Born to Run: Why the Poor Sound Quality?

I have always been disappointed with the sound quality of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. Even the CBS 1/2 Speed Master pressing is underwhelming. Is there a good explanation for this? As I recall, Jon Landau produced the album, and he is certainly no slouch, but the recording seems inferior.

It's really a shame that there doesn't seem to be a decent pressing of this classic album
Agreed. In the pantheon of legendary rock LPs, this has to be one of the most poorly recorded of all time. However, why does "10th Avenue Freeze-out" sound so good compared to the rest of the album which is all murk and muffle. I'd be curious to hear the Classic reissue of it.

It sounds exactly the way Springsteen, the producer (Landau) and the engineer (Iovine) wanted it to sound. It's not intended to be played back over audiophile type systems. They were going for a Phil Spectre type wall of sound without too much stereo effect. Play it back over an average car stereo to get a better understanding of what they were trying to do. Springsteen has a reputation for being a studio perfectionist, but that doesn't mean he has audiophile sound values.
it was not intended to sound 'clean'...its rock and roll. its all 'sound' masquerading as music.
I'm with Onhwy61, it was done deliberately to sound that way - a kind of steelworker, automaker, tough guy, jump in your "built-like-a-rock" all-American pick-up with the boys kind of sound. Compressed and slightly edgy.

It worked - the album did well even it does sound awful!
LOL, almost all of the CBS half-speeds suck; Vlado Meller and crew had almost no idea what they were doing. Very few exceptions, the Abraxas is OK, but the frequency response on so many are completely screwed up. As the rumor goes, CBS asked MoFi what titles they would like to do and then did them themselves. Well, at least they had company, the A&M Audiophile series, while somewhat better than these, is pretty poor, as well.
Interesting explanation, I thought it was just engineering incompetence....I don't listen to the Springsteen CD's unless I'm in my car since on the home rig they are unlistenable to me.
Never thought that much of BTR but I love Pink Floyds Animals and it sounds like crap, even on my friends super premium vinyl edition it sounds bad...but better.
Springsteen did have a big hand in all aspects of this album! As we all know now, this was his last attempt at a Hit before his Label dropped him.
I am not sure I am buying the claim that Springsteen wanted the album to sound gritty or whatever. My take is that, like most of the pop records of that era, record companies were encountering greatly increasing costs due to the artists' fighting for a greater piece of the financial pie. The area over which the record companies still had almost total control was in recording and producing records. Since they figured few people took care of their records nor cared how they sounded, they saved costs by putting out wretchedly bad-sounding records. I have listened to many versions of this LP including the Classic and the half-speed, and it appears as if the problems is the recording itself. Like they say, you cannot polish a turd.
Wild Billy's Circus Story - that's my favorite Springsteen cut if we're talking sonics. Springsteen's early stuff was pure magic at the time.
springsteen has had total control, since record 'one', thanks to john hammond. close enough for rock and roll
Chadnliz, the first time that I put on my British Harvest copy of "Animals" was a revelation; this is a very finely recorded album that must've gotten the bums rush in the US pressings. Search it out, it is not expensive and the sound quality is fantastic. I would say the same for "WYWH" if you are looking for a nice pressing of that, as well.
I have a US first pressing of "Animals" and it's terrific.
Thanks Viridian! I really appreciate the tip.
Bill, I stand corrected, I have probably never heard a first press Columbia.
Chad, you may find this helpful; it will allow you to identfy every Pink Floyd pressing from every country:

Ya, the guy has some time on his hands.
So many things go into why a record sounds good or doesn't. No tonly the rpoduction up to the master tape, but the quality of the tape made for the pressing plant, the source of lacquers, the source of the vinyl pellets, the metalworking... all of these variables are way outside the control of the artist and producer.

Even if they liked test pressings, that was no guarantee that would be what the public could buy. This is one of the things that CD was supposed to solve but not always did. Bottom line is that vinyl is as much art as process and there is good and bad art in the manufacture.
The first 2/3s of the Greatest Hits has poor sound quality while the last 1/3 sounds excellent. Kind of a chronology of music as well as recording technique.
"Born To Run" sounds the way it does becuase it was made in 1975. It was mixed in a typical studio of the time with speakers with no bottom real bass. The track needs to be heard on Altec Big REds or the equivalent JBL studio speakers of the time. There is a huge bump in the frequency response of those speakers at 12HZ so that the ear thinks it is hearing real bass, ergo, the bass isn't on the tape. Secondly the tracks were mixed with lots of compression/limiting (for the cartridges and amps of the day as well as the radio) so there is not dynamic range on the master. That is why it sounds so flat and small on a system of today (and on some special systems back then too). This mixing style also affected many other great musical tracks that don't sound great such as the Eagles Hotel California, etc. The Brits always made more dynamic records with more real bass such as 10CC, SuperTramp, etc.

Lastly, the Springsteen track was so great to listen to they mixed it for a week or more and by that time one's ears get to know the track so well all objectivity is lost in judging a mix. It is ideal to bring in a fresh remix engineer or wait a week or more to mix a track so that your ears come to it fresh.

I think that even if you went to the 16 or 24 track of the original session you would find a lot of EQ/compression/limiting on the recorded tracks which was the style back then, and even a modern cost no object remix would not make it come alive to a significant degree. I bet Bruce kicks himself everyday when he hears that track and its missing bass.

I am always amazed at the engineers from the RCA and Mercury Living Presence classical recordings. They knew that they were getting what they were hearing onto the tape but no playback system was invented yet that would get it back off the tape to your ears. It was a labor of love truly, and that is why the recordings sound so good today.
A lot of studios were getting rid of their tube stuff and "modernizing" with solid state recording equipment.
IMO: That early transistor stuff was harsh. Could this have contributed to the sonics of the era? Thankfully, some Luddites kept recording with tube equipment!
I have an advanced copy of the new album, Magic and I had to hear it in my car to really appreciate it. The title track and Radio Nowhere are the stand out tracks audio wise and performance wise. At first listen I was not impressed, generic Springsteen, but after repeated listenings I found myself enjoying the songs more and more. The sound is very reminisent of the wall of sound captured on the Born to Run sessions. It should go over great live as these tracks seem to be written for that purpose.
I met Jimmy Iovine, the engineer, several years ago and had a nice discussion on the session environment. I also have heard various bootlegs of this album as part of the studio rehersal environment while it was being creating. A general problem of this album was that it was multi-tracked over many takes (Born to Run alone has 100 plus known takes over a year in progress)and during the mixing sessions, the combining of many takes and tracks degraded the overall production. This was before tape hiss reduction and the downstream degrading of generations of tapes was very common to work around that particular problem. The sessions were especilly grueling (they knew they would be dropped)and Bruce has a high work ethic, and really puts his band through the paces ALL DAY AND NIGHT. Very hard to remain fresh and composed after so many takes. Born To Run the album was always very flat and uninspired compared to the 1975 shows that supported the album. The LA Forum bootleg is a good approximation of the tour at its height.

As a side bar, the very best Springsteen cd is a master tape bootleg of the 1979 "river" sessions. It came out in 1992 in Italy and was titled "The Ties That Bind." Only 1000 were made and one fetched $1,000 on Ebay several years back. I am sure it is online in P to P exchange sites. It was live in studio before mixdown and best approximates the live and dynamic sound what the band is capable of. Those sessions at the Record Plant in NYC absolutely kill the final release that CBS issued as The River in 1980.
agree...well even exile on main st. and electric ladyland are minestone recordings with poor sonics by modern standards...however...the music stands on its own and then some...all along the watchtower does sound very good...
This looks like a really stale post - but i'm hoping someone can chime in. I just got a supposed "new" copy of born to run, still shrink wrapped. Wife paid out the ass for it i'm sure. It sounds like complete crap. I'm having the hardest time with the vocals. Sound compressed to hell, clipping, and distorted. Instrumentals are tolerable. Vox are worse on some tracks than others, which i find odd. Is it the recording itself, or did my wife get swindled when buying the album?

Marantz SR6006, Rega RP1, and B&W 705' gear isn't garbage..but this recording sounds like it.

Read my post. Problem lies in the recording process.
The Boss was given a huge budget...this was the beginning of milk.and honey days for fm aor rock...and it took over a year to record btr...the title track racking 6 there was no cost cutting measures by Columbia...this was an all or nothing gamble...and it worked...I find it hard to believe the Sonics were purely accidental...they weren' was a deliberate process...with mixed results...a mere two years later...hotel vs and rumours would be the quantum, state of the art, late 70s analog sound many relish...including myself
Bob Clearmountain did a superb engineering job on Born in the USA. He always does.
The remastered CD that came with the Born to Run anniversary box-set is actually very good. Yes, the wall-of-sound production was deliberate on BTR. And many may not like it (I didn't used to). When I heard this remastered disc on my admittedly very high-end system, I was surprised how good it sounded.
There isn't a Springsteen recording that's listenable over anything but an in car CD player or FM. That's really a shame becuase the music is awesome, I just can't get through the terrible sonics to enjoy it. Shame on everyone associated with the process.
There isn't a Springsteen recording that's listenable over anything but an in car CD player or FM.
Is this statement audiophile hyperbole or should we take it as plain English? If it's the latter, then something is wrong with your system, you or possibly both, and on paper your system looks awesome.
Get it on cd, the 30th Anniversary remastered set.

It doesn't sound as if it was recorded in a chapel using a single stereo pair of cardioids, but it sounds fine and communicates the excitement and young adult angst that Bruce intended.

It certainly beats the hell out of the crap he records now.
Bruce has gone on record many times as saying that BTR was deliberately muddy to mimic wall of sound. Despite that explanation, I believe that Bruce's studio albums are with few exceptions, among the worst sounding in popular music. The exceptions---Darkness, Tunnel of Love, Human Touch, Lucky Town,The Promise and his latest, Wrecking Ball which actually sounds very good. Of late, I've got to put some of the blame if not most on Brendan O'Brien who produced and mixed a number of albums leading up to "Magic" which is virtually unlistenable on cd and barely so on vinyl as well as "Working on a Dream". Wonder why the only song that sounds good on "Working on a Dream" is "The Wrestler" ? It's cause it's the only one produced by Bruce, recorded by Toby Scott and mixed by Bob Clearmountain. It wasn't part of the Working on a Dream sessions and it shows. Even Ludwig has been unable to make the other stuff sound like music. This later stuff is not wall of sound, but wall of crap.
I thank the day that Bruce let current producer Ron Aniello into the fold. I"m also happy every time I see Clearmountain in mixing or mastering.
After reading all the above posts I had my family (6 of us ranging in age from 11-49) listen to portions of some older Springsteen CDs, including BTR, and compare them to Wrecking Ball. The system we listened through is a Linn Unidisk 1.1/NAD C375BEE/PSB Imagine T/REL-R328 kit. The decision was unanimous. Wrecking Ball is a much more enjoyable listening experience. You don't have to be an "audiophile" to hear the great contrast. BTR is a muddy recording, and being a long time Springsteen fan I accept the statement above that Springsteen intended it to be so....However, playing Wrecking Ball immediately after BTR makes me wish that the clarity found on the latest recording was present on BTR. Having said that, I'll still listen to BTR and other Springsteen recordings over and over because I don't know a singer/songwriter that captures the ecstasy, agony, pain, pride and ethos of working class America better than Bruce Springsteen.
Hi Onhwy61,

This is intended to be plain English, not hyperbole. And no, there's nothing wrong. They all sound like hash, grating to my ears with little bottom end and the vocals lost somewhere in the mix. All 'cept for maybe the anniversary release of BTR which sounds acceptable. Others have commented on the wall of sound approach, but.... Given S'steen's supposed meticulous approach in the studio, it's surprising.
Agree with Astewart8944. I actually think that is a small (and I mean small) reason why Springsteen has always sounded better live. The studio team holds the sound back and the constant redoing no doubt robs a sense of spontaneity and excitement that comes through so much better in the live performances. Love the Boss and have seen him at least 50 times since I first saw him in 75, but have generally been disappointed in the tin ears of all involved in his studio work with the exception of those albums mentioned above. Hopefully, the sound on the latest effort is a harbinger of good sound to come.
I guess it depends upon what "listenable" means, Lenny : ) I listen, but usually while I'm doing something like cleaning the house.

I agree with other comments, and would add The Rising to the "better sound" pile. Definitely agree that Bruce's sound could be so much better. Re not hearing much bass: The River and Born in the USA are major examples.

p.s. Darkness has some great dynamic range, e.g., Streets of Fire and Something in the Night.