David Bowie's new album The Next Day is a good record. I like it.
I'm not fully buying the so-called "comeback" hoopla however since his prior three albums (Hours, Heathen and Reality) were pretty great rock records. I particularly like the surround mix on Heathen -- it and Reality were put out as 5.1 SACD special editions back in the day. Those were some good records there, but it is possible they got lost in the sauce amidst the turmoil here in the states with our challenging presidential situation, 9/11 and other things going on around the world; perhaps David Bowie's music wasn't necessarily top of everyone's to do list at that point in time. Or maybe he just has a better marketing and PR team in place this time around. ;-)
Anyhow, here we are in the years and the Thin White Duke is back with a new collection of fine songs and the world is again a finer place. As Kurt Vonnegut might have written at this point: 'hooray!'
Of the three versions of The Next Day available to us consumers, HDTracks.com gets the nod for best overall sound. They sell a 48 kHz/24-bit download, albeit with a bunch of curious caveats listed there on the site, which I will leave to you, dear reader, to interpret for yourself:
"Recorded at 48/24, mixed analog to 96/24.
Tracks 9 and 12 are recorded at 44/24 mixed analog to 96/24.
Tracks 5 and 14 are recorded/mixed at 48/24."
The HDTracks download sounds just better enough than the CD to make it worthwhile. The jump between 44.1 kHz / 16-bit compression on the CD and the 48/24 download is enough to make a sonic difference, particularly on sharp edges around Bowie's voice and fine instrumental details where harshness can crop up.
Take the opening kick drum beats on "Valentines Day" for example: on the HDTracks download you hear more of the round warmth of the drum beater hitting the drum head while on the CD it sounds a bit more angular and harsh, the latter being less appealing to the ear in a musical sort of way.
On "Love Is Lost," you feel the pipe organ more and the bass pulses are very in your face; on the CD the drum effects at the beginning of the song leap out of the mix a bit more and the bass seems less full. I could go through this track by track but I think you get the idea -- there are many little details which give the music a somewhat different sound and presence, likely (my guess here, folks) due to the compression that happens when taking a track from 48k/24-bit down to 44.1/16
If all this matters to you -- as it should if you are reading this column -- then by all means get the HDTracks download. The artwork on the album isn't that spectacular so you aren't missing much from not buying the physical disc in that regard.
Now, lets talk about the vinyl for a moment: it sounded pretty good too, with nice fat bass and mid range jumping out of the mix in particular, especially when you turned up the amplifier.
However, the one big problem I had with the LP -- and the reason I ended up returning my copy -- is that the vinyl was sloppily pressed, with two of the four sides being just off center enough to distort the music. This was especially true on tracks like "Love is Lost," with its long held organ lines that wavered annoyingly in and out of tune as my tone arm swung back and forth. The recording does NOT sound that way on the digital versions.
I love vinyl, but off center and warped discs are inexcusible in my book, especially if a consumer is paying $30 plus taxes and shipping to get a so called audiophile release. A company the size of Columbia/Sony should be able to afford quality controls to avoid this, especially for a major talent like David Bowie.
'Nuff said. Back to the music and onto the next day...
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com