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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Open letter: Why is Rush releasing altered versions of songs on recent re-releases?

Like many Rush fans, I've been excited to hear remastered versions of the albums that bring new fidelity to the original recordings. I became a Rush fan in the 80s, and I can say that going from vinyl to CD versions was a revelation. On albums like Moving Pictures, I heard details that had been hidden for years.

With every new wave of technology, Rush has released remastered versions of some of their albums. The newest wave, Surround Sound (5.1 mixes), brings a different "soundscape" to an album, as it splits up the tracks into 5 full-range speakers and one sub-woofer. This gives the tracks a lot more room to breathe than the traditional 2-speaker stereo mix. The result is you can hear even more detail.

In April 2011, Rush released a 5.1 mix of Moving Pictures, and it got (mostly) rave reviews. I went out on the first day to Best Buy and picked it up, and could hardly wait to get home and put it on. As I listened on my home theater system, it felt like I was listening to Moving Pictures for the first time. But then I got to "Witch Hunt."

The problem with "Witch Hunt"

In "Witch Hunt," where the cowbell comes in (right before the "Features distorted in the flickering light" lyric), something sounded wrong. At first I didn't even know what it was, so I had to rewind. On second listen, I could hear it: Neil's drum part had been altered.

This is the point where I reveal that, like many Rush fans, I'm a drummer, and I've spent a lot of my life cracking Peart's rhythmic code. And even after playing for 30-odd years, I still haven't fully cracked this code, which is part of Peart's appeal.

This is also where I point out that Peart is mostly a compositional drummer. He writes drum parts that are part of the song -- and replicates those parts live (with some minor alterations). Go to a Rush show, and you'll see rows of air drummers playing along with the Rush rhythms they've grown to love.

Which brings me back to "Witch Hunt." I was still confused about why it had been changed. I switched from the 5.1 to the stereo mix and found that the drum part was not altered, which raised even more questions. I decided to go to the source of the mix, Richard Chycki, and ask the question.

From: Andy Olson
Sent: Friday, April 08, 2011 1:53 PM
To: web@richardchycki.com
Subject: Question about 5.1 "Moving Pictures" mix

Hi, Richard --  I'm enjoying the 5.1 mix of "Moving Pictures" (finally was able to listen to the entire thing last night). I love all the detail in this mix!

One question, which I'm sure you've already heard: Why were the drums edited/changed on "Witch Hunt" ( where the cowbell comes in)? I know there are probably lots of other changes that I'm not noticing, but I guess I'm curious about why the original performance was altered?

Thx,

Andy

There was no reply. So, I wrote again in June. Still no reply. Not a huge deal. I mean, this is just music, right? 

Rush Sectors

When Rush Sectors was announced, I was looking forward to getting pristine versions of the Mercury Rush catalog, as well as three additional 5.1 mixes -- Signals, A Farewell to Kings, and Fly by Night. I decided to buy Sectors 2 and Sectors 3 and leave one available for a Christmas gift.

When the box sets arrived, I enjoyed the Sectors packaging, with the black box and mini-versions of the LP covers and artwork. The first CD I put in was Hold Your Fire -- "Force 10" sounded great.

Then I moved on to "Time Stand Still." Right before the second verse, I noticed something odd. Instead of a pause, what I heard right after Geddy sings "Time stand still," were two electronic drum hits, similar to what Neil does leading into the bridge of the chorus. I figured I must have misheard it. After a second listen, I confirmed the added parts were indeed on the new mix. 

I talked to a few people about this, and someone mentioned that this might have been on the original tapes and deleted in post-production. OK, that kind of makes sense. Maybe the people doing the stereo mixes weren't familiar with the music. And then I saw this interview about Andy VanDette, Chief Master Engineer at Masterdisk. In the interview, Andy says:

It was very important to me that these be the best representation of the catalog possible and I think we accomplished that. Look, I'm a fan. When I put up Hemispheres for the first time I nearly cried. I may not have been able to muster every bass riff, or sung every high note in my band, but the memories of trying were overwhelming. I could not let Rush fans down. Each and every one of these albums got the deluxe treatment.

So, I guess Andy's a pretty big fan, too.

The problem with "The Weapon" 

As I worked my way through the Sectors 3 release, I finally got to the Signals 5.1 mix (once again mixed by Richard Chycki). Like Moving Pictures, listening to this version was full of new sonic surprises and details. One of the biggest was Geddy's vocals, which were much more dynamic than in the stereo mixes.

And then I came to "The Weapon," where I found more drum parts were changed. But unlike "Witch Hunt," these happen in at least three places (the DVD plays as one consecutive song):

  • At 23:21 - Neil's fills leading into chorus #1
  • At 24:45 - Neil's fills leading into chorus #2
  • At 26:40 - The solo section where many changes have been made (not just to the drum parts)

The stereo version of the song, like "Witch Hunt," remains unchanged.

Rush responds?

On 12/3, Rush released the following statement:

We are aware of some slight technical issues surrounding the CD of 'Fly By Night' inside the Sector 1 box set release and the DVD for 'A Farewell To Kings' inside the Sector 2 box set that some fans are experiencing. It stems from a production flaw and it is currently being addressed. As soon as production is completed a formal announcement of how to replace the discs will follow shortly. Please be aware that there may be a time delay in shipping and receiving the disc and we sincerely apologize for this inconvenience -- Geddy, Alex & Neil

I still haven't heard Fly by Night, but the A Farewell to Kings 5.1 and stereo mixes sounded fine to me. So, I assumed the problems with "Time Stand Still" and "The Weapon" weren't what the Rush camp was talking about.

To see if I could find out, I emailed Anthem directly. There was no response.

The bottom line

Let's face it -- Rush fans love detail. And drummers love Peart's drum parts. It's obviously important to the band, too, since they recreate most of their parts live. The only problem I have with these new releases -- and especially with Sectors -- is the lack of transparency about what we're actually getting (if it was indeed intentional).

If you're like me and want pristine versions of the albums, that's not what you're getting here -- at least with Hold Your Fire and Signals 5.1. For this reason, I can't recommend these discs -- as much as I'd love to. Except for the alterations, these discs really do sound good.

It would be great to get some explanation about why these versions are different and if there are plans to update these recordings. I realize there are complexities in the record business that I can't begin to understand, which could possibly lead to these kinds of alterations. Regardless of who's at fault, it's Rush's reputation that will suffer. 

And I'm not the only one who's noticing.

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posted by AndyO @ 7:50 PM   12 comments