1996, Mobile Fidelity Ultradisc II with GAIN release. Original 1984, IRS Records.
I'll admit it--I'm not a big REM fan. Most of the material I pick for articles here is from bands that I know very well; this is not the case here. While I've been listening to bits and pieces of their material ever since I moved in with my first roommate who owned a copy of Green, I've never actually went out and bought one of their albums before. Purchasing Reckoning was the first time I laid out cash for a CD from them.
Despite my unfamiliarity, I decided to dish out the extra money for the Mobile Fidelity version because I've been so impressed with their releases lately. Everything I've heard from their new Ultradisc II with GAIN remastering system has been immaculate. It seemed easy to justify, and after borrowing a friend's original version I sat down to compare the two. Having spent the last couple of months listening to the MoFi, I'm now just getting familiar enough with it that I can understand some of the words, so I think I know it well enough to pick the differences out.
First off, the new version is recorded much louder. Several decibels of increased volume means you're bound to get better dynamic range and resolution right off the bat, which is a good sign. The first major thing you hear on the album is the huge kick drum that opens Harborcoat. Let me tell you, on the MoFi version, this drum has a big sound that most bands would kill for in the studio. There's a tight bottom end that really sounds great. Comparatively, the drum on the IRS version is a bit more muted, with the bass not going as deep or hitting as hard. Another improvement is how much more of Stipe's voice you can hear; the echo is more obvious, and it makes the whole soundstage seem larger.
After picking right up on the differences on the first track, I was disappointed to find minor at best improvements in 7 Chinese brothers. Oh well. Move on to South Central Rain (I'm Sorry), the only song on there I recognized on my first listen to the CD, and we're back to some obvious differences. All of the original drum sounds are a tinny, and just plain not resolved well. MoFi makes them all sound as full as they should. As a bonus, the low- level piano in the background is considerably easier to make out throughout the song.
Pretty Persuasion sounds more alive on the remaster. At the same time, it sound like there's less of an edge to it, as if some glare was polished away. Camera captures enough more of the upper treble that, not only does it sound more realistic, you can hear more of the noise at the beginning of the track. The rest of the tracks on the CD follow a similar pattern; although some parts seem barely improved at all, others are filled out in unpredictable but always welcome ways throughout the frequency spectrum.
As always, putting out the big bucks to get the Mobile Fidelity CD yields some other benefits. Moving up to the 12 page booklet gets you a number of extra photos of the band (man, do they look young). And the faded-out graphics of the IRS release are replaced with sharper renditions of Howard Finster's artwork. You get some oddities as well; the weird introduction to Don't go back to Rockville is recorded in negative time before the official start of the track on the IRS release, while MoFi lumps it in (so you can't go right to the normal start of the music). No big deal, but it confused me when I was trying to compare the two versions and the sound was totally different.
Better in most areas, Reckoning comes off as a better album when you get it with the MoFi touch. While there's not a Monster of a difference, you do get better sonics in a number of areas that make the whole experience more enjoyable.
(Check out Greg's Rock Remaster Reviews page for more reviews like these)