released Meet the Beatles, which peaked at number 1 on 2/8/ 64 on Billboard's album chart. The Vee-Jay album released earlier then peaked at number two the following week and the rest, as they say, is history. Strangely enough, the Vee-Jay album had five top-10 singles hits on it (although "P.S. I Love You" appeared only on the earliest pressings), while Capitol's release had only one. Over the next nine months, three more Beatles albums released expressly for the American market, the soundtrack from the movie, A Hard Day's Night, and 28 singles would chart in the USA. The group would follow up this incredible year with another 11 albums and 33 singles that would chart before the group disbanded in 1969; their last album, Let It Be, was released the following spring, followed by a number of hits compilations. In the years to follow, no less than six of their songs would enter the charts as hit singles, two of these as late as the '90s following the release of the three volumes anthologizing nearly all of their recording sessions. In all, the group amassed 30 albums and 75 charting singles. Simply put, the Beatles -- particularly Lennon and McCartney -- wrote top-notch tunes, and presented them far more imginatively than most other performing artists of the period; pop music critics consider the Beatles to be the most popular rock group of all time. They alone are responsible for the "British Invasion" that followed their arrival here, introducing Americans to the Animals, the Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits, Donovan, the Kinks, and hosts of others.
But the Beatles were more than just a band that could roll out one hit single after another. Their albums held an appeal to a different kind of popular music listener which, beginning with Revolver in late 1966, showed the Lennon-McCartney writing team to be concept album organizers of the highest order in addition to their talents as singles composers. They led their listeners into more socially conscious subjects with such lyrics as, "We were talking about the space between us all," from their most inventive album, Segeant Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band. In effect, their music spoke to the broadest of audiences, although some of their fans never bought anything but their singles. It is well known but worth repeating that their recording output was marketed differently here than it was back in England. There, singles issues were not products extracted from albums, and albums contained unique material reserved particularly for that format. Singles were often reissued later as EPs (extended play 45s). Here, the Capitol programmers routinely truncated the UK albums by removing as many as four songs, and then combining them with singles to produce another album. Examples of this include Beatles 65, Beatles VI and Yesterday and Today. None of these were released as albums in England. What is most interesting about this is that although they continued to have a series of singles hits, only six of them were derived from the last five original album releases (all of which charted at number 1), and this despite the fact that two of those albums, Sergeant Pepper's and The Beatles (commonly referred to as "the white album"), produced no top 10 singles hits at all. These are the only two albums not represented on this new collection.
To be sure, this new collection offers nothing new; we hear the songs as we always have. Nonetheless, it will be of interest to Beatles fans worldwide for a number of reasons. The 30-page booklet is chocked full of of photos of each of the singles' picture sleeves from numerous countries, along with recording and chart dates for both USA and UK charts. This release corrects a few minor defects (tape dropouts, fades) that were evident on a few of the earlier CD releases, and it is the first official release to offer Beatles songs using the 24-bit mastering process, albeit with heavy-handed noise reduction in some instances to liken these tapes to the tampering on Florida voting ballots. For readers who still prefer to listen to records, EMI has issued a two-LP set pressed in England that is available from any of a number of mail order dealers who cater to audiophiles. I do not think that any advantage comes with this higher-priced alternative, as the recordings are not pure analog. Sources tell me that the LP stamping masters were made from the same digital remixes as the CDs and cassettes, so the same losses in converting from analog to digital would be there too. Prices ranged from $25 to $35 at the dealers I checked. The album set new sales records worldwide: 3 million copies sold in its very first week of issue, and 20 million copies within the first month.
All 27 of the songs appearing on this new collection appear on The Beatles: 1962-1966 and The Beatles: 1967-1970, which were originally released on vinyl in 1973, and reissued on CD in the early '90s. About half of them were released exclusively on CD on the two-volume series, Past Masters, an indispensible collection for avid Beatles collectors because it offered singles mixes of some songs that were not available on other CDs. If the reader owns any or all of these, he or she might not want to buy this new collection based on the comments that follow.
Unlike the comparisons of sound quality above for the new Dire Straits reissues, I did not listen to my vinyl copies of these recordings. Most of my copies are the original domestic pressings that date back more than 35 years in some instances, and are not in very good condition. The more important issue for audiophiles might be in determining whether the 24-bit mapping on the new CD offers any improvement over the previous releases. Notes in the booklet tell us that "all tracks were processed using Sonic Solutions NoNoise technology and mastered to 16 bit for CD using Prism SNS Noise Shaping." This noise reduction process is evident on quality systems almost immediately, and it is less often a blessing than it is a curse. I'll dispense with a song-by-song assessment this time, and simply tell you that any possible benefits derived from the 24-bit mastering are nullified by noise reduction and obvious equalization adjustments. Although these techniques remove much of the harshness from the earliest recordings on the CD, a careful comparison of the most of the later selections reveals that what little "air" there was to make the analog to digital trek on the earlier CDs has been almost completely eradicated. Most of the Beatles' music has never been considered as audiophile quality sound, so many will regard the processing found here as an improvement over the previous CD releases. In all, though, I can find no improvements here that can be attributed to the higher 24-bit mastering technology.
As a summary of my discussion on the higher bit-rate recording processes appearing last issue, I will say that while these technologies should offer a superior sounding facsimile of the original analog source in theory, the results are often not what audiophiles would expect. Several of the reissues I discussed here demonstrate this. Conversely, there are numerous audio critics and engineers who believe that the processes that extend bit rate and word length offer no improvement in sound whatsoever. Their opinion is that any differences we hear in comparisons with standard 16-bit recordings are merely the result of "tricks with equalization," as one such detractor mentioned to me. From my overall experience with remastered recordings, I can't deny that there is much merit in this position. But in the end, I have to place confidence in the designers who strive to improve technology. Civilization once held the belief that the world was flat, but today's scientists freely admit that they are a long way from knowing everything. As always, I welcome your questions or comments by e-mail: email@example.com. --SGB
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|Article Type:||Sound Recording Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2001|
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