My wife introduced me to Wilco a few years ago, along with artists like Iron & Wine, Andrew Bird and The Fleet Foxes. It was part of an effort to broaden my musical horizons as Natalie felt I tended to stick a bit to close to my collection of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison during our music listening sessions. Natalie knows I have an affinity for acoustic rock and folk music, and sought to have some of her own selections to play in our listening room. While Wilco isn’t strictly an acoustic band, she thought they wrote and produced the kind of music we would enjoy together.
Wilco is an American rock band from Chicago, Illinois, but they are also often referred to as an alt-rock, indie-rock, alt-country or folk rock band. There have been two constant members in the band since their inception in 1994, lead-singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt. Wilco has released eight studio albums to date.
In order to get me started Natalie decided on two of her favorite albums, ordering vinyl versions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (their 4th and most successful album) and the self-titled album Wilco (7th album). It didn’t take long for me to fall for the band. Both albums have a brilliant collection of songs. They offer an old fashioned sense of cohesion that sometimes goes missing in our era of playlists and digital downloads. I found myself listening to both repeatedly, and soon other Wilco albums followed, as the band became a staple in our collection.
Just prior to the release of The Whole Love, Wilco’s eighth and most recent album, the band put on a pair of live shows at Toronto’s Massey Hall Theatre. As I was becoming more familiar with Wilco, I was aware of their reputation for being an outstanding live act – one friend having called them the best live band around. Both Natalie and I were eager to follow our album listening with a live show, and were able to take in the second of their two nights in town. On a Saturday night in September 2011, we were treated to an awesome, two-encore, twenty song set. By the time the concert ended Wilco had grown into one of my favorite current bands, the concert serving to up the ante in my appreciation for both the band and their music.
A short time later I picked up a vinyl version of The Whole Love, adding the new recordings to my growing collection of Wilco albums. In the year and a half since its purchase, this record has taken many spins on my Garrard 401 turntable. Standouts songs include Sunloathe, Black Moon & Rising Red Lung. However the highlight comes near the end with One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend). The first track on side four of the LP is a 12-minute epic; subtle, restrained, with a simple, repetitive melody, it is mesmerizing in both tone and structure. With conflicted and contemplative Christian themes, the song has substance that earns its lengthy duration. Musically, it has a hypnotic character similar to that found in Dylan classics like “Visions of Johanna” & “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, or the equally contemplative “Three Hours” from Nick Drake. This is great songwriting and showcases exemplary musical production. I now use both the album and song as test samples for any new piece of equipment, especially anything related to my analogue system.
After about a year of wearing out the vinyl of The Whole Love I saw that the album was now also available in 96kHz.24 bit from HDTracks.com. I quickly downloaded the high-resolution version and set about listening to what would be my third copy of the album. Inevitably comparisons of the three became a part of the process, so I thought to find out more about the production of each version rather than simply offer thoughts on what I heard from each. Fortunately I found an ally in Bob Ludwig, the legendary mastering engineer who produced the final masters for The Whole Love. Mr. Ludwig graciously offered some details on the production process from his studio, Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine.
Ludwig explained that they used 1/2″ analog tape as source masters and that mastering was at 96kHz.24 bit for the entire album. He offered some specifics on the mastering process, and the attention to detail he, along with the band, went through during this final phase of production. Ludwig said they actually went through four versions of mastering before finishing their work on The Whole Love. With each new version they made subtle changes, some were mix changes and some were EQ changes. He mentioned a particular detail for the mastering of the song “Rising Red Lung,” in which they made a gentle dip of the guitar notes in the intro, settling them back into overall mix.
Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering cut the vinyl, and Ludwig himself approved the test pressing. According to Ludwig “even the vinyl, on a stellar cutting chain, can reproduce the sound of the high resolution file without modification. Sibilance is usually the only issue that might have to be helped to accommodate less than perfect tracking phono cartridges.” Ludwig’s final verdict on the mastering of the album was that “It all sounded wonderful.” Coming from an engineer of Bob Ludwig’s pedigree and experience, those words mean a great deal.
Curious about the high-resolution version of the album, I asked Ludwig his specific thoughts on the 96kHz.24 bit file, which is essentially a replica of his final production master. Ludwig commented that he is thrilled at the availability of 24 bit audio files at any sampling rate, and, of course, even happier with 88.2, 96, 176.4 or 192kHz files. He commented, “These rates often reflect the bandwidth at which the client originally recorded and the customer finally gets to hear the music exactly as the artist intended.”
However, Ludwig also mentioned that during the final mastering process, they sought to ensure there were as little sonic difference between the vinyl, CD and 96kHz versions as possible. He mentioned that the 96kHz.24 bit version was what got approved in the studio, and that the high-resolution download, CD and vinyl copies were al produced from the single master file. I found this detail interesting as I, like many Hi-Fi colleagues, often end up searching for the ‘best sounding’ version of an album. It was refreshing to take in Ludwig’s perspective, whose goal was to produce three equally good versions without a noticeable sonic difference between them.
During my listening to The Whole Love, both in studio and at home, all three versions did indeed sound very close to each other. The sound of the CD is very close to the high-resolution file, although as Ludwig pointed out, the CD should never sound better than the 96kHz.24 file. Listening to the three versions, if I had to choose one my bias would be for the vinyl, however I’m very aware that this is a subjective opinion, dependent on the playback system on hand. In response, Ludwig added that for him, the vinyl comparison is a cut-by-cut comparison. He said “on some projects the vinyl artifacts are euphonic and we consider them a bonus, other times it simply isn’t as clear as quality 96kHz.24 bit playback because it has to pass through so many steps.” After listening to each of them extensively, I consider all three versions worthy of ownership and, under different listening circumstances, likely listen to each of them with the same degree of frequency.
 I’d like to thank Mr. Ludwig for taking the time to contribute to this piece. His insight was invaluable.