Back in the day, I decided I really liked Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska when the album came to the end of the song "State Trooper." It is that point just before the fade when Bruce sings "hi ho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere" and then he lets loose with a spine-tingling scream that clearly sent the VU meters of his Tascam Portastudio into the red.
That sweet sweet distortion -- emotive, over-the-top and not at all harsh -- made that take the keeper and got me into the spirit of the album. Thirty-plus years down the line, listening with fresh ears in 20/20 hindsight, that moment of purely analog, tape-saturated distortion is still a wonder and something you don't get to hear much anymore on recordings made with modern digital recorders.
The distortion you get today is either super neat and tidy or you get a wash of gritty "pfffffmmmmphfffttt"-sounding digital mush (i.e., a lot of the texture one hears in current dance music). Sure there are software "plug ins" which let you simulate analog tape saturation effect (and they are cool!) but in those situations there you (the artist) are planning too much for it as "an effect."
You see, there is something special about those happily unplanned accidents that make moments like this on "State Trooper" ring more true to the heart artistically.
I'm purely guessing here, but I'd like to think that when making Nebraska, Bruce was riding his recording levels up good'n'high to make the most of the four-track cassette format and minimize the amount of inherent tape hiss that would be revealed. And just like the characters in many of his songs, he just took it all just a bit over that edge.
The rest of the take was so good and the distortion just felt so right... capturing that essence of a spirit crying out in the night... it had to become the keeper for the album.
I say all this because I am approaching this review of Nebraska as reproduced on two different digital formats: compact disc (available separately or in a box set shown below) and high-resolution download. The layman music fan within me initially automatically figured that the CD would be "good enough" to capture the essence of an LP made on a sonically limited four-track cassette recorder.
My inner layman was wrong.
Curiously enough, the CD is indeed revealing some details which were clearly accounted for (if you will) differently in the mastering of the original LP. Listen for the distortion on the title track on Bruce's vocals, which on LP is relatively understated and fits like a glove in the mix without calling much attention to it. On the CD that distortion is very much more apparent and in your face (especially at around the 50-second mark when Bruce sings "me and her went ferrrr a riiiiiide sir....").
I'm not saying this is a bad. I am just saying it is there. Nebraska was always supposed to be a sort of impromptu warts'n'all affair so now with this new remaster here you are getting to hear some more of the warts!
Call them what you may... sonic anomalies... whatever...
Overall, the CD sounds real nice, with just occasional moments of seeming digital harshness on the high end. It is admittedly a little hard to tell what is what at times since this album was recorded on cassette -- a format which brings with it its own set of wows, flutters, distortions, magnetic tape-recording-inconsistancy issues, etc. -- but I'm doing my best to discern some of these nuances for you, Dear Readers! I do know that Bruce and his team of audio wizards put Nebraska through the Plangent Processes treatment to help remove some of these ill-effects imposed on the music from the consumer-grade multitrack cassette recording medium.
Now, one of the reasons I chose to review Nebraska is that the HDTracks version is available in 24-bit/192-kilohertz resolution. That is effectively four times the sonic size of a CD. Going back to "State Trooper," I immediately "get" the reason for Bruce putting this out as such a super-high-resolution download. This version sounds way, way bigger than the CD, with all the warmth of LP yet far more clarity and definition.