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.

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