Here you will find my discussions and personal analysis about the sound quality/sonics of the ABBA remasters on Compact Disc (CD). I hope to have in-depth sonic articles about each ABBA album seperately as well, for now here is a general overview article and The Album (1977) in-depth.
Below - Jon Astley with Michael B. Tretow, 1997
Below - A Polydor representative handing over the LP cutting tapes for CD remastering, 1997
A Sonic Introduction To The ABBA Remasters
A Sonic Introduction To The ABBA Remasters
To put it bluntly, the continuing effort into the sonic “upgrading” of the ABBA back catalogue to CD has been rather disappointing. Remasters seem to be getting louder and louder, inferior quality master tapes have been used for some versions, and some seem to have both strange equalisation choices as well as heavy noise reduction. With all of this, ABBA audiophiles are left with not many avenues to get decent sounding ABBA CDs.
The first ABBA CD release was “The Visitors” back in 1982. At that time, Polar did not have the necessary equipment to master CDs, so the task fell to Polydor, ABBAs representative in Germany. After hearing The Visitors on CD in late 1982, both Benny and Bjorn were apparently so impressed with the results that they let Polydor release the entire back catalogue on CD themselves, with little intervention from Polar. Over the next 10 years (finishing in 1992 for Waterloo and Ring Ring) Polydor released the entire ABBA back catalogue themselves. Sonically, these CDs seem to be a flat transfer of the LP cutting tapes (presumably the ones sent to Germany) without any noise reduction, additional compression or equalisation changes. Because of the lack of compression and noise reduction, most of these CD titles are generally seen by audiophiles to be the best ABBA CDs sonically.
In 1992 to 1993, Michael B. Tretow (ABBA’s studio sound engineer) remastered a select number of ABBA tracks (not the complete back catalogue) for what would become the ABBA Gold (1992) and More ABBA Gold (1993) compilations. In 1994, he revisited these remasters, making them slightly louder while remastering more tracks for what would become the Thank You For The Music (1994) box set. Sonically, these remasters are the best (not counting the unremastered Polydors). Tretow kept most (if not all) of the original dynamic range intact, and appeared to use the original stereo mixdown tapes for the source (Which are the best source for the ABBA tracks as they are lower generation from the LP Cutting Tapes). He also did not use any noise reduction processing at all. The only issues with the Tretow remasters is that they tend to be rather bright (ie have a unnatural level of treble), and as a result some tracks sound rather harsh. However, his remasters are considered to be the best from the remaster series due to the lack or near lack of compression, and a lot of rarer ABBA B-sides and other rarities make their first (and subsequently sonically best) CD appearance through his remasters.
In 1997, a much anticipated remaster of all of the ABBA albums was finally undertaken by Jon Astley and Tim Young with Michael B. Tretow. These remasters seemed to have used many different source tapes, from stereo mixdown tapes to single master tapes to LP album cutting tapes. Unfortunately, these are the worst ABBA remasters sonically (and also in the artwork department too). Despite using mixdown tapes for a lot of the tracks, huge amounts of noise reduction was added (most likely CEDAR, as Astley was remastering virtually everything with CEDAR at that time), huge amounts of compression (the 1997 and 2001 remasters have the smallest dynamic range of any ABBA remaster), and the 1997 remaster contains strange equalisation choices. One notable feature of the Astley remasters is that he tried to repair what seems to be a tape dropout or a bad edit on Dancing Queen at around the 2.07 mark. He made this remark about his repair in an interview with “Sound on Sound” magazine in 2002 -
“However, I also did a lot of Abba stuff, and there are dropouts on a lot of that which are quite severe in some places. There was an Abba fan who wrote to me saying 'Why does the backing vocal on the second line of the second chorus of 'Dancing Queen' now not go on as long as it used to on the vinyl version?' I couldn't think what he was on about, but when I looked at the file, I saw that there was a dropout there and I had taken the first chorus, which was just the tiniest bit shorter and pasted that in to sort out the dropout.”
Many audiophiles feel that Astley’s repair is inferior to the original version of the fault, stating that the repair sounds like that the girls can not sing in tune.
In 2001, Astley revisited his 1997 remasters. While reversing the strange equalisation choices made on the 1997 editions, he added even more noise reduction processing. Due to the heavy noise reduction used, (especially on the 2001 remasters) many songs sound completely different (most notably dense songs such as Bang-A-Boomerang, Eagle and Summer Night City) from any other remaster. Both Astley remasters are considered by many to be the worst CD versions of the ABBA albums. Many say that the amount of compression and noise reduction used deadened the sound, and took away the original ambience and feeling of the recording. Some go so far as to say that he remixed the ABBA catalogue, as his remasters sound so different from anything previously.
At around 2005, Henrik Jonsson remastered tracks that were digitised by Johan Funemyr from the LP cutting tapes for what would become the Complete Studio Recordings (CSR) box set (2005). Sonically, most albums (ie from Arrival to The Visitors) seem to be louder and harsher versions than were presented on the Polydors. Generally speaking, Jonsson used very little noise reduction (if at all), left the equalisation alone, though unfortunately most likely using brick wall compression to make the tracks sound louder. Jonsson’s compression makes the music sound “boxed in,” thereby not allowing the track to “breathe.” Rather strangely, the CSR remasters of Ring Ring, Waterloo and ABBA (self titled album) are sonic improvements over the Polydor CDs. While compressed, the CSR remasters of these albums sound clearer and have a much smoother equalisation, as opposed to the Polydors which can be rather harshly equalised at times and a bit noisy. The CSR remasters are the loudest ABBA remasters, but somehow have a greater dynamic range than the Astley remasters. A few rare ABBA tracks not mastered by Tretow have their best sonic outing on this box set.
Various CD compilations, mainly between 1983 to 1992, were also issued which differ sonically from the album versions above. The first of these was The Singles – The First 10 Years (released in 1982 on Double LP, and 1983 on Double CD). It appears that The Singles used the original mixdown tapes, and not the LP cutting tapes. Strangely though, it seems like the bass was cut, and so the CD does not sound that “full” as compared to the Polydors. Another CD released in 1983 was the compilation Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (originally released on LP in 1979). This CD seems to have used exceptionally warm sounding master tapes, and sound superior to the same tracks on the Polydor masters of the albums. Another excellent Polydor compilation is ABBA International (1984), which contains excellent flat transfers of many ABBA rarities, and so many rarer ABBA songs make their best sonic appearance here. For the real audiophile hunters, the rather rare Pickwick compilation The Love Songs (1989) contains the only unremastered versions of Should I Laugh Or Cry and the original 1978 mix of Lovelight (not the edited remixed version used by Tretow in 1993 and 1994), though as an interesting side note, contains a horribly distorted version of Under Attack.
All compilations from 1992 onwards are sonic clones (or at least very close to sonic clones) of either Tretow’s, Astley’s or Jonsson’s masters. The 1999 reissues of ABBA Gold and More ABBA Gold contain rejigged Astley remasters that were later used on the 2001 remasters. Incidentally, the 1999 version of More ABBA Gold contains the only Astley remaster of the song I Am The City, which debuted on the original 1993 More ABBA Gold and to date has never been added as a bonus track on any remasters of The Visitors. The 1999 More ABBA Gold CD also contains a re-edited version of the single edit of Eagle, which has a very obvious edit point and sounds quite disjointed. The 2 CD set The Definitive Collection (2001) used Astley remasters, and also contain the first CD outings of the Promo extended remix of Voulez-Vous and the UK single remix of Ring Ring (However the CSR box set contains sonically improved versions of these tracks as they do not have as much noise reduction) In 2006 and 2007 the deluxe editions of Arrival and The Album were released respectively. These Deluxe editions are sonically clones of the original 2005 CSR remasters.
NB. In 1988, Polar (ABBA’s original record label) released domestic versions of Ring Ring, Waterloo and ABBA (self titled) remastered from their own mastertapes. Many audiophiles think that these remasters are sonically superior to the Polydor and CSR remasters (except Ring Ring where the CSR remaster is superior). Unfortunately I have never heard these CD releases and so I cannot comment on them. Also, the Atlantic (record label) compilation Greatest Hits (1984, original LP release 1975/76) is also held in very high regard in the audiophile community, but again I have never heard it so I cannot comment on the sonic aspects of this CD. Finally, the Spanish compilation album Gracias Por La Música (1980) was released on CD in Japan only in 1988. My research indicates that this CD is a flat transfer of the master tapes. In 1993, the Spanish compilation album ABBA Oro (replacing Gracias Por La Música) was released, featuring remasters by Tretow. Again I have not heard this CD, but my research indicates that it is like the other Tretow remasters – whilst no additional compression was applied, the equalisation is rather bright. In 1994 the compilation Mas ABBA Oro was released, featuring the Spanish versions of Happy New Year, Andante Andante, When All Is Said And Done, Slipping Through My Fingers and Ring Ring (which all remained unreleased on the CD format except Ring Ring, which was completely unreleased before). I do own this CD, and again while the equalisation is rather bright, all five Spanish tracks on that album make their first and subsequently best CD appearance sonically. The CSR remasters of the Spanish tracks, while ok, are noticeably compressed, while the Astley versions have intrusive noise reduction. Incidentally, the ABBA International (1984) compilation contains a rather pleasant, full dynamic range version of the Spanish version of Chiquitita.
Many thanks must go to Julian Djurić and also to Mark Pearce who gave me their opinions on the ABBA CD Remasters.
The Album (1977)
ABBA The Album was first released in Sweden in late 1977, while being released internationally in 1978. The Album is considered by many to be a great album musically, containing such hits as Take A Chance On Me, The Name Of The Game, and Thank You For The Music. The latter song is very interesting as it is, along with I Wonder (Departure) and I’m A Marionette, also part of the soundtrack to The Girl With The Golden Hair, a very innovative musical written for the 1977 world tour.
Despite being held by many in a very high musical regard, it is unfortunate that all CD releases of The Album are of very poor quality, either using damaged tapes or using excellent tapes but smothering them in excessive noise reduction and compression.
The first CD release was in 1984 by Polydor. As with all the other Polydor CDs, a flat transfer of the LP cutting tape was carried out, with no additional remastering work. Unfortunately however, the tapes used both Side A and B tracks were of a very poor quality.
The Side A tracks (Eagle to The Name Of The Game) suffer from terrible distortion, most especially the Name Of The Game, while the Side B tracks (Move On to I’m A Marionette) seem to come from a very noisy tape, even for ABBA standards. By far, this is the worst ABBA Polydor CD sonically.
When the album was remastered in 1997 by Jon Astley, the distortion on Side A did not appear. It is most definite that he used the stereo mixdown tapes for Side A at least, and quite possibly the whole album, as he said in an interview in 1999 that the mixdown tape to The Name of The Game had the 2nd verse edited out (to form the US single edit) while the missing 2nd verse was stuck on the end of the tape reel.
While not really Astley’s fault, both of his remasters of The Name Of The Game have the second verse rather obviously edited in, while the other CD versions taken from the LP cutting tapes do not feature these abrupt edits.
While using excellent source tapes, he added intrusive noise reduction, heavy compression and major changes in equalisation.
Unusually for an ABBA release, the Side 2 tracks on the 1984 Polydor have an unusually high level of pleasant, warm sounding ambiance, which is sadly removed in the 1997 and 2001 remasters due to Astley’s noise reduction choices.
For the 2001 remaster, he changed the equalisation and added more noise reduction. These changes most noticeably affected Eagle, as it sounds completely different to any other mastering.
In 2005, Henrik Jonsson remastered The Album for The Complete Studio Recordings (2005) box set. His remaster used the same tapes as the 1984 Polydor. The additional compression also adds more distortion, which makes this remaster the worst remaster of this album, and one of the worst ABBA CDs sonically. Incidentally, the 2007 Deluxe Edition of The Album is a sonic clone of the 2005 CSR remaster.
Full CD versions,
In order from best sounding to worst sounding
1984 Polydor (Damaged tapes used however only CD issue to have the original dynamic range intact)
1997 Polar (Good tapes but smothered in excessive nose reduction and compression)
2001 Polar (Same as 1997 however having even more noise reduction than the 1997 version
2005 CSR (Same as 1984 however the additional compression adds even more distortion. Avoid this remaster at all costs)
It is worth noting however, that all of these CD releases are not of acceptable quality.
Many tracks from The Album have appeared on various compilations and in various audio quality. The first example of this is the compilation The Singles – The First 10 Years. That compilation used the original mixdown tapes, and so it is the best source for Take A Chance On Me and the US edit of The Name Of The Game.
Another vital compilation to track down is Greatest Hits Vol 2. While the Side A tracks suffer from the same distortion as the Polydor (strangely however less), the Side B tracks seem to come from fantastic tapes and, especially for I Wonder (Departure), have much less tape hiss than the versions found on the 1984 Polydor, while still having the ambience of the 1984 Polydor.
Finally, Michael B. Tretow remastered a few tracks from The Album for what would become ABBA Gold (1992) More ABBA Gold (1993) and the Thank You For The Music box set (1994). As with all of the Tretow remasters, he appeared to have used the mixdown tapes, and so The Name Of The Game is unfortunately presented as the US Promo edit. The rest of the tracks, while bright, are superior to the tracks found on the 1984 Polydor.
Track by track
The best way of getting a decent sounding full version of The Album is to compile it using tracks from the 1984 Polydor and various other compilations.
Eagle – Thank You For The Music (1994)
Take A Chance On Me – The Singles – The First 10 Years (1982) (Another good version can be found on the Thank You For The Music (1994) box set)
One Man, One Woman – Polydor (1984) (Unfortunately even the best version of this track suffers from notable distortion)
The Name Of The Game – Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (A really tough choice here, as all CD versions are of unacceptable quality. The GHV2 version has the least amount of distortion of all the unremastered editions. The 1997 and 2001 remasters are the only versions to appear with no distortion, however have excessive compression and noise reduction.)
Move On – Polydor (1984)
Hole In Your Soul – Polydor (1984)
Thank You For The Music – Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (1983) (Another good version can be found on the Thank You For The Music (1994) box set)
I Wonder (Departure) – Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (1983) (Another good version can be found on More ABBA Gold (1993), however the Thank You For The Music box set (1994) contains the live version of this track)
I’m A Marionette – Polydor (1984)
By Rudolf Ondrich
Here is my analysis of the new Super Trouper Deluxe remaster. A friend in Germany sent me the audio only, so I haven’t had a chance to look at the DVD. Nevertheless, audio matters to me are much more exciting, after all ABBA is known first and foremost for their music!
Remember that this is all “in my opinion” – as I have stressed out before, this sort of exercise is quite subjective. I even find myself changing opinions on what edition sounds best from time to time! Hopefully though I would at least make you think critically about the various remasters, and thus let you make up your own mind.
I have compared the 2011 Deluxe edition, remastered from the stereo mixdown tapes by Erik Broheden at Masters of Audio, Stockholm, to the following editions -
1982 West German Polydor – It is unknown who or what engineer(s) created this version. This edition is presumed to be a flat transfer of the German LP cutting tape, complete with the dropout on the title track. As the LP tapes were used, the applause between Lay All Your Love On Me and The Way Old Friend Do is intact.
1985ish Atlantic – This is arguably the first remastered ABBA CD ever made. Zal Schreiber at Atlantic Studios NYC revealed on the Steve Hoffman forums that he added some bass and a little bit of compression when mastering the audio. The bass especially gives it a more “fuller” sound when compared to the Polydor versions. Schreiber presumably used the American LP cutting tapes, as the applause between Lay All Your Love On Me and The Way Old Friend Do is also intact.
1994 Thank You For The Music Box set (where applicable) - Remastered by Michael B. Tretow. Tretow used the stereo mixdown tapes, evident as Lay All Your Love On Me has a clean ending. While not adding any compression/ever so slight limiting, these remasters are sometimes criticised as being overtly bright and harsh.
1994 Mas ABBA Oro (where applicable) - Remastered by Michael B. Tretow. Similar story to his TYFTM box set remasters.
1995 USA Polydor – Sounds very similar to the 1982 West German Polydor edition, but lacks the massive dropout on the title track. The audio is also ever so slightly harsher when compared to the West German Polydor. Presumably the American LP cutting tape was used. Unlike the Atlantic however, this version does not seem to have been remastered.
1997/2001 Astley – Remastered by Jon Astley – Astley seems to have employed the mixdown tapes here, as the applause between LAYLOM and TWOFD. This version is by far the “thinnest” sounding of them all, lacking in any real bass. I emailed Astley in regards to the thinness of this remaster, and he replied that the mixdown tapes sounded quite thin to begin with. Most fans I know consider the 1997/2001 to be the worst edition out of them all.
1999 Oro (where applicable) – Similar to 1997/2001 Astley
2005 CSR/2008 The Albums – Remastered by Henrik Jonsson at Masters of Audio, Stockholm – This version used an LP cutting tape, but not the German one as there is no dropout. The applause is intact. While sounding much more “beefier” than the 1997/2001, excessive compression and limiting badly distorts the audio at times, and makes the whole CD sound flat and lifeless.
While I haven’t heard them, my research indicates that the Japanese Polydor and Discomate CD editions come from the presumably Japanese LP tapes, as there is no dropout and the segue is intact.
As you may be aware, the 2005 CSR remasters were criticised by many for having too much compression and limiting, and in turn being victims of the “loudness war.” In response, UMG re-remastered Voulez-Vous for the Deluxe edition back in 2010. This remastering was much more dynamic, and was generally received quite positively. It also appears that the VV Deluxe remaster used the mixdown tapes.
Even though I personally think that the Voulez-Vous Delux remaster is the best CD version of Voulez-Vous, one of my criticisms of it was that they added slightly too much limiting (a form of compression) for my tastes. Voulez-Vous (the title song) sounded ever so slightly “boxed in” because of the limiting applied.
When I heard that Super Trouper would be remastered again for the Deluxe edition, I wrote an email to Mia Segolsson (she deals with the ABBA stuff for UMG), telling her how well the Voulez-Vous Deluxe remaster has been received. I also told her that I hope that even less limiting would be applied on the forthcoming Super Trouper Deluxe remastering. She replied that, while she is unable to go into the technical aspects of the remaster, all previous versions have been okayed with ABBA prior to release. Interestingly, in my exchange between Astley, he revealed to me that Benny had sent him a thank you note after he did the 1997 remaster.
I am very excited to report that the limiting issue has been dealt with here. The limiting on the Super Trouper Deluxe is more or less the same level as the 1994 Thank You for The Music box set. This marks a very drastic and welcome return to dynamics, dynamics not heard since the 1994 remasters. I greatly applaud UMG/the remastering engineers for doing this.
It is interesting to see that on the ABBA site an article describing the remastering of the Deluxe Edition was made (you can read it here http://www.abbasite.com/articles/articles/super-sound-on-super-trouper ). The article describes how “all of the recordings used in this process have been taken from the original master tapes of each individual track on the original album” (ie mixdown tapes) and that “the philosophy behind the CD mastering (…) was to remain as close to the original tapes as possible, retaining the original dynamics.” I wonder why UMG released this statement. Perhaps they are realising that quite a few of us are actually quite interested about the sonics of the ABBA remasters. It could also be an indirect admission of failure on their part, as pervious remasters did not retain the original dynamics and did not use the mixdown tapes for instance.
This new remaster hands down beats the 1997/2001 and 2005 CSR/The Albums versions, making it the best sounding version available in print. The 1997/2001 suffers from terrible “thinness,” while the 2005 is overtly compressed and limited, distorting the audio. The Deluxe edition has much more body than the 1997/2001, and also does not suffer from distortion like the 2005 CSR edition.
The new remaster also beats the TYFTM versions. As I mentioned before, the TYFTM versions are quite bright and harsh. This harshness is simply not present on the Deluxe remaster.
The next issue is how does the Deluxe edition stack up to the 1980’s CD versions, namely the Polydor 1982 and the Atlantic 1985ish. In my view, the limiting on the Deluxe edition is not significant to be an issue, and the dynamic ranges of these CD editions is more or less the same. Thus, this discussion will turn on equalisation and other specific factors.
This is a track by track analysis. As you may know I have a great fondness for the Atlantic 1985ish CD pressing. My main criticism of the 1982 Polydor/1995 Polydor is that they sound quite “thin” in places (no where near as bad as the disastrous 1997/2001 editions). The Atlantic version “beefs” up the sound a bit (much like the 2005 CSR remaster, but without the massive distortion and flattening of sound).
1. Super Trouper – 1985ish Atlantic
In my opinion the Atlantic edition has more “oomph” than the 2011 Deluxe version. To me the thinness is still here, although not as bad as the Polydor version and certainly not as bad as the 1997/2001.
As Astley suggested to me, the mixdowns may be rather thin sounding. In that case some equalisation work would have been needed to give the sound some more “oomph.” My opinion is that, for some tracks, Zal Schreiber for the Atlantic edition did a better job of this than Erik Broheden for the Deluxe edition.
2. The Winner Takes It All – 2011 Deluxe edition
The bass on the Atlantic version can be a bit overpowering at times, with the Deluxe edition sounding less “muddled.” Agnetha’s voice does shine quite nicely, climaxing at 3:55 onwards. The 2001 version sounds terribly thin, while the 2005 CSR is massively distorted, even for CSR standards.
3. On & On & On – 1985ish Atlantic
Similar reasons for Super Trouper.
The Extended version sounds slightly harsher and has some tape hiss when compared to the regular version.
4. Andante Andante – 1985ish Atlantic
Similar reasons as for Super Trouper.
5. Me and I – 1985ish Atlantic
Similar reasons as for Super Trouper. I just love this song, and I love the Atlantic mastering of it!
6. Happy New Year – 1985ish Atlantic
Similar reasons as for Super Trouper.
7. Our Last Summer – 1985ish Atlantic
Similar reasons as for Super Trouper.
8. The Piper – 1985ish Atlantic
Similar reasons as for Super Trouper.
9. Lay All Your Love On Me – 1985ish Atlantic
Similar reasons as for Super Trouper.
The crossfade on the 2011 edition is not exactly the same as the version found on the LP cutting tapes.
Best clean ending version – Thank You For The Music box set 1994
10. They Way Old Friends Do – 2011 Deluxe Edition
Similar reasons as for The Winner Takes It All.
The fade out of the Deluxe edition mirrors every other version, excluding the Atlantic which takes much longer to fade out.
Elaine - Super Trouper Deluxe Edition 2011
The next best version (Thank You For The Music box set 1994), while dynamic, suffers from excessive treble. The Deluxe Edition 2011 version is both dynamic and does not suffer from excessive treble.
Put On Your White Sombrero - Super Trouper Deluxe Edition 2011/Thank You For The Music box set 1994
I did a “cancellation test” in Audacity, and the results showed that the mastering between the two versions is more or less identical. (A “cancellation test” is when you synchronise the tracks perfectly in any audio editor, and then invert one of the tracks. All of the common audio is removed, leaving only the differences between the two versions)
Andante Andante (Spanish) - Super Trouper Deluxe Edition 2011
The next best version, Mas ORO from 1994, suffers from excessive treble, making it sound harsh.
Felicidad - Super Trouper Deluxe Edition 2011
Same story as Andante Andante (Spanish)
Overall, I am very pleased at the new Deluxe remaster. Like I said before, it is by far the best version available in print. However, apart from The Winner Takes It All, I feel that the Atlantic version is still supreme. In my opinion the Atlantic version does a better job of “oomphing” up the sound. In an ideal world, I would have given the mixdowns to Zal Schreiber for him to remaster!
The Super Trouper Deluxe edition gives me great hope for The Visitors Deluxe edition. In my opinion even the slightest limiting and compression ruins that album, as the dynamics are integral both sonically as well as musically. Perhaps there will be a decent sounding remaster of that album for once!
For your reference here are some YouTube videos that demonstrate the differences in the various remasters of the Super Trouper album. I made these videos before the Deluxe edition was released, hence the omission. I am also aware that rubbish YouTube audio compression (that’s lossy compression) mucks up with the audio quite badly; nevertheless they do give a rough outline of the different mastering. Watch the 720p High Definition version to get the best audio quality!
Lay All Your Love On Me
Me and I
The Way Old Friends Do (comparing fade out of applause at the end between the West German Polydor and the Atlantic)
ABBA The Visitors Deluxe Edition 2012
This is a revised edition of an article I first posted on the www.abba4ever.com forum - http://www.iphpbb.com/board/viewtopic.php?nxu=30652567nx61610&p=521536#521536
The greatest ABBA album (well to me anyway) has finally been given the Deluxe treatment. Late ABBA has a special place in my heart, it has such emotion. Indeed, the late output of many artists (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Furtwängler etc) sounds so wonderful to me. It’s like they realize that they cannot create music forever, that their time is nearly up, and so they go into emotional hyperdrive. The result of this is music that touches me in ways that I cannot describe. The Day Before You Came is by far the saddest song I know within the pop repertoire. Beethoven’s late Piano Sonatas makes me want to cry. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1954 recording of Beethoven’s immortal 9th Symphony at the Lucerne Festival (recorded three months before Furtwängler’s death) transports me to another spiritual world that no other work of art has done before. Indeed, Furtwängler later remarked that during the performance he felt he had one foot in the other world that night. Such emotional power when I listen to the late period of many artists and composers.
There have been quite a few distinct CD masterings of The Visitors album. The first one came in 1982, when Polydor in West Germany released it on CD (The pre-1997 Japanese CD pressings of The Visitors have a separate mastering to the West German Polydor, but the differences between the two are so remote that it is hardly worth making any mention of). That was the standard version until 1997, when the first Astley remaster came (named after the sound engineer who conducted the 1997 remasters, Jon Astley). The 2001 remasters fix up some of the errors found on the 1997 (most notably a large volume error at 0:59 on I Let The Music Speak), but largely sound the same. In 2005 a completely new remastering came out in the Complete Studio Recordings (CSR) box set. Now, in 2012, The Visitors deluxe edition has a brand new and distinct CD mastering.
There is no reason to dwell on the 1997, 2001 and 2005 remasters at length. As I have said before many times, these remaster are horrendous due to such things as noise reduction, dynamic range compression, and equalization changes. In fact, for The Visitors, I would go so far as to say that these three masterings are virtually unlistenable. So that’s them out of the way.
So my analysis will focus mainly on the 1982 Polydor edition, the 2012 Deluxe edition, and to some extent the 1992 – 1994 Thank You For The Music remasters done by Michael B. Tretow (where applicable).
It is also important to note that comparing different masterings is an inherently subjective process. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer. What I hope to achieve by doing this is to make you think critically about the ABBA remasters, and with that critical thinking you can make up your own informed opinion.
The 2012 Deluxe edition has an incredible dynamic range for a modern pop CD release. I am in awe thinking about how quickly things have changed since 2005. The 2005 remaster is maxed out, has very little dynamic range, and sounds awful and fatiguing. Compare it to this 2012 remastering, where the dynamic range is quite large, is almost like a revelation. Is this the end of the Loudness War? I genuinely hope so.
Having said that, my impression of the Deluxe edition is underwhelming at best. More so, while it is the superior to the 2001 and the 2005, it is noticeably inferior to the original 1982 West German Polydor CD version.
I will make a few general comments before I move onto a track my track description.
The Deluxe edition has a swapped stereo image when compared to the West German Polydor CD. For example, the “Alice Whiting” bit (at 1:39 in Two For The Price Of One) is heard in the left channel on the West German Polydor, but appears in the right channel on the Deluxe edition. I have no idea which version is correct. Indeed, this seems to be an issue with a lot of the ABBA remasters. The Tretow 1992 – 1994 remasters for instance generally have a swapped stereo image when compared to the Polydor CD versions.
The Deluxe edition has a duller equalization when compared to the 1982 Polydor. It is also a bit more compressed sounding. An audiophile friend from New Zealand, after listening to The Visitors deluxe, suspected that they added compression to the audio and then lowered the overall volume! Such a remastering process is so stupid and pointless that I don’t think it happened (well perhaps it could have happened, and if it did, it is by far the most stupid thing to have happened in the creation of any CD). A more logical conclusion and thus my own feeling then is that these issues of a duller equalization and compression are due to the source tapes themselves, and not a product of remastering.
This brings me to a discussion on what source tapes were used to create the Deluxe edition. Email statements by both Mia Segolsson and Carl Magnus Palm have stated that the Deluxe used the same master tape that what was used on the 2010 The Vinyl Collection box set. This tape is different to the original tape used to make the original 1981 LP and every other CD version for two main reasons. One, the 2010 Vinyls box set and the 2012 Deluxe have an alternate mix of Head Over Heels. Every other CD and LP release has the standard mix of this track. Two, both the vinyls and Deluxe feature prominent dropouts on side B tracks, mostly on I Let The Music Speak, which no other CD and LP version have (that I have heard anyway). I will talk more about both these songs later on. In addition, Side B tracks in particular (from I Let The Music Speak to Like An Angel Passing Through My Room) sound consistently duller when compared to the 1982 Polydor CD.
My own feeling is that in 1981 they created a dodgy tape with a duller equalization and dropouts, which they shelved in favor of a more superior tape they subsequently used on nearly all CD and LP versions. This tape was mistakenly picked up in 2010 and again in 2012.
What is clear though by the statements of Mia Segolsson and Carl Magnus Palm is that an LP cutting tape was used. This begs the question – why weren’t the original stereo mixdown tapes used? The 2001 remasters have a picture of the LP cutting tapes. It describes them as being “the original master tapes.” This is not correct. The original master tapes are the stereo mixdown tapes. LP cutting tapes are a generation higher copy than the original stereo mixdown master tapes.
Just as a side for people who might not understand – when LPs are made, the audio is sourced from LP cutting tapes. Two LP cutting tapes were made for each album, one for Side A and another for Side B. They would get the two track stereo mixdown (each track has a separate mixdown tape), and record them onto one tape. Usually too they would re-equalize the audio and compress it slightly to fit better on the LP format.
So here is a track by track analysis with a recommendation of the best version.
1. The Visitors – 1982 West German Polydor CD version
You can hear the added compression on the Deluxe edition during the chorus and especially during the instrumental section after the chorus and before the 2nd verse. The 1994 Thank You For The Music remaster of this track also sounds a bit compressed.
2. Head Over Heels - 1982 West German Polydor CD version for the standard mix, 2012 Deluxe edition for the alternate mix.
For some reason, the Deluxe edition CD has an alternate mix of this track. From what I was told, this mix was first heard on the East German single of Head Over Heels way back in 1982 or so. It has resurfaced on the 2010 “The Vinyls” collection and now appears on the Deluxe edition, making the Deluxe edition the only known CD outing of this alternative mix. A message from Carl Magnus Palm suggested that the differences between this and the standard mix are due to a more dynamic mastering of the Deluxe edition. This is simply incorrect. The 1982 Polydor CD has an even greater dynamic mastering than the Deluxe, and yet it is clearly the standard mix. The differences in the mixes occur exclusively in the 1st chorus. The alternate mix seems to have a different vocal delivery, and at 1:09 the alternate mix is missing three quick drum beats. Apart from the 1st chorus, both mixes are identical to each other. Both the Polydor and Deluxe sound virtually the same in terms of their mastering of this track, no real difference between the two.
3. When All Is Said And Done – 1982 West German Polydor CD
The Polydor has a slightly more dynamic version of this track. Nevertheless, the differences between the Polydor and Deluxe are not that great I think. The Polydor however sounds ever so slightly brighter and cleaner, so it gets my vote here.
4. Soldiers - 1982 West German Polydor CD
Like WAISAD, the differences between the Deluxe and Polydor are only minimal, with the Polydor again sounding ever so slightly brighter and cleaner.
5. I Let The Music Speak – 1982 West German Polydor CD version
This is the worst sounding track from the album proper (discounting bonus tracks) on the Deluxe edition. Like I mentioned before, the Side B tracks sound consistently duller on the Deluxe when compared to the 1982 Polydor. Here the Deluxe version is also riddled with dropouts and other blemishes not found on the 1982 Polydor. These include at 0:22, 0:32, 0:54, 1:22 to 1:23, 1:25, 1:26, 3:01, 3:03 to 3:06 (this one sounds quite awful). None of these dropouts are on the Polydor edition. Very strangely from about 1:42 the stereo image moves from the centre to the left, whereas the Polydor CD version has the stereo image placed firmly in the centre. Later on in the Deluxe it moves a little bit back to the centre, but it still keeps a bias towards the left channel. As I mentioned before, these errors are also found on the 2010 The Vinyl Collection box set, confirming that the same inferior and dodgy source tape was used. The Polydor version has a brighter and cleaner version of this track.
6. One Of Us – 1982 West German Polydor CD Version
The Polydor version has a brighter and cleaner version of this track. There is also a dropout on the Deluxe at 1:24 which is not found on the West German Polydor CD.
7. Two For The Price Of One - West German Polydor CD Version.
The Polydor version has a brighter and cleaner version of this track.
8. Slipping Through My Fingers - West German Polydor CD Version
The Polydor version has a brighter and cleaner version of this track. There is also a dropout on the Deluxe at 3:45 which is not found on the West German Polydor CD.
9. Like An Angel Passing Through My Room - West German Polydor CD Version
The Polydor version has a brighter and cleaner version of this track. There is also a dropout on the Deluxe at 0:20 which is not found on the West German Polydor CD.
Now for the bonus tracks –
10. Should I Laugh Or Cry (count in version) – 2012 Deluxe edition
The only other CD outing of this count in version is on the 2005 CSR box set, which is badly compressed. The 2012 Deluxe version is much more dynamic. The fade out on the Deluxe edition is mangled however, sounding rather abrupt and not fading out cleanly.
11. I Am The City - 2012 Deluxe edition
This version does not have the dropout at 1:52 which is on every pre-2008 version of this track. The equalization also seems to be slightly better than the 1993 More ABBA Gold version, and the fadeout on the Deluxe version goes slightly longer too. The dynamics are also quite good.
12. You Owe Me One – 2012 Deluxe edition
The 1994 version is too bright with the Deluxe having a better equalization. Like I Am The City, the fadeout on the Deluxe edition goes slightly longer on the Deluxe version when compared to the 1994 version.
However spectral analysis of the frequencies shows something interesting. All other tracks from the 2012 Deluxe edition roll off at 20.5 kHz. However, the spectrum here goes all the way to 22.05 kHz. The waveform also shows some limiting applied to the audio. In fact, both the spectral graph and the waveform look quite similar to the 1994 Thank You For The Music box set version, in the sense that the 1994 remasters are not rolled off at 20.5 kHz but go all the way up to 22.05 kHz. Perhaps this track is based off a transfer made in 1994, and not on a transfer made specifically for this release? Of course I am only speculating, but the evidence does suggest this.
13. Cassandra – 1994 Thank You For The Music box set
The stereo image on the 2012 Deluxe edition is strange. Normally Frida’s vocal starts in the centre, whereas on the Deluxe it starts in the left channel and moves to the centre when the chorus comes along. The Deluxe edition also sounds muffled and blanketed. The 1994 TYFTM version, while slightly bright, is very clean and not muffled at all.
14. Under Attack – 1994 Thank You For The Music box set
The Deluxe version sounds rather compressed in the drums. This was confirmed to me when I saw the waveform and zoomed to see the drum transient (note – I never solely rely on waveforms, some people I know are obsessed by them. I was using them only to confirm my suspicions). The bass is also quite strong here, making the mix sound rather muffled. 1994 TYFTM version is bright, but more dynamic sounding.
15. The Day Before You Came – 1994 Thank You For The Music box set
Similar story as Under Attack, with compressed drums and excessive bass muffling the sound. There is also a large dropout on the Deluxe edition at 1:45 and a smaller dropout at 2:33. The 1994 TYFTM version is a bit bright, but the drums are much less compressed sounding. Unfortunately, it fades out a bit earlier than the Deluxe version.
16. From a Twinkling Star to A Passing Angel (Demos) - 2012 Deluxe edition
A quite dynamic mastering. Out of all the tracks on the Deluxe, it sounds the least compressed. This is not too surprising, as while the other tracks came from compressed LP tapes, this one would have either come from mixdowns (as it was never released on LP, it is very unlikely that that they would have made an LP tape copy) or brand new stereo mixdowns made from the original multitrack tapes. The first demo with Bjorn singing reminds me of Givin’ A Little Bit More, both share a rather similar production, especially with the drum machine. Another Morning Without You is so touching. I fill up with so much emotion, especially when Frida sings the lines, “Curtains rustling in the breeze, I’m still trapped within my dreams.” A most touching ABBA moment. I am so pleased that unreleased music has been released on this Deluxe edition. For me, ABBA is first and foremost about the music, and this demo medley helps me to appreciate ABBAs music even more.
Overall, while the Deluxe edition smashes the 1997, 2001 and 2005 sonic disasters, it is unfortunately not as good as I would have liked it to have been. My own feeling is that they used compressed LP cutting tapes instead of using the superior stereo mixdown tapes. I also get the impression that a dodgy tape source tapes was used for the Deluxe edition. This results in the original 1982 West German CD sounding more dynamic, brighter and cleaner.
So, in order –
1. 1982 West German Polydor CD version. Clean and dynamic.
2. 2012 Deluxe edition. Slightly duller and more compressed sounding than the Polydor. It would sound much more dynamic if the original stereo mixdown tapes were used, plus it would not sound duller on Side B tracks and have the dropouts on I Let The Music Speak. Having said that it is still a relatively enjoyable mastering and far succeeds the general standard of poor quality modern Loudness War mastering.
3, 4, and 5 – 2005, 2001 and 1997. Please note that these editions are a very distant 3, 4 and 5!
Where to from now? It is obvious that Universal music are trying harder with the quality of the remasters. Both Voulez-Vous and Super Trouper Deluxe were great improvements over previous offerings. But even those editions, like this Deluxe edition of The Visitors, are not perfect. If I were an advisor to Universal Music, I would highly recommend that they get Steve Hoffman to do an ultimate “Complete Audiophile Remasters” box set. Hoffman is very well known in the audiophile community for his exceptionally good sounding remasters. He always seeks the original stereo mixdown tapes to work from (he avoids LP cutting tapes as much as possible), makes slight equalization changes if need be, and never adds any compression to the audio. The result is a very warm and rich sound, much like the most excellent 1988 Swedish Polar edition of ABBA (self titled). Maybe one day Hoffman will remaster the complete ABBA back catalogue. For me, this would be just as big as if Just Like That or other demos were to be released officially. One can only dream.
Rudolf Ondrich is a 19 year old ABBA fan from Brisbane, Australia. He is currently studying for a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Politics, Government and International Relations at Griffith University. You can contact him via his email address firstname.lastname@example.org
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