Aerial Bounderies   Redefined Acoustic Guitar Playing——Cut From Analog Master Tape!

This Michael Hedges album shook up the guitar playing world in 1984 the way Leo Kottke's 6 and 12 String Guitars had in 1969.

John Fahey had produced the Kottke album, which made sense. Windham Hill's Will Ackerman co-produced this one, which was issued on that label. That made somewhat less sense because this album is hardly "new age" music intended to calm and sooth the minds of post hippie grown-ups, which was most of what Ackerman's label trafficked in.

Aerial Boundaries with its edgy, flamboyant slapping, string popping and hard edged percussive strumming can be at times positively jarring, though of course there are times when it shimmers and flows river-like. It's telling that while over time much of what Windham Hill released now sounds dated and "Earth Shoe"-like, Hedges's albums—particularly this one— have time traveled well—sounding as fresh today as when first released, though I'm less enthused now about the "After the Goldrush" cover than I was back when the record was first released..

It's one of only two Windham Hill albums in my collection. The other is Tim Green's Glass Green. I reacted to most of the Windham Hill stuff the way hyper-active kids react to amphetamines. For some reason it calms them down. Rather than relaxing me as intended, I grow agitated and angry listening to Windham Hill fare. For some reason it just pisses me off.

That didn't happen listening to this album, which could at one moment produce the calming feeling of cool water on a hot day and eating hot peppers the next as Hedges could go from calm strumming to leaving open spaces that he'd fill seemingly sporadically with pyrotechnic-like percussive and tonal explosions.

Hedges, who died in a car accident in 1997 at age 44, recorded his debut album for Windham Hill in 1981 and this one, considered his best, three years later.

You can hear in his playing some of the other guitar virtuosos of the folk era (name your favorite, but especially the percussion oriented ones like John Martyn) but his compositions were less folk and more jazz-tinged and minimalist classical, resembling at times works by Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Of course there's a Pat Metheny influence as well, to both his compositions and the sound he achieved.

The combination of odd tunings, his being adept using electronic effects and especially his being well-educated in musical composition made his music anything but "new age". That only stuck because of the Windham Hill Association.

Windham Hill was also annoying (to me anyway) because it, like Rykodisc, made a big deal out of being a digital label. So this album's notes tell you that some tracks were recorded "live to 2 track digital master", while others were recorded "live to 2 track master" because someone couldn't bring himself to use the dreaded "A word".

The paragraph below is what I'd originally written about the source used for lacquer cutting:

"So the digital master for this record was sourced at a variety of studios from both analog and digital tape (the digital probably Sony F-1, which I believe was used to transfer John Renbourn's Sir John A lot Of.. for Windham Hill's Lost Lake division, completely ruining the sound in the process) and all of it was transferred to the final digital master by Mark Boeddeker at Master Digital, in Venice, CA. Bernie Grundman mastered the original vinyl at A&M Studios back in 1984."

But, that is incorrect! I just got an email from Kevin Gray who says the source he cut from was the original analog master tape!"

What that means is, Mark Boeddeker transferred the digital recordings to analog so a final analog master tape could be assembled using both original digital and analog recordings. So the tracks that were originally recorded analog are AAA on this record.

I have that version as well as another pass Grundman made in the late 1990s for the German Alto Analogue label. That second pass creams the original in terms of dynamics and transparency as converters greatly improved (though of course we know they are all perfect and all sound the same).

Kevin Gray remastered this time for Audio Fidelity, which issued it in an attractive gatefold package. And again, this latest edition blows the doors off the previous two in every imaginable way. If you're thinking "why not get an all digital version?", why are you reading this?

If you don't have a copy of this, it's worth getting, musically and sonically. And if you have an original, you will be surprised by how much better this reissue sounds compared to the original.

Music Direct Buy It Now

sethgodin's picture

This album blew me away, and I listen to it in heavy rotation, years later. Hedges was onto something...

rakalm's picture

I found a sealed copy on Discogs and jumped on it. I can ignore that little cut out notch.

rakalm's picture

Here in Baltimore, we were lucky to have Michael play around town (especially at "The Horse", actually called The Horse You Came In On) regularly when he studied at Peabody Conservatory. His use of harmonics, various guitar dynamics and the longest finger stretches I have ever seen put him in a class of his own. More than once saw him "dedicate this one to D'Addario string company" as he would break strings retuning. He played at Artscape (largest free art festival in the US) here the summer before his death. It was quite a homecoming. Will have to check this one out on vinyl, I admit I bought his stuff on CD instead (such was the 80's). Would love to see The Road To Return reissued on vinyl. Thanks for keeping us up to date Michael, always the 1st site I log onto.

ptmconsulting's picture

There is nothing quite so dramatically dynamic and startling as the track "Rickovers Dream" played back on my Apogee Duetta Sig's. It catches unsuspecting fellow audiophiles by total surprise. What a totally different application of this tapping technique, and on acoustic guitar too, not electric. Must have fingers of iron.

cgh's picture

Is a really good LP. Peter Lederman played it to death at RMAF '11 and I was really impressed by the sound. I got home, acquired it, and was shocked at how good Face Yourself sounded.

Michael Fremer's picture
Sounds much better!
rakalm's picture

Wasn't that released in the '90's?

Michael Fremer's picture
Thanks for the typo catch. of course the album couldn't have been reissued before it was originally recorded!
Bcreeve's picture

I have Michael Hedges Breakfast in the Field, his first record for Windham Hill. I think it's a great record and it sounds great too maybe because the the back of the jacket says this record "was recorded without overdubs or multitracking on a MCI JH 110 A analogue two-track tape recorder at 30 inches per second through a Neve 8036 console with minimal equalization." This record was also half-speed mastered by Stan Ricker at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab and pressed at RTI. Wow!

vinyldavid's picture

I need to search out this record-I own one of the aforementioned MCI decks (albeit the "C" revision) with about 50 hours on it. It sounds absolutely incredible, and is the 2nd most transparent tape machine I've ever heard (the first being a Sony APR-5003V). Hopefully someone will cut the first album to vinyl from the original 30ips tape (if they have, please tell me!)

ctbarker32's picture

Michael, thanks for the review. I have multiple copies of the original pressing so I was curious about this re-master. I just received my copy so I will be interested to hear the sound - on my brand new Soundsmith Zephyr II no less. I agree it is a game changer for the genre.

But, you say you only own two Windham Hill records from their catalog?

I think you are bit dismissive of the work that this label did for independent artists mostly of the acoustic variety. There are more records in the catalog that are ground breaking both from a artistic and sonic perspective.

Let me recommend recordings by the likes of The Turtle Island Quartet, Michael Manring, Darol Anger, Paul Horn (this is a killer and innovative and rare recording), The Soul of the Machine (synth record sampler), and Malcolm Daglish. I will even stick my neck out and recommend some George Winston recordings. He is responsible for many of the archival (Lost Lake Arts) recording series of Pierre Bensusan, Prof. Long Hair, and others. If you have ever seen George Winston in concert you will know he is a real musicologist and plays piano and guitar compositions that span the range from Steve Reich to the stride piano stylings of Prof. Longhair.

Because of the A&M hookup there was a flood of Windham hill vinyl product in the eighties that is still easily available in local record stores. Much of it even NOS sealed records. These records almost always have killer sonics and our very worthy of getting a spin on your turntable!

cjp123's picture

So I probably sit somewhere between ctbarker32 and Michael on Windham Hill, but I agree that Michael, you should give it a little more chance--particularly if you are a fan of steel string guitarists. Robbie Basho cut two lps for Windham Hill which are amazing--and I'm sure if Mr. Hedges were alive today, he'd list Robbie as an influence (and probably Eddie Van Halen too!!). But I too often found myself irritated by Windham Hill music--even though I can respect the talents of George Winston, in college, when all his seasonal lps came out, my roomate played them constantly and it was like nails on a chalkboard to me. As for other Hedges fans, Taproot was never on lp. Breakfast in the Fields is my 2nd favorite Hedges lp available on vinyl--Aerial Boundaries really is amazing, and I agree this reissue smokes the original pressing. For those willing to slip a cd into your player, I can highly recommend Oracle. I am not much of a fan of Michael Hedges singer/songwriter lps and songs.

MonetsChemist's picture

... and say this album is so good, it's even worth having on CD!

buelligan's picture

I only ever found it on CD. It is, by far, my fave. Ritual Dance and Rootwitch still give me goosebumps. For me this is his apex.

vinylrules's picture

...I didn't think too highly of the Alto Analogue reissue. In direct comparison vs. my original 1984 Windham Hill pressing it was very disappointing. Go figure.

I am curious about this new reissue though. Hmmm. What to do, what to do! Lol

ctbarker32's picture

So I'm browsing through my collection and come across a couple of albums I hadn't listened to in a while. How about Anthony Braxton - Seven Standards 1985, Volume 1 & 2. Hank Jones on Piano, Rufus Reid on Bass, Victor Lewis on Drums. Produced by Steve Backer and Michael Cuscuna. Got enough street cred yet? Still PO'd Michael? What label? Blue Note? Nope. Yep you guessed it Windham Hill on their Magenta subsidiary label.

All labels have to have there big sellers to keep the lights on. That doesn't mean there are not gems when you dig a bit deeper.


4min33's picture

sound is pretty good too

G-man's picture

I find your notes re: the master's origin interesting. I had sent an email to Audio-Fidelity inquiring as to whether the master was from an analog or digital source. The person who responded literally refused to tell me saying basically a good product is a good product. Even when I mentioned that as a consumer buying a product I should be able to find out what it is I am actually buying. Still, he wouldn't tell me. I'm still p.o.'d about this and I am declining the purchase, (so far).
My fiend brought over his new reissue copy and we compared it to my original WH release. The reissue is more immediate, clear, and at first seems to cream the original. But, what I found (both recorded to my Masterlink) was the reissue puts emphasis of his guitar on the "strings" and I can't hardly detect any on the guitar itself. Where in the original there's more emphasis on the guitar, more wood tone from the guitar itself. Overall it's a bit subdued vs. the reissue but so far I'm gravitating towards the original. This may change when I get more time to compare them but then I'd have to get over being snubbed!

jkingtut's picture

Although I have no musical talent when I moved to the Bay Area for a couple years in the mid 80's I happen to meet Michael at Music Store in Palo Alto. I was taking doumbec lessons with Mary Ellen Donald (amazing and just turned 72) in San Fran and was wandering around the congas when I noticed him in the store and had to go up and say hi and tell him how big a fan I was. He frequently played live in a very small semi outdoor cafe on the main street in town, and I had heard him perform some of Aerial Boundaries. He asked me if I played any instruments and I mentioned the doumbec and he was pretty interested and asked me to come up to his apartment studio so that he could record some of my drumming solo and while he played guitar. I was horrified and nervous as hell but I went anyway and he thanked me for giving him something he could play around with. I had actually been playing for several years but I was so nervous there was likely nothing that he would have ever considered using. Nicest guy you could meet, pretty shocked when I out he accidentally drove off the side of a hilly canyon road in Northern CA and ended up at the bottom.

JohnnySpinVinyl's picture

This LP allows me to make my living room shake! I love the title track very much.I have a Promo copy of the album in GREAT shape and I'm pleased also that you have a review of it here Michael.My heart goes out to the surviving family members, what a loss.

Roothead's picture

This album won a Grammy Award for Best recording, with Steven Miller, Will Ackerman and Hedges himself behind the mixing console in the mobile bus they used at the Windham Hill Inn.
It does beg the question; why remaster a recording that was already so revered? From the '84 Grammies, to 30 years later, we're still talking about it. Many of us have the promo vinyl that was sent out to Hi-Fi stores in the early 80s, this is where I discovered Hedges, with BITF. I've just A/B/X tested this SACD ISO through FOOBAR, DSD DAC, Objective2 headphone amp and Sennheiser HD 250 Linear II cans, hard to get a flatter rig than that for less money...
Whether the Engineer knows it or not, this re-master has clearly enjoyed the use of a compressor, or preamps that have done this, I can pick it every time in blind testing. I've also been playing these songs on guitar for over 20 years, working on piezo pickup development (post FRAP) and with the Sunrise pickup Hedges used here, also building guitars not unlike his. Clearly some of these signal paths have been tweaked, there is more Bass (of the kind that cannot be reproduced by a typical Martin D-28 soundbox) on this recording. The EQ on the FRAPs has changed, not as bright. Channel separation is different, things sit differently in the mix. The verb on the title track is breaking up, out wide, where it is typically clear... Some parts of "Spare Change" are even positioned differently in the mix, as if the L & R channels were inverted! For all the DR reports, this sounds like the quiet sections are louder and the loudest sections, more flattened out in dB terms. Go and get out your promo vinyl and give it a spin again, and re-acquaint yourself with every nuance of Aerial Boundaries. It was meticulously put there for a reason. From writing the tune in Larry Hagman's barhroom (Yes, true story) for reverb, to "tone production" in playing, fingernails, attack, sustain and overall the "Silence" Hedges spoke of, this re-master seems to miss all of that. It may well show up on a spectrogram with more DR, but it sounds like a belated casualty of loudness wars, more than faithful to the composer's original intention. Disappointed. Save yourselves some dough, and crank up that original. After all, what made Hedges 12th fret harmonic slap so "explosive" was the difference between carefully crafted quiet passages and his visceral attack on the strings. The original, it would appear to the naked ear, has more dynamic range, more "wood", more harmonic content, than this master does. It is an album ahead of it's time and still sounds like it, left alone!