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The Hidden Fidelity of Classic Albums

Chris A

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For some time this year, I've been collecting CDs of so-called "classic albums", some of which are found in the book "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die", the list of Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums, and other less-rock-oriented lists.


One of the less known observations about these albums is that the most popular of these from the 1950s-1980s seem to correlate with better fidelity (or hidden fidelity yet to be unlocked) than the other albums in these "best of" lists. 


One question that has always been in my mind during all of my unmastering, is the thought that more hi-fi albums do better over time (from the standpoint of mastering, and especially minimization of EQ used in the original releases).  The answer that I've found is "yes"--fairly strongly: the less EQ that's required for unmastering an album, the more popular that that album's sales seem to be over time--especially in the hi-fi enthusiast community.


Here is a list of albums from one or more of the above lists that require reasonably light unmastering EQ:


Sinatra, Frank – Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!
Monk, Thelonious – Brilliant Corners
Thelonius Monk - Monk's Dream

Davis, Miles – Kind of Blue
Brubeck, Dave – Time Out
Getz, Stan & João Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto
Simon & Garfunkel – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme
Sinatra, Frank - Frank Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim
Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends
Morrison, Van – Astral Weeks
Crosby, Stills & Nash – Crosby, Stills & Nash
Blood, Sweat & Tears - Blood, Sweat & Tears (2nd Album)
Beatles – Abbey Road
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin (1st Album)
Led Zeppelin – II
Chicago Transit Authority [Chicago] - Chicago Transit Authority (1969)
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Déjà vu
Led Zeppelin – III
Morrison, Van – Moondance
Harrison, George – All Things Must Pass
Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
Yes – Fragile
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Tarkus
Led Zeppelin – IV [aka Untitled / aka Four Symbols]
Mitchell, Joni – Blue
Joplin, Janis – Pearl
Nilsson, Harry – Nilsson Schmilsson
Steely Dan – Can’t Buy a Thrill
Young, Neil – Harvest
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Wonder, Stevie – Talking Book
Eagles – Eagles (1st Album)
Simon, Paul – Paul Simon (1972)
Hancock, Herbie – Head Hunters
Oldfield, Mike – Tubular Bells
John, Elton – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Wonder, Stevie – Innervisions
ZZ Top – Tres Hombres
Wonder, Stevie – Fullfillingness’ First Finale
Mitchell, Joni – Court & Spark
Supertramp – Crime of the Century
Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic
Marley, Bob & the Wailers – Natty Dread
Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti
Jarrett, Keith – Köln Concert
Springsteen, Bruce – Born to Run
Mitchell, Joni – Hissing of Summer Lawns
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
Queen – A Night at the Opera
Nelson, Willie – Red Headed Stranger
Earth, Wind & Fire – That’s the Way of the World
Mitchell, Joni – Hejira
Boston – Boston (1st Album)
Eagles – Hotel California
Rush – 2112
Wonder, Stevie – Songs in the Key of Life
Joel, Billy – Stranger, the
Weather Report – Heavy Weather
Steely Dan – Aja
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
Gabriel, Peter – Peter Gabriel (I)
Cars – Cars (1st Album)
Eno, Brian – Ambient 1: Music for Airports
Crusaders – Street Life
Pink Floyd – Wall, the
Gabriel, Peter – Peter Gabriel (III)
Winwood, Steve – Arc of a Diver
Rush – Moving Pictures
Fagen, Donald – Nightfly
Simon, Paul – Hearts & Bones
Police – Synchronicity
Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms
Simon, Paul – Graceland
Gabriel, Peter – So
Chapman, Tracy – Tracy Chapman (1st Album)


The Alan Parsons Project - all studio albums after Tales of Mystery and Imagination

James Taylor studio albums after Sweet Baby James and up through 1991's Never Die Young



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I love music for airports and of course So... but to be honest, the new series of Yes 5.1 Blu-ray discs are stunningly wonderful sounding releases. One should probably add the gentle giant and king crimson to the yes 5.1 discs in terms of superb dynamic range and fidelity.

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The notion that better sound sells probably isn't a new one.


But the definition of "better sound" in this particular case means, "much closer to the sound in the studio or venue where the musicians played it".  That, in a nutshell, is the definition of "hi-fi": fidelity to the original recording, without intrusive "sound-changing edits".  I've found that enthusiasts love that sound and the pursuit of it is what fuels the hi-fi pastime. 


What's interesting to me is the notion nowadays that "processed sound is better", when it's clear from listening to original (unaltered) recordings that this is just not true.  The many of the best recordings that I own are DSD tracks from SACDs. (If you didn't know, it is not possible to "master" in the DSD format--it first must be converted to LPCM before editing, then converted back to DSD- thus destroying the pedigree of the "pure DSD" recording.)  Some of these unedited/unmastered recordings are truly spectacular, especially in multichannel format where there is no reason or excuse to edit down the bass...the "missing octave"...in the name of commercialization.



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On 11/2/2016 at 2:00 PM, Schu said:

...the new series of Yes 5.1 Blu-ray discs are stunningly wonderful sounding releases.


I haven't heard those yet.  Surround sound discs usually have much less bass attenuation, and the separation of the tracks into five channels really showcases the tunes. 


1 hour ago, Arash said:

Just listen some Sonny Boy Williamson songs. "Don't Let Your Right Hand Know" for example


I'll have to listen to that.


One of the most unfortunate realities of American music tastes is that the blues has never received the due it deserves.  B.B. King once said the that "British Invasion" in the 1960s opened doors for American blues musicians that would never have been opened had it not been for "rock and roll" (that is, blues sped-up) played back to American radio audiences by foreigners.  Sonny Boy Williamson (II) was highly regarded by the big names in 1960s British rock and pop (Jeff Beck, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page, Steve Winwood, etc.).


One of the better blues CDs that I own is Blues Singer by Buddy Guy.  The backing musicians are spectacular and the CD sounds just as spectacular as-released (although it does sound even better after unmastering).  I find that many blues CDs are pushed in the 1-6 kHz region pretty badly, but this CD is more balanced on the acoustic delivery than the "electric blues" EQ typically employed.



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It's actually been a few mastering guys that are leading the efforts against the Loudness Wars (Ian Shepherd's name comes to mind). Some of the stories that they have related online indicate (or implicate) the musicians themselves or their agents that push the ever-increasing loudness on digital tracks.  They also choose the mixing and mastering guys to be hired for the jobs.  Most mastering guys (and mixers who are doing EQ and compression) apparently just follow orders in order to stay employed. 


So the name of the artists is one place to look, above, and the producers names.  I suspect that musicians usually wind up pairing with like-producers in terms of their concept for "music production techniques for commercialization". 

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It not only takes a great deal of standing/staying-power for these mastering guys to speak up on-line, but also a degree of courage to speak out because by doing so, they could be undercutting their own livelihoods.  So for the mastering guys that have spoken out about loudness war practices in the music recording business...the "suits" and the musicians themselves that are influenced by that culture to follow the easy path set by others in prolonging those practices...I have a great deal of respect for those particular mastering guys that have spoken out against those practices. 


I sometimes have to remind myself of this fact when I start to unmaster some recordings that are really severe casualties of the Loudness War of some of those same guys: I know now that it probably wasn't their decision or their preference to do what was done to the music.  It was someone higher in the record company hierarchy that retains those now-archaic Loudness War practices.  With the advent of automatic gain control on players and with radio compressors that equalize all broadcast music automatically, the culture of "louder" is now obsolete, but nevertheless its record company adherents carry on as if nothing had changed...

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How good an album sounds for me is absolute. To give you an idea.. pink floyd (moon-cut) is probably my top band. But if back when I bought the wall had the sound not blown me away the way it did I'm almost 100% certain Id probably never bought another album and they wouldn't even be in my top 100. Im pretty much not interested in any music that isn't dam near reference grade. The sound means more to me than the music by a lot. Like party bands (zeppelin great example) imo sound really bad. The drum set sounds like he's banging on a plastic bucket. I know they have a huge following and sold a crap load of albums. But I dont like any of it for this very reason. Rolling stones same thing (even worse) zero interest because of the lack of talent in the studio. 

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I agree with the better fidelity of most of the albums in the list to the extent that I am familiar with it.


However, I noticed that CSNY Deja Vu is on the list. I love the music but have found at least some of the tracks to be very heavy on mid bass,  even boomy, and also to have extremely wide channel separation (the latter is really a separate issue). Can you post the unmastering EQ or otherwise comment on it, for this album? 

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Some of the tracks on Deja Vu are pretty far from flat EQ, so I would hazard a guess that I included that album by mistake in the list above. 


Since I unmastered that album about 21 months ago, I might have forgotten the amount of mastering EQ that it had as-released.  There are other CS&N albums that are closer to flat, but none that I'd call "spectacular" in terms of as-released mastering.



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I was reading some old articles about RTR servicing and maintenance, and it was mentioned that running at 30 ips helped the high end (extending to past 40khz, but started losing the bottom end below 60Hz. It made sense that the bottom wasn't necessarily rolled off in mastering, but naturally on the multitrack tape. Some pretty good articles (available online), that I can send the links if you are interested.



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Its late and maybe I missed something in the thread, but why not buy the best remastered from original tapes versions?


Many, especially on vinyl, have been processed in ways that can't be undone, not to mention use of third or worse generation tapes etc.

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3 hours ago, MikeFord said:

...but why not buy the best remastered from original tape versions?


I've found that I can definitely do better than the best versions that are being sold--excluding the versions that have higher measured dynamic range as found the DR Database online--using the most dynamic CD version available from Amazon marketplace, and usually at $0.01+$3.99 shipping to your mailbox/doorstep.  "No kidding."


I'd bet that you're paying more (...a lot more...) for those "original tape versions".

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  • 2 months later...

Today I looked at the playback statistics for my ripped flac music library...which includes a great deal of my library but doesn't include all SACDs, any of the Blu-Ray audio and video-music discs, and LPs.    Of the music tracks that I've listened to the most, the following albums top my list in terms of the number of playbacks over the past 3 years (although the difference number of times played from the first to the last is less than 50%).  Note that I listen to a lot of different albums so the long list below constitutes about 10% or less of my most frequently listening choices.  Note the number of recordings that required significant demastering, and how often I now listen to those albums, i.e., if they weren't significantly demastered, I wouldn't be listening to them nearly as often:


1) Vivaldi: L'Estro Armonico Op. 3 (discs 1 & 2) (DVD-A--multichannel, 2003) Accademia Bizantina (no demastering)

2) Come Away With Me, Norah Jones (CD) 2002 - (significant demastering)

3) Global Drum Project, Mickey Hart, et al. (2007) (CD, significant demastering, declipping)

4) Skyline Firedance (disc 2), David Lanz (1990) (CD, significant demastering)

5) Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan (1974) (CD, significant demastering)

6) Hello, I Must Be Going!, Phil Collins (1982) (CD, significant demastering)

7) Arcangelo Corelli - 12 Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 (discs 1 & 2), The English Concert (Hybrid SACD, 1988, no demastering)

8) Livin' On The Fault Line, The Doobie Brothers, (1988) (CD, significant demastering)

9) Händel - Orchestral Works  (discs 1-5), The English Concert (1983, CD, some demastering)

10) Face Value, Phil Collins (1988, CD) (significant demastering)

11) Blue, Joni Mitchell, (1971, CD) (significant demastering)

12) Fiddler's Green, Tim O'Brien (2005, CD) (significant demastering, declipping)

13) Katy Lied, Steely Dan (1999, CD) (significant demastering)

14) Takin' It to the Streets, The Doobie Brothers, (2010, Hybrid SACD) (significant demastering)

15) The Book Of Secrets, Loreena McKennitt (1997, CD) (significant demastering, declipping)

16) Vivaldi for Diverse Instruments, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (1996, CD) (some demastering)

17) Even In The Quietest Moments..., Supertramp (1990, CD) (significant demastering)

18) It Ain't Necessarily So..., Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, (1992, CD) (significant demastering)

19) The Cars, The Cars (1978, CD) (significant demastering, declipping)

20) Swingin' For The Fences, Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band (2000, multichannel DVD-A) (no demastering)

21) Genesis, Genesis (1983, CD) (significant demastering)

22) The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Loreena McKennitt (2010, CD) (significant demastering, declipping)

23) Hasten Down The Wind, Linda Ronstadt (1976, CD) (significant demastering)

24) Pyramid, The Alan Parsons Project (1978, CD) (significant demastering)

25) Unplugged, Eric Clapton (1992, CD) (very significant demastering, declipping)

26) Mozart Piano Concertos (discs 6-9), Alfred Brendel, Academy Of St. Martin in the Fields (1990, CD) (some demastering)

27) White Album (disc 1), The Beatles, (1968, CD) (very significant demastering)

28) Countdown To Ecstasy, Steely Dan (1985, CD) (significant demastering)

29) The Turn Of A Friendly Card, The Alan Parson Project, (1985, CD) (significant demastering)

30) ¡Cubanismo!, ¡Cubanismo!, (1996, CD) (significant demastering)

31) Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons--Vivaldi), The English Concert (1982, CD) (significant demastering)
32) Not Too Late, Norah Jones, (2012, Hybrid SACD) (significant demastering)

33) Hot Rocks 1964-1971 (disc 2), The Rolling Stones (1971, CD), (very significant demastering)

34) Vivaldi: Flute Concerti, Op. 10, Cologne Chamber Orchestra (2001, DVD-A) (no demastering)

35) The Best of, Andrés Segovia (2004, CD) (significant demastering)

36) Italian Flute Concertos, James Galway - I Solisti Veneti (1993, CD) (significant demastering)

37) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (1967, CD) (significant demastering)

38) The Best of ARS, Atlanta Rhythm Section (1991, CD) (significant demastering)

39) The Royal Scam-1985, Steely Dan (1985, CD) (significant demastering)

40) Dances from Renaissance to Nutcracker, The LA Guitar Quartet (1993, CD) (significant demastering)
41) Blue Train, John Coltrane (1957, CD) (significant demastering)

42) Cantate Domino, Oscar's Motet Choir, (1978, Hybrid SACD) (significant demastering)

43) Feels Like Home, Norah Jones (2004, Hybrid SACD) (significant demastering, declipping)

44) Vivaldi - 7 Concerti for Woodwind and Strings, The English Concert (1995, CD) (some demastering)

45) Hourglass, James Taylor (1997, CD) (significant demastering, declipping)

46) Now Playing - Movie Themes, Dave Grusin (2004, CD) (significant demastering)

47) Supernatural, Santana (1999, CD) (very significant demastering, declipping)

48) What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, The Doobie Brothers (1987, CD) (significant demastering)

49) Breakfast In America, Supertramp (1994, CD) (significant demastering)

50) Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell (1974, CD) (significant demastering, declipping)



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