Friday, August 16, 2013

Record Review: Neil Young Harvest - 2009 Reprise Vinyl LP 33rpm (Chris Bellman)

 As part of the Neil Young Archives Official Release Series ongoing project, the first four Neil Young studio albums were remastered from the original analog Master Tapes and reissued on vinyl in 2009. These have come to market in several shapes like 140gr vinyl, 180gr vinyl and a boxset with all four albums, for the US and European markets. This article focuses on the fourth album "Harvest" that for me is one of the best music albums ever made, I like it so much that I really had to find what is the all time ultimate mastering and pressing of this masterpiece and I want to share my findings with you.

The music is sublime and the album has a strategic harmony to bring the listener running through emotional fields full of sweet melodies like "Out On The Weekend" and "Harvest", sometimes taking you through memories and stories of mild nostalgic despair like "A Man Needs a Maid" and "Old Man" setting the ground for the spine tingling "The Needle and The Damage Done" and shivering your soul up to the mind blowing finale with the power of "Words". Brilliant music from the pure genius of Neil Young.

We are lucky to have Neil's music and even more lucky because Neil Young is a true Audiophile! He's not only a music legend, but this is also a man seriously concerned with the sound quality that can be appreciated when listening to his music, he makes all possible efforts to ensure his fans get to hear these beautiful albums with the highest possible fidelity to the source recording. For this reason, Chris Bellman from Bernie Grundman Studios was given the original Master Tapes to cut these new vinyl reissues that are produced 100% analog and provide amazing sound quality and the highest possible fidelity.

When it comes to "Harvest" on LP, the most appreciated version and almost universally preferred LP has always been the famous 1972 original USA release mastered by Lee Hulko at Sterling, the famous engineer whose work is utterly respected by audiophiles and professionals alike. There have been other releases from other countries, some reissues, and even audiophile attempts like the Half Speed Mastered Nautilus Series "Harvest" LP from 1982, but when it came to put the best up on the throne, Lee Hulko's cut was the ultimate choice for most experienced listeners. When this reissue appeared in 2009, being cut from the best source by one of the best Mastering studios in the world today, the first big question was obvious: how does it compare to the original LP? Can it sound even better?

I was very much intrigued all these years by so many people mentioning the original Lee Hulko cut, so I had to find one to hear it myself! Well, after a long search for an original LP that was truly in great condition (not an easy task, most of them were played to death back then and surface noise can be a problem) I finally found one and now I was able to make my own comparison review, this article is about the 1972 Original vs 2009 Reissue shootout. A couple of hours into the comparison work, track by track runs and looking for all the little details and nuances, these were my listening notes.

About the original 1972 Lee Hulko cut:

- Lower frequencies, specially bass notes, bloom wider and with more intensity, more of a room filler sound that also gives a "slower" feeling to the rhythm of the songs.

- Mid band frequencies seem to be a little recessed in the soundstage, and the higher frequencies a little bit rolled off. This can be heard in the way Neil's voice and the drums cymbals present themselves, these can sound a little muted sometimes.

- There's a general sweetness to the sound, it is very relaxed and enjoyable.

About the 2009 Chris Bellman cut:

- Lower frequencies, that bass, are now a little tighter and faster.

- Drums, and specially cymbals, are brought back into the mix in a more realistic presentation.

- Neil's voice has less of that eery quality to it, sounds more upfront and present in the room.

- Overall it sounds with more dynamic range and better resolution of details.

To sum it up, I'd say that these two masterings are not very different, they are certainly closer than many other shootouts I've done. Tonality, the timbre of all the elements, is just about the same, listening to any of these versions will give you pretty much the same information about the instruments being played or who's singing... the main changes are more related to subtle EQ moves and maybe the overall transparency of the mastering chain. My listening notes are written in such a way that makes it easier to describe the differences I've heard and get the "message" across to the reader, but much more than that is left unsaid (it would take pages and pages to describe everything). The main choice here seems to be between the overall sweetness and relaxed sound of the original, or the increased dynamics and added information of the reissue. Both sound absolutely great, so the choice may just come down to personal preference or better matching to your audio system.

My personal choice is the 2009 reissue, I think overall it's the version with the highest fidelity to the source tape and the one that provides the deepest insight about this amazing album without becoming analytic or over detailed. There is an added grunt to the reissue that works very well to make the album more cohesive and easier to understand. This remaster is really a great job! Also, it is extremely difficult to find the original Lee Hulko cut pressing in truly great shape that allows you to enjoy this music with the sound quality it deserves, original copies were played a lot and after more than 35 years in storage or in the used market most have not been very well cared for... even if one does find a minty mint unplayed original LP, the quality of the vinyl material used for this German pressed 2009 reissue is indeed superior with lower noise floor and allows for a more silent playback.

Another interesting aspect of "Harvest" is how superior the vinyl sounds when compared to the existing CD versions. I mean, I really love this album, but it never really clicked for me on CD like it does on LP. This is usually the case but "Harvest" is probably the one album that showcases how some music simply can't fit into bits and bytes, for some reason... If you love this music like I do, please do get it on vinyl!

On a perfectionist note, you should know there was a US release (cat number 517937-1) and another European release (cat number 9362-49786-5) of this "Harvest" reissue, and that they do share the exact same mastering being pressed from the same stampers cut by Chris Bellman. There are dozens of reports about noisy pressings on the US version, on the other hand the latest Pallas (Germany) pressed LP's are dead silent and flat, and I've also found that the artwork and packaging quality is superior on the European versions of these Neil Young Archives Official Release Series LP's with thicker cardboard stock and replicated details are impressively executed.

Vinyl Gourmet Rating: Music (0-10): 10   Sound (0-10): 8   Product Value (0-10): 9

Neil Young - Harvest (1972)
Reprise USA Original First Press (Lee Hulko - Sterling Studios) 1972
Catalog Number: MS 2032   
Matrix Side A: MS 2032-A   31176-2E   Sterling LH   2   A14   
Matrix Side B: MS 2032 B   31177-1U   Sterling A5

Neil Young - Harvest (1972)
Reprise reissue Made in EU (Chris Bellman - Bernie Grundman Studios) 2009
Catalog Number: 9362-49786-5
Matrix Side A: 1-517937-A   CB   G   -18662-
Matrix Side B: 1-517937-B   CB   G   -18662-
Barcode: 093624978657

Review by Sérgio Redondo
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  1. Interesting comparison. Thanks for taking the time! I've got several pressings of 'Aja' and have been meaning to do the same... but never got around to it.
    Still on Neil Young, yesterday I posted an article on the live album that followed 'Harvest': 'Time Fades Away'.

  2. Hi Bruce, thanks for reading! That's a great article on 'Time Fades Away' it was a pleasure reading it :)

  3. Nice review!
    This LP is now on my wishlist :D
    Keep the good work ;)

  4. Have your heard the UK 1st pressing? thanks!

  5. I bought this 2009 Audiophile release and am so glad I did. Always loved this album but never owned it. Decided I need to add it to my vinyl collection. Did my research on which release is the best. That led me to this reissue. So glad found it and did not just buy any old copy. It's quality is so good. I Highly recommend it.


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