I’ve been a big fan of Bowie since I was knee-high to a grasshopper – I was raised on the original 12″ gatefold UK pressing of most of his albums. One thing that’s always bothered me is how the CD transfers of most of his early work sound abysmal. They suffer from overly happy EQing, poor compression work, bad de-noising… Really, I could go on. The Best Bowie Masters are a difficult thing to come by now.
All of this genuinely makes some of my favourite music difficult to listen to. I find myself becoming distracted by sharp, digital cymbals, or being fatigued by totally flat dynamics. It’s a shame, but I’ve found a partial solution.
Here’s a little story to start you off with, to show you how little we’ve progressed in a quarter of a decade. In the early 80’s, RCA issued a lot of Bowie’s albums on CD. These were met with mixed reviews at the time, a lot of people saying that they were ‘just’ transfers of the original masters used for the vinyls. I suppose people were hoping for a more noticeable jump in quality after their investment in a £500 CD player.
Nowadays, people are clamoring for the original RCA CD releases, because they seem to be the only ones released that haven’t been massacred by incompetent studio engineers, desperately trying to justify their new toys. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few decent quality releases by Ryko (the AU20 Gold releases), but for me, the RCAs really hit the spot.
I’ve listened to almost all the releases available now, and compiled a list of the best (read: closest in sound to the master tapes). This took me a long time to compile and critically compare. I’ve wasted my life, so you don’t have to.
Anyway here we go.
- Space Oddity – RCA PCD1-4813
- The Man Who Sold The World – RCA PCD1-4816
- Hunky Dory – RCA PD 84623
- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – RCA PCD1-4702 / SACD
- Aladdin Sane – RCA PCD1-4852
- Pin Ups – RCA PCD1-0291
- Diamond Dogs – RCA PCD1-0576
- Young Americans – Ryko RCD 80140 *not heard any RCA releases of this
- Station To Station – RCA PD81327
- “Heroes” – RCA PCD1-2522
- Low – RCA PD83856
- Lodger – RCA PD84234
- Scary Monsters – RCA PD83647
- Let’s Dance – EMI 1983 CD release
- Tonight – SACD
- Never Let Me Down – EMI CDP 7 46677 2
- Black Tie White Noise – Original CD release
- 1. Outside – Original CD release
- Earthling – Original CD release
- Hours… – Original CD release
- Heathen – SACD
- Reality – SACD
Everything on this list sounds pretty good until “Earthling”. It would seem that after “1. Outside”, sound quality takes a massive dip in favour of high volume modern sound. The latest three albums are, in my opinion, ruined by terrible EQ and massive amounts of brick wall compression. We’re talking dynamics of about 5dB here… The SACD releases give you 1-2dB extra head room, but even they are still fucked. Also, if anyone cares, the SACDs are still only 22.05Khz, and probably exactly the same master as the CDs, but with marginally less compression on the final output.
I would take this list with a grain of salt, as I really prefer a warm, thick sound to the bright shimmering digitalness we get today. Before you go hunting down these CDs, remember that I much prefer the Teo Macero version of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” to the beautifully open and separated remasters. And mono is the only way in which a person should listen to “Kind Of Blue”, even if it is at the wrong speed. I think that’s a pretty good anchor to base my opinion on.
Anyway, this is my ultimate list, and it’s what my Bowie collection is now, and probably always will be. It’s also probably the greatest collection of art ever produced by a single human being – if indeed, he is one.
If you’re interested in more discussion, head over to the Steve Hoffman forums.