Blonde on Blonde
The Record That Can't Be Set Straight
Part II - The Versions in Detail
Part I of this essay reviewed the release history of Blonde On Blonde, identifying along the way the many distinctly different versions of the album which have appeared over the years. This part looks in detail at the differences between these versions in terms of mixing, editing and overall sound. As with the first part, no claims are made for absolute completeness of the details or background information; it's largely what I've picked up by listening, supplemented by some research and discussion. Any corrections or further information will be gratefully received, and can be incorporated in future updates. Also, please bear in mind that I am describing what I hear; your ears may hear things differently.
Lastly, my apologies to any sound engineers who might read this: I appreciate that the terms I use to describe sound effects and techniques will often differ from those used by a professional. But there is no glory in sounding like a half-baked expert, and there is no point in using terms that most readers will not understand.
Before delving into a track-by-track analysis, it's worth making some general observations about the album versions; these will then not have to be repeated for each song except where they are particularly significant. Keep in mind, though, that it is hard to make reliable generalisations about the sound of vinyl editions because of the variability between different pressings - see the notes in Appendix F.
Mono Vinyl (US), 1966
The most striking characteristic of the finished mono album, at least to ears accustomed to the stereo vinyl and earlier CD versions, is the warmth, depth and solidity of the bass sound; this has to be heard to be believed.
However, it's not just the generous bass sound that makes this American mono version so effective: it seems to have a general liveliness and punch that is missing from all other versions up until the 1999 remix that has now become the standard CD version.
On my original Columbia copy, all tracks except one (see "Rainy Day Women" below) play at correct musical pitch. However, different Columbia pressings vary in this respect because of slight inaccuracies of analogue equipment in the production chain; this would apply equally to the other vinyl editions discussed below.
The 2002 mono vinyl reissue from Sundazed sounds slightly muted compared with the original Columbia copies that I have heard - the drums in particular lose a little of their crispness. This is more noticeable on some tracks than on others and is probably due to differences in equalisation (EQ) applied at the mastering stage. The speed of the reissue is also a percent or so slower than my old US Columbia pressing, which means that it is generally a fraction of a semitone below true musical pitch, and the song tempos are a little slow. Note
Sony's 2010 digital mastering of this version for the Original Mono Recordings box set sounds extraordinarily close to my original 1960s US pressing, and has the correct pitch and speed on all tracks. Aside from slight signs of tape wear at the start of tracks 9 and 10 (which curiously were not apparent on the Sundazed reissue), this is as good a digital transfer as I can imagine, and it is very welcome. Note I haven't heard the corresponding vinyl pressings, but reports from others suggest they are excellent. There should be no difference between the Sony and Music On Vinyl pressings as they both appear to have been manufactured from lacquers cut at Sterling Sound in New York.
Mono Vinyl (Canada), 1966
As explained in Part I of this essay, this release was cut from the first generation of assembled mono mixdown tapes, probably all mixed in Nashville. The overall sound is not significantly different from the US mono, judging by the few tracks that were not apparently remixed for that final release. However, many of the other mixes sound fairly crude here - different emphases given to individual instruments, and the absence of various edits to vocal and instrumental tracks which added to the polish of the US release. Around half the tracks also have fade-outs of different length from their counterparts on the US mono album. All of these differences are detailed later, in the notes on the individual songs.
Mono Vinyl (France), 1966
The French mono album seems to have used a second generation of mixes Note, most of which would have been made in Los Angeles. For Sides 1 and 4 these were in fact the final mixes also used on the finished US release. However, judging from the samples I have heard the French disc mastering makes the overall sound rather tinny. There is much less bass and a little more upper mid-range than on US mono pressings. More significantly, though, sides 2 and 3 offer unique mixes of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat", "Temporary Like Achilles", "4th Time Around" and "Obviously 5 Believers". These four songs were revised again for the final US release.
Mono Vinyl (UK), 1966
The UK mono edition, as indicated in Part I, is not really a distinct version of the album - it does not, as far as my ears can tell, contain unique mixes of any of the songs. The first two sides appear to have been cut from the same generation of master tapes as the Canadian mono LP, while the last two sides seem to have used the same versions as the US mono release.
The progression of mono mixes for each track is summarised in Appendix C.
Original Stereo Vinyl, 1966
Most pressings of the original stereo version had a thinner, more boxy sound than the mono album. A similar divergence between mono and stereo had already arisen with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Bass levels were generally reduced on stereo records in the 60s, partly because the stereo disc-cutting heads were prone to distortion when fed with high amplitude bass signals, and also because most early stereo pickup cartridges could not track heavy bass signals without jumping. (See the separate article about mono and stereo recordings.)
The drums, and often the lead guitar, are generally more prominent on the stereo album; perhaps whoever produced the mix felt that with these instruments out on the left and right hand channels their volume could be lifted - so as to enhance the stereo effect - without drowning out the centrally-placed vocals.
Revised Stereo Vinyl, 1966
This is the version of the album that first appeared in Australia and New Zealand not long after the original US release, and later on gradually became the standard LP version practically everywhere. Allowing for variations in sound quality between different pressings, it seems to me that six of the album's fourteen tracks sound just the same on this revised album as they do on the original version; so I have assumed that these were mastered from the same original stereo mix-down tapes.
The remaining eight songs Note sound clearly different. On most of these revised mixes the sound is brighter and livelier, occasionally to the point of shrillness. At least a couple of the tracks have had some echo, or reverb, added to them. Most noticeably, some illogical stereo positioning of instruments (separating Dylan's guitar from his vocal) has been rectified. While this version sorts out some of the obvious anomalies and gets closer in most respects to the mono version, there are also one or two changes that are more questionable - see the notes on individual songs below.
Original CD (Abridged 1, Abridged 2 and Full-Length, 1987)
These three releases clearly come from the same mix; the only difference is in the editing of the ends of the tracks. The abridged versions are really of little interest - the tracks were shortened for technical rather than artistic reasons, because of limits on the overall length of CDs up until the late 1980s. Appendix D shows detailed information about track lengths.
The bass sound of the original CD mix is hardly any better than on the stereo vinyl versions - nowhere near as full as on the mono vinyl. While there were technical reasons why the bass was limited in the stereo vinyl format, there is no good reason for a CD mixing engineer to apply the same limits; so I assume that engineer Tim Geelan was deliberately trying to replicate the sound of the stereo LPs, probably without any reference to the mono.
There is a slight reverb on the vocal and harmonica which for most of the songs isn't detectable on any of the vinyl versions; this seems to have been added by Geelan when he mixed the album for CD. While I find the reverb adds a nice ambience when listening on headphones, I don't like the effect so much on speakers - Dylan's voice seems to sound slightly hollow.
The CD does offer an improvement in clarity over the LP versions, especially in the high frequencies. This must, at least in part, be due to the fact that Geelan had to remix the album directly from the four-track studio masters.
All tracks run at correct musical pitch (including "Rainy Day Women" which shouldn't - see below).
MasterSound Gold CD, 1992
As with the original CD, this later version was remixed from the four-track masters, this time by Mark Wilder. The most striking overall difference between this and the original CD is the dryness and flatness of the sound. There is no reverb at all on the vocals and harmonica, and the lateral separation between the instruments is complete. The effect is to make everything seem very close and up-front, but without the sense of depth in the sound-stage which is present on the original CD. In this respect it is most akin to the original stereo vinyl mix, though other aspects (instrument placing, fade-outs) suggest that Wilder was not actually trying to recreate that lost version. As with all previous stereo releases there is a distinct lack of bass, particularly noticeable, for example, on "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and "Obviously 5 Believers"; and the harmonica generally sounds rather harsh and piercing, to my ears at least.
It is probably the closeness of the vocals which gives the impression of improved clarity and definition when compared with the original CD, more than any effect of the 20-bit Super Bit Mapping process used in the digital mastering. There was a lot of debate in the early 90s as to whether SBM brought any real audible benefits, and the mixing differences here make it hard to tell. My own feeling is that the benefit on this type of music, with its limited dynamic range, is likely to be minimal.
Another characteristic of Wilder's remix is the abrupt nature of the fade-outs, already mentioned in Part I of this essay. These do seem in many cases to be jarringly contrary to the style of the original vinyl mixes.
All tracks on the MasterSound CD play at correct musical pitch except for "One Of Us Must Know"; this is very slightly slow, perhaps something to do with the four-track master having been recorded on New York rather than Nashville equipment.
On its first release this version was highly rated by some listeners, perhaps to some degree because it was new and expensive; but these days it seems to have very few friends. Apart from a couple of songs ("One Of Us Must Know" and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat") where the original CD has particularly strange mixes, I have always preferred the earlier edition.
Sony SACD/CD (Stereo Mix, 1999/2003/2004)
This version represents Sony's third attempt to produce a definitive CD release mixed from the four-track master tapes. Under the guidance of Sony's Steve Berkowitz, engineer Michael H. Brauer set out specifically to recreate the sound of the stereo vinyl version with which Dylan fans would be most familiar. The vinyl copy they worked from appears to have been the revised version, with the possible exception of Side 2, where I find it hard to tell - see the notes below for "I Want You" and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat".
Vinyl records are not generally capable of such extreme stereo separation as CDs; perhaps with this in mind, Brauer seems to have very slightly blended the two channels. He has also, I think, added a little ambience, and the result is to make the instruments on the left and right hand channels more an integrated part of the sound-stage. The sound is much less clinical than on the MasterSound CD in particular; but this has been achieved with no compromise to the definition and presence of the vocals, which are a marvel to hear.
In other respects Brauer seems to have gone beyond just recreating the sound of the vinyl album, and almost always for the better. For example the bass, which had been lacking in the stereo vinyl mixes, is now extended but without the boominess to which the bass-heavy mono versions tended. Brauer has added a touch of reverb to Dylan's vocal throughout, giving it a little more presence. There is also a general punch to the mid-range frequencies that all previous stereo versions failed to deliver; in this respect the sound is actually more akin to that of the US mono mix, even though Brauer claims not to have used the mono album as a point of reference. This version has the impact and excitement of the US mono LP, but with the huge added benefit of stereo separation and ambience.
The harmonica sound deserves special mention: it is superbly natural, less shrill than on the MasterSound CD, with a beautiful strong, silvery tone. To me, the only negative aspect of the overall sound is that the drums are sometimes less crisp than on the earlier CD versions. I also have one or two complaints about the editing of particular songs (see below), but these gripes are certainly fewer and less severe than they were with the MasterSound CD.
While this mix was originally issued on the original 1999 Super Audio CD release in SACD format only , on the 2003 hybrid reissue it appears in both SACD and regular CD formats. For a discussion of what benefit SACD brings, please see the separate article on audio technology. Suffice it to say that in comparison with all the other differences detailed here, the distinction is very small indeed. All of the above observations apply to Brauer's stereo mix in either CD or SACD format. Since 2004 this 1999 stereo mix has also been available as a plain CD, replacing the original CD edition.
Sony SACD (5.1 Surround Mix, 2003)
Not surprisingly, Brauer and Berkowitz stuck to pretty much the same overall sound for the 2003 surround mix, released on the hybrid SACD. But whereas in the stereo mix all the ambient information is contained within the two channels, here it is spread out into the whole horizontal plane - left and right, forward and aft. This gives the listener a more precise sense of where the instruments are located in relation to the seating position - though this will of course vary according to the placement of the five main speakers. If the arrangement is roughly circular then in this mix the instruments are generally within the front half of the circle, though at distances that often appear to go beyond it. Dylan's voice is really anchored by the front centre speaker, and has a more solid presence than seems possible in a two-speaker stereo presentation.
Only one track, "Rainy Day Women", uses the rear channels for any more dramatic effect; more about this later.
For those who are into strangely-experienced Dylan albums it's worth noting that for nearly half the songs you can listen to an instrumental-only version by connecting up only the front-left and front-right channels. Dylan's voice and harmonica are then practically inaudible. This applies to all tracks from "I Want You" through to "Temporary Like Achilles". On the other tracks the vocal is rather more audible on the front side channels, though to varying degrees. As an alternative, listening to the centre channel by itself is an uncanny experience, revealing all sorts of nuance in Dylan's vocal that you just don't notice under normal circumstances - rather like the solo piano version of "She's Your Lover Now", which in its bootlegged acetate form had a nearly inaudible piano.
Both of the Brauer/Berkowitz mixes have all tracks at true musical pitch.
Mobile Fidelity Hybrid SACD, 2013
This expensive ($30) release was mastered from the same 1999 Michael Brauer remix as the Sony SACD/CD described above, so there are no variations in editing or in instrumental placement or balance. In the mastering process the only things likely to change much are the equalisation (frequency balance) and the degree of dynamic range compression (i.e. the degree of difference between the loudest and quietest sounds).
The audiophile community (at whom it was clearly aimed) seem mostly to like this version, and many hail it as a big improvement over the 1999/2003 Sony editions, with a less harsh and tiring sound. But I find that less tiring also means less involving; there is noticeably less emphasis on the midrange and upper midrange frequencies, and as a result Dylan's voice seems less upfront and immediate than on the Sony version. The Mobile Fidelity mastering is immaculately clean and precise, and the apparent absence of compression does give it a wider dynamic range; but to me it just seems a little sterile and unexciting compared with the Sony version. Bear in mind that 1960s pop records generally did use significant amounts of compression, and to some degree relied upon the impact that this gave them.
Remixes for The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, 2015
All of Dylan's 1965 and 1966 studio recordings were remixed for the 18-CD Collector's Edition of this Bootleg Series album, so the master takes that went into the released Blonde On Blonde are necessarily included here. They are not, of course, presented as a new alternative version of that album, but they occasionally make for an interesting comparison, or shed some light on the recording process. They are mixed in a deliberately matter-of-fact style, without any noticeable attempt to polish them up as they would have been for a commercial release, and the soundstage is much narrower than on any other stereo edition of these recordings. Dylan's voice is clear, and there is generally just enough lateral separation for the instruments to be distinguishable; but the very warm, bassy sound does not serve this album quite as well as it did the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, and I would willingly trade some of the sometimes over-generous bass for a little more crispness elsewhere. Kenny Buttrey's drumming in particular tends to suffer in this regard.
Bearing these generic differences in mind, let's now examine the individual songs in turn, to see how they are treated in the different releases.
To maintain readability of the main text, full details of differences in track lengths are given in Appendix D; these will only be commented on where they are of particular significance. Please note that the amount written about each song is in no way related to any judgement of its artistic importance; it is purely a matter of how much there is to be said about the differences between versions. Sometimes this is a bewildering amount, sometimes very little.
The SACD 5.1 mix is only mentioned where it displays particular features not covered in the general comments above. Otherwise you can assume that the comments on Michael Brauer's 1999 stereo mix of the song apply equally well to his later 5.1 mix.
Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35
Straight away, here is a curiosity: while the five stereo mixes of this track (and the surround mix too) are pretty well at correct musical pitch (key of F), all mono editions have this track speeded up by about 2%; this gives a noticeably faster tempo (97 beats per minute instead of 95), and a slightly sharp pitch. All the rest of the tracks on the mono versions - on my copies, at least - are spot on true musical pitch, so it seems fair to conclude that this one was deliberately speeded up; this was presumably because Dylan (or possibly producer Bob Johnston) felt that it dragged a little at the recorded tempo, especially for its original release as a single. This is just one piece of evidence that more care was put into the mono mixing than the stereo. Other explanations are, of course, possible, but I can't think of a valid artistic reason why a track speeded up on the mono mix should not also be speeded up on the stereo version. Note
On the Sundazed mono reissue the speed difference between this track and the rest of the album is preserved. But because the whole Sundazed album is slower overall, "Rainy Day Women" ends up being less noticeably above musical pitch - and all the other tracks are slightly below it.
It sounds to me as though the same mix of this track was used for all the mono editions, but with some EQ applied to brighten up the sound and bring out the tambourine more on the finished US edition. According to Bob Irwin, this was one of the few tracks where the original Nashville mix was used.
Similarly, the first and second stereo vinyl versions both appear to contain the same stereo mix. The original CD is similar, though clearer; the MasterSound gold CD suffers from one of Mark Wilder's sudden fade-outs.
The 1999 stereo mix really brings the track to life, particularly at the bass end. Dylan reportedly told the musicians to play like an old-time Salvation Army band, and in this version you can better hear the organ bass pedals sounding just like a tuba. The stoned revellers, for better or worse, sound as though they are in the room with you.
For the 5.1 surround mix, engineer Michael Brauer has taken the song's levity as an excuse to have some fun with the technology. Quoted in Billboard, he says "That's the one where you feel like you're part of a parade, so you're hearing people laughing in the back, because it makes sense that you're walking along with them." In practice those voices seem generally more to the side than to the rear, but they do occasionally come from over your left shoulder. The tambourine is distinctly mobile, and lurches around drunkenly to the left and front-left.
A couple of things jump out at you from the centre channel, where Dylan's vocal and harmonica are located. He's plainly having a good time, and during the song's closing harmonica break he first takes a couple of seconds out for a chuckle, and then just as the song fades out he abandons the harmonica altogether and breaks into falsetto humming - either that or one of the revellers has grabbed his microphone. These things can be heard on some of the stereo mixes, but they're pretty much buried.
Pledging My Time
Here the early mix used for the Canadian and UK mono editions clearly differs from the the revised mix used for the French and US releases. The long instrumental fade - wonderful, incendiary harmonica playing by Dylan - is about 10 seconds longer than on the later French/US mix. However, to my ears there is very little else to distinguish the two mono versions.
The original stereo vinyl mix shortened this song drastically: about 20 seconds off the US mono version, half a minute off the Canadian release - a real shame.
The version on the revised stereo album largely restores the long, slow fade, but the whole track also sounds different, with a hefty dose of reverb which is particularly noticeable on the vocals. Especially on headphones, this gives it the sound of a band playing close-up in a basement club, which is just right for this great, degenerate urban blues. The original CD emulates this revised mix, but with the usual added clarity.
The gold CD remix recreates the "flat" sound of the first stereo vinyl release - this isn't to my liking, though it may perhaps be preferred by those who grew up with the original stereo mix. However, the piano is much louder here than in that early stereo version (or indeed any other). While the track's length is all but restored to that of the US mono edition, its abrupt termination completely misses the character and the point of the song's slow fade. Perhaps I'm being fanciful, but it seems to me that the length and graduation of the fade on the mono versions was not just random: it's as though you are slowly withdrawn from this smoky after-hours club session and then suddenly reawakened in the loft where the heat pipes cough and the night plays its tricks. Note
Both the original CD and Wilder's remix reveal wear and tear on the four-track master tape: there are momentary drop-outs in Dylan's vocal at the very end of the first verse and near the end of the second. These were not apparent on any of the vinyl mixes.
Brauer's 1999 remix strikes a good compromise in terms of ambience: not as dry as the MasterSound CD but with a little less reverb than the original CD. The vocal is beautifully clear, and the drop-outs have been repaired. Kenny Buttrey's slow-drag drumming, though, has sadly lost the crispness it had on the earlier digital versions; and the fade-out, while less abrupt than on Wilder's mix, still seems to miss the point that I think was originally intended. Overall, for this song I still have to recommend the original CD.
The drop-outs are evident again in the 5.1 mix,Note but as some sort of compensation the fade-out is around three seconds longer than on the stereo mix.
Visions Of Johanna
Many Dylan followers regard this recording as one of his greatest achievements; it seems that producers and engineers have been conscious of this and have put an unparalleled amount of effort into modelling it to their particular idea of perfection. There are no fewer than nine different mixes, and some very detailed editing changes.
I shall start with the early mix released on the UK and Canadian mono editions, as this seems the plainest. The bass is strong, as usual, and while the drums are a little subdued, the cymbal strokes between verses stand out clearly. The lead guitar has a treble edge to it that lets it slice through the mix right from its entrance in the second verse, and by the final verse it is fighting it out with Dylan's vocal for the available space. The lead guitar does not appear to be edited in any way. Note
The revised mix found on the French and US mono albums is much brighter in most respects, but one specific change is in the contrary direction, and surely must have been deliberate. The change affects both the lead guitar and the cymbal that was recorded on the same tape track. Both are much more subdued than in the earlier mono mix, both quieter and with less top edge to them.
there are two specific changes in the contrary direction, which surely must have been deliberate. First, the cymbal strokes in between the verses are muted, almost as though they were struck with a soft mallet rather than a drumstick; perhaps this effect was intended to fit in better with the late-night ambience of the song. But however deliberate this modification of the cymbal's sound seems to have been, it is not reproduced in any of the five stereo mixes of the song; probably it has just been overlooked. Note
The second specific change in the revised French/US mono mix is to the lead guitar, which has a much more mellow, less cutting tone; this makes it more a part of the background than a second voice, at least until the final verse. Note
What is more, the lead guitar part has been edited in that last verse to remove a couple of ill-judged phrases. In the unedited Canadian/UK version the lead guitarist plays a glorious tremoloed double-stop note after Dylan sings "Where her cape of the stage once had flowed", then does a descending run that resolves onto the wrong note as Dylan sings "The fiddler, he now . . .". In the US version the double-stop is still there, but the offending last note of the following phrase has been deleted. A further edit is made near the end of the verse, where Dylan sings "And these visions . . ." - a whole phrase, this time ending in a dissonant chord, is removed from the US mix. These changes could only have been made by completely remixing the track from the four-track master, and are clear evidence that the US mono mix is the finished, intended work.
The original stereo album has a curiously-devised mix (possibly directed by Robbie Robertson - see the Mixing section in Part I of this essay), which places Dylan's acoustic guitar out on the left-hand channel and the lead guitar in the centre behind the vocal. This gives the impression that Dylan is playing a vocal / lead guitar trade-off in the Albert King style, while someone else plays the acoustic. In a way this works well, keeping up the tension between the lead guitar and vocal. The dubious phrases in the lead guitar part are not edited, reinforcing the impression that this stereo mix is a an early rough cut. The organ and the drums are both well to the fore in this mix, with the bass drum having a real "whomp" to it - hugely enjoyable. Illogical it may be, but of the nine different mixes of this song I think this is the one I like most of all.
A couple of other minor details distinguish this early stereo version. First, during the acoustic guitar intro you can hear a light cymbal stroke; on all other versions this is mixed down so as to be practically inaudible. Secondly, the instrumental fade-out is a couple of seconds longer than in the mono mixes, including an additional lead guitar lick right at the end of the fade.
The revised stereo vinyl mix places the guitars more logically, with the acoustic guitar behind Dylan's voice and the lead on the left; but this somehow gives the lead guitar too much space and makes its interjections seem more scrappy than on the original mono and stereo mixes. Also, the cymbal strokes during the choruses, which had likewise been centrally-placed in the original mix, are now also on the left, as though played by someone quite unconnected with the drummer (perhaps they were). The bass drum has been really tamed in the revision process, though the organ recorded on the same channel still has a good presence.
The lead guitar has been edited in this revised mix, but not in an identical way to the US mono mix. In the first case (following the "cape of the stage" line) it is actually the lead guitar double-stop that is cut here, with the following phrase faded back in to leave the concluding duff note intact! In the second instance, near the end of the song, the first note of the offending phrase is left in but the remainder cut. Finally, the extra lick revealed at the end of the track by the first stereo mix is gone, despite the fade-out being fractionally longer on this version.
These changes were presumably made for the same reasons as the edits in the US mono mix, though perhaps by different engineers (mis)interpreting their instructions in different ways.
The first digital mix was produced by Tim Geelan in 1987 as part of the complete remix of the album for CD. Superficially this sounds like the second stereo vinyl version; the placing of the instruments is the same. But the vocal and harmonica are higher in the mix, and the volume of all the other instruments has been reduced - more folk, less rock. The most noticeable impact is on the balance between the lead guitar and Dylan's voice: the former seems decidedly subdued, as well as being stranded out on the left hand channel, so much of the tension is lost from the interplay between guitar and vocal. Another difference from the second stereo vinyl mix is that the lead guitar track is not edited, except at the end of the fade-out. The length of the fade is the same, but in place of the lead guitar lick we heard on the original stereo vinyl, here we have the start of an additional harmonica phrase!
The MasterSound CD also resembles the second stereo vinyl version in terms of the placing of the instruments, but as with the original CD it has in fact been remixed from the four-track studio tapes. Again, the lead guitar has not been edited, but this time it is back up to the volume it had on the original stereo vinyl release. This applies to the other instruments, too; so the vocal and harmonica are much less prominent than on the original CD. So far, no problem; but things are not so good over on the drum and organ track. Possibly in an attempt to make the organ stand out better, the treble frequencies have been boosted; this gives the drums a much more strident, edgy sound than on any of the other mixes, and makes them far too dominant.
This version is marginally shorter than the mono mixes, so we don't get to find out whether the harmonica or the lead guitar would have won in the extended fade-out.
Then we come to Michael Brauer's stereo and 5.1 remixes for SACD. These, for once, are a real disappointment. Kooper's great organ part is barely audible, and while on most tracks Brauer has restored the bass to a level not far removed from the US mono mix, here he has left it decidedly light. The bass drum suffers, and Joe South's pumping bass guitar part just doesn't deliver the satisfaction it should. If you've still got a bass control on your amplifier, turn it up!
The lead guitar, as on most of the stereo mixes, is still out on the left hand side with the cymbal, but the overall ambience integrates them a little better into the sound-stage. The lead guitar is not edited (for better or worse), but in the final fade-out we have the harmonica rather than the guitar, as on the original CD.
The 2015 Steve Addabbo mix on The Cutting Edge also (surprisingly) edits out that final guitar lick heard on early stereo LPs; the song fades out at the same point as on previous stereo mixes. In terms of overall sound this version comes closest to the mono mix, and it's very enjoyable. The bass guitar is restored to the level heard on that original mono mix, and the bass drum has more depth than in any other version. In comparison with the 1966 stereo LP mixes the organ is still rather distant, but then that's how it was on the mono album. The lead guitar and cymbal are better off for being nearer the centre, and are at the same relatively low level as in the mono mix – though the tone of the cymbal is not damped in quite the same way.
One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)
This track was originally released as a mono single several months before the rest of the album. It had been recorded in Columbia's New York studios, and presumably the mono mixing had been done there too. This mix was used, unaltered, on all the different mono LP releases. The full story of the mono mix, though, is only revealed by listening to the stereo mix which was almost certainly created a couple of months later in Los Angeles.
Two widely observed differences were apparent in the editing of the stereo vinyl release: (a) between the second and third verses there was a decorative organ phrase instead of vamping from the piano, and (b) the song was almost faded out at the end.
Close listening, though, reveals that the first of these isn't just a matter of the organ having been mixed down at this point in the mono version; some splicing has been done on the mixed tape, so that the second instrumental break in the mono mix is actually a duplicate copy of the first. And in fact the edit extends beyond this passage. Both the second and third verses of the song begin with the words "I couldn't see . . .", and while on the stereo version Dylan sings these instances slightly differently, on the mono version they're identical, showing that the full extent of the edit is about ten seconds.
But why was the edit made? I think Dylan missed his cue for the start of the third verse. Consider this:
The first break is two bars long, and Dylan comes in, in syncopated fashion, just after the first beat of the second verse. But the second break, without the piano driving the rhythm, seems to lose its way rather - it's actually quite hard to count the bars. It meanders on for nearly three bars and then Dylan seems to realise he should have been singing and comes in just before the beginning of the next bar. At this point the rest of the band swings into the third verse.
My guess is that Dylan was irritated by this mistake. It caused the song to lose its momentum, and this could have been even more irksome given that the song was at that stage being recorded for release as a single rather than an album track. Somebody there must have had the bright idea that because the second and third verses opened with the same words, it would be possible to solve the problem with that splice.
Despite all of this, all subsequent mixes released on vinyl and CD have presented the apparently unedited original recording, with the organ line in the second break. These are of course all stereo mixes, made in the context of the whole Blonde On Blonde album.
It's even harder to figure out why the song is faded out in the original stereo mix. On the unfaded mixes there is a slight extraneous clicking noise from Robbie Robertson's guitar right at the end, just after the last piano chord; perhaps the fade-out was done to mask this. Or – perhaps more likely – it was intended to make life easier for typical stereo pickup cartridges of that time; tracking problems tend to be greatest near the centre of a record, and this was a very loud ending right at the end of the side. Note
In addition to these editing differences between the mono and stereo editions, it's noticeable that the organ stands out more in the stereo, and the piano is generally easier to hear. Paul Griffin's piano part on this track has achieved legendary status, but I always found it sounded a little choppy in places when exposed in the stereo mix; the mono album integrated it better into the overall sound.
Both of the stereo vinyl versions of the album, original and revised, present the same mix of this track.
The 1987 CD issue brought us a very different stereo mix of the song. First, the positions of the instruments have changed: the organ and rhythm guitar, which had been placed centrally behind the vocal and harmonica, have moved out to the far left, trading places with the bass and the more noticeable, jangly lead guitar played by Robertson. Second, as with "Visions Of Johanna", the vocals have been made much more prominent and the instruments more subdued, reducing the track's surge of power and making Dylan's vocal performance sound quite plaintive. While this gives an interesting perspective on the song - almost like hearing an alternate take - I have to say I wouldn't have done it this way.
The ending of the song is back up to full volume, without a fade, perhaps supporting the notion that the stereo vinyl mix was faded for technical rather than aesthetic reasons.
The gold CD, in contrast, presents very much the same mix as the stereo vinyl releases, only of course in much better, uncompressed sound quality. The organ seems to be louder here than on any other mix. This version sounds pretty good, though it could still do with more bass. The final chord is extended slightly further even than on the other unfaded mixes. Lastly, the song plays fractionally slow in this mix; perhaps this is an uncorrected side-effect of having been recorded on New York rather than Nashville studio equipment.
The 1999 stereo mix has a tremendous sound, bringing a real firmness to Rick Danko's characteristic bass guitar (listen as Dylan sings "You shouldn't take it so personal"). The organ, though, is mixed a little lower than in the stereo vinyl and gold CD mixes.
Because he was using the stereo vinyl mix as a template, Brauer faded out the end of the song once again. In fact, this time it is really faded out, so that Griffin's final piano chord is cut short rather than being allowed to ring on. Listening to this song on the SACD (in either stereo or surround) is a great experience, but if you're familiar with earlier mixes it just seems to be snatched away from you at the last moment.
The Collector's Edition of The Cutting Edge brings a nice new mix, very warm and with a compactness that makes the piano less obtrusive; but the lack of post-production polish means it doesn't quite have the same drama as the better stereo mixes of 1966 and 1999. The ending is left at full volume, and rings on for a little longer than any of the other mixes. For this track the 18-CD edition also includes the individual 'stems' of the four-track recording, allowing you to listen more closely to particular instruments or to the vocal. If you feed these stems into a suitable piece of multi-track audio software,Note you can make your own mix of the song, putting the instruments where you want them and adding whatever effects you think fit. A dream come true, if only for one track!
I Want You
Here the early Canadian/UK mono mix sounds really murky in comparison with the finished version on the French and US LPs, with Kenny Buttrey's great drumming practically buried. However, the organ comes across a little more clearly in this early mix. As well as having a crisper sound, the French/US version is the more polished in having a small vocal slip in the last verse edited out. In fact, just about everyone who knows Blonde On Blonde will be familiar with this mistake, as it has been left untouched on all stereo versions of the album, as well as on the early Canadian/UK mono mix. Just before "because time was on his side", you can hear Dylan sing something that was probably supposed to be "and" but didn't quite make it. On the French and US mono albums this syllable is trimmed out. Note
One more difference between the mono mixes: the Canadian/UK version is quite a lot longer on the instrumental fade-out, and is only marginally exceeded by the 'raw' mix on the Collector's Edition of The Cutting Edge.
The original stereo vinyl version doesn't have the deep bass response of the mono mixes, but it does have a much warmer sound than is typical of the stereo LP mixes. In terms of instrument balance, the repetitive lead guitar figure is much less pronounced here, while the piano is conversely more noticeable. The second stereo mix has a much thinner, more trebly sound, and the lead guitar comes across much more clearly.
On the original 1987 CD the sound and instrumental balance is generally similar to the second stereo vinyl mix, but with the bass response somewhat restored.
Mark Wilder's remix for the MasterSound edition is closer to the original US stereo version: the sound is very much warmer and more bass-heavy than on the original CD - excessively so, I think, in relation to all the other tracks. The lead guitar, though, is stronger than on the original stereo mix. The fade is typically abrupt.
Michael Brauer's 1999 stereo mix is wonderful, the epitome of Blonde On Blonde's sound: complex, almost orchestral, but at the same time effortlessly fluid. As Dylan once said of Doc Watson's guitar playing, it's just like water running. It's hard to deduce, though, whether this side of the old vinyl copy Brauer and Berkowitz were using as their model contained the original stereo mix or whether it had the revised mix. The fullness of the bass suggests the former, but the clarity of the electric guitar and the drums is rather more like the latter. The length of the fade-out offers no clue either, as the two stereo vinyl mixes were very close in this regard, and this remix sits right between them. The fade on the SACD 5.1 surround mix is just a shade longer than the stereo.
The 2015 mix by Steve Addabbo on the Collector's Edition of The Cutting Edge sounds remarkably like the old Canadian/UK mono version, with a soft drum sound and the lead guitar relatively low in the mix. Though it starts fading later, in the end it is less than a second longer than that early mono mix. Note
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
This is another track with two mono mixes. The first is found on Canadian and UK pressings, and has a really nice, natural sound, with the drums quite upfront. The second and final mix appears on French and US copies of the album, and to my mind it's no improvement. The sound is harsher and the drums and the lead guitar have been made to sound a little more distant, possibly through the addition of some reverb. Dylan's voice sounds more strident and therefore more distinct but less attractive. This finished version also has the two acoustic guitars mixed much higher during the intro and between the verses - probably the only worthwhile change.
The stereo mixes of the song, unusually, are all very similar. The song comes to a definite conclusion rather than being faded, so there are no differences in length. The only variations are those which are generally characteristic of the different releases - a hint of vocal echo on the original CD, a drier sound on the gold CD and so on. Michael Brauer's mixes, typically, have the most life and offer the most involvement whether in stereo or 5.1 surround.
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Here, for the first time, we have three different mono versions. Note The first, found on the Canadian and British LPs, has the piano well up in the mix. The sound is dry, with no reverb, and the electric guitars have a close-up, full-bodied sound. This version fades out noticeably sooner than on most other editions of the album.
The second mono mix, released only in France, has reverb on everything. Dylan's electric guitar is brought to the fore, but the piano is less audible. The final mix, found on the US album, removes the reverb again, but pushes the piano even further into the background. The overall length of the track is the same as the French mix, but the fade-out starts out a few seconds earlier. The guitars here sound a little thinner than they did in the original (Canadian) mix, but Robbie Robertson's lead guitar has been given more of a cutting edge.
The first stereo version has less bass than the mono (as usual) and has the drums higher up in the mix. The lead guitar is relatively subdued.
The revised stereo vinyl mix has a radically different sound. The equalisation boosts the treble frequencies, and reverb has been applied to the rhythm and lead guitars, both of them on the left channel, with a distinct delayed echo of the lead guitar appearing at centre stage. The result is that the lead guitar is much more prominent here than on the earlier stereo mix. The vocal and piano, though, are more distant, and overall the track has a sort of acidic, hollow sound; maybe appropriate in a way to the character of the song, but quite bizarre to ears accustomed to any of the other vinyl mixes.
This later mix was clearly used as a pattern by Tim Geelan when he remixed the album for the original CD release; his version is practically identical. Note
The MasterSound gold CD has a sound more akin to the original stereo vinyl, though the ending is faded much more abruptly.
As with "I Want You", Michael Brauer's 1999 stereo remix seems to draw from both the original and the revised vinyl versions. Dylan's voice has the more normal timbre of the original mix, and there is no echo on Robertson's lead guitar; but this guitar is much more prominent than on the original mix, and compensates for the lack of echo with a caustic tone that seems to operate directly on your central nervous system. The bass is greatly extended, too, giving the song a swagger that just doesn't come across on any of the previous stereo versions.
Steve Addabbo's new mix on The Cutting Edge has the usual sonic characteristics; but while it adds nothing to previous mixes in the fade-out, it does add a small surprise at the start. Whereas all other mixes are edited so that Dylan introduces the song with a 'Dum-Da' on his electric guitar, here we have a small preceding note: 'Da-Dum-Da'. I rather like it.
Just Like A Woman
The original mono mix seems to have been judged good enough here, as it appears on all mono editions of the album. Likewise the stereo LPs - only one mix again. The stereo version doesn't have the organ quite as prominent as on the mono releases, and the same is true of all the CD editions. As on many other tracks, the 1987 remix for CD introduced a slight echo on the vocal; this is taken away again by the MasterSound mix, which presents the vocal close up and completely dry. The 1999 mix is warmer and seems more alive, more akin in fact to the mono mix, but it still doesn't quite restore the organ to its former level.
This song was one of those most badly cut on the first, abridged release of the original CD. While this is one of the album's few songs that come to a firm musical conclusion, here it was actually faded out during the final harmonica verse, 12 seconds short of the end.
The 5.1 SACD mix deserves a special mention for the astonishing realism of the Spanish guitar which plays its arpeggios at the end of each chorus - it's right there in the room with you.
There are no surprises here on the 2015 mix for The Cutting Edge.
For this side of the original double album the Canadian mono LP used the earliest master tape, and the French edition a slightly later one. The US and UK albums both actually used the fourth-generation master for this side, so there's presumably one intermediate version that never got beyond the test pressing stage. See Appendix B for a fuller discussion. But that still leaves up to three released mono mixes to consider for each song.
Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine
On this opening track the finished US/UK mono mix has a rather heavy, cluttered sound that I'm not fond of, with the electric guitars and Charlie McCoy's one-handed trumpet well to the fore.
The Canadian mono album presents us with a radically different early mix, cleaner and simpler. The electric guitars are mixed way down and the bass is lighter; this leaves the track dominated by the drums and organ. Kenny Buttrey's marvellous snare-drum work is enhanced by the EQ on that channel and really drives the song along. This version, which later made a surprise appearance on the B-Side of the "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" single, is a lot of fun.
The French mono album, despite its different tonal quality, seems in fact to contain the same revised mix as the US and UK albums, fuller in tone but to my ears something of a muddled mess.
The stereo vinyl mix, which was left unchanged on the revised version of the album, has a much thinner, more jangly sound than the US mono. The snare drum comes across more clearly, though it is still less dominant than on the Canadian mono, and here it is offset by the very prominent electric guitars on the opposite channel. In this version it's the organ that almost gets lost. The fade-out is a little longer than on the mono albums.
Tim Geelan's 1987 remix for the original CD is completely different again. The three electric guitars (and the cymbal!) have moved around, with the result that the lead guitar and the more strident rhythm guitar (the one that plays on the off-beat all the way through) are placed behind Dylan's vocal and are less noticeable. This is accentuated by the fact that the track containing the vocal, harmonica, bass and trumpet is mixed higher. The organ also manages to stand out a little more clearly in this mix than in any of the others, and the snare drum rolls are beautifully crisp. Personally, I like the song this way, though I'm aware of the heresy of this viewpoint.
The MasterSound gold CD follows the general pattern of the stereo vinyl version, but for some reason the vocal is unusually low in the mix; and of course the faders go down faster at the end.
Michael Brauer's 1999 remix sounds very much like the stereo vinyl mix, but with a bass end more like the US mono. The instruments are again in the places they were given in the original stereo vinyl mix. The 5.1 mix is a shade longer than the stereo.
The new mix for The Cutting Edge fades out at the same point as the 1987 and 1999 remixes, but provides an extended opening: for the first time we hear that Kenny Buttrey actually started the song off with three slow drum strokes (successive hits on his snare and two toms), before the rapid-fire 'da-da-da-da' that we're familiar with. It turns out that this accounts for the slightly messy opening on most of the previous mixes: once someone had decided they didn't want these three drum beats, the engineers had to try and edit them out without the last of them (the floor tom) being at all audible. Funnily enough, the early mono mix on the Canadian LP made the cleanest job of the edit, while the finished US mono mix did it the worst. All previous stereo mixes fall somewhere between these two extremes. Sadly, the Cutting Edge mix, which gives us the opening unedited, does not in other respects give a very enjoyable account of this rather busy song; the sound seems particularly murky, and the crucial snare drum rolls are almost inaudible.
Temporary Like Achilles
The Canadian mono album once again contains an early mix that is quite distinct from the other editions. The acoustic piano and lead guitar are relatively low in the mix, while the electric piano (which comes in from the second verse onwards) is surprisingly high. The EQ is biased towards the treble end, emphasising the harmonica and the jangly electric guitar, but making Dylan's vocal sound more edgy, with less body.
On the face of it the French, US and UK mono albums all appear to have the same revised mix. This corrects all of the idiosyncrasies of the first mix, giving the song a warmer, smoother sound. It also shortens the instrumental ending by about 5 seconds.
However, close comparison reveals that the second mix, found on the French album, was edited for the final version found on the US and UK albums. There is a splice at the end of the last verse, which covers the phrase "Honey, but you're so hard" and also the first, descending, part of the instrumental turnaround into the harmonica solo that follows. In the unedited French mix Dylan sings his vocal phrase very similarly in both verses, but both the electric guitar and electric piano fills that accompany him are different, and I suspect it was a slight clumsiness in the latter that gave rise to the edit. The spliced-in section has in fact been duplicated from the equivalent passage at the end of the third verse.
As with the edit of the vocal slip in "I Want You", this was ignored in all stereo mixes; so the splicing clearly wasn't done on the four-track master tape, only on the mono mixdown tape.
The original stereo mix is the longest version released, nearly 20 seconds longer than the finished mono version. It is unique in offering a complete verse of harmonica at the end of the song; but Dylan's playing here is less inspired than on, say, "Pledging My Time" or "Just Like A Woman", and it's not hard to see why it was edited more severely elsewhere. Characteristically the drums stand out more in the stereo mix, and with them, in this song, the electric piano.
The second stereo vinyl version is a practically identical mix, but is faded out much earlier, bringing it more into line with the US mono version.
While the original CD has the instruments in the same positions as in the stereo vinyl versions, the centrally-placed vocals, harmonica and guitar are all mixed louder in relation to the other instruments to left and right. For once, though, there is no noticeable echo on the vocals.
On the gold CD the drums and second keyboard on the right are much louder again, as they were on the original stereo LP, and Hargus Robbins' honky-tonk piano is more clearly audible than in any other mix. Mark Wilder chose not to reproduce the full length of the original stereo version, but instead edited the track almost back to the length of the mono versions.
The 1999 remix, while no more generous in length, has a really beautiful sound quality. The bass is deep, and the music just flows around Dylan's voice. Brauer has given more prominence to the lead guitar on the left-hand channel, which plays the most extraordinary ornamentation in a tone that sounds like big raindrops falling in a pool. I don't think I've ever heard a guitar played quite like this before or since; it's just one more example of the seemingly limitless invention and skill of these musicians. Note There's no particular reason why he should have chosen to emphasise this guitar more than in any previous mix, but it certainly is good to hear.
The 2015 mix on The Cutting Edge, like the original stereo vinyl release, gives the full harmonica verse at the end; it fades at exactly the same point as that early mix.
Absolutely Sweet Marie
As Bob Irwin observed when he researched the mono tapes for his Sundazed vinyl reissue (see the interview at Appendix E), the most noticeable change made on this track was to the sound of the snare drum. On the first mix, released on the Canadian mono LP, the snare sounds pretty dull. It was given a lot more top-end bite in the revised mix included in the French mono album. This second mix then seems to have been left unchanged for the US and UK editions.
There are a couple of other distinguishing features of the early Canadian mono version. First, the organ is less clearly audible than in the final mix; but second, and more noticeably, this version is particularly short, fading very soon after the last verse has finished. The finished mono mix found on the French, US and UK albums runs for over 15 seconds longer - an example followed by all stereo mixes of the song.
The original stereo album makes the electric rhythm guitar in the centre more noticeable than on the mono versions. The revised stereo vinyl version reverses this change, burying that particular guitar again; but this revised mix also has a bigger, more spacious sound overall, with cleaner high frequencies that really bring the snare drum to life.
The original CD mix is very similar to the revised vinyl version, but with slightly improved bass performance.
The sound on the MasterSound CD remix is decidedly drier and flatter than on any of the other stereo versions, especially on the vocal.
Michael Brauer's 1999 version made the lead guitar on the left-hand side ring out more, perhaps just by giving it a fuller, more rounded tone. Dylan's wipe-out harmonica solo is also particularly well-served by this remix, and in the SACD 5.1 version it is brought even more sharply into focus by the centre speaker.
Steve Addabbo's 'basic' mix for The Cutting Edge contains no particular surprises, fading out at the same point as most earlier stereo mixes.
4th Time Around
By Blonde On Blonde's standards, the finished mono version of this song has a fairly sparse instrumentation: apart from Dylan's acoustic guitar and harmonica, there are just bass, drums and a pair of Spanish guitars playing that distinctive plinketty riff all through the song. The US and UK mono albums have the same finished mix, but as with many tracks, EQ applied at the cutting stage generally seems to make the drums sound crisper on US pressings.
However it's clear, both from earlier mono mixes mistakenly released in Canada and France and from the original US stereo mix, that some major changes had been made to get the track to this finished state.
The song was originally recorded with an organ, played by Al Kooper, and it's clearly audible on all three of these early mixes. It sounds rather like a harmonium, distinctly different from Kooper's more usual Hammond organ. Note It comes in when Dylan starts singing and plays simple chords throughout the song; in the original stereo mix it's out on the right hand channel with the drums. In fact, you can hardly hear the drums for the organ, and this was probably the cause of all the trouble. Because the organ and drums were recorded on the same tape track it would have been impossible to lift the sound of the drums without making the organ even louder - the second mono mix found on the French LP demonstrates this. Probably in the end Dylan decided he just didn't like the organ part at all.
So what we find is that all later mixes have a new and much brighter-sounding drum track dubbed onto the original take of the song - and no keyboard at all. Note The new drum track must have been dubbed right onto the four-track master, replacing the old drum and organ track, as all the CD remixes of the album made from the 4-track tapes feature the replacement drum track. Note There remains some uncertainty as to when and where the new drum track was recorded, but my money is on the documented overdub session in Nashville on June 16, 1966. Note
There are other points worth noting about the various vinyl mixes of the song.
On the Canadian mono version the guitars and bass sound pretty much the same as on the finished US mix, but the harmonica and vocal are mixed higher, with a sharper treble edge. The drums and organ are mixed down into a sort of background mush for most of the song. This version is also a lot shorter than the finished track, missing the last 20 seconds of the instrumental coda.
On the intermediate mix found on the French album a boost to the upper midrange makes Kenny Buttrey's snare drum more audible - and the organ with it. This tonal adjustment also seems to have been applied to the vocal, giving it a forced, unnatural sound that is quite uncomfortable to listen to. This is the longest of the three mixes that include the organ, and that now-lost instrument is very prominent at the end of the coda, after the harmonica has finished.
The final mix on the US and UK mono albums, as well as having the replacement drum track, also sorts out the tonal balance, giving a much more natural sound to the vocal and harmonica.
The mix found on early stereo copies of the album not only has the original organ and drum track, it also has a rather illogical arrangement of the other instruments. As on the mix of "Visions Of Johanna" which is to be found on this original stereo release, Dylan's acoustic guitar is out on the left-hand channel; and on this song the two Spanish guitars are located behind his voice in the centre. This early stereo mix is also noticeably shorter than most other versions, though not nearly as short as the Canadian mono mix.
Not surprisingly, the revised stereo mix found on later copies of the album is much more akin to the finished mono version. It has the same overdubbed drum performance, and no organ. The placing of the instruments has also been sorted out, Dylan's steel-string acoustic guitar sensibly trading places with the Spanish guitars. This is the way the instruments have been arranged on all of the later remixes of the album for digital release.
Listening closely to this revised stereo mix of the song, it becomes apparent that some tidying was done to the overdubbed drum track when the final mono mixes were produced, as here the new drum track enters the mix earlier, with Kenny Buttrey playing some tentative cymbal strokes behind Dylan's harmonica introduction before finally easing into the drum pattern just before the vocal begins. It seems nobody thought to do the same editing for the stereo mix.
To briefly round up the notable features of the CD mixes:
The original CD gives us pretty much the second stereo vinyl mix, but the vocal and harmonica have been lifted slightly in volume, as on many other tracks.
On the MasterSound CD Dylan's acoustic guitar sounds a lot brighter and clearer than in previous mixes, and is distractingly prominent in relation to Dylan's voice.
This guitar sounds much better balanced in Michael Brauer's 1999 mix, and the whole track has a much warmer feel, with stronger bass than on any of the preceding stereo releases. While the drums are much more solid, a little more top-end here would have been nice, given the attention the drum sound received in the final mono mix. The light cymbal touches during the harmonica intro are hardly audible in this version. The stereo separation is less extreme than in other stereo mixes, so that the two Spanish guitars on the left now seem more a part of the band; and with the 5.1 mix on the SACD you feel you could reach out and touch them.
Sadly, the Cutting Edge project team appear not to have located a pre-overdub master of the final take, so we don't hear this take as it was originally recorded; and indeed the box set documentation makes no mention whatsoever of the overdub. Steve Addabbo's mix has no particular merits, and the fade-out gives us nothing we haven't heard before. Strangely, given the purportedly unvarnished nature of the Cutting Edge mixes, it seems Addabbo did take the trouble to mix down Buttrey's cymbal strokes during the harmonica intro.
Obviously 5 Believers
This track was always one of the marvels of the finished mono album. The bass is thunderous, especially on the final verse, and the song absolutely rocks. There are two earlier mixes to be found, though, on the Canadian and French LPs. On the first of these the bass is if anything even stronger than on the finished track, and the maraca /shaker is more prominent but the drums less so. You can more clearly hear both the organ - which plays an unusually low-pitched sort of boogie riff throughout the song - and the piano, which plays simple chords on the off-beat. Overall this version is the same length as on the US LP, but the fade starts noticeably earlier.
On the second mix found on the French album, the bass and the maraca are both much weaker, but the organ is still clearly audible. The piano, despite being probably recorded on the same track as the organ, comes across a little less clearly. The overall emphasis on midrange frequencies makes the drums sound a lot different, with much more of a "knocking" sound. The track is slightly longer here than on the other mono editions, and Dylan's ad-libbed vocalisations over the instrumental run-out are more noticeable.
After listening to these two earlier mixes it's clear that the organ was deliberately mixed down for the final US version. Possibly this was to bury a slip made by Al Kooper (he plays the chorus riff too early at the end of the first verse), but perhaps more likely it was to give Dylan's vocal more space. There is in fact a touch of reverb added to the vocal on the final mix, so it's clear that the engineer was trying to make Dylan's voice stand out better. The piano is barely audible in the finished track, presumably having been mixed down along with the organ.
On the original stereo mix the maraca and the organ are much more in evidence again. The bass is cut a long way back, though, and the song has just lost all its punch. This is the longest version of the song, completing the two lines of Charlie McCoy's harmonica riff at the end of the closing instrumental section.
The revised stereo mix is distinctly different. Although the instrument positions are the same, the two electric guitars on the left-hand side are mixed quite a bit louder, and seemingly with more reverb. Also, the vocal is more distant, and the net effect is to give the track a curiously hollow sort of sound.
Tim Geelan's remix for the original CD release is closer to the sound of the first stereo vinyl version, but the level of the vocal is lifted slightly.
For the MasterSound release, Mark Wilder likewise produced a sound similar to the original stereo vinyl mix, but without the lift to the vocals. As on all previous stereo mixes, the song is emasculated by the weakness of the bass.
Brauer's 1999 remix completely blows away all of these earlier stereo versions. The strangeness of the second vinyl mix has been avoided, the bass end is excellent, and all the other good things about the general sound of the SACD release apply too. The song is a blast from start to finish.
The Cutting Edge mix has an equally full bass end, but the guitars and drums lack the hard edge that this song really needs. Like the original stereo vinyl mix this runs right through the two harmonica-led riffs at the end, but rather than being faded out at this point, it is just cut dead.
Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands
The matrix numbers of US mono vinyl pressings indicate that there should be two - and only two - different mono mixes of this song (see Appendix B), and this is what we find in practice.
The first mix was only ever released on the Canadian mono edition of the album, and it contains a moment that pulls you up short the first time you hear it: Dylan fumbles the words at the end of the fourth verse. It appears that during the original recording Dylan lost his way with the phrase that we're used to hearing as "How could they ever have persuaded you?". On this apparently unedited mix of the original take, the "How could they ever" part comes out OK, but after that Dylan is clearly searching for the words and comes back in a little late with "...uaded you". Note What this reveals is that all other released versions of the song contain an identical edit at this point, implying a splice made to the four-track master tape.
In fact the splice is pretty easy to spot. It starts with a sudden increase in the volume on the beat just before the word "have", and it ends with a rather clumsy half-beat skip in the rhythm as Dylan sings "you". In between these points the sound of the band changes substantially, with a completely different drum sound, a suspension of the hi-hat pattern and a different organ line than in the original unedited recording. The 2015 release of The Cutting Edge revealed that the spliced-in section, rather than being recorded as a separate insert take, was just lifted from an earlier take of the song: Take 1, which was played at a similar tempo.
The Canadian mono version has another surprise up its sleeve: the ending is four seconds longer than the finished mono version, and a couple of seconds longer than any other released mix. Just at the tail end of the fade you can hear someone starting to talk over the music - presumably either Dylan or Bob Johnston.
Sound-wise, this early mix strongly emphasises the lower mid-range frequencies, favouring the piano in particular. The higher frequencies are subdued, so the organ, the percussion and the high-fretted steel-string guitar are all less clearly audible than in most other mixes.
The second, finished mono mix appears on the French, US and UK editions of the album, but typically sounds best in US pressings. Apart from the editing changes alluded to above, there were clearly alterations made to the sound balance at the mixing stage. The equalisation is much better, so that none of the instruments is disadvantaged, and it has a wonderfully rich tonal balance that suits this song maybe more than any other. The most striking change, though, is to the hi-hat, which is very much more pronounced than in the first mono mix and really gives the song its rhythmic focus. This was clearly a very deliberate change, and it's a shame that it was never picked up in any of the stereo mixes of the song.
The original stereo mix does have the vocal slip in the fourth-verse corrected, but it has plenty of faults of its own. The bass end is feeble, and even worse, the high frequencies have been drastically attenuated, so that Dylan's S's sound badly smeared. The relative boost in the upper mid-range accentuates the tapping of the hi-hat, but the cut in high frequencies makes it sound as though it has a pillowcase over it. The final indignity is a two-second cut at the end of the song, which means it falls just short of completing that lovely descending chord sequence in the instrumental fade.
The same mix is used on all stereo vinyl copies; thus Side 4 is the only side of the album which did not change with the introduction of the revised stereo version.
The original CD, though, gives us a completely different mix, produced by Tim Geelan in 1987. On the previous stereo mixes the only instrument on the left-hand channel was the high-pitched, strummed steel-string guitar, with most of the other instruments piled in the middle behind Dylan's vocal and harmonica. On this CD mix, things are better distributed, with the Spanish guitar and piano giving some weight out on the left, and the high steel-string moving to the middle. The one drawback is that the bass drum on the choruses, which must have leaked onto the track used for piano and Spanish guitar, now also appears on the left channel. The bass response is somewhat restored, and the problem with the filtering of high frequencies has gone. On the full-length CD the ending of the track is marginally longer than on the mono album, but on the first abridged edition nearly 40 seconds of the closing harmonica verse was removed - an amputation to rival the fading out of "Just Like A Woman" on the same edition.
On the gold CD Mark Wilder went back to the stereo vinyl mix in terms of the instrument positions; sadly, he also copied the slightly truncated fade-out. On the positive side, the high frequencies are presented without distortion, and the vocal is brought slightly more to the fore than on the original CD. There's more bad news, though: the engineer has also made the bass drum more prominent, and in doing so has managed to introduce some overload distortion which is clearly audible during the third chorus, just before "Should I leave them by your gate . . .". This is particularly surprising in a production aimed at the audiophile market.
The 1999 Brauer remix is this time a little strange. It has the Spanish guitar and piano in the centre, as in most of the other stereo mixes, but the high-pitched steel-string guitar, which was previously the only instrument on the left-hand channel, is now also brought in almost to the centre. This leaves nothing really going on at all on the left hand side. The drums are still firmly to the right, but (probably in emulation of the old stereo vinyl mix) the drums – and the hi-hat in particular – are more subdued, not as sharp as on the other CD versions or the mono album. The bass end, while better than on any previous stereo version, is still less full than on the mono mix, and the overall result is a rather boxy sound that I've been unable to get to like entirely. Thankfully Dylan's voice retains its clarity and focus, and his harmonica, particularly on the introduction, has a beautiful delicacy. They cut it fine on the fade-out though, only barely catching the end of the last descending chord sequence.
In the later 5.1 mix for the hybrid SACD, that high-fretted steel-string guitar is a little further out to the left, giving a rather more balanced sound-stage.
As usual, the 2015 mix for The Cutting Edge brings everything in towards the middle. This time the characteristically warm, bassy sound really suits the song, and the hi-hat is allowed all the breathing space it needs. The producers evidently found a copy of the original unedited 4-track master, as the heavy-handed 1966 splice heard on all releases of Blonde On Blonde is not to be heard here. However, rather than presenting the original Take 4 with the vocal slip in the fourth verse left as it was on the Canadian mono album, the producers have instead arranged a much more precise edit to preserve the wording as Dylan intended it. With the benefit of digital technology they have been able to lift the first syllable of "persuaded" from Take 3 of the song and drop it into the vocal track on Take 4. Most of the other instruments are unaffected by this, so apart from a slight vocal hesitation the flow of the song is uninterrupted. It would have been more honest to leave the vocal alone altogether; but on the up side you could say that the 5,000 people who bought the 18-CD Collector's Edition now have a pretty good version of the song – especially as the fade-out is just as long as it was on that early Canadian release.
So, after sifting through all of this historical and aural evidence, which of the nine versions could we think of as the real Blonde On Blonde? Here is one of the most important works of one of the great artists of the twentieth century, and we seem to be faced with the difficult thought that there might be no version which can be seen as definitive. With this in mind, let's briefly review our findings.
Of the three mono versions, all the evidence has pointed towards the US release being the most polished, completed work. We have also seen strong indications that the original stereo release was assembled with less care and attention to detail than the mono album, using the wrong assemblage of mixes. The revised stereo LP was a considerable improvement, but it lacked the impact - and also some of the careful refinements - of the US mono mix, and introduced one or two inexplicable anomalies of its own.
As far as the album's early history goes, then, it does seem as though the American mono edition has a claim to be the best reflection of the artist's intentions at the time. Fortunately Sony and Dylan's organisation have now woken up to the artistic importance (and commercial value) of the 1960s mono recordings, and they have now been available again in both analogue and digital format for quite some time.
Without denying the historical and artistic importance of the mono Blonde On Blonde, we have to accept that the sound of the mono album may possibly have been shaped not only by Dylan's artistic intentions but also by technical considerations of the day - the limitations of 1960s playback equipment, for example, and perhaps the requirements of AM radio broadcasting. It could be that no tape exists which was not adjusted to suit such needs, so it may be impossible to know how Dylan would really have liked the album to sound back then.
This is one reason for not resting with the mono version as the only true record. The other good reason is that, quite simply, it lacks the benefits of stereo: the presence, the breadth and depth, the ability of the listener to attend more closely to the vocal or to individual instruments. Blonde On Blonde, with its complex tapestry of sound, is one of Dylan's albums that stands to gain the most from stereo reproduction. What is needed, then, is a high quality stereo version which somehow retains the character and apparent artistic intentions of the American mono release. As we have seen, the 1960s stereo vinyl versions failed to deliver that. What about the CD releases?
Both the original 1987 CD and the 1992 MasterSound edition fell a long way short of capturing the warmth, power and excitement of the mono album; furthermore the former included some particularly strange mixes, while the latter suffered from poor editing.
Michael Brauer's 1999 remix, originally intended just for SACD release but now the standard CD edition, has a far better sound - it seems to embody the spirit of the mono record while enhancing it with the benefits of stereo and a hi-fi sound quality that is unconstrained by 1960s technology. Nonetheless it is not perfect. For one thing, because Brauer set out to replicate one of the old stereo vinyl mixes, he missed some of the fine-tuning that went into the mono album - the tempo of "Rainy Day Women", the fade-out of "Pledging My Time", the hushing of the cymbal in "Visions of Johanna", the correction of the vocal slip in "I Want You". And at a more general level, it is still stuck with the dreadful convention of putting the drums out on one channel rather than in the centre where they would be in any live performance or on practically any record by anyone from the early 70s onwards. This is the curse of Dylan's stereo records from Highway 61 Revisited through to New Morning, and since these are the albums produced by Bob Johnston then presumably we have him to thank for it. Regrettably Sony (possibly guided by Dylan's organisation) have in the past felt obliged to stick with the convention for the sake of historical correctness. Perhaps now that they have acknowledged via the 2010 box set releases that the mono versions are in fact the more historically authentic, and that the original stereo mixes were knocked out as an afterthought without a great deal of care, they will feel less constrained when it comes to future stereo editions. My guess (and devout hope) is that in another ten years or so we will see Dylan's records from this period appear in another round of new editions, giving us sensible stereo mixes that also pay very close attention to the detailed editing of the original mono versions. Note
The search for a definitive Blonde On Blonde has inevitably been frustrating; and it is plainly an academic pursuit which places too much importance on minor detail. But it has also been an awful lot of fun, and this is one album where the music is as great as Dylan's songs and singing, where the details of the music therefore really are important.
In the end I have come to realise that the album's multiple images are a strange sort of blessing: they give a multi-dimensional view of the album that we simply do not have with any of Dylan's other works to anything like the same degree. You can wander around Blonde On Blonde's many versions noticing an instrument here, a vocal inflection there, picking up something new every time. Would you be interested to hear "4th Time Around" with an organ in the mix? Listen to the original stereo version. Do you love drifting away on the harmonica at the end of "Pledging My Time"? You've just got to hear the Canadian mono album. Would you like to really savour the sound of Kenny Buttrey's brush-work on the drums? Try the original CD on headphones. And so on. The multiplicity of form has in effect become part of the album's expansive nature.
But there are two editions that stand head and shoulders above all the others - the US mono and the current SACD/CD stereo version. Personally I think that everyone should have a copy of the mono album in order to hear it as Dylan intended back in 1966, and now that it can even be downloaded from iTunes there's really no excuse. But for more modern tastes in digital high fidelity, Michael Brauer's mix - despite its few detailed shortcomings and the general issue of the drums - is the one to go for. Aesthetically the variants of this (CD / SACD stereo / SACD 5.1 / Mobile Fidelity remaster on SACD or vinyl) are as close as makes no difference to me. You can choose according to the acuity of your hearing and the depth of your pocket.
In earlier editions of this essay I fantasised that one day Sony would make available the unedited four-track recordings for each song, together with a nice app that would allow you to mix and edit your own version of Blonde On Blonde. And rather to my surprise, they have actually taken a couple of small steps in that direction. As we've seen above, they included the individual 4-track stems for one song from this album, "One Of Us Must Know", on the Collector's Edition of The Cutting Edge; and as part of the promotion of that project they also produced the Studio A Revisited Micro-site on bobdylan.com. For "One Of Us Must Know" and "Like A Rolling Stone" it provides a very basic facility for varying the relative levels of the four stems in a streamed mono mix. "It's not like Studio A," says the introductory video, "It is Studio A". Hmm. What I had in mind was something more like the virtual recording studio on the old Highway 61 Interactive CD-ROM, with a 1960s vintage mixing desk, and with the facility to output CD-quality stereo files. Well, I still live in hope.
Last updated November 2017