The Onward March of Audio Technology
Let me say first of all that this is not a site that is primarily intended for audiophiles. I don't really consider myself part of that community, and I don't have very expensive audio equipment. I have nothing against those who are into high-end hi-fi; it just doesn't interest me greatly. This website is essentially about aspects of Dylan's records that can be distinguished and appreciated without expensive kit. There are other places on the internet where you can find (and share) opinions on the finer points of audiophile editions, and on the sort of equipment needed to get the most out of them. I'd particularly recommend forums.stevehoffman.tv as one that is frequented by Dylan enthusiasts.
There are two terms which come up again and again in this more technical strand of Dylan's recorded history, and those are remixing and remastering. To understand what has happened to Dylan's recordings as technology has advanced, it's important to understand what these two processes involve. Bear in mind that all of Dylan's mid-1960s albums were recorded on 4-track tape, usually with more than one instrument or vocal recorded on each channel.
Remixing involves going back to the original multi-track studio tapes and mixing these into a new two-channel stereo (or, as we'll see later, a six-channel surround-sound) mix. This can make a radical difference to the sound of the album, as the lateral positioning (panning) of instruments can be changed, the tone (equalisation) and relative volume of particular instruments can be adjusted, reverb and ambience can be added, and so on. The resulting mix then has to be mastered for the chosen release format(s) - read on.
Remastering just involves producing a new digital master from an existing mix-down tape, so that it can be issued as an upgraded CD (or in a higher resolution digital format such as SACD - see below). There are a number of factors which will affect the finished result, including:
a) The source tape used. Ideally this will be the original mix-down tape from when the album was first made. Or it might be a safety copy of the original, which will be practically as good. What has happened too often in the past with albums from the pre-digital age is that record companies haven't bothered to seek out the original master, and have used instead a tape which has been compressed and equalised for the purpose of cutting vinyl. These always sound worse on CD. Just to confuse matters even more, up until the late 60s it was common practice for the compression and equalisation to be applied at the mixdown stage, so there is no original stereo master without these unwanted characteristics.
(b) Any manipulation of the overall signal which the engineer chooses to apply - noise reduction to minimise tape hiss, equalisation to boost or cut specific frequency ranges, and so on.
(c) The analogue-to-digital conversion process used, and the digital format being mastered for. A higher-resolution format should be capable of reproducing more subtle musical information than the standard CD format.
And there will be other factors that apply to both remixing and remastering, including the type of equipment used to play the source tape. For example, many engineers prefer to use valve-driven equipment for reproducing old recordings, so as to get as close as possible to the original sound.
The start of the digital age
The compact disc arrived in Europe and North America in 1983, and the reissuing of Dylan's back catalogue in the new digital format seems to have begun with Highway 61 Revisited in 1985. This early release was apparently mastered from a copy tape that had been made for cutting vinyl records, as described above, and as a result it sounded pretty poor.
The first CD releases of Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde came a little later, in 1987. Columbia had found that all their stereo tapes for these two albums were too worn (in places, at least) to be used for the new showcase medium; so they took the time to have them remixed from the original 4-track studio tapes. This changed their sound quite noticeably, as discussed in the articles about the individual albums, but at least they avoided the 'cutting master' syndrome suffered by Highway 61 Revisited.
The first audiophile Dylan CDs
By the early 1990s the audio industry was beginning to realise that while the compact disc was a miraculously noise-free and relatively indestructible medium, to get good results you really needed to find the best, most original master tape. This was the approach taken by engineer Steve Hoffman when preparing a remastered edition of Highway 61 Revisited for the specialist reissues label DCC Compact Classics. This 1992 release is discussed in more detail in the article about Highway 61 Revisited, but suffice it to say here that it sounds far better than the original Columbia/Sony CD on practically any equipment; and to my ears it has not been equalled since.
Around the same time, Sony/Columbia developed a new digital encoding scheme called Super Bit Mapping. This took a higher-resolution 20-bit digital recording and used a complex algorithm to 'map' it onto a standard 16-bit CD. Sony wanted Blonde On Blonde to be one of the initial releases; but the 1987 remix for the original CD was judged unsuitable (possibly it had been mixed digitally in 16-bit audio) so the album was remixed again from the analogue 4-track masters. The sound of the recording was altered far more by the remixing than it was by the relatively small improvement in the digital encoding technology, and as it happened this remix was not widely liked.
Since then, of course, record companies have come to realise there is plenty of money to be made from producing remastered (and occasionally remixed) editions: baby boomer fans with plenty of disposable income will buy them every time. Some major artists have by now had their catalogue remastered several times. But is has, thankfully, become standard practice for these major labels – and of course the specialist audiophile labels who reissue their title under licence – to at least use the best possible tapes when remastering old material. As a result the difference in sound quality between successive remastered editions has become less a matter of pure audio fidelity and more a matter of aesthetic choices made by the mastering engineer. In practice, the major element here is the equalisation (EQ) used - in other words the tonal quality. Remember when hi-fi systems used to have treble and bass controls, or even graphic equalisers?
Super Audio CDs
Around the turn of the century two genuinely new disc formats emerged, both promising to bring back the subtlety of sound that many hi-fi enthusiasts felt the Compact Disc had lost. One was DVD-Audio (DVD-A), the other the Super Audio CD (SACD). In order to capture the lost subtleties of analogue sound, both technologies used much higher sampling rates in the analogue-to-digital conversion process, and so ended up with digital file sizes that the ordinary CD could not contain. So both formats required dedicated hardware to play their high-capacity discs.
Sony happened to be joint developers (with Philips) of the Super Audio CD; this used a new encoding scheme called Direct Stream Digital (DSD), more sophisticated than the Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) system used in standard CDs. As one of their first showcase offerings, Sony produced a new edition of Blonde On Blonde in this format. Once again, in order to get the best out of the new encoding process, they had to have the album remixed afresh from the analogue multi-tracks; and once again once again the impact of the remixing was far greater than that of the new digital format. This 1999 release was a single-layer SACD, which meant that it could only be played in an SACD machine - at that time a very expensive item of hardware. Sales were not great, even though the remixing had made the album sound much better than either of the two previous digital releases.
In 2002 the hybrid SACD appeared on the scene; this added a second layer, encoded with standard PCM (Pulse Code Modulation), that could be read by standard CD players. This could of course only deliver standard CD sound quality, but in practice many listeners struggled to hear any difference between the two layers. The following year Sony started to refresh their Bob Dylan catalogue by releasing 15 of his most successful albums in this hybrid SACD format, distinctively housed in digipaks and with new photographs in their enclosed booklets. This series, not surprisingly, included all three of the 1965-66 albums which are the subject of this website.
On some of the 15 discs, the SACD/DSD layer also contained a second version of the album, specially remixed for 5.1 surround sound; of the 1965-66 albums, these included Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde. Note This surround version of the album is only playable on a machine which is specifically capable of playing 5.1 SACD content (many SACD players are not). In addition to this you need a six-channel amplifier, together with three front speakers, two rear speakers and a sub-woofer for deep bass signals. To get the optimal surround-sound effect for 5.1 audio the three front and two rear speakers need to be identical.
Presumably recognising the need for less expensive mass-market editions which could not be squared with hybrid SACD manufacturing costs, Sony subsequently issued all fifteen of the hybrid SACD Dylan titles in plain CD editions (March 2004 in the UK, June 2004 in the US). These lower-priced jewel-case editions are ordinary CDs, but they give the benefit of the remastered (and in some cases remixed) stereo CD-Audio version of the album. Digitally and aurally these will be identical to playing the hybrid SACD on a standard CD player, and they are now the standard editions of the albums, all previous mixes and masterings now consigned to the past.
Since 2003, of course, the world of consumer audio has turned upside down; the average music buyer, far from seeking even greater audio fidelity for home listening, chose to sacrifice audio quality for convenience, and started to carry their whole music collection around with them in compressed formats on their iPod or smartphone, listening mostly on the go. Within a few years it became clear that neither SACD nor DVD-A was going to make any significant impact outside the small audiophile market. The 2003 hybrid SACD Dylan reissues have all now been deleted, leaving only the remastered CD editions. Sony no longer issues SACDs, preferring occasionally to lease its recordings to specialist labels like Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL) who have the marketing channels set up to sell SACDs profitably to lovers of that format. While Mobile Fidelity have now issued all three of Dylan's 1965-66 albums as remastered hybrid SACDs, these only include the stereo mixes. Note The 5.1 surround mixes of Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde are, for now at least, a thing of the past.
However, while Sony themselves do not presently seem interested in surround sound for the music market, elsewhere things appear to be picking up. Most home cinema systems – which of course have surround sound built in – are capable of playing multi-channel music discs, though more commonly in DVD or Blu-Ray formats rather than SACD. On the back of this there now seems to be a healthy market for multi-channel reissues of classic rock albums; witness, for example, Steven Wilson's well-received 5.1 remixes of King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Yes and numerous other artists' back catalogues, distributed as DVDs in deluxe multi-disc reissues of the original albums. So, when Sony have had a little more time to get over the failure of the SACD format, we could perhaps see those Dylan surround mixes from 2003 reappearing in this type of package. And yes, you will be invited to buy these albums yet again.
High Resolution Downloads
Practically all of Dylan's albums have of course been available for many years in compressed digital formats on Apple's iTunes and other music download services, as well as on streaming services such as Spotify. Now, as the SACD format sets in the west, audiophiles appear to be moving away from digital discs altogether and towards either vinyl (where good pressings are available) or commercial downloads of high-resolution audio files; these are now a respected alternative. All three of Dylan's 1965-66 albums are available in one high-resolution format or another from sellers such as HDTracks and Qobuz; the latter even offers a hi-res streaming service. All will be the same mixes as the current (post-2003) CDs, just in a higher-resolution digital format. There is a variety of ways of playing these files, either via some of the latest all-in-one streaming hi-fi units, or through a personal computer fitted with a hi-fi digital-to-analogue interface. I won't go into these here - or into the variety of hi-res file formats - but it's easy to find information on the internet if you're keen. Try https://www.whathifi.com/advice/high-resolution-audio-everything-you-need-to-know for a starter, if the page is still there.
Last updated November 2017