When it comes to the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session, I just can’t help myself. A new version comes up for sale and I reach for my wallet. I’m like a dog with a stick -- I have to chase it.
It’s a Canadian thing. We hold our cultural icons close to our hearts: The Tragically Hip, Bruce Cockburn, Rush (if you’re male), Max Webster (if you’re male and over 45) -- and if you’re a Canadian audiophile, Holly Cole, and most definitely the Cowboy Junkies. Our publisher, Doug Schneider, is Canadian, and he’s the driving force behind two of the four videos released so far about the making of this album for our SoundStage! Encore series, which can be found on SoundStage! Xperience. Furthering my passion for The Trinity Session is the fact that it was recorded only 1.5 miles from my house, at the Church of the Holy Trinity, in downtown Toronto.
Over the years, I’ve collected three different vinyl versions of The Trinity Session: the original Latent pressing (Latex 5), a Canadian RCA reissue (RTH 8568), and Classic Records’ 45rpm edition, released in 2009 on four single-sided LPs (RTH-8568-45). When I recently discovered that Acoustic Sounds had commissioned Peter J. Moore, the album’s original producer and engineer, to remaster the dusty original master tape -- well, how could I not add it to my IKEA record rack?
According to Moore, the Acoustic Sounds remastering (AAPP 072) is a Really Big Deal. The Trinity Session was originally recorded in 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution on a highly modified Sony PCM processor feeding a Betamax tape deck (not an R-DAT, as some sources report), and in 1987 there were no software tools with which to manipulate this digital information. The original vinyl pressing, Latent Latex 5, was mastered using the Sony PCM processor's analog outputs. While cutting the record, Moore faded between tracks by manipulating the volume pot on the machine. The later RCA pressings and the resultant CDs were produced using the same method, though Moore himself didn’t participate in the physical cutting of the LP.
I asked Moore if he knew where Classic Records had gotten the master used to make their 45rpm edition, but he didn’t know. Reading between the lines, I assume that Classic may well have cut the record from a CD.
For the Acoustic Sounds remastering, Moore had to find and restore a professional-quality Beta duplicator, which took considerable time and money. Once he had the right machine in working order, Moore invested further resources in modifying it to his satisfaction. Now, with state-of-the-art, 21st-century digital tech, it was possible to accurately sync the clock, then upload that master tape with improved accuracy. Moore played back the reclocked 16/44.1 data in the analog domain and captured it in DSD format via a Digital Audio Denmark analog-to-digital converter.
The resulting file was cut at Sterling Sound by Ryan Smith on lacquers for two LPs (the original Latent and RCA pressings were on a single disc each), and the artwork and new gatefold cover also received a gussying-up. The discs were pressed on 200gm vinyl at Acoustic Sounds’ sister facility, Quality Record Pressing, also in Salina, Kansas. Perhaps the best track on the album, “Working on a Building,” didn’t appear on the original Latent edition (it made it onto the CD, RCA, and Acoustic Sounds reissue along with another bonus, "Blue Moon Revisited").
Though I’ve always preferred the original Latent pressing to the RCA, they sound far more similar than different; it’s just that the already somewhat bitey sibilants on the Latent are more annoying on the RCA. You’d think that the Classic Records iteration, mastered at 45rpm and pressed on four thick, single-sided slabs of nice, quiet, 200gm vinyl, would be a significant improvement over those wafer-thin 1980s LPs, and in some ways it is. It has a bit more sense of the size of the church’s acoustic, the bass is nice and tight, and the sibilance in Margo Timmins’s singing is less pronounced and thus less grating. But the Classic is a touch flat, and somewhat lacking in dynamics -- there’s a bit of extra smoothness to the overall sound, a slight rounding-off of some of the sharp edges. The Latent and RCA LPs counter with better dynamics and a bit more punch.
In short, Classic’s 45s are cut from the same cloth as the Latent and RCA 331⁄3 releases, with the same feeling of presence -- the Classic is a bit more resolving, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to hunt down and pay for a copy. I place the Latent pressing at the top of the vintage heap, followed by the RCA; bringing up the rear by a nose are the Classic 45s. But, the Classic’s lack of bite aside, none of those has the depth and ambience of soundstage that are at the core of the Acoustic Sounds version. Unless you’re a completist who just has to have all possible versions, all you really need is the Acoustic Sounds remaster. Pressed on 200gm biscuits of virgin vinyl, they’re dead flat and totally silent: no clicks, no pops, no surface noise. They’re delightful discs. They cost $55 USD.
Peter Moore’s reworking of this classic recording nets unspeakable layers of depth in the ginormous acoustic of that honking-huge stone church, and unleashes it right there in my living room. Add in the reduction -- perhaps a better description is the smoothing out -- of some of Margo T.’s annoying sibilance, and this record becomes much more listenable, much less digital. Right from the start, Moore’s remastering presents all of the magical qualities of the original while building on them in every way possible.
The first track, the a cappella “Mining for Gold,” presents an audiophile conundrum. The original opens with a subbass rumble that’s an environmental artifact of the church. That this is greatly reduced on the Acoustic Sounds doesn’t affect the music in any way -- I mention it only because I’m an audiophile, dammit, and obsessing about this sort of thing is what we do. What is vitally important here is the size of the acoustic around Margo Timmins’s voice, accompanied and surrounded by only a halo of ambience. It’s a brilliant start to this album, and it immediately made me happy that I’d bought this reissue.
Further on, in “Blue Moon,” as Timmins’s voice shares that monstrous acoustic with the other Junkies, more gains are revealed. Michael Timmins’s juicy, tasteful electric guitar hangs in the air with far more body and harmonics that the originals don’t come close to matching. Margo T.’s sibilance always made me wince a bit when I listened to the original Latent and RCA pressings, and while on the Acoustic Sounds there’s still some bite on the leading edge of each s, it sounds far more natural, far less abrasive.
In all, there are many areas of improvement in the new version, no downsides, and the packaging is terrific -- the gatefold cover is beautiful, and the rice-paper sleeves are slinky.
Stop the presses!
That’s where I’d planned to end this column, but in researching The Trinity Session reissues online I stumbled on two more vinyl editions. Sony Music put out a version in a choice of white or black 180gm vinyl, and Music On Vinyl also reissued it -- both editions on two LPs each, both in 2017. Peter Moore told me that Sony had used the same master he’d prepared for Acoustic Sounds, but pressed them elsewhere. He was unaware of the Music On Vinyl, but assumed that it, too, had been made from the same new tape.
I ordered the Sony (on white vinyl, Sony Music 88985398961) from Pop Music, my local record store of choice. I briefly considered ordering the Music On Vinyl LPs as well, but by now I felt I was descending into cat-lady hoarder madness. Enough.
The Sony LPs arrived in time for me to spend a few more evenings listening to this album. By this time I’d been playing The Trinity Session incessantly for three weeks. My wife and daughter were pretty much sick of the Cowboy Junkies, and I was starting to get a little annoyed myself. But such is the majesty of this album that I was easily able to power through another half-dozen hearings of the Junkies’ cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.” The white-vinyl Sony shares much with the Acoustic Sounds -- it’s got that smoothness in the highs, and a fair bit of that CinemaScope soundstage -- but the soundstage isn’t quite as deep.
With the Acoustic Sounds I could hear a fair bit farther into the church sanctuary in “Dreaming My Dreams with You,” which I then confirmed -- in spades -- by listening once again to “Working on a Building.” The Acoustic Sounds also has more dynamic snap. The electric guitar in “Building” has more attack, more of a feeling of being in the room with me. There was no comparison -- the Acoustic Sounds won out again. As well it should, I guess: At $55, it cost me 50% more than the Sony.
I think I’m done here. The Acoustic Sounds release is the winner, hands down. If all you have is an original Latent or RCA pressing, you’d do well to order the Acoustic Sounds -- you’ll feel you’re hearing this music for the first time. If a copy of Classic Records’ set of four 45rpm LPs still lurks in your record rack, you might not be happy to hear me say this, considering how much you probably paid for it -- but I think you, too, should consider this newly remastered version.
Peter J. Moore also produced The Caution Horses, another killer Cowboy Junkies album. Hmmm. I wonder when that’s gonna come out again . . .
. . . Jason Thorpe