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XTC's frothily Beatle-esque concept album about birth, death, and the passing of the seasons is hardly soft-headed: Its melodic inventiveness and lush orchestrations support bitterness ("That's Really Super, Supergirl"), displacement ("The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul"), and agnostic tirade ("Dear God") as often as it does the pleasures of sun and shower. The greatest achievement of XTC's post-Drums and Wires career, Skylarking is a must-have for the first days of spring. --Rickey Wright
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I am not going to answer that last question, that's for audio experts. But I will say that even a cursory listen shows that this edition sounds far superior to the CD that I got when the album came out all those years ago (or maybe at some intervening point in between, but years and years ago !)
Keyboards sound clearer, vocals fuller, even the insects at the start are more clear in the mix. Lots of little details came pouring through. I really enjoy listening to this new 'mix'. It even sounds 'better' listening on my iPod (which I play through an iTube valve amp) and I can tell the difference listening to it on my MacBook Pro.
Worth every penny. Skylarking, the pubes and daisies mix. Excellent.
One minor complaint: the indexing is a little weird on "Dear God": if you skip directly to the track, it starts a split-second after the attack on the first guitar note, but I prefer to listen to albums all the way through anyway, so this is almost a non-issue.
Overall, this is a rare remaster that is not totally silly and pointless, and fans of the band in particular should buy it without hesitation.
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.