Monday, December 08, 2008

R.E.M. - Murmur Deluxe (Compressed) Edition

R.E.M.'s "Deluxe Edition" of Murmur has been getting a lot of good notices, including a rare 10/10 review at Pitchfork. Most of the reviews I've read, in addition to praising the original album and the killer 1983 live set included as a bonus, note that the remastered CD is a distinct sonic upgrade over previous editions.

But as BangSplat notes, mastering engineer Greg Calbi was fairly liberal in his use of dynamic range compression on this reissue. According to BangSplat's measurements, on the original CD the first track, "Radio Free Europe," averages -19.73 dB and -20.85 dB (left and right channels, respectively), while the remaster clocks in at -12.76 dB/-12.93 dB. In other words, the remaster is around 7 dB louder on average than the original. I recently transcribed the album from vinyl and after normalizing "Radio Free Europe" to 0 dB got a result that looks very similar to the original CD (-19.1 dB/-19.6 dB). You can see what the difference between the LP and remastered CD looks like below.

R.E.M. - "Radio Free Europe" LP (1983)

R.E.M. - "Radio Free Europe" Remastered CD (2008)

So what does the difference sound like? Not as dramatic as you might think. I hate to admit it, given the obvious application of dynamic range compression, but the deluxe edition sounds pretty good to my ears. Whatever peaks got compressed out are (in my opinion) not entirely essential to enjoying the music. I would have preferred a reissue that matched the original master tape a little more closely, but sonically the new version is decent.

In fact, I'm not at all surprised that many of the reviews of this set claim the deluxe edition is a sonic upgrade over previous editions. Compared to the original domestic CD, it almost certainly is an upgrade. The original CD of Murmur (released sometime in the mid-eighties) was a nasty sounding thing. It featured a harsh, grating midrange that made it all but unlistenable to my ears. I sold my copy a long time ago. It was exactly the kind of poorly mastered CD that forced me to the conclusion that "perfect sound forever" was a big lie. It was my repeated experiences with crummy sounding CDs like Murmur that made the idea that CDs are inferior to LPs something of a sacred cow for me.

But whatever the original CD's problems were, lack of dynamic range was not among them. As you can see from BangSplat's measurements, the original CD pretty closely matches the LP in terms of dynamic range.

Listening on headphones on my computer or my iPod, the new deluxe edition sounds particularly good. The version I ripped from LP also sounds good, but (after adjusting for volume differences) the new version sounds slightly more focused. I've always felt like there was a slight gauzy haze that hung over Murmur, and I hear less of that on the remaster. The version I ripped from LP sounds kind of like the album cover looks; like everything is in soft-focus. The remastered CD brings everything into sharper focus without really changing the way the album sounds too dramatically (don't worry--you still won't be able to figure out what Michael Stipe is singing).

But when I compared the two versions on my stereo it was a different story. The CD-R I made of the version I ripped from vinyl sounded far more appealing to me than the remastered CD. While listening through speakers instead of headphones, the remastered CD did not sound harsh or fatiguing in the way that overly-compressed CDs often do, but the LP sourced CD-R bettered it in ways that are difficult to quantify. The LP sourced version sounded bigger and more involving, and the gauzy, soft-focus quality of the album sounded both less noticeable and more appealing than it did through headphones. I'm honestly not all that inclined to pick apart the differences in sound quality between the two versions, the fact was the LP sourced CD-R was the version I wanted to keep listening to.

Honestly, I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why I preferred a version of the album sourced from an LP and digitized using an $80 analog to digital converter, but I don't think it had anything to do with dynamic range compression. Some of you will no doubt think I'm either nuts or deaf, but I know what I heard; at least when played through speakers, my LP sourced CD-R sounded better than the remaster done by a professional with access to the original master tapes. A lot better to my ears. I can think of a few possible explanations for this, but none of them involve me being some kind of sonic wizard; I'm just a nerd with a semi-decent turntable and a cheap USB analog to digital converter.

Analog and LP boosters are often quick to dismiss digital sound altogether, but my experience with digitizing music from vinyl has convinced me that there is nothing inherently wrong with digital sound. Even resolution limited 16 bit, 44 kHz CDs are capable of fantastic sound quality. This experience has forced me to the (inescapable?) conclusion that some aspect of LP playback adds something to the sound of music that I happen to find appealing, but which is not strictly speaking "hi-fi." And whatever that LP magic is, it can be captured digitally (or at least most of it can).

To sum up, the deluxe edition of Murmur will likely sound like a major sonic upgrade to anyone who is only familiar with the original CD. Those familiar with the LP (or Mobile Fidelity's mid 90s audiophile reissues) might feel differently. Oh, and sacred cows make delicious hamburger meat.


Peter Hennig said...

Pete- I'm not surprised that the Lp CD-R sounds better. Hearing some of your tracks ripped from Lps, it's obvious that a lot of the analog sound is coming through. Why exactly that is could be debated.

It may be something as simple as it being closer to an analog source in the chain, whereas the remaster may be further removed from an analog source.

Another factor that may play a role is familiarity of sound -- I'm sure the Lp ripped CD-R is closer to the sound of what you are accustomed to hearing.

Who knows exactly why, but I don't think you're hearing things. I've had similar experiences.

How is the sound quality on the live set? Love to hear it!

Pete Bilderback said...

Hi Pete,

Yes, there could be a lot of factors at work--another possibility is that the master tape has deteriorated somewhat over the last 25 years. (I'm pretty sure Calbi went back to the original master tapes for this edition). There are lots of possibilities really, but the one that seems most likely to me is that there is just some "magic" in a needle meeting a vinyl groove.

The ripped LP is no doubt closer to what I'm used to, but it's also just sounds better, at least to my ears. Others might very well have a different reaction.

I didn't want this post to get too long (as my posts sometimes do) so I skipped over a few things. The live set sounds great. It is probably somewhat compressed too, but it was clearly sourced from a very good soundboard recording, and the tape was clean. It's a great performance and sheds a lot of light on who the band was outside of the studio at that stage in their career. They were an awesome live band.

For me it's a real treat to hear a (nearly) full R.E.M. live show circa 1983. I was a little too young to have caught them back then. First time I saw them live was on the Lifes Rich Pageant tour (a show you no doubt remember as well). It was only 3 years later, but they were already a very different band playing much larger venues (although not yet arena-sized ones).

I went into this process prepared to do a post complaining about the state of the music industry, compression, rip off prices, etc. But really it's such compelling music--still fresh 25 years later--that it makes such complaints rather beside the point.

Theron Trowbridge (Bangsplat) said...

Having spent more time listening to the new edition and comparing it to the earlier CD releases, I am thinking that the original CD release may have been made from the vinyl master, including the RIAA curve. If this is the case, the CD would have skewed frequency extremes, while the vinyl would be nice and flat (if played through a proper RIAA pre-amp).

Could you perhaps do a FFT frequency analysis of the LP rip and IRS CD and post screen grabs? That would help explain what is going on.

To me, the original CD release sounds a little muffled, whereas the new edition definitely sounds clearer, primarily in the frequency extremes. I am discovering new sounds in the songs, which is kind of cool.

The clarity is partly a proper master, and partly the dynamic range compression, which helps some of the quieter stuff stand out. But the downside is that the compression robs the mix of its subtlety. Compare both versions of "We Walk". There are lots of lovely little bits of ambiance mixed in the original release. In the new edition, they are as hot in the mix as Michael's vocals. Sure, you can hear them better, particularly in the car or over crappy iPod ear buds, but it sounds - to me at least - flat and boring.

If I'm right, the vinyl would have the advantage of fuller (and ideally flat) frequency response and a larger dynamic range. Which would make it the release closest to the original master tapes.

The whole digital/analog debate is overstated and - assuming sampling is done correctly - doesn't really matter except when it comes to dithering and over saturation. I don't think either play a role in this case.

Pete Bilderback said...


Thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree with your impressions, mine were similar. I do think some of the subtlety of the album has been lost due to compression. It's not as bad as some releases I've heard, but it could have been better.

I don't have the original CD anymore, but I'll try to track one down (I imagine the market will be flooded with them with the deluxe edition out). Using an RIAA adjusted master would be an all too common mistake for that era of CD releases, and would certainly result in horrible sound quality.

Thanks also for the great work on your blog.

Fionnch├║ said...

Great post & comments; I have the Mobile Sound Lab "gold" CD and I am hesitating before paying $25 for the deluxe, although this is my all-time favorite LP for its overall impact, despite the goofy "We Walk" and rather fey "Perfect Circle." Anybody know of a helpful comparison between the MFSB and the deluxe? I'm no audiophile, but this is one special album that I'd consider, sigh, buying yet one more time.

Anonymous said...

Pefect Circle fey? its one of the best songs they ever did along with maps and legends