Bowie Sound + Vision

The hows & whys of the David Bowie Sound + Vision re-release campaign - 25 years later

It was 26+ Years Ago Today Part 1 (we'll get there!)

We wanted the box to have a compelling track list, a beautiful presentation, and state of the art sound.

This post will deal with the audio component, which you’d think would be minimally subjective. Dream on – nothing with Bowie is ever as simple as it seems.

First, let me assure you I listened to ALL of the original un-eq’d two-track master tapes of the Bowie albums Ryko released. Without reservation I again assure you, with the technology available at the time, we got the most true reproductions of those tapes as we could. 

This is especially true in the mid-90’s when we mastered them again using newly developed 20-bit technology for the gold AU20 issues. In other words, we tried very hard to give you the same listening experience Bowie, his producers and engineers had listening to playback in the studio.

I’m sure there are some readers who have convinced themselves the RCA CDs are the best sounding Bowie CDs.  Whatever works for you, but remember this is pure opinion.   Recently I was sent a link to a website purportedly featuring an interview with an engineer in Europe who acknowledges that RCA in the USA sent European mastering engineers Umatic Digital Cassette Masters as sources.

These are the tapes I mentioned seeing in the New Jersey vault, labeled as cassette masters, and referred to as CD sources in the catalog of materials I got from Isolar. These are the sources that both RCA and Isolar insisted were used as the CD masters.

The engineer goes on to say they sourced other tapes from the UK for their masters, and that these were better sources. But at the same time the engineer states that all of the Bowie materials had to be sourced from the US as Bowie was signed through the US office.

But, if so, wouldn’t RCA have all the masters in the US? And why request tapes from the US, but then reach out to the UK (possibly because RCA was a mess, as anyone who has heard the Record Cemetary of America joke, will attest)?

At least, the masters for albums recorded in the States wouldn’t have migrated to the UK if everything was supposed to be kept in the US, but even if some tapes had lingered at Olympic, etc, they wouldn’t have logically gotten Station To Station un-EQ’ed 2-track masters from the UK.

It’s quite likely this finally explains why there are different masters for the RCA CDs in different territories. It sounds these RCA engineers went off the reservation in an effort to do the best job they could.

That said, everything they would’ve had access to was almost 100% certainly collected in the New Jersey vault in 1989 – with the slight possibility a few things might have been moved to DB’s private vault, where he no doubt has recordings no one has seen or heard since.

There are sites where sound quality is debated incessantly and matters of opinion are stated as fact with frightening regularity (and a beyond-startling level of surety).

Here’s a post I wrote on one such audiophile site specifically about Hunky Dory, but it applies to all the Ryko titles:

“As I'm sure has been discussed on these forums ad nauseum, your preference for a remaster is probably decided by a few factors; I think the one that most people are in denial about is how you got used to hearing the source material prior to remastering - in other words, what version did you play to death?

Memory is so much more important than we give it credit for. That original sound can be influenced by factors like the format you heard it on first, what system you heard it through, which master it was sourced from originally (the RCA Bowie albums were re-re-re-mastered just on vinyl many times, never mind cassettes, CDs, 8-tracks, minidiscs, DATs, SACD, etc etc).

It certainly goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway), choices made by engineers in 1972 are going to be different than choices made in 1990, or even five/six years later.

What NDR looks like today.

What NDR looks like today.

When Toby Mountain at his Northeastern Digital lab remastered some of the Bowie titles using 20 bit for the AU20 Gold series in the mid-90's the technology and understanding of digital remastering had evolved, and Toby felt the sonic improvements were significant for most of those titles.

I can assure you the Ryko Bowie CDs were 99.9% remastered from the original un-eq'd two track analog tapes.  I hesitate to say 100% because I think some later (previously unreleased) bonus tracks came to us on DAT, and the tracks on the S&V box from Ziggy: MoPi may have as well. When we released the whole album later, it was from analog unmastered 2 tracks.

That pure un-eq'd starting point alone will have a drastic affect on how you perceive the recording if you've been listening to EQ'd versions for years. The only way you'll ever know how true they are to the original mixing and studio engineering choices is if you get to hear the original two-tracks or even the multi-tracks. Good luck!

I heard the un-EQ'd Sgt Pepper master once and while wasted on me (I'm not the biggest Beatle-phile) it was still a revelation.

Be assured, I have no horse in the RCA vs Ryko Vs EMI "which sounds better" race, financial, egotistical or otherwise; whatever master you like best is purely down to your own personal preference. I love that people care so much about these records that they are still debating the merits of work we did 25+ years ago. That said, please don't let stressing about these tweaks get in the way of enjoying the music!

FWIW, when it comes to Hunky Dory, I think (and I know many people who worked at EMI/Virgin when they reissued the Bowies without bonus tracks in 1999 who agree) that the AU20 Gold remaster is the best sounding CD version. Of course, your mileage may vary, but I feel like we got all we could out of the master tapes and a LOT of effort was put into that job.

Some later pressings of the vanilla Hunky Rykodisc CD MAY utilize that master, but I'm not 100% sure. We absolutely switched out the 1990 Changes master to the AU20 version, partially to get "Fame '90" off and the hit version of "Fame" on. Not sure if anyone has ever tested them to see if later silver Ryko Hunky CDs utilize the AU20, but this post may start a new easter egg hunt.

Not that this should have any impact on your preference, but I know Bowie himself listened to and approved our original remasters - and he liked them a lot. So much so, that after the deal expired his office would call and ask if we had any copies left, as he preferred ours to the EMI issues. They sounded compressed and a bit screechy to me. It's a shame EMI has yet to revisit Hunky Dory as a deluxe edition as they have some of the other Bowie titles; I'd like to hear what they come up with as it's nearly 20 years of technological development since the AU20 master was done and the album is one of my favorites.”

(please note the above was written without having heard the Five Years box set version of “Hunky” – anyone have any thoughts on that master versus the AU20?).