Taylor Swift's new Fearless album sounds different — we got an expert to tell us why
"It's just got an incredible attention to detail, and it's well-crafted the whole way through."
When Taylor Swift first announced she was rerecording her first six albums, fans of course wanted to know how different the new versions would be, if at all.
There's a sort of implied sameness that comes to mind when you hear the word "rerecorded." So it came as no surprise that, when Swift debuted the initial track off Fearless (Taylor's Version) — the first of her older albums to get the remake treatment, in a bid for her to finally own the masters to her work — it sounded, well... pretty much the same to a casual listener.
However, for anyone who obsessively listened to and sang (read: screamed) "Love Story" back in 2008, there were some slight alterations that were hard to define. The full album as well features similar, almost impalpable, differences. So what changed? Well, there are obvious places where Swift emphasizes a word in a new way or tweaked a hum or two, but we wanted to know why the sound of the album itself was different. So, we tracked down an expert — Michael A. Lee, Professor of Commercial Music at Azusa Pacific University — to give us his analysis on what exactly makes Fearless (Taylor's Version) differ from its 2008 original recording.
Lee wants to make something clear right away: the new album is really well done.
"It's just an incredibly, incredibly well-made record, it really is," he says. "From the players to the engineering to the mixing and mastering on it. I mean, no surprise, but it's just got an incredible attention to detail, and it's well-crafted the whole way through."
He also wants to point out that note for note, it's pretty much an identical remake, which is technically difficult to pull off. "I would just love for people who are kind of outside of the technical world on this to appreciate what a monumental thing this was that the players did; it is so hard to do that. And it's amazing that they played those parts note for note with that kind of conviction."
Also of note, he says, are Swift's vocals. Given that she was 18 years old when the original album was first released, and 31 now, her voice is naturally going to sound a bit older. But Lee says there's more to it than that.
"There's something really specific to it, which is she's got a little bit more maturity and a little bit more experience with her voice. But what that cashes out to in terms of the sound, is that it has more tonal substance to it," he explains. "You can almost think of it like weight to the tone itself. It's a fuller, richer tone than it was on the original version."
To Lee, the song where this is the most obvious is "You're Not Sorry," with the vocals sounding less nasal and more from the chest. The background vocals are less prominent on this track as well. The famous hums and giggle of "Hey Stephen" also provide a good example of the changes to Swift's vocal tone. Says Lee, the humming is "noticeably more rich and less breathy" in Fearless (Taylor's Version), and the laugh in the song is "deeper and longer."
According to Lee, the change in Swift's vocals also led to changes in the production. "It gives them more room on the mix to bring out some of the other things that are going on. So her voice has more maturity, it has more weight, and it's matched by how they decided to record the record," he says.
For example, the individual instruments themselves were given a fuller sound. "It's not just sort of the thin, bright high ends that we heard on the original version. The original version is very much a country record of how it recorded the instruments, and on this we're getting way more full body," he says. The guitars, the pianos, the acoustic guitars all don't sound as thin because they have more of the mid and the low frequency material in there. "And so the overall effect is just fuller, louder, a little more compression, which is sort of the technical tool that we use to get a little bit of that fuller sound, and the end result is just a way more modern kind of sound."
For instance, on "Change," the tambourine is louder and the guitar solo is less distorted and louder at parts, while the electric guitar in "Fearless" is more prominent — especially in the fade out at the 3:53 mark. And in "Hey Stephen," the cymbal hits in the interlude are much louder.
Though the production changes differ across the album, they potentially include how things were mic'ed, changes in frequency, and alterations to how things were panned (in laymen's terms: whether a sound comes out of the left side of the speaker, or the right).
"It's different from song to song, but on some songs they mic'ed things a little bit more closely. So maybe they moved the mic a bit closer again, or they panned some things a little further out on the mix," Lee explains.
In "Breathe," for example, he says the acoustic guitars are much closer mic'ed, and in "You're Not Sorry" the strings are. Ditto for the acoustic guitars on "Today Was a Fairytale," which are most noticeable on the down strums. A mix can have a left or a right side to it, but it also can have a width, or how much of the material is close to the middle versus how much of it is on the outside, Lee explains.
"On this album, they made way more use of the outside [and] the mixes are spread a lot wider, which allows them to bring more things into the mix. On the technical side, they EQ'd some things with a little bit more of a fuller frequency range on it," he says, adding, "And they let the instruments have more of their full range in the mix. They didn't carve out the mix as much as they did on the original one, so the instruments sound more like themselves in this mix."
So if Fearless (Taylor's Version) just felt richer to you, that's because, well, it is. "It sounds more full because it literally is," Lee says. "There's more stuff in there. Not more parts, but just more of the sound of the instruments themselves."
According to Lee, the best song on the album for noticing both Swift's more mature vocals and the enhanced production is "Forever & Always (Piano Version)," because both were recorded "with much fuller range of frequencies," and the piano sounds more like a grand and less like an "upright, bordering on honky-tonk" piano.
"There are one or two pieces where the tempo was slightly different, so where they didn't record maybe to exactly the same metronome setting," Lee says. The two tracks are "The Best Day" and "Untouchable," but the difference is minimal. "Untouchable" is slightly faster, ending half a second earlier than its original. "The Best Day," meanwhile, is actually a little slower, with the new version ending two seconds longer than the original. Notes Lee, "We're talking really, really small differences."
"I'm not an expert in terms of analyzing someone's motivations or things like that, but there's definitely a difference in the kind of conviction I think when she's singing the lyrics," Lee says. He explains that although she sounds much more at ease with her voice, she's more hesitant on some of the lyrics. "I think she maybe was able to sing them in a little more unmitigated way on the original version."
Lee cites "Love Story" as an example. "There's a kind of earnestness missing in this version," he notes.
Other Fun Oddities
On "White Horse," the cello intro is richer and more resonant, and the instrument plays a little bit of a different part at the end of the song. In general, the rerecorded tracks have longer ring-out times at the end of the song ("Forever & Always" is an exception though, with its fadeout actually being faster). "Tell Me Why" is technically one of the most similar tracks to its original. When Swift sings "cursing your name" in "The Way I Loved You," it's more accented in the new version. And the original "Jump Then Fall" had some bad pitch correction when she sings "wrapped up," but that's been cleaned up in Taylor's Version.