January 1999

Rush - Different Stages
Atlantic 83122-2
Released: 1998

by Steven Rochlin

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality *
Overall Enjoyment **

[Reviewed on CD]Here's one of the best bands, if not the best, to ever come out of Canada [hang on, no way, although some may actually believe that, hardcore Canucks can name many more bands that have long since put Rush to rest...DAS] -- three guys playing their hearts out making the musical power of five. I've loved Rush for what seems like forever, yet my interest only began during the Hemispheres years (1978). Different Stages is their fourth official live CD and contains more music than I can shake a stick at (and I have some big sticks here!). The songs on the three CDs cover those from their first album and all that follow. "The Trees" is here, so is "Tom Sawyer" and "Spirit of the Radio". Man-o-man, the full version of "2112" is here too! Rapture! Thirty-three songs in total are on this set for Rushaholic fans. The first two CDs are from the band’s most recent tour, which kicked axe. On the third "free" CD are live performances from their 1978 show at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. Top all this off with a really cool audio/video program located on the first CD. Just put it into your computer's CD-ROM and load the CusterWorks painting program by Hisashi Hoda. Gotta admit the program is really cool too! So there's all this great music and even a cooliosity program for your computer. So, ya figger, this CD will get a huge rave from techno-geek Rush lover Steve, right? Aaaaah, read on.

Alas, even with all these great songs, all is not well. Basically the sound quality is among the worst from CD that my ears have ever heard. After putting in the very first CD, I felt my whole system had just been assaulted by none other than Satan. The sound quality was just too horrible to forgive, even for this huge Rush fan. Does anyone actually listen to the pre-production CD before it goes to the pressing plants? Hearing just the first few songs was more than my ears could take. Quickly I went to the liner notes to see who was responsible for this mess. Could it be that as the years have gone by the mastering by Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering has been somehow declining? Maybe it was the live recording and pre-mixing by Robert Scovill that caused irreparable damage? Hmmm, it seems that Paul Northfield mixed and created the main "sound" here as Geddy Lee was also at these sessions.

During the past few weeks I have spent much time backtracking the production CD to see just where, possibly, things went awry. Not to name names of my sources here, but my best guess is that the original mixing by Paul Northfield is partially to blame. It also could be that the master tapes used were sub-par too. At times the person who masters recordings, such as Bob Ludwig, might have explicit instruction not to mess with the tape(s). Of course, Ludwig has done many great mastering jobs, so after repeated listenings to Different Stages, my feelings are that this is not Bob Ludwig’s fault in any way.

In the end, I just don’t know exactly where things went horribly wrong, but the sound here is just awful. The lowest-most bass is bloated and not defined. Meanwhile, the upper midrange is so annoying and undefined that it is a sonic mess! In fact, the upper midrange is so bad and vague that Neil Peart's high-hat sounds more like a very low-quality electronically sampled muted-highs rainstick! And as for Geddy Lee's vocals, said in my best NYC accent, "Fuhgeddaboutit." They are so buried in the mix that only the true diehard Rush fan will even realize what the lyrics are! As much as I love the music, my ears just can’t get past the worst-sounding live album, or album for that matter, I've heard in years. Where can I get the $24.98 I paid for this album back? OK, so you are probably saying to me "Steve, none of the live Rush albums have good sound quality, so what do you expect?" Well, when the "free" third CD with the old performance from the Hammersmith Odeon sounds better than the more recently recorded first two CDs, you know something is amiss.

As it stands, lucky me has the Z-Systems RDP-1 professional-quality digital equalizer, so off to work I went. Now I won’t claim that the adjustments I offer here will make Different Stages sound like a high-quality recording. After all, you can’t "fix it in the mix." Anyway, here are some humbly suggested EQ settings.

+11.4db @ 14,100Hz
+4.2db @ 1025Hz with a Q slope of 4
+2.8db @ 141Hz with a Q slope of 8
+7.8db @ 63Hz
-2.8db @ 35Hz with a Q slope of 5

Of course this is not a complete solution to the sound quality problems of the first two CDs in this set because it seems the equalization needed changes from song to song. The modifications above are just a "good average" to make the first two CDs (cringe) listenable. The very first song on the first CD, "Dreamline," needs a really drastic change that I'm not going to cover here. Please, someone, listen to "Test for Echo" and most of CD two with my humbly suggested EQ settings and then change back to the unequalized sound. 'Nuff said?

It pains me deeply to recommend this CD, so instead I'll say this much. Buy this CD if you are a die-hard must-have Rush fan. If not, then pass this one up unless you only plan on listening to it on a $100 boombox. As I recall from the most recent Rush concerts, they were recording to DAT tape. Well, if the masters of this were taken from those two-track DAT tapes, then Rush should be sent to Singapore and caned! I want answers here!!! Who messed this one up? Why does it sound so horrible? What did you use as the masters to make the first two CDs in this set? Which QA person at Atlantic allowed this atrocious CD to be pressed? Can it be recalled and remastered? Is there any hope ever for a good-sounding live Rush album? C'mon, I have my old Backstage Club tee-shirt from the early 80s, my old Hemispheres concert tee-shirt from the 70s, the rare 45rpm New World Man/Vital Signs Live and even all the rare picture discs including the extremely scarce 45rpm picture disc Subdivisions/Red Barchetta. To say that I'm a big Rush fan would be an understatement. To say that I'm incredibly pissed off would be an understatement. Oh, while you're reading this Neil Peart, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, no more overly techno-music, please! Stick to your roots, have it recorded well and life will be good.