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The Death of High Fidelity
Rolling Stone ^ | December 26, 2007 | Robert Levine

Posted on 01/12/2008 9:52:58 AM PST by Mr. Blonde

David Bendeth, a producer who works with rock bands like Hawthorne Heights and Paramore, knows that the albums he makes are often played through tiny computer speakers by fans who are busy surfing the Internet. So he's not surprised when record labels ask the mastering engineers who work on his CDs to crank up the sound levels so high that even the soft parts sound loud. Over the past decade and a half, a revolution in recording technology has changed the way albums are produced, mixed and mastered — almost always for the worse. "They make it loud to get [listeners'] attention," Bendeth says. Engineers do that by applying dynamic range compression, which reduces the difference between the loudest and softest sounds in a song. Like many of his peers, Bendeth believes that relying too much on this effect can obscure sonic detail, rob music of its emotional power and leave listeners with what engineers call ear fatigue. "I think most everything is mastered a little too loud," Bendeth says. "The industry decided that it's a volume contest."

Producers and engineers call this "the loudness war," and it has changed the way almost every new pop and rock album sounds. But volume isn't the only issue. Computer programs like Pro Tools, which let audio engineers manipulate sound the way a word processor edits text, make musicians sound unnaturally perfect. And today's listeners consume an increasing amount of music on MP3, which eliminates much of the data from the original CD file and can leave music sounding tinny or hollow. "With all the technical innovation, music sounds worse," says Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, who has made what are considered some of the best-sounding records of all time. "God is in the details. But there are no details anymore."

The idea that engineers make albums louder might seem strange: Isn't volume controlled by that knob on the stereo? Yes, but every setting on that dial delivers a range of loudness, from a hushed vocal to a kick drum — and pushing sounds toward the top of that range makes music seem louder. It's the same technique used to make television commercials stand out from shows. And it does grab listeners' attention — but at a price. Last year, Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone that modern albums "have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static."

In 2004, Jeff Buckley's mom, Mary Guibert, listened to the original three-quarter-inch tape of her son's recordings as she was preparing the tenth-anniversary reissue of Grace. "We were hearing instruments you've never heard on that album, like finger cymbals and the sound of viola strings being plucked," she remembers. "It blew me away because it was exactly what he heard in the studio."

To Guibert's disappointment, the remastered 2004 version failed to capture these details. So last year, when Guibert assembled the best-of collection So Real: Songs From Jeff Buckley, she insisted on an independent A&R consultant to oversee the reissue process and a mastering engineer who would reproduce the sound Buckley made in the studio. "You can hear the distinct instruments and the sound of the room," she says of the new release. "Compression smudges things together."

Too much compression can be heard as musical clutter; on the Arctic Monkeys' debut, the band never seems to pause to catch its breath. By maintaining constant intensity, the album flattens out the emotional peaks that usually stand out in a song. "You lose the power of the chorus, because it's not louder than the verses," Bendeth says. "You lose emotion."

The inner ear automatically compresses blasts of high volume to protect itself, so we associate compression with loudness, says Daniel Levitin, a professor of music and neuroscience at McGill University and author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Human brains have evolved to pay particular attention to loud noises, so compressed sounds initially seem more exciting. But the effect doesn't last. "The excitement in music comes from variation in rhythm, timbre, pitch and loudness," Levitin says. "If you hold one of those constant, it can seem monotonous." After a few minutes, research shows, constant loudness grows fatiguing to the brain. Though few listeners realize this consciously, many feel an urge to skip to another song.

"If you limit range, it's just an assault on the body," says Tom Coyne, a mastering engineer who has worked with Mary J. Blige and Nas. "When you're fifteen, it's the greatest thing — you're being hammered. But do you want that on a whole album?"

To an average listener, a wide dynamic range creates a sense of spaciousness and makes it easier to pick out individual instruments — as you can hear on recent albums such as Dylan's Modern Times and Norah Jones' Not Too Late. "When people have the courage and the vision to do a record that way, it sets them apart," says Joe Boyd, who produced albums by Richard Thompson and R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction. "It sounds warm, it sounds three-dimensional, it sounds different. Analog sound to me is more emotionally affecting."

Rock and pop producers have always used compression to balance the sounds of different instruments and to make music sound more exciting, and radio stations apply compression for technical reasons. In the days of vinyl rec- ords, there was a physical limit to how high the bass levels could go before the needle skipped a groove. CDs can handle higher levels of loudness, although they, too, have a limit that engineers call "digital zero dB," above which sounds begin to distort. Pop albums rarely got close to the zero-dB mark until the mid-1990s, when digital compressors and limiters, which cut off the peaks of sound waves, made it easier to manipulate loudness levels. Intensely compressed albums like Oasis' 1995 (What's the Story) Morning Glory? set a new bar for loudness; the songs were well-suited for bars, cars and other noisy environments. "In the Seventies and Eighties, you were expected to pay attention," says Matt Serletic, the former chief executive of Virgin Records USA, who also produced albums by Matchbox Twenty and Collective Soul. "Modern music should be able to get your attention." Adds Rob Cavallo, who produced Green Day's American Idiot and My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade, "It's a style that started post-grunge, to get that intensity. The idea was to slam someone's face against the wall. You can set your CD to stun."

It's not just new music that's too loud. Many remastered recordings suffer the same problem as engineers apply compression to bring them into line with modern tastes. The new Led Zeppelin collection, Mothership, is louder than the band's original albums, and Bendeth, who mixed Elvis Presley's 30 #1 Hits, says that the album was mastered too loud for his taste. "A lot of audiophiles hate that record," he says, "but people can play it in the car and it's competitive with the new Foo Fighters record."

Just as cds supplanted vinyl and cassettes, MP3 and other digital-music formats are quickly replacing CDs as the most popular way to listen to music. That means more conven- ience but worse sound. To create an MP3, a computer samples the music on a CD and compresses it into a smaller file by excluding the musical information that the human ear is less likely to notice. Much of the information left out is at the very high and low ends, which is why some MP3s sound flat. Cavallo says that MP3s don't reproduce reverb well, and the lack of high-end detail makes them sound brittle. Without enough low end, he says, "you don't get the punch anymore. It decreases the punch of the kick drum and how the speaker gets pushed when the guitarist plays a power chord."

But not all digital-music files are created equal. Levitin says that most people find MP3s ripped at a rate above 224 kbps virtually indistinguishable from CDs. (iTunes sells music as either 128 or 256 kbps AAC files — AAC is slightly superior to MP3 at an equivalent bit rate. Amazon sells MP3s at 256 kbps.) Still, "it's like going to the Louvre and instead of the Mona Lisa there's a 10-megapixel image of it," he says. "I always want to listen to music the way the artists wanted me to hear it. I wouldn't look at a Kandinsky painting with sunglasses on."

Producers also now alter the way they mix albums to compensate for the limitations of MP3 sound. "You have to be aware of how people will hear music, and pretty much everyone is listening to MP3," says producer Butch Vig, a member of Garbage and the producer of Nirvana's Never- mind. "Some of the effects get lost. So you sometimes have to over-exaggerate things." Other producers believe that intensely compressed CDs make for better MP3s, since the loudness of the music will compensate for the flatness of the digital format.

As technological shifts have changed the way sounds are recorded, they have encouraged an artificial perfection in music itself. Analog tape has been replaced in most studios by Pro Tools, making edits that once required splicing tape together easily done with the click of a mouse. Programs like Auto-Tune can make weak singers sound pitch-perfect, and Beat Detective does the same thing for wobbly drummers.

"You can make anyone sound professional," says Mitchell Froom, a producer who's worked with Elvis Costello and Los Lobos, among others. "But the problem is that you have something that's professional, but it's not distinctive. I was talking to a session drummer, and I said, 'When's the last time you could tell who the drummer is?' You can tell Keith Moon or John Bonham, but now they all sound the same."

So is music doomed to keep sounding worse? Awareness of the problem is growing. The South by Southwest music festival recently featured a panel titled "Why Does Today's Music Sound Like Shit?" In August, a group of producers and engineers founded an organization called Turn Me Up!, which proposes to put stickers on CDs that meet high sonic standards.

But even most CD listeners have lost interest in high-end stereos as surround-sound home theater systems have become more popular, and superior-quality disc formats like DVD-Audio and SACD flopped. Bendeth and other producers worry that young listeners have grown so used to dynamically compressed music and the thin sound of MP3s that the battle has already been lost. "CDs sound better, but no one's buying them," he says. "The age of the audiophile is over."


TOPICS: Music/Entertainment
KEYWORDS: cds; highfidelity; mp3s; music; theend; vinyl
More good stuff on the RS Web site about it, including artists sounding off.
1 posted on 01/12/2008 9:53:00 AM PST by Mr. Blonde
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To: Mr. Blonde
I have never heard the word "SOUNDSTAGE" used in recording these days. I have seen and heard the abuse of saturation in many modern mixes.

I have spend many long hours in recording studios and have sat next to some of the greatest producers/engineers of our day. To paint a soundscape with 48 tracks is an art that is all but dead. Modern recordings are done on laptops in the first class sections of Airplanes.

The other part is that most live shows these days are mixed with the kick drum and the bass. I don't want to pay 100.00 bucks to have my head assaulted with with a kick drum that is sequenced to a digital sound into a 5 thousand watt system.

If you have ever had the chance to hear a playback with 2" Ampex 499 tape (analogue) in a studio, you be as infected as I have been with the quest of great sound. The sound of a vinyl on a mid-priced system kills any digital playback that I have ever heard.

2 posted on 01/12/2008 10:31:24 AM PST by Afronaut (Press 2 for English - Thanks Mr. President !)
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To: Mr. Blonde

3 posted on 01/12/2008 10:34:42 AM PST by Dysart
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To: Dysart

Come on now, don’t pollute a FR with Soulja Boy. I get physically ill whenever his song is played when I go out.


4 posted on 01/12/2008 10:43:20 AM PST by Mr. Blonde (You ever thought about being weird for a living?)
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To: Afronaut

I think the waveforms of With Or Without You on the RS site is very informative to what producers are doing to music today. How can you not feel assaulted when everything is loud.


5 posted on 01/12/2008 10:45:23 AM PST by Mr. Blonde (You ever thought about being weird for a living?)
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To: Mr. Blonde

Perhaps what’s needed is an audio format with some side-channel information that can be used by end-user equipment to implement whatever degree of compression the listener happens to want at that moment. I suspect even audiophiles would probably want compression when they’re listening in a noisy environment, but when listening in a quiet room it’s better to use more dynamic range. While it would be possible for a player to handle compression by itself, a player could do a better job if it had some ‘help’ from a human in the studio.


6 posted on 01/12/2008 4:34:13 PM PST by supercat (Sony delenda est.)
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To: Afronaut
Great post, and especially this, a great paragraph:

I have spend many long hours in recording studios and have sat next to some of the greatest producers/engineers of our day. To paint a soundscape with 48 tracks is an art that is all but dead. Modern recordings are done on laptops in the first class sections of Airplanes.

That says it all, I think.

7 posted on 01/12/2008 4:40:02 PM PST by Petronski (Reject the liberal superfecta: huckabee, romney, giuliani, mccain)
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To: Mr. Blonde
Great article.I am totally into music and high end gear. My favorite recordings are actually “bootleg” recordings that I have taped or got from friends. A field recording that is done with high end equipment can produce unbelievable results.
My best tape ever was Roy Buchanan’s last concert on August 7 ,1988 in my hometown of Guilford,Connecticut.My buddies and I set up a 10 foot mic stand with 2 Nakamichi CM 300 mics twenty five feet from the stage and recorded on Sony portable cassette decks.The result is BETTER than practically most officially released Live albums. The proper equipment placed in the proper place can be awesome.

Todays overproduced “music” is mostly garbage. Throw into the mix the compressed signal....no thanks. When I listen to music its gonna be a Live Concert taped by someone who had the killer mics set up..too many to choose from for me.

8 posted on 01/12/2008 5:07:59 PM PST by scott says
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To: Mr. Blonde

Excellent article


9 posted on 01/12/2008 5:13:09 PM PST by protest1
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To: scott says

I hope we eventually get a revolt against all of this. Surely the number of pop starlets getting busted lip syncing will lead to a larger desire to have people with actual talent. There are many bands out there with it that don’t have to resort to studio trickery and hopefully people will start seeking them out.


10 posted on 01/12/2008 7:20:55 PM PST by Mr. Blonde (You ever thought about being weird for a living?)
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To: Mr. Blonde
I can’t understand why so many people are so satisfied with MP3-quality music....not that there’s much that’s been released in the last 20 years that’s worth listening closely to.CD-quality....and SACD and DVD-Audio quality is what I want for my favorite music (50’s & 60’s).
11 posted on 01/13/2008 8:30:57 AM PST by Gay State Conservative (Wanna see how bad it can get? Elect Hillary and find out.)
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To: sauropod

read


12 posted on 01/13/2008 8:32:43 AM PST by sauropod (Welcome to O'Malleyland. What's in your wallet?)
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To: sauropod
read

I didn't know folks of your employment category were capable of that? *grin*

13 posted on 01/13/2008 8:36:07 AM PST by big'ol_freeper (REAGAN: "..party..must represent certain fundamental beliefs [not] compromised..[for] expediency")
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To: Mr. Blonde

My stereo dial goes up to 11.


14 posted on 01/13/2008 8:36:54 AM PST by Drango (A liberal's compassion is limited only by the size of someone else's wallet.)
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To: big'ol_freeper

Well, feeding ourselves and tying our own shoes were big achievements, I admit. ;-)


15 posted on 01/13/2008 8:37:40 AM PST by sauropod (Welcome to O'Malleyland. What's in your wallet?)
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To: Drango

16 posted on 01/13/2008 8:39:49 AM PST by Drango (A liberal's compassion is limited only by the size of someone else's wallet.)
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To: sauropod

Lil slapped me mumbling something about “blood-sucking contractor”...


17 posted on 01/13/2008 8:40:19 AM PST by big'ol_freeper (REAGAN: "..party..must represent certain fundamental beliefs [not] compromised..[for] expediency")
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To: Gay State Conservative

It is all they know for one reason. Another is you can’t beat the protability. I wish the iPod would play a lossless format like FLAC.


18 posted on 01/13/2008 8:42:33 AM PST by Mr. Blonde (You ever thought about being weird for a living?)
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To: big'ol_freeper

The proper phrase is “sleazy, slimy, bottom-feeding, scum-sucking contractor.”

Or, as another FReeper told me once in reference to Beltway Banditry: “Highway Helper.”


19 posted on 01/13/2008 8:42:43 AM PST by sauropod (Welcome to O'Malleyland. What's in your wallet?)
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To: Mr. Blonde

Personally, I’m a headphones guy when I’m not driving.

As for recent releases, I think anything by Porcupine Tree is mixed extremely well.


20 posted on 01/13/2008 8:46:19 AM PST by ovrtaxt (In my fantasy world, the Dems run a Zell Miller/ Lieberman ticket...)
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To: Afronaut

I remember when INXS released the first all-digital record. It sounded really punchy and crisp, but after a couple of decades of this, that organic texture of the 70s is hard to come by.


21 posted on 01/13/2008 8:49:41 AM PST by ovrtaxt (In my fantasy world, the Dems run a Zell Miller/ Lieberman ticket...)
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To: ovrtaxt

It is interesting to me that two of the three listings for well mixed albums by RS are from artists who have been around the block. Bob Dylan and Robert Plant (with Alison Krauss). Some of this is probably they have the stature to demand their music is made a certain way.


22 posted on 01/13/2008 8:49:45 AM PST by Mr. Blonde (You ever thought about being weird for a living?)
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To: Mr. Blonde

I got into a band called Rock and Roll Worship Circus a couple of years ago. They use old minimoogs and theramins, weird electronic stuff that run on vacuum tubes, things you can’t find anymore. They also use vintage guitars and amps.

I’m not sure about their recording processes, but any band that went exclusively to analog recording would likely make news.


23 posted on 01/13/2008 8:53:10 AM PST by ovrtaxt (In my fantasy world, the Dems run a Zell Miller/ Lieberman ticket...)
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To: ovrtaxt
As for recent releases, I think anything by Porcupine Tree is mixed extremely well.

Absolutely. Steven Wilson is as good a producer as he is a performer. And PT is one of the best live bands I've ever seen - they get their sound just right.

24 posted on 01/13/2008 8:56:05 AM PST by Mr. Jeeves ("Wise men don't need to debate; men who need to debate are not wise." -- Tao Te Ching)
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To: ovrtaxt

I know The White Stripes newest album is the first one produced in a modern studio. I don’t know if they used exclusively analog equipment but I would say it is very likely. And certainly they weren’t using any studio trickery to make Meg’s drumming more even. :)


25 posted on 01/13/2008 9:00:06 AM PST by Mr. Blonde (You ever thought about being weird for a living?)
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To: Mr. Jeeves

I haven’t seen them live yet, but I’d sure like to.


26 posted on 01/13/2008 9:09:24 AM PST by ovrtaxt (In my fantasy world, the Dems run a Zell Miller/ Lieberman ticket...)
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To: Afronaut

You are correct about the “art” of recording being all but dead. This is an excellent article.

I will add one more dimension to the battle. The improvement of the gear means that you don’t have to know what you are doing to use it. Therefore, many many many (did I say many?) musicians feel that they can do great work in their bedrooms and save oodles of money on studio costs.

They can. But they lose the dimension that a real engineer brings to the project. Mr G has been told on more than one occasion that he is as important to the project as any of the musicians are.

And so many of these young musicians have never *really* used their ears. They have only listened to the crummy stuff that is out there, and figure if they can get “almost as good” by themselves, they will be doing great. Thus begins the downward death spiral of the quality of music.

Mr G was just involved in the rerelease of a truly classic project he recorded 30 years ago. The recording was done on 24 track analog tape, and mixed without automation. (This was before there was automation, or auto tune or digital editing or any of the fun stuff kids use now to create perfection) The recording is still awesome, and the sound beats the snot out of most of what is released today.


27 posted on 01/13/2008 9:16:34 AM PST by Grammy
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To: Petronski; Afronaut
Amen. Good sound is becoming a lost art.

I will on occasion pull an actual real album out of my closet, pick the correct styli cartridge for the record and put it in my Technics 1200 (The sole survivor of my first "Audiophile" phase in 1980) and enjoy the good old days.

I just wish I had kept my Maggies and my Bryston amp...

Everything now is compromise.

28 posted on 01/13/2008 9:32:02 AM PST by ejonesie22 (Mike Huckabee, Tithing via Taxation, the Christian Democrat way...)
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To: Mr. Blonde
Rush Limbaugh is a huge fan of compression. Every now and then he'll go on a tangent about how much he loves it. He actually recompresses his albums -- reburns them to CD after a trip through a maxed-out compressor -- because the original compression isn't enough for him.

Of course he's got those cochlear implants, so who knows what that's doing. But I think Rush was a compression fan even before his hearing problems began.

An interesting case study in compressed versus (relatively) uncompressed is ZZ Top -- their mega-platinum 80s albums versus their earlier ones. In the 80s they wanted big pop hits and it shows in the production. Gimme All Your Lovin is a perfect example of radio-friendly super squash. That song sounds great in a car or on a dance floor.

But to compress a symphony or a jazz quartet of course would be sacrilege. Compression can be good or bad depending on the type of music.

29 posted on 01/13/2008 9:35:01 AM PST by Yardstick
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To: Mr. Blonde
From Fark, just this morning.


30 posted on 01/13/2008 9:36:41 AM PST by listenhillary (A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have.)
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To: listenhillary

Heh — that’s pretty good.


31 posted on 01/13/2008 9:42:13 AM PST by Yardstick
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To: ejonesie22; Petronski; Afronaut; Grammy
Good discussion and great comments!

The best sounding material to my ears is the Chess Studio recordings - 1950"s-60's

When I listen to them I feel like I am a silent member in that studio. I get the feeling and the vibe that the players are experiencing at the exact moment of the recording. When the song hits the pocket I can visualize the players making eye content and see them sitting back in their seats and digging deeper on their parts. I can feel the rush sometimes at the end of these song that the players must have felt, knowing that they nail it!

I can also hear the soundstage of the room, the drums off the walls, the amps making some noise, the picks on the strings, the vocals moving into pitch. I hear real people playing and singing.

Can anyone fnd me something that even comes close to this in 2008?

32 posted on 01/13/2008 10:05:04 AM PST by Afronaut (Press 2 for English - Thanks Mr. President !)
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To: Mr. Blonde
Some do say that they had better fidelity when they used amplifiers with vacuum tubes than with transistors. I have a 1964 Sherwood amp with 9 tubes and it has a good sound to it. I just need to add some components to it. Still, I have a JVC-S100 receiver and a Panasonic RA-6500 cassette/receiver that has good sound too even if they are solid state. Most of my stereo equipment is 1970's vintage although I do have a CD player I found dumpster diving, it is a GE component player made in 1984. I also have a 1964 Sony reel-to-reel tape deck.

Maybe I'm a little off the subject, but I always liked to listen to music over AM radio, maybe because I never really had an FM radio until I was 12 (1978). Still, I like to listen to the oldies show WABC, 770 kc, out of New York City plays every Saturday night on my Grnadfather's bakelite 1953 Philco 5 tube radio and the sound is beautiful. Even the sound is great from my 1965 8-transistor "Maggie" (Magnavox) AM only radio. One thing I learned from that oldies show is that in the 1950's to even the early 1980's, they mixed the music in a way that it would sound good over AM radio.
33 posted on 01/13/2008 10:17:58 AM PST by Nowhere Man (RIP, Corky, I miss you, little princess!!! (Corky b. 5-12-1989 - d. 9-21-2007))
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To: Nowhere Man
Buck Owens alway mixed his Telecaster up in the mix to cut through those pickup truck radios! I like Country sounds in a 60's Pickup truck with a little sweetie siting right next to me...
34 posted on 01/13/2008 11:51:28 AM PST by Afronaut (Press 2 for English - Thanks Mr. President !)
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