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!!!


  1. You nailed the Dolby NR comparison to wool sweaters over the speakers. I always thought they should call it MR (music reduction). A mix can definitely hurt a recording though, as i not so coherently pointed out in my "Stooges" post about the Raw Power sessions.

  2. I agree. I don't think I ever used the NR switch to satisfaction. It made everything sound...not just muffled, but flat, as though you'd set all your equalizers to zero, or even worse, remember the really cheap-o cassette decks you could get for your car? The ones that could only fast-forward? They also usually had no bass or treble control, just knob marked "tone." By turning the tone knob, you could hear your music as either dreadfully muffled or dreadfully tinny. Dolby NR was the dreadfully muffled position on the tone knob.

  3. I still prefer knobs for adjusting bass and treble (or even "tone" for that matter). Pre-set EQ channels are so bizarre to try to work with on modern receivers. It's nice to have some way to adjust when dealing with less than ideal mastering jobs (bright, dull, bass-shy, bass-heavy, etc....)