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LP (12" album, 33 rpm), Double Vinyl, Import
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Limited double 200gm heavyweight vinyl LP pressing cut at 45 RPM featuring corrected polarity CD edition. Includes 16 page booklet with song notes by band members, lyric sheet, and both sleeves (original design + released version). Digitally remastered edition of the 1986 album by one of the UK's finest bands. It looked perfect... on paper. Take XTC (a band whose name was, by this point, routinely prefaced with the words "quintessentially English.."), add Todd Rundgren, musical Anglophile and legendary producer (whose name was always prefaced with "studio wizard"), place in a studio together in Woodstock for several weeks and expect an album of Abbey Road proportions to appear when finished and... it almost worked out that way. For starters: Todd R. and Andy P. didn't get on... at all. Recording sessions were tense. Then Todd locked the band out of the studio while mixing the album, leaving depressed band members to return to the UK uncertain as to the value of what had been recorded. Then, there was the issue of "Dear God". Relegated from the album for fears that the same sort of people who object to pubic hair on album sleeves might object to songs about God - especially in the USA, yet issued in the US as part of a 4 song promo 12" single to promote an album on which the song didn't appear by Geffen Records, which then, unexpectedly, became a hit song with people interpreting the lyrics as they wished, necessitating the re-sequencing of the album to include the once rejected song which, in turn, helped the album to become a slow burn/steady seller all around the world and XTC's best-selling and best known album to date, leaving all participants belatedly happy.
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I don't buy the comments that there is a polarity issue in the old pressings, and as a recording engineer with a degree in electronics, I can tell you that it's absolutely impossible to fix a polarity issue in a stereo mix. So is this actually a marketing ploy? Could be...
I own two of the early pressings. A US release before Dear God was added, and the version released with Dear God. I'm very familiar with the sound of these recordings, and while yes, I think there are some subjective issues with the mix that I feel could be improved, (I'm trying to stay away from the subjective terms like thin, or bright...) but I've definitely never felt there were phase issues in the mix. Not to mention that when the album was first released, it was basically declared a sonic masterpiece by several Hi-Fi and audiophile publications. Hundreds of thousands of very highly trained ears have listened to this album for decades, and you mean to tell me that NONE of us picked up on the fact that there is a phase issue? I find that incredibly hard to believe...
The left and right channels are obviously not 180 degrees out of phase, so the only possible polarity issue that could come into play here would be a track or two wired out of phase with the rest of the tracks, either at the console end of things, or at the tape machine. Even then, the only way this would go unnoticed in the studio would be if that particular channel was consistently wired out of phase. In other words, the entire signal path from the console to the tape machine and back (at least 12 electrical connections) would need to have been consistently wired incorrectly. Now granted, this is completely possible to do, and even to overlook, but having wired several studios myself, you tend to check and double check your work because if you've wired something wrong, you have the potential to cause thousands of dollars in damages to equipment, not to mention the possibility of electrocuting someone...
It is also possible to to inadvertently swap the polarity between the console and a piece of outboard effects gear. With no real standard as to which conductor is positive and which is negative between manufacturers, or even different parts of the world, it's incredibly easy to just plug cables into a piece of equipment and not realize unless you've read the manual, that's it's actually pin two that's positive, instead of the pin one standard that you've wired your studio for. But again, any tech worth his/her wage will check that before allowing it to be plugged in...
Now, I've seen mention that that a new recording machine was being used, so there could indeed be a pin discrepancy between Todd's console and the new machine. This is not uncommon, and most large studios will have either have some cables some cables in-house with the polarity reversed for just such an issue, or will rent or have some pre-built to try the new machine out. Rental companies will often supply cables with the proper polarity for your studio along with the machine. However, if this were the case, every single track would have the polarity reversed, not just a channel or two. In which case, the recording will still be in phase with itself.
A phase issue in the mix could also be intentional! It's not exactly uncommon to switch a channel on the console out of phase to create a bit of a psuedo surround sound gimmick. The phase can be adjusted to allow an instrument to seem to pop out of the usual stereo field. There is also some natural out of phase information that can be created through the use of effects gear. Phasers, flangers, choruses... All commonly used effects. However, a good mix engineer will look at the stereo mix on an oscilloscope or phase meter to ensure that the bulk of the audio energy isn't out of whack. Not being at the mix, I can't say if this was the case with this album or not. If the mix engineer didn't, you can bet that the mastering engineer did! This is incredibly important when pressing to vinyl!
OK, so not being at the mix, we can't actually say if any perceived phase issues present in the previous releases were intentional or not, but we CAN say that it's impossible to fix without going back to the multitrack recordings. There have been great advances in mastering technology over what was available decades ago, but there's still no piece of equipment that can isolate any given instrument in a stereo mix that may have been inadvertently placed out of phase with the rest of the mix and "fix" it... The best that can be done with a stereo mix is to try and isolate the problem instruments frequency range and flip the phase on that filter band, but of course, EVERYTHING ELSE in that band will ALSO be flipped! This will obviously cause issues with some instruments that weren't a problem to begin with.
This is what I hear in the polarity corrected edition: There is a more pleasing (to my ear) frequency curve applied to the mix, with some judicious multiband compression to bring out some of the low end frequencies, while creating a less strident high end. That said, I definitely hear some funky phasing artifacts, particularly in the upper midrange frequencies that weren't apparent to me in the older pressings. (listen closely to the string section on 1000 umbrellas) Some of these artifacts could be attributed to a conscious mixing decision (or in the case of the strings I mentioned, mic placement...) and the effect may have been much more subtle so it wasn't very noticeable in the original mix, but the multiband compression may have made this effect much more prominent. OR, these artifacts may actually be the result of FIXING the polarity during remastering...
I think that the sonic improvements that most people are attributing to the red herring "polarity correction" is simply multiband compression, which in particular brings out the bass guitar and kick drum and makes the overall program sound louder.
So while I feel that this remastered version has some positive aspects in the way it sounds, I also feel there has been some damage done by the "fix". As such, I prefer to listen to the earlier releases. As I mentioned before, I don't feel those mixes are perfect, but I feel the imperfections are less jarring than the remastering. I'd love to hear this album remixed, rather than remastered.
This release is worth the money for the 2016 mix alone. Wow! Remixing from the original multitracks (which were thought lost, then found) really puts a new gloss and definition on this gem, revealing new-found detail and depth. Truly amazing. I am still struggling with getting a good balance on the 5.1; the lead vocal is sometimes overwhelmed by the instruments, but it just needs tweaking on my part.
I know this album has been reissued TO DEATH (as have many others), but while I though the "corrected polarity" release was a dud, this is truly worth it's salt. It has EVERYTHING you could possibly want (that is possible to have) relating to this fantastic album. Everyone compared it to Sgt. Pepper when it was released. I'm a huge Beatles fan, and comparisons like that are always ridiculous, but this can take its place beside any Beatles album, period. What's more, XTC went on to put out 2 more albums that equal this brilliance.
OK, when do we get English Settlement?
Some history on this version of Skylarking. Andy Partridge was working with an engineer John Dent were remastering Skylarking for a re-release when they discover that the polarity had been reversed on the original release of Skylarking. It had made the original release sound a little "tinny". So they corrected the polarity and released this version of the album.
The sound is richer and more robust than the original release, making this a worthy addition to your XTC library. Also, it includes the song Mermaid Smiled which was on the original release of the LP, then dropped when they re-issued the original LP to include the song "Dear God".
Enjoy this newly (2001) corrected album
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