Just because someone puts music through a fancy hi rez processor doesn't mean it is going to suddenly sound high resolution. Remember that as you read my tale of audiophile woe experienced while digging down into some reissues by San Francisco's legendary rock band, The Flamin' Groovies.
In the past couple of years I've gotten back into this influential (and thankfully no longer "lost") group. I have also discovered that obtaining copies of their original albums on vinyl is quite difficult. Actually, it is not exactly difficult, but the collector's prices going on eBay, Popsike and other sites are quite over the top. Even the Sundazed Records reissue from a number of years back is out of print and going for relatively high prices in mint condition. But I get it. This band never was enormously successful in America and thus original pressings of any sort are very limited (especially here in California, where they never really got super popular despite being signed to some major labels over the years including Epic, Kama Sutra and Sire).
One day at a music store I saw some CD remasters of early Flamin' Groovies LPs from their Epic and Kama Sutra years that looked appealing despite consciously avoiding this particular reissue label in the past. The promotional hype on these discs read: "Audiophile Recording; Remastered in High Definition; 96 kHz / 24-bit." It also says "Strictly Limited Collector's Edition" and "Vinyl Replica Collection." This is just the copy on the Obi-like strip on each mini-LP sleeve!
I had avoided this label for quite some time because, frankly, the hype sounded a bit too good to be true, especially since they were, at their root, simply red book CDs which I know play at 44.1 kHz / 16-bit.
The big question is what was the quality of the source material. While I don't have the specific details on these particular Flamin' Groovies releases, I did find copy on Culture Factory's website that is telling:
"Record companies provide us with an audio transfer of the original, analog audio tracks on digital media (CDR - DVD audio, DAT or direct file online transfer). From this transferred audio our studio engineer creates a remastered set of tracks focusing their complete attention in the following areas
- Sound level
- Frequencies (bass, midrange and treble)
- Hiss (if necessary, hiss is removed from older recordings using the de-noiser)"
You can read more about their process at CultureFactoryUSA.com.
Curious, eh? Of course this raises the question as to what source material they used for these Flamin' Groovies releases. We may never know. And is it even worth inquiring? Nah. My ears tell me everything I need to know. and that is why I'm writing this review.
I went online and found these Flamin' Groovies "The Legends of Rock" CD reissue series for sale -- I think I paid $13 disc including tax, shipping & handling -- I bought all three albums. These are in fact the hardest ones to find on LP, especially Supersnazz and Teenage Head.
Initially when they arrived I was excited -- they LOOK great! -- as the packaging is of very high quality, like genuine miniature LPs.
I was surprised to find that each CD is manufactured on the black Playstation type CD recording media. Some say those black CDs sound better than traditional CDs. I'm not convinced of that. In the past I have purchased recordable black CD-Rs and experimented with copies of my own recordings, I could not detect any difference. They DO look cool! They also seem to scratch up more readily -- at least my Flamin' Groovies discs have from playing them in the car, while my other traditional CDs are fine.
But we're here to talk about sound and well, the sound on these reissues feels kinda heartless.
Now, I had heard these Flamin' Groovies albums on LP in the past and remembered them sounding quite good, all things considered -- they are raw rock 'n roll records, after all. I subsequently began a quest to check out other CDs to hold me over until I eventually found good vinyl pressings.
I knew I was on to something when I heard the 1999 Buddha Records reissue of Teenage Head ($6 used at Amoeba Records!) and it sounded way way better than the new 96/24 remastered CD. I got a CD copy of the fun Sire Records compilation Groovies Greatest, which includes tracks from these early albums --those tracks sound better too.
At a recent record collectors swap meet, I laid down some reasonable (but not exactly cheap) cash for second pressings of two early Flamin' Groovies LPs (Supersnazz on a late 70s blue Epic Records label, and Teenage Head on the blue Garden of Eden style label-era of Kama Sutra Records. So, now I can more or less compare these 96/24 CDs to vinyl.
And there is no comparison. Even these second pressing LPs sound so much better than the vinyl replica CDs which sound like they equalized the midrange sounds out. All that nice warmth of the drums, guitars and vocal harmonies take on a harsh sort of edge. The volume IS a lot lower on the LP but there is much more dynamic range going on. When you push your amp a bit, they hold together and rock really nicely.
The new vinyl replica CDs have a sort of boxy harshness about them. Sure, there are super crisp highs and some angular lows on the CD, but something is lost. It sounds like the all important mid ranges that make the acoustic guitars swagger on bluesy tunes like "City Lights" (from Teenage Head) have been compromised. Even lead singer Roy Loney's vocals seem to have a sort of sharp edge around them.
So what's a fan to do? Well, if you are not up for springing for the original LPs on the collector's market, I would go for the 1999 Buddha reissues which you can find pretty cheaply and they come with a slew of non-LP bonus tracks. I'm not sure if the band gets anything from these reissues, but then I'm not sure if they get anything from the vinyl replica ones either. For the listener, at least the Buddha ones sound more true to the album sound -- sure, they are still 16-bit CDs, but it sounds like more of a straight transfer off a master tape source that hasn't been tweaked much. This will reduce your cost of entry into the world of The Flamin' Groovies and do justice to the music until a proper reissue series authorized by the band (who is touring again after some 30 years!) emerges.
Hopefully they'll be successful enough this round to warrant a high quality reissue series soon!
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. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, 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. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.