I finally got around to a “Pepsi Challenge” re Rush’s album Vapor Trails (2002) and Vapor Trails Remixed (2013). The original version was widely-discussed for being exceptionally “loud,” but I never really knew what that meant.
I can hear now that the 2002 version keeps too many of the various, heavily-layered multi-tracks (guitars, drums, bass, and background vocals) across the front and centre of the mix. It’s almost as if someone set all songs on the album with a kind of preset to keep 80% of the composite tracks very close to the same position and volume.
Vapor Trails Remixed uses more of the stereo field, as well as wider dynamics. One can now hear individual parts (and even instrumental and vocal effects, sometimes very quiet ones) that were almost completely buried before. Also, many things aren’t centred nearly as much. The lead vocal of a song is now usually the main thing that’s front and centre. Incidentally, the songs “One Little Victory” and “Earthshine” were already available in remixed form on the Rush anthology “Retrospective III” (2009).
I listened through the two albums by interleaving them by song: AA’BB’CC’… — taking into account some of the differences I heard, but without making any specific notes. Then, I wondered if I’d be able tell which song-version I was hearing if I set the playlist to shuffle and listened to the first minute or so of each song. The challenge turned out to be quite difficult for me, because I can hear things like melodies, rhythms, and other structures much better than I can hear things having to do with mixing. The former elements were not really changed at all in the remixed versions, in the same (“album rock”) way that Rush’s live song versions are very similar to its original, studio versions. One would first have to get very familiar with the aural qualities for the “loud” version of each song on Vapor Trails, before confidently hearing the differences in its “remix” version.
The remixed album generally “sounds better,” in terms of how things are balanced. However, I think it would also be fairly difficult for most other people to hear and explain exactly why and how that’s the case. In any case, these are not “remixes” in the sense of substantially-revised interpretations, such as with newly-introduced material. For Rush, the term just means “mixed over again.” Many other musicians, though–ranging from classical string ensembles to death metal bands (and everything in between)–have re-worked Rush’s music more substantially than the band itself has. I’ve written about that elsewhere.