The Great Record-Club CD Conspiracy?

For a while, I've been hearing rumors that the record-club editions of popular compact discs differ from the original versions produced by the record companies. I've met listeners who claim their club versions are compressed in dynamics, and some have reduced bass. Perhaps the clubs, in their infinite wisdom, think the typical member has a lower-class stereo system (in fact, the opposite may be true). Maybe these lower classes could benefit from some judicious dynamic compression, equalization, and digital remastering.

On the other hand, I can see no financial motivation for producing specially-equalized CDs. (Who's buying? Who's paying?) First, club subscribers are already pre-sold on the titles they select. Second, there would have to be a costly remastering session, likely needing approval of the original producer and/or artist. I have never heard of a special "club" mastering session---is this all happening behind closed doors?

In October, The Gotham City Audio Society dedicated a meeting to sorting out the issue, comparing CDs from the BMG record club with the standard-issue versions. A discussion group on the Internet has also debated the topic, and one of the most concerned members---Mark Woodruff, a software engineer from Orlando---is attempting to prove his suspicions by measuring these CDs and looking for differences. Mark contacted me for help on this procedure; I recently performed a series of tests on eight CDs that Mark provided and two CDs from the Gotham group.

Mark supplied the following CD titles in their original (in parentheses) and record-club editions: the Crooklyn soundtrack (MCA MCAD-11036), BMG and Columbia House editions; Ace of Base's The Sign (Arista 07822 187400-2), Columbia House edition; Seal's Seal (Sire 26627-2), BMG and Columbia House editions; and Tori Amos's Under the Pink (Atlantic 82567-2), Columbia House edition. He reported that the Columbia House versions sounded compressed and bass-filtered compared to the originals; in addition, the Crooklyn CD's channels were reversed.

Jim Marks of The Gotham City Audio Society brought over five pairs of CDs, including some classical issues. We picked two pairs to test. We listened to Stokowski's Rhapsodies (RCA Living Stereo 09026-61502-2), store-bought version and BMG record-club version. The record-club version sounded obviously degraded, like second-generation analog, and it seems that some attempt at hiss reduction was made. Was BMG making separate masters for its own club? We then compared Frederick Fennell Conducts the Music of Leroy Anderson (Mercury Living Presence 432 013-2) against the BMG club copy. The BMG version sounded bright and grainy compared with the store-bought version. This could be evidence of a conspiracy.

The Mercury is particularly interesting, since Wilma Cozart Fine personally supervised each master tape of the Mercury CDs and reportedly did not allow any clones to be made. Could BMG have pressed their edition from a new master without Wilma's supervision?

I examined the evidence very carefully. Mark explained that the record-club editions are packaged with almost identical graphics, except that the UPC code on the traycard is usually replaced with "Manufactured by Columbia House under license," or "Mfg. for BMG Direct Marketing, Inc. under license." This indicates that a special run of booklets is printed for the record club. There may be a special CD pressing as well. There are exceptions: Tori Amos's graphics packages are identical (minor printing deviations excepted). The markings in the matrix bands of the CDs are different, showing that at least a new glass master/stamper was made. In some cases, a different CD plant pressed the club edition. More about this later.

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