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Chalk it up to corporate greed
on June 14, 2012
Note: This is a review of the remastered sound quality on the 25th Anniversary CD release.
About the only good reason to remaster a classic album for CD these days is to improve upon errors made on past remasters, since most classic albums have now been released on CD multiple times already. The best a remastering can do is to faithfully reproduce the sound of the original album, as it was intended by the creative forces that produced it, and possibly improve on it with a superior higher-resolution transfer of the original tape. More often than not, however, remasters are just used as a justification by the record companies for the umpteenth dip into our wallets, doing nothing to improve the sound, and going a good distance toward making it worse. Unfortunately, that is exactly what we have with this latest version of Graceland. Rather than giving us something noticeably better than the previous 2004 remaster, Sony has just given us more of the same. Because the company has its eye on the deluxe package market, with all the bonus tracks, luxury-grade packaging, DVD concert, and an $85 price tag, the album itself has become almost an afterthought. That is unfortunate, because this classic album deserves better.
A bit of a history lesson for the unaware: Graceland was first issued in 1986. Mastered by Greg Calbi, the CD at that time presented the album very well - with an appropriate level of gain that left breathing room for the dynamics, and a natural, mellow EQ that allowed the music to speak for itself. Indeed, comparisons to vintage vinyl reveal that the 1986 CD was very similar in sound and dynamic range to initial vinyl pressings of the album. In 2004, Warner reissued the album with (non-essential) bonus tracks. The remastering by Dan Hersch and Bill Inglot was louder, and was underscored by a V-shaped, in-your-face EQ that pushed both the low and high frequencies. In 2011, Sony released a newly mastered disc featuring the same track listing as the 2004 Warner version. It was again mastered by Greg Calbi. Now, in 2012, Sony has come out with this latest version, also mastered by Calbi. To my ears both the 2011 and 2012 releases sound identical to each other, but the 2012 version has a different selection of bonus tracks, and is dubbed the 25th Anniversary edition. (Why the 25th Anniversary edition should come out 26 years after the album's release, I have no idea, but that really is the least of this version's problems.) So, for the purposes of evaluating sound quality, this review serves to evaluate both the 2011 and 2012 releases.
So, how did Sony screw this up? In a word: loudness. Amazingly, it's even louder and more compressed than the 2004 remaster, and that's saying something. Consider these stats, which show the peak level and average volume of "You Can Call Me Al," from the 1986, 2004 and 2012 CD masterings, respectively (units are the percentage of a CD's maximum gain):
1986: peak = 98.38; average = 39.63
2004: peak = 98.85; average = 74.22
2012: peak = 96.69; average = 80.65
Even with a lower overall peak volume, the 2012 remaster still has a significantly higher average volume than even the 2004 remaster, and it is actually more than twice as loud, on average, as the original 1986 master. Although the tracks do not appear to be clipped, peaks are still maxed out, with no breathing room for transients. The compressed dynamics really rob the music of a certain amount of punch - something African rhythms should have in spades. Everything sounds the same, and nothing pops or jumps out as it should.
What's really too bad is that the EQ on this release is actually very nice. It strikes a good balance between the neutrality of the 1986 release and the over-emphasized highs and lows of the 2004 remaster, adding a bit more character to the 1986 sound, without going over the top. Had Sony coupled this sound signature with the dynamics of the original mastering, I think this could have been a very good release. However, as it stands, I cannot give this a positive recommendation. If you're not a critical listener, it will probably sound OK to you, because the EQ is pleasing enough; I wouldn't go so far as to call this "unlistenable." However, the bottom line is that this not an improvement over what has come before; rather, it is yet another step backwards. If you already have the original CD, you've got the best CD version available, by a considerable margin; this remaster does not warrant a re-purchase. And that's really where this version ends up failing. Although Sony evidently expects us to pony up the cash for a triple dip, the company has not given us something worthy of the expenditure. Nor have they given newcomers to this perennial favorite the definitive sound a remaster ideally should provide. What we are left with, then, is a commercial afterthought and a wasted opportunity.