As more and more vendors and artists try to jump on the high-resolution bandwagon, it’s clear that a lot of them are confused. Take this example of the Grateful Dead. Yesterday, the band send out an email saying that they now have “High Definition Dead.”
And they are offering high-definition – or high-resolution – files in “AAC and FLAC.”
Oops. It’s not AAC, but ALAC, or Apple Lossless, as you can see when you go to their website:
Okay, so it’s only one letter, but it is an example of the confusion around these file formats.
But there’s something else: they make a distinction between Apple Lossless files and “HD FLAC” files. They could provide high-resolution files in either format; both Apple Lossless and FLAC support the 24-bit 192 kHz format they are offering. And to confuse things even more, the Grateful Dead have long sold CDs in the HDCD format; they’re the only artist or label I’ve ever seen selling these. These are hybrid CDs that “encodes the equivalent of 20 bits worth of data in a 16-bit digital audio signal by using custom dithering, audio filters, and some reversible amplitude and gain encoding,” according to a Wikipedia article. (I’ve never understood what this is, but it sounds like some sort of lossy compression used for the extra bit depth.)
You won’t find many of these CDs; this may be, in part, because Microsoft bought the format from its original creator, and most likely has some arcane licensing rules for it.
In any case, the Grateful Dead always highlight the fact that their CD releases are in HDCD format, and now they’re talking about “high definition Dead” downloads; this will only confuse people.
This came out last year, but it’s good to remind people of one of the more interesting Grateful Dead recordings circulating. It’s all of the Grateful Dead’s tuning for the year 1977; more than an hour and a half of tuning up.
If you’ve ever attended a Dead show, you know that the tuning was part of the show. It could be creative, or boring, or just long. So Michael David Murphy took available recordings and edited all of 1977’s tuning into a single tuning experience.
You can also grab it on archive.org, if you’re interested in the 24-bit FLAC version, for example.
Deadheads, get out your credit cards! This September will finally see an official release of 8/27/72 and Sunshine Daydream. After more than 40 years, we’ll finally get a crystal-clear recording of this iconic show, and a DVD or Blu-Ray of the Sunshine Daydream movie, shot that day.
Most Deadheads know that this show, from Veneta, Oregon, is one of the best the band ever played. Performed as a benefit for Ken Kesey’s family creamery, The Field Trip, as it was advertised, was played in a field in front of 20,000 sunburned Deadheads, as temperatures passed 100 degrees, and water was scarce. There was magic in the air, that day, though; or at least good acid. Because the Dead played one of their best, tightest shows, with amazing renditions of Playin’ in the Band, China > Rider, and one of the best versions of Dark Star ever.
You may have seen footage of the Sunshine Daydream movie, filmed by John Norris, Phil DeGuere, and Sam Field, who caught the music and the vibes, but never had the money to get the footage edited correctly. Mediocre quality transfers have circulated for years, but finally, the Dead have restored the film, and the 16-track soundboard tapes, to create what looks and sounds amazing. Here’s a clip:
After the amazing Europe ’72 and May ’77 sets, this amazing show is yet another wonderful release from the Dead. Now, if they can only find a tape of 5/8/77 and release that…
If you follow this blog, or read my writing on Macworld, you’ve noticed that, among my varied musical interests, one artist stands out: the Grateful Dead. I’ve been a Deadhead for 35 years, since I first saw the band in the Spring of 1977 at the Palladium in New York. (To be honest, I was already a fan by then, having heard a number of their albums, both live and studio.) People sometimes ask me to recommend a Grateful Dead album for them to discover, and this post answers that question.
In late 1974, the Grateful Dead decided to “retire.” At the time, it wasn’t clear if the band would continue, but the increased pressure and cost of touring with their one-of-a-kind “Wall of Sound” sound system, made them realize that they couldn’t go on. They had to tour to pay for the cost of touring, and the time it took to set up and break down the Wall of Sound make touring more complicated.
So to celebrate their retirement, the Dead played five shows at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Introduced by Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter, these last five concerts were held from October 16-20. On the 20th, Bill Graham had the concert tickets stamped “The Last One” as a souvenir for those attending.
But while the Dead suggested that this would be a retirement, they actually had big plans for the final run. Much of the music was filmed and all of it was recorded with the idea of making a movie. Jerry Garcia was the engine for this project, and during the hiatus – the band came back to performing in April 1976 (there were four gigs in 1975) – he worked on editing the movie.
Released in 1977, the Grateful Dead movie was an attempt to translate the experience of a Grateful Dead concert to the screen. Concert movies were a recent phenomenon at the time, and this was more than just a film of the concert. There is footage of people waiting in line, interviews with Deadheads, clips of people dancing and enjoying the music, and some pretty hokey animation, notably a long animated introduction. The movie fails as both a concert movie and as a documentary, but, back in the day, it was amazing to see such great footage of the band on a big screen.
For years, the tapes of these five shows languished in the Grateful Dead vault, until a re-release of the movie on DVD in 2004, when the best parts of the five concerts were remastered and released on five CDs, for a total of about 6 1/2 hours of music. (This is a bit more than 1/3 of all the music played on those five nights.) Each of the CDs tries to represent a set of music; the songs flow together well, even on the discs where the music is from different nights. Three of the discs are essentially all from single nights, with a couple of exceptions.
One reason why the Grateful Dead was so interesting is because no two concerts were the same. Not only did they not have set lists – they’d choose what to play as they went along – they were consummate improvisers, and would segue from one song to another seamlessly. There were some songs that were often played together, and that formed units: China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider, Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain, and Not Fade Away > Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. But in 1974, only the first (China > Rider) was immutably joined, and from one show to another, the order of songs would change. In addition to these fluid set lists, the Dead would often jam on songs for a very long time; the longest track in this set is the 31:45 Playing in the Band, which is a perfect example of the band’s transcendent improvisations.
1974 was a watershed year for the Dead. One of the founding members, Pigpen (Ron McKernan) had died in 1973, and the Dead dropped many of the songs that he made famous, such as the long R&B-inspired Turn On Your Love Light, In the Midnight Hour, and Dancing In the Streets. Pigpen was a male Janis Joplin (they were lovers for a time), and he lived the blues the way he sang them; so much so that liquor killed him.
After Pigpen’s death, the Dead took a new direction, veering away from the early R&B songs, and the later folky Americana, toward some jazzier playing. That comes out here in the long Eyes of the World, a 1973 release, the mystical Playing in the Band, and Bob Weir’s Weather Report Suite, a long ballad. The Dead still played their staples: songs like U.S. Blues, He’s Gone, and One More Saturday Night, but this set doesn’t feature any of the “cowboy” songs the band played consistently in the early 1970s, such as Jack Straw, Beat It On Down the Line, Loser, Friend of the Devil, El Paso, or the perennial Me and My Uncle. The band played these songs at the five concerts, but they weren’t selected for this box set.
So on five CDs, this set gives an excellent overview of the Dead in 1974. Free jams, tight songs, a jazzier sound than in, say, 1972, but with all the power and mastery that the band had developed since their formation in 1965. While the Complete Europe ’72 box set remains the ultimate document of the Dead on tour, these edited recordings are probably the best introduction for someone interested in discovering the wide range of music the Grateful Dead played. (If you want a sample of the Dead on tour in 1972, the recent Europe ’72 Vol. 2, culled from that complete set, and tastefully remastered, is for you.) Or better yet, get both.
All recordings of concerts are artificial. But once you’ve gotten that out of the way – you simply accept that you can never reproduce the actual sound of a live performance – you have to approach the question of how these recordings should be mixed. Not only are there questions of the volume of individual voices, instruments or groups of instruments, but also where they should be in the soundscape.
In the simplest type of live recording, you have one performer playing a solo instrument; say, a guitar. That instrument is centered in the soundstage, and there are no problems. Add a singer to the guitar, and it’s still simple to position.
But move to a slightly more complex instrument, such as a piano. There are two ways to record a piano, using microphones or a pickup. With the former, you can position microphones around the piano – most often, this is just two microphones placed facing the open lid – or you can use a pickup, which is transducers placed on the soundboard inside the piano. (There are many ways you can combine these devices, or use multiple microphones, both inside and outside the piano.) But a recording engineer faces a dilemma: do they place the piano in the center of the soundscape, or do they try to position it so the different keys are heard in different locations? I’ve heard recordings which are made to sound as though the listener is sitting in front of the keyboard; the lower notes are to the left, and the higher notes to the right. This is essentially false, because no one other than the performer hears a piano in this way. However, it does give the piano a bit more “life,” and makes the sound less static.
When there are multiple performers, the questions become much different. Generally, you want to have the performers sound as though they are in their appropriate position on stage. So a string quartet will have two instruments more on the left channel, and the other two on the right (generally the two violins are on the left and the viola and cello on the right). But I’ve heard string quartet recordings where the two instruments on the left are almost entirely on the left channel, and the same for the instruments on the right. This approximates what it would sound like to be in the middle of the string quartet, but no one ever sits there.
A jazz piano trio is an interesting group. Generally, the piano is on the left, the bass in the middle, and the drums on the right. This leads to many recordings trying to replicate this positioning. For example, listen to Brad Mehldau’s The Art Of The Trio Volume 2: Live At The Village Vanguard . (You can listen to samples of the recordings I cite by following the Amazon links.) The piano is far to the left, the drums to the right, and the bass in the middle, as they are on stage. However, you would only hear a performance like this if you were sitting in the first row, dead center. This gives a certain artificiality to these recordings, which is compounded if you listen on headphones. In fact, I find this approach very annoying on headphones, and generally don’t listen to recordings like this except on speakers. (Though even with speakers, the positioning is very obvious.)
Take the same artist when he’s in the studio. On Songs: The Art Of The Trio, Volume Three, recorded in the studio, the piano is centered, and the drums are quite creatively spread across the soundstage, while the bass is also centered. Musically, this is much more interesting than if the instruments were positioned laterally.
This positioning is even more obvious in the recent Grateful Dead releases from the band’s Europe 72 tour. You can hear this clearly on the Europe ’72 Vol. 2 release, notably on Dark Star. When the Grateful Dead performed, Jerry Garcia was stage left, Bob Weir in the center, and Phil Lesh stage right. Garcia’s guitar, in these new mixes, is far to the left, but Weir’s guitar is on the right channel. Lesh’s bass is in the center; I agree that the bass should be centered no matter what, but the positioning of the guitars is simply odd. No one would have heard the music like that, unless they were in the first few rows, and even then, the resonance of the halls would attenuate that positioning greatly. Add to that the fact that the vocals are centered. This is logical, but having Jerry’s guitar far to the left and his voice in the center is a bit jarring.
The Grateful Dead’s recent release of some music from their Spring 1990 tour follows this approach. But the drums are more spread out than in the Europe 72 mixes (probably because the multi-tracking used in 1990 allowed for this giving more tracks to the drums), and the keyboards are also far to the right (keyboardist Brent Mydland did sit on the right, as did keyboardist Keith Godchaux, in 1972). But on these recordings, Bob Weir’s guitar is in the center, which is more logical.
No matter what, an engineer has to establish a soundspace. All I’m saying here is that sometimes this soundspace is too artificial; in attempting to reproduce some of a band’s positioning, it creates music that doesn’t sound realistic. You certainly don’t want all the instruments in the center, but putting them far to either side can sound strange. Could it be that these recordings are mixed for people who keep their speakers very close together? I don’t; I have speakers on my desk that are a couple of feet to either side of my head, and my living room stereo’s speakers are fairly far apart. This speaker positioning makes sense for most recordings – especially those of an orchestra – but for some recent recordings, it just sounds weird.
In my initial listen to parts of the first show (4/7/72, Wembley Empire Pool, London, England), I’m very impressed by the quality of the mix and remastering. The instruments all sound fresh and clear, and the overall sound is very nice. It’s especially interesting to hear Pigpen’s organ a bit more present than in most recordings from this tour, and the vocals are all well balanced.
For Deadheads, there are few periods as cherished as 1972, and particularly the European tour, where the band rode around on busses and played 22 shows in a seven week period. While an early live album was released from this tour (called Europe ’72, this triple-LP set was a big hit in the 70s, but was only a selection of what they band played. (And it had some overdubs, so it wasn’t totally faithful.)
The Grateful Dead is releasing a 73-CD set called Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings, which will feature “every single note” from the 22 shows on this tour. At a steep price of $450, this is, in some ways, the Grateful Dead’s holy grail. This limited edition may not sell out entirely (they will make no more than 7,200 copies, but only those that are pre-ordered), it’s an awesome document of a fine period in the Dead’s history. Looking forward to hearing these 70 hours of great music.
Update: in true Grateful Dead style, the dead.net servers couldn’t even handle one order, and promptly crashed as soon as the set was offered to Deadheads. We’re hoping that this will be resolved soon, and the many Deadheads who want to order will be able to do so. They’re trying to get everything “just exactly perfect.”
Update 2: Much to my surprise, the 7,200 copies of this set have sold out in just four days. As the web site now says:
Hey now! Due to overwhelming demand, surprising even those of us with huge faith in the Europe ’72 project, the entire limited edition run of 7,200 boxed sets has sold out in less than 4 days. We thank you beyond words for your support and belief in this unprecedented and wonderful release.
They go on to say that they will be selling the music without the fancy packaging, so anyone who wants the music will be able to get it. But to think that they just generated $3.24 million dollars in sales to Deadheads in just 4 days…
Update 3: The Dead are releasing Europe ’72, Vol. 2, a 2-CD set of selections from the box set, that have not been released on other recordings. No 2 CDs will give a real example of the 70+ hours of music in this set, but with this and the original Europe ’72, you have a good idea of what was going on in that tour. And this release contains a truly awesome Dark Star from 5/7/72…
Update 4: It’s now 7 months after the announcement, and they’re preparing to send these out. People in the US have been charged for the set, though I haven’t yet. They say that overseas charges should be made this week. This has been a long wait, and I’m sure it will be worth it.
Update 5: August 29, and the first American Deadheads have started getting their boxes. I got an e-mail this morning saying that mine will be shipped from “our warehouse in Amsterdam,” so it will be tracked and all that. No ship date yet, but it should be soon.
As any Grateful Dead fan (aka Deadhead) will tell you, “Dark Star” is the ultimate Dead song. This cosmic symphony of rock was the optimal vehicle for the group’s improvisations, a template for the moods and feelings that the various musicians wanted to express in their music. Jerry Garcia said, “Dark Star has meant, while I was playing it, almost as many things as I can sit here and imagine,” and Phil Lesh called it “the one we tacitly agreed on where anything was okay.”
While the Dead jammed many of their songs, Dark Star has a special place. It stands aside several other classic tunes that often stretched on for 30 minutes or more–That’s It for the Other One, Turn on Your Lovelight, Playin’ In the Band–but always offered a less structured environment for improvisation. The Grateful Dead performed Dark Star at least 232 times, according to Deadbase.On an absolute level, there are no Dark Stars, but there is one long, discontinuous Dark Star, which was proven so adeptly by John Oswald in his Grayfolded, a melding and morphing of dozens of Dark Stars into a long, single piece that embodies the essence of Dark Star.
The ur-Dark Star must remain the 2/27/69 version, immortalized on the Live Dead album, which was released later the same year. This version has almost chamber-music perfection and subtlety, and its inclusion on the Dead’s first live release raised it to a special place in the Pantheon of Dead songs. It was the Dark Star that Deadheads (other than those who traded tapes) listened to over and over.
Every other Dark Star flows from that version. Whether it be the raucous 8/27/72 performance, recorded in the scorching Oregon heat, where Jerry Garcia’s notes spit from his amps like fire bolts; the sinuous 9/21/72 version (at over 37 minutes), with its long, mellow noodling; or the jazzy Halloween 1971 version, every Dark Star has its own character and mood. Other classic Dark Stars include the 2/13/70 Fillmore East recording, which is part of one of the Dead’s greatest concerts ever, and the 48-minute 5/11/72 version played in Rotterdam.
Dark Star will remain, for aficionados of the Grateful Dead, the hallmark of their work. While the Dead performed hundreds of different songs, the scope and breadth–and length–of Dark Star makes it the highlight of almost every live Grateful Dead recording.