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A trippy shootout between four different CD versions of David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane”

November 11, 2014

What would happen if you started playing four different versions of the same album simultaneously? Well, they would stay in sync for a few seconds, but then they’d begin to drift apart as they inevitably dropped behind or jumped ahead of one other, thanks to small differences between them that might be imperceptible when you listen to each version on its own in turn. They’d soon slip out of time entirely, and collide in unpleasant, unmusical ways — or would they?

I’ve always been fascinated by the aural collisions that these minute, imprecise, unpredictable variations in timing can produce upon music playback. I encountered a particularly trippy example recently, while I was comparing four different digital releases of David Bowie’s masterful 1973 glam-rock album Aladdin Sane. I’m a big fan of this work, and I have collected a bunch of different versions over the years. It has been released on CD at least four different times: by RCA, by Rykodisc, by EMI, and just last year by Universal Music to celebrate the LP’s 40th anniversary. Just for curiosity’s sake, I decided to compare these, by ripping them to my laptop, and putting them all side-by-side in a digital audio editor.

Aladdin Sane’s unforgettable album cover

I adjusted each one to be relatively the same volume (the 1980s-era RCA disc is quieter than the rest, which is typical of CDs produced back then, so I brought the others down in level a bit to better match it). Then I lined them up at the first downbeat of the opening song, “Watch That Man”. Initially, I had intended to just listen to one at a time, and flip back and forth between each for blind comparison. Accidentally, however, I left them all playing at once. Here’s what it sounded like.

Closer examination reveals just what’s going on. Each time the original analogue tape was played back to make each CD’s digital master, there were fluctuations in its speed. For example, “Watch That Man” runs slower on the RCA compared to the other CDs, but on most of the other tracks, the 40th Anniversary CD is slowest. The ending of “Drive-In Saturday” fades out gradually to silence, and this fade is a couple of seconds shorter on the Rykodisc version. There are other differences, mostly in the amount of silence the engineers placed between some of the tracks on all four CDs. According to my research, CSR in Japan also mastered a fifth variation for the United States, which differs from the more common RCA CDs originally pressed for the European market. I was not able to track one of these down to compare.

The European RCA also has a tiny extra bit of piano at the end of “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, whereas all the other CDs fade out entirely at that point. I appended this little gem to the very end of the file above, after “Lady Grinning Soul” has faded to silence, so you can hear it in isolation (if you make it that far)!

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