Remastering woes

Pic:  “iPod headphones:  hangin’ out” - by el patojo, courtesy of Flickr.
Pic: “iPod headphones: hangin’ out” - by el patojo, courtesy of Flickr.

First of all, I should state a pet hate:  The abuse of the term “remastering” – and the methods and assumptions that underpin it.  Let me explain:

There has been a trend over the last 15 years or so for older recordings to be re-released in “remastered” form.  Some say that the remasters offer considerable gains in audio quality over the original – and on paper that might be true.  The more cynical among us might simply see it as a way for the record companies (and their artists) to make new money from old recordings, without the need for any further creative input.  But what actually is it?

“Remastering” is a technical term that usually applies to the process by which an old master recording is played back from its original medium, and the resulting recording is then processed to improve the audio quality in some way, before that final processed copy is reproduced in a format that someone on the street can purchase and play.

In some cases there can be significant improvements by playing the media through a much more accurate playback device, in turn to what is likely to be a much more accurate recording device than was used during the original mastering and duplication process.  Massive advances have been seen in both digital and analogue recording and playback technology since The Beatles or Pink Floyd were in their heyday.

Quite often, the improvements described above are either too subtle, or not enough to make the original recording listenable by modern consumers.  To fix this, with most remasters some changes are made to the frequency and dynamic (volume) content of the recording, with the aim of bringing more detail from the original detail to the listener.  And this is where things get tricky.

See, more often than not, I would suggest that such a process carried out in its usual form gives superficial improvements at best, and often introduces yet more compromises to the signal path between the original mastering recording and the listener.  For incidence:  Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” album was originally released on CD in the early 1980’s and sounded slightly dull.  Yet it was more consistent between playback cycles than any vinyl or cassette copy, allowing the listener to get to know each song intricately if they so choose.  The slight lack of treble definition in the transfer (perhaps the original master tape used for the transfer) was soon either ignored or accepted as being a part of the recording that was heard so often.

In 2008 I picked up a recently remastered CD edition of the same album, the remastering having apparently been done sometime earlier that year.  I anxiously took the CD home and plopped it into the player, expecting more of the same as I heard in the original release I was so used to, but was bitterly disappointed.  Why?  Because during the remastering process some significant processing has taken place.  It’s like someone turned up the treble control to “maximum” without listening to what that did to the overall balance of the music.  Worse still, there’s evidence of heavy noise reduction having taken place, which gives the quieter elements of the song a “bubbling” or “metallic” edge – far from the very smooth sound that the original transfer contained.  I found a copy of the original CD release and on closer listening, there had indeed been some background noise present – but it really wasn’t distracting so had I been at the helm during the remaster, I would have simply not bothered correcting for it.  It takes too much away from the “feel” of the original recordings.  The absolute worst thing that I think has been done with this is that the quieter, more intimate passages of the song have been amplified to much the same level as the loudest, most intense passages.  As a result the songs have lost much of their intended meaning.

Let’s break this down a little:  Good music has loud passages and soft passages.  The difference between the two can be massive – and the best music manages this feat without the listener even noticing.  It’s what helps give a song its “drive” and “energy” aside from the harmony, melody and choice of instrumentation.  The problem is that any given recording medium, and even listening environment, struggles either to contain or reproduce the full difference between those loud and soft passages.  So it has become an accepted fact of mixing and mastering recordings that this dynamic range needs to be reduced somewhat to make it fit in the given playback media or environment.  For many of us, we hear songs mostly on the radio, on TV or in films, and to be noticed they need to be better than the others.  For some this might be more bassy, more dynamic, more detailed – but for the majority of us, it’s been found that a louder song will be considered somehow better than a quieter rendition of that same song.  And so we enter the realm of the “loudness wars”.

To make each song stand out alongside or above all the rest, many producers aim to get the song as loud as possible for as long as possible for the duration of the song.  This is a good thing – it sells more recordings than any other mix technique, especially when applied to rock, pop and dance music.  The trouble is that so many engineers try to apply this to more gentle genres and the result is simply fatiguing.

To sum up then:  The “Year of the Cat” remaster shows some superficial improvements, but has not actually lived up to the “audiophile” standard that the “remaster” label might suggest.  There’s more to come in a future post on what can be done differently during the remastering process, and what I myself aim to do when presented with such a project.

‘Til next time,


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