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Culture Factory 96khz/24 Bit Audiophile Remaster buyers beware
on 11 December 2014
I was going to order this as I'm a big QMS fan but googled a thread ref its sound quality and was astonished to find a lot of info on this on a remaster sound forum set up by Steve Hoffman in the States. As a result I checked out the Culture Factory website which tells you how they remaster their cds. First they receive a DAT tape (48khz sampling) or a CDR (44.1khz sampling) or an online digital file from the record company which owns the master tapes.
Firstly, one doesn't know when the digital copy supplied was made from the original master tapes, maybe mid eighties, mid nineties or whenever. As Capitols are licensing the tape to another company to retail, Capitol aren't going to go to the considerable effort and cost of taking brand new digital transfers with state of the art adc converters etc. to then give to another company to make money from the new transfers. They're going to save that for themselves and re-issue the product as a proper remaster.
So, Culture Factory get a digital transfer of unknown vintage and then stuff it into a digital workstation running at 96khz/24 bit performance. However, if you start with 44.1khz or 48khz sampling, then all you can do is to upsample it to 96khz. No more information or resolution. it's still a 44.1 or 48khz letter in a 96khz envelope. They then de-noise, compress and tinker digitally with the tonal balance. Then the digital files are downsampled back to 44.1khz cd standard to provide the ''new'' master for cd. The description ''96khz/24 Bit'' refers solely to the spec of the Alesis workstation they are using and in a UK Court of Law to put ''96 Khz/24 Bit Remaster'' is outright misrepresentation.
Just like taking an old house with rotting wooden window frames, cracked and missing render on the walls and just slapping a new coat of paint on it and suggesting it's a new building. According to the Steve Hoffman forum , this '''re-master''' by those who own it reckon it's very loud and extremely compressed with a very bright, treble dominant quality which members rate as extremely fatiguing to listen to or just unlistenable. Buyer beware!
Culture Factory have re-issued several classic albums this way, including all of Quicksilver's studio albums and forum members say they have yet to hear any Culture Factory release that surpasses other cd versions already out there. Stick to the version you have and wait for Capitol to issue a new remaster from the original tapes. If you want a slightly better sounding version than Capital's seek out Repertoire's version from 2000 (German re-issue label) which forum fans say is the best out there currently.
In the meantime, check out the recent QMS release, ''Winterland November 1968'' cd on Sonic Boom from a FM broadcast from 7th of that month. Happy Trails used recordings from Fillmores East and West from a total of four shows (two from each venue) in early November 68. In John Cipollina's last interview he states that most of 'Trails' came from one of the two nights at the Fillmore East. So to have 70 minutes drawn from both early and late sets from 7th at their home turf venue is to have an alternative 'Happy Trails plus'. It's a decent recording considering its origin and is most welcome. Check out also the'' Live at the Fillmore June 7th 1968'' double cd on Purple Pyramid which also shows the band on fine form in decent sound too.
I had ordered up this C.F. 96khz ''remaster'' and the Repertoire version just before reading the forums but was unable to cancel/adjust order in time. So I now have the Capitol USA cd standard version bought in the late 90's but maybe issued in the early 90's??, the Repertoire German re-issue from 2000 remastered by Eroc and this Culture Factory version. The differences are quite interesting.
The Culture Factory version is about 7.5dB louder than the Capitol USA standard version. I think they have also passed the digital tape they were given through a secondary, more aggressive noise reduction system than that originally used by Capitol to make the original digital master. It uses almost certainly the same digitised version taken by Capitol (in the late 80's/early 90's??) from the production masters. One can tell this as on both the Capitol and the CF version there is about ten seconds of background grunge noise on the left channel right at the start of track 1. By increasing the level up by 7.5dB, CF have limited/compressed the hell out of it. So it is loud, quite bright and harsh. It is also in comparison to the Capitol original cd, markedly less transparent to the source tape and less solid to listen to. By that I mean that the Capitol cd has a solidity and substance to the sound whereas the CF version has a hollowness/empty sound - the notes sound like a ghostly version of the original. Soundstage depth is inferior to the Capitol one too but even on the Capitol one it's not great to start with. It is after all a live recording from 1968! At first I thought the C.F. version was out of phase but it wasn't but the difference between in/out wasn't much (usually more noticeable on other music) which I guess is down to all the ''re-mastering''(tinkering) they've done to it. Difficult sound quality to describe but very easy to recognise. Think low rate mp3 versus cd on a decent hi-fi. Basically it sounds horrid and I can't imagine anybody choosing this version as being better than the standard capitol USA cd. CF claim audiophile remastering - this cd is -as other people say- effing unlistenable. Their 96khz claim is a bucket of bullsh*t.
The Repertoire (German re-issue label) version on the other hand has been licensed via EMI Electrola, the German subsidiary of Capitol/EMI. The usual practice with overseas subsidiaries of record companies is the original production masters stay in the country of origin (this case the USA as QMS were American and recorded there) and copy two-track production masters were sent to other countries. The copy production master two-track held by EMI Electrola does NOT have the ten second background grunge noise found on the Capitol USA and C.F. remasters. The German copy tape must be a duplicate of the original USA tape so the original must not have the noise either. This grunge must have been inadvertently added due to faulty equipment/poor remastering when Capitol USA did the first and probably only digitising of the original analogue USA production masters.
Despite Repertoire working from a copy production master which possibly was only digitised by EMI/Electrola as late as 1999/2000 when Repertoire licensed the digital recording, their version is audibly superior to the Capitol USA cd version. Admittedly, it is about 4.5dB louder than Capitol's but I think the noise reduction sensitively and sensibly used has contributed a little to that. It seems marginally cleaner than Capitol's but not anything like C.F.'s brilliant shiny chrome polish on the sound. The Repertoire version doesn't sound compressed or limited although I guess a little has been applied. As other forum members state, Eroc has done a good job of sensitively tweaking the sound slightly so that in every respect it is audibly a bit more solid and transparent with slightly better depth than the Capitol USA one. On my £8K hi-fi system it does sound the best of the three cd versions I have. The improvement over the Capital cd isn't huge but definitely audible. If I already owned the Capitol cd and wasn't a huge QMS fan, I might not think the Repertoire one worth the cost for the small improvement. I might be inclined to wait -sigh- for Capitol to remaster it themselves. Unless, of course you are a huge QMS fan, which I am, so have bought three versions. The C.F. version is best suited as a mug coaster.
On a final note, the C.F. added value version -apart from the ''re-mastering'' claim (which wouldn't stand up in an English Court of Law)- is the nice cardboard sleeve and the Japanese style obi. Even on the obi they can't get it right. They print the tracks for the Who Do You Love Suite and have left off track one so their Track One (actually track two) shows track two's timing and so on until they correctly show Side two tracks and timings from Mona onwards.
Surely it's about time that Capitol USA remastered the album from the original live masters (not the production masters) and also included a second cd with other songs they played live that weren't used like Smokestack Lightning, Pride of Man, Acapulco Gold and Silver etc. from the recorded four shows. QMS were a scorcher of a live band with the twin guitars of Duncan-Cipollina. This quartet in '68 many commentators believe was the quintessential SF band. This, their only 'official' live album deserves better.