It All Back Home
Part II: The Versions In Detail
To recap from Part I, we now have five different mixes of this album:
1. Mono vinyl (1965), now also on CD
2. Stereo vinyl (1965)
3. Original CD (1987)
4. Stereo SACD/CD (2003)
5. 5.1 Surround SACD (2003)
6. Individual tracks as remixed in stereo for The Bootleg Series Vol.12: The Cutting Edge (2015)
The six mixes have some general characteristics which I will try and describe in general terms before looking at the individual songs one by one.
The mono mix gives you the original 1965 album straight - tight, energetic sound, full bass, natural vocals. What it lacks is detail in the individual instruments.
The Sundazed reissue of the mono LP has very slightly trimmed endings on all the tracks, presumably to reduce the intrusion of background noise as the music fades out. This is only around half a second per track when compared with the original mono LP.
The 2010 mono CD (in the Original Mono Recordings box set) is an absolutely excellent representation of the mono mix. Note I have not heard the 2010 mono vinyl editions from Sony and Music On Vinyl, but reports indicate that they are marginally better than the Sundazed LP. These two more recent pressings should sound practically identical as they are both derived from Sterling Sound lacquers, cut from the same source tape. People who have bought Mobile Fidelity's recent audiophile mono reissues (on both hybrid SACD and 45rpm vinyl) seem to find that they have a slightly warmer, more natural sound than the Sony/Music On Vinyl releases; but they are probably ony worth considering if your audio equipment and your hearing are both first-rate.
Constrained by 1960s technology (see the general article on mono versus stereo), the stereo LP mix had its bass end severely limited. This shows even on the second side's mainly acoustic songs, in the thinner tone of the guitars. On the electric side, the lateral separation of the instruments further dilutes the music's impact. The spreading out of the instruments also reveals some relatively crude playing; the next two albums were to show rapid increases in musical sophistication. By the time of Blonde On Blonde, a stereo presentation is really necessary to fully appreciate the quality of the accompaniment; but there's not very much to be savoured here other than Bruce Langhorne's lead guitar, and that stands out clearly enough in the mono mix.
On the electric side in particular, the garage-band sound comes across much better in mono, with all the instruments blended together. Given the additional benefit of its much better bass response, the mono mix has a depth and punch that the stereo LP just fails to deliver.
Another, perhaps even more important, advantage of the mono mix is its presentation of Dylan's voice. Here it sounds entirely right, whereas on the stereo album it has the timbre of corrugated iron: thin and strident, with a tiring emphasis on the upper-midrange frequencies.
One interesting feature of the stereo LP mix is the use of reverb here and there where there is very little on the mono LP. This is most noticeable on some of the songs on the acoustic side of the album - see the comments on individual tracks below.
The original 1987 CD mix differs in some details from the stereo vinyl album, particularly on the acoustic songs from the LP's second side: here, as on the mono album, the sound is presented flat, with little or no reverb. In other respects, though, the sound is very similar to the stereo LP, lacking in bass and general impact.
The 2003 hybrid SACD and the post-2004 standard CD present a much better stereo mix. Michael Brauer clearly modelled much of his work on the original stereo LP: the editing, the application of reverb, and to a large degree the positions of the instruments. However, he has somehow brought everything together with a much more dynamic, integrated sound, in very much the same way as he did with Blonde On Blonde a few years previously. This is particularly evident on the electric 'first side': it actually sounds like a band playing on these tracks now, not just a miscellany of instruments on the end of wires. And on both 'sides' the bass frequencies are much more evident than on the previous stereo versions. My only issue with this mix is that it places more emphasis on upper mid-range frequencies, making Dylan's voice a little too strident on some tracks. On balance, though, we're very lucky that the original stereo mix tapes were worn out, as otherwise we'd never have had this excellent remix.
This 2003 stereo mix was included on the hybrid SACD disc in both standard CD and Super Audio CD formats, and if you have an SACD player you'll be able to choose between them. The difference in sound quality, though, is very subtle and will only really be of interest to hi-fi enthusiasts with very good ears - see the general article on audio technology.
The 5.1 surround mix on the SACD has a very similar overall character, but puts you right in the middle of things. If you imagine yourself sitting at the centre of a circle, then direction-wise the instruments appear to be arranged around the front half of the circle, with Dylan straight ahead. Some instruments seem to be placed further out than others. No instruments are located in the rear half of the circle, but the ambient information coming from the rear speakers helps define the illusory space you're in and to more precisely locate the instruments within that space. Everything feels distinctly more tangible than with the stereo mix. The front centre speaker in particular gives Dylan's voice a solidity that just doesn't seem attainable with a two-speaker image. This mix is really very good, if you've got the equipment to play it. Note
The up-market 2013 Mobile Fidelity edition was mastered from the same 2003 stereo mix as the standard Sony edition, so the differences between the two are very small in comparison with those between the other versions above. Indeed they are probably less than between different pressings of the original stereo LP, and many listeners might well not notice the difference at all except on a direct A/B comparison. Among the audiophile community the new edition seems to have pleased some for being less tiring to listen to than the Sony version, while it has disappointed others for being less involving. These are really two sides of the same coin, and ultimately it's matter of taste. Personally I slightly prefer the focus the Sony version gives Dylan's voice, and find the Mobile Fidelity very clear but a little lacking in the urgency and excitement that I've always associated with this record.
The 2015 remixes by Steve Addabbo for The Bootleg Series Vol.12: The Cutting Edge were intended to present the tracks as they would have been heard on playback at the original recording session; so they have little or none of the polish that is normally added at the mixing stage for a commercial release – reverb, compression and so on. As a result the tracks sound very plain in comparison with their counterparts on any of the releases of the album proper. Also, the soundstage is much narrower on most tracks than on any of the stereo album releases. This actually makes for much more comfortable headphone listening, and there is generally still enough separation to allow the listener to attend to individual instruments. The sound is generally rather warm and bass-heavy.
On all editions of the album most of the songs are faded out, and the lengths of the fade-outs vary slightly between the different releases. In most cases the mono has the shortest, most concise endings, the stereo vinyl mix and the SACD reissue are slightly longer and the old CD version is the longest. The new mixes for The Cutting Edge either equal or surpass all of these in terms of length, sometimes providing quite noticeable extensions. Appendix B details length differences for all tracks; only the more notable cases are mentioned in the text.
The Songs in Detail
Subterranean Homesick Blues
The opening track nailed Dylan's new colours firmly to the mast, with its vocal echoes of Chuck Berry and its overdriven jug-band sound. The original stereo CD gave us an instrumental fade-out that is six seconds longer than on the original mono release. The stereo separation on this version also makes the electric piano much more audible than it is in the mono mix.
On this particular track the Sundazed mono reissue seems to be slightly subdued; it lacks the edge and sparkle that the track has on my original UK mono pressing; on the 2010 mono CD, though, it's just great.
Michael Brauer's 2003 stereo remix really brings this one back home, hitting you with the same blast that the original single did back in 1965. The bass is stronger than on the old stereo mixes, the electric piano is slightly more audible, and there's a ride cymbal that I'd never even noticed before. It's a great opener.
The remix for The Cutting Edge characteristically has a lot less attack, but is nicely compact - this goes for all tracks. This one still fades out before the musicians stop playing, but the instrumental coda is 5 seconds longer than any previous mix.
She Belongs To Me
This track sounds absolutely beautiful on the mono album, with the bass full and Dylan's voice subtle and warm. Having said that, I confess that the stereo versions do make it easier to tell that it is an acoustic string bass, not an electric, being played here; the texture of the instrument's sound is more easily distinguished, especially on the 2003 stereo and surround mixes.
Perhaps to vary the song's dynamics a little, the original stereo mixing engineer decided to eliminate the bass and drums during the harmonica break which follows the third verse; they suddenly come back in as Dylan starts to sing again. The engineer who remixed the album for CD in 1987 (probably Tim Geelan) clearly noticed this, because he also greatly reduced the level of the string bass during the break; but the drums are left untouched. Michael Brauer, for the stereo and 5.1 SACD remixes, opted to leave both bass and drums at normal volume. Steve Addabbo not surprisingly did the same for his remix for The Cutting Edge.
There is a second harmonica break at the end of the song, of course, but here none of the stereo mixes interfere with the bass and drums.
This song is another real treat on the editions containing the 2003 remix. It has a much richer sound than on the old CD, and Bruce Langhorne's electric guitar on the left and the string bass on the right , in particular, have a real presence.
While the stereo mixes generally slightly increase the lengths of tracks on the album as a whole, they make this particular track fractionally shorter than the mono - all except for the 5.1 mix, which keeps to the same length as the mono.
This was never one of my favourite tracks on the album, and here I actually like it even less in the 2003 remix. Dylan's voice has a harsher edge than on the old CD, and the hyper-clear percussion gets very tiring. The toned-down remix for The Cutting Edge remix is a lot more listenable.
Love Minus Zero / No Limit
Like "She Belongs To Me", this song benefits particularly from the warmth of the mono mix. The stereo versions allow us to distinguish a very heavily reverbed electric piano on the right-hand side.
The song sounds breathtakingly good in the 2003 remix. The electric guitar has more body to it, and the electric piano and tambourine stand out more clearly. The 2015 Cutting Edge mix is, for me, rather spoilt by an over-heavy bass.
This is probably the least interesting musical arrangement on the album, and in the mono mix it sounds rather a monotonous drudge, with the drums in particular practically inaudible.
The 2003 remix is the one that gives this song the clarity and interest it really needs. One of the fun things about listening to Michael Brauer's remixes is noticing instruments that just hadn't registered before, and on this track there are two of them. First there's the ride cymbal, which was practically inaudible on all previous mixes. Second, there's a very raunchy electric guitar playing a repeated blues riff throughout the song over on the left hand side, contrasting in both tone and style to Langhorne's improvised lead.
In all the stereo mixes we can more clearly hear a harmonica that riffs away throughout the song. This goes on behind Dylan's vocal, so it was often assumed to have been played by one of the other musicians - maybe John Sebastian. However, it's now clear that the harmonica was played by Dylan himself. On the Collector's Edition of The Cutting Edge, at the beginning of the abortive Take 2, Dylan says, "When we get done, I'm gonna dub in the harmonica". The studio recording sheet indeed shows that after the complete Take 3, there was an overdub take of identical length. Curiously, The Cutting Edge makes no mention of this, and fails to give any musician credit for the harmonica; only the overdubbed version of this final take is included.
The original CD had given us an additional five seconds of instrumental coda compared with the mono version; the Cutting Edge mix adds a further five seconds before it too fades out.
On The Road Again
The mono mix gives more prominence to the lead guitar on this track; but the stereo versions have the guitar which plays the underpinning boogie riff more clearly audible on the right-hand channel.
The 2003 remix give this song a great, rich sound, much more exciting than the old CD; and if you go back from this to the stereo vinyl in particular, it sounds as though you're suddenly listening on really cheap earphones.
The low-frequency bias of Steve Abbaddo's mix for The Cutting Edge makes Bobby Gregg's drum fills at the end of each verse sound really solid. The fade-out is a little longer here than on previous releases.
Bob Dylan's 115th Dream
The release of The Cutting Edge finally revealed how the album track was assembled, the false start and laughter coming from Take 1 of the largely acoustic first day's recording, while the main part was Take 2 from the electric session the following day.
The main part of the track demonstrates the differences between all the mixes in a pretty typical fashion. As on several other tracks, the electric piano (over on the right-hand side) is more noticeable in the stereo and surround mixes.
However, there are particular differences in the way the false start has been handled. On the mono and the original CD mix the laughter from Tom Wilson and others in the control room is presented "flat", without any added ambience. On the stereo LP it was mixed with some reverb, and Michael Brauer picked up on this for his 2003 remix. After years listening to either the mono LP or the original CD this sounds quite startling, even in the now-standard stereo mix. In the 5.1 mix Brauer took full advantage of the surround capabilities, and the laughter echoes all round you in a suddenly much bigger space.
As you would expect, the remix for The Cutting Edge adds no reverb at all to the false start fragment; and because the Collector's Edition presents the recording sessions in chronological sequence, the main song is a separate track on a later CD.
Mr Tambourine Man
The acoustic songs on Side 2 vary most in how Dylan's guitar is presented in the different mixes. On this particular track the mono mix gives the guitar lots of body and bass, but not a lot of detail in the high frequencies. Intentionally or not, this does help Dylan's vocal stand out in the absence of lateral separation. The stereo (and surround) versions give the guitar much more clarity, but less bass; and they locate it to the right of Dylan's voice, though to varying degrees.
On the stereo LP Dylan's guitar is rather spread out, with the higher frequencies coming from well to the right. You'll also find it this way on older Dylan CD anthologies, as these were derived from the stereo LP master. On the 1987 Bringing It All Back Home CD, however, Dylan's guitar is very precisely located, only a little to the right of the vocal. On the 2003 stereo and surround mixes the guitar is even closer to the centre, and also has a little more bass.
All the stereo mixes place Bruce Langhorne's amplified guitar on the left-hand channel, and at a lower volume than in the mono mix; it sounds much less an integral and beautiful part of the song.
Unusually, the stereo vinyl mix was faded out substantially earlier than the mono version; given the importance of the harmonica breaks to the song's structure and sense (think of the 1965-66 live performances), this seems a real loss. The original CD release restored the missing music, but for the 2003 reissue Michael Brauer unfortunately modelled his fade-out on the stereo LP, so the track is shorter once again.
The 2015 remix for The Cutting Edge provides a surprise by not fading the track at all, giving us about 22 seconds of music we've never heard before. Dylan and Langhorne carry on playing through the chord sequence that comes in the middle of each verse, but then after a few more bars Dylan brings it to a conclusion with a flourish of his guitar. It's a little ragged, though; the original decision to fade it was a good one.
Gates Of Eden
The mono mix has a quite different guitar sound for this song. It's mostly pounding midrange, but there are some delicate high frequencies too, which the mono "Mr Tambourine Man" lacks.
The stereo LP mix sounds as though it was produced by a different engineer than the other acoustic tracks, or maybe this song was recorded with a different microphone set-up. When compared with the mono mix there is the same thin sound to both guitar and vocal, but the stereo LP gives no lateral separation of voice and guitar; in fact it barely sounds stereophonic at all. Only the slightest hint of ambience is detectable when switching the playback amplifier from mono to stereo.
On the old CD edition the guitar sounds just as monophonic, but the vocal has noticeably more ambience; presumably this was added as part of the remixing for CD.
The 2003 mixes give the guitar a lot more depth and clarity than on any of the earlier releases, and also reveal textures in Dylan's vocal that just weren't discernible before. In the stereo mix the guitar is once again resolutely central, right behind the vocal and harmonica; but in 5.1 its ambience gets spread around a just a little more.
The 2015 mix for The Cutting Edge gives the guitar more bulk and a warmer sound than it had in the original mono and stereo mixes, but the vocal is presented without any added ambience at all.
It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
Here we have just Dylan's voice and guitar, without even the bare harmonica blasts of "Gates of Eden". The stereo LP mix compensates for the sparse instrumentation by radically expanding the sound of the guitar with reverb, spreading it right across the soundstage. It may not have been Dylan's idea, but personally I think it sounds just great, especially on that slashing riff on the treble strings.
The engineer who mixed the album for the 1987 CD either didn't listen to the stereo LP or made a contrary decision to present the guitar plain and tightly-focused behind Dylan's voice. It seems as though he was deliberately trying to even up the sound of the four acoustic songs rather than giving each its own identity. Michael Brauer, on the other hand, went back to the sound of the stereo LP, and pretty much exactly replicated the dramatic reverb on the guitar. With the added depth and texture that characterises his work, this track is a hair-raising experience.
The Cutting Edge mix reveals an edit that went undetected in the released track. In this unedited mix, at the beginning of the fourth verse Dylan mistakenly begins to sing the word “respect” instead of “obey”, then quickly corrects it: what we hear is “For them that must resp-obey authority that they do not respect in any degree”. Fortuitously, the offending half-word was just one beat long, so it was a simple matter for the engineer to snip it out without disturbing the rhythmic flow. Listen closely now to the vocal in any of the previously released mixes, and you'll hear that the transition from “must” into “obey” isn’t pronounced quite naturally.
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
This closing song has the same instrumentation as "Mr Tambourine Man", although here Bruce Langhorne plays his electric guitar fills in a lower register. The mono mix gives Dylan's acoustic a little more treble, but not a great deal; the stereo vinyl and 1987 CD mixes mixes run along the same lines as they did for the earlier song, and exactly the same comments apply.
On this particular song I find Michael Brauer's 2003 remixes too strident: the harmonica is especially painful, but Dylan's voice is also too edgy for this already rather hectoring song. The MFSL remastering tones this mix down a little, but on the whole I still prefer how the song sounds on the original 1987 CD - or, of course, in the mono mix. In his stereo mix Brauer places Dylan's guitar dead-centre rather than slightly to the right as on "Mr Tambourine Man"; but the 5.1 surround mix has it well to the right again.
With six different mixes, Bringing It All Back Home is now running second only to Blonde On Blonde for variety of presentation.
As with the other 1960s albums, I believe the mono album has an irrefutable importance: it defines the album as Dylan intended to release it back in 1965. And to me the album still sounds best in this mix, the mono format perfectly suited to the music. At the time of writing (early 2017) the mono album is available in both analogue and digital formats, and I very much hope that this situation continues.
I won't deny that many people see mono as inadequate; and of course stereo allows you to hear more detail in the components of the music. It's just that with this album I think the components are often better not heard separately; this particularly applies to the everyone-pitch-in-and-bash-it-out approach taken on much of the album's first side.
However, if a stereo mix is what you want then Michael Brauer's 2003 version is generally by far the best, either on the hybrid SACD or the post-2004 standard CD. It gives you a great-sounding album with all the sonic detail you could ask for. It varies in some details of sound and editing from Dylan's original concept as evidenced by the mono album, but what the hell, it's still fabulous and probably as good a stereo mix as we'll ever get. And if you've got the SACD and a 5.1 surround set-up then you can believe those musicians are right there with you – or that you're right back there with them.
The Collector's Edition of The Cutting Edge provides an interesting alternative perspective on the individual tracks, and some extended endings; the mixes are warm and very easy on the ear, but in their unpolished state they fail to generate the same level of urgency and excitement as the finished mixes of the Bringing It All Back Home album, particularly the 1965 mono and the 2003 stereo.
Last updated November 2017