At the backend of 2009, I decided to take stock of exactly where we were up to with the re-mastering and remixing of Bob Dylan’s extensive back catalogue. This long overdue article, published in ISIS Magazine issue 147, was prompted both by the release of four newly re-mastered Bob Dylan CDs and by the euphoria that surrounded the re-mastering of the Beatles’ back catalogue. Now, over a year later, Sony has undertaken a similar project to that of the Beatles by releasing the first eight Bob Dylan albums in their original mono state.
Since the publication of ISIS 147, this article has been extensively rewritten and brought up to date to include those eight mono CD albums (included in the “Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings” box set), plus the releases of “Together Through Life”, “Christmas In The Heart” and “In Concert: Brandeis Live 1963”.
This article was revisited again in February 2011 and April 2012 for inclusion on the ISIS Magazine website.
Why, you might ask, is this information important? When compact discs began to be released in the mid-’80s, digital technology was in its infancy. Digital transfers were made at much lower bit-rates than are currently available, reverb was often added and record companies routinely failed to go back to a suitable master or to the multi-tracks, but instead used master tapes that had been compressed and equalised for the sole purpose of cutting vinyl discs. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that up until the late 1960s compression and equalisation was routinely applied at the mix-down stage, which means that there are no original masters without these troublesome characteristics. Due to the poor quality of earlier CD pressings record companies have, in recent years, begun re-mastering many classic albums.
The ongoing plan to re-master all(?) of Bob Dylan’s albums was set in motion in 1999. The project was started primarily because Columbia’s parent-company Sony had developed Super Audio CD players. SACDs utilized a new analogue-to-digital transfer process known as Direct Stream Digital encoding (DSD). This new method of data transfer enabled more of the information contained on the original analogue tapes to be transferred to the digital disc. The result was that the digital music sounded much closer to the original analogue recording. There were, however, some massive drawbacks with the system. The discs cost considerably more to manufacture and they could only be played on very expensive Sony SACD equipment.
As a result of extremely poor sales of SACDs, Sony began work in the early 2000s on a new type of disc that would contain several layers of digital information. These discs, known as hybrid SACDs, would have one layer for SACD information and a second layer containing standard CD information. The resulting discs could then be played on both SACD machines and on standard compact disc players, therefore eliminating the necessity for buying new and expensive equipment.
In late 2003, 15 of Dylan’s albums were simultaneously released as hybrid SACDs. Six of these titles also featured 5.1 surround sound and, because remixing is a prerequisite for surround sound, the standard CD layer of these titles was also remixed. The titles in question were “Another Side Of Bob Dylan”, “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Blonde On Blonde”, “Blood On The Tracks”, “Slow Train Coming” and “Love And Theft”.
The reason these particular titles were selected for release in surround sound is unclear. However, it is possible, even probable, that the master tapes for the three mid-sixties albums were in such poor condition that Sony had no other choice than to go all the way back to the original four-track studio tapes and remix for stereo. Because Sony was forced to remix for stereo, it was easier and more cost effective to also release those titles in 5.1 surround sound. As Roger Ford points out, “The surround treatment was apparently determined more by force of circumstance than by consideration of which would benefit most.” Roger goes on to point out the crazy consequences of this method of selection, “The result of this expediency is that the one-man-and-his-guitar “Another Side” got a surround mix while “Highway 61”, with its full electric band, didn’t.” (www.rdf.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk). “Blood On The Tracks” was almost certainly selected for 5.1 surround because of its classic status. The reasons for remixing “Slow Train Coming” and, even more so, “Love And Theft” are more difficult to fathom.
Since the 2003 SACD releases, Sony has revisited and re-mastered “Bob Dylan” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” in 2005, and “New Morning”, “Before The Flood”, “The Basement Tapes” and “Dylan And The Dead” in 2009. Even more recently (2010), the first eight albums have been released as part of “Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings”. This eight-album set is currently available both on CD and on vinyl LP.
It should be noted that the eight LPs contained in the vinyl box set sound very slightly different from the CD releases. There are a number of reasons for this. One: Analogue vinyl is quite obviously a different medium to that of the digital compact disc, and most vinyl enthusiasts will tell you that the sound of vinyl is more natural and warm. Two: Although the same master tapes were used for both the CDs and LPs, a different specialist vinyl “engineer”, George Marino of Sterling Sound, was used to make the LPs. The contentious subject of digital EQ-ing has also been addressed because Marino was able to go straight from the analogue tape recorder to the LP cutting lathe without EQ in the middle.
To Re-master Or Remix?
To clarify, re-mastering is when an engineer goes back to a fully mixed master tape and then re-masters that tape for release on CD. Remixing is when the engineer goes all the way back to the multi-track session tapes and mixes these into a new mono or stereo master tape. In doing this, the engineer will often take the opportunity to change things around (maybe bring the vocals and bass up, take the guitar down and possibly even change the position of the instruments in the speakers). The thorny debate as to whether or not classic albums should be remixed (changed in any way) or left alone for posterity is purely subjective. In the main, even when Sony have gone all the way back to the studio tapes their goal has been to remain true to the original mixes.
A Run-through Of Dylan’s Back Catalogue
What follows is a run-through of the re-pressings of Bob Dylan’s back catalogue. Unless a routine repressing or a special release requires re-mastering or remixing, or a new master needs to be made because of wear, Sony always (in theory) use the most recent master tape for all of their releases. For instance, the sleeve to the most recent stereo pressing of the “Bob Dylan” album reads “originally released 1962 © 2005”. In this case, 2005 refers to the date that the album was re-mastered. This article focuses mostly on UK releases but where significant variants exist releases from other world territories may be mentioned. With the recent resurgence in vinyl LPs, this Internet article now takes in to account the many specialist audiophile LP releases.