Some of the most influential and best-loved albums were released before many of us were born, or at a time when we were too young to pay any attention to them. Even when they are re-released years later, many of those who heard these albums in their “original” vintage vinyl form are sure that they sounded better when replayed on an analogue system. Remember, everything sounded much better back in those days. While I won’t dispute that there is something to be said for the vinyl albums and the way they sound – I still have a turntable and use it constantly – digital recordings have come a long way from their not so humble beginnings. Isaac Hayes’ ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ is one such example.
There are some interesting facets of this particular album worth sharing before I go into the fidelity of the recent hybrid stereo SACD release from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. First, like a number of titles that have recently been re-issued, the original recording took place in the late 1960’s and as such, suffers somewhat due to the recording technologies and techniques of the time. As a result, while the album has been exceptionally preserved, it is important to mention that it is not “state of the art” in terms of recording quality. Just like the sound from those old and beloved vinyl pressings, there are some ticks, clicks and other artifacts, but they don’t detract from the experience, in fact, they might well enhance it.
‘Hot Buttered Soul’ was Isaac Hayes’s first true solo success. While he would go on to become one of the most important artists of his day, on release in 1969 this work was somewhat new in its conception. Long songs, different arrangements and just the sound of his voice were unique and innovative, the qualities, perhaps that set this album apart from those that had come before it.
Although I could go on about the album itself, the most important question is how well ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ has made the transition from its analogue roots into the high-resolution digital era. To answer that conundrum, I started by listening to the standard Red-book layer of Mobile Fidelity’s hybrid disc (the CD version). Depending on the disc in question, the CD layer tends to have less detail than its DSD counterpart, and in most cases once one has listened to the SACD version it is difficult to give an unbiased assessment of its relative merits.
The first thing that struck me about this re-issue of the album is how little the spirit of the piece must have changed from the day when it was recorded. A sense of spaciousness was readily apparent right from the first track, ‘Walk On By’, where there is an amazing amount of information present that allows the listener to experience a convincing soundstage and almost become a part of the performance itself. While I am not a huge fan of the rudimentary stereo separation techniques used – at times you feel like you are watching a ping pong ball going from left to right – it is another aspect of the re-release that demonstrates just how much work must have gone into the re-mastering process to produce a pseudo-lifelike effect.
Track three, ‘One Woman’ is perhaps my favorite track; although plagued by the recording problems of the time, as I mentioned earlier, it has a sense of warmth that is seldom heard in all but the finest recordings. The presentation is so detailed and clear that you feel as though you could reach out and touch the performers where they stand. No digital ‘edge’ is present to color the recording, in fact quite the opposite, the longer you listen, the more you gain a tangible sense of the performers and the venue in which they were recorded. The background noise is almost none existent, something you wouldn’t find from even the finest vinyl copy.
Well, true to form, I am glad that I listened to the CD layer first. In fact, this is perhaps the first album where I can honestly say the difference was so radical between it and the DSD layer that I wonder just how much additional work went into the production of the SACD version.
The impressive soundstage I mentioned earlier is still present, but although the lower fidelity version allows one to determine instrument placement, this layer also affords a lush blending of sounds that really gives the listener an impression of what the song was meant to say. It may sound like a clichй, but the almost holographic presentation of the SACD layer allows an extension not only into space but also time, back to when the album was recorded.
The third track remained my favorite across all versions, but the DSD rendition of ‘One Woman’ sounded eerily lifelike; one gets a palpable feeling of each word uttered by Hayes. The problems in the upper frequency ranges due to the recording’s age are still present, but unlike the situation with the CD version, they don’t seem to rob the songs of as much character, in fact they add something to mix, a historical perspective perhaps. The midrange is clean and Hayes’ voice is as smooth and silky as one could ever hope for. Even the bass, which although good in the CD layer, seems much improved, something that is most apparent on track four.
That track, ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’ is probably the album’s most famous. Its eighteen minutes are as much a narrative of a love ‘gone bad’ as a song. From the beginning, the counterpoint to Hayes is what is best described as a heartbeat, created musically. His voice combines with the rhythm, rising and falling in intensity depending on the particular part of the story. By the time he actually gets to the singing part, almost ten minutes of music have passed in what seems like little more than a moment.
All in all, I would say the engineering ‘artists’ at MSFL have accomplished their usual thorough and convincing job of recapturing what is a sensational album. While I personally would’ve liked a little more to be done to reverse the aged fidelity of the original, it’s easy to understand why the rough edges were retained. Perhaps it is Mobile Fidelity’s precise re-mastering that makes the warts more evident, but whatever the case, they really don’t detract from the album as a whole. My only other criticism is that the Red-book version should have come closer to the quality of the SACD layer, but there have to be some reasons why the new format exists, and to surpass CD playback standards is just one of them.
‘Hot Buttered Soul’ is definitely worth adding to any collection; it’s an album that should provide many hours of enjoyment and perhaps even give rise to yet more debate about whether the new high-resolution formats can be as good, if not better then the original vinyl albums we remember so fondly.