The Allman Brothers Band - Beginnings
by Greg Smith
Recently I've been taking some grief from my readers about the choice of releases for this column. The last few months in particular, I've been spewing condescending comments toward the big record companies and their cheap CDs at a ferocious rate. You might walk away from that thinking I don't like any remastered releases unless they come on gold CD and cost $25. Well, that's just not so. While their track record isn't as consistently good, you sometimes find inexpensive reissues that sound quite nice. The recent remastering of the Allman Brothers Band catalog is one such example. The new discs feature a little sticker proclaiming that a 20 bit remastering process has been applied. Beginnings, a collection including all the tracks from The Allman Brothers Band and Idlewild South, has always been my favorite disc from them despite how bad the original CD sounds. I looked at remastered Allmans once before when trying releases from Zounds, which proved the master tapes didn't sound so bad after all. There still was certainly some margin for improvement left.
Black Hearted Woman almost sounds like a mono recording in its original CD release, the imaging is so compressed. The vocals are harsh, the guitars grating, it's enough to make you turn the volume way down. Zounds improves upon this with a much wider soundstage and generally far more alive instruments. The newest version of this song warms up the bass considerably even over the Zounds version, which is welcome. At the same time, though, the image width shrinks a bit. It's a close call between the two recent versions.
Whipping Post is when I realized that Capricorn had paid attention when mastering their release. The old CD release of this song is so bad you can barely make out the instruments. The newer best of collection is still a bit dull, but the kick to the bass is restored. When I switched to the most recent remastering, I was pleasantly shocked. Hiss! Quite a bit of it! Now, unless you're used to my commentary, you may wonder I'm perverse enough to get excited about that. See, most "improved" releases from the major record labels get processed to death, and one of the phases they go through involves sucking out all the hiss. Usually quite a bit of the subtle details to the music get removed in the process. Hearing some hiss at the beginning of a track tells me they did something other than the usual digital workstation polka to try and make things sound better. In this case, that alternate approach turned out very well. You can really make out the low level details to the music. The vocals in particular are really moved out of confinement and into the room where you can hear them.
Midnight Rider is yet another track where my old CD features powerless vocals. They're still a bit weak on the Zounds version, but at least you can make out the different voices singing in harmony. More noticeable is a restored snap to the drums. The new Capricorn version restores some of the bass, which balances out the music a bit better. Everything is a bit more clear, too, with the guitar solo section in the middle of the song being really distinct.
There's more hiss on the new version of Please Call Home, but with that you get the cymbals back, too. The top-end of Gregg's voice is better resolved as well; the original sounded like the vocal reverb was clipped. It's Not My Cross To Bear opens up with a loud yell that used to be similarly clipped and distorted. My father once blew out a set of tweeters because of all the high frequency grunge on that opening. He's safe using the new release, because everything is very clean.
Yes, it is possible to get a high quality remastered release for under $15. Capricorn not only gives you excellent reproduction, there's even a nice set of liner notes missing from the original CD release. Still no song lyrics, though, which isn't too bad because the Allmans are one of the more intelligible bands around. If this release is representative of the current status of the Allman Brothers Band catalog, Polydor deserves to be congratulated for doing a fine job creating CDs any fan should be very pleased to own.
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