Anyone who has read any of my works here, seen my Instagram, or perhaps come across one of my websites, know that I tend to get into the details. As in, really into the details. It’s easy to assume that this has always been the case, that I started my KISS fandom as a super-nerd who sat around comparing reverb tails on Destroyer and Love Gun or spotting the Overlend EMG pickups in Paul’s Hamers. It turns out I had kind of gotten that idea about myself and—at least in my head—constructed a slightly revisionist history of myself.
Naturally this wasn’t something I planned and in conversation with other, shall we say, detail-oriented fans I’ve always held fast that back in the 80s and 90s I was ”content” to just listen to the music, buy a couple of magazine (mainly for the photos), and watch the few VHS bootlegs available to me. That said, I did listen to the music A LOT. I joke that I’ve listened to Asylum so many times that it is surely encoded in my DNA. I didn’t listen to Crazy Nights with quite the same fervor but it did get its fair share of spins as did all subsequent albums up until Psycho Circus. However, I diversified my tastes more and more and since time is still finite there was less time spent on each new KISS album.
And that’s why Alex Bergdahl’s recent podcast about Smashes, Thrashes & Hits threw me for a loop. I listened to that album a lot as well. Back then I absolutely loved the new tracks and the collection of songs on the album pretty much correlated to the songs I loved the most. Plus, in September 1988 I saw KISS live for the first time ever. The timing was just right, when Smashes, Thrashes & Hits hit the stores I was there and, even though it was relatively early days for the medium, picked up the CD and proceeded to play it to death.
Since then I’ve spent my fair share of time in recording studios and I had a home studio setup of my own for more than fifteen years. Basically, I know about trying to create a cohesive sound to an album. Most artists do this on any given studio album (or used to any way). Individual tracks can differ wildly but the overall ”feel” of an album is of one piece—it’s recorded in the same room (mainly drums), the engineer and producer uses the same reverb on vocals, and the relative loudness is the same across tracks. This sonic ”identity” of an album becomes a problem when putting together any collection of songs from different times and different albums, i.e. the compilation album.
Delaney remixed (and edited) the tracks for Double Platinum in 1978 at a time when sonic styles hadn’t changed much compared to when the tracks were recorded. That was emphatically NOT the case when Slimfast, Threadbare & Hills was put together.
To my great dismay, this was a huge revelation to me in 2019. Most of the 70s tracks on this compilation had been seriously remixed and I had completely missed it. Granted, this could very well be the KISS album I listened to the least in the last 10 years—even Monster got at least a few spins when it came out—but still, I used to listen to it a lot. How on Earth had I missed this? The remix was painfully obvious the second the first 70s track on the album, Love Gun, started. The ”solution” was obvious: force others to discover this as well.
One caveat here. The following comparisions are far from perfect. I have done a few half-assed edits that you’ll hear. I also used the Remaster versions as my ”originals”, simply because I don’t have the original 80s CD releases, nor do I have vinyl rips. These 1997 Remasters were a lot louder than the original releases. They weren’t brickwalled to death like some post-2000 stuff but they sure were compressed and limited. (See the waveform comparison below, the 1988 version has more dynamics, the tops 1997 Remaster waveform are much more even. These waveforms have been adjusted, the Remaster was originally limited to within about a half-dB of 0.) I’ve tried to adjust the relative loudness to these tracks and, in at least one case failed miserably, but the overall comparison is decent.
One more caveat, this will mostly be about the drums. There are plenty of other changes to the 70s tracks and, in the interest of brevity, I will only mention some tracks and then mostly the drums. Once you’re done reading this blog post and listening to the audio examples it is worth taking the time to go through this playlist to hear the other differences. Oh yeah, Calling Dr. Love is missing from this playlist because Spotify has made a boo-boo and managed to put the original Rock And Roll Over version into their version of Saruman, Theoden & Hobbit.
Ma, what have they done to my drums?
The drums, that’s where the meat of this 1988 remix is. There was a specific sound that dominated the late 80s and very early 90s. It started in the poppier sections of music in the early 80s but eventually spread to the more mainstream rock. It’s a sound that is decidedly un-natural, it’s the sound of gated drums.
Let’s start from the beginning. The first 70s track on Slushy, Throwback & Hint is Love Gun and the remixed drum sound is very apparent (almost) right away. A word of warning though, hearing these two versions back-to-back can be a little… harsh. In an effort to try and reduce the shock I’ve put the 1988 version first and then it abruptly cuts to the 1977 version. There is a slight pitch and tempo discrepancy between the two versions which is very evident when listening to the two spliced together like this, the Squirrel, Tapir & Horse version had been sped up slightly. Listen using headphones if possible.
Since Paul used a drum machine when recording the new tracks on this album and, as noted, there was a certain sound that was expected from drums around this time, it was decided to remix the older tracks to at least try to match the sonic ideals of the time. In his podcast Alex Bergdahl suggests that they may have added trigged samples to Smashes but that’s not what it sounds like. (It would also have been much more time-consuming than a mixing solution.) The trick here is that most producers will record snare drums using one microphone on the top and one on the bottom. Depending on taste these are then used in various amounts and, in some cases, compressed differently. Here, the lower microphone—the one that will pick up the buzz and snap of the snare wires that give the snare drums its name—has been brought up in the mix, compressed a lot, and gotten a wonderful gated reverb.
Gated reverb you ask? Thats’ right, kids: gated reverb. Reverb (or, more accurately, reverberation) is the result of soundwaves being reflected by certain surfaces and being absorbed by others. These reverberations are what create the preception of a given space. We can all appreciate the difference between clapping one’s hands in a small tiled room where sound waves can bounce around, compared to clapping one’s hands in a large carpeted room where fabrics absorb a lot of the soundwaves. The thing about a regular room is that the sound decays in a very predictable way, it just, well, peters out. A gated reverb has an abrupt cutoff that sounds decidedly un-natural (to most ears not weaned on 80s pop music!). It’s a bit as if somebody just shut a door to the room where the sound was. Combine this with hard compression and you get the basic sound of drums on a lot of the tracks on Smalzy, Threeway & Hilt.
While we’re on the concept of reverb, the drum sound in the KISS catalogue that is most clearly defined by the sound of the room in which the drums were recorded is Creatures Of The Night. That sound of bombs exploding on every kick and tom hit at the beginning of I Love It Loud? That’s because the room and overhang microphones are high in the mix and, obviously, the room itself is a great-sounding room. This bombastic drum sound was already partially neutered on the 1985 remix with the then-current lineup cover, but on Sousaphone, Trumpet & Hitz things are much, much worse. Brace your ears, this is about to get unpleasant.
So… yeah… If one can get past that… eh… interesting drum sound then there’s a lot in this remix to listen to. The vocals are mixed higher (and drier) than the original, the backing vocals are more defined so that individual voices can be heard, and the guitar solo has a different panning. But it is really hard to get past those Casio keyboard drums… I totally understand the need for this particular drum remix. If the original Creatures-version drums had suddenly exploded in the middle of this album there would have been consequences, most likely some irregular heartbeats among some listeners. But it does hurt to listen to. Anyway, walk it off. You’ll be OK eventually. Let’s move along.
The further back we go in KISS recorded ouvre, the more natural the drum sound is (with the obvious exception of Hotter Than Hell). Both the first album and Dressed To Kill sound like a drummer in a room. When you hear the intros to Strutter or Rock And Roll All Nite it pretty much sounds as if you’re standing in a room with Peter behind the kit. Needless to say, that sound does not fit into the sonic aesthetic of Snickers, Twicks & Hershey. Alas, since the other instruments recorded in November 1973 aren’t very 1980s, the drums can’t be re-worked too much. Instead we end up with a metallic-sounding snare that has a—relatively speaking—mild 80s-style reverb.
Here we can hear how much the cymbals were affected by the remix. Since most of the cymbals are captured by overhead and room microphones, and those microphones also record the characteristic reverb of the room, they’ve been pulled down in the mix and EQd to remove certain characteristics. Listening to this song and a few of the other 70s songs, there are times when the splash, which would leak into the tom microphones, isn’t affected as much as the other cymbals. It’s an odd-sounding kit to be sure.
Rock And Roll All… Night?
Say what you will about the remixing on Saxon, Triumph & Helix, considering the circumstances it is, as noted above, at least understandable. It is entirely beyond reasonable to mis-spell (or, as it were, accurately spell) one of the band’s most recognizable songs. But there you are, on Slavery, Treachery & Hell we are treated to Rock And Roll All Night. Once the discomfort of this horrendous oversight has abated somewhat, what we are treated to when we listen to this song is quite unlike any previous version.
When Sean Delaney threw himself into mixing Double Platinum he went all in on the multi-track tapes and changed quite a lot of things. It’s beyond the scope of this already long post to detail the changes to that album but a cursory listen to Calling Dr. Love compared to the original Rock And Roll Over version should suffice. When the team behind Scheisse, Thüringen unt Hilversum started sifting through the tapes for Rock And Roll All Nite they either didn’t know what they were supposed to look for or just decided to have some fun.
But, first things first. The drum intro here… it’s not great. The eight-note floor tom that’s such a huge part of the original studio recording has been reduced to almost nothing—it’s present more as a low-register rumble than actual drums—and the snare has gotten that wonderful compressed and gated sound. To my ears it’s not as bad as I Love It Loud but then again, that probably shouldn’t be the yardstick.
Go ahead, play that a few more times. I dare you!!
If we can decide to be OK with the drums and listen to the rest, that’s where the fun begins. See, in early 1975 KISS were in California and ended up in a studio called Larabee Sound. There they recorded a number of interesting things, among them what eventually ended up as the drum tracks for, you guessed it, Rock And Roll All Nite. Thing is, the version that was recorded in January 1975 was far from complete and it differed from the album version in a number of ways.
Apart from a relatively rough vocal from Gene one of the main differences was the bassline. In January Gene still hadn’t written the diatonically descending figure that would be the bedrock upon which the song would rest, instead he used some of his go-to stylistic moves. So what happens if we compare the original album version of the song to the Surrey, Tyne & Hampshire version?
This time, rather than cut in the middle of a section, I’ve used the same part from both version back-to-back: original 1975 version first, then 1988 remix. Those, ladies and gentlemen, are completely different basslines and that’s what bothered me the most about this revelation. Way back in the day I transcribed almost every single studio track for KISS Asylum. Then I reworked a lot of those tabs into Power Tab format for my own site. I knew the ins and outs of just about everything—knowledge that is now thankfully mostly gone—and I failed to notice this. Granted, I haven’t listened to this album much if at all in the past 10 years but still. This is essentially NEW KISS MUSIC!! And it was right under my nose. Dag nam it!!
Just to drive the point home, here’s one more clip. This is the Saffron, Turmeric & Horseradish version compared to the Larabee Sound ”demo” version. A word of warning, the Larabee demo that I have is pretty shitty and I have taken just a quick stab at cleaning it up and making it listenable. But bear with me, listen through and just check out the bassline.
To quote the immortal Rivers Cuomo: ”How cool is that?”