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SERIES DEBUT: AudioPhyles Part 1:
This Ain’t No Mixin’ Around

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Musical recording:

It’s by far the most dominant mode of listening these days.

Needless to say, we take it all for granted. Lord knows, I do.

For the vast majority of songs we take in, what we hear on the album is what we get. Commercially released records are the definitive documentation of a band’s musical catalogue.

Sometimes we’ll gain new appreciation of a song through a live recording rather than a studio one.

Or a nice remaster of a classic record.

Sometimes it’s neat to hear outtakes from legendary recording sessions, though usually only once, and then back to the “real” version.

Hearing enhanced clarity in a remaster is one thing.

But have you heard an alternate mix that dramatically alters how you hear a familiar album?

More to the point, have you heard the alternate “down mixes” of the Talking Heads catalogue? If not, you really have to check them out.

I don’t know the full mixing history of the Heads albums. I can only speak to my own experience, which goes thusly:

I bought all of my Talking Heads albums in the late 90s and early 00s. All of them in CD format.

The first five albums? They thoroughly blew my mind.

Well, the third album, Fear of Music, a bit less so. David Byrne’s lyrics and vocals on this album were bonkers in the best way, but he seemed buried underneath the rest of the music.

Overall, the music on Fear of Music was fun and clever but also seemed…limp and murky. Still great, but clearly the least of their legendary five.

And then, decades later, a friend told me about a fan’s remixing of the Talking Heads’ albums. This fan had heard a recent remastering, and mostly liked it. But he found the remaster job was another casualty in the Loudness War, with the low range frequencies mixed so loud that other parts got drowned out.

All of the albums are worth checking out to hear what’s different, for better or worse, in the downmix.

The Overload: 

The Great Curve:

Personally, I think that the second half of Remain in Light is enhanced in the downmix version (sounds extra ethereal), while the first half is ruined (sounds really flat). But still, it’s neat to hear. Most of the other albums are not so dramatic in their differences.

But Fear of Music. My God. It is so different! And in my opinion, so much better in the downmix version!

Opener “I Zimbra” is an exception: The downmix is fairly close to the conventional CD mix. The main difference is that the booty-shakin’ low end no longer dominates the mix. Now, I do love me some bass, so this difference took a little time to get used to. But even so, it’s nice to hear all of the percussion instruments that had been obscured in the CD version.

The second track, “Mind,” actually hits harder in the downmix. The drum kicks and snares are more prominent, and yet the bass is only reduced a bit. 

This is a common trend for the downmix of Fear of Music. In this version, “Life During Wartime” finally rivals its 1984 concert version in showstopping energy. 

“Memories Can’t Wait” is actually a little terrifying. Overall, the downmixing makes the songs sound even more manic and paranoid. Which is quite fitting for the album theme, of course.

Also notable are all of Brian Eno’s weird production touches. So many little accents shimmer and churn throughout the tracks—a humming synth, a siren, a processed guitar, multi-tracked vocals.

Compared to the previous album More Songs About Buildings and Food, Eno took his creative manipulations to 11.

He made the album a completely unique and alien sound world. And most of those sounds and textures had been lost in the muddy mix of the standard release.

But the most dramatic differences are in the album’s final three tracks. These were among my least favorite on the album. Now they’re absolutely essential.

Take “Electric Guitar.” It’s got David Byrne ranting about a guitar being taken to court, while a fat synth bass is farting merrily away. It always just sounded like a joke of a song.

But in the downmix version, it becomes so much more intense. The drums pummels into your brain, sharp synths hover in and out like UFOs. And Byrne’s voice takes on an apocalyptic air: “THIS IS A CRIME AGAINST THE STATE! THIS IS THE MEANING OF LIFE!” It’s my favorite track on the album now.

And the final track “Drugs” is now the perfect closer to an album titled Fear of Music. The feeling of altered consciousness is greatly heighted in the downmix. Just like in the lyrics, Byrne sounds charged up, and you feel the electricity. And, naturally, you feel the paranoia too.

It’s astonishing how much a mix can bring to, or take away from, a song.

Most of the tracks on the Fear of Music downmix sound like completely different recordings, or at least remixes involving new samples and beats. But no, these dramatic differences all came from the original recordings, just fiddled a bit with respect to their dominant frequency bands.

I’ve never heard the original Heads LPs, but I assume that the downmixes correct something that’s only particular to the CD mixes.

If that is the case, then whoever mixed Fear of Music to CD did fans a tremendous disservice. For the sake of a little more on the low end, they sapped the album of its magic! A crime against the state indeed.

Fear of Music used to be my fifth favorite Heads album.

Now I’m confident saying that it’s my #1 favorite. At least when it’s properly mixed.

So, what are some other examples of dramatically different alternate mixes of favorite albums?

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Phylum of Alexandria

Committed music junkie. Recovering academic. Nerd for life.

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Virgindog
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Virgindog
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May 23, 2024 8:51 am

Interesting. I like Fear Of Music but I don’t usually seek it out like I do with More Songs About Buildings And Food. These new mixes really make a difference, especially on “Drugs.” Thanks for the eyeopener!

I recently went on a 2600 mile road trip and set up a playlist of the Talking Heads catalog in order, not including live or compilation albums. (I did the same with The Beatles and The Who.) Their first five albums are remarkable. The last three have some great moments, too, but their evolution over their career is something else. Artistic growth at its finest.

Pauly Steyreen
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May 23, 2024 11:18 am

I don’t think this is what you’re talking about, but this remix really does something for me.

The original album version of Neneh Cherry’s Move with Me evolves from mystery to vulnerability — it’s a beautiful song.

https://youtu.be/OCaXUdNolIk?si=3dSC_5_paHULceex

But the remix — Move with Me (Dub) from the Until the End of the World soundtrack, mines more darkness and keeps the mystery, but completely loses the release of vulnerability. It’s all coiled tension and leaves a very different impression.

https://youtu.be/9ruXmKn6YHs?si=ympETjCo-sug6CU0

JJ Live At Leeds
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JJ Live At Leeds
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May 23, 2024 1:15 pm

Even comparing through my phone I can hear the difference. Remain In Light is probably my favourite, its the one I’ve got on vinyl but sounds like I need to do a full compare and contrast.

I know the Beatles have been doing a comprehensive remastering of the back catalogue with Giles Martin overseeing new mixes. I’ve already got everything on vinyl so it’s always felt like more of a cash in that I can live without but given the difference in those Talking Heads mixes perhaps there is something worthwhile in it.

mjevon6296
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May 23, 2024 2:03 pm

Thanks for sharing! I really like those TH downmixes.

I am a lightweight when it comes to this kind of stuff but have gotten into prog rock more and more over the last few years listening to old Genesis, Yes, and Gentle Giant. It seems like the Steven Wilson remixes sound better to me but I would love to hear what someone else thinks and other recommendations.

Virgindog
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Virgindog
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May 23, 2024 4:28 pm

His mix of XTC’s Skylarking is worth a listen, too.

mjevon6296
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May 28, 2024 7:35 pm

Just for the record, I was wrong on there being Steve Wilson Genesis remixes – sorry for any confusion. Steve Wilson HAS done remixes for Steve Hackett and King Crimson and Jethro Tull and several others I did not mention.

cappiethedog
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May 23, 2024 10:14 pm

The studio version of “Cities” was underwhelming, too, compared to the Stop Making Sense version. I bought Fear of Music on cassette. And mostly played it in my Chevy Malibu. I didn’t quite know that David Byrne was singing: “…home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks,” until I watched Stop Making Sense on DVD. You’re right about Byrne’s vocals being buried in the mix. This 5.1 version is like hearing “Cities” for the first time. I also like “Memories Can’t Wait”. The second vocal is scary. It’s not competing with the music. It’s competing with itself.

I hear you second voice.

I force myself to listen to the Naked songs after “The Facts of Life”. Filler? Or am I grossly underrating the whole album experience?

“Sax and Violins” didn’t appear on the cassette.

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