Fight The Loudness War

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Beatles remastered

So here we are, the Beatles catalogue has been entirely remastered, so where are we now? It's a much more complex matter than one would imagine.

Sound on Sound (October 2009's issue, page 74 of the UK edition) has an interview with the team of engineers behind the remaster. There are two completely different versions of the mastering, respectively made for the mono and stereo CD boxsets.

The stereo remaster is exactly what I had been fearing: the mastering has brought the sound of the Beatles in line with contemporary 'taste', which means that there are a lot more low frequencies, more loudness and the vocals and single instruments that used to stand out in the original mixes are now blending anonymously in the mix. To be fair, the master has not been done at 'Metallica' levels, and there is no obvious sign of distortion,but I still find that the delicate balance of many songs has been compromised; in other words, I believe that the mixes as they are do not make too much sense once you have a sound as rich as this.

The mono boxset on the other hand has been created specifically to satisfy audiophiles and purists. I have yet to acquire this version but I am hopeful that it will be less diappointing.

The article on Sound on Sound goes on to add a lot of detail about the transfer process from the original tapes, the minimal de-noising which thankfully only applied to the intros and codas of the songs, and many other interesting details.

Speaking of de-noising, a certain liberal use of it is partially the reason why the first CD release of the Beatles sound much worse than the old vinyls. When the catalogue was digitised for the first time in 1986 the technology was still in its infancy; no one questioned the quality of 16 bits and software DSP. Well, actually audiophiles did, but you can't stop progress, even when it's a bit shit.

Another important point is that there has never been a real complete version of the Betales catalogue on CD. It was none less than Sir George Martin in 1986 taking a few extra liberties and choosing to elect the mono mixes of the first four albums and the stereo version of the rest as 'the one to use' for CD.
What's more George Martin felt the need to entirely re-mix 'Help' and 'Rubber Soul' for their first CD release.

And here is something else, perhaps the most important bit of information, that engineer Guy Massey points out: for all the Beatles albums the important mix was the mono version. It wasn't a case of mixing in stereo and then simply summing L+R for the mono mix: on Sergent Pepper they spent three weeks doing the mono mix and then three days for the stereo version. In days where even just volume automation was not even imaginable this lead to completely different versions of the songs, sometimes with different effects applied to different parts.

If this is not confusing enough, there are all the stories regarding the differences between UK and American releases of the original albums, where certain choices of tracks hard-panned left and right would supposedly be the result of gross mistakes rather than artistic choices.

At this point it is difficult not to experience the feeling one gets when entering a showroom with 30 different models of televisions, all with different colours and brghtness, and wondering which one is the right one.

What makes this debate even more futile is the fact that at least one or two generations of listeners will come to know this music through Guitar Hero, where the individual parts have been completely altered to fit in the game play: to quote again from Sound On Sound "we did push the boundaries with that sometimes – if there isn't a guitar for three quarters of the song, we'd put a string element or a piano element in, so at least the guitar can still be playing something". Bloody hell.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Doors remixed by... The Doors

This is not exactly breaking news, but I have just stumbled across this 2007 'The very best of The Doors' entirely remixed from the original tapes.

Here it's not a case of bad mastering or loudness war, but I think it perfectly illustrates the point of why musicians should not be remixing their own material.

I won't go in to the detail becuase you can read it all in the review of the CD following this link:

The upside is that the remixing applies only to this collection and the original albums are still available to buy, but it still feels weird.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Artists should not be allowed to re-master

Here is one idea many people will disagree with.
I don't care, I have thought long about it and I stick with it.

Artists don't have a clue about their own work. And worse, they have much less respect for it than their audiences, because in their minds if this record is lost, they can always do another one, just as good, or actually... better.

What I mean is that a great guitarist, playing in a great band, can come up with great music. Great. It's all great. But then the process of producing the album involves the skills and ears of good sound engineers, some really good equipment, probably a series of lucky accidents, and as a result we have a record that becomes a milestone in the history of recorded music.
This same guitarist, twenty years later, will be involved in the re-mastering of the CD. Well, my point is that the guitarist is not the best person to judge on the sound quality, because he was never really responsible for it in the first place.

Musicians play with what they find: it's 1970, throw a Fender Rhodes and a tape recorder at a skilled jazz player... he will switch on, crank up the volume and play. Classic record.
Part of that sound is due to the characteristic of the instrument and the (side) effect of tape compression, but this wasn't there by design, it just happened to be the technology at the time, so that is a happy accident that humankind has to be thankful for.
The same musician in 1990 will take a digital keyboard and one 16bit digital recorder, and the same brilliant sequence of notes will not have the same magic effect on my ears. And yet, from the musician's point of view nothing has changed.

Of course players spend a lifetime perfecting the tone of their instrument, but that's where they stop. Very few can hear the sound of a mixed album in the same way their sound engineer can.

One example of all this comes from one of the most respected musicians of the 20th century, Frank Zappa. In 1983 he released a LP called The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou.
As it happens it turned out my first Zappa record and -possibly because of that- a great favourite of mine. Rumor has it that Zappa was never entirely happy with it, so it was entirely remixed in the 90s, not by Zappa himself but under his supervision.

The result is the 'Zappa authorised' version, which is simply unbearable. If the original mix was well balanced but a bit lacking in bass, this one has instruments all over the place, with -for some bizarre reason- massive prominence given to the floor tom, a very thin bass guitar, and it's generally speaking a very bad mix.
Once again, this is the only version that one can buy now, and it's the only one that will remain for posterity, unless someone makes a recording of the vinyl.
If you happen to have it or if you know where I could buy the original LP, please post a comment.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Or should we re-mix and re-master?

Metallica's (in)famous Death Magnetic

Listen to the examples below, and if you feel like it, join the petition – 20,000 signatures and counting – asking to have the album remastered (although in actual fact the problem is in the mixing stage, so it needs a re-mix. Search the net for an off-the-record comment from the mastering engineer Ted Jensen).

But is it right to suggest that we should you go back and re-mix an album because we think that it could sound better? This would be exactly the argument that I oppose with regards to re-mastering old records.

Maybe we should respect the artist's choice and let Death Magnetic takes is place in history as a very distorted record. What makes this case slightly different is that the fans' response has been immediate, making this case a little more similar to the public's response to Coca Cola's decision in 1992 to change its formula. Metallica introduces a new formula, louder than loud, that could arguably be more like a mistake than a conscious choice. But will Metallica do like Coke and listen to their critics? Judging by the sound of Death Magnetic, not without an hearing aid.

For more about Loudness Wars visit or google "loudness war"

Led Zeppelin remasters

I have heard discussions about the various versions of Led Zeppelin CDs for so many years.

I have yet to find a complete list of the various releases and which issues are considered the best. Sometimes when buying from Amazon it is still possible to find various releases of the same CD from different sellers (new or used). It would be useful to know which ones to buy.

This lengthy Zep forum tread mentions a few interesting things: for example, apparently one old CD re-issue of Led Zeppelin IV has the stereo channels swapped! (and if you are thinking "so what?", please click here and don't come back)

Beatles catalog remastered, on sale September 9, 2009

Great. We were looking forward to have the Beatles repackaged in one more deluxe box set. But there is more: the re-issue will coincide with the release of "The Beatles: Rock Band" video game. Christ.

Quoting from this article from Billboard magazine: the albums have been re-mastered at EMI's Abbey Road Studios in London over a four-year period, utilizing state of the art recording technology alongside vintage studio equipment, "carefully maintaining the authenticity and integrity of the original analog recordings," according to the statement.

Here's a suggestion about maintaining the authenticity of the original sound: keep the original.

I can magine that by Christmas 2009 these new masters will be the only Beatles available to buy, so I am going to buy a few of the current ones while I still can.

Does anyone have a first release Beatles CD? If you want to share uncompressed (or lossless compression) orginal version please use the tag MPSFTLW*

*Masters Preservation Society - Fight The Loudness War

About this blog

I have been meaning to start this project for a very long time. To cut a long story short, records (and to a lesser extent movies) get remastered. Digitally re-mastered: bigger, better, louder, new liner notes, new bonus tracks, etc.
The re-master is commissioned by the record company that owns the record, and it comes with the blessing - and in some cases the direct involvement - of the original artists and producers. Truth is, for them is a no-brainer: it's free money. It would be stupid not to do it.
Most people don't care, and indeed might be attracted by the idea of a classic record made even better.

I respect that. But for myself, I was absolutely fine with the original, and it's not just a matter of romantic attachment to the sounds I grew up with: given the chance to compare the originals with some of these 'improved' versions, using a decent set of speakers instead of a mobile phone, most people will agree that louder means worse, or at least significantly different.
And the real problem is this: every time a CD is remastered, the old version goes off catalog. You might think that it doesn't matter, since you already own a collection of your favorite CDs, but it does matter, because compact discs don't last forever (just about ten to twenty years, as a matter of fact, before all those ones and zeroes fade away) and the only version you will be able to buy is the re-master of the month.

What I am proposing here is the institution of the Masters Preservation Society, dedicated to the conservation of original masters by ways of collecting originals, cataloging re-issues (and noting the differences), recording copies before it's too late, finding legal ways to make these originals available.
Any such activity will be tagged MPSFTLW which stands for Masters Preservation Society: Fight The Loudness War. The ridiculously long acronym is intentional, so that it will be easier for anyone to find relevant information on internet or elsewhere.

To clarify: if you want to turn the Mona Lisa in to a 3D hologram go ahead, why not? It can be an interesting alternative interpretation. But would you replace the one in the Louvre and update every book, encyclopedia with the re-mastered version?
Whether you agree or disagree you are welcome to post your comments to this blog. You can read more about this topic in posts labelled MPSFTLW.

Thank you for listening.