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As noted here several times since it’s release (and most famously by Rip Rowan on ProRec), Rush‘s 2002 comeback album, Vapor Trails, was poorly mixed and mastered compared to their earlier albums.  In certain circles it became the poster child of the downside of the loudness war; in fact, it’s referenced as an example on that Wikipedia page I just linked to.  Many Rush fans have begged for a re-release with more dynamic range that’ll allow the music to “breathe” as opposed to being just a wall of sound.

The 2009 release of Retrospective III featured remixes of “One Little Victory” and “Earthshine” from Vapor Trails that showed the benefits of re-treating the album.  To my ears, much of the mud from the mix has been drained out.  I think the individual instruments can be heard better and there’s a bit more ebb and flow in the different movements of each song.  They are more of a joy to listen to.

Here are some short samples of the original and remixed songs that might help the reader to compare:

One Little Victory (30 second sample): Original MP3 | FLAC; Remix MP3 | FLAC
Earthshine (30 second sample): Original MP3 | FLAC; Remix MP3 | FLAC

Now that there’s concrete news of a remixed Vapor Trails from Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, the promise of the 13-song epic being cleaned up for good is palpable.  I will gladly buy the new CD and keep the old one as a collector’s item.  However, based on the two remixed songs from R3, I’m concerned that a reissue with Richard Chycki‘s mixing and Andy VanDette‘s mastering might not be as optimal as it could be.  A few humble suggestions:

1. Don’t master the reissue with any digital clipping whatsoever.  Audible or not, clipped waveforms are a symptom of audio that’s had it’s amplitude increased beyond what should be the maximum.  The Replay Gain values of the already-remixed tracks are less than 1dB different than the originals, which indicates that their overall loudness is similar.  I’d rather the loudness and dynamic range resemble the Rush albums of the 90s, the Rush MFSL releases, or Porcupine Tree CDs.  Heck, use Steven Wilson as a sounding board.  Which gets me to my next point:

2. This CD is for the fans.  It’s to right a wrong.  It shouldn’t be meant to compete with other CDs in a changer or other MP3s on an iPod, both in terms of loudness and price.   Release it cheaply, without a bunch of marketing.  Rush has one of the largest audiences on the internet; believe me, the word of the re-release will get around with much advertising.  And the tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of us that want to buy it will think twice if it’s priced like new material.  $10 seems good.  One suggestion to keep the price low: offer a packaging that’s just a cardboard sleeve, meant for owners of the original CD to swap the replacement CD into the original case.  Also, consider an online release option that uses losslessly-compressed FLAC files.

3. Please use this an opportunity to reassess what “quality sound” means when associated with Rush music, whether it’s on CD or DVD.  Using the “Caravan” single as a harbinger of what we can expect from the next Rush album, Clockwork Angels, it’s due to be just as loud as the original VT was.  We have volume knobs and aren’t afraid to use them.  Radio stations and many playback devices have dynamic range compression.  Geddy, Alex, and Neil, please use your influence to improve the audio quality of your band’s product going forward.  I’m looking forward to the next decade of Rush music.

Update (2011-Feb-07): Rich Chycki comments on the issue [via Blabbermouth.net]:

A while back, I remixed ‘One Little Victory’ and ‘Earthshine’ from RUSH’s 2002 release ‘Vapor Trails’, to be included on their 2009 release, ‘Retrospective 3’. The remixes were very well-received so the band has decided to let me move ahead and remix the remainder of the CD.

To put rumors to rest, there was no re-recording or performance correction done on the first two tracks and that will continue for the remainder of the CD. The reason ‘new’ details may seem to have appeared in those songs is due to the fact that I listened to the multitracks and interpreted the mix structure without first analyzing the original [deliberately] — so tracks either muted or turned down in the original mixes may shine through differently (the acoustic guitars in ‘Earthshine’ might be a good example of this). As well, the same technical tweaks will continue for the remaining songs and I still will not have a buss limiter on the mix set to stun.

In any case, both the band and I are really excited to re-visit ‘Vapor Trails’ and hope you’ll all enjoy the remix.

The “buss limiter … set to stun” quote gives me some hope, but the mastering engineer needs to play along as well to get better quality than the mixes that were on R3.

@aharden

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