Monday, March 26, 2012

The ten best sounding scores of all time

Finally, my last best-of list! Somehow I´m glad that this is finally finished... believe it or not: it took quite some time to write those lists. All the time in my head was this nagging feeling that some people won´t like the choices I finally selected. But I´ve said it from the beginning that I´d only present my personal, subjective picks and won´t copy another list with the usual candidates. No one should forget that this blog is for my personal enjoyment only, call it my "expression of egocentricity" if you like. Of course I enjoy to be recognized and I find relief in the fact that some people seem to regard my blog helpful in some way. However, it´s still surprising to me that it continues to attract the attention it gets every day considering the geeky stuff I´m writing about, not many people are interested in things they usually don´t relate to. Having said that, I don´t express myself very well, sometimes I fail at explaining where I want to go with my articles. One reason is that I´m not a native speaker (sometimes I bang my head on the table because the easiest expression has escaped my head while at other times I can´t remember the german word for an english expression), another reason is that I tend to view things from a rather simple black/white perspective. It´s so easy to get lost in one's own limited view of the world - that's one of the reasons why I took the avatar of Mrs. Dietrich: she was a true globetrotter, fluent in several languages, surrounding herself with the intellectual and artistic elite of her time while staying true to her roots. Sure, she had many flaws. But  to me she still serves as a great example of integrity, courage and open mindedness. Sometimes this example isn´t vivid enough though.

Several weeks ago I published an article about DBTs, science, engineers, mathematicians and statistics, an article I was initially very proud of. In reality however it was an abomination. I tackled themes I didn´t really understand and I myself used the very instruments I was trying to attack, it was nothing more than a badly written hack job aimed at people who couldn´t do anything about it. Additional problems were that it wasn´t new, needlessly cynical, badly researched - and all the while during writing I had delusions of grandeur! I needed my best mate to realize that the monster I created shouldn´t be in this world (I know, I love being dramatic!). This mate is a curious fella because he has a certain way of telling me directly to my face "That sucks!" and then goes on explaining why. He possesses an enormous amount of aquired knowledge in combination with a vast intellect which enables him to pick apart my reasoning. Believe me, sometimes it can be quite daunting and on more then one occasion he did hurt my feelings - but only because I do have  a problem of accepting criticism directed at me (the roots for that can be found in my occasional difficulties with self confidence). He is a very empathic person (something I lack myself) and he´s one of the few people who knows me inside out. I also think he respects what I´m doing even though he rarely tells me so (just as I have problems telling people "You were good") So he really doesn´t want to hurt my feelings, I´m still glad though that he occasionally does, as for example on my DBT article. I wouldn´t have realized my error if he would have behaved too diplomatic! Of course this is a thinly veiled 'Thank you' and I don´t really know why I´m writing all of this, I wanted to write something about scores, sound, the usual stuff. It´s just that I want him to be proud of me, I´m so glad that I´m surrounded by people like him and my boyfriend who constantly advise me to better myself. And after reading all of this I fear that he will forever taunt me :D

How do I get back to filmscores now? Life-changing experiences perhaps? My biggest passion alongside electronic stuff? Wow... how ingenious. If I think about it... I actually have several strong memories related to movie scores. I remember being in cinema with my mom at the age of seven, we were watching "The Secret of Nimh". It´s one of my most vivid positive memories from my childhood: during the climax of the movie when Mrs. Brisby has to watch her children suffer inside a stone that is sinking into the mud she touches an amulet given to her on an earlier occasion by Nicodemus, the leader of the rats. The amulet becomes powerful by "realizing" Mrs. Brisby's strong will to save her children. By sheer will power and with the help of this amulet she moves the stone out of the mud to safety, saving her children. Of course this scene is accompanied by music, music written by Jerry Goldsmith and up to that point I´ve never heard more heavenly, beautiful and spine tingling sounds. I forgot all around me and started crying helplessly, even now I´m on the brink of crying just by the memory of it. Back then I felt that I had never witnessed anything more wonderful in my entire life. And I´m not exaggerating this time. It took me until 1993 to find out that Jerry Goldsmith composed the score, a period when I already loved his music and I suddenly realized that it was only fitting that my favourite composer was responsible for one of my strongest childhood memories. 

Since 1982 I have constantly (unconsciously at first) been looking for this strange combination of somehow sad, awe inspiring and goosebumps inducing music. I have not been disappointed so far: another memory of mine is the first time I watched "Poltergeist" on TV. My parents weren´t home, I was alone and I smoked my first cigarettes out of curiousity. I was eleven, terrified and mesmerized by this strange combination of horror mixed with emotions. Again, the music was for a large part responsible for it - and back then I thought John Williams had composed it, at eleven I already made the connection that Spielberg always goes hand in hand with Williams. But no, it was Jerry Goldsmith again. There are of course certain other scores being responsible for still holding their respective movies dear to my heart: "The last Unicorn" or "The Neverending Story" (the Doldinger score), both very lovely, admittedly kitschy scores. But oh, they are so achingly beautiful... The latter movie is part of another memory: several years ago my best friend (the one above) and I were driving in a car, I did the driving. It had been a rainy day and the streets were wet. While we were driving we listened to "Bastian's happy Flight" from the Doldinger score of "The Neverending Story". When we approached a sharp bend the tires lost their grip on the wet street and the car suddenly started spinning without control. An accident could have happened then but the car "only" spun for 360° and finally came to a standstill, perfectly in line with the street again. Cars behind us were simply driving around us as if nothing had happened, it indeed had been a 'happy Flight'.

These are just some of the more important reasons why I have been adoring and enjoying so many scores since the age of 15. Filmscores are so different to classical music, sometimes they are showcasing so much talent and creativity that it´s breathtaking. To round up the discussion about art vs. commercialism of my last article I´ll say that scores can lead you through several genres, composing styles and eras of classical music in just five minutes - and you won´t even recognize it because the composer is adapting those only for inspiration into his own compositorial style, all the while fitting the demands of the movie and at the same time composing a complete work ready for the concert hall. Despite the public opinion that they are just commercial embellishment many scores showcase that they can be removed from the context of the movie they are written for so that they are able to emerge as a true and unique form of art. Think about the monumental work Howard Shore has done for the Lord-of-the-Rings movies, he had to create over ten hours of music! The amount of notes is virtually unimaginable yet he still managed to orchestrate and conduct on its own besides creating a work of excellent quality. It´s only fitting that it has been turned into a symphony that gets played with regular orchestras, even though they may sneer at it. Scoring a movie truly is an underrated and genuine form of art, it starts as an instrument for creating movies but if it´s good it´s able to cross the lines to be recognized forever.

In hindsight of what´s written above there´s no better release to start my last best-of list than this one. A classically trained conductor (and composer of its own) leading an orchestra used to perform "serious" music only. On this release here they tackled master composer Bernard Herrmann, known for his many scores for famous movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The result of this seemingly strange marriage are works for the silverscreen interpreted with a comparatively "classical" approach - and it works. While many fans of the originals despise this release as being "too slow" or "too boring" this indeed is the prerogative of a conductor who interprets the work with his orchestra. It´s his own subjective view on a particular work and I for one love Mr. Salonen's view because he gives something else to these excerpts, a little something extra I´ve rarely heard from Bernard Herrmann: emotions. Of course, they were always there but hidden under the stark and rigid conducting style of the composer. The sound quality of this recording shows 'extras' too: the sonic colour is breathtaking. Dynamics, crispness, bass, colour and staging are perfect, just perfect, resulting in a release that is without flaw. Highly recommended!

For a long time now I have been assuming that some composers are more interested in a well captured sound than others. One of these composers is John Williams. While his earlier work from the '70s and '80s does not always sound well his more recently released compositions range among the best sounding orchestra recordings available. It´s impossible to pick just one work and declare it to be the best, they all are almost perfect. To name but a few: "Hook", "Jurassic Park" (even with its exaggerated treble), "Schindler's List", "Minority Report", "Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban" or his more recent "Tintin" score all have a lush, defined, dynamic, spacious and colourful sound. They simply are pure joy which might have to do with the circumstance that Mr. Williams takes his time to compose and to record. Unlike other composers he usually requires six months time for one score and while greatness can be achieved in just three to four weeks by others ("King Kong", James Newton Howard or "Air Force One", Jerry Goldsmith) he always seems to be just slightly more careful, adding layer after layer of variations, harmony and complex rhythms. The engineers he uses seem to know what he requires - and most of the time they deliver.

You probably own a wonderful sounding score yourself already: "Titanic". If I remember correctly over 30 million CDs have been sold over the years, it´s an impressive and rare number for a score. It was composed by James Horner and it earned him a well deserved Academy Award but probably very few people know that it also sounds close to perfection. Bob Katz, himself a highly respected engineer, knows about it, some years ago he stated that it´s one of the best mastered CDs out there. But one shouldn´t stop with this example of Horner's composing style even though it serves as some kind of "Best-of" for Horner's music itself. There are just so many other scores by him that sound very well: "Apocalypto", "Flightplan", "A Beautiful Mind" (even though it has been mixed odd) or "Avatar". Hm, if I think about it you might want to forget the last one. Sure, it was written to accompany the most successful movie of all times but it really is a boring, cheap and uninspired score. You see, over the last 20 years or so James Horner has been accused of being too ecclectic, he literally "steals" (which goes way beyond of being "inspired" or "paying hommage to") music by others (not so often) and himself (everytime). The main theme for "Aliens" for example turns up again in "Clear & Present Danger". You can bet your life on it that a theme for one movie might turn up in another completely unrelated one resulting in the public accusation of laziness which has been surrounding James Horner lately. If you´re still willing to accept this you are in for sonic ride for most of his later scores (since the mid 90s) come close of being the epitome of sonic perfection. Compared to John Williams above they do not sound as well but the differences are so tiny that these scores still sound better than 95% of everything else.

If you´re into electronic music this release from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross is for you. Trent Reznor initially started out as an industrial rock singer/songwriter, his band Nine Inch Nails is quite famous. That  background might be one of the reasons that there are many people out there who are deriding this work as being uninspired and boring, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" has been attacked for bordering on being a collection of noises and soundscapes only. Well, there actually doesn´t exist a reason for denouncing it other then not being able to fit everyones' taste. It even has a strong connection to "Star Trek" (for a yet unknown reason), one piece is called "Bird of Prey" while another piece quotes the Borg-Theme Jerry Goldsmith composed for "Star Trek: First Contact" (one possible reason could be the quote from the movie that "Borg" sounds swedish; Stieg Larsson, the author for TGWTDT came from Sweden too which would render the theme-quote an in-joke). The sound is a beast of its own because it will prey on your ears, it´s just pristine. This score doesn´t use a classical orchestra - but that doesn´t mean that it cannot sound well. Samples of real recordings are mixed with synthesizers, sequencers and signal processors are manipulated with extreme attention to detail and a fine ear for subleties while the overarching sonic concept never strays out of sight, creating a balanced soundscape with many highlights. I don´t know how Reznor/Ross achieved this but it´s evident that you sometimes won´t need a classically trained composer to support a movie, create an artistic work and to produce sublime musical soundscapes. If I have one criticism it´s that this score is an example of the Loudness War, it has distorted 0 dBFS peaks responsible for a slightly smeared image. Otherwise it´s perfect so get out and buy the 3-CD edition, it´s quite cheap.

In 1981 Jerry Goldsmith composed the score to a now obscure movie called "Night Crossing" which described the flight of two families from East Germany to West Germany with a huge balloon. It seems that Mr. Goldsmith has been inspired by this movie to compose one of his most passionate works because the music is complex, dynamic, emotional, intelligent and quite breathtaking (even though used a tacky accordeon for describing German rural life). The sound quality of this release is equally perfect because it´s noisefree, not distorted, extremely dynamic, crisp with lovely sonic colour and perfect staging (it could use a bit more energy at the lower mids though which somehow results in a slightly flat imaging). Surprising really because it´s 31 years old, yet it still holds up extremely well. Engineering was done by Eric Tomlinson and it´s one of those cases where he succeeded in getting a perfect sound. Sadly, this score isn´t available anymore, the last time it has seen a (limited) release was in 1994 by Intrada. I only have a copy a friend made for me but - as is often the case with me on rare OOP releases - I very much would like to have an original CD since I love to read a booklet in combination with a pressed medium instead of a CD-R. So I really hope that the recent Disney/Intrada pairing will pay off and that it´ll be released again, they won´t need to remaster it because it´s already almost pristine. 

With his epos Kevin Costner singlehandedly resurrected a genre that was believed to be a rotting corpse. Courtesy of the marvellous photography the movie presented vast vistas and dramatic pictures, marrying these with an enganging love story and a well done description of how the native American people once suffered. Not one composer would have been better suited to score this picture than John Barry. Mr. Barry can of course be described as "Bond, James Bond" for he is the one composer responsible for shaping an entire genre. While the Bond style wouldn´t have been well suited for this movie he already had developed a secondary style throughout the '70s that used an extremely slow and elegant pace with big brass and cinemascope sized emotions, all glued together by jazz harmonics & rhythms and loaded with his trademark simple composition style. If one work by a composer could be described as being the crowning achievement of a long career it would be this. Another wondrous achievement always was and is the sound of the CD: it perfectly fits the music and the movie. The scores' sonics are extremely articulate, airy and dynamic combined with fullness and details that must be witnessed to be believed. This score is over 20 years old and still sounds like it has been recorded tomorrow. Of course you can criticise it for being too wide and too reverb laden - but if it would be any other way it wouldn´t fit the music. The sound is so well captured that it has been re-released many times, always on the newest audiophile medium: in 1995 on a Gold-CD with additional music, in 2001 as an SACD and finally in 2004 in remastered and expanded form. If possible however you should try to seek out the original version or the Gold-CD because the 2004 version has been remastered with too much emphasis on bass and treble. Don´t get me wrong, it still sounds good but the newest release has lost one of the most appealing aspects of the score: the balanced frequency response. This one is highly recommended even if the music sometimes will prompt you to fall asleep over it. Before I forget: the cover you can see above isn´t the original cover. That one looked boring so I took an alternate that has been created by the wonderful Luis Roja.

Ah yes, this movie... I won´t talk about it. I like it but it has many flaws and describing them would go beyond the scope of this article. The music however is perfect - as is the sound. There might be some energy missing at the mids but other than that it´s well captured. Treble is extremely gentle, yet extremely detailed and airy. Bass is full and deep but never bloated and the slightly recessed mids are largely responsible for the laid-back sound. On weak systems it can appear to sound too liquid but that´s only because those systems destroy the very delicate textures. The staging is lovely too, it´s wide, deep and perfectly balanced. I cannot listen to this recording on my old Technics SL-XP 300, with that CD player it sounds like shit. So this is not only a marvellous score by James Newton Howard, it´s also able to serve as a Test-CD.

Sadly not many scores by Christopher Young sound as well as this one. If they would however they´d be even more engaging. Mr. Young is primarily known for composing music for horror movies, he composed the music for "Hellraiser", "Species", "Copycat" and "The Grudge". But scoring for horror movies isn´t the only reference, he also composed music for big budget movies like "Spiderman 3" and "The Core". At one thing he excels though: writing for strictly dramatic movies, as a prominent example I´d like to mention "The Shipping News". The knack for emotions might be one of the reasons enabling him to compose horror scores that are perfumed with an underlying melancholia that´s hard to grasp. This melancholic horror is perfectly captured here with the "Excorcism of Emily Rose" which also showcases his talent to use the styles of Penderecki, Kilar, Lutoslawski and Górecki. The latter fact renders him one of the most modern and advanced composers in Hollywood. Of course he doesn´t simply copy them, the wonderful artist that he is incorporates them into his own style. Result: one moment you´re in sheer terror, goosebumps are chasing goosebumps while the next moment you are immensely depressed, melancholic and feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. Mr. Young always is an emotional rollercoaster ride on his better scores - thankfully the sound of this one isn´t for it will make you truly happy. It does have some high frequency sinuses which can be quite distracting but otherwise staging is lovely, the size and placement of instruments stays consistent throughout, the occasional synthesizers are sounding organic and perfectly blended into the orchestra. Sometimes it´s a soundscape not unlike the one described above with "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", this time created with an orchestra though. You really should seek out "Emily Rose" before it´s too late, the CD has already started to disappear from stores. It´s really a shame because it´s such a wonderful little gem from an underrated composer.

The score to the first Star Trek movie by Jerry Goldsmith is a legend. It´s commonly mentioned alongside scores like "Lawrence of Arabia", "Star Wars", "Titanic", "E.T." and it´s a shame that it wasn´t awarded an Academy Award. It by far surpasses the quality of the movie and its brassy title march was made famous by its use in the TV series "The Next Generation". The post production of the movie (and subsequently the music) was hurried and stressfull. The first theme Goldsmith composed was rejected by director Robert Wise to be too grand and operatic, sounding like "sailing ships". So J.G. came up with the theme we all know and love, a theme that has been performed by many orchestras in the world ever since. And even though the composing was done with little available time the final work is one fine piece of music. It marries a huge orchestra with synthesized elements, an organ and some unusual other instruments (the "Blaster Beam") and it was responsible for shaping the musical world of the entire Star Trek genre. It´s a wonder that the sound holds up very well when keeping the ennerving production circumstances in mind: engineering was done by Bruce Botnick and the resulting sound is wonderful. Dynamics are explosive, there´s an abundance of crispness that rarely gets harsh and a sometimes thundering base combined with an extremely precise and sharp image of the instruments while the ambience that surrounds them is lush. Yes, there is some noise and sometimes it can become a tad harsh but these are only occasional problems that shouldn´t hinder you to seek this score out for it should be on every cupboard.

Another score by Jerry Goldsmith composed for an obscure film that was directed by a director who later singlehandedly wrecked the Star Trek genre with the movie "Star Trek: Nemesis". A flop too, "U.S. Marshals" served as the sequel to the wonderful "The Fugitive" and while the second movie basically was a carbon copy of the first one it still failed to engage audiences and critics alike. The music has its fair share of detractors too, many Goldsmith fans hate it because it´s generally considerd to be too rhythmically complex and devoid of any good theme. I for one always loved it, this score proves that it won´t need a good theme and grand harmony to produce a good piece of music. The sound is lovely too, it was engineered by Bruce Botnick again (19 years after the score directly above) and while it has a very audible sine at higher frequencies it´s nevertheless detailed, crisp, lush and incredibly dynamic. Ambience tends to be too dry at times but that produces the positive side effect that you can pinpoint the instruments embedded in the virtual stage. Very recommended!

The ten worst sounding scores of all time

This is my penultimate best-of (or 'worst-of') list and it will concern itself with movie scores, commonly called soundtracks. For all my readers who don´t know what these are: scores are these strange things sounding remotely like music accompanying scenes of the movie you´re watching. I´m not talking about some songs where some guy sings something that´s somehow related to the movie (the feeling of the scene), no, I´m talking about music specifically created for those scenes only. Most of the time movies have a musical score so that certain scenes can be enhanced, weakened, juxtaposed, whatever you like. Filmmusic composers come in at the last moment of the movies' creation process, one often quoted statement describes it best in my opinion: "A filmmusic composer is the last writer on a movie". It´s important to understand that the job of a score composer is extremely important and difficult, he/she can affect the final statement of certain scenes in a movie tremendously. While the importance of scoring is common knowledge in the movie industry there are many people all over the world who sneer at filmscores, these people often state that scores are just tapestry and wouldn´t exist on their own. In Germany for example it´s quite normal to deride filmscores, in the eyes of us sometimes arrogant Germans scores are not "art" - they are written for a movie which itself is nothing more than entertainment. The truth however lies somewhere in the middle: yes, a movie is a form of commercialized entertainment and yes, a filmmusic composer indeed is an artist. This is of course a discussion hundreds of years old, Mozart or Beethoven can be equally accused of being commercial (they made a living with their music). 

It´s important to understand this clash because it is one of the reasons why filmscores fail to sound as well as many classical recordings. Yes, I know, a score is not classical music. Many people actually get this wrong; while filmmusic may use one instrument of the classical repertoire (an orchestra) it still doesn´t belong to that genre. Filmmusic also uses many different styles ranging from romanticism, baroque, post modernism, serialism, pop, jazz etc. and it must do so because it has to be recognizable and not too challenging so that the audience can still get the message. So, because filmmusic isn´t regarded as pure art and is created mainly for enhancing the commercialized dramatic narrative (the movie) and also because it is sometimes produced with limited amounts of time and money it can sound horrible as a result. I can only imagine what this means to the engineer responsible for the sound of the score: immense stress. Regarding that it´s no wonder that filmscores rarely sound perfect - still most of them sound decent; not very good but good enough for daily enjoyment. A proof to the talent of most of the engineers having to work under stressful, ever changing and demanding situations where money and time are on short supply. Some examples are so awful however that I´ll start my last two lists with the worst sounding scores of all time, it´ll be fun, I promise you. Oh, and score fans? Gimme a break, you may not like what you´re going to read but as I´ve written in all the other articles: this is just my personal opinion, nothing more.

I´ll start my list with a score by celebrated, multiple Academy Award winner John Williams. He did most of the movies of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, he probably is the most successful score composer of all time, even "normal" people celebrate him (not only nerds like me). His score to "The Empire strikes back" has been a constant challenge for fans during the last 30 years or so. When it was first released it wasn´t complete (a score rarely is), when it was released in complete form by RCA Records in 1997 it sounded just awful. The latter version is the one you can see above and - by God - it´s one of the most hideous examples of sound ever preserved on CD. To make this release possible several different sources had to be used, sometimes they were in a very bad condition because of improper storage and sometimes they were mixed awkwardly. Several tracks were subsequently remixed by a person who obviously never mixed an orchestral recording before or didn´t have the correct information of how to place certain instruments with the result that some instruments of the orchestra are changing their place during the CDs' runtime. Even worse is that the original sound balance by engineer Eric Tomlinson was lost, resulting in a harsh, distorted, flat and compact sounding experience. It comes close to the sound of fingernails on a blackboard: deep bass is absent, highest frequencies responsible for "air" are nonexistent and the rest inbetween is either too loud, constricted or distorted. Until an improved version is to be released sometime in the future this release has to be avoided by all means. Believe me, I have tried to "remaster" it for myself but I´ve failed miserably two times, it simply cannot be done. Oh, and the 2004 Sony re-release is the same (despite the moniker "DSD remastered" on its back cover).

This is a truly great score, an achievement that catapulted James Horner to the A-list of composers working for Hollywood. The sound is frightfully distorted when the amplitude gets higher and looses resolution when it gets lower. This is an example of a recording made without much money and also another example of a recording engineered for vinyl. The release you can see here is the remastered and expanded version, released in 2009 by FSM, expertly remixed by Mike Mattessino. The new mix actually improves the sound somewhat but I assume that Mr. Mattessino couldn´t do something about the atrocious recorded sound without destroying too much of the initial material. Really a shame because the music is so good, it shows all the characteristics James Horner uses to this day in the best way possible.

These four score shall serve as an example for recordings that have been remastered badly. "The Great Train Robbery" by Jerry Goldsmith had been released already in remastered, remixed and expanded form in 2004 and none other than Bruce Botnick did the new mix. Many fans of the score (and of the old LP released in 1979) always hated that expanded version because of a supposedly bad sound. Bruce Botnick had been working with Mr. Goldsmith from 1979 until 2004 (when Jerry Goldsmith sadly passed away) so he was constantly exposed to the sonic wishes of the composer. These were calling in later years for the sound to be "wetter, wetter, wetter" (as Mr. Mattessino so nicely told me) and so he remixed the Eric Tomlinson engineered score according to the newest sonic taste of the maestro. The result was a surprisingly fresh and up-to-date sounding release by Varèse Sarabande. But then there are fans who cannot forgive a more modern approach. For the past seven years they have been constantly crying out loud to "fix this mess", they complained that the timpani and the overall sound were too muted. In reality however it sounded like a modern recording, able to display an orchestra as one singular unit and not as parts seemingly recorded in seperate booths. Anyway, in 2011 the fans got their wish: the score was re-released by Intrada, newly remixed, remastered and expanded. With this latest release the sound is back to its old, vinyl-y self: compact, explosive but harsh with the orchestra sounding like seperate units. Bass that was present on the 2004 version is gone as is the lovely bloom courtesy of Mr. Tomlinsons original engineering. Very disappointing.

"Raiders of the lost Ark" was re-released in remastered form by DCC Records in 1995, a now defunct label. Originally the engineering was done by Eric Tomlinson (again) while the remastering job was done by Steve Hoffman, a man regarded as God by his many fans. He even might be well suited - when it comes to soul, rock and other releases from many decades before (-> don´t sound well). He cannot make anything worse with these recordings in my opinion. His fans may disagree but I can tell you that he appears to have no idea of the sound of an orchestra. His remaster of one of the greatest scores of all times sounds too compact with too much emphasis on treble. The result is an often piercing, shrill sound that lacks a solid "base" in combination with constricted staging. While it´s common practice to master music to fit ones' sonic taste it just didn´t work on this example here where Mr. Hoffman added his beloved euphonic colour with a tube equipped pre-amplifier (as he always does), resulting in already crisp high frequency details being exaggerated beyond enjoyment. The most recent remaster released by Concorde Music in 2008 is the superior one even though they applied some light dynamic compression and got the speed of some tracks wrong. But that´s still the one you should buy.

"Supergirl" not only failed at the cinema, it also fails soundwise on the release from 1993 by Silva Screen Records. The music itself is really good, critics have sometimes called it the single redeeming aspect of the movie. It offers a brassy, extremely engaging title theme, a robust theme for the villain and a sweet love theme. The synthesizer integration is well excecuted here (Mr. Goldsmith loved to pepper his orchestral scores with synthetic elements) and the original sound was gorgeous too - Eric Tomlinson again. So it´s even more baffling to me how a person can turn a sound that was lovely to begin with into this... well, hideous thing. Actually it´s no surprise: the remastering engineer has just one orchestral mastering credit: this one. Most of the time he masters hard rock, punk and other "loud" stuff. Sadly it shows here: the music is way too aggressive, reverb sounds like metal, bass is absent. The presence area is extremely loud while the treble area usually pronounced by Mr. Tomlinson has been reduced. In the end you get a screeching and screeming mess where instruments are either too loud or too big and the orchestra seems much too small or too wide.

"The Fugitive" is an oscar nominated score by James Newton Howard, well worth your time. The saxophone is played by none other than Wayne Shorter. The original release from 1993 already had a strange problem: channels had been switched during mastering. The expanded re-release from La La Land records (2009) corrected this but introduced a new malady: dynamic compression. While the older release will rock your house with dynamic hits of the orchestra the newer one won´t do so because it sounds timid and it misses deep bass. This release seems to have been done with old grandmas in mind!

A movie for the younger and predominantly male generation of movie goers, a movie that will proudly swell your balls to the size of melons if you belong to this group, a movie with a mediocre score by Alan Silvestri. Dumb and stupid is also the sound of this Varèse Sarabende released CD: it has been brickwall limited; it may appeal on the radio where it´ll certainly grab your attention playing alongside such dignitaries as Gaga or Katie Perry. C´mon, a score on the radio?? Who decided that an orchestral score would need that? What the heck were these people thinking, how could Patricia Sullivan-Fourstar master like this? But wait, this wouldn´t even be the worst aspect of this mess wouldn´t it have been mastered from lossy compressed mp3 files. Yes, you´ve read it right: the first half was mastered from 48 kHz mp3 with a data rate of 192 kBit/s. A bug? A feature? No one can tell. Varèse Sarabande said back then that they never look at the frequency spectrum, they observe only by ear. You know what? I actually have been avoiding scores from Varèse during the last years. I´m really glad now that I realized that!

A very famous and experimental score, released in 1968, composed by Jerry Goldsmith for a film by Franklin J. Schaffner.With this score Mr. Goldsmith effectively brought Alex North's dissonant and percussive style then foreign to casual movie goers to bigger attention. The music strongly divides fans' opinion of Goldsmith's work with no shades of grey inbetween. The sound however is for sure disliked by everyone for it is devoid of treble (replaced by noise) and has a great amount of energy at the presence area which makes it aggressive and muddied at the same time. While this is not unusual for music recorded at those times it still fares worse compared to other scores produced back then. It wouldn´t be that bad if everything would sound like playing through a blanket but some instruments (or should I say kitchen appliances?) indeed are crisp and generally very well recorded. So why wasn´t everything else matched during the remix and the subsequent mastering? An unused chance - disappointing.

This score by James Newton Howard for a movie with lovely Angelina Jolie playing a secret agent was a - successful - attempt to cash in on the Bourne-franchise - and it does show in the score. It even copies some "Zimmerisms" ("composing" characteristics of Hans Zimmer) and it improves them as a result. "Chase accross DC" is a particular highlight of the score. Wouldn´t there be this - how can I put this politely? - awful sound... this release seems to be engineered to sound impressive on the very mediocre iPod headphones, it´s able to counteract their bass- and treble weak sound. On a home stereo this ostensibly results in an bass heavy and shrill sound, colour has been drained in favor of a built-in loudness switch you usually find on your amplifier - that obviously cannot be switched off in this case because it has been engineered into the sound itself. To be fair, it actually seems to be recorded well which will be revealed only if you´d attempt trying to correct this - but even then you´d have to do something about the dynamic artifacts created by the brickwall limiting. Yes, this score is just another prime example of the Loudness War. Shawn Murphy, how could someone like you - who normally is wonderfully talented and tasteful - produce something like that?

Yet again, another example of the Loudness War. Oh, and please excuse the non-original cover, I couldn´t find a better one because the original cover is too small and not very sophisticated. This beautiful score suffers in many ways from its sound: this release appears to have been mastered with a crowd in mind that usually buys mainstream pop music. It sounds constricted, very dry (curious for a christmas-themed movie), some instruments sound more like static. Plus: a Loudness switch has been engineered into the sound again in combination with brickwall limiting - ReplayGain tells me it is 7 dB too loud (!). Hence this increase of Loudness destroys the sound of the orchestra and its dynamics. Subtleties of the orchestras` performers are lost on this recording with the effect that the music isn´t presented as good as it really is. It´s disappointing really; the process of mastering should never affect the message of the music. To add insult to injury this wasn´t even released on CD but as a lossy download only. I bought my version at and while it has a comparatively high bitrate of 256 kBit/s it still is lossy with almost all frequencies missing above 16 kHz (which I still can perceive). I hope Intrada will rectify all shortcomings soon in view of their recent partnership with Disney for this score to shine properly.

This actually isn´t that bad, frequency response is relatively balanced. It´s just brickwall limited and much too wide, someone has been pushing the "widen the stereofield" button to greedily. Probably to improve the already dry and constricted sound of the original. Strings are too far on the left, brass is on the far right with virtually no sound in the center. The staging is so wide that it has to be heard to be believed. Another Varèse Sarabende disappointment.

Composed by Hans Zimmer (he was contractually obligated to another project so Klaus Badelt is credited with composing duties) this score is extremely popular with mainstream audiences and Zimmer fanboys alike (who shouldn´t be regarded as experts because they usually listen to DJ Tiesto). Many people will know that Zimmer and his team produced this as a replacment score for the first composer Alan Silvestri (who was Verbinski's personal choice). To be fair, this score was produced in a very limited amount of time only because producer Jerry Bruckheimer hated the first score by Alan Silvestri, it wasn´t manly enough (it had woodwinds in it which are - we all know this - for faggots like me only (yes, he´s a homophobic)). It´s highly commendable that Badelt/Zimmer (and probably a bunch of other composers) achieved this in the short amount of time. As I now know from the wonderful book "Torn Music" there were no hard feelings between Alan Silvestri and Jerry Bruckheimer who behaved most admirably. Mr. Silvestri hadn´t written something beyond some themes and synth-mockups, even less recorded something. According to Silvestri, him and the producer parted on good terms. Zimmer and his Remote Control team had one month time to come up with this score which isn´t that bad and typical for Herr Zimmer; it´s jolly good fun. The sound however isn´t funny, it´s a nightmare. Brickwall limited again which leads to audible distortions and dynamic artifacts with the usual slighly loudness-y sound so typical for Remote Control productions. Parts of the orchestra have been replaced by 80s` synthesizers and it´s very apparent here. Hans, warum klingen deine Scores eigentlich immer so Scheiße? Mach mal was dagegen!

A good score for an even better movie. But I´m at a loss here why it sounds so bad. You know, I expect a new recording from 2011 to show how far we have advanced soundwise. Why this one disappoints is baffling to me. "The Matrix" above was too wide but this one here is the opposite, it´s too compact. From what I´ve read many scores from Michael Giacchino show a sonic soundscape like this so I have to assume that he suffers from some sort of hearing damage. Tinnitus perhaps? Otherwise this close-to-monaural sound cannot be explained: on lower frequencies the stereo field is wide enough but the higher the frequencies go the smaller the stage gets. Frequency response is relatively balanced but borders on the muffled sound typical for recordings of the '60s, violins sadly are sounding dark. All of this results in a tiny and very analogue (in a bad way) sounding score. Thankfully brickwall limiting is absent - the dynamics have been tinkered with nonetheless: pieces that are supposed to be low in amplitude have been amplified to a level close to the amount of usually very loud pieces. I´m very confused by that, I´m always at the volume knob to re-create a "normal" orchestral dynamic. It sounds as if the mastering engineer applied a per-track based ReplayGain result to the final mastering instead of a per-album based result. Erm... no; not Loudness War but uneven.

Last update: 08.06.2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mythbusting with Marlene: The green Marker Tweak

The craze for the green Marker began in the late '80s when some guy wrote about this tweak in a newsgroup post, allegedly he was trying to make an Aprils Fools' Day Joke. According to other people it happened this way: an audio magazine wrote a quite serious article about the effect of a green felt marker on a CD. Whoever it was presenting this idea first started a discussion that has been going on to this day: as usual objectivists claim that no measurment a CD can be exposed to shows significant change while subjectivists claim that there are audible improvments regardless of the measurments. The green felt marker can also be accused of starting a new trend in audio tweaking, the trend of treating the CD itself with several fluids, stabilizing mats, etc. All these tweaks work towards one goal: optimizing the reading process of the disc, usually by improving the readability and therefore reducing the need for error correction inside the player itself. Optimizing the readability of a CD is of course a curious goal when one considers that CD technology already posesses an almost perfectly working error correction, a mechanism that´s built into the CD standardization itself - so it cannot be "turned off" by something external. But  the companies still argue that avoiding error correction reduces jitter, the evil of our digital age. There are roughly three basic tweaks around:

  • Coating the outer and inside edges of a CD with a green felt marker
  • Placing a mat onto the CD before it vanishes inside the player
  • Applying a cleaning fluid to get rid off traces of production wax left on the CD

As usual, tweaks like this tend to be very expensive when some company decides that they want to make a few bucks with it. For example, the CD Stoplight Pen costs $ 25. Stupid really when a "normal", not audiophile-approved pen with the same effect would cost just $ 4 - they both are nothing more than usual felt markers. A CD mat like the Millenium CD mat even costs $ 119. A fluid like the L'Art du Son costs $ 45. Yes, you can spend much money on these tweaks! But why would you buy those? Exactly: you won´t need to of course because everything can be achieved with much less investment. As I´ve said above, just use a green felt marker (water resistant) for $ 4. As for the fluid you will have the same effect when you bathe your CDs in warm water with a bit of liquid dis(c)h soap. Or you choose not to try any of these tweaks because you believe that a CD only contains 0 and 1 - computer data - which either works or not. With an opinion like that you are of course prejudiced, exactly like people like me probably believing the opposite. Why don´t you try it out? Maybe you do hear something - or maybe you won´t.

Don´t worry, it´s just a green felt marker

Anyway, since I first read about the green pen tweak in german AUDIO magazine 18 years ago I have been using it. Believe it or not, I always heard an effect when I played such treated CDs with my old Technics SL-XP 300. Yes, this effect could have been a by-the-book placebo effect of course. But the effect of the green marker disappeared when I started ripping my collection to my HDD eight years ago in order to play all my music with my computer. I´ve often ripped a CD twice, once brandnew without the marker and the next time washed in warm water (with dishwashing liquid) with green paint coating the edges. When I compared these rips I always thought at first that I were hearing something but when I listened a bit closer the effect disappeared or was so small that it could have indeed been a placebo. But here´s my dilemma: I cannot stop painting the edges or washing the CDs, even though I know that there probably isn´t any effect at all. I simply grew accustomed to this process during those ten years prior when I was using normal CD players, it´s an addictive compulsion to treat all my new CDs because if I´m not doing it I´m growing nervous. Still, even then I had the nagging thought if it would be possible to measure the effect of a washed and green coated CD. With my recent interest in vintage portable CD players I became aware that I had the ideal tools at my disposal to do some tests with subsequent measurments; I assumed that portable CD players with their need to conserve power as much as possible (-> an underpowered laser) would be more suceptible to green coated discs compared to big home components. My reason to do the test wasn´t trying to disprove objectivists, I simply wanted to find out if there would be any difference at all.

So I devised a relatively elaborate test routine: I created a disc with five test signals (made by RMAA), five tracks for jitter measurment and two tracks with music. I used five tracks for measurment and jitter because I wanted to rule out any deviations I might encounter, deviations created by the possibly unreliable equipment I have to use: my PC in combination with the E-MU. I also used a brand new disc (The Perfect Storm by James Horner) I had purchased recently (the purpose of the music examples will be explained later). My test setup hasn´t been changed since the last test, I´m still using my E-MU 0202 USB with a recording samplerate of 192 kHz and a bit depth of 24 Bits, recording is done via ASIO with Sound Forge. The RCA cable still is the same for every step: an Audioquest King Cobra. For the tests I used the following three CD players:

  • Technics SL-XP 300 (1991) as an example for an old CD player
  • Sony D-465 (1996) because it reacts unreliable to some CD-Rs
  • Sony DE-J 915 (1999) because it´s the newest of all my players

I then recorded the untreated discs played back by these three players with my E-MU. Then I washed the CDs and painted their edges with the green felt marker you can see above. After the paint had dried I repeated the tests in exactly the same way with the treated discs. I then edited the recordings so that they could be analyzed by RMAA (I could only use four of the five test tracks for the charts below) and to measure the amount of jitter. The final step was resampling the tracks to 44.1 kHz, I kept the bit depth of 24 Bit. Here are the results:

Technics SL-XP 300, untreated

Technics SL-XP 300, washed and painted
Sony D-465, untreated
Sony D-465, washed and painted
Sony DE-J 915, untreated
Sony DE-J 915, washed and painted

"GM" means Green Marker. And as you can see, RMAA revealed that there weren´t any differences. Even the graphs showed no differences, in the following pictures all tests for the respective players have been combined into one graph and in order to improve the visibility I changed the colour for all lines to the same green. I will present to you the graphs for Intermodulation distortion of the D-465, these two shall serve as a placeholder for all the other graphs RMAA produced:

IMD, Sony D-465, untreated
IMD, Sony D-465, washed and painted

As you can see there still is nothing to see. All three players produced similar pictures for noise, dynamics, THD, IMD, crosstalk and frequency response, whether the discs had been treated or not apparently didn´t matter. Needless to say that I was surprised, I expected to see differences with the Technics because it was the first CD player with which I´ve heard the effects all those years ago. But the graphs for the Technics were similar all the time. By now you must be thinking that I was a victim of an exemplary placebo effect all those years ago. The jitter tests should therefore provide more insight to the effects because jitter always is proclaimed to be influenced the most by the green marker:

Technics SL-XP 300, untreated
Technics SL-XP 300, washed and painted
Sony D-465, untreated
Technics SL-XP 300, washed and painted

Shall I go on and bore you with basically the same pictures for the Sony DE-J 915? It seems that the proponents of the jitter theory have been wrong all these years. But there´s one test still ahead, I´ve said I wanted to find out if the output produces differences with normal music, differences RMAA was unable to detect because it´s entirely possible that RMAA doesn´t measure everything with the effect that some things go by unnoticed. For that purpose I used a software called Audio DiffMaker. According to the author this software does the following: "Audio DiffMaker is a freeware tool set intended to help determine the absolute difference between two audio recordings, while neglecting differences due to level difference, time synchronization, or simple linear frequency responses." I won´t bore you with technical explanations, I just would like to add that it seems to do its job well enough so that a person attempting to find differences will be presented with evaluable results, results this person can listen to. That´s when the music tracks came into play, I recorded them just for the purpose of extracting their differences with the Audio DiffMaker. For your convenience I made these differences - or lack thereof - visible with iZotope's spectrogram:

Extracted audio differences between treated/untreated discs, Sony D-465
Extracted audio differences between treated/untreated discs, Sony DE-J 915
Extracted audio differences between treated/untreated discs, Technics SL-XP 300

As you can see, both Sonys sounded the same both times, the two pictures above are only two examples because as with the measurments above every musical track looked equally "empty". The picture showing the diffmaker result from the Technics however is the interesting one because it does indeed show differences. Again, I extracted the differences of three musical pieces, the result always looked similar to the one above. When listening to the extracted audio signal I was clearly able to make out the music, it just was stripped of bass and mids, leaving treble only. This is a strong indication that the Technics is suceptible to the effect of the green marker, whatever the effect is and despite the RMAA measurments not producing any results. It also explains why I could hear differences when I used the green marker on my CDs all those years ago. Before you ask: yes, I did a null-test after I reviewed the results from the Technics (no differences).


Judging from my experience and my measurments I think it´s safe to say that the green marker does have a small effect... somehow. But before anyone starts to scream "I was right!" let me remind you that my results should be taken with a grain of salt. First of all, the Audio DiffMaker could work imprecise, it´s even possible that it won´t differentiate every sonic aspect between two files. The software seems to differentiate frequency responses but what about staging? Staging in a musical piece is a complex construct not only influenced by frequency response but by several other factors like perfect impulses, timing etc., does it extract those differences too? Another possible explanation is that - despite my null test - the resolution of the differentiation process isn´t high enough with the result that the program produces differences where none exist (even though I tweaked the process to be more thorough). It could also mean that my Technics is faulty and cannot read a CD properly - although I doubt that since it reads CDs that another player won´t even accept. Another explanation is that older CD players react more strongly to the green felt marker and newer ones don´t. One thing however is crystal clear: the differentiated signal is very low in amplitude, even if it shows on a spectrogram and is audible on its own it still doesn´t mean that it´s audible every time. However, after writing this article I feel as smart as I did before, I´m not very lucky with myself. It would have been better to have no differences with every player or to have differences with all of them. Whatever the reason behind the effect, I will continue coating the edges of my CDs, simply because I am addicted to it without any logical reason. Call me deluded or ill, it doesn´t matter: I cannot be calm without doing it. Why don´t you try it out for yourself and comment about your experiences? I´d love to read about it - but not now because I´m going to undress my stockings to go to bed. Good night, my dear readers.

EDIT 04.02.14: Almost two years have passed since I wrote this article and something has happened... well, I make it simple: I´ve stopped coating the edges of CDs. Yes, I don´t use the green marker anymore. The reason is that the Technics SL-XP 300 is the singular player reacting to it, none of the others is susceptible to the 'effects' of green colour coating the edges of a CD. Really, one player out of 30 or so is not enough to merit the time needed for the procedure. I´d rather spend my days listening to music.

Last update: 04.02.2014

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The ten worst sounding organ recordings of all time

Finally I came around to publish my personal and subjective list of the ten worst organ recordings of all time, you´re gonna find the first article listing the ten best recordings here. Just like the list with the ten worst sounding classical recordings this one here concentrates on ugly sounding recordings that might get you confused like me above. Many of the organs mentioned here are so horribly recorded, it´s a shame. The virtual stage might be too compact, the organ might not sound the way it does in real life (which is admittedly hard to achieve in any case) or the frequency balance is off. But here it goes...

The 24 Pièces de Fantaisie by Louis Vierne are beautiful, imaginative, creative, they are a work of art. A shame that they have been recorded so horrible here. The sound of this recording from MDG puts the artistry of both the composer and the interpreter to shame, the organ sounds nothing like on well done recordings: thin and brittle (!) with the virtual stage beeing too compact, the usually voluptous sound of this mighty organ isn´t apparent here. These two CDs are sounding "German" in the most horrible way with the result that this organ seems to be tiny and limp. And it shouldn´t sound that way because it´s housed inside an impressively sized cathedral. So disappointing.

Again a wonderful interpretation by Ben van Oosten recorded in surprisingly low sound quality. Here we have three organs used for interpretating the six famous organ symphonies by Louis Vierne and while it´s nice to listen to these very characteristic organs all three of them do not sound the way I´m used too. The stage is almost monaural, the recordings are noisy and pipes seem to be re-arranged. Especially disappointing is the recording of the organ in St. Sernin de Toulouse: if you know how it usually sounds you might recognize it with a lot of wishful thinking; again it seems too tiny, too thin and too far away, the thundering and warm bass isn´t there. The recorded sound of the organ in Rouen is a bit better than the one above but instead of being too thin we are treated to a tiring loudness-y sound characteristic here, the usually balanced and reverb laden characterstic cannot be experienced with this recording. Another thing: all recordings are surprisingly noisy which normally isn´t very disturbing to me - it´s just that I´ve never heard one recording of the organ in Rouen that was THAT noisy. Very disappointing - again. *sigh*

A very early recording by Telarc before they rose to fame and also before they had started recording digitally. This is a Direct-to-Disc recording, done in 1977 with engineering by Jack Renner and playing by Michael Murray. The sound quality isn´t so bad at all but I assume that the microphone placement was done wrong. The organ itself sounds restricted to the center channel mostly, few pipes extend to the left and right side of the stereo field. Then there´s a huge amount of reverb here, reverb that completely drowns every attempt of the organ to create a believable stage. Surprising when one considers that the room the organ stands in isn´t that huge. Well, later recordings by that particular team would be better anyway.

This is one of these recordings audiophiles love so much. But why? It sounds horrible: piercing treble, dynamics seems forced the same way the virtual stage sounds strange. It´s a recording that serves as a great example of how music was recorded in the best possible way back in the '50s: it may have sounded great then but today it sounds like shit. The playing... oh, well. Virgil Fox always was a poor-man's organist because he judged effect, bombast and glittery stage antiques to be more important than emotions transported via sensitive playing, effectively distorting the works he interpretated. Not recommended.

This recording would sound fabulous - if it wouldn´t sound that warm! Staging is impeccable, the cathedral is preserved well. But the organ sounds fat, the usually shrieking quality of its pipes is not present here. If one would know the organ in Notre-Dame de Paris only from this recording he/she would get a distorted view of its qualities only. This Deutsche Grammophon release sounds slightly better on the SACD layer but still not good enough. The company might know this because this recording isn´t available anymore.

This is a recording released by the small record label Prospect - sadly it also sounds that way: small and unimpressive with monaural, constricted stage impression that´s messed up because Pipes seem to change their position during a piece. I cannot say anything about the intepretation since these are the only recordings I know of the works by Theodore Dubois.

Formerly two seperately released CDs, this SACD sounds gorgeous with the selections from the second CD (except for an ennerving sine on high frequencies). However, the contents of the first CD are what´s bothering me. Yes, the famous Telarc sound is present here with delicate bloom, uncompressed dynamics and lovely euphonic colour... but the staging is off. The organ seems to be recorded with one microphone only with the effect that the orchestra surrounds the listener while the organ plays in the center only. Because the Organ Symphony by Saint-Saens was recorded in a church the reverb also sounds strange and hissy. Playing of all involved however is impeccable.

Ugh, again the organ at Methuen Memorial Music Hall. For the second time it sounds strange; this time the huge amount of reverb has shifted to the other extreme of being too dry. The placement of pipes inside the virtual stage is strange too because the organ seems to have been recorded from the side! The balance is off too this time: instead of sounding bass heavy it now sounds thin and brittle. Actually, the last characteristic might have been intentional for we are witnessing recordings by Johan Sebastian Bach - and they are usually German to the core. In any case, Telarc wasn´t very lucky with this organ...

One word: boring. I didn´t even know before I purchased this recording that an organ could sound that sleep inducing. I´m falling for a logical fallacy now by declaring that I never ever will be purchasing another recording from Naxos again judging by the horrible sound of this one.

Yes, I know, the cover is ugly! Sorry for that but I cannot do something about it. The sound quality is surprisingly good on this recording - when it represents the Cavaille-Coll organ in St. Sernin. This mighty organ sounds the way it usually sounds: impressive and with a very healthy amount of bass. Staging is a bit too compact but otherwise impeccable, dynamics are well preserved. Sadly, the organ changes from piece to piece. Loud and dynamic pieces of a certain work are represented by the organ in St. Sernin while smaller and supposedly lovely parts are represented by the organ in Lyon. Combining two organs for one work creates the effect of a recording with two faces - one minute you have fantastic sound, the next a noisy, small staged mess. I assume that organist Louis Robilliard did this to support the interpretational quality of these work, on me however it has the opposite effect of being unable to grasp what the composer was trying to convey. Released by dutch label festivo.

Phew, now that this is done I´m perfect again!

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