The sound quality of Safe As Milk is something that has been discussed in one way or another quite a bit over the years. Why does it sound the way it does and which release is the best version available?
Some (but not all) of the issues can be traced back to the way the album was recorded in the first place.
Ry Cooder and Gary Marker have both been critical about the way Bob Krasnow and Richard Perry took the recording out the superior eight track Sunset Sound Studios and moved it to the four track RCA Studios to the detriment of the overall sound of the album.
Gary Marker speaking to John Platt in 1999 for remastered Safe As Milk booklet:
Several basic tracks and a number of overdubs were done at Sunset Sound on what was then state-of-the-art 8-track. Perry reduced the 8-tracks down to 4-tracks and moved the entire operation down the street to a really inferior studio – RCA’s by-the-skin-of-our-teeth operation. According to Krasnow, “Well, Richard was getting really confused with all those tracks. He’s more comfortable with 4-track.”
Ry Cooder speaking in 1983:
I still think that Safe As Milk is a good record … what is really good there is the master tape … you see it was mixed badly … hopeless mix … hopeless terrible stupid thing was done which was to take it into a cheap studio to save some money in those days … you know … save a dime and blow it … and the master tape of that album is utterly fantastic … they should take it to Japan and redo it … what a great sound … ’cause it was cut in a good studio on tube equipment … fantastic sound …
Many fans proclaim the original 1967 US mono album as the best sounding pressing out there, and are dismissive of the other mono and stereo versions that were released.
The only vinyl pressing of Safe As Milk to use the original mono mix is the original US red label, and, as with all RCA-distributed product from this time period, this included any foreign pressing made from the same stampers (usually countries that can’t cut their own stampers, such as Puerto Rico and some South American countries).
For some reason it was RCA policy to ship a stereo mix overseas, which would then be folded down and released in mono. So all overseas pressings (not made from US stampers) are fold-downs and not genuine mono. This would include the UK Pye release.
Long-time Beefheart collector, John Ellis, wrote in Goldmine magazine in 1986:
The only simultaneous European issue is the poorly pressed British mono only on Pye […] In those days, unmixed tapes were sent overseas and each country created its own mix. Each of the foreign mixes is superior to the slightly muddy US press; surprisingly, the best is a German 1976 reissue, Gold Rock, which reveals the instrumental details in exciting clarity.
In 1971, the album was reissued using a defective stereo master with various serious problems. All CD issues until the remaster from 1999 used either this defective stereo reissue tape or a fold-down.
Unfortunately copies of the original red label US mono album come onto the market infrequently and consequently command high prices. Which means many fans have, sadly, not actually heard what is claimed to be the best sounding version of the album.
Then in 2013 there was a ripple of anticipation throughout the world of Beefheart fans when Sundazed announced the release of Mono Milk which claimed:
With producer Richard Perry’s rare original mono mix restored, this is the definitive edition of one of rock’s most dynamic debuts!
And, sure nuff, this did sound pretty darn good. Overall the sound was clearer, more solid and packed a bit more of a punch. But someone with very sharp hearing noticed something that wasn’t quite right – the end of Electricity matched the stereo mix, which is totally different to the mono mix. So how could this be the original mono mix? Intrigued, this led to one intrepid audiophile doing a spectrum analysis of the Sundazed ‘Mono’ version and comparing it with other pressings. His findings revealed this:
- Sure ‘Nuff N’ Yes I Do – Intro edited on from fold-down of stereo mix (0:27). Slightly more distorted than a clean mono LP. Ending edited on from fold-down of stereo mix (2:04).
- Zig Zag Wanderer – Most of song comprised of fold-down of stereo mix. 15 sections with backing vocals (28 seconds total) are edited in from the mono mix, which has inverted polarity.
- Call on Me – Intro edited on from fold-down of stereo mix (0:03). Ending edited on from fold-down of stereo mix (2:21). Runs nearly 1% faster than mono LP. Brighter than mono LP, and significantly more distorted than a clean copy.
- Dropout Boogie – Break (1:14 to 1:19) edited on from left channel of stereo mix. Fades a half second earlier than mono LP. Similar EQ to mono LP, but over 1% faster and significantly more distorted.
- I’m Glad – Intro edited on from fold-down of stereo mix (0:17). Ending edited on from fold-down of stereo mix (3:14). Intro runs slow, but most of song is extremely similar to the mono LP, other than some additional distortion in places (ex: “glad” at about 3:12).
- Electricity – Fold-down of stereo mix edited in from 0:04 to 0:12. More distortion than clean copy of mono LP in places (ex: “SHoutS the truth peaCefully” is particularly spitty at 0:21). Ending edited on from fold-down of stereo mix (2:53), notable due to presence of backing track that isn’t on the mono mix.
- Yellow Brick Road – Slightly brighter and more distorted than a clean mono LP (ex: “sunshine” at 1:39). Also noticeable noises in places (ex: pop at 2:17). Fades about a second and a half earlier than mono LP. (The Sundazed 45 single version matches).
- Abba Zaba – Overall quite similar to a clean mono LP. Ending edited on from fold-down of stereo mix (2:35). (The Sundazed 45 single version matches).
- Plastic Factory – Many noises throughout not present on clean mono LP (ex: 1:47). 5 edits (1:06, 1:22, 1:33, 2:42, 2:52) that likely remove large pops. Ending edited on from fold-down of stereo mix (2:56). (The Sundazed 45 single version matches).
- Where There’s Woman – Edits to apparently remove large pops (ex: 1:14). Fades a half second earlier than mono LP. Evidence of surface noise in fade.
- Grown So Ugly – Intro (0:00 – 0:09), middle section (1:14 – 1:50), and ending (2:16 – 2:26) edited on from fold-down of stereo mix. Additional noise and distortion compared to clean mono LP.
- Autumn’s Child – Most of song comprised of fold-down of stereo mix. 16 breaks (0:20, 0:23, 0:26, 0:29, 1:26, 1:29, 1:32, 3:21, 3:24, 3:27, 3:30, 3:39, 3:40, 3:41, 3:43, 3:45) edited in from mono mix.
In other words, according to the above findings, the version by Sundazed appears to be a hybrid of the original US mono mix and (a re-creation of) the foreign fold-down mix, and largely taken from vinyl. This means that it seems not to be a straightforward release of the original mono mix tapes that everyone was expecting. Bizarre … make of that what you will!
So to summarise, if you want to hear the original versions these are the ones you need to check out:
- Original Mono mix – only on original US red label LP (BDM 1001) and any foreign LP’s made from US stampers
- Original Stereo mix – only on 1999 CD remaster and original US LP’s (BDS 1001) made before 1971 reissue
Thanks go to the fan who sent this information about the Mono Milk release to the Radar Station. You know who you are.