The artistry of Chicago II and its place of honor in Chicago’s canon is unquestionable, regardless of the format. It would be impressive if heard over a transistor radio. Chicago’s second album incorporates rock and roll, jazz, and classical influences into a four-sided journey with these different strains of music absorbed and re-imagined by these seven musicians. Chicago II including the suites: Jimmy Pankow’s Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon and It Better End Soon, a collaboration between Robert Lamm and Terry Kath featuring Walter Parazaider on an extended flute solo. The second side starts off with a 2:34 minute sweet pop song, Robert Lamm’s Wake Up Sunshine, seemingly tailor-made for retrograde AM radio but never released as a single. The orchestration on the Memories of Love suite is reminiscent of The Moody Blues’ album, Days of Future Passed (1967) and on Beatles’ songs such as Eleanor Rigby. Even with disparate styles of music on II, the album flows together with perfect synchronicity. As the liner notes state in a direct message, which I read for the first time thirty years ago as a preteen Chicago fan, and symbol of the earnestness of the album and its song order: “This endeavor should be experienced sequentially.” 

Chicago II is a revered album, and I greeted the news of its being remixed by Steve Wilson, whose previous work including remixing Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, with excitement and also some trepidation. There is a substantial difference between a remix and a remaster. For those unfamiliar with recording techniques, think of making any typical rock album as a multi-step process. First, instruments and vocals are recorded on tracks, starting with the rhythm section, and then overdubbing the rest of the instruments and vocals. Chicago II is a 16-track recording, and all recordings from the 1970s and prior were analog recordings. While listening to this record, as well as Chicago Transit Authority, I often think about the challenges posed to the engineers* of Chicago’s earliest albums who had to put a seven-piece rock band onto so few tracks. While this was a manageable task with typical rock band instrumentation, the horns required separate tracks for the arrangements, usually double-tracked, and the solos. The recording engineers at CBS Studios were in charge of this entire process, from setting up the studio, placing the microphones, recording the musicians, and then mixing and mastering the album. Producer James William Guercio was limited in what he could do as only those who were members of the CBS union could use the equipment in their studios per standard practices.   

Once the recording is finished, the individual tracks of the song are mixed, adjusting things like frequency, volume, dynamics, and where each particular track will be heard in the stereo spectrum. The next step is mastering for release on a physical format such as a vinyl record or compact disc, with the mastering engineer ensuring that the full album has a cohesive sound. The remastering process that takes places for usual reissues does not touch the individual tracks. A remix, however, goes one step further back in the process. The task of remixing Chicago II by Steve Wilson involved digitally remixing the 16 individual tracks of the album. In essence, Wilson was able to overwrite the work of the CBS engineers and create something that was very different than what we are used to hearing. However, Steve Wilson stayed close to the original mix of the album, producing a clearer and cleaner mix than Rhino’s previous remasters of Chicago II.

Remixing any classic work by an iconic band is something like playing God. If there is one moment in Chicago II where some divine intervention might be helpful, it is during the horn solos following the soli section on Movin’ In. Walt belts out an alto sax solo, full of passion and dissonance, his shout out to the free jazz movement, beautifully ironic that it was recorded in a studio with so many rules as CBS. Jazz fans might have been reminded of Ornette Coleman or some of John Coltrane’s freer works from the last phase of career. Lee Loughnane on trumpet and Jimmy Pankow on trombone then take the solo section back down to earth, all together forming a symbolic and attention-grabbing moment on the first song of the record. In the original mix and the remix, this part of the song has some odd dynamics, the comping louder than the solos, and it would have been more powerful to hear the solos louder and much more present in the mix. In comparison, on Ballet the original dynamics are something close to heavenly perfection.  

Chicago’s history recording at CBS Studios in New York City from 1969 to 1972 is, sadly, not well documented. They worked in studios where if the walls could talk, they would tell large chapters of American musical history. Usually, Chicago recorded at Studio B at 49 East 52nd Street, home to recording engineer Don Puluse. Occasionally, brass was recorded at the studio known as “The Church” at 30th Street, a studio that was particularly suited to big orchestral groups and big bands who were recorded playing live as a group, originally onto three or four tracks with little or no overdubbing. Engineers of Chicago II include Don Puluse, Brian Ross-Myring, and Chris Hinshaw (who famously conspired with The Byrds to break the studio rules). The remastering engineer of Chicago II, Robert Honablue, was the first African-American engineer at CBS Studios.  

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Don Puluse, engineer for Chicago II, on a mandatory union lunch break at the Wienerwald Restaurant in Times Square, New York City. Photo courtesy of Jim Reeves.

The work of the CBS engineers was truly commendable considering the milieu in which they operated, and no remaster would sound good if the source (the master tape) was faulty or deteriorated. The best reissue of Chicago II shows the beauty of their work as it was done in 1969, released on dual-layer super audio compact disc (SACD) by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. However, MoFi reissues are limited editions, and it is now out-of-print. MoFi remasters their releases using the original master tapes that, in their words, “exponentially expands the soundstaging dimensions, imaging proportions, and dynamic information, allowing the songs to breathe and enjoy a roominess that enhances the stellar performances and interwoven structures.” The tape hiss of the original master is actually noticeable louder on the SACD, making the experience feel and sound closer to the source recording, as if one were listening to the master tapes in a studio. Even though it is a digital format, this SACD retains the warmth of analog, especially noticeable on the naturally resonant baritone voices of Robert Lamm and Terry Kath which have a presence on this remaster that is especially appreciated on Poem For the People and Colour My World.

The original sound quality of Chicago II was limited by many factors, the physical characteristics of the studio facility and the limitation of the recording equipment available to them at the time. With today’s technology, audio engineers have limitless options. MoFi’s reissue preserves the analog warmth, while the Steve Wilson remix embraces the advances in digital mixing and emulation. Wilson has taken heed to respect the integrity of work done by those brave and talented men at CBS records. The MoFi SACD revealed the beauty of the recording techniques and studios, a vintage sound that is still appreciated and emulated with new electronic technology. If Chicago were to remix their own works using the best available technology of today, I can only imagine just how beautiful the result would be.

On the other side of the audio spectrum, for Chicago fans who would rather listen to their “old records,” the Friday Music reissue of II is the best way to listen to Chicago II on vinyl, preserving the sound quality and familiar experience of playing a record. Friday Music uses 180 gram weigh records, a slightly heavier record than the first original pressing of Chicago II by Columbia Records. This reissue was remastered by Lee Loughnane and the founder of Friday Music, Joe Reagoso, using the Chicago Records master tapes.

While vinyl lacks the enhanced frequency range and extremes of stereo separation of the digital formats, many Chicago fans will appreciate the analog warmth and replication of the original listening experience as you remember it, perfect for introducing your children or grandchildren to vinyl records. These pristine new records are free from skips and pops and come in a replica of the gatefold record cover, with each record housed in an anti-static sleeves. This whole package is a faithfully reproduced by Friday Music, lacking only the poster, but reminding me of my initial discovery of a vintage copy of Chicago II in the family basement but without the deterioration caused by years of improper handling and storage (which happened before I claimed it).

The re-release of The Beatles catalog in 2009 on two boxed sets, stereos mixes for modern tastes and mono mixes for purists, showed how the newest technology and processes could make recordings from the 1960s sound even better. While Rhino’s Chicago Quadio box on Blu-ray appealed to the audiophile market, new reissues on compact disc would appeal to a larger audience. The new transfers from the master tapes of The Beatles catalog for the ‘09 reissues were a large factor in the improved sound quality and expanded frequency range, greatly improving upon the first remasters when The Beatles were first put on compact disc in the late 1980s. Chicago’s catalog deserves the same respect as The Beatles has been given. Whether new remasters of the classic era of Chicago were packaged together in a box set or sold one-by-one, it would be worth my money to repurchase Chicago’s first eleven albums again.

* Tim Jessup, Chicago’s current sound engineer, and Jim Reeves, recording engineer at CBS from 1969-1972, have kindly shared their insights with me. The work of audio engineers tends to go unrecognized, but it truly makes a difference.  

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Lee’s portrait for the poster inside Chicago II. Photo by Herb Greene.
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Three of my copies of Chicago II. Top: Friday Music LPs. Left: Rhino’s Steve Wilson Remix. Right: MoFi’s SACD.

 

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9 thoughts on “The Sound of Chicago II, By: Stephanie Carta

  1. Stephanie – a beautifully written examination and overview of Chicago II. Much appreciated. Keep up the great work. As someone who bought this record on the day that it originally came out (when I was 13), I’ve since listened to it literally hundreds of times and loved every minute. The compression on II did seem “different” and a little confusing to me when I compared it to the CTA album. But it mostly didn’t matter, because I had just started playing the trombone myself and I worshipped every lick that Jimmy played. He laughed when I told him last September that he was responsible for my “choosing” the bone as an instrument in 6th grade, and then jokingly apologized for playing a role in that decision. No apology required, I assured him. I have loved Chicago’s brass arrangements from Day One, as much as I’ve loved Robert Lamm’s songwriting which led me to switch my allegiance for classical music (5 years of piano lessons by the time I was 13), to rock keyboards and the subsequent formation of my own Chicago tribute band in 9th grade. My bandmates and I called ourselves “Chicago Branch” because we fancied ourselves as a “branch” of the real band Chicago. This was in small East Texas town about 2 hours from Houston. We drove there to a couple of Chicago concerts. One time. I sneaked backstage in 1973 and ran into Danny Seraphine and Terry Kath. I hung with them for over an hour. A true highlight of my young life. Anyway, please keep up the writing, Stephanie – I enjoy your work.

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      1. True! And there have been MANY kids who fancied themselves as Pankow protégés over the years – just ask Jeff Coffey. But what’s more amazing to me is this – I turned 13 in August 1969, just a few days after Jimmy turned 22. He was still practically a kid himself, and yet look at the brilliance and virtuosity of what he created that year on two major-label double albums! Just mind-blowing.

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  2. Thank you for the in site on Chicago II. But there is still one thing that has gone unanswered for me and that is why does Chicago Transit Authority sound so much better than Chicago II? Chicago II lacks the warmth that CTA has & sounds very much more shallow-at least the original does-even on CD the sound difference is noticable. Could you tell me why that is?

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    1. On CTA, there’s much more reverb on the horn arrangements, but the solos are up front. It was a nice mix of ambiance and presence. There were several engineers on these albums. Fred Catero engineered CTA. When I listen to Chicago II, what really strikes me is the quality of the musicianship and material, but we’d need an explanation from someone with more technical knowledge to truly understand how they were recorded. It was a different era with regards to the structure at CBS, so every band had to follow their rules in the studio.

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      1. Interestingly though, CTA and II were recorded only 8 months apart. Guercio produced both. Different engineers might have been a factor in the difference in sounds, plus some of II was recorded in L.A. versus NYC. I just wonder why the two albums DO sound so very different? One of the reasons that I loved CHI V was because it sounded closer to CTA sonically than any of the other albums in between. At least it did to my ears.

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  3. I think Chicago II is my favorite album of all time, by any band. Like Nelson Duffle, I played in a Chicago tribute band in high school at the time II came out. A bunch of 17-year-old kids playing the Ballet, It Better End Soon, and Poem for the People, although certainly not nearly as good as the real thing. Although our band had a name, the kids in our high school called us “Chicago Jr.” Terry Kath was my idol, and I tried to copy every lick he played. I met Jimmy and Lee at the backstage entrance of the Fillmore Auditorium after one of their concerts in 1968 or 69 (they were only second billing back then), and they invited me to hang out with them back at their hotel. Just the three of us. Truly one of the highlights of my life!

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  4. Great article Stephanie. A well researched and thoughtfully prepared review of a much loved recording from an iconic band. Those of us who are fans of Chicago are indeed fortunate that there is enough interest in the group to have project of this magnitude take place. With respect to the previous comments about the sonic differences between the first and second Chicago albums; I agree that the technical approach in the recording studio taken by the engineers would account for much of the difference. At the same time, I am sure there are other factors as well. The band may have have requested a different sound or approach as to how certain instruments were recorded. There may have been aspects about the first album they weren’t happy with, and wanted changed when the recording of the second album took place. As fans, we only hear the finished product, and aren’t there during the recording process, which can be quite arduous. On the other hand, the musicians are (of course), and they hear the the final product differently. Thanks again and I look forward to reading more of your great writing.

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    1. Thanks Mike! Exactly, there are many factors involved in sound quality, and it difficult to sort out what is inherent in the original recording versus the conversion and remastering process required to put these albums out as reissues. I think the sound quality of MoFi’s II shows the brilliance and potential of the original recording.

      In March, I’ll be seeing two Chicago shows at theaters here in South Carolina. This will be a wonderful opportunity to review the current line up, and I’ll be very excited to do that.

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