Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends – Save the Life of My Child Is One Tough Test

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For as you critically evaluate your copy of Bookends.

The big production songs on this album have a tendency to get congested on even the best pressings, which is not uncommon for Four Track recordings from the ’60s. Those of you with properly set up high-dollar front ends should have less of a problem than some. $3000 cartridges can usually deal with this kind of complex information better than $300 ones.

(But not always. Expensive does not always mean better, since painstaking and exacting set up is so essential to proper playback.)

Save the Life of My Child — A Tough Test

I used to think this track would never sound good enough to use as an evaluation track. It’s a huge production that I had heretofore found all but impossible to get to sound right on even the best original copies of the album. Even as recently as ten years ago I had basically given up on reproducing it right.

Thankfully things have changed. Nowadays, with carefully cleaned top copies at our disposal and a system that is really cooking, virtually all of the harmonic distortion in the big chorus near the opening has disappeared. It takes a very special pressing and a very special stereo to play this song. That’s precisely what makes it a good test!

America — Another Tough Test

America is another one of the toughest tracks to get right. The big ending with its powerful orchestral elements is positively stunning on the rare copies that have little or no congestion in the loudest passages.

On virtually every copy you will ever hear the voices on this track are a little sibilant. Modern records are made with what is known as a de-essing limiter. This limiter recognizes sibilance and keeps it under control, because once the cutter head sees that kind of high frequency information, which is already boosted for the RIAA curve, it will try to cut it onto the record and the result will be this kind of spitty distortion.

What’s interesting is that none of the reissues we played managed to control the problem, even though the hgher quality cutting systems they would have been made with should have been able to handle the extra power requirements. The reissues are not only spitty, but the spit tends to be grainy and aggressive on the bad copies, the worst of both worlds. (Careful arm adjustment — VTA, azimuth, tracking weight and anti-skate — is critical to getting the grit and edge out of the more problematical sibilances found on records such as this. You’ll be amazed at what a little tweaking can do.)

Adding to the problem on the track is the fact that it fades in over the ending of the previous track. This means that it’s actually a generation of tape down from the master, owing to the fact that that kind of mixing is generally done from two master tapes onto a third mixdown tape. From there further dubs might even have been made. Who knows how many generations of tape there might end up being between the master and the finished product?

No Mean Feat — To Find OR Play

By the way, do you know how hard it is to find a clean copy of this record? I’ll bet we look at 50 of these a year and probably buy no more than two or three — which may or may not sound good or have quiet surfaces. Those with properly set up high-dollar front ends will be able to retrieve the most information from these grooves, and take our word for it, these grooves can have plenty.

This album has exceptional bass as well as lovely midrange magic on the guitars and voices. There’s plenty of studio ambience on most tracks, especially the simpler, more folky ones.

Your Reward

As you may have read elsewhere on the site, records like this are the reward for owning the right stereo equipment and having it properly tweaked. There is no way in the world we could have played this album remotely as well 10 years ago as we can now. It only makes us appreciate the music even more.

These Guys At Their Best

The ultimate copies of Bookends and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme are a step up in sonic class from anything else these two guys ever released. If you’re looking for the Ultimate Audiophile Simon & Garfunkel record, you just can’t do better than a Hot Stamper pressing of either of these two titles.



Further Reading

We discuss the issue of Sibilance in a number of listings.

We have a large number of entries in our new Listening in Depth series.

We have a section foAudio Advice of all kinds.

You can find your very own Hot Stamper pressings by using the techniques we lay out in Hot Stamper Shootouts — The Four Pillars of Success.

And finally we’ll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.

Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Bookends Theme 
Save the Life of My Child

I used to think this track would never sound good enough to use as an evaluation track. It’s a huge production that I found heretofore practically impossible to get to sound right on even the best original copies of the album. Even as recently as ten years ago I had basically given up trying.

Thankfully things have changed. Nowadays, with great copies at our disposal and a system that is really cooking, virtually all of the harmonic distortion in the big chorus near the opening disappears. It takes a very special pressing and a very special stereo to play this song.

America

America is another one of the toughest tracks to get right. The big ending with its powerful orchestral elements is positively stunning on the rare copies that have little or no congestion in the loudest passages.

On virtually every copy you will ever hear the voices on this track are a little sibilant. Modern records are made with what is known as a de-essing limiter. This limiter recognizes sibilance and keeps it under control, because once the cutter head sees that kind of high frequency information, which is already boosted for the RIAA curve, it will try to cut it onto the record and the result will be this kind of spitty distortion.

What’s interesting is that none of the reissues we played managed to control the problem, even though the hgher quality cutting systems they would have been made with should have been able to handle the extra power requirements. The reissues are not only spitty, but the spit tends to be grainy and aggressive on the bad copies, the worst of both worlds.

Adding to the problem on the track America is the fact that it fades in over the ending of the previous track. This means that it’s actually a generation of tape down from the master, owing to the fact that that kind of mixing is generally done from two master tapes onto a third mixdown tape. From there further dubs might even have been made. Who knows how many generations of tape there might end up being between the master and the finished product?

There is also deep bass on the best copies, bass which is usually missing from the most originals and practically all of the reissues.

Overs 
Voices of Old People 
Old Friends 
Bookends Theme

Side Two

Musically this side is one of the strongest in the entire Simon and Garfunkel oeuvre (if you’ll pardon my French). Not a dog in the bunch.

Fakin’ It

On copies that are big and clear but not quite as rich and Tubey Magical as one might wish the vocals here will be a bit dry and gritty.

Punky’s Dilemma

This is probably the best sounding song on side two, rich, relaxed, tubey and smooth. No later Red Label pressing gets those qualities the way the best 360s do.

Mrs. Robinson

This song sounds like it’s sourced from a dub tape. Notice how smeary the guitar transients are. The vocals are a bit better than the guitars, but no other track on this side sounds quite as dubby — to my ear — as this one.

A Hazy Shade of Winter
At the Zoo

AMG 5 Star Rave Review

Bookends is a literary album that contains the most minimal of openings with the theme, an acoustic guitar stating itself slowly and plaintively before erupting into the wash of synthesizers and dissonance that is “Save the Life of My Child.”

The classic “America” is next, a folk song with a lilting soprano saxophone in the refrain and a small pipe organ painting the acoustic guitars in the more poignant verses. The song relies on pop structures to carry its message of hope and disillusionment as two people travel the American landscape searching for it until it dawns on them that everyone else on the freeway is doing the same thing.

The final four tracks, “Mrs. Robinson,” the theme song for the film The Graduate, “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” and the album’s final track, “At the Zoo,” offer as tremblingly bleak a vision for the future as anything done by the Velvet Underground, but rooted in the lives of everyday people, not in the decadent underground personages of New York’s Factory studio. But the album is also a warning that to pay attention is to take as much control of one’s fate as possible.