The Joshua Tree and JVC
Original Story by Don Morgan (2017-06-15)
If you’re a collector of U2 on CD, you’ve probably got an original 1987 copy of The Joshua Tree. If you’re lucky (or maybe just willing to pay a high price on the secondary market), you might also have the 1996 gold CD remaster from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (discussed in greater detail in our recent article on MFSL discs). And of course, you snatched up the 2007 Joshua Tree remaster as either a single CD or as part of the 2CD or super deluxe anniversary sets. That same 2007 remaster is included again with the deluxe and super deluxe CD formats of The Joshua Tree’s 30th anniversary editions, released this year in conjunction with the tour.
But did you know there’s a mastering of The Joshua Tree on CD, dating all the way back to 1987, that is audibly different from any of the versions listed above? With a bit of detective work, it shouldn’t be hard to track one down, especially if you live in the USA.
But first, a word about the early years of CD manufacturing and distribution. When The Joshua Tree was originally issued, Island Records releases were distributed by WEA International (Warner Bros./Elektra/Atlantic and a host of sub-labels) in the United States. In 1989, Chris Blackwell sold Island Records to the Polygram UK Group, effectively removing U2 and other Island acts from the WEA chain of manufacturing and distribution.
In theory, this means that all U2 CDs manufactured for the US market prior to 1989 should carry the line “Made in USA by WEA Manufacturing” on the disc, typically around the bottom of the disc face.
But it’s not that simple. In the 1980s the CD was still a new format, and it took a while for CD manufacturing worldwide to reach full steam. For the earliest CD releases, titles owned by one company would sometimes need to be manufactured by competing companies due to high demand and other factors. WEA titles were no exception. Many early U2 CD releases for the US market were initially manufactured by competing companies, including Polygram, Capitol Records, Sony (Digital Audio Disc Corp.), and JVC, to name a few.
Although WEA Manufacturing was up and running in 1987, the unprecedented success of The Joshua Tree necessitated that production of the CD be farmed out to other companies in order to keep up with demand. To accommodate this, WEA would send a copy of the digital transfer to various countries or manufacturing plants for production mastering and CD manufacturing. In the case of The Joshua Tree, it appears that at least 5 CD manufacturers received the digital transfer from WEA for the initial release of the CD worldwide: JVC (with facilities in both Japan and the USA for production of CDs for the US market), West Germany PDO (for production of CDs for the US market), Sanyo Japan (for release in Japan), Nimbus UK (for release in the UK and possibly the rest of Europe), and Festival Records Manufacturing/Disctronics B for the Australian market.
Here’s where things get interesting. During this early period when different companies were producing the same title, each manufacturer may have made their own mastering choices, resulting in different sounding CDs. In other words, CD duplication during this period was not always a matter of mere “duplication.” Mastering choices may have been involved that impacted the actual sound of the music, however subtly, depending on the manufacturer.
In most cases, these mastering differences are extremely subtle. The result is not something you would notice with the naked ear. If you want to take a deep dive into this issue, check out this laborious thread on different 1987 Joshua Tree masterings over at the Steve Hoffman Forums!
In a few cases, however, the mastering choices between different manufacturers are significant enough that, if listening on high-end stereo equipment (and not simply ripping the CDs into iTunes, mp3, or another lossy format), you can hear an audible difference. Such is the case with 1987 copies of The Joshua Tree manufactured for the US market by JVC.
The differences are still subtle, but they are audible if you listen closely. Rather than attempt to explain them myself, I enlisted the help of my friend Caroline, who is a veritable expert on early CD pressings and unique masterings over at the Steve Hoffman Forums. Here are a few of her comments on the different Joshua Tree masterings, with a special emphasis on the JVC discs:
First of all, it is my opinion that the original US and UK LPs do not sound as nice as the best sounding CD. It may be that the length of the album is too long to fit onto one record without compromising the sound. While the bass sound is pronounced, much of the room ambience (the sound between the instruments) and other details are lost.
Second, I got rid of the UK PDO CD because the disc began to “bronze” (i.e., physically deteriorate), the SRC/DADC CD because of the “compressed” but still bland sound, the P35D Sanyo Japan CD because it sounded similar to but not quite as good as the JVC CDs, and the Mobile Fidelity gold CD because of the unnatural, EQ’d sound.
As for the remaining 3 CD groups (the 2 JVC CDs, the 3 WG/US PDO CDs and the UK Nimbus CD), they all sound nice, except that the JVC CDs are noticeably better.
Overall, The WG/US PDO pressings have Bono’s vocals too high near the ceiling in the sound stage, suggesting EQ boosts during somewhere in the mastering process. They are also more mid-bass heavy with less bass extension compared to the JVC CDs.
As for the UK Nimbus CD, Bono’s vocals, like the PDO CDs, are too high near the ceiling in the sound stage, suggesting EQ boosts somewhere during the mastering process. Some instruments also appear more upfront with less 3D sound stage effect, suggesting noise reduction (NR). The drums also sound less realistic than the JVC CDs and the PDO CDs.
As for the JVC CDs, here are some reasons why I believe they are the best sounding discs out there:
1. Throughout the album, the vocals and instruments are clearer and more realistic, and Bono’s voice is not way up in the ceiling. The “Eno effects” are more 3-dimensional and clear.
2. “With or Without You”—During the intro, the drum machine sound is at the center and way back, and it sounds like what it is: a drum machine instead of a tambourine. The bass is full bodied and extended. The vocals are clear and focused. You can almost reach out and touch the “3D Eno effect.” The cymbals are way in the back but still crystal clear.
3. “Red Hill Mining Town”—The guitar sound is clearer and more realistic, including the sound of fingers sliding on the guitar strings.
4. “In God’s Country”—There is a 3D holographic soundstage, with clear vocals (including the sibilants), nice bass, and if a nice audio system is set up just right, a sonic image of “The Joshua Tree” starting around 2:10 created by the sound of the guitars and drums and Eno’s “DX7 programmes and keyboards.”
5. “Trip Through Your Wires”—This is the straightest rock n’ roll recording on the album (meaning least Eno-influenced), and the JVC versions manage to capture the “live” feeling of the track better than any other.
6. “One Tree Hill”—The JVC CDs have very realistic drum sound and clear instrumental/Eno effect starting around 2:40 into the song. At around 3:52 or so, one can “see” a sonic image of a roadway to a distant hill formed by a 3D triangle with the two speakers as the base and Bono’s vocals at the apex in the back center (and especially so starting around 4:10 or so when Bono is wailing “raining”). Other CD pressings instead form a 2-dimensional triangle with Bono at the top of the hill and the listener at the very base of the hill straining to look straight up.
Of course, some of this is subjective. Much of it depends on your sound system and settings. But Caroline is definitely onto something here. Using headphones, I can hear a more pronounced sound of Edge’s fingers on the guitar strings on “Red Hill Mining Town” on the JVC CD compared to others from 1987. I can also hear something going on with echo or keyboards on “In God’s Country” that isn’t as immediately apparent on other CDs. And the sonic nuances during the second half of “One Tree Hill” are noticeable as well—not immediately apparent, but definitely there if you listen closely.
Are the 1987 JVC pressings of The Joshua Tree revelatory holy grails that you need to track down immediately? Probably not. But if you collect different pressings of The Joshua Tree anyway (and let’s face it, if you’re a regular visitor to U2Songs you very well might), a JVC disc is worth adding to your collection. Just look for a US pressing with JVC markings on the disc face, and you’re good to go. You can often find these listed on Discogs, although you’ll want to check with the seller first to ensure that the listing is accurate.
Finally, in case you’re wondering, The Joshua Tree is really the last U2 album on CD that would see subtle mastering differences between countries and manufacturers. With CD becoming the dominant format during the 90s, the manufacturing process became more streamlined and uniform. In addition, where U2 is concerned, the band enlisted the services of Cheryl Engels for “audio post-production” beginning with Rattle and Hum. Cheryl’s company, Partial Productions, handles quality control on all U2 audio, ensuring that the band’s albums worldwide are released at the same sonic standards.
Do you own a JVC CD of The Joshua Tree? What are your thoughts? Can you hear a difference, or is this much ado about nothing? Do you own other early U2 discs that sound “different” depending on the country or manufacturer? Let us know in the Forum or on Facebook!