The Great 2004 Zappa CD Run-Down

This page is very ugly right now. It is a slightly HTMLized version of a document I created during the summer of 2004. The information contained here has also been "ported" to each individual page. This will hopefully look prettier soon. Additionally, if you can help out by filling in any of the informational blanks below, please drop me a line. Oh, and some of this info is out-of-date, so check individual album entries for some crystallized ruminations.


As we know, ten years ago Ryko began issuing the now-standard set of Zappa reissues. Finally, Zappa's back catalogue--formerly split between Barking Pumpkin, Ryko, Zappa Records, MSI, and EMI, to mention just the major players--would find roost under one roof. Ryko apparently had to totally reorganize their financial structure in order to purchase the Zappa catalogue in this fashion, but their efforts seemed to be worth it to Zappa fans. Ryko's "Hot Poop" press release/info sheet/reissue FAQ trumpeted some of the improvements that would surely be forthcoming. New masters had been delivered (to FZ's specifications) on everything except the most recent CDs: Ahead of Their Time, YCDTOSA 5 and 6, Playground Psychotics and The Yellow Shark. Track times had been corrected. Best of all, the inconsistent and often painfully-mangled artwork of the first batch(es) of Zappa discs had been corrected and standardized to a delightful level of splendidness. If the impeccable Google Groups archives of AFFZ are to be trusted, Ryko's re-release program was eagerly anticipated, as Usenet denizens trusted that several of the more egregious issues plaguing early Zappa CDs would be corrected.

This, unfortunately, was not to happen. "Ruben," "Sleep Dirt," and others were still in their reworked states. "You Are What You Is" and "Sheik Yerbouti" (among others) were still plagued by some nasty transfer issues. Some positive reviews of the new discs were quickly filed--for example, John Henley states on the "Stage" page that "I have replaced Stages 1, 2 and 4 with the newer issues, and I think they sound better, especially 2"--but there was little specific info on what had changed and what hadn't.

Here's the problem. It's been stated before, and I'm going to say it again: the ZFT's deal with Ryko came with several important caveats. Towering above the others is this: Ryko had to reissue what the ZFT gave them. This is vastly different than, say, the relationship between ABKCO Records and the Rolling Stones, in which the record company owns the masters and is in charge of its own audio preservationism. The ZFT gave Ryko digital tapes, and Ryko issued them as CDs. It would likely have been a breach of contract for Ryko to do something as simple as raise the volume on their digital tapes. This "Ryko-responsibility-exemption-clause" gets cited fairly often, usually when exempting Ryko from blame for the YAWYI/SY kitten-abortions, but it holds true for the rest of the catalogue as well.

As a poster in AFFZ correctly noted way back in 1995, Ryko's involvement in the 1995 reissue campaign was essentially limited to artwork and the few compilations that accompanied the series. Most of the '95 masters were delivered sometimes around 1992 and 1993. Ryko identifies each disc as a "new master" (with the exception of Playground, Ahead, and Stage 5 and 6) in their press release, but is glossing over the fact that "new" doesn't necessarily mean different. These FZ-approved masters were selected while Frank was likely ill, in pain, and trying to work on new projects (like the Yellow Shark) while he still could. Besides, Frank's approach to remastering seems to have been questionable even when he was healthy, as the infamous late-eighties "bad batches" of discs clearly illustrate. FZ was a musical genius and had a knack for production, but as a reissue producer he frequently missed the mark. Heck, as Scott Thunes notes on his page, FZ's high-end hearing had been damaged from years of concert performances, and he likely didn't even realize anything was wrong with his more-adversely-affected discs.

Here's what I'm trying to say:

The Ryko 1995 CDs are frequently exactly the same as previous Ryko, Zappa Records, and Barking Pumpkin CDs. No sound quality difference; no "less attenuated high end," no "wider soundstage." Exactly the same.

As this 'here website shows quite clearly, it's devilishly hard to pin down the "when" "where" and "what" of Zappa releases on vinyl and CD. We know he worked on different discs at different times; we know some were revisited after-the-fact. Some discs that were changed for the Old Masters set changed even further in their CD variations. Changes were frequently arbitrary, and were not frequently announced.

Frank's last big reissue "push" seems to have been around 1991 and 1992, when several "stealth remixes" made their debuts on certain titles (see individual entries for details) and when he prepared some of his latest reissues. The "FZ-approved" masters were likely created at this time, and remained in stasis until delivered to Ryko in 1994. "FZ-approved" did not mean "improved;" rather, it meant "standardized."

Why is this important? Well, firstly, if you have the "old" versions of certain titles-or, conversely, if you can find them cheap-you have no pressing need (awesome Cal artwork aside) to upgrade to the newer versions. Secondly, as Ryko's exclusivity deal with the ZFT is rapidly approaching its expiration date, we might hopefully soon see ACTUAL upgrades to the catalogue.

And thirdly, because as Zappa fans, some of you might find this sort of obsessive-compulsive detective work to be as interesting as I do.

Thus, onward!

First, I need to define two important terms:

  • DIGITAL SYNC: Due to the varying nature of analogue tape speeds, two discrete analogue to digital transfers (even from the same source) will experience a certain degree of "drift" relative to each other when played side by side. In other words, they will not stay in perfect sync. If two digital files stay in perfect sync, they must consequently derive from the same digital transfer.

  • NULL-TEST: The "killer ap" of disc comparisons. Cast your mind back to high-school physics. "Sound" is a wave. When two identical waves are summed, amplitude should double. If, however, one wave is inverted before the pair is summed, they "cancel out," resulting in silence.

    If the audio from two discs cancels in this way, the audio content of the discs is identical.
In performing these analyses, I attempted to use old Ryko/Zappa Records/BP stock CDs and perform tests against '95 Ryko stock-CDs. One small problem: I don't have anything approaching a complete old/new Zappa catalogue; like (in all probability) most of you, my Zappa discs are on a variety of labels from a variety of time periods. As such, I frequently resort to using promos/compilations to test certain tracks.

FREAK OUT - The "Hot Poop" release claims that we're getting a new master, with a new timing sheet and with "clicks removed." As the '95 disc is still the '80s digital remix, it's hardly surprising to discover that the discs are, in fact, exactly the same. The spacing between tracks does differ slightly. As an aside, where exactly where these "clicks" that were supposedly corrected? I didn't hear any of them. (Versions compared: old Ryko disc, new Ryko disc)

ABSOLUTELY FREE - I only have one version of Absolutely Free on CD, so I compared it with "America Drinks and Goes Home" from "You Can't Do That on the Radio," which theoretically pre-dates the '95 discs. This revealed the tracks to be identical, albeit with slight level differences. Could it be improved further? This eighties digital transfer sounds slightly muffled, as if to disguise hiss; subsequent work might be beneficial. (Versions compared: YCDTotRadio, Ab Free new Ryko).

MONEY - No comparison: these are totally different discs. I'd be curious to hear if any of the pre-'95 variations differ, though, as the Zappa Records two-fer is mastered at an absurdly low volume.

LUMPY GRAVY - Like "Money," this was completely reworked. While "Money" was created from raw mix segments, though, it didn't seem to vary that wildly from the original vinyl release. "Gravy," on the other hand, has quite a few differences, mostly centering around track transitions (for example, the segue into "King Kong" is slightly different).

RUBEN - I don't have any old versions of this disc. Given that all versions derive from the same digital remix, however, it's likely that they all are identical.

UNCLE MEAT - No old versions (anymore) with which to compare. Was the "Mr. Green Genes" remix on the Old Masters vinyl? It isn't on the Old Masters II sampler.

HOT RATS - All CD versions derive from the same 80's digital remix. Unsurprisingly, they seem to be digitally identical, barring some slight track timing differences. (VERSIONS COMPARED: Old Ryko "gold" disc, new Ryko)

BURNT WEENIE SANDWICH: No old versions with which to compare.

WEASELS RIPPED MY FLESH: Here we start the infamous "bad batch" of reissues. "Weasels" really doesn't sound very good, with an odd digital reverb used liberally and artificially-booming bass. All discs seem to be sourced from the same digital tape. Oddly, while my two "Weasels" discs were in fact digitally identical, one "lost" a few samples every thirty seconds or so, causing it to jump abruptly out of sync. This could be due to the fact that my '95 disc is a BMG pressing, but I'll have to double-check to see which version was, in fact, throwing samples. (VERSIONS COMPARED: Old Ryko, New Ryko BMG).

CHUNGA'S REVENGE: This CD also doesn't sound very good. The tinny, reverb-laden sound of the CD is nonexistent on the LP, which sounds great by comparison. Presumably, all digital variants are taken from the same miserable digital transfer, but I don't have any other versions with which to compare.


JABFLA: Ditto. This one generally sounds better, though.

WAKA/JAWAKA: Barring some slight level differences, the old and new discs seem to be identical. Note that this might have been quietly upgraded at some point. (Versions compared: "One Shot Deal" on old WAKA/JAWAKA with "One Shot Deal" on "Left of the Dial"/"Son of Cheep Thrills")

THE GRAND WAZOO: An odd one, this. I think a new master might have been created when Frank switched the track order, as I have no fewer than THREE versions of "Blessed Relief" floating around (the versions on my old GW disc and "Radio" are close, but I couldn't get them to sync for some reason, while the version on "Clean American Version" is a totally different transfer, and is probably representative of the '95 disc, which I don't have). Anybody have multiple copies of this title?

OVERNIGHT SENSATION: The original two-fer disc of this on Ryko was mastered absurdly quietly. The current Ryko disc *seems* to be a new master-not just a boosted version of the old master-but as I'm relying on several different promos to give me the "new" versions of tracks, I'd love it if someone with the twofer AND the new version could do a comparison. Note that there's might've been an "interim" step of remastering here, as there're reports of the non-Ryko twofer having better sound.

APOSTROPHE: Despite coming from the same collapsed-quad mix, the Ryko twofer and the stock '95 disc seem to derive from different digital transfers, much like the above.

ROXY: A fascinating case. Roxy presents one of the first "pre-1995" instances of variation, in that some older copies of the disc have a remix of Cheepnis (as does the '95 disc), while some have the original vinyl mix. Out of the 5 older discs I've listened to, the two Zappa Records CDs had the original mix, and the 3 BP CDs had the remix; this could just be a coincidence, but...anyway, "Cheepnis" remix aside, all three discs-Zappa Records without the remix, BP with the remix, '95 disc-are absolutely identical, with the BP and '95 disc being completely identical. As Roxy made its CD debut fairly late, this isn't too surprising. Interestingly, only the *body* of Cheepnis differs, as the spoken intro is identical on all three discs.

ONE SIZE FITS ALL: No idea. I only have the gold disc. As the gold disc is splendid, though...

BONGO FURY: I don't have any older versions.

ZOOT ALLURES: Another of the "bad batch" items. Digitally identical.

ZiNY: I don't have any older versions. All derive from the same (crappy) digital remix, so I would imagine they'd be identical.

STUDIO TAN: Another of the BP "stealth-upgrade" discs. Apparently, at some point a new master started to be used for the BP disc, which is identical to the one currently in use on the '95 Ryko. As I don't have a pre-switch version of this title, I'm unsure of what's different, although apparently RNDZL has a volume dropout (at 1:19) ONLY on the newer version.

SLEEP DIRT: See above. This exists without the Regyptian remix (all Zappa Record CDs I've heard) and with the Regyptian remix (the one BP CD I've heard: again, this could be a coincidence). Remix aside, all of the discs are digitally identical. Amusingly, Regyptian itself presents a few interesting sub-variations. While the BP/Ryko '95 discs use a remix, the remix is only of the body of the track; the introductory drum fill is still from the original mix. This introductory drum bit is identical to the one on the "original mix" version of the CD, meaning that only the body of "Regyptian" is actually different on the newer discs. Lastly, barring some slight level differences, the "Regyptian" here is digitally identical to the "1993" version on "Lather" (minus the different drum intro). In other words, the Lather "1993" version uses the same version (EQ and all) as on the reworked Sleep Dirt disc.

SHEIK YERBOUTI: Probably the worst disc in the catalogue currently. I'm unsure exactly what Frank did to this. His lack of high-frequency hearing is certainly a part of it, though. There right channel of the entire album seems to be damaged on the CD, occasionally wavering in and out (not as badly as on YAWYI); there's also a weird "veil" over the treble on the right channel (listen to the beginning of "Dancing Fool"). Compression artifacts also abound, causing weird volume swells. All non-EMI CDs are identical, and derive from this crappy transfer. As a note, the much-vaunted EMI disc is certainly better, but is far from ideal; it's very midrangey, and requires some tweaking before it sounds like the excellent job done on the original vinyl. The glitched "Yerbouti" tracks show up on all relevant Ryko compilations, although there's a Dr. Demento disc that does, in fact, have a glitch-less version of "Dancing Fool."

ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES: I only have one version (Zappa Records), but a comparison with the "Strictly Genteel" comp revealed that barring some level differences, "Duke of Orchestral Prunes" was in fact identical. Did this disc also have a silent upgrade?

JOE'S GARAGE: A comparison of my '95 edition against a track from "You Can't Do That on the Radio" revealed that they were digitally identical. Can anybody with the '95 and '80s discs cement this comparison? What about that remix of "Green Rosetta" that was apparently floating around? The EMI disc is from a distinctly different digital master, one with several variations (fade-outs at each side and other oddities). It follows the other EMI discs by being a bit midrangey.

TINSELTOWN: Another of the "bad batch." The right channel distorts throughout all pre-1998 non-EMI versions of the album, with the attendant volume-swells and other nastiness. "Strictly Commercial" does use the bad version's "Fine Girl." All pre-1998 non-EMI versions are identical. (Gripe: I like Spencer's version, but why oh why is the audience crossfaded under the beginning of "Bamboozled by Love?")

SHUT UP: I only have one version, but apparently is was fairly heavily reworked for the '95 reissue. The EMI version is a bit tinny.

YAWYI: The infamous mess of Zappa's catalogue. Ryko claims that their '95 disc has "louder dBs" than the first Ryko disc...can anybody confirm this? If it does, is it just the old master boosted, or is it some odd new variant on the same (bad) digital master? Regardless, it's safe to assume that the discs are all identically awful. Frank clearly couldn't hear high frequencies by this stage, as the EQ on the album is just *wrong*. The right channel distortions that plague the other bad-batch albums are at their hilarious height here, and almost every cymbal hit causes a ridiculous volume swell.

Thankfully, there is no longer any need to be concerned.

SHIP: I only have the EMI version, actually. No comment.

MAN FROM UTOPIA: The BP and '95 discs are identical, seemingly. This was another late reissue (dating from 1993) so this is hardly surprising. As the EMI CD is for the most part another mix, it's clearly from a different digital transfer. The two "Moggio" remixes DO sync, but the BP/'95 version is mastered far differently from the EMI twofer version. Obsessive-compulsive note: the EMI version of Moggio runs *slightly* longer at the end before the snorks come in.

BABY SNAKES: No idea. I don't own this in any form.

LSO: The various discs are generally different mixes.

PERFECT STRANGER: See above. Can someone compare the Barking Pumpkin disc versus the Ryko?

THEM OR US: The last of the obvious "bad batch" items. This tends to sound better than the other discs, but the problems-the fluctuating right channel, the compression artifacts, the distorting cymbals-are still there. Lookingly, the earlier disc is NOT the same as the later discs, so I'm unsure as to how these inconsistencies occurred. Could the '86 CD be the same as the EMI disc? I just have the EMI and '95 CDs.

THING-FISH: Hohboy. A digital recording, so all versions sync. I only have the EMI and '95 discs, which are VERY different. Anybody wanna weigh in on earlier iterations?


MoP: My old Ryko and new Ryko do *not* match (they sync, but the EQ is wayyy off) so it's likely new masterings (EQ, etc) were attempted each time tracks were swapped.

Does Humor?: Totally different mixes.

Jazz: No idea. I only have the EMI. Allegedly, some older versions use a remix.

Guitar: I don't own this one AT ALL. Could someone with the old version compare "Sexual Harassment" with the version on Strictly Commercial?

Stage Series: The only duplicate I have is volume II, and (apologies to John Henley) I am disappointed to report that the old Ryko and new Ryko of stage II are absolutely digitally identical.

Broadway the Hard Way: I have the Czech CD and the '95 CD, and they're mostly identical. I say "mostly" because there're a few points where a null-test reveals *some* differences between the albums, most centered on the "Tell Me You Love Me" upgrade. A few brief snippets of audio exist after inverse-summing. This might imply that some very limited work was done either on the Globus master or the '95 master. Regardless, the two discs are about 98% identical (and, IMO, neither sounds amazing).

Best Band: I compared my "no-photo" BP with my '95 Ryko. Verdict: they're not identical. Different EQ work and a different mastering pass overall on the '95, seemingly.

Jazz Noise: I only have the '95.

home - vinyl vs CDs - weirdo discography - bootlegs - misc - hot lynx - e-mail us at zappa dot patio at gmail dot com 2006-04-22 20:02

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