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05/27/2003 12:45p ET
Randy Stanley - Reviewer

What more can be said about Muddy Waters? The man is a legend in the blues, a figure of exuberance and class. Stories of his onstage presence and occasional antics are incredible even by today's standards. Muddy's roots in the Mississippi Delta and contributions to the Chicago blues scene and rock and roll are undeniable. His 1950 classic "Rollin' Stone" helped inspire one of the most recognizable British band names in music today.

The following is a review of two recent Muddy Waters releases available in high resolution. The recording is Folk Singer, recorded in September 1963 and released in 1964. The SACD version is on the Chess label; it requires an SACD-capable player. The 24/96 DVD version is on the Classic Records label; because the high resolution tracks are contained in the DVD-Video portion, it should be playable on any DVD-Video player. The Classic Records 24/96 release contains two bonus tracks; the Chess SACD release contains these two and adds three more bonus tracks.

Folk Singer is best described as an "unplugged" blues recording, with outstanding presence and sound quality for its age. The included artist list reads like a who's who in blues music, including Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Clifton James, and others in the bonus tracks. According to the Classic Records website and various online music outlets, this may be "the most talked about 'true audiophile' blues recordings ever." Whether this is true or not, most folks with any inclination toward blues music will find this recording thrilling. It's about as close as we can get now to the essence of his music.

The story about the recording of Folk Singer is interesting. It was recorded many years before MTV hit upon the "unplugged" idea. Beyond the title, Folk Singer shares little resemblance with folk music, however; it is purely acoustic blues. As it is described in the liner notes for the album, Chess label founders Leonard and Phil Chess were simply trying to cash in on the recent acoustic "folk boom." The consequence was a unique opportunity for Muddy Waters to break from the increasingly popular electric blues sound of the time and record something more like he wanted, more reminiscent of the slide guitar sound of an earlier time.

Both the SACD and 24/96 DAD versions of Folk Singer have outstanding sound quality. Both are well worth owning. For those of us who are audiophiles or techno-junkies, however, the availability of this recording in two different high resolution formats begs the question of format comparison. How do these two recordings compare in sound quality? Well, any answer on this subject has to be qualified carefully.

Before any comparisons of sound quality are made, it is important to provide parameters for the comparison. In this case, I used the same Sony SACD player to play both discs. It is a relatively inexpensive player, but it has received positive reports by Absolute Sound and other professional reviewers. Consequently, the only differences in playback path were due to any hardware differences within the Sony player itself. Sequential (serial) A/B comparisons were made of entire songs and, at times, various track segments.

On sound quality comparisons, I will start with my wife's comments. She is not an audiophile per se, but in terms of subjective evaluation, non-trained or otherwise biased subjects may add credibility to the observation. Because there is no widespread standardized vocabulary for describing sound quality differences, I will try to use fairly basic descriptions.

[My wife] On vocal quality, the SACD version seems more realistic. She can hear the "microphone" and the recording space better. The SACD still does not make her believe that the artists are in the room with her, but they seem "one room closer" than with the 24/96 DAD. The SACD also seems to offer more bass.

[Me] My wife's comments seem right on. The 24/96 PCM seems very accurate, but the SACD is not lacking in accuracy either. DSD has more of a warmth and natural quality than the PCM version. The bass is fuller and more natural on the SACD. I also notice better definition of vocal quality and recording space on the SACD. On the 24/96 DAD, the reverberance seems more artificial. These effects may possibly be due to more accurate SACD dynamics.

More specifically, with the SACD, the musical dynamics seem more accurate from top (high level) to bottom (low level). High level bass or drum attacks do not stomp on other music components such as voice. This is something I noticed this with my very first subjective listen to SACD; all the instruments in the mix just seem to coexist better dynamically with DSD playback than with my 24/96 PCM playback hardware.

I hesitate to draw conclusions on format superiority, because the comparisons were based on conversion from an original analog recording, and there could have been differences in the mix or mastering process. For example, different equalization or components/cables could have been used in the mastering process, and it's hard to say how this may have affected each sound. My experience has been that, in general, DSD offers an extra degree of non-fatiguing warmth and naturalness that high resolution PCM often misses, but this falls short of a clear indictment of PCM. My best sounding popular recording is on a DVD-Audio disc (PCM-based), not an SACD! In my opinion, both are such a outstanding improvement over CD, that I am happy to buy both.

These are just my opinions of course, and your observations may vary with your perspective and equipment. As with all such things, the phrase "your mileage may vary" may well apply. I would certainly be very interested to hear observations from others, particularly those who own different players. I think it is possible that the 24/96 DAD could sound better on a different player.

In general, I think both the SACD and 24/96 DAD versions of Muddy Waters: Folk Singer are worth having. For those who already own an SACD-capable player, the additional three bonus tracks on the SACD version may make it more attractive than the 24/96 DAD. However, if you don't yet have SACD but own a DVD-Video capable player, then the 24/96 DAD is certainly recommendable. If you're a blues fan, I'd say go out and buy it!


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212 Frech
FC1810

Muddy Waters
Folk Singer

SACD Quality

DAD 96/24 Quality

Released: October 29, 2002
Origination Year: 1964
RunTime: 40:05
Tracks: 14
Produced by: Ralph Bass
SACD Produced by: Andy McKaie
Engineered by: Ron Malo
Mastered by: Erick Labson
Style: Studio
Format: SACD/DAD
Enhancement: DSD/24-96
Engineered for DSD: Erick Labson
Label: Chess and Classic
Website:
www.muddywaters.com

Muddy Waters:

Muddy Waters:
Vocals/Guitar

Clifton James:
Drums

Willie Dixon:
String Bass

Buddy Guy:
Guitar

Various

Track List

  1. My Home is in The Delta
  2. Long Distance Call
  3. My Captain
  4. Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
  5. You Gonna Need My Help
  6. Cold Weather Blues
  7. Big Leg Woman
  8. Country Boy
  9. Feel Like Going Home
  10. The Same Thing
  11. You Can't Lose What You Never Had
  12. My John the Conqueror Root *
  13. Short Dress Woman *
  14. Put Me In Your Layaway *

    * Not included on 24/96 DAD