Archive for March, 2010


Here’s the problem: When CDs first came on the market, record companies were basically taking analog recordings and simply converting them to digital. They didn’t really have the tools or experience to do any different, and even though there were muffled protests, they kept at it with few modifications (after ditching some of the truly awful initial attempts).

Analog (vinyl) has a soft, rich quality to it. It is often smooth and diffused. I’m referring to the auditory feel of the format, not the type of music. Digital, on the other hand, captures everything with unrelenting clarity in 1s and 0s. Back then, straight analog to digital conversion could come out as unnatural as taking your favorite pair of suede shoes and giving them a coat of patent leather shoe polish.  It wasn’t always something you could point to in a tangible way, but it might show up in your ears getting tired easily, or the music feeling a bit brash or harsh, the midrange instruments setting your teeth on edge, that sort of thing.

There is nothing inappropriate about recording music in a digital format, and the results can be as spectacular as vinyl, but you have to understand the properties of each and be able to compensate for them in order to achieve those results.

Mastering includes balancing frequencies, compensating for volume levels, and basically getting an album to feel consistent and sound good throughout.  Like mixing, it’s more of an art form than a science – you can’t just push the Master button. Like other art forms, the materials you use impact on the end result. And that is part of the problem with re-mastering a vinyl album for CD – it can be like one artist trying to create a perfect copy of another artist’s work, while doing so with a completely different type of canvas.

Take, for example, another album that I have now purchased three times: Layla and Other Assorted Love songs by Derek and the Dominos.  Similar to my experience with the various versions of the White Album, I got my first copy shortly after it came out, and it was one of the first albums I replaced when I went to CD. So of course it was one of the initial, dodgy first wave of analog to digital conversions. I tolerated it for years, before buying the Polydor re-master, from the Eric Clapton Remastered series. 

The original vinyl album was one of the best sounding albums I’ve ever bought. I’ll try not to stomp too hard on the hyperbole pedal, but the feel of the album could lift me in ways that few albums ever have. The Polydor re-master goes a long way towards capturing that analog feel, and like the White Album, the clarity of the instruments is outstanding – I can easily distinguish five guitars playing simultaneously during the louder sections of Layla, for example. However, the album is not a 100% match for the vinyl version, and expecting it to be so would be like expecting lightning to strike the same spot twice. Don’t get me wrong. The Polydor version sounds fine, but the original has a wall-of-sound feel that the digital almost, but doesn’t quite, reproduce.

On the other hand, when played next to each other the Polydor version makes the original CD release feel like nails scraping down a chalk board.

Before you go out to replace a well loved vinyl recording, or make a first-time purchase of a legendary classic album, your best bet is to do your homework first. Find out whether there are different versions; each version will be mastered differently. Find out what the audiophiles are saying about it. You may not be able to articulate the differences between versions, but they are there, and you will notice them, even if in subtle ways. Why wouldn’t you want the version that most closely resembles the one that people fell in love with the first time around?