By Dave Thompson
Don't get out the lie detector just yet, but I think the first time I ever encountered the words “digitally mastered” emblazoned across a vinyl LP sleeve was the German-language version of Peter Gabriel’s “Security album,” back in 1982. It was a big deal. Thirty years have passed since then, but you may still recall the excitement that was percolating through the music industry at the time, as artists and audience alike pondered the possibilities of this revolutionary new technique.
Digital sound! How could it fail to be perfect?
Thirty years on, those words are less alluring. And not only because we have grown so accustomed to them that they barely elicit a shrug any longer. “Digitally mastered?” we sneer. “You and everybody else.”
And “digitally remastered?”
Them’s fighting words.
Especially when applied to vinyl.
Let’s not — repeat, not — get into some great debate about the pros and cons of taking an old tape and running it through a computer program to improve (or otherwise affect) the sound quality. Compact discs are a digital medium, and so are MP3s. If we want music we can play in those formats, then it’s going to be digitized, whether we like it or not.
Where things get interesting, and maybe even controversial, is when that same digital remastering is applied back to vinyl — taking a recorded sound that was designed for analog, converting it to one that was designed for CD and then applying it back to a format that was also designed for analog. It’s a little like moving to France for a few years, but only learning the language after you have returned to the U.S., and then expecting everyone here to know what you are talking about.
It’s an old argument, of course; one that has been percolating in chat rooms and discussion boards ever since vinyl began making its “comeback.” With new reissues appearing every week, and some fabulous old finds being restored to the old 12-inch racks, we are arguably in the same position with our musical heritage today as we were in the early 1990s, once it became apparent that CDs were not being held back only for monster big sellers, and that great swaths of even the obscurest catalog were now destined to be reissued. Another analogy? An architect came along and completely demolished your favorite city — and 20 years on, built an identical replica on the ruins.
Oh, well. It keeps us spending money. It dawned on me the other day that I have now bought or otherwise acquired nine different copies of “Sgt. Pepper” in the years since I received my first mono copy as a juvenile birthday present. And I don’t even like the thing. Apply that to all the albums that I do like, and which have been re-presented in super new “best-ever sound” in the years since they were new releases, and I could wallpaper a small mansion with the cover art: “And this is the ‘Court of the Crimson King’ suite. I hope you sleep well.”
These ruminations, scattered as they are, are especially apropos with the arrival of the latest Beatles reissues, the entire catalog repressed on both mono and stereo vinyl utilizing the same master tapes that provided us with those — yes, that phrase again, “best-ever sounding” — CDs a couple of years ago.
The same digitally remastered master tapes.
And there’s a very strange conflict going on here because, if you ask any true waxophile what it is that they love about vinyl, somewhere amid the ensuing rhapsodies over cover art that the over-50s can actually see across the room, and the sheer sense of “value” that a 12-inch record conveys, the sound quality will be mentioned. The warmth. The depth. The wide-open pastures in which the stylus can frolic, picking out the tiniest background sound and amplifying it in ways that, well, digital sound simply cannot compete with.
I don’t have a technical bone in my body, so I will refrain from even attempting to explain why one particular twang of guitar on the old London/Decca vinyl “Let It Bleed” sounds more “real” than the same twang on the CD. But the fact is, it does. It’s as if the needle knows how loud it should be, and where it needs to be placed, whereas the computer just says, “Ah yes, a twang,” and muddles it in with all the others.
There are ways around that, I am sure, and next month’s letters page will doubtless be overflowing with digital demons pointing out that so-and-so’s remastering of such-and-such a classic isn’t simply identical to the old analog version, it actually improves it five thousandfold. (By the way: Send in those letters!)
And I will turn to my copy of Neil Young’s remastered “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and say yes, you have a point.
But one diamond does not dignify a field of fishbones, and no matter how many excellent digital remasters abound, there are many times more where you listen to the scratchy old vinyl and just feel that there is something extra. An indefinable punch. An indescribable luster. It all adds up to an absence of something that you simply cannot put your finger on with the remasters, but you know it should be there.
Sundazed recently gifted us with a five-LP box full of mono Velvet Underground and Nico vinyl.
“Each and every song on each and every LP was sourced from the appropriate, vintage analog master,” producer Bob Irwin tells us. “Certain things, because of the physical location of the master, had to be transferred to a hi-res file. But, rest assured that in every case, the original analogs were the source for our vinyl.”
And it shows.
On the other side of the platter, however, is the Stones vinyl box set that came out a while back. The Beatles reissues. The latest batch of Pink Floyds. I’ll wait while you play them. I’ll even wait while you A/B them with the original copies that you probably have stashed away some place.
Sonically, the reissues are clearer, cleaner and more revealing than any vinyl version you have ever heard before. But do you see what I mean about that indefinable “something” that added “ooomph” that only old vinyl possesses — and that modern technology has somehow managed to extract from the process altogether.
Once upon a time, you played an album, and you didn’t simply listen to it. You became involved in it. Now, for all the advances and adventures that recorded sound has enjoyed over the decades, we’re back to merely listening again.
That means, in turn, that too much new vinyl offers means that it is not a return to the sonic realms of old, but simply an artifact, upscaled from its diminutive CD cousin, but ultimately no more or less different of a listening experience than the CD.
And when you also consider that a new vinyl release is probably going to retail for around twice the price of the CD ... Hmm. I’m not even going to finish that sentence.
I will, however, close with an observation that, more than any other, should encourage everybody to examine the small print on vinyl reissues before making the purchase. David Bowie’s landmark “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” was reissued on vinyl last spring, and a very handsome item it was. Original artwork restored, heavyweight vinyl, heavyweight jacket, DVD-audio tucked away on the gatefold — all the bells and whistles with which we have come to associate new LP purchases.
And a minute or so into track two, Side Two, the effervescent “Star,” there are a couple of skips. Digital skips. A few minutes spent on an Internet search reveals these “skips” are common to an awful lot of copies.
In the old days, if you bought a new album and discovered that it was faulty, you’d return it to the store and get a new one that, nine times out of 10, was perfect. Unfortunately, you can take “Ziggy” back until you are blue in the face. It’s not going to make a difference.
Oh, well. At least you know it’s a first pressing reissue ...
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” (Krause Publications, $37.99, www.krausebooks.com)