Sunday, July 10, 2005

Audio Remastering Explored

There have been some recent remastered reissues where I was immediately struck by how great they sounded (RFTC's Circa: Now! and the Bad Religion reissues come to mind), and then there have been those that didn't strike me as anything special but weren't botch jobs by any means (a la Green Day's 1,039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours reissue). Then there were really weird ones like the remixed and remastered Megadeth albums (at least the first 4 early albums I checked out recently to see what they were all about). Listening to an album you know backward and forward and then having instruments and sounds coming from unexpected places can be a little disconcerting.

Very rarely you get something completely amazing, like the Misfits' 12 Hits From Hell, which doesn't seem likley to ever be officially released. The producer remixed the tracks using Bobby Steele and Doyle's guitar parts to make the band sound like a 5-piece (which allegedly, is a big reason why Danzig and Doyle shitcanned it). The Misfits were never a 5-piece, never had 2 guitar players, and these songs were never meant to be heard mixed this way. But, everyone I know that's heard it has thought these were the best versions of the songs they've ever heard (myself included). There are plenty of other places to hear the original versions and there have been so many Misfits releases with so many alternate versions and takes of their songs, it probably helped condition me to be more accepting of alternate sounds when it came to them, though.

On the flipside, there are albums like Rise Against's The Unraveling, where I felt the original releases's production was truly awful and really made the band and the songs sound a lot worse than they really are. The remastered song I've heard off the upcoming re-release of that record improved the sound dramatically. Before the bass and drums were way too high in the mix, while the vocals were buried. The remaster seems to have everything finally in the right place.

The other point about remastered albums is that so-called "purists" may often be basing their purity standard on an original pressing that may not sound anything at all like what the artist originally intended. There is a difference between taking an old movie or record that was recorded in mono and artificially creating a stereo or 5.1 mix out of thin air and improving the master job on something that has high quality original masters, but, for whatever reason, lower quality mass production. Time and budget constraints, poor production work, and any number of pressing plant issues could be to blame, but a remaster job using the most up-to-date technology is generally an effort to make the pressed CDs (or vinyl or whatever) match the master mixdown that the artist/producer was happy with in the studio. We've all heard albums that sound like they were recorded at the bottom of a pool or in a metal trash can. Those are great candidates for remastering. From what I understand, you're looking to get a much richer, fuller sound with clarity enough to hear all the dynamics of a given recording.

This is one reason hardcore audiophiles often are heard to say that "vinyl sounds better." The argument seems to go like this: because the analog process for pressing vinyl doesn't use compression the way CDs do, you CAN get a more accurate representation of what it sounded like in the studio when it was recorded. Also, vinyl LPs are said to sound "warmer" compared to the "harshness" of a digital CD. Of course, this is hardly always the case and generally refers to the first generation of CD production in the mid- to late 80s when studios weren't necessarily mastering CDs from the best source material (they'd just use whatever they could easily find).

Further, the human ear can't hear the additional frequencies that vinyl produces, so it's hard to make that argument to a casual listener with average playback equipment. So, in the end, unless you have superhuman ears and the highest-end audio equipment, it's hard to say you'll hear much of a difference.

So, to sum up, remasters can be a little disconcerting when you're used to hearing an album a certain way and all of a sudden things are a little different. It has certainly sometimes thrown me off a bit until I can adjust to the new sound. Once you get past how it's not exactly the same as the previous version (which would be the point), it's easier to appreciate the remastered album on its own merits.

Remastering Info


Anonymous HR Mastering said...

The book by Bob Katz should be a must read for all artists/engineers

4:42 AM  

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