Tuesday, March 12, 2013

CSN: Comparative Sound Notes

Anyone who knows me won't be surprised to hear how much I love the Crosby, Stills, & Nash album--for those who think visually, that's the one that's often referred to as "the couch album." I played that album hundreds of times in the 1970s, and have probably purchased at least six different copies of it on CD, looking for the best version (if you're going for the CD, the best version is the Steve Hoffman-mastered 2011 Audio Fidelity gold CD release--a stunning improvement over anything that came before it insofar as digital is concerned).

So once I got back into vinyl, it was only natural that I would pick up a copy of Crosby, Stills, & Nash on album. I was thrilled to see that it was available as a 180g audiophile vinyl release through Rhino in conjunction with Atlantic, so I ordered it the day after I got my new turntable.

And it sounded like mud.

All the highs weren't. All the crispness was turned to mush. The voices were indistinct, the guitars were murky, the upper sibilance that often defined their harmonics seemed flat and lifeless. The entire thing sounded like a bad 8-track tape, not an excellent piece of vinyl.

The problem was the mastering; somehow, someone had adjusted all the levels to try to create a more contemporary sound, and they stripped the album of all life.

I heard that the Classic Records vinyl from 2009 is better, so I ordered a copy. "Better" is the key word. It sounds more like I remembered, but it was still muffled and restrained.

Is it possible that my memory of the past is colored by my enjoyment of the music? Did I simply think that the original album sounded better than it actually did? After all, I did have some pretty crummy equipment for audio playback way back in 1970--a Singer stereo system (yes, the sewing machine company also sold stereos) that remained my one and only record player until 1974, when Susan and I upgraded to a Harmon Kardon amp and a Dual turntable).

A few weeks ago, I ran across a late 1970s vinyl reissue of the album on Atlantic, so I picked it up, figuring this would be the version I remembered.

Still no go. It was better than either of the "audiophile" reissues, but still muddy and restrained, with less high end than I remembered and a flattened dynamic range.

Now I know, though, that my memory wasn't faulty...

I recently found a near-pristine copy of the original album (SD 8229, with ST-A-691576 carved into the inner groove of the vinyl), with its matte-finish lightly-textured gatefold cover and the old 1841 Broadway address for Atlantic Records on the center label of the album. The cover had a sticker mentioning that this album included the hit "Marrakesh Express," which meant it was definitely an early release.

So I picked it up and gave it a play this evening.

And the sound is stunning. Rich. Wide-ranging. Crisp highs, soaring harmonies, rich bass notes, hissing cymbals, voices so real that it's like CSN are hanging out in my basement.

I used to think that any audiophile reissue would by its very nature be better than the original. I now realize how wrong that assumption can be; sometimes it's impossible to improve on that initial release. Maybe the original master tapes were not available, maybe someone with a bad ear remastered the album for reissue--I can think of a lot of excuses, but the truth is, this is one album that seems to sound good only in its initial release.

1 comment:

Daryl McCullough said...

Hi, Cliff.

I loved that album, too. I think that CSN and sometimes Y owe a lot of credit to whoever the sound engineer was on their studio albums, because in my opinion, the sound qualities that made those so great just weren't there in their live performances.