Monday, September 29, 2008

(Not So) Pleased To Meet Me (Again)

Something else is bugging me about the remastering job on the recent Rhino deluxe reissue of Pleased To Meet Me. Listening to the whole thing, rather than frantically comparing tracks drove home an important point: more than just dynamic range within the songs has gotten lost in the remastering, perhaps just as importantly, dynamic contrasts between songs have also been lost.

Comparing tracks to tracks--as I have been doing--is a useful exercise, but it only tells part of the story. So I compiled visual images that represent the first five tracks on Pleased To Meet Me (just for kicks, I'll call this "side one") taken from the original CD and the remastered reissue respectively.

Take a look at what I found:

Pleased To Meet Me (Side One: Original CD, 1987)

Pleased To Meet Me (Side One: Remastered CD, 2008)

It's pretty easy to see what's happened here. Beyond the obvious fact that each track has been made louder on the remaster, it's clear that the volume of some tracks has been boosted more than others. On the original CD, "Nightclub Jitters" is a fairly quiet song relative to the first three tracks ("I.O.U.," "Alex Chilton," and "I Don't Know"). But on the remastered CD it's been boosted to the point that it is nearly the same volume as the other tracks. Likewise, on the original "The Ledge" is louder than "Jitters," but still quieter than the first three tracks. Those shifts in dynamics between songs have been totally obliterated on the remaster. On the new version, each track appears to have been normalized to around -.3 db with respect to itself, making each song sound as loud as the other.

How loud the individual tracks sound with respect to one another is an important component in how the songs cohere as an album, rather than just as a collection of tracks. I don't believe "Nightclub Jitters" just happened to be quieter than the other songs on side one by accident; Pleased To Meet Me was carefully recorded and mastered the first time around. The song has to be quieter to set the right mood. Hearing Westerberg's whispered vocals on "Nightclub Jitters" sound just as loud as the ones he was screaming on "I Don't Know" is disconcerting, and intuitively sounds wrong.

There's an irony in the fact that an album that has been designated as worthy of the deluxe reissue treatment has been treated like this. On the one hand, the album is presented as a work of "art" worthy of serious evaluation and scrutiny, complete with extended liner notes and a premium price. On the other hand, it's been mastered as though it was never anything more than a collection of unrelated tracks, like some sad-sack Journey "best of" you might find for sale at a truck stop.

I accept that I may be clinging to a completely outdated conceptual framework in thinking about the album this way. Maybe the iPod and iTunes have killed the rock album and there's no point looking back. Perhaps whole the idea of an "album" (a term carried over from the days in which 78 rpm records were packaged together in binders) is simply hopelessly passe. We live in a world where playlists and portability have supplanted coherence and quality. Perhaps in such a world every track has to be the same volume in order to be heard over the background noise of everyday life. But if that's the case why even bother with these deluxe reissue packages at all? Aren't they intended for people who still have enough attention span left to sit down and listen to a whole album from start to finish?


Anonymous said...

I think they bothced these reissues in a lot of ways. The beginning of "White and Lazy" on Stink is messed up, and the first few seconds of "Willpower" are missing entirely. There are several edits before and after songs on Let It Be, and the count-off is excised from "Left of the Dial." There are a few other minor edits/mess-ups that I've noticed, and that's without listening too closely. On top of that, the keys/footsteps sound effect that kicks off the bonus tracks is completely lame. These things may not seem so significant individually (and no one else seems to notice or to care, so maybe I'm being anal), but to me it suggests an overall lack of care and oversight, despite the involvement of Jesperson and, nominally, the band. And I thank you for bearing out what I suspected even before I got any of these reissues (based somewhat on the horrible Mats reissues from a few years back): that they would substitute loudness for subtlety. Thank god I have all the records on LP.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't noticed those other flaws you mention, but I hadn't done any comparisons to the originals except in this case either.

I also noticed that a couple tracks on Pleased To Meet Me ("Never Mind" and "Can't Hardly Wait") seem to cut off the first maybe 1/10th of a second of the song. It's not totally obvious, but it makes it sound like the songs start a little too abruptly.

It does seem more care could have been given to this series. Typically, I think Rhino does an excellent job, so I find this as surprising as it is disappointing.

BTW, I never picked up the previous (Ryko?) reissues. What was wrong with them?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I also noticed that about "Never Mind" and "Can't Hardly Wait." "Never Mind" definitely starts just a split-second too late, and it sounds particularly noticeable because it starts with vocals.

The previous reissues were really a hack-job. I think it's one of the most egregious examples of using loudness-boosting to compensate for everything else. The new reissues sound positively brilliant compared to them. I literally threw those reissues in favor of the original CDs. Not only that, but the album covers for the previous reissues were not only severely cropped, but they looked like they had been printed on a 50-dollar inkjet printer, with the colors way off and the resolution extremely poor. If I hadn't known better, I would have assumed they were bootlegs.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I will give Rhino this much, the graphics and artwork are excellent. Glad they used the "correct" cover image (reminiscent of Elvis' GI Blues) on this version.

Honestly, I think the issue of making all the tracks the same volume is more of a problem than the reduced dynamic range.

Anonymous said...

I agree about making all the tracks the same volume. But I think your post gets it right, people don't really understand the concept of an album any more. And I think something else is slightly lost in these reissues and in most remastered music, which is the sonic characteristics of each album. The Replacements catalogue especially is pretty diverse in terms of sound from album to album. Just as an obvious example, the Mats have no signature drum sound. The snare sounds wildly different on each of their 8 albums. But in all aspects, each album is really its own entity. And I've noticed reissues tend to homogenize the sound of old albums, especially if that album sounds dated in any way. Maybe it's just my imagination, but all these albums sound more similar to one another now--not in a good way.

Anonymous said...

At least Paul hasn't forgotten the importance of the album. Give 49:00 a listen, the way that was made it would be difficult to listen to it any other way. Of course, if a record company got their hands on it, they'd likely manage to screw that up too.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I remember the days when I had to turn up Nightclub Jitters whenever it got to that song! I am glad the remaster fixed that.

But I am concerned about your observation that the beginning of 'Never Mind' is missing. It is indeed. Here's a shot of it:

And their deletion of the count-off of 'Left of the Dial' on Time is terrible.

Anonymous said...

It does seem to miss the point to simply crank up the volume. That may make the individual tracks better when one has one's iPod on shuffle, but not as a cohesive artistic statement. Perhaps they should have just released them in special "for your iPod" versions on iTunes.

I did get the first four re-issues, but those were mostly for the bonus tracks. These four seem to be unimpressive in that area (from what I've read), and what you've noted regarding the levels makes me think I should wait. Excellent investigation.


Yes, the album is becoming archaic, but until the record companies stop selling the music in physical form (CDs) they will still have a life.

Frankly, I think Paul's 49:00 may prove to be the future of the "album"--a recording structured so that it must be listened to as the artist intends. And which can be cut up into radio-friendly chunks (as I heard happened with the "Who You Gonna Marry?" portion). Also, it's something the artist can produce and distribute without relying on a label. Which is bad for the labels, but ultimately should be good for the fans.

Anonymous said...

Will--Good work! Thanks for the visual confirmation. This is a very disturbing lapse in QC on Rhino's part.

Doug--Good point about 49:00. I may end up writing something about that.

Anonymous said...

The most egregious edit is the beginning of Willpower. Several seconds have been cut-off, and it basically starts mid-song. But these little edits are all over the reissues.