Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Box Set Dilemma Part 2: Thinking Outside the Box

One of the first CD box sets, Led Zeppelin offered sub-par remastering and little in the way of bonus material. 

As I first discussed in my previous entry, the retrospective CD box set has the potential to either be of great benefit to an artist's catalog, or a gigantic waste of time and effort. Here I'd like to explore some of many variables that separate the winners from the losers...

Back catalog: Webster's defines the word "retrospective" as an exhibition or compilation showing the development of the work of a particular artist over a period of time.  If the set's executive producer were to always keep this definition in mind, it would surely help to keep a lot of the problems plaguing CD box sets from ever manifesting themselves in the first place. Let's parse through this, shall we?

Firstly, the word "exhibition" is used in the definition. In other words, we are selecting certain pieces out of an artist's entire body of work to exhibit on display. Include everything an artist ever released and you no longer have a retrospective, but rather a catalog dump.

A box set containing all of the artist's previously released work is of use to neither fan nor neophyte-- the fan already owns this stuff, and the novice isn't going to pay the price of admission, so long as the original releases are still available individually for purchase.

The second key word in the definition is "development". In other words, if we're talking about an artist that hasn't displayed much in the way of noticeable artistic progression throughout their career, then the box set retrospective is not the right way to showcase their work. In cases such as this, sticking with the one or two disc Greatest Hits or Best Of format makes more sense. (Examples I can think of offhand: Gary Lewis & The Playboys, The Cranberries, LL Cool J, Garbage, etc.)

Though they only released three CDs during their existence, A Perfect Circle still put out a limited edition box set.

Finally, the definition mentions "over a period of time". Therefore, is it valid to release a box set retrospective covering just a certain portion of an artist's career? Absolutely! So long as the compilers agree to adhere to the previous parts of this definition, then focusing on a prime era of an artist's career can certainly still be considered a retrospective. If a certain portion of your creative output is roughly on par with Picasso's "Blue" period, then go right ahead. I won't try to stop you!

With all this in mind, the main challenge of the set's executive producer is to tell the story they're trying to convey in the ideal amount of time, while still taking into account the limitations of physical CD storage. 320 minutes (80 minutes x 4 discs) used to be considered the industry standard, but within the last decade or so, box sets have ballooned and now often comprise as many CDs or DVDs as the compilers see fit to include. (For example, the Grateful Dead's Europe '72: The Complete Recordings contains over 60 CDs!)

Whatever your practical limitations, it is still very important to keep in mind that you are curating an exhibit. So generally speaking, you should avoid the temptation for overkill. Include too many highlights, and you'll remove any temptation for neophytes to explore your artist's back catalog.

Unreleased/ hard-to-find music: Ideally yes, include some, so long as it presents extra value to the dedicated fan. However do make sure that the rare material you're including is not so rough or poor that it sounds noticeably inferior when showcased amongst the musical highlights that otherwise comprise your retrospective.

If you must include some weaker rare material, try to put it on its own "bonus" disc... But even then, that material shouldn't be so awful that it draws attention away from the rest of the artist's canon that remains the primary reason for your set's existence

AC/DC's Box Set offered all of the group's releases with no added bonus material at a list price of $400. Buying the  17 CDs separately would cost the average consumer around $200. So why does this set exist exactly?!

Flow: Perhaps equally important as proper track selection is the overall flow of the mix. Although a lot of executive producers may choose to stick with an exact chronological order (either in terms of recording date or release date) when deciding what order to present tracks on a set, one should not feel handcuffed from doing a bit of creative maneuvering if two songs simply do not sound right when buttressed against one another. (Ideally there will be some kind of booklet or other documentation included with the set that will list all the necessary dates for each song, making strict adherence to chronology inessential.)

However, please note that retrospective sets are generally better off sticking with at least a loose chronology when it comes to a playlist order, whereas one or two disc Best Of or Greatest Hits comps are usually not bound by any such restrictions.

How I roll...

Audio fidelity/  remixing/  mastering:   Generally speaking, this isn't really as hard to get right as it may seem at first. With rare exceptions, your best bet as an engineer is to simply go back to the original master tapes and perform a flat transfer to 24/96 or higher digital. If the source material was recorded digitally to begin with, then simply do nothing except utilize the existing master. If the original master cannot be located, or if this is a DIY effort, your goal is then to then locate the best sounding, highest generation copy available. The music forum over at Steve Hoffman's board is your best friend here in most cases. (Pro Tip: Familiarize yourself with the search function and don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't find what you're looking for initially.)

When dealing with classic artists who recorded much of their music in the 1960s, the temptation exists to go back and remix tracks that were originally released only in mono. Now this is a process that I am highly opposed to, in the same manner that I wouldn't prefer to see prints of Georgia O'Keefe's work that have been digitally color corrected verses the real deal. However, if you absolutely must, make sure that you are at least consistent in your usage. In other words, do not switch back and forth between the original mono mixes and new digital stereo remixes, or you will give your listener a headache. It's just poor form.

Even worse is the phenomenon in which the remix/ mastering engineer decides to play God with the canon thereby elevating themselves to the level of the artist. Such shenanigans include but are not limited to: adding obvious effects, looping segments, dropping instruments and vocals in and out, indiscriminately fading and splicing, etc. This type of wankery should never be accepted unless the artist is on board from the git go, as in the case of the Grateful Dead's Greyfolded or Infrared Roses releases. For the traditional box set retrospective, this practice should be completely verboten.

Beatles fans everywhere rushed to purchase The Beatles Stereo Box, which contained no bonus material, but did feature immaculate remastering compared to their previously issued CDs-- absolute proof that sound quality matters.

Once you have compiled your ideal track line-up and have taken into account the time limitations of whatever physical medium you're using, you should then listen to the playback in sequence over a variety of different loudspeakers. Have one set of trusted studio monitors available in an acoustically sound environment for use as your mains. Only now through your primary speakers should you apply judicious EQ tweaking, and only in the most egregious of circumstances. In most cases, if you're working with high generation source material, it will sound just fine without any help from you.

In the off case that the existing master doesn't sound particularly good, you can now EQ it, with the goal being to get it to blend as seamlessly as possible with the surrounding material. Resist the urge to apply any kind of digital noise reduction or similar plug-in, effect or outboard device that can seriously compromise the sound of the existing master. This cannot be overstated! Many more tracks have been ruined via the application of Haeco-CSG or Sonic Solutions No Noise (look 'em up) than by the engineer leaving well enough alone.

For the final issue of loudness, many "normalizing" plug-ins are available on the market that adjust the relative volume of each track to a standardized level. It's advisable not to over-rely on these, but especially in the case of artists whose careers spans decades there likely will be an increase in volume throughout the years, as industry standards have constantly pushed for louder and louder recordings as time has progressed (the so-called "Loudness Wars"). As such, these plug-ins can prove invaluable when it comes to establishing a more consistent listening experience throughout your set.

Mastering engineer Bernie Grundman at the console.

Cover art and title: Not your biggest concern. If your set is primarily going to be downloaded, then the cover art is just a tiny square; and if the music is amazing then nobody is going to care about the artwork or the title anyway.

However for in-store browsers an attractive package is at least somewhat important. If it's at all within your control, try to ensure that the packaging of the box is eye-catching without being gaudy, and that the design accurately reflects the image of the artist whose music is contained within. Nothing is worse than garish modern fonts and image enhancement techniques (lense flare, drop shadows and such) promoting a release from an artist who represents a classic or timeless sensibility.

As for titles, your primary goal is to pick something that's not overly verbose and that hasn't been used as a previous package title somewhere in the artist's back catalog. (Perhaps harder than it sounds: How many dubious Byrds' hits collections with titles like Mr. Tambourine Man or Turn! Turn! Turn! have existed throughout the years?)

Add-ons: Or "tchotchkes"-- essentially the swag that gets tacked on to the set in an attempt to increase perceived value and justify the price.

Personally I hate this sort of stuff. I have no need for t-shirts, postcards or buttons. Just give me the music and some sort of book that talks about what I'm listening to-- preferably one that offers some real insight. However there are serious collectors of this sort of ephemera out there, just as there are real adults with baseball card and action figure collections. So if you want to include this sort of stuff, go ahead, but make certain that it doesn't somehow overshadow the music found within.

Another AC/DC box set, Back Tracks, comes housed in a real working amp.

Price: Should not equal more than $12.50 U.S. per CD. If you're charging more than $50 for a four disc set or $75 for a six disc one, then you are gouging your customers. Nobody pays more than $12.50 for a CD in this country these days (audiophiles excluded), so how can you justify charging more than that when the consumer is now buying in bulk?

Don't point to the pins, postcards and lavish packaging-- those are totally inessential to the story. Given the choice, most consumers would rather pay $75 for a simply packaged set than $150 for one with a bunch of useless add-ons. Instead, try to look at the box set as I described it in my last entry-- a chance to shore up old fans and make new ones.

Now once in a while there may come a set of such vital historical importance that it actually deserves reverential treatment, such as the Beach Boys' SMiLE Sessions box. And in this case it actually was handled properly by the powers that be. Various versions were released, including a 5 CD deluxe box set, as well as double vinyl and CD sets-- plus digital downloads for those with a lower budget who still wanted to see what the fuss was about.

The Beach Boys' SMiLE Sessions was released in many formats, including this deluxe edition.

Obviously deluxe box sets should have a degree of "wow factor" to them-- but this should not be an excuse to simply gouge the purchaser. Only the devoted are going to spend over $100 on a single purchase by an artist; but if you take care of the consumer in the $40-60 range, you'll be rewarded with a new fan on many a purchase.

With a glut of CD box sets currently on the market, it behooves the compiler to put the needs of the audience first. In doing so, they are not only providing a greater value to the consumer, but also doing right by the artist.


  1. Excellent work, JP. Too bad the sun is quickly setting on the Box Set Era, as it'll come to be known..."Catalog dump" needs to enter the language, although if it's an economical, good-sounding, and well-packaged dump, I ain't agin' it.

  2. Enjoying this series. Thanks.


  3. Glad you all are enjoying. We take our box sets seriously around here! ;)

  4. Joe, the Nilsson RCA box seems to be what you're describing. $86 for 17 CDs, including unreleased stuff? Yes, please! It's all about bang for your buck.

  5. As usual, nicely said and words to live by, Thanks.

    Blank Frank

  6. I don't think the sun is setting on box sets ... I think the Monkees box set issues have demonstrated how catering to a fan base still makes box sets worthwhile. The Beach Boys have released two box sets in a three-year span, and I don't think they took any sort of commercial hit on them. Lots of artists have issued boxes in the last few years, and are issuing boxes now/soon. The Beatles' "U.S." albums (not actually U.S., but I digress), Mellancamp, Dylan's whole catalog (again), Paul Simon (again), etc. Box sets are profit monsters for the right artists.

    Would a box set of, say, The Troggs sell huge units? Perhaps not, as most folks only know "Wild Thing." But you throw in the long swearing tirade, the pre-fame recordings, some stuff they did after their big hit, you'd get a clutch of fans who'd buy it.

    Digital "box sets" seem to be viable, as well. I think the value of the box set, of giving people an immersion into an artist's work (either an entire career or a specific, rich period) will never go out of style. People like to get as much as they can at a good price (Sam's Club, Wal-mart, Target, big bulk stores all prove that).

    I like box sets, I guess is what I'm saying.

  7. I'm still a CD guy - actually an LP guy; can't get enough of the large-format artwork - but the idea of a "digital box set" is intriguing. How about this: A curated experience of downloadable episodes doled out on a schedule. Like a radio documentary, but rather than a DJ talking in between tracks, downloadable photos, interviews, essays, and so on. For a higher price, maybe you'd get a ticket to a local planetarium show where you could listen in ideal conditions and meet other fans.

    Love your writing, Jason. I'm in Redwood City. Drop a line if you're feeling social: ted.greenwald at Google's email service.

  8. That is a great idea; indeed I've been thinking of something along those lines, although more like a podcast. I'll be in touch!