Friday, May 16, 2003

Remastering

When you see "remastered" on a CD, what does it mean? Does it make it sound better?

I'm glad I asked that question! I've done extensive personal research on the issue and would love to share my knowledge!

Yes, it almost always makes it sound better. How much better depends on what is meant by "remastered" and the source recordings.

Sometimes all that is done is a higher bit-rate sampling of the existing original stereo mix-down master. That means they made a clearer copy of an old tape, the one made back when they first made the album. The multi-track master tapes (the ones the band used while actually recording the pieces of a song) are mixed down to a "stereo master" which is the source for a CD, tape or vinyl record. This kind of remastering can make a difference since you're hearing more information due to the better sample, but sometimes these old stereo mix-downs just don't sound the best, and often they were equalized specifically for the known audio dynamics of vinyl records (light on the bass, heavy on the mid-range). The first Rolling Stones remasters were of this type, and though clearer, they didn't sound much better. Sometimes the older, "muddier" versions of their albums had a more pleasant sound. (But stay tuned, they tried again.) Tom Petty's remasters don't sound much different from his originals because the dynamic range of his "sound" was a lot like the Stones', which doesn't really improve with a simple higher bit-rate remaster.

If the original stereo mix-down tape is decent, though, a remastering from a high bit-rate sample can really "open up" the sound. Billy Joel, the Eagles, Steely Dan, and Earth Wind and Fire's remasters are good examples of this. Especially the horns on EWF brighten up quite a bit. And Steely Dan is restored to its original champagne and caviar clarity and range - it's orgasmic.

TLD: The Eagles, for some reason, were sneaky about their CDs being remastered. You have to look real close at the back of a CD to see if it's remastered. I find this odd because back in the day when everyone was using the "aural exciter" - a little device that took the high end and kinda echoed it, punched it up, and made it all shimmery - the Eagles made a point of stating in their liner notes that THEY did not use it, {sniff}. So if they were audiophile snots back then, why weren't they hooting about their catalogue getting an upgrade? Beats me.

Then there are the folks who went back to the original master tapes, the ones where all original recording was done on 8, 16, 24, and even 64 separate channels which, is then mixed down to the stereo master. The original multi-track tapes contain ALL of the original sound information, so going back to them produces the best remastering result of all. The catch is sometimes no one remembers which tracks they used for the stereo mix-down (as there is typically much more on the tapes than what made it into the final mix - see below on Fleetwood Mac), or what levels, equalization and other tweaks were done on those original tracks. Sometimes that's where a band's "sound" comes from (see below on the Beatles).

To date, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd and the Beatles have done this - gone back to the original multi-track recordings to create a new remastered mix. Oh, and the Rolling Stones finally did this. Their latest remasters are of this type, and they sound niiiiice.

Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page did the purist form of this. He supervised the remixing of the original master tapes so that the sound of the original mix would be preserved. The results are astonishing. If you can get your hands on an original (non-remastered) Led Zep CD and compare it to the new ones, it's apparent even on a cheap boom box. On a good stereo (I recommend Yamaha), you can pick out all individual instruments on every track. The warhorse "Stairway to Heaven" sounds as good when you are sober as it used to sound when you were stoned out of your gourd at a party. Pink Floyd's remasters are of this quality as well. If you like either group, you do need to get the remastered versions of your favorites, if you haven't already.

The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac took slightly different routes, and (save for the one exception explained below) you can't find original master tape remasters on CD; they're only on DVD. (Suppressing ... rant ... on greed of ... music industry... {strain ... grunt}.)

The only true original master remix available for the Beatles is on the soundtrack to the movie Yellow Submarine - and on the DVD of the movie itself, where it's in 5.1 surround. The effect on the DVD of the movie is astonishing. When the guys harmonize on "Nowhere Man", their voices come from individual speakers. When the remaining Beatles (which at the time was Paul, George, and Ringo) were approached about this remastering for the movie soundtrack, originally they said "no" because they were concerned that they would futz with the masterful stereo mixes of Sir. George Martin (the fifth Beatle), which they felt was instrumental to their "sound". (Which becomes apparent when you see George Martin demonstrating just what he did back then in the documentaries that comprise The Beatles Anthology.) The remastering team got around that by giving the Beatles absolute final approval on the mix they created. What's even more astounding is that those songs were recorded before we had only 4-track tape machines. Nearly every other group that recorded in those days would fill up three tracks, then those three tracks would be mixed to the remaining one, and then they would do that a couple more times before tape generation degradation set it. But, this meant they "lost" the original single tracks of some of the instruments or voices. Evidently due to some huge miracle of foresight, the Beatles did not do this. They kept all the original tracks, and mixed down to a new tape, so we have all their original single track takes of everything. The team that restored Yellow Submarine copied all those tracks to a digital master, synched them up, then remixed them. The complete story is here. (Wouldn't it be cool if they did this for all of their music? Shudder to think!) If you're a fan, go get the DVD, turn on the 5.1 surround, and make sure you're sitting.

What Fleetwood Mac die is an example of how NOT to do it. They went back and remastered Rumours from the original masters, but put it out only on DVD! (Bastards.) What's worse, is THEY CHANGED THE FREAKIN' MIX! They added instruments and vocals that were recorded at the time, but not included in the original mix. Half the songs sound entirely different. For an album that is more or less tattooed on the public consciousness, the stupidity of that misstep is hard to state adroitly. Sure, it's clear as a bell and it sounds like you're in the studio, but it's not the same album!!! (Paging Jimmy Page for reality patrol ... Paging Jimmy Page for reality patrol ... get to Lindsey Buckingham STAT!). Still, it's probably worth the money for die-hards who have a DVD and 5.1 surround stereo. And it has the studio version of "Silver Springs" which wasn't on the original release. Let's just hope they put it out on CD someday, with the original mix restored.

Lindsey, give us a call. Let's chat.

So:
Remasters to buy, like fer sure:
- Led Zeppelin
- Pink Floyd
- Steely Dan
- Earth, Wind and Fire

Remasters to buy, if you're a big fan:
- Billy Joel
- Eagles
- Most recent Rolling Stone remasters.
- The Beatles "Yellow Submarine" on DVD - but only if you have a good 5.1 surround system.

Don't bother:
- Tom Petty
- Older Rolling Stones remasters
- Fleetwood Mac DVD (sounds great, but it's a different mix altogether)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I always thought the Beatles recorded to fresh tape when bouncing tracks because of either EMI or Abbey Road's rules. None of us should really be concerned of course. :p I sometimes giggle at the things people nit-pick at, and now I'm one of them! :0

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