On the many different versions of Californication

The initial CD release of Californication features what can only be described as unfortunate mastering. It is, to put it kindly, brickwalled to hell and back. This means that not only have the dynamics of the audio been compromised, making every moment sound the “same” regardless of their volume, but that there also exists a heavy sheen of distortion across the whole record, especially in its busier parts. This is partly a result of work done by the mastering engineer, Vlado Meller, but also results from decisions made during the recording and mixing process.

This is not news. The album’s horrible sound has been the subject of much debate and focus. It is frequently referred to as one of the worst sounding albums of all time, and is the poster child for the “loudness wars”. But, it did sell 16 million copies worldwide, so maybe they knew what they were doing... it's hard to say.

Regardless, almost as soon as Californication was released, an “unmastered” version of the album leaked to the internet through the vast underground trading circle that existed at the time. This was most likely sourced from a CD-R of rough mixes that the band made during the album’s mixing process at the Village Recorder in Los Angeles. It’s exact provenance is unknown, though as you can see on the postings here, it appeared not long after the album did; there's even the suggestion that it's the version that Flea prefers, though that is unlikely. The CD-R also features what may be an alternative tracklisting to the album: I Like Dirt is the opener, much like it was when they played it live initially; Parallel Universe is second and Road Trippin' is last, just like they are on the final album. For the purposes of this page I will refer to them as the “rough mixes”, but this version is what you’re listening to if you’ve downloaded an “unmastered” version of the album within the last fifteen or so years.

While some musical differences exist, such as the added verse on Savior and the extra backing vocals during the outro of Easily, which will be explored more below, the main difference between the final release and the rough mixes is the level of the music. Simply put, the rough mixes are much “quieter”, and feature less digital distortion, which lets the music “breathe” a little more. This sort of thing can be visualised simply by looking at waveforms: below is the retail (that is, what you get when you buy the CD) version of Around the World on top, followed by the rough mixes version on the bottom. The tracks have been converted to mono for ease of display.

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 11.47.39 am.png

Clear, right? The rough mixes version (aside from having an extended ending) has much more prominent peaks and valleys, leading to a bigger difference between quiet and loud sounds. But, it’s not so quiet that you can barely hear it. The rough mixes version is what an ordinary, major label rock band sounds like on CD. The retail version, on the other hand, takes it to another level, almost to the point of ridiculousness at times. Towards the outro, it's just one big block of noise. 

Not only that, but one can inspect a song's general "loudness" level by importing it into a tool known as the DR-Offline Meter, seen on this website. Sparing the jargon, the program measures the general range of dynamics a song has. The lower the number, the lower the dynamic range. The rough mixes version of Around the World scores a 10. The retail version is a 5.

These reasons are why many, many fans only listen to the rough mixes version of the album. The 1999 vinyl and cassette releases are entirely forgettable, even in a world where the vinyl versions of albums are typically sourced from different, quieter master files, and sound much better than their CD counterparts as a result. That was not the case with Californication's initial release. But more about vinyl later.

A side note: there also exists an "unmastered/unsequenced" version of the album. It was leaked in 2011, and is sourced from an in-house Warner Bros. CD-R that seems to have been made at the very end of the mixing sessions. The tracks on this disc have had a lot of compression applied to them, so it doesn't sound all that great, even if it is "unmastered". It seems as if during the mixing process, the band compressed the tracks before they sent them off to mastering, where they were compressed even further. This disc is not essential, but it does contain a set of unique track variants that make it an important historical document.

In November 2003, the band released their Greatest Hits package. Featured on it were five tracks from the album: Parallel Universe, Scar Tissue, Otherside, Californication and Road Trippin’. In the Greatest Hits liner notes, it doesn't mention that the tracks were re-mastered for this release. In fact, it specifically credits all of the original mastering engineers. But fans noticed that on average, the dynamic range of the tracks that appear on Greatest Hits are two to three "points" higher on the dynamic range scale than their retail album counterparts. Take a look at Scar Tissue below. The retail version of the song is on top, the Greatest Hits below.

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 12.01.22 pm.png

Nothing drastic, but there's a slight difference. And that's not all; the version of Higher Ground that appears is a completely different, dryer mix than its Mother's Milk counterpart. So there were obviously decisions made to present different versions of the tracks when they were compiling the release.

One of the other differences that was also immediately noticed was that the version of Californication on Greatest Hits differed slightly to the retail version. We'd already heard a number of track differences in the rough mixes leak, but now a variant was actually being acknowledged and released to the public. On Greatest Hits, Californication was eight seconds longer, features organ flourishes during the first verse that aren't present on the retail mix, and has two runs through the first chorus, instead of just one. In fact, if you listen to the retail mix, you can hear the organ come in for a single note as Anthony says "it's the edge of the world" -- I think it may have been an accident that they left it in at all. 

We can actually see this change come about by looking at the notes shown below. These are sourced from Louis Matheiu, the band's longtime assistant, and were put up for auction on Record Mecca in 2013.

"Dream of Californication" 1st time 1/2 as long.

"Dream of Californication" 1st time 1/2 as long.

So one must wonder two things: 1), if the version on Greatest Hits is an earlier mix that they used by mistake, and 2), why it got used at all. It's unlikely that will ever be figured out, and we’re obviously not sure what state the Warner Bros. and RHCP archives are in.

It gets more complicated: the rough mixes version of Californication is different from the retail version and the Greatest Hits version. It has no organ at all during the first verse, but some during the second, and it contains the original long chorus. The unmastered/unsequenced disc seems to feature the same mix as is heard on Greatest Hits. The version of the song on Spotify is the Greatest Hits version. On iTunes, the retail version from 1999 is seen, though this may depend on what country you’re in. (When they play it live, they only do one run through the first chorus).

While these might be tiny, seemingly insignificant changes, it means that already we have three different versions of the song, and no "final" approved version. The band recorded the track, mixed it, edited it twice, released one version, let a different one leak, put an alternate version on their Greatest Hits, and to this day, sell and stream two different versions of the song. It's madness. But it's also an insight into how much work goes into a track during mixing before it's released. Other examples include the extended bridge in If You Have To Ask that can be heard here

And that's not all. In 2012, Californication was reissued on vinyl, cut from a new master by Chris Bellman and Bernie Grundman. Finally, there existed a retail version of the album that actually sounded good. But - surprise surprise - it contained several different mixes of tracks, mostly in the forms that they appeared in on the rough mixes. For a while the only track variant in official circulation was the various mixes of Californication, but now alternate mixes of Easily, Savior and Right On Time were officially available from legitimate sources. These are explored below.

The version of the title track that came with this 2012 re-release is different from every other version of the song. It features organ flourishes during the first verse, much like the Greatest Hits and rough mixes/unmastered version, but only one run-through of the first chorus, not two. Let's take a look at all four versions of the song that exist:

  1. The initial CD retail version, also seen on online digital music stores. 1 run through the first chorus. Organ beep at "it's the", organ continues in the second verse.

  2. The rough mixes version. 2 runs through the first chorus. Organ only begins after the first chorus.

  3. The Greatest Hits and Unmastered/Unsequenced version. Organ comes in with the drums in the first verse. 2 runs through the first chorus.

  4. The 2012 vinyl version. Organ comes in with the drums in the first verse, but only 1 run through the first chorus.

So why all these different versions? It's clear that they mixed and remixed the track several times, but perhaps the master tapes aren't clear as to which versions are to be used, so when it came time for each subsequent release to be compiled, the wrong tapes were transferred.

On the 2012 vinyl version of Easily, there are additional vocals in the outro, a difference that had previously only existed on the rough mixes and the unmastered/unsequenced version of the album. That change can also been seen being asked for by Anthony, in his notes below:

Easily: lose all voc aft. last chorus feat. guitar orch only

Easily: lose all voc aft. last chorus feat. guitar orch only

Again, it seems as if the wrong tapes have been used. If the band made this change back in 1999 but didn't explicitly state which version was the master recording, I can imagine a mistake like this happening down the line.

Update: eagle-eyed reader Hunter Gordon noticed that the retail version of Easily appears to have an edit point at the beginning of the outro, meaning that the vocal-free version was spliced in during mastering. This edit is also present on the 24-bit HD Tracks version of the album. This explains why the 2012 vinyl version of the song contains the normal ending; the pre-edit version of the song was used.

On the 2012 vinyl, Savior features the same "all in a hand" outro backing vocals that are present on the rough mixes and unmastered/unsequenced versions, but it lacks the extra verse that those mixes have. This again means that it's a different mix, and that there are now three versions of that song:

  1. The retail mix, with no extra verse and no backing vocals over the solo.

  2. The rough mixes and unmastered/unsequenced mix, with extra verse lyrics and backing vocals over the solo.

  3. The 2012 vinyl version, with no extra verse, but backing vocals over the solo.

Again, this change is present in Anthony's notes:

Savior - vocals under solo at end 1/2

Savior - vocals under solo at end 1/2

Strangely enough, the version of Savior used in this 24-bit high resolution compilation is the same as the 2012 vinyl release, but the rest of the tracks on the album are merely the retail versions which have been compressed and limited to death. That warrants further investigation.

Aside from Californication, Easily and Savior, there are no other differences heard on the 2012 release that have been seen elsewhere, such as the extra gibberish vocals and extended outro in Around the World that are present on the rough and unmastered/unsequenced mixes, or the extra first chorus on This Velvet Glove that can be heard on the unmastered/unsequenced mix.

It's important to catalogue each of these differences, but at the end of the day what matters is the music. All of the information listed above is very insignificant in the grand scheme of things. If you're after the best sounding version of the album, try the rough mixes. If you want it on vinyl, the 2012 remaster is world class. For many people, the retail version is enough. If you're a completist... well, you've got some organising to do, but hopefully this page has helped, and hopefully further digging will provide more information for fans. Maybe, just maybe, we'll get a big archival boxset one day, and have our minds blown right open.

If we've missed anything, please let us know.