Grateful for a Great "Box" Set

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If you've ever owned a tie-dye shirt, now would be a good time to dig it out of the bottom of your closet and throw that sucker on. HDTracks recently released a special "box set" of all the Grateful Dead's studio albums, re-mastered and downloadable in either 192/24 or 96/24 digital files. If you'd like to have a CD set, you'll have to burn your own since this collection is only available via download from HDTracks.

Given that the Grateful Dead's studio albums have been released a number of times in different formats and some are even high-def, why would anyone but a daft deadhead bother to purchase this $249 collection? Because it is simply the best-sounding and most definitive representation of the original mixes from the master tapes.

Micky Hart remixed some of the albums, including "American Beauty," for DVD-HD release. The version available as a single album on HDTracks was from this remix. All of the studio albums in the new box set were sourced from the original two-track masters. I know this because I talked with mastering engineer David Glasser from Airshow Mastering, who was responsible for all the tape to digital transfers. David also walked me through the entire mastering process.

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"I received the tapes from the Iron Mountain archives in batches of three. We used a special Ampex ATR recorder for the playback. We recorded three tracks from the two-track original - the first two tracks were the left and right channels. The third track was the original tape bias signal, which was extracted with custom-made tape heads and electronics. Any EQ or other adjustments were made in the analog domain before encoding into 192/24 PCM. This three-channel digital mix was then sent to Jamie Howarth at Plangent Processes." ( StevenStone interviewed Jamie in Audiophile Review a while ago.) "At Plangent Jamie used the bias track to make time, speed, and wow and flutter corrections via DSP. Then he sent the corrected digital files back to me, most of which required nothing more in the way of processing."

The entire project took about two months. The biggest challenge according to Glasser was, "not varying from the original LPs vibe - I wanted to remain true to the original, but better - more clarity, and greater depth. The original masters were in great shape, so we had a good reference. Some of the original LP albums, such as "Terrapin Station" sounded fantastic, while others such as "Mars Hotel" sounded murky in comparison to the original tapes - especially the synthesizer parts in "Unbroken Chain." We were able to clean that up."

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As far as equalization changes, Glasser used as little EQ as possible, "We didn't use any peak limiting at all, and only a bit of compression. We were fortunate in that these recordings were made "old school" where very little was expected to be done in the final mastering stage besides levels control. The final mix WAS the two-channel master, and that was what we worked from."

And how would I describe the final results? Mighty, mighty, fine. All the tracks have the same spatial characteristics as my original LPs (on the Micky Hart remix of "American Beauty" Hart moved the locations of the vocals to dead center - the HDTracks version have the vocals back in their original locations) but with greater clarity and more low-level detail. Phil Lesh's bass doesn't sound any bigger or fatter, but it does have greater precision, both in terms of time and definition.

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While I'm sure that some audiophile Deadheads will swear their white label promo LP copy of "Aoxomoxoa" is the ultimate version, but as an owner of a white label copy I would beg to differ. If you want to get so close to the original tapes that you can practically smell the pot and patchouli, this new HDTracks set is the one to own.

Anyone interested in a very clean promo LP copy of "Aoxomoxoa?"

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