Grateful Dead: Complete Studio Albums Collection Remastered in HD

The heavens opened this fall and out poured all 13 Grateful Dead studio albums. Your choice: 24/96 or 24/192 PCM in WAV, AIFF, ALAC or FLAC, fresh from the original master tapes.

The live albums are obviously not included, most notably Live/Dead, Skull & Roses and Europe '72. But what is here includes everything the Dead recorded in the studio and officially released from 1967 (The Grateful Dead) through 1989 (Built To Last).

Here's the deal: For now, you must download all of the albums as a set, choosing either 24/96 ($199.98) or 24/192 ($249.98). That's $15.38 per album for 24/96 and $19.23 per album for 24/192. In the past these sets usually get broken up and sold by album, so if you only want one or two, don't give up and check back in a few months (though I make no promises this will be the case).

The meta data is correctly set for all tracks, so although they will arrive in your folder as a single long list of songs, any decent playback software should separate them out beautifully into albums. Liner notes and album covers are missing however, though there is the ugly (by Dead standards) set graphic included as PDF.

Rewind about 10 years ago as the first DVD-Audio discs were hitting the streets: Playing the Grateful Dead's 24/96 American Beauty on DVD-A, I was perplexed at what was coming out of the speakers. It sounded like the right songs, but not the right parts. Guitars parts were messed with, some instruments louder, more reverb. What the . . .

Turns out that Mickey Hart had taken the original multitracks and remixed both American Beauty and Working Man's Dead for the DVD-A releases, presenting those new mixes in 5.1 to the public for the first time in October of 2001. Some thought them an improvement, some didn't.

I'll admit to liking how they sounded in some ways, but I found the new mixes, particularly the stereo tracks, overall musically and sonically goofy. The kick drum had been pushed up front, digital reverb added everywhere and the voices spread around. Others may have been more impressed, but when HDTracks first released both American Beauty and Workingman's Dead for download last year I had my fingers crossed, but damn if these weren't the Hart mixes again.

That wrong (to my ears) has been righted with these new releases. According to David Glasser, Chief Grateful Dead Engineer at Airshow Mastering, all albums were "mastered from the original master tapes in Airshow Studio C, Boulder, CO. Transfers were done at 192kHz / 24 Bit from an Ampex ATR with Plangent replay electronics to a Prism ADA-8XR A/D converter into a soundBlade workstation. The studio, designed by Sam Berkow, has Dunlavy SC-V loudspeakers driven by Ayre Acoustic amps."

It gets even better. Again, Glasser:

For comparison I referenced the previous CD versions and original LPs. The goal was to remain faithful to the originals while at the same time extracting as much resolution and detail as possible using modern technology, and improving on the original releases, if possible. Some of the masters were transferred flat with no EQ or compression. (That is a testament to the mixing and production of the day; Terrapin Station, in particular, sounded spectacular right off the tape.) When needed, EQ was either a solid-state Prismsound MEA-2, API 5500, or newly manufactured Pultec EQM-1A3 tube equalizers. Very light compression from a Fairman TMC was used on 5 of the titles. No peak limiting was used on any of the masters with the exception of Built to Last, the only album that was originally mixed to a digital recorder (Sony 1630). All the dynamics of the master recordings have been retained. Several of the tape boxes contained the original LP EQ notes, and these were taken into consideration.

Plangent Processing, used so successfully on recent Grateful Dead live releases, was used on this project for speed correction and wow and flutter removal. (This made a huge difference, and I think should be considered for any archival release.) The ability to mitigate the mechanical shortcomings of the tape transports results in increased clarity and low-end solidity, stereo image stability, and a reduction of scrape-flutter induced distortion. You can hear this readily in the reverb of the a capella section toward the end of "Uncle John's Band" from Workingman's Dead, the amazing detail on the guitar and harpsichord on "Mountains of the Moon" from Aoxomoxoa, and the synthesizer section of "Unbroken Chain" from Mars Hotel. Plangent Processing uses the latent bias signal on the tape as a speed reference. Because this signal is very high frequency (90kHz up to 450kHz, depending on the make and model of the recorder), special analysis equipment and wide-bandwidth replay electronics and heads are used for transfers and the speed-correction processing is applied at Plangent's lab in Massachusetts.

I remember hearing Workingman's Dead when it was released in 1970 - my first real (and lasting) introduction to the band. Hearing these songs direct off the master tapes was a very special experience, and these 192k and 96k HD Tracks releases are really the closest thing to hearing the master tapes.

Michael Lavorgna and I have had many discussions late into the day about the need for transparency and documentation with HD releases, so buyers can learn the actual provenance of what they are considering. HDTracks rightly points out that the record labels are in control here, but credit to both parties for being so forthright about this and posting it right where you buy the tracks.

All well and good, but how do they sound?

Comparisons were made to the aforementioned Hart-remixed 24/96 albums, the CDs from The Golden Road and Beyond Description box sets, and briefly, various vinyl pressings. I listened only to the new 24/192 versions, though since the 24/96 albums are from the same mastering, I imagine the differences to be ones of very small degrees.

In pretty much all cases, the new HDTracks versions hew closest to the CDs from the box sets, but exhibit greater dynamic range and a more supple midrange and top end with greater and finer detail. The Hart mixes sound comical by comparison with their electronic-ish bass drum pulses pushed forward into the mix like a mad eighties new wave band.

Keep in mind that because these are entirely new masterings as noted by Glasser above, we're not comparing format sound here, just the taste of the remastering engineers and use of the latest technology. And in all cases the new masterings are an improvement.

Standouts sound-wise include most of the early albums with their raw and honest presentations. The recording conditions for the sixties and early seventies were simple by today's standards, but it could be argued that newer tech toys and the latest gadget could often harm rather than enhance what the Dead were attempting.

A later exception is Terrapin Station, where platinum-plated rock producer Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner, etc etc) established the discipline he is known for to get precise, well recorded tracks. Some might say too precise for a band like the Grateful Dead, but this one stands out as a recording and mix.

And speaking of gadgets that might do the band in, the last album in this set is released at 16/44, no doubt the result of someone believing the "perfect sound" mantra about the then new digital recording technology. Not their shining moment, sonically (and probably artistically) speaking.

But in the end, this is how all HD reissues should be done sonically. Period. I can't give it higher praise and if you have any interest in the Grateful Dead, this is the set you want. Liner notes and album cover art would have been nice.

A great catalog done right. Now if we could just get those live albums treated the same way . . .

Regor Ladan's picture

THIS is the way ALL historic pop and rock catalogs should be treated.

Provenance! Wholly Smokes! Who can believe it! Detailed mastering notes! Oh My Gosh!

[stupid comments deleted by me, Ed.]

Anyway this is awesome. Let's hope others follow suit. 

Regor Ladan's picture

I think you nailed it. I bought the 96/24 version.

I agree with you totally that they do resmeble the  remastered CDs very closeley. A bit more DR, as you noted, and maybe a bit more resolution to the master. But they are closer then I expected.

I was disappointed with no cover art or liner notes. The PDF cover for the whole box set is rather ugly as you said. I had to google each individual cover and tagged them myself.

For casual fans, ripping the CDs will suffice, they are that good. For those a bit more fanatic, this download is clearly a must have.


Bearfromdelaware's picture

I got my 192/24 set (and oddly) the 1972 Lesh remix of "Anthem Of The Sun" was used instead of the original....why?