The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Sunday, May 22, 2011

What's Up About "Remastered"?

One thing you saw during the CD era was the "newly remastered" album, sometimes classic, sometimes not. In many cases, that remastering was simply what should have been done in the first place...many of the earliest CD reissues of classic albums were simple digital transfers over to CD and sounded about as good as a decent tape copy. It was mainly to meet demand at the time. Later on, it became another selling point in the industry's attempt to keep CD prices high, and that practice has continued on into the mp3 era.

Remastering a CD makes some sense...the medium can accomodate more digital information per song than the older vinyl, and technically makes for better sound quality. The problem, of course, is what that information consists of. A straightforward digital transfer would give you a very wide sonic range on a song, more than vinyl or anything you can think of. In fact, the closest most listeners will come to hearing a song in it's full dynamic range is at a live concert. The thing about digital isn't that it sounds more sterile than, say, vinyl, it's that all the information is there pretty much exactly as the music really sounds like in a pure state.

In reality, there's other factors...the mix, how it's mastered (clean or louder), and of course what you play it on. I remember reading once where Tom Petty said that they always checked the mix on a boom box, figuring that it was going to be one of the more common ways their LP was going to be played. The whole thing about mono recordings wasn't that it was superior to stereo, but that it was the ideal mix for most radios of the time, which only had one channel. Also, some songs will sound better in mono simply because the musicians will have played the song with a mono mix in mind. Otherwise, there's no reason blues, which is considered a mono medium, can't sound fine in stereo or quad if mixed properly.

A good example was decades ago when Columbia accidently released a bunch of Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run" LPs on the west coast, but with an "East Coast" mix. People complained that the music sounded flat.

Which it was.

You see, most albums were released with the dynamic range equal along the whole sound spectrum for decades. With the advent of the West Coast rock scene, a mix that emphasized the low bass and high treble developed, which to west coast ears, sounded more alive. But listeners on the east coast preferred the flatter range mix, and so Columbia released different sounding LPs for each region.

Another good example is Bob Marley's first major record, which had "International" and "Jamaican" mixes. The International version had the bass toned down, and extra instruments added like guitars to give the Western listener a more "musical" sound...but Marley insisted on having the Jamaican release done the way it was always done on the island, with a big, booming rhythm track and less on top (no guitar solos, etc). In a sense, it was watering down his sound, but also, it made him an international star and not a cult artist, like say, Desmond Dekker. Interestingly, many of the old Bob Marley records have been remastered and are closer to the Jamaican mix in feel.

Which brings me back to the idea of remastering. I'll admit, I'm a sucker for any new reissue that claims to remaster the original master tapes or whatever. In many cases, like with the Stone's reissue of "Exile On Main Street," you realize that it was better off with the older mix, but in the case of the new Sam Cooke reissues, it's a revelation.

To a certain extent, the idea of remastering is a gimmick...the constant remastering of the Beatles tracks tends to be a simple moving around of the sound, and in the latest reissues, have made many of those songs sound clearer, but losing some punch and drive in the process. Some songs, particularly the complex ones, do well with remastering. Some, like old blues 78s, certainly sound louder but often less clear, or in some cases, more clear but drier.

I had mentioned Led Zeppelin in the last blog entry...Jimmy Page recently took many of the tracks, and essentially added more compression and level (loudness) and that was the Mothership compilation. To younger ears, the stuff sounded punchier, and in some cases, did improve some of the songs (at least to my ears). However, to someone like me, who had the Led Zep stuff already, the new mixes sounds louder, but a lot of space and tone was lost. Bonham's drums, for example, sounded best when recorded in a natural sound, as his power made the acoustic sound of the drums like thunder or something. Flattening it out, and actually making it louder sound took it away from the realm of genius to that of a well manipulated drum track that sounded almost electronic...but that's stuff only a small percentage of people will notice.

I recently downloaded (legally of course) a lot of acoustic blues, much of which I already had, but wanted to sort of upgrade my collection in terms of sound. In many of the services, like Rhapsody or iMesh, download even the same release a few months apart can give you a different sound. In some of the artists, the music was quieter but cleaner, and you could hear the acoustic instruments better. In other cases, it sounded louder, but more distorted. Which is incidently the key difference between digital and vinyl based music...the reason music on vinyl sounds "warmer" is that there different sound frequencies in play. The sound, or signal, from a vinyl record will tend to sound more natural, as the sound waves are "rounder" or in other words, slightly distorted...that distortion is what makes a lot of rock sound "louder." I remember many times not liking how this or that rocker sounded, so I would transfer it to tape and jack up the recording level a bit to make it sound louder to my ears.

Which in more than a few digital albums, that's what "remastering" is, except for adding more compression, it's often just boosting some of the frequencies. The key thing to remember is that a digitial album is a collection of songs that had 40 megabytes or information or more, reduced to maybe 8 megabyte digital you really can't "remaster" that kind of track. You can make it sound louder, you can make it sound clearer (and sacrifice some volume), or emphasize a particular range (like more bass, etc), but there's not enough room to really bring back the original sound of the master tapes or whatever.

It's a trade-off, and on the whole, I like it...but thanks to free programs like Audacity and other sound editors, you can adjust a lot of these songs to your liking, which I'll discuss in a future blog entry. For example, I almost always edit out the long audience cheering for a encore on live albums, and if I think a song sounds too weak, I'll boost the levels. The digital age hasn't always been kind to blues reissues, in my opinion, and knowing your way around a sound editor will help you make the blues sound like it should. That, plus I'll talk a bit about the various download services and if their different kbs rates for the mp3s really makes a difference (it can, but often it doesn't).

It's not bad stuff to know, particularly as an artist. Being able to distribute digitally has been a godsend for the independent artist, but how the music is heard out there is just as critical as it was during the CD or vinyl eras. Knowing how a song will sound if it's released at 256kbs or 128kbs will often determine whether or not that listener will like what they hear and buy the song.

More on all that later, until then, just enjoy the music and don't mind this old man talking on and on :-)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Blues and the Digital Age: Part One...what do you do when you can have anything you want?

I don't know about you, but the digital age of mp3s is the golden age of blues collecting...I used to cover around a dozen used record shops in a regular weekly circuit in a constant attempt to have the rarest blues. All of which, of course, sounded great, no matter how loud the scratch noises were or tinny the sound.

In maybe a few years, we'll probably see that the digital age was very similar to the 78rpm era. Music became a singles medium again (as it should be), and the sound quality somewhat primitive. The convenience of compressed files is sort of offset by the noticable lack of sound quality. Since I do most of my listening in a car, that's not a big issue, but when listening on a good stereo (or at least as good as I care to buy, I used to play my blues records through a guitar amp) it's obvious that the music is mixed for earbud earphones. The highs are emphasized, the bass range narrowed, drums way up, and everything is compressed within what seems like a 10 mghz range. In other words, the music loses it's "space." On a Led Zepplin song, this is noticable, on an old 78 reissue, not so much.

I'll comment more on this in the future, I imagine, but let's face it, if you like old blues, you were never concerned with excellent sound quality anyway. In fact, my preference on old 78 reissues is that there be no editing of the sound whatsoever...sometimes I'll hear a remastered old blues with the scratch noises cut out (along with a lot of the highs) and it'll sound strange to I'm in a library or something...actually, if you've only been in a modern library you won't know what I'm talking about...I remember sampling some music one time in one and couldn't even hear the music over the screaming of little kids and people talking on cell phones...I treated scratch noises likes the veil one has to see through to look into the past, and frankly consider it a part of the music. I also like electronic music, which is similar...

The one thing that being on services like Rhapsody or iMesh did was make it possible to have all the old blues you could eat...early on I would download the entire Blind Lemon Jefferson catalogue just to have it, and of course, never listen to it. Sure felt good knowing I had every slide piece every recorded, must have had a couple hundred Tampa Red numbers, for example.

Which brought out a stark fact about the 78 era...many of the artists would record dozens of the same song with only a couple of variations because they were paid a flat fee per song. At his peak, for example, Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the best selling artists of his time, but died broke because once the music stopped, so did his income. His catalogue is huge, beyond what a sane person will listen to unless they're a Blind Lemon fanatic.

I eventually had to become a discerning listener when I filled up a couple of terrabyte drives and my iTunes app slowed to a crawl. In the old Delta Snake newsletter days, it was a lot easier...I listened to what was sent to me for review, and even when it got busier, I still had time to listen to each record. In the digital age, my collection is over 500 gigabytes (and that's after pruning out 400 gigabytes in the past year). Also, in the CD era, one had to prioritze...I couldn't get every record Guitar Mac or Roy Rogers ever put out because I still needed to fill in my Chess or Stax collection. Well, now I have all of it, and it doesn't fill up a room, and one of these days I'll stop collecting the stuff and start listening to it.