Thursday, June 30, 2011

Keep an Ear on Summer...........

Like most folks, I go through phases of listening to certain stuff. I became a stone Beach Boys freak in the 90s – certainly with the help of the great 1993 Box Set “Good Vibrations”. I have a number of CD “box sets” – most of which haven’t gotten a lot of play over the years, but the Beach Boys one was in heavy rotation through the 90s. A few years prior to this (1990) Capitol put out all the individual Beach Boys albums on 2-fer CDs (two albums per disc) – and plenty of bonus tracks! Got those too. Along with mono LPs (where necessary) I figured I was good to go – until……..

Some online research led me to discussions about Beach Boys CDs released in Japan in the late 80s as part of a series titled “Pastmasters” (see photo). No bonus tracks here – only one album per disc – why the fuss? Sound quality. Seems that the 1990 US 2fers, though generous with music, were subjected to no-noise processing. Nothing too drastic, but still there.

What’s no-noise? Remember cassettes? Remember how you could record a tape with a “dolby” switch on or off. Dolby was an attempt to filter out “tape hiss” while retaining some high frequency information (the highs – cymbals, etc…..). The option must have had its supporters since it was a standard feature of every decent cassette device of the time. To me, it sounded like wool sweaters over the speakers so my dolby switch was more often “off” than “on”.

Well, the 1990 Beach Boys CDs had no-noise built into them. While not obnoxious it was there (put there by mastering engineers – not on the original tapes). How could a person know – how could you compare? Seems that the Japanese “Pastmasters” CDs had the advantage of being made from straight dubs of the original master tapes. This was good since no-noise was not used, but not optimal since the discs revealed any wacky problem that surfaced with the original master over a 20+ year period of storage, use and misuse. It can be cringe-inducing to hear massive tape drop-outs and damaged tape sections from classic Beach Boys songs (these issues are also usually resolved by competent mastering engineers which is why they’re not heard on most official releases). Japan must have been in a hurry so they got the master tape dubs warts and all. I’ll bet quite a few people were upset with these “defective” discs – if they only knew!!!

Truthfully, most people wouldn’t give a toss about any of this. But I ended up with one of these things as a fluke – found the “Friends” album from the Pastmasters series for about $8. I actually didn’t like it as much as my green-label Capitol reissue LP from the 80s, but I kept it. Little did I know it basically revealed the sound of the master tape the LP was cut from. (Mastering engineers can make all sorts of sonic changes when transferring a master tape to either vinyl or CD – sometimes the results suck, sometimes the results improve on what the master tape sounds like – I have good story that illustrates the second possibility for another time……..)

Imagine being invited to a recording studio to hear the master tapes of  (insert your favorite band here)’s albums straight off the analog reels. Would you? Depends how obsessive you are, of course. So, I’ve managed to track down a few of these Pastmasters beasts and they are interesting (and pretty good sounding).  * Note – this scenario only applies to the Beach Boys titles in this series. I have no idea if other Japanese Pastmasters CDs of other bands were made from master tapes. * They can be difficult to bump into, especially at reasonable prices.

The other night I pulled out a few discs to do some shoot-outs with the 1990s 2fer discs of the same material. For some reason I decided to plop earphones on. Although I already knew about the differences (and could hear them) the headphone approach highlighted the no-noise processing of the 1990 discs very well. Want to hear for yourself?

Legally I can upload brief sections of songs for such a purpose – so that’s what I did. If you’ve read this far down the page and you’re still willing to take the plunge……..see if you have some headphones or earphones handy. Plug into your computer and open the two links / windows side by side. About the first 7 seconds of “Keep an Eye on Summer” – from the 1990 CD and the Pastmasters CD.

     1990 version:

     Pastmasters version:

What can you expect to hear? Start with the 1990 version. Sounds okay, right? Listen to that bass guitar intro again – hear how that sounds? Alright, move to the Pastmasters clip. Same intro – your should be able to hear the attack of the bass strings a little better defined here. If you listen close, you’ll also hear some tape hiss right at the beginning of the song (and surrounding those initial bass guitar notes). On the Pastmasters version you will also hear a crisper sounding snare drum and some faint bass-drum hits back there. The bass drum sound, though pretty quiet on the Pastmasters version, is essentially inaudible on the 1990 no-noised version. Crazy, huh?

To my ears, the sound of the Pastmasters version is fuller and more dynamic overall  - the 1990 version sounds “squashed” in comparison. Is one better than the other? I dunno – just different. Subtle maybe, but – it all depends how obsessive one might be. Happy listening!!!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Seek, Listen, Vibrate & Eat Cheeseburgers...........

    Albert Ayler put it succinctly as the title track to one of his last (and sadly misunderstood) albums – “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe”. I think Albert pretty much covered a lot of philosophical ground with that statement. And, of course, I happen to agree with him. Not in some witch-doctor, shamanistic sense, but in a more profound and subtle way. I would propose that a fair number of folks on the planet find comfort and strength in music on a daily basis. Sometimes the right piece of music heard in the right circumstances can alter the path of a day that has pointed to “Misery” on the Crap-o-Meter of life at least towards “tolerable” and sometimes better.

    Rahsaan Roland Kirk had his own term for this phenomenon – he called it “Bright Moments”. Under Kirk’s usage and (loose) definition, one could certainly have plenty of Bright Moments that were not necessarily musical, but considering his own hyper-allegiance to the overall experience of “sound” there is little doubt music was a key piece of the overall puzzle picture.

    Getting the chance to hear live music is especially gratifying – particularly if the performance is good and the music inspired. Live performance can even elevate music beyond what an “official” recorded version conveys. When I saw the Who in 2002 at Madison Square Garden they played “You Better You Bet” – an okay song on record, not one of the best in my opinion, but live – it rocked! A good musical performance should be like that – a sonic magic show.

    Listening to music at home or in the car is a different experience. Mainly, these days, it’s more of a private affair. Like reading a book – it’s you and the art confronting each other. That’s when more subtle information is shared. Those experiences where you go “wow! I felt that once!” or “How come I never thought to use those words….” The cross-over country singer from the 60s – Roger Miller – is a primo example of someone who came along at the right time to put lots of ironic, yet common, ideas that people have floating around in their brains to expression through songs. Like the song “The last word in lonesome is me” for example. Did you catch that? Clever guy that Roger Miller, eh?

    Sometimes its not even words – it could just be a sound. Like the sound of a hit record from the 70s that you haven’t heard in 20+ years – it can transport you back to a (hopefully) happier time.  A bunch of years ago, oldies stations started playing that song “Sweet City Woman” like it was 1974 all over again. Goofball song, but heck – I was singing along. A few months ago I broke out some Ornette Coleman records I hadn’t played in awhile. It was like meeting an old friend. I have those reactions and I’ll bet plenty of other folks do too (well, maybe not with Ornette Coleman exactly….. heh heh).  I call these people “Sound Freaks”. Rahsaan called them “Eulipions”.

    Rahsaan continues to be a major source of inspiration. Not the least of which in terms of attitude towards music. He was a jazz musician, yet he hated the label “jazz” preferring to call his music “Black Classical Music” which I can totally dig. But he had the right idea. Music is music is music. It’s the vibration and the intention of its creator that matters. People that create music from a purely selfish and materialistic point of view create cold and nasty music. Sun Ra knew that. If music is good it reaches your heart and uplifts you – even the blues. ‘Cause the blues understands your feelings – happy and sad and all points in between. The brilliant NRBQ guitar-slinger Steve Ferguson called it “Humanistic Music” – the good stuff.

    I don’t know where I’m going with all this except to say I had a good journey with a fellow “Eulipion” today that involved music, philosophy and good cheeseburgers – a winning combination in my book. Our time on the planet is so short – the Benevolent Creator (upon bestowing free-will to all of us) gives us challenges every day – sometimes ones that seem too much to bear (and trying to do it alone CAN be too much to bear). But the gift of music can pull us through and be a connecting point to like-minded people so we can relate to each other.

    The summer is officially here. Time to give thanks, recharge spiritual batteries and explore the sounds around us – composed and non-composed. Seek, listen, vibrate and pass it on if its good to you……………….