Revinylization #55: An American Beauty Unblemished

Of all the albums in the Grateful Dead catalog, American Beauty is the one with the widest appeal. Its proto-Americana tunes are neither antique nor modern; instead, they are timeless. The album's sound is clean and lean, up to modern snuff even more than a half-century after its original release in November 1970.

The tunes seem to roll like a Sunday drive on a country road, in and out of dark hollows and up and down hills (footnote 1). Three of its 10 songs have become folk-rock standards: "Friend of the Devil," "Sugar Magnolia," and "Truckin'."

As you'd expect, the album has been reissued many times since its release; Discogs lists 116 vinyl versions (footnote 2), though there may be some redundancy on the list. In recent times, Rhino Records has put out two very different reissues. First came the 50th Anniversary version, cut in 2020 by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering from David Glasser's Plangent-processed digital master. (A 2023 release, also from Rhino, though available only at Target, is the same as the 2020 release except that it's pressed on "limeade"-colored vinyl.) The other is the new, all-analog Rhino High Fidelity version, cut by Kevin Gray from the master tapes. It's a 5000-copy "direct from Rhino" limited edition.

The two Rhino platters sound more similar than different, indicating that the master tapes still sound good and are in playable condition. The Plangent Process, which takes place after the tape is transferred to digital, undoes time-domain distortions (flutter and wow, phase shifts) inherent to tape recording and playback. As such, it takes the sound back to something similar to what entered the tape machine's recording head. The audible result is crystal-clear transients and rock-steady imaging.

I asked Stephen Barncard, the original album's coproducer, which version he prefers. He was unequivocal. "Both versions are very good, [but] I prefer the Plangent version. Everything's tighter. The transients are in place, how it sounded when I mixed it. ... It's like going back to what I heard in the control room."

On the other hand, Gray's cut may sound more like what longtime American Beauty fans expect. The transients and imaging are distinct enough, but it sounds a bit distant and hazy. Its big plus is superb tonality on the harmony vocals and impressive dynamics—for any rock LP of any era.

As a physical artifact, the Rhino High Fidelity LP sets a high bar. The extra-heavy, high-gloss gatefold jacket is printed so finely that the faux wood on the cover image seems like real wood. Inside the gatefold is a gritty, fuzz-focused photo by Arthur Usherson of the band live onstage. The 180gm black platter, pressed at Optimal in Germany, occupies the right leaf. In the left is a four-page 12" × 12" insert that includes images of the side A and B master tapes and an essay by musician and Grateful Dead historian David Gans.

I compared these two Rhino American Beauty reissues to the three streaming options on Qobuz: the 2020 Glasser/Plangent remaster, the 2013 Glasser/Plangent remaster for the digital-only HD The Grateful Dead Complete Studio Albums Collection, and the 2013 CD-resolution version. To my ears, Bellman did a faithful cut of Glasser's 2020 remaster, with a bit of vinyl sound added. If you favor the sound of the Plangent Process/Glasser version, and can do without an artifact, the 24/192 version is best. Both Glasser remasters sound better than the 2013 version.

Back in the vinyl world, I wanted to hear prior AAA versions. Interwebs to the rescue. There's a legendary needle-dropper out there who goes by "The Vinyl Archivist (Patrick)" and "pbthal." He has a YouTube channel. One of his videos is a "shootout" of three AB vinyl versions: an original Warner Bros. LP cut at Artisan Sound by Bob MacLeod, a recent-times Mobile Fidelity two-disc 45rpm version, and Bellman's 2010 cut for the box set The Warner Bros. Studio Albums (footnote 3). In the descriptor text is a link to download 24/96 files of the three versions of the album's first two tracks, "Box of Rain" and "Friend of the Devil."

I was surprised how good the original Warner Bros. tracks sounded, reflecting a state-of-the-art cutting job in 1970, when the tapes were brand-new. Bellman's 2010 cut is superb, and the five-LP box set is a beautiful collectable artifact. To my ears, it's the best of all AAA versions. The MoFi sounded weird and unlike other vinyl versions: heavy in the bass and not very punchy or dynamic. In all three versions, I could hear that "pbthal" has a good-sounding vinyl playback rig and takes care of his records. While noting that his rig and mine sound a bit different, I would say Gray's new cut sounds most like the original Warner Bros. version.

So where does this leave the vinyl collector? If you can break free of the AAA mentality (which can be self-defeating, a topic for a different day), the best mainstream-priced option is the 50th Anniversary LP—either that or buy a cheap used copy so you can hold the sleeve as you stream the album in HD. The new Rhino High Fidelity vinyl is limited-edition, a fine artifact, collectable, with very good if not superb sound (that's to my ears; your mileage may vary). The 2010 box set, or the 2011 standalone LP from the same Bellman cut, are pricey on the used market but will sound great (if in great condition) and likely hold their value. An original Warner Bros. platter goes for either hefty or heftier bucks, depending on condition and which Columbia plant it was pressed at—but damn those needle drops sounded good. As far as genuine-authentic-real-thing, it's still the max.


Footnote 1: Despite its deep-water calm vibe, American Beauty was recorded at a time of turmoil and tragedy for the band and its members; see tinyurl.com/yc7enynt and tinyurl.com/ywup93dt.

Footnote 2: See tinyurl.com/yc2ues57.

Footnote 3: See youtu.be/j9r8Ek0Ggfg and then check youtu.be/cRBvSPZASI for the identities of needle drops A through C.

COMMENTS
supamark's picture

Stop reissuing the same damn albums over and over and over and over and over again. They don't give a single crap about the Dead, Miles Davis, or any other old music. They barely care about classic rock, and that's mostly due to movies and commercials using it. Give them vinyl from new/living artists that are under 40 years old. There actually are modern acts releasing AAA records (with ancient, mostly Neumann, cutters from before digital look-ahead).

More than anything, I think this is why the kids don't much care - the music associated with "audiophile" is of zero interest to them (and a LOT of it is just bad music recorded very well).

I honestly don't get the point of reissues from digital files, the digital file will always sound better and the record at best will sound like a noisy digital file with crappy mono bass on the last song of each side (at 33 1/3 rpm). If you gotta bake the tape to play/copy it, make an analog copy along with the digital (1/2", 30ips on an ATR 102 or Studer A800/820) for the vinyl re-master/issue. If it's a remix (happening a lot due to Atmos), do an analog stereo mix to 1/2" tape as well as the digital files.

Nicholalala's picture

I'll never get over vinyls as opposed to records…

But, I did by some Taylor Swift for my step daughter on vinyl. I also got an AT VM95C for the Garrard/Schick. One needle down. But, I did find that the AT conical sounded rather good. I'm getting a Rig B for it and playing in the shallow and fun end of the pool.

There were quite a few younger folks at Axpona, so there will be consumers in the future. Having returned to analog, I'll say that what I missed most was my attention on the sound. Perhaps it could get marginally better with digital, but you're rarely drawn to the music in the same way.

In 50 years, they'll be tapping directly into our brains.

rt66indierock's picture

The market wants the same albums reissued so why not give the masses what they want? In this case I wonder why I need input from an audiophile writer. Why not just find a knowledgeable Dead Head and ask them?

Audiophiles are a very small percentage of the population that enjoy music. Are you saying that younger people have less interest than the general population in the quality of recordings and playback equipment?

I learned from the Mobile Fidelity class action lawsuit settlement nobody cares about digital files used to make vinyl records. About 300 people returned applicable albums out of 620,000 sold.

Glotz's picture

Chris... We both know this guy is a pure troll-house cookie (Dan). He was that guy that got rid of his vinyl collection and hates everything now. It's a clear sense of disgust that permeates everything he writes.

Don't fall victim to ruining the post from the back and forth of this. Bring something forward- of import, informed opinion or just fun.

Especially when it is something as important as the Dead and this album!

The MoFi sounds great- just not as fantastic as the other great pressings. I think the 50th is a great, smart buy for turntable owners. Same with the other examples of Workingman's, Flood, etc. They did a great job on both digital and analog. The Anniversary editions will be my MO moving forward.

I have a brand new Holo Audio DAC and we will see where and how each differ, both good and bad- or just slightly different from each other. My analog and digital equipment and cabling are no slouch now and it will be fun to compare. From Plant / Krauss comparisons, they sounds more alike than different.

Of course, haters will hate. And for that I leave a hearty laugh... for I pity those fools!

Glotz's picture

I've got some friends that want to tie you up with high-end audio cables!

PS- They're also into slapping... with vinyl.

Glotz's picture

Note that he said he would keep the cable and get slapped with vinyl..

Deviant digital behavior.. tsk tsk.

Keep in mind that Boomers would be doing this to you...

Glotz's picture

Never happen.

ChrisS's picture

That's Indydan for ya folks!

Glotz's picture

You wanna keep looking?!

Lmao!

dschian's picture

indydan, I've got 'high-end' Ayre & Luxman dacs and an SME 20/2 rig w/ SME V arm and Lyra Skala cart., both feeding into the same system - high-resolution Vivid speakers- and both formats have their pros and cons, though other than classical orchestral pieces, good vinyl generally wins out for me, in terms of substantially better sound depth and timbre while sacrificing little of the detail that good digital can provide.
BTW, my Luxman unit also is enabled for MQA discs and files, I bought a few recordings, including by the Police and a Shostakovich work, and found all of them inferior to HI-res DSD and PCM formats- more akin to redbook. Not sure from your MQA pict if you're really into MQA or satirizing it with an upside-down logo, but IME MQA did not impress. Obviously YMMV.

rt66indierock's picture

The upside down is a symbol of opposition to MQA and when push comes to shove (keeping the Grateful Dead theme) opposition to the audiophile press that promoted it.

dschian's picture

At this time I prefer the Mofi 45 rpm version by a small margin to the Gray release. The Gray's tonality is a bit better but the sense of space created by the Mofi AB wins out by a fair margin in my system (probably due to it being 45 rpm vs 33). Similarly (by an even much smaller margin for me- maybe even more of a tossup for different moods) with the Mofi 45 rpm release of Wkgman's Dead vs a very-well preserved early green label warner pressing of it in my collection. The latter is (albeit a different title) is a bit more seductive to my ears than the Gray AB release, though it's a very, very fine one.
Granted, it's a bit apple and orange, but comparing the sound of the WD green label with the Gray AB, I suspect that the AB master tapes are relatively well-preserved but have lost a bit of top-end sparkle, though obviously there are gains in other areas from modern mastering.
The Mofis of these two albums preceded their DSD transfer phase, and while these Mofi releases IMO are not tonally the best, again, that sense of space is something I really value highly- but I wouldn't pay the premium for them now on the secondary market or particularly miss them given the alternatives.

Glotz's picture

Good addition to the article!

thethanimal's picture

ChrisS and IndyDan's behavior went beyond the pale almost immediately. Thanks for cleaning up the discussion.

rt66indierock's picture

Emotions are running a little hot after a couple announcements recently. It should be interesting to see how Stereophile reports on these topics.

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