Audio Fidelity's Release of YES' Close to the Edge
These days, "Subscription Mastering" has become the equivalent of a peaceful, relaxing garden to the discerning listener - in many cases, everything wrong with the intervening years of poor remastering and reissuing is erased, and old albums are transformed into new, fresh, relaxing, wonderful aural experiences. Small-shop publishing houses are now releasing short-run, high-quality remasters of some of the classic albums from the last decades and their results can range from good to excellent. Generally, the companies that release part of their catalog in the high-sampling-rate, alternative-media formats, such as Super Audio CD (SACD), are the best. But these releases can also seem like a secret garden because so few get to hear the results, perhaps because they either don't know about the SACD format or they think it is dead or they don't want to mess with buying an SACD-capable player. Over several years of format wars, only the most expensive CD players were capable of playing this Sony format. But recently, with the dropping price of disc players and reports of the demise of all physical media delivery, Sony has been offering SACD capability on even their most inexpensive BluRay players, and audiophiles say they do a great job. So for less than $100, anyone can get outfitted with a decent player and join the throng. SACD has come to the masses!
YES' CLOSE TO THE EDGE via SACD
This 1972 album has earned a position as a classic, ground-breaking work from the Art Rock/Progressive movement of the 1970s. The track that shares the name of the album represents YES' first long-form piece but the other two pieces on the album are pretty large structures as well. That and the content matter of the music make it a wonderful album to relax by. By that I don't mean it is a good album to put on in the background, but instead that the music is such that you want to put it on at listening volume, put down whatever you are doing, sit down and relax, and just let it wash over you. However, because of the complexity of the instruments and timbres of the album it has been one of the worst victims of bad mastering, right from the album days forward. I always said that I would buy it the day I saw it on CD and I did indeed, but the initial Atlantic CD release in the early '90s was a disappointment with boxy tone and noise issues. On March 5th, 2013, Audio Fidelity released their hybrid SACD version. This is my fifth copy of this album: first-run vinyl, Atlantic's first CD issue (that turned out to have Frank Sinatra on it), Atlantic's first CD issue CD (boxy, noisey), remastered CD (Engineered by Joe Gastwirt and a little better), and now the stereo SACD hybrid disk from Audio Fidelity.
And, Oh My! What a mastering job this is! First off, even the CD layer is better than any of the others I've listened to. But lets get right to the main event: if you have an SACD player you are in for a huge aural treat. On the surface, the stated advantages of the SACD format are wider frequency range and dynamic response. But that is just the beginning. Steve Hoffman, mastering engineer for Audio Fidelity, took the time and effort to put the original master tapes up in a studio and compare them to several different remasters. He then set about the business of transferring, cleaning up, and remastering the recordings in stereo SACD. The very first thing you notice is the reduced and virtually eliminated noise. In places like the intro to "And You and I," the noise floor is greatly reduced to where it isn't an issue anymore. And then there are the dropouts. Or perhap found in other versions between Steve Howe's guitar intro and the first crunching bass notes on "And You and I." Compression issues are gone and the dynamic range is increase substantially. The soundstage is widened and it has become much easier to locate individual instruments in the soundfield. Hoffman payed particular attention to the detailed in the upper mids which adds clarity. For instance, after forty years trying to nail down exactly how many twelve-string guitar parts are in the first verses of "And You and I," I can definitely say there are... mmm... I'll let you buy it and count for yourself. But I now know.
In the movement, "I Get Up, I Get Down," from, "Close to the Edge," you can now perceive the different locations of the organ pipes in their galleries that Rick Wakeman played in his pipe organ solo. On "Siberian Khatru," the percussive, trebly timbre of Chris Squire's bia-amped Rickenbacker bass is much more vivid, dynamic, and articulate, and doesn't muddy up the mix. Throughout the album, Bill Bruford's snare is snappy again. The songs are driven and held together by his kick drum that finally has the low-end grunt it needs to do so.
And here's an interesting little piece of recording trivia for you: Do you remember that weird bagpipe-sounding guitar figure at 6:33 into "Siberian Khatru?" The one with the odd Doppler thing happening? Ever wonder how they got that sound, especially in 1972? Steve Howe and Producer/engineer Eddie Offord wanted to do a "Leslie-esque" sort of sound but wanted something more unique. They fiddled about with various techniques and eventually Offord had his assistant go into the studio and twirl a mic around over his head on its cord whle Steve played. When he did this while standing in front of the amp, it imparted the Doppler pitch shift and volume modulation. They initially tried it with a short length of cable but ended up using up most of the studio to contain the arc of the mic's travel. In the mix, the mono sound from the single mic was manually panned back and forth in the stereo field. That sound has been rendered without the distortion it had picked up on previous versions.
So, this is an album that has greatly benefited from the SACD format and especially from the excellent mastering and tender loving care of Steve Hoffman. How I wish the format and remastering skills had been available some twenty years ago before I threw money at previous mastering jobs. But it is here now, and it is a wonderful boon to lovers of this album! Close to the Edge SACD is available at Audio Fidelity's website and through Amazon.
AUDIO FIDELITY WEBSITE