Johnny Cash – American IV CD (Impression)

Written by on 06/30/2012 in Latest Auditions - No comments

I don’t recommend buying this album. Don’t even try the iTunes download as a tester. No, its not that I’m not a huge fan. I have great respect for Cash’s music, especially the later Rick Ruben produced material of which this album is the fourth release. If you value good sound quality to establish a connection with the music, you just cannot consider any of the digital versions currently available. The sound on this CD is as good as the worst out there and the iTunes version no better, so take my advice and leave them until someone with a bit of savvy remaster them in future. I cannot begin to express my utter disgust with the sound on this album after I excitedly began listening to my newly acquired CD-version only to shortly after come to the shocking realization something really horrible was wrong.

The 1st track begins with a short message from Cash recorded to simulate it sounding as if played back on a vintage phonogram. His warning message stops and instantly the song takes off with Cash’s own rhythm guitar beautifully defined center-stage. At this point, hearing the textured definition of those 1st chords, raises a flood of excitement at the anticipation of knowing what musical highlights should lay in store. When Johnny starts singing, his voice is perfectly placed within the sound-stage slightly above his guitar and together provide a good sense of scale within the acoustic space. The realism is such that it almost crosses the divide between make-believe and real life putting on perfect display the great talents with which producer Rich Ruben captured the magic of this event. I quietly thought while listening to these opening bars “Rick, you’re a star…”

“The Man Comes Around” builds up like many of Cash’s songs as more guitars and a piano join in with him in a lead and backing type arrangement. The producer rightfully preferred to keep all focus on Cash and therefore chose the carefully placed arrangements to be mostly of instrumental origin. It all fits together beautifully until the song reaches its crescendo however and right at this point of no return, the height of excited anticipation disappointingly fails to come to any of the expected relief. Instead of reaching delightful musical climax, Cash’s voice audibly softens and reduces in size as the music program is limited into what sounds like one loud monotonic blare. Every last ounce of dynamic contrast is squashed against the ceiling as it becomes clear the recording volume was already maxed out way before the song hit its peaks.

Imagine the thrust from a powerful motorcar stopping when the engine runs into the rev-limiter. This is similar. The party stops in an instant. It’s like waking up from a dream at the very point of bliss realizing what was meant to be happening failed to come to fulfillment. You instantly experience an intense need to just claw back in there to follow through on the excitement, but the dream is just not there anymore. Reality kicked in, the moment is lost. Similarly, the anticipated musical fulfillment the climax to the build-up in this song should have held, just vanished. All you’re left with is disappointing emptiness. There’s no more gears and there’s no clawing back.

This situation quickly establishes itself as the sonic theme the album takes on. The term within the industry is ‘tone’. American IV’s tone however has nothing pleasant about it. By track two “Hurt” becomes even worse as the music program audibly clips in the most horrible digital fashion of what seems continuous exceeding of full scale quantization. What this means is that the digital quantifier completely ran out of headroom during the mastering process. It couldn’t keep on defining ever louder music program and when this started happening binary code could not be allocated to the samples defining the music. This left those too loud, undefinable samples empty, meaning silence, no music, nothing. Music is not a rapid succession of silences and when you hear it quantified as it is done on this album you will understand what an utter shame it is to hear Johnny Cash and Rick Ruben’s efforts all but destroyed.

The whole album however well produced sounds bland, monochrome, lacking vibrancy and contrast. You can hear the mastering engineer’s succession of electronic devices driven into the onset of clipping to obtain the obscene recording levels they did here. Its not pretty at all. Just a colorless grey mass with Cash’s voice becoming a squeaky speckle at the center of a loud mess. You keep wanting to turn the volume down because it always sounds too loud no matter how soft you play it.

Of course when I started realizing what was going on, I reached for the CD’s booklet expecting only one name and sure as daylight, there it is printed “Mastered at Sony Studios by Vlado Meller”. The senseless mess instantly made sense. It was Chili Peppers’ Californication all over again. All honor thus bestowed on Mr. “Hypercompression” Meller for another chunk of his unorthodox genius destroying the good work of others. He really ought to go back to school for a history lesson to see how they did it in the fifties or get out of this business altogether! I have it on good authority though that the vinyl version comes to full justice of this otherwise brilliant production. No need to mention it wasn’t mastered by the same person…

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Audio Engineer, Critic & Retailer twenty-seven years in the making.

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