Tom Petty • Full Moon Fever

MCA/HDtracks 6253
24-bit/96kHz download
1989/2015

Music

Sound

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers • Into the Great Wide Open

MCA/HDtracks 10317
24-bit/96kHz download
1991/2015

Music

Sound

by Vance Hiner | April 17, 2015

ne of the first CDs I ever bought was Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever. Given the abysmal quality of most late-'80s compact discs, I could've done worse. XTC's Oranges and Lemons, for example, was edgy enough to peel the new-wave posters off my living-room walls. Petty's first solo project, on the other hand, at least had a midrange and some passable bass extension. Petty was proud enough of the release to include a playful little pause in the middle poking fun at the poor, old vinyl owners who would "have to stand up, or sit down, and turn the record over." Yeah, but at least their ears wouldn't need an hour's rest from the ensuing digititis.

Fast-forward to 2015. HDtracks and Tom Petty have announced that his entire catalogue has been meticulously remastered, with careful attention being paid to removing all compression and preserving the EQ of each master tape. There's even a video pitch on the HDtracks website of Petty talking about how much closer the remasters get you to what he actually heard in the studio. He adds that the new versions have to be "turned up" to get the full dynamic range of the recordings. Now we're talking! What self-respecting, Tom Petty-loving audiophile could resist? I quickly downloaded Full Moon Fever and another favorite, Into the Great Wide Open, both products of the late-'80s/early-'90s CD bandwagon. The music was great, but both discs suffered badly from the cold and calculating 1s and 0s of the new digital age.

When it comes to revisiting music in the mastering studio, I am no fundamentalist. For example, I think the Beatles' Love album trounces most of what's contained in the 2009 remastered box set. The latter may be more historically accurate, but the former is a great deal more fun. And off the top of my head, I can name a few remastered rock classics that I consider improvements over earlier versions. These include The Clash's London Calling [Sony 88725446992], Roxy Music's Avalon [EMI 0655581] and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours [Warner Bros. 8122797094]. Throw on the original '80s CDs and then these remasters, and any novice will pick the remastered versions within minutes.

As much as I had hoped for another example of audio alchemy, I can't say the same about these Tom Petty remasters. In fact, I actually prefer the original CDs in many respects. To begin with, it's not a good sign if you feel the need to keep edging off the volume of a refurbished recording. The ear fatigue I experienced with these remasters came as a real shock, especially in light of Tom Petty's advice to turn it up. The upper register and transient attack have been so emphasized that listening for more than half an hour actually wore me down. Cymbals on both discs hissed instead of rang and crashed. Twelve-string guitars that sounded like wooden instruments on the original releases jangled like they were made entirely of tin and steel. While listening to songs like "Zombie Zoo" and "Yer So Bad," I could feel the muscles in my neck begin to tighten.

If you think I'm exaggerating, listen to "Kings Highway" and try to ignore Stan Lynch's constantly shimmering high hat and cymbals. If that's what Tom Petty actually heard in the studio, I can understand why he and Lynch parted ways. What is only mildly distracting on the CD dominates the entire track of the remaster. When I returned to the CD, my shoulders loosened and I let out a sigh of relief. Howie Eptein's bass lines were back and the fullness of Mike Campbell's guitars could be appreciated again. Was there more upper-range definition in the remaster? Yes. Was there a tad more space around some instruments? Sure. But the midrange had been all but buried. That's a real shame because the midrange is where most of the toe tapping and humming lives. It's as though much of the joy had been remastered right out of the sessions. Could it be that the EQ of the CD mix was actually pretty good?

It's worth noting that not all of the differences I am describing in the Petty downloads could be called dramatic. On some passages, I would be hard-pressed to pick which was the CD and which was the high-resolution remaster. I'm not a recording engineer nor have I ever witnessed a remastering session, but when it comes to judging sound quality, my reaction is far more important to me than what the numbers may indicate. A "24/96" label does not impress me. The recording has to make me want to kick off my shoes and play along before I’ll say it’s special. These two new releases caused me to pay closer attention to the mix and the decisions that were made than to the music itself. While the original CDs do lack some air and resolution, to my ears they sound weightier and more musical in a number of ways compared to these latest versions.

There are two positive things I can say about these downloads, however. First, multitracked instruments and voices sound somewhat more in sync than they do on the original CDs. As a result, this "unison effect" comes across as more propulsive than on the CDs. This is especially notable when all of Campbell's and Petty's guitars are driving the same chord progression on songs like "Learning to Fly" and "I Won't Back Down." But even then, I found myself wishing that they sounded a bit more like actual guitars played by people. Second, the remasters have a notably lower noise floor, which results in a cleaner and somewhat clearer overall presentation. I can't say whether or not a listener who never heard the original CDs would be unhappy with these remasters. In fact, Tom Petty completists may find enough differences to conclude that these releases warrant purchasing, but I suspect that just as many music lovers will miss the old versions and find that this remastering work does little to address the lack of bass heft and midrange warmth that plague both original CDs.

If there's one thing these downloads demonstrate it's that refurbishing art is very, very tricky work. Good intentions, the latest technology and a room full of talented people do not guarantee success. I can't help but wonder whether mitigating or even repairing a recording's flaws might be a more productive endeavor than reissuing recordings, flaws and all, in ever higher resolution.

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