Audio Fidelity Gets CS&N Off the Couch and Into Your Room

The Mastering Session and The Music

Sometimes you just get lucky.

The Mastering Session and The Music

Sometimes you just get lucky.

The day I learned Steve Hoffman was going to re-master Crosby, Stills & Nash for an Audio Fidelity gold CD edition turned out to be the same day he actually did it. I found out early enough in the day to secure an invitation to Marsh Mastering in Los Angeles, and because I happened to be staying with friends that day only an hour away, managed to arrive in time to witness the entire session. CS&N has been a favorite since I was a teen, so for me, this was like winning the lottery.

The folk-rock “super group” CSN formed in 1968 after David Crosby departed The Byrds, Stephen Stills disbanded Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash was ready to quit The Hollies. The story goes that Mama Cass Elliot (or John Sebastian) first came up with the idea that these three guys would sound great together. Her Laurel Canyon home (or Joni Mitchell’s) was where Nash first lent his vocals to a Crosby-Stills duet. Whoever had the idea and wherever it happened, the three-part harmony produced a gorgeous-sounding perfect blend and the trio CS&N was born.

The debut album was revolutionary for not being so. Instead of producing an album that dealt with the counter-culture, the environment, the sexual revolution, Vietnam or other issues of the time, Crosby’s, Stills’ and Nash’s writing focused on their individual love interests.

Bouyed by melodic, harmony-rich folk-rock in an era of “blooze-rock” and exuding wide-eyed optimism (with “spiritual guidance” provided by Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun), CS&N, issued May of 1969, felt and sounded like a breath of fresh air.

The album, like the time in which it was produced, marked the beginning of a more introspective period for many young people. Initially criticized by some for being too soft, CS&N was quickly embraced by a maturing pop culture ready to move beyond 3-minute songs. With strong airplay, both AM and FM, the album became an immediate top 10 hit in America, and earned the group a “Best New Artist” Grammy.

Two hours after receiving the invitation I was ushered into Marsh Mastering’s impressively equipped suite where I was greeted by Stephen Marsh, Steve Hoffman and a few lucky participants in Steve’s on-line forum also there to witness the event. Coincidentally, Marsh mastering is located near Wally Heider Studio III, where CS&N was recorded.

Steve Hoffman, foreground, Stephen Marsh seated at console, eyewitnesses

(photo by Randy Wells)

Next came a real eye and ear opener. Marsh had in his hands the CS&N original master tapes Stills had uncovered in his home a few years ago. Playback would be via a vintage Ampex two-track tape deck, a modern mastering board, some vacuum tube amps and a great sounding set of speakers.

The tapes

(Photo by Randy Wells)

When the opening Martin D-45 acoustic guitar riffs rang out on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” everyone in the room began to smile. This was going to be good. Steve gave us some background info on the seven-minute four-part suite that Stills wrote and performed for folksinger Judy Collins, his soon to be ex-girlfriend.

Steve  pointed out how “thumpy” the Fender Precision bass guitar sounded when the master tape was played back “flat.” Stephen immediately began twisting dials and punching in numbers as Steve called them out in an effort to tighten up the lower registers so the bass line would gain punch, solidity and drive. The overly-compressed guitar sound was another obstacle. But that wasn’t the only challenge facing these mastering engineers.

Steve explained, “The CS&N album is actually quite tricky to master properly. The ‘group’ vocals were mostly comped onto one track of the eight-track tape so the tonality is way off from the solo vocals. In a few cases we just left it, but for ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ we felt compelled to piece together the several edited sections with different tone shapings so as to match the vocal tonality in those individual sections. Now the changes between the edits are not so abrupt. The whole song sounds much more uniform.” When the Audio Fidelity mastering was played back for us a few minutes later, all of the textured singing was evenly rendered and Dallas Taylor’s percussive bass slaps had superb depth and realism.

Watching the reels go around

(photo by Randy Wells)

“Marrakesh Express could have been a Hollies song,” Steve remarked. And I believe him, because The Hollies actually tried to record it at one time. A jaunty Graham Nash pop tune that comes off a bit thin and bright sounding on tape, this one needed some body and weight. After a few deft mastering moves, this charming, melodic confection written on a Moroccan train ride had been transformed into a recording with newfound warmth that more effectively showcased Stills’ amazing musicianship.

Interestingly, there was a duplicate of Crosby’s intro chatter for “Marrakesh Express” at the end of one reel. Steve compared this to the chatter that had been originally edited into the beginning of the song on the master tape. After going back and forth a few times, he decided the chatter at the end of the reel was actually the original! Stephen then inserted this where it belonged, and the levels and timing were checked to make sure everything matched. That was pretty cool to watch…

“Guinevere” (yes, it only has one “n” now) is a great sounding song just as it is on the master tape. After Steve checked the notes he had compiled during the previous two weeks while listening to probably every mastering known to man, he managed to find some worthwhile changes, including removing without impacting treble extension any edginess present on the Crosby-Nash harmony.

Steve also placed the vocals a little more “upfront” to give some depth to the presentation, making it sound as if the group might actually be in the studio with us. Both were subtle, but sonically important changes. “This tune could easily have been on a Byrds album,” Steve noted.

Crosby reportedly wrote this atmospheric mood piece about three women in his life, including love interest Joni Mitchell and his steady girlfriend Christine Hinton (who died in a car accident the day this record went Gold).

The last two songs on the first reel required more sound shaping. Although “You Don’t Have to Cry” with its precise vocal arrangement was the tune that first brought the group together, it’s probably not considered the best track on the album. That day at Marsh Mastering it could have been. A little sweetness added to the midrange went a long way toward making it a real standout. Fortunately, Nash’s “Pre-Road Downs” received the same harmonious treatment and the brightness on the tape was “a relatively easy fix” according to Steve. It features Mama Cass Elliot on background vocals and Stills on “backwards” guitar.

The second reel held some great music, none arguably better than the lead track, “Wooden Ships,” which Crosby wrote on his boat. With its surreal, keep-the-faith 60’s vibe, this is one groovy cut. “If you smile at me I will understand, because that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language,” apparently came from a Florida church sign. Great Crosby, Stills and Kantner story telling here too. And what a story it is – at least if you like hearing about sharing uncontaminated berries after a nuclear war to stay alive.

Fortunately the big one hasn’t happened yet, and a little sympathetic mastering by Steve limited any vocal compression and harshness found on the master tape. When all was said and done, Stills’ brilliant lead guitar and complex organ work were beautifully balanced with the rest of the intricate instrumentation. Sonically amazing, it’s a stunning piece of social commentary as well.

Depending on your perspective, “Lady of the Island” is either one of the best songs Graham Nash ever wrote or it’s complete romantic mush. If you grew up as a teenager with this album like I did, and played it continuously during that wondrous period of “self-discovery”, it’s utterly tranquil and timeless. Nash’s girlfriend at the time, Joni Mitchell, reportedly inspired the song’s inclusion on the album, even if it may have been about two women meshed into one. Sentimentality aside, the holographic imaging on this intuitive song is breathtaking, and the AF mastering just makes it better.

“Helplessly Hoping” is probably my favorite song on the album, if just for the incredible locked-in harmonies. Did these guys ever sound tighter singing together? “They are three together” indeed. I swear I could hear vibrato and vocal layering at Marsh Mastering that I had not heard before. You could even hear Crosby’s tongue hitting the top of his mouth.

The next to last song on the album suffers from the same overblown bass as the first one. It’s also recorded “as dry as a bone” according to Steve. Within minutes, Crosby’s haunting ”Long Time Gone,” with Stills performing everything but drums, got a fresh update and gained even more of the weighty feeling of having been composed the night Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. (Note: The tape “defects” on this song were untouched, so there are a couple of subtle “static” spots on the intro that Steve decided to leave in.)

Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen” lyric segueing into the final and epic “49 Bye-Byes” makes clear that this was Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “relationship album.” I guess hanging around the lovely Christine Hinton, Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell can do that for you.

Before moving on to the various mastering/sound comparisons, I must say how impressed I was by Marsh’s ability to be in tune with Hoffman’s desire to keep the dynamic range of the original master tape intact. They simultaneously strove to make the songs’ tonality gel more effectively as a whole, while also focusing on enhancing the individual vocals to make them sound as lifelike as possible. These guys really play well together.


Hoffman and Marsh Work and Play Well Together!

(Photo by Randy Wells)

The Sound

When it came time to compare all of the different masterings of CS&N I have on hand, I knew I had my work cut out for me. That’s because being a “fan” (as in fanatic), I have pretty much all of them. Staying with just CDs for now, I have: 1) the original mid-80’s CD mastered by Barry Diament at Atlantic studios (both the USA and Japan releases), 2) the 1994 CD mastered by Joe Gastwirt at Ocean View Digital (also the Atlantic Gold CD version with a very well-written and informative booklet by Raymond Foye), 3) the 2006 expanded edition release transferred to HDCD by John Nowland at Redwood Digital (with four bonus tracks, but no “Come On in My Kitchen”), and 4) the Audio Fidelity Gold CD from this mastering session.

The short verdict is that compared to all the other digital masterings available, the Audio Fidelity Gold CD of CS&N has a significantly richer, warmer and more transparent midrange as well as greater presence. I believe it is ultimately more revealing of what can be pulled from the master tape, because it takes the listener deeper into the mix.

Contrary to some reports, this CD is not “bright sounding.” It is actually very smooth and enjoyable to listen to throughout. It does have a detailed and dynamic presentation, but it also has more realistic vocals, which the others lack. On the original CD the vocals can come off sounding a bit thin, and on the ’94 or ‘06 CDs they can be a bit bright on some songs and in general do not sound quite as natural.

The vocals on the Audio Fidelity CD have a more layered quality to them, which can make them appear to come forward just a bit. The end result for me was a more engaging listening experience. Like listening to the best LPs of this title, you never felt as if you wanted it to end. I made sure to compare the ’06 expanded release on an HDCD player to ensure that I was hearing it properly. 

If I could come up with anything to criticize, and I’m being super-critical here, the Audio Fidelity CD is just a bit more “clinical” sounding than the best CS&N vinyl that I’ve heard. By that I mean it is so clean and dynamic that it lacks some of the feeling of listening to an actual band playing music together. Most listeners will probably never notice this subtle difference and may not even care. It would be nice to have an LP (or SACD) produced from the high-res Audio Fidelity file of course. Here’s wishing that can happen someday.

So for those who have the ability to play LPs as well as CDs, comparing the best sounding CS&N on LP to this Audio Fidelity CD is a much closer call than many die-hard vinyl lovers might think. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison to make considering the differences between the two mediums and the playback devices involved. But, even when played back on different systems of varying quality, the differences, subtle or not, were easily discernable to others and myself.

Unfortunately, all of the original USA Atlantic LPs of CS&N I’ve heard are a sonic mess, as are most of the Atlantic vinyl reissues. They are uniformly lifeless in the midrange, shrill in the treble, and/or muddy in the bass. The later USA reissues cut by George Piros (GP) at Atlantic, at least those Monarch pressings having a –F matrix on both sides, are another story. For some reason, records made from this particular lacquer are hard to find.

They have a sweetness and authority that remains convincing, compelling and very enjoyable. Bass is tight and very extended, acoustic guitars are well reproduced with lots of detail, the soundstage has excellent depth, and voices sound real and layered. My friend James Dahlquist first alerted me to this particular pressing, and it remains one of my favorites. Although a bit compressed sonically, it sounds “right” to me. Vocals and instruments are very well balanced in the mix with a round warm tone. This record sounds the most like a band playing together in the room. Could it be that this LP mastering has some “air” added on top to make it sound more appealing? Could be...

The USA Nautilus, German and Japanese LP pressings of this album made in the 80’s are a mixed bag. The original UK pressing is reportedly not much better. A hard treble, veiled midrange and/or blubbery bass just don’t help a recording that’s a bit threadbare and somewhat dull sounding to begin with. This album needs some “meat on the bone” and “breath of life” if you know what I mean.

What about the now out-of-print Classic Records vinyl of CS&N you ask? These pressings (both the 33-RPM and 45-RPM versions) were made using the same master tapes that Audio Fidelity had to work with. Cut by Bernie Grundman, these LPs are right up there with the double –F Atlantic reissue. In fact, the Classic Records 45-RPM version probably matches the Audio Fidelity CD most closely as it has that “pristine” presentation and is very transparent. Unfortunately, these are not getting any easier to find. And this article probably won’t help matters any.

The most recent Rhino reissue on LP is a Pallas pressed beauty cut by Bernie Grundman, though it doesn’t use the same lacquers as the Classic Records 33-RPM pressing. It sounds pretty good too – until you hear the Classic Records pressings or the double –F Atlantic reissue, which have greater presence and realism.

Here’s an interesting story from the wonderful DVD “Under the Covers - A Magical Journey: Rock N Roll in LA in the 60's - 70's.” Gary Burden was the designer and Henry Diltz was the photographer of the “down home” album cover for CS&N.  The cover shot has the group sitting on an old couch in front of an abandoned building in this order: Nash, Stills, Crosby. A few days later, after the group had named themselves Crosby, Stills & Nash, they all agreed to go back and re-shoot it to prevent confusion between how the album title would read and what the cover photo would infer. But when they got there the house had been torn down. The shot was used, and for years after people would approach Crosby saying “Hey Nash!”

Summing up: The Audio Fidelity release of CS&N sounds as real and natural as the cover photograph appears. This CD should be a revelation for many listeners, especially those who have not heard the best sounding LPs. CS&N is a magical album. Unfortunately, it’s an early eight-track recording with a mix that will never consistently provide for a truly audiophile listening experience. Still, this limited edition Gold CD succeeds because it’s mastered with both warmth and tonal detail that’s missing from the other compact disc versions out there.

Crosby, Stills & Nash sound like the band they’ve always been - a cohesive unit intent on laying down some of the most perfect harmonies ever performed or recorded. No noise reduction or compression was used in the making of this CD. And there’s some real midrange presence to enjoy. Don’t miss it. Who says the “hippie dream” is over?

Marsh and Hoffman Stand Up But Don't Take a Bow

(photo by Randy Wells)


detroitvinylrob's picture

Hmmmm, guess I judged the Classic 45 RPM inaccurately... thought it lacked the transparency of my domestic 33 1/3 copy. Opps, just sold it off.

Happy Listener! ;^)>