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Expert Witness: Which is the best sounding Robert Palmer remaster?

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When Edsel Records reissued Robert Palmer‘s Island era albums on CD, we were delighted. Regular SDE readers will know, we rate the Yorkshireman’s diverse ’70s output highly and like many fans were frustrated with the lack of activity around his catalogue.

Although the reissues that came out at the end of August were budget conscious combo-packs, with two albums in each set (three, in one case), the packaging itself was excellent, with slipcases, thick booklets, essays, lyrics and some great archive photography and scans of sleeves and record labels. Most of the albums also came with bonus tracks.

Unfortunately, enthusiasts who’d purchased these sets started reporting in online music forums that the sound quality was not what you might expect from an original tape transfer. Some were stating that the albums looked like they’d been mastered from MP3s.

That got us thinking. If the new Edsel releases are indeed less-than-optimum, then what is the best way to listen to Robert Palmer’s Island albums? Exactly which CDs sound the best? Are the Edsel reissues, really that bad?

There are a number of different masterings, and rather than heap amateur analysis on top of amateur analysis, we asked mastering engineer Nick Watson to give us his professional opinion. In his 23 year career Nick has worked with bands like Faith No More, The Kinks and The Libertines and he co-owns (with Tim Debney) of Fluid Mastering in London.

We gave Nick three versions of Palmer’s 1976 album Some People Can Do What They Like and asked him to analyse them. One was the new 2013 Edsel CD, the second was an original Island CD from the 1980s, and the final disc was the 2011 remaster from US label Culture Factory. To keep things simple this comparison is based on the first track of the album One Last Look. Here’s what Nick had to say.


Edsel Reissue 2013

edsel_sde

Spectogram of the Edsel reissue (click to enlarge)

ROBERT PALMER Some People + Double Fun

The spectrogram image (above) shows clearly that there is no useful audio data on the CD above 16kHz, and the blocky nature of the display is consistent with the audio having been subjected to some form of data compression such as MP3 or AAC or similar. The sound of the disc is also consistent with this, with the top end of the recording appearing to switch on and off, the stereo image flinching, and some twittering artifacts in the top end, as one would expect from low resolution data-compressed signal. As a test, using a clean uncompressed version of the same track as a control, I found that a reduction of the bitrate to about 192kbps was required to reduce the perceived quality to something similar to the Edsel CD (see this image to illustrate).

Apart from the data-compression artifacts, the album sounds quite thick and bloated (too much low-mid) and very closed off in the top end, although this latter point will be partly to do with the data-compression.


Original Island CD from the 1980s

island_sde

Spectogram of the original Island CD (click to enlarge)

island

This CD sounds exactly as one might expect for a reissue done at this time. The EQ is quite thin and the sound is slightly brittle – although once the listener has adjusted to this there are no unusual or distracting artifacts. The stereo image is open and consistent. This sounds like an album that could do with being properly remastered, from the original tapes, with a little extra warmth and bass in the EQ and the more natural and transparent sound of good quality modern A to D conversion.

Looking at the spectrogram, you can see that the frequency response continues upwards from 16kHz and there is none of the blockiness of the Edsel image. Another interesting point is at the extreme high end you can see the response tails away smoothly, but rapidly, at about 21kHz. This would probably be due to the more aggressive filters used in A to D converters in the 80s and early 90s.


Culture Factory Remaster 2011

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Spectogram of the 2011 Culture Factory reissue (click to enlarge)

culture

The spectrogram on this version has no blockiness and no rapid rolloff of the high frequencies. This would demonstrate that as far as digital processing is concerned, this version has suffered the least degradation, i.e. it has not been data compressed and was converted from analogue to digital using more recent technology.

The sound of this version however is dreadful. The tone of it would suggest that at least 8 dB of boost has been applied at around 2kHz giving it what you might describe as a telephonic kind of brightness, and the stereo image swerves from side to side wildly and seemingly at random, with the left channel becoming so loud at times that clipping distortion is audible. Given that no engineer in his right mind would do this to a recording (and I’m allowing for the fact that plenty of engineers do some pretty awful things in the mastering world) I can only assume that on this occasion the guy left the room and what we hear on the Culture Factory CD is the result of the cat walking across the console. All of which is a real shame as it’s a great album, and one that I would enjoy listening to for pleasure.

Conclusions

Given the choice between these three CD editions, the hands-down winner for me is the original ’80s Island reissue – which, for all its faults (faults it shares with pretty much every other reissue of that period) it at least doesn’t suffer from strange sonic artifacts or appallingly harsh EQ.

Coming back to the much discussed Edsel reissue finally, one might wonder how such a thing could have happened. Well, I’m not going to speculate about that and can only talk about what I find on the disc itself. However, in general terms, I can perhaps allude to the fact that before computers and music became so closely intertwined, mastering was something that could only be undertaken by professional engineers. Today, however, anyone with a computer, whether they work in a studio or an office, can pick up a disk or download a file, and do stuff with it. Not everyone for instance knows how to make a 1:1 copy of a CD, and might load it into some freeware in order to attempt to do so, perhaps resulting in some inadvertent degradation. I even know of record company employees who do things to audio masters using applications such as iTunes, without really knowing what they’re doing or why, other than it being something that they have been shown how to do by someone else in the office. It’s almost akin to say, 20 years ago, them taking a master tape out of the box, and unravelling it and then editing it using scissors and sellotape. Except that that would never have happened.

Nick Watson / Fluid Mastering.

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50 responses to Expert Witness: Which is the best sounding Robert Palmer remaster?

  1. Mike F says:

    Now that’s an article. Brave to publish it too. Nice work Paul.

  2. Echo says:

    Good job! My respect for this kind of real journalism. Now you onlu have to confront these findings. I’m very curious how (and if) Edsel will respond. It’s good to guard a bottom line in the nowadays quality of cds. The standard is in this time of the Loudness War already far too low, so keep a close watch to new remastering jobs!

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      Thanks. To be honest, not really expecting Edsel to respond. This isn’t meant to be any kind of ‘witch hunt’, just an informative analysis of what the options are and a proper professional opinion of the Edsel to compare to what fans were saying.

  3. Eric says:

    Well there we have it. Excellent idea, to get to the heart of all this remastering kerfuffle with Edsel (and others), and explain clearly and visually the differences between eras of CDs and remasters. Great job.

    The verdict on this particular track/title bears out what I’m always saying…that 80s CDs, when all is said and done, aren’t *so* bad!

  4. DP says:

    Excellent article. I have the Edsels and am happy to have the music. But, it seems like they could have been better and that’s a bummer.

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      Thanks!

      Many people are very happy listening to MP3s of course, so I don’t think the majority of people who listen in the car or on their ipod will have any issue with the Edsel remasters.

      But if you have a decent CD player, amp and speakers then as you have read Nick suggests the the Island original is the way to go.

  5. Andy says:

    Wow what a U-turn from Mr Sinclair. The “amateur analysis” was initially dismissed as being full of boring technical elements, while the pathetic Edsel response was published at face value. Now we get three spectrograms and a professional confirmation that the “amateur analysis” was 100% accurate.

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      Not sure about U-turn… but thought if we were going to comment on the whole mastering situation we should do it with authority. Hope to run occasional features like this that address mastering / audiophile issues. cheers, Paul :)

  6. bob says:

    Great article Paul, very interesting reading.

  7. vikerii says:

    “…the guy left the room and what we hear on the Culture Factory CD is the result of the cat walking across the console.”

    LOVE that quote!!!

  8. vikerii says:

    Could “Expert Witness” be a regular feature? This is a great article!

  9. Echo says:

    Good idea, Paul. I disagree, however, with your opinion these kind of f*cked up cds are ok for the use for IPods or in the car. Well mastered cds are always better. Also by listening an IPod will it be fine to hear he sonical details of the mastering.

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      Of course decently mastered CDs are always better. The only point I was making is that a lot of people turn their decently mastered CDs into MP3s before listening to them on the train or wherever. So their audio is already compressed and degraded to a degree.

  10. Stefano says:

    Superb article! These reports are very very interesting to read and a great addition to your blog. Please make it a new series.

  11. Mike says:

    Edsel, please respond……

  12. spaceboy says:

    Sooooooo very glad I bit the bullet when I did and got my hands on the Japanese remasters that were done in ’07. I suppose it’s always possible that at some point, hopefully in the not too distant future, a proper job could yet be done for Mr. Palmer’s catalog.

    This was an interesting article, thanks!

  13. James says:

    Excellent piece. And I’m glad that it compares the recent remaster with the 2011 one, showing that more frequency range isn’t always “better.”

    As far as Edsel goes, didn’t they say they got the master from the original label? So it might not even be their fault. They could have been given a shitty copy without even knowing it.

    Finally, Paul’s right and you audiophiles need to calm down – in the context of a car or mediocre earbuds, the 2013 master would most likely sound fine – and anyone who would be able to tell the difference between it and a proper master of the same album would be lying. The defects that come with car speakrs/cheap headphones always mask sub-par mastering.

    • Paul Sinclair says:

      Cheers James. Yes, you are right. Universal gave Edsel the subpar masters. Although you might question why it wasn’t checked / picked up by Edsel.

      • James says:

        They probably didn’t think “we better check this to make sure the studio didn’t send us some MP3 masters” because who would be that dumb? Universal apparently.

  14. Egebamyasi says:

    If the remastered version sounds like crap go buy the original CD from the used bin at half the price.

  15. Chris D says:

    This is what journalism should be about! Great reading!

    “The only point I was making is that a lot of people turn their decently mastered CDs into MP3s before listening to them on the train or wherever.”

    That’s correct, but people are usually using bit rates of 320kbps MP3 or 256kbps AAC for this, yielding a quality that will make it hard to hear any differences to CD quality. However, at 192 or even lower kbps, you might be able to hear such differences, even on an iPod or in a car.

  16. Gerald says:

    The fact is that the iPod era has cracked up quality. MP3 is dreadful if you want sound quality. This is what they’re selling us today.

  17. Justin says:

    Thanks for that Paul. An even-handed article with some fairly conclusive information and good recommendations. Shame the ‘blame game’ and finger-pointing goes nowhere. At least Mark King (Level 42) listened and recognised the low quality and reissued his own ‘Retroglide’ with less compression.

    So, if ripping these Edsel CD’s into iTunes, I’m compressing a 192kbps version even further? Wow.

    I’m still yet to pick up the ‘Riptide’ remaster, but after reading this I might stick to my typically brittle and thin-sounding original Island 80’s release.

    • Chris D says:

      “So, if ripping these Edsel CD’s into iTunes, I’m compressing a 192kbps version even further? Wow.”

      No, you don’t. Just use the Apple Lossless Encoder in your Import Settings.

  18. Cal says:

    Thank you for this article.
    I am only interested in exceptional quality remasters and any reissues that fail should be pointed out. After all, we are here for the super deluxe model!

  19. Fred Smith says:

    Many thanks for this exceptional article;it explains so much.

  20. Cliff says:

    Two interesting points for me in this article: yes, many of us rip our CD’s into MP3’s for the car, etc but not at the 192 kbps that the engineer detected! And secondly, even though he pronounced the 80’s release as the best of a bad bunch, this should put to rest the “audiophile” mythology that all of those original release CD’s are the “audiophile quality”. I find many hiss-laden 80’s releases as unlistenable.

  21. Luigi says:

    Excellent work – maybe Mr. Watson can take a look at one or two tracks on the Edsel PIR box set and compare them to a BBR remaster. Edsel’s response to some pretty lousy sounding PIR tracks was “that’s what Sony gave us”

  22. Mark Phillips says:

    Well done Paul.

    I was always prepared to give Edsel the benefit of the doubt, but even if they didn’t know when they released these that the masters were sub-prime they surely know now.

    To do the right thing they should arrange for the affected releases to be recalled and remastered. I mean it’s not even a high quality MP3 – 192k is acceptable for listening but the highest quality MP3 files are 320k CBR or Variable Bit Rate V0 (insane) which is very nearly (to these ears at least) as good.

    In other words – not even as good as either Amazon’s or iTunes’ defacto standard.

    It may not be Edsel’s “fault ” exactly, they have claimed that they received these tapes as masters, but surely now they know the truth they have a duty to recall and reissue the clearly “faulty” CDs.

    Great article, and I’d love to see track by track specs of the Edsel RP reissues – to confirm if they’ve all originated from 192k MP3 masters or not.

    Keep it up!

  23. baward says:

    In my own experience as a recording assistant, back in the mists of time (early 80’s), mastering would almost never take place without either the recording engineer and/or mixing engineer, as well as the producer, being present at a mastering session. Like song sequencing, it was just too important a stage in the production to trust it to even an experienced mastering engineer (although if they were exceedingly well-known to the producer/engineer, or someone legendary like Arun Chakraverty, then very occasionally an unsupervised session would take place).

    Shameless name drop: Trevor Horn once borrowed my (brand new, unplayed) vinyl copy of ‘Show People’ by Mari Wilson, as he rated Tony Mansfield (Wilson’s producer) as being someone he could trust to have his productions properly done.

    I’m off to listen to a record! :-)

  24. Griffin says:

    Great stuff. Thanks ;)

  25. jan burnett says:

    good written piece. I’ve attended many a mastering, and I can imagine all sorts of things going on if I hadn’t attended. rather sad that Edsel, or somebody at Universal screwed up, and perhaps, they will sort it with another re master and pressing of the CD. They wouldn’t need to change the packaging or other parts, just sticker them as 2014 masters.

  26. Ian Dewhirst says:

    Hi Luigi,

    There must be some confusion here. The PIR Box Set was a Harmless release not Edsel. We have received not one single complaint about the mastering on this box set and we’ve sold 6,500 of ’em so far. I’m very happy with the mastering.

    Cheers,

    Ian Dewhirst

  27. abitoftap says:

    You don’t need to listen to mp3s on the move….I use a Sansa Fuze and rip with FLAC. As these take mini sdhc cards there’s no real problem with space.
    Obviously this doesn’t work if the cd source has been mastered from an mp3!!!!
    As an aside, I remember finding the original Beatles cd issues almost unlistenable.

    • David says:

      Now I suppose there will be a marked split across the RP catalogue. Those Island records where the master is owned by Universal and the rest of the catalogue is owned by Remlap . I wonder whether the Remlap stuff was handed over in quite the same way ? Think Remlap owned the master from Heavy Nova onwards ( or it might have been Riptide ) . Whilst the EMI stuff is of course not the classic catalogue it still holds interest and I would be really interested to know if the Edsel remastered change from the Remlap masters onwards. Might give a real clue as to whether it was what Universal provided, or what Edsel did with them. Hoping the EMI stuff sounds good with Edsel as I’d still buy these ?

  28. Mark Phillips says:

    Come on Edsel, how about a response? Even a “we’re looking into this” would be a start.

  29. Leo Wubbolt says:

    The issue described by mr. Watson is a regular issue these days. Remastering is only worthfull if it’s done by proper engineers and producers using the right technology , equipment and the original analog masters. Finding these original analog masters is problem one. Playing them on the right tape machine is another. Lots of time the used masters are second or third generation masters, and is not clear what treatment they have had. A good example of the most careful treatment is provided by the US based label ‘Audio Fidelity’. This label uses the forces of a very experienced engineer ,named Steve Hoffman. He has produced and engineered since the 70’s. This gives him a lot of advantage, because he knows what a record should sound like. One should listen to his Deep Purple masters for instance. These CD’s have a warm natural analog sound. Not cheap, but worth every penny.

  30. Julian says:

    I’e been waiting for years for these albums to get decent remastering – and more importantly, to get hold of the musch talked about bonus takes from the 1st 3 albums recorded with Phil Brown (read his book “Are We Still Rolling” for wonderful insights and info). So – I have the CDs – they sound not that great – but i do have the bonus stuff …. except, I dont, because there is much more in the vaults – some fabulous live shows and more … the only solution out of all this mess is NEIL STOREY and his outful HIDDEN MASTERS … he worked miracles on the Jess Roden back catalogue from Island – and can do same with the RP calalogue … with enough demand to make it worth doing, Neil is the only man for the job … so if you want it, let him know !

  31. Cyrille says:

    Thank you Paul (and Nick) for this very interesting article.

    When a “remaster” is release with some obvious too compressed sound (as your article pointed out), with errors (duran duran’s “duran duran” EMI remaster) or with songs sourced from a vinyl with pops & clicks (some songs on the 2005 Eurythmics remasters) I find it unbelievable that apparently no one care enough to listen carefully to the files before letting them be pressed on the new CDs ! Come on, some faults are so obvious everyone can hear them !

    If I can make some suggestion, I would really like an engineer’s input ont some of the Duran Duran remasters : I think the sound on the first album and “seven and the ragged tiger” should be carefully inspected ;-)

  32. Wax Monster X says:

    Thank You! Thank You! Thank You! More articles like this. I’m so tired of spending money on garbage re-issues. Talking Heads Rhino, New Order 2XCD and Aztec Camera Edsel.

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  35. Jonathan says:

    Couldn’t agree more Nick, nicely put.

  36. Kerry says:

    I coughed hard and bought the Japanese Island box a few years ago. These is by far the best sounding versions I’ve heard. If you can find one at a reasonable price, get it!

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  39. Charlie D says:

    Came here to see if there were any updates. I sure do appreciate Nick’s insight into this too!
    I am hoping there will be some really wonderful reissues one day.

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