The History Mix: U2’s Catalog Reissues

Original Story by Aaron J. Sams (2018-07-27)

In recent years we’ve seen a number of reissues of U2’s back catalog in a variety of formats, both physical and digital. We get a lot of questions about each, especially when new releases come out, so we wanted to take a few minutes and go through some of the more recent releases of U2’s back catalog for you. Links throughout the article will lead you to the discography entries for many of these releases, and news stories relating to the release in some cases.

2007 – 2011 Re-Release Program

These first releases were done under the guidance of a group lead by Nick Stewart. Stewart had started his career with U2 by signing them to Island Records, and has worked with the band throughout the years. In more recent years he has lead a team of archivists putting together releases of back catalog material for a variety of artists. In fact it was his work on 2007’s The Joshua Tree release that lead him to putting together his group, Nick Stewart and Associates.

Most of the releases under the program are all fully remastered, with mastering directed by the Edge.

The releases were as follows:

  • 2007: The Joshua Tree 20th Anniversary (Available on vinyl, single CD, double CD, and box set)
  • 2008: Boy, War, October (Available on vinyl, single CD, double CD)
  • 2008: Under a Blood Red Sky (Available on vinyl, single CD, deluxe CD / DVD set, DVD)
  • 2009: The Unforgettable Fire 25th Anniversary (Available on vinyl, single CD, double CD, and box set)
  • 2011: Achtung Baby (Available as Uber Box, Deluxe, 2-CD, single CD, and 4-vinyl box)

The 2011 release of Achtung Baby lead to some confusion on whether or not the material was remastered. Originally when news of the release came out, it was John Vanderslice on Twitter who revealed Achtung Baby was being remastered in the next room, from the room he was working in at Bernie Grundman studios in LA. But he may have misspoke because Neil McCormick later reported, “In answer to queries about Achtung Baby, I went to the source. It hasn’t been remastered because it “didn’t need to be”, apparently it’s been sonically tweaked & polished but not, technically, remastered. Hope that makes more sense to you than it does to me. I’m just telling you what I’ve been told. Not remastered. But tweaked & boosted. Its definitely louder.” Zooropa had been included in the Uber Box, and the Deluxe six-CD set and had gotten a similar treatment.

The program under Stewart was shuttered at this point. Future releases of U2’s catalog have not been done with the involvement of Nick Stewart’s group. At the time plans had been underway to tackle Pop, All That You Can’t Leave Behind and Rattle and Hum, as well as discussions about a new original collection of U2 archive material that had not been previously collected.

Album Collections on CD

In late 2015, Universal Records worked with El Pais News in Spain to produce the first Kiosk Collection of U2 releases. This included 14 U2 CDs, and four DVDs. The CDs included the album Under a Blood Red Sky, as well as Songs of Innocence, the most recent release at this time. Each CD was released weekly through El Pais outlets. All of the releases were in gate fold card sleeves, and the first week a box was released big enough to hold the entire collection.

The Spanish set used the most recent mastering of each record, so Achtung Baby, The Unforgettable Fire, Under a Blood Red Sky, Boy, War, October and The Joshua Tree were all the same versions as had been mentioned above as part of the Re-Release program. The other albums like Pop and All That You Can’t Leave Behind used the original release mixes.

In 2016, a new box was issued in Italy, once again seeing Universal teamed up with a local news organization, Corriere Della Sera. The release was very similar to the Spanish edition, with the same audio mix being used, although a different pressing. This time the box was titled “The Italian Collection”. Again the CDs were released in card sleeves, and there was a box released big enough to hold the entire collection.

A third take on this idea was released in Portugal in late 2016. In this case the pressings were the same as the original Spanish collection for the most part, although errors were fixed on the Boy, Zooropa and All That You Can’t Leave Behind outer packaging. The pressing of Boy was a new pressing for 2017 due to some errors in the original pressing.

MFiT Digital Collection

On Friday, May 26, 2017 iTunes refreshed the U2 offerings in their online storefronts worldwide, introducing a new set of digital recordings under the “Mastered for iTunes” program or MFiT. This included the albums from Boy to Songs of Innocence, as well as U218 Singles and Wide Awake in America. For the first time, many of these now came with a digital booklet.

The brief for producers on “Mastered for iTunes” points out that for years digital audio has been produced for the compact disc, and that now AAC is the new standard for digital music, and is capable of higher quality files than just encoding from the CD. They urge users of the program to master the recordings with the environment they will be used in in mind, in this case, a digital file will be listened to on the go, as well as in home settings. They ask that producers pay attention to clipping, and other issues which may have been an issue over the years in other digital masters. The tracks are quality checked for publication by iTunes. They also urge use of higher bit recordings in the creation of these files, however the end format is still considered a lossy format, and whether all of this makes any difference is up to you the end user.

And although in most cases the audio released was the most recent remaster, three albums got 2017 remasters, including All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Pop, and Rattle and Hum. Each was released and called the 2017 Album Remaster MFiT Edition in liner notes, and each listed the remastering as having been directed by The Edge. The mix on Songs of Innocence has also been tweaked with this release. There was a technical defect on that album in original releases, and this was fixed for the MFiT release.

Japan SHM Collection

In late 2017, Universal Japan released a full set of U2’s albums on SHM-CD. SHM-CD is an optical disc, the same size as a regular compact disc, that can be played on regular CD systems. The biggest improvement in the disc is the use of a polycarbonate material that allows for less laser scatter during reading, producing fewer errors. The digital information contained on the SHM-CD will be the same as that on a standard CD, the SHM-CD format just improves the ‘readability’ of this information, resulting in better listening due to fewer skips and reading issues. However a exact digital rip of a CD and a SHM-CD with the same contents should result in the exact same audio information.

These SHM-CDs were done in cardboard sleeves, to make each look like the original vinyl release. This included reproduction of things like the OBI strips, the stickers on the sleeves etc. Like the album collections in the kiosk collection used the most recent mastering for CD of each record, so Achtung Baby, The Unforgettable Fire, Under a Blood Red Sky, Boy, War, October and The Joshua Tree were all the same versions as had been mentioned above as part of the Re-Release program. The other albums like Pop and All That You Can’t Leave Behind used the original CD masters. Even though new masters had been done for the MFiT program for Pop, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and Rattle and Hum, these were not used for this set of SHM-CDs from Japan, and instead these are the same masters used for prior CD releases in Japan. One change was made, Songs of Innocence has fixed the technical defect that was also removed in the MFiT collection and thus isn’t a replica of earlier pressings.

There was no box produced for this set by Universal Records. However, a Japanese chain, Disk Union, did produce a promotional box that would fit these releases with the approval of Universal Records. The box was an incentive to get people to shop in the chain, and was only available in store.

Vinyl Re-Issues Series

U2 have been issuing new releases of older material on vinyl for a number of years now. The Joshua Tree, The Unforgettable Fire, Boy and October were all kept in print after their release on vinyl in the earlier remastering program. But many other titles have been out of print over the years, and many have been quite difficult to find. As vinyl demand surged in recent years, a program has been started to re-release U2’s catalog on vinyl to fill demand. And we are told sales are good! So the program will continue.

The first reissue was U218 Singles. The size of the record label logos is slightly different on the back cover of the new issue allowing one to visually tell an original pressing from a later one of this album. That re-issue came out midway through the decade, but we do not know an exact date when these started appearing on store shelves. However the copies being sold in stores today is visually different than the one originally sold in 2006 if you compare the logos on the back cover.

On March 31, 2017, two additional albums were re-released on vinyl. War is now back in print. This time there are differences on the outer sleeve including the new UMC logo. It remains the 2008 audio mix that has been used for War. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was also released, and the 2004 audio mix has been used. Indeed, even for the MFiT collection, the 2004 audio mix was used for Atomic Bomb, while other albums had been updated.

In April 2018, three additional albums were re-released, including All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Pop, and Wide Awake in America. These are identifiable as new releases with new catalog numbers and heavier vinyl than original pressings. Both All That You Can’t Leave Behind and Pop use the audio mix used for the 2017 MFiT releases. Wide Awake in America uses the 2009 mix used for the release.

Today sees the latest release in this series, with three new albums released. Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and The Best of 1980 – 1990. To our surprise, all three are being labeled as 2018 remasters. It looks like additional work has been done on Achtung Baby and Zooropa even though these were tweaked in 2011. And the word remaster is used inside each album credits. Remastering was done at the direction of The Edge. All three are double albums, and because of the shortness of Zooropa, two additional tracks have been added to that release, a remix of “Numb” and a remix of “Lemon”. Originally we had been told that the 2011 mix would be used but it appears that work has been done. (The bonus tracks are included with the download.)

The next release confirmed for this series is The Best of 1990 – 2000 which will be released this fall, on September 28, 2018. We have also been told that a new release of Rattle and Hum may also be released on vinyl in the fall possibly in October. Both are expected to be using a new audio mix for the vinyl, with Rattle and Hum using the version completed for the 2017 MFiT release, and The Best of 1990 – 2000 using a newly created mix for this release. If both of these are released in the Fall, that would leave No Line on the Horizon and Original Soundtracks 1 as the two releases that are not currently being kept in print.

Each of the releases since War and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb have come with a download coupon allowing one to download a digital version of the albums in wave format.

The Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary

Last year a special 30th Anniversary issue of The Joshua Tree was released including vinyl, CD and box set formats. This new reissue was done under the guidance of Gavin Friday. It made use of the previous 2007 audio mix of the album, but included a series of new mixes, as well as new live material taken from a 1987 show. This may have been a special one-off to support the tour, and it remains to be seen if other special sets could be forthcoming.

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