Monday, 11 January 2010

Hüsker Dü... others don't

A week off work, day one and boredom and non-achievement sets in. Should've started some major house clearing but instead listened to music, surfed the net, started this blog and attempted to 'remaster' "Zen Arcade"...once again...

Hüsker Dü are criminally represented on those lovely shiny things called Compact Discs... an alternative audiophile's nightmare should begin with their 1984 sprawling double-LP "Zen Arcade". But then all of their SST albums are in dire need of being lovingly tarted up, redressed and reissued. But it may never happen...

Fans of the band that care about sound know their some of their records at times sounded grating, tinny, like metal scraping against metal. Apparently it was a stylistic thing Spot, the producer on most of the bands seminal releases ("Everything Falls Apart" and "Metal Circus" from 1983, the aforementioned "Zen Arcade" and 1985's "New Day Rising") conciously went for. Conciously or not, the aural effect to many listeners turned out to be not so pleasant or palatable despite giving the band a sharp hardcore edge. I'd go so far to say that the production decisions on many of their records left most tentative fans out in the cold. A chilly treble heavy cold...

Sound aside "Zen Arcade" was in itself powerhouse of US hardcore creativity. Shackles were being broken at most turns, piano, psychedelia, acoustic guitars and background harmonising stepped up hardcore's game without losing an ounce of it's power and force. An astounding achievement that showed many bands that there was more to hardcore than breakneck power trios... even if they did still fancy going 200mph once in a frequent while. And the whole thing was recorded and mixed in the now legendary time of 85 hours... A double album recorded and mixed in 85 hours?!

At the point of writing this SST have made no efforts to remaster their Hüsker Dü backcatalogue. Fans call for it but apparently the still apparent bad feelings between the ex-band members still hinder this happening despite Bob Mould not being against the idea. Alot of other bands have bought their masters from SST to give them a shining chance of being heard in a better way than SST ever be bothered to present them. Even the bands debut studio EP "Everything Falls Apart" (not originally released on SST) got the whole remastered and expanded treatment with liner notes to boot thanks to Reflex and Rhino. Spot's production even sounds bearable and it makes me wonder if the other albums would shine with a bit of care and time.

Some Hüsker Dü fans are against the idea of remastering their beloved bands backcatalogue. "That is what the 'Du sound like. No need for remastering" says one, "I don't think it's unfortunate. Would you want someone to 'remaster' the Mona Lisa because Leonardo didn't have glow in the dark paint or something? The originals are perfect as they are." says another. But like the small majority I think their seminal CDs could do with a major overhaul. As it is now when you buy "Zen Arcade" on CD you're buying the album exactly as it was presented on CD for the first time in 1987, 23 years ago. 23 years ago and technology has moved on far too much to ignore that mastering techniques and equipment has improved (and got worse thanks to the ever annoying loudness war. Two sides to every argument, etc etc...)

So I dug out my 1987 mastered "Zen Arcade" and ripped it to my PC, opened the files in Adobe Audition and got to work. Removing DC offset and beginning the process of what I call "RE-EQ'ing" each track separately. I've done this before but my 'monitoring' equipment as well as software choices have improved since the last time! The waveforms show that yep, the 1987 CD, like most CDs from that time still have a nicely intact dynamic range. One good point. This was years before the loudness war really kicked in and digital clipping and compression became the order of the day.
And so how did I get on? The original CD is very thin sounding, where is the power in Greg Norton's bass guitar? And for something so tinny there's actually very little high end treble sparkle. It's mostly high-mid, that frequency section that in excess can turn anything to metallic sounding mush. A little tweaking here and there, a new CD burnt and voila. Some power restored to the rhythm section, the guitars still glare at you like a hungry wolf without all the grating and a bit more shine in the upper high frequencies which reveals alot of those "I never knew that was there!" detail that was buried in the murk... I guess it's as good as I'll get to hear this album until someone more responsible than moi gives it a well deserved overhaul! Until then...

The Alternative Audiophile


  1. I'd love to hear your remaster. I just played Zen today and can't stand Spot's production. So I searched "zen arcade remastered" as I do about once a year, to find the same information.

    I agree some albums shouldn't be remastered, but some like Zen just really need it.

  2. Believe it or not, whatever's on completely blows away the SST CD. It seems like somebody who cares got in and did some work. Maybe it was some nameless engineer who happened to be a fan.

    1. This I'm interested in hearing!
      For all those that want to hear my private remaster, it is up on YouTube (OK, hardly the best place to put audio if you're looking for high quality)

      I've had a lot of positive comments on there so feel free to check it out!

    2. Can't tell the difference at all myself and I doubt there is one.

  3. What about an RAR/ZIP upload?