A Conversation With Jimi Hendrix Biographer John McDermott
From the archives: Michael Fremer talks with John McDermott about the state of the Hendrix vault
(This feature originally appeared in Issue 5/6, Winter 1995/96.)
In my interview with Eddie Kramer, I asked many questions regarding the mastering particulars of the first four records. He was unable to provide the answers, referring me instead to John McDermott, author (with Billy Cox and Eddie Kramer) of Jimi Hendrix Sessions and Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight, two indispensable books for any Hendrix fan—and without which this issue’s cover story would have been impossible.
McDermott, who’s heard the master tapes, is probably the world’s foremost expert on the Hendrix catalog. I spoke with him about the tape library, the original LPs, and the various CD issues.
He confirmed that there were both mono and stereo mixes of Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love. The original American pressings of both were mastered from copies of the master tapes; the British Track originals from the actual masters (don’t you wish you had them now? You do? I’ll be your best friend).
The master tape of Electric Ladyland was shipped to Warner Brothers and mastered by Columbia, which altered the phasing information Hendrix and Kramer had worked so hard to include on the master, thinking it was a mixing mistake. In addition, McDermott confirmed that Columbia had lopped off the very top and bottom frequencies, which contributed to the sound Hendrix and others complained about when the LP was first issued.
Second pressings (all orange label) were, he confirmed, remastered by Warner Brothers in the early 70s, and sound “closer” to what Hendrix and Kramer had intended; the phasing information was modified, but not restored.
McDermott also confirmed that because the master was created at the Record Plant in New York, rather than London’s Olympic Studios, the original British Track pressing was mastered from a copy of the master tape, and that Polydor had left the phasing information intact. He agreed that because of superior disc mastering and pressing, despite being sourced from a copy of the master tape, the original British Track vinyl is the best way to hear the album.
He also confirmed my conclusion that the original British Polydor Cry Of Love, though cut from a copy of the master, was superior to the Reprise original, cut from the master. He found the Reprise to be somewhat dark sounding in the midrange, and lacking high frequency extension. We both agreed that the drum and cymbal sound on the British pressing was superb, and that the phasing used on tracks like “Ezy Ryder” created a far more convincing sense of “3D” on the British pressing.
McDermott told me he thinks the best vinyl is superior to any CD reissue so far though he hasn't heard the PolyGram HDCD collection. McDermott is not satisfied with either the sonics or the packaging of the MCA reissues. Obviously we agree on the packaging which only includes portions of the original artwork and adds some pretty silly liner notes and those superfluous stamps.
I was surprised that the sound didn’t meet with his approval. Then again, I’ve not had the privilege of hearing the master tapes. McDermott said that while the MCA issues were transferred from “available” masters, the “original” masters were not used for the Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love CDs.
He also says that even though 15ips two-track tapes were used, they were “remixed,” in his words, as to phase relationships and equalization—in other words, whatever the CDs sound like, they're not true documents, as an audiophile might define a careful transfer of a master tape.
More important than all of this is the current condition of the tapes and the completeness of the library. McDermott told me that the Hendrix family is now in both legal and physical control of the tapes (which are in excellent condition) and that they are now being stored in temperature- and climate-controlled secure conditions. Both analog and digital safety backup copies have been made of the entire catalog.
The Hendrix family is now label shopping for what everyone involved hopes will be the final, most complete and highest quality reissue program of Jimi Hendrix’s recorded legacy. In my opinion that would mean: reissuing the original British Track cover and running order of Are You Experienced? in both mono and stereo, plus the American version in mono and stereo with the original artwork; the mono and stereo versions of Axis: Bold As Love with the original artwork; Electric Ladyland with the artwork as Jimi envisioned it; and The Cry Of Love with the original artwork.
All of this would be issued on 180g AAA vinyl, HDCD, and the new DVD Audio format—96kHz or 88.2kHz, 20bit or 24bit—whatever the hell is agreed upon.
As for the rest of the catalog, that should be up to the Hendrix family, Kramer, and McDermott to decide. Of course all of this is up to them, but I just thought I’d throw my five cents in while I had the chance! Meanwhile, I’ve got my list of labels which ought not get this precious catalog and which should. But I’ll keep that under my dust cover for the time being!