On commercial remasters possibly issued without Dolby A decoding; Mistakes, art, or…?

Some background…

I’ve commented on this blog before about the possibly questionable quality of some digital remasters released of late. Common subjective complaints in online fan and hifi forums, made myself both here and among friends in person, are that some particular remasters might be too loud, too bright, and/or otherwise “overdone” given what we know or perceive of the original source material.  There might well be various artistic or marketing-related reasons for this, so I’m not here to argue for or against these issues.

Further complicating the issue for me, both as a fan and a professional, is that many of these stand-out features are seen overwhelmingly as positive things by many fans, whether they are technically correct or not.  It would seem that a combination of perceived increase in detail and volume outweighs any issues of listening fatigue or known certain deviation from the presentation of the original master.

I’ve embarked professionally on remastering and restoration processes and have learned, from the coal-face so to speak, much of the reality of what’s involved. To onlookers it appears to be a black art – and believe me, from the inside, it can feel a lot like it too!  Sometimes I’m asked by a client or a reference-listener how or why I made a particular decision; and in some cases, especially those without actual technically verifiable information or logged conversations to go on, I have to go out on a limb and essentially say something to the effect of “well, because it ‘felt right'”, or “because it brings out the guitar *here*, which really flatters the piece” or some other abstract quantity.  At this point I just have to hope the client agrees.  If they don’t, it’s no big disaster, I am rarely emotionally tied to the decision. I just need to pick up on the feedback, do what I can with it, and move on.  Looking at the process, I guess that’s partly why the word “abstract” appears in my trading name! 🙂

“Okay, so you know a bit about this from both sides, on with the subject already!”

There are two particular commercial albums in my digital collection, both hugely successful upon their original release, whose most recent remasters have bothered me. It’s not fair to name and shame them, especially not while I await confirmation from engineers/labels that my hunch is correct.  Anyways – I’m bothered not because they’re “bad” per se, but because I bought them, took them home, and from the moment I first heard them, something about them stood out to me as being not quite “right” from a technical perspective. One of them (Album A) was released in 2001, and another (Album B) that was released earlier this year, in 2015.

What these two albums have in common is that their tonal and dynamic balance is *significantly* different to the original releases, beyond the usual remastering techniques involved with repair, restoration and sweetening of EQ and dynamics carried out to sit alongside contemporary new releases.  The giveaway is that the top-end is both much brighter than usual, and much more compressed – and the result is unnecessarily fatiguing.

Where the two albums differ, then:

  • Album A has not suffered from the “loudness wars”.
    • Its overall dynamics are relatively untouched compared with the original.
    • It appears, looking at the waveform in a DAW, that the album material has been normalised to 0dBFS (so it fills the maximum dynamic range CD has to offer), but it rarely hits such high levels.
  • Album B however, despite never having been a “loud” album on original release, has suffered from the “loudness wars”.
    • Looking at its waveform, it’s clear that it has been maximised; this means that the material has been both compressed and limited such that the original dynamics have been squashed and gain applied such that almost the entire album waveform hits the 0dBFS point.
    • As a result, the album has lost its previous tidal ebb and flow, and while arguably some details are indeed much more audible than before, it no longer has the organic subtlety it once did.  Important instrumental details get masked and actually reduced in level as louder ones come into the foreground, because with that much compression going on, there’s nowhere else for them to go except lower in level.
    • Sure, it’ll play better on an iPod while travelling on the London Underground, or in the car, so it might open up a new market that way – but for the rest of us perhaps looking forward to a better quality transfer to listen to at home or anywhere else, we don’t get that choice.
    • I’ve heard the 2015 vinyl re-release of the latter album, and it seems to not have the same issues – or if it does, nowhere near to the same extremity. There are likely good technical and human reasons for that, but that’s an aside for another post.

Experiment 1:  Treating the common issues

Last week I had some downtime, and a hunch – a dangerous combination.

Neither album was famed in its day for brightness, except for the singer’s sibilants in Album A causing vinyl cutting and playback some serious headaches if alignment wasn’t quite right. Album B does carry a lot of detail in the top end, but being mostly synthetic, and certainly not a modern-sounding album, the spectral content is much more shifted toward low-mid than anything we’d be producing post-1990.  So there will be some sheen and sparkle, but it should never be in your face, and never compressed.

Such clues told me two things: first, that Dolby A was likely not decoded from the master-tape on transfer; next, that in the case of Album B, further dynamic compression has taken place on top of the un-decoded material.

So – out came a Dolby A decoder, and through it I fed a signal from each album in turn, bouncing the decoded signal back into my DAW for storage and further analysis of the decoded signals.  Now please understand, it’s hard (if not impossible) to get a correct level-alignment without getting the test tones from the master tape, but those of us in the know can make some basic assumptions based on known recording practices of the time, and once we know what to listen for, we can also based on the audible results, especially if we have a known-good transfer from the original tape to work with.

All that said, I’m not claiming here that even with all this processing and educated guesswork, I’m able to get back to the actual sound of the original tape! But I am able to get closer to what it ought to sound like…

The result? Instantly, for both albums, the top-end was back under control – and strangely both albums were suddenly sounding much more like the previous versions I’ve been hearing, be it from vinyl, CD or other sources. Album B’s synth percussion had space between the hits, Album A’s live drums had proper dynamics and “room” space. In both albums, stereo positioning was actually much more distinct. Reverb tails were more natural, easier to place, easier to separate reverb from the “dry” source, especially for vocals. Detail and timbre in all instruments was actually easier to pick out from within the mix.  To top it all off – the albums each sounded much more like their artists’ (and their producers’) work. Both albums were far less fatiguing to listen to, while still delivering their inherent detail; and perhaps some sonic gains over previous issues.

Experiment 2:  Fixing Album B’s over-compression

First things first – we can’t ever fully reverse what has been done to a damaged audio signal without some trace being left behind.  Something will be wrong, whether “audible”, noticeable or not.  But, again, an educated guess at the practices likely used, and an ear on the output helped me get somewhere closer to the original dynamics.  But how?

Well, it was quite simple.  One track from the album has a very insistent hi-hat throughout, that comes from a synth.  If we assume that synths of the time were not MIDI controlled, and likely manually-mixed, we can assume that it should essentially sit at a constant level throughout the piece, barring fade-in/fade-out moves.  And listening to an “original” that’s pretty much what it does.  But neither in the clean nor my “decoded” version of the later album does it do so.  It drops up and down in level whenever the other pads and swept instruments come and go.  It was more noticeable on my “decoded” version, but with the frequency and micro-dynamic blends being so much more pleasant, I knew that I’d made progress and the way forward was to fix the compression if I could.

Out came a simple expander plug-in; Inserting this before the Dolby decoder, and tweaking various settings until I was happy that the hi-hat was sitting at a constant level throughout my chosen reference piece, restored dynamics to something like the original, and returned that hi-hat to something much closer to a near-constant level as the track plays.  In the end, we get something like a 6-9dB gain reduction, and the waveform looks far less squashed.  And sounds it, too.

The trick then, was to listen to all four Albums, A, B, A restored, B restored, at similar overall loudness levels, and see which works better.  So far, in this house anyways, we’re happier with the restored versions, even including those who are unfamiliar with the artistic content.

Prologue – Is this a mistake? And if so, how could it have happened?

When dealing with remasters, especially for older albums, we typically go back to playing analogue tape. There are *many* things that can go wrong here at a technical level. We’re worrying about whether the tape machine is aligned to the tape itself, both tape and machine are clean, and that the correct noise reduction technology is used, whether we’re actually getting all the information we can off that tape.

Then there is a human element. I’ve lost count of the number of times even in my small sample, where I’ve encountered a DAT or 1/2” reel labelled as being pre-EQ’d or Dolby-encoded with some system or another when in fact it wasn’t. Then there are other similar labelling and human errors I’ve encountered; Perhaps it wasn’t labelled as being Dolby-encoded and it really was. Or perhaps the “safety copy” was actually the clean master and the “master copy” was actually the cruddy “safety” with a 10dB higher noise-floor recorded at half-speed on lower-grade tape on an inferior machine that we know nothing about, with the channels swapped randomly due to a patching error in the studio.

Technology, and technicians, like the kind of questions and answers that have defined, logical “0 or 1”, “yes or no”, “is this right or is this wrong?” kind of answers. Unfortunately for us then, when dealing with music, as with any other art, and so then dealing with musicians, producers and other artists involved with the music creation and production process, we soon find that the lines between “right and wrong” very quickly get blurred.

As an engineer, I’m also all too aware of the dichotomy between my *paying* client (usually the artist), and my *unpaying* client (the listener).  Most of the time these are in agreement with what is needed for a project, but sometimes they’re not. The usual issue is the one of being asked for too little dynamic range – “can you turn it up a bit so it sounds as ‘loud’ as everything else?” and the resulting sound is fatiguing even to me as the engineer to work with, let alone the poor saps who’ll be invited to buy it. Sometimes I know that some sounds simply won’t process well to MP3/AAC (that’s less of an issue these days, but still happens).

Anyways – all that to say -if these albums both suffered the same mistake, if indeed it was, then even without the myriad artistic issues creeping in, I can see how an unlabelled, undecoded Dolby-A tape can slip through the net, and blow the ears off an artist or engineer who’s been used to the previous released versions and get people saying “YEAH, LET’S DO THAT ONE!” 🙂

CF

Album-art oddity: Chicane vs Jarre

Just been checking out Chicane’s “Thousand Yard Stare” on Spotify as background music while I’m writing up another project, and as I glanced at the artwork, it struck a familiar chord.  Took me a while, but it just came to me while I was typing…

Here’s the Chicane artwork for the album:

Chicane’s “Thousand Yard Stare” cover – look familiar?

When it occurred to me where I’d seen it before, I kicked myself for it having taken so long.  Here’s what I thought of:

Artwork for Jean Michel Jarre’s “Magnetic Fields” / “Chants Magnetiques”. Inspiration for Chicane, perhaps?

Being a fan of both artists, I love that Chicane has apparently given such a nod to Jarre, whom in my mind seems to have laid a lot of the groundwork for Chicane’s work.  And for what it’s worth, both are excellent albums in their own right!

I’d be intrigued to see any other artists who’ve nodded to each other in this way…  Comments are open!

A personal note…

An unashamedly personal post, this. I’ve been feeling a lot of burden this week for my city, for my church, and for my friends.

I’m not going to pass comment or judgement on either the G8 protestors or the police trying to keep them and the rest of us safe while the former apparently seek an audience and outlet for their frustrations.

With all that to one side, it has to be said that the near-constant drone of helicopter blades and sirens over London’s W1 area, whatever their purpose, has been a very visceral reminder and signpost to a deep feeling of being utterly besieged, both at work and perhaps to life in general, when I sit back and think about it.

As a Christian I know that times of trial come and go, with the apparent aim of God refining and purifying us through them, and that during those times we ought to seek comfort from the Bible, and from our friends and family – however trite such words and wisdom can feel at the time of struggle.

And yet, as I sit back at home with the brief and comforting respite of Al Stewart’s “Time Pieces” spinning atop our inherited turntable rig, these words from “Life in Dark Water” jump out as a stark reflection on how this week so far feels to me, a mere mortal trying to make sense of the tensions I’m seeing and feeling from around me:

..:Why am I alone here with no rest…
…They’ll never know, never no never,
How strange life in dark water can be.”

From a biblical perspective, this song seems to present a very “Job”-like set of woes and words. The song itself seems to be written from the perspective of the Marie Celeste and her crew, with an imaginary crew-member apparently left behind and trying to make sense of the 500 or so years that have passed since. “What happened? Why me? Why now?”

Some comfort comes I guess in knowing deep-down that this time will pass, and lessons will hopefully be learned. While I process that deep-down thought however, I’m somewhat encouraged that even ‘secular’ music can touch a nerve and bring out understandings and reflections about myself and how I feel about the situations I find happening around me, and at the same time can still point me to memories of comforting truths long-lost in the battlefield.

So I can thank God for helping me connect some dots, and also I can indirectly thank Al Stewart for writing words and music which connect at such a deep level. I’m very grateful for both comforts this of all days.

Appeal for info: Feia cassettes – Circa 1988-1992

Appeal for info: Feia cassettes - Circa 1988-1992

I have these two cassettes to restore for my grandparents, who have lost their last working cassette-deck to age. The tapes themselves don’t sound to be in great shape, and the claimed Dolby B noise reduction doesn’t seem to play well on any deck I have tried them on. The titles are “Con Amore” and “Canzoni de sempre”.

The tapes shown here were purchased direct from the artist during/after some of her performances in various hotels around Sorrento, during the late 1980’s.

Some questions come to mind:

  • Are these two titles still available for sale, preferably on CD?
  • Anyone else even heard of her?
  • Is she still singing?

UPDATE:  More info from the sleeve notes:

Produced and info by:  P.H. Productions, Marijkestraat 12, 2171 XD, Sassenhiem, The Netherlands / Olanda

I’m getting the impression that this was a small outfit, judging by the lack of a record catalogue number on the cassettes or inlay cards.  This was confirmed by Google Maps, which tells me that the given address is now residential, and looking at the buildings on Streetview suggests this might well have been the case in the 1980’s!

Claire Robinson (Band) – “Conversations with the Night”

A couple of weeks ago we had the pleasure of attending our good friend Claire Robinson’s second CD launch party with her band – this time at St Peter’s Church on Vere Street, just off the bustling Oxford Circus.  The support act was a slightly shy but extremely talented Matthew Wight.  Not sure I want to do a “review” here, but suffice it to say that I would love to hear more from both acts as their careers develop.

Of course I couldn’t go to a gig without taking the camera, so here are some pics that I think give a flavour of the evening we very much enjoyed!

Mini-Review: Eric Clapton – “Slowhand”

After more restoration work on our turntable yesterday, we decided to turn our last Christmas voucher into some new pristine vinyl – and had a rather tortuous experience with various HMV stores in Central London to find some worth the stylus time.  In the end we settled on “Slowhand” by Eric Clapton – a “Back to Black” remaster pressing on 180g virgin vinyl.  The disc is spinning as I write and it’s a mindblowing experience.  There have been many of these over the last few weeks we’ve been dipping our toes in the sea of black stuff, but this has just become my reference disc for what analogue playback is capable of – it might yet be digitally recorded for me (while it’s still clean) to use for PA system setups when 88.2KHz 24-bit digital playback is possible, either from my Mac laptop directly or via my EMU 0202USB.

About the disc itself:

Universal / Back To Black / RSO 0042281718816

Track listing:

  1. Cocaine
  2. Wonderful Tonight
  3. Lay Down Sally
  4. Next Time You See Her
  5. We’re All the Way
  6. The Core
  7. May You Never
  8. Mean Old Frisco
  9. Peaches and Diesel

The first three tracks are well-known Clapton pieces, and I’ve heard all of them performed live.  This recording really shines – and brings those songs to life in a way I’ve never heard before.  Throughout the disc the soundstaging is pin-sharp – vocals are delivered in the centre of the room when needed, and the rhythm section both fills the room and underpins the mix without dominating.  The guitar work is exquisite.  I’m not really able to deliver much of a musical review as that’s beyond my expertise, but from a technical perspective this work really is beyond anything else I’ve heard in a good long time.  I’d buy the remastering engineer(s) a drink if ever I get the chance to meet them.

A special mention should be made here of those first three well-known tracks, which I’ve known well from an early CD pressing of “Time Pieces”.  Actually I should say I *thought* I knew them well.  There’s so much more detail on offer here than on the compilation CD.  “Wonderful Tonight” I shouldn’t say it, but really does live up to its name.  The sound is warm, lush and highly musical – so much more than the bland compressed middle-of-the-road song we all know and think we love, even if we don’t admit to it.  “Peaches and Diesel” is one of the few blues-rock instrumentals I can listen to – and I can get lost in it, there’s so much space and atmosphere on offer.  I feel like I could get up from my chair and walk around the instruments as they’re presented in front of me.  No mean feat in a very distracted listening environment with noisy neighbours, passing traffic and a busy dance recording studio in operation nearby.

From the perspective of a newly converted vinyl lover trying to justify what is about to become an expensive new habit – this disc really does bring out the best the format has to offer.  Wide soundstaging, pin-sharp vocals that never creep into sibilance.  It also says something of the restoration works done to our Dual 505-2 that the recordings are played without audible tracking distortion, rumble or other nasties wherever they happen to reside on the disc.  Usually the last track on a side tends towards sibilant distortion due to mistracking of the current or previous equipment being used to play it – there’s no sign of this here.

I’ll be interested to try playing the free MP3’s of the album that were offered along with the purchase of the vinyl – I’m sure I’ll be able to better those by recording myself, which could be an interesting experiement sometime in the future.

Meanwhile I can sit back with a delicious beverage of choice and relax with this set, knowing that both the music and the equipment relaying it are top-notch.

Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells

Don’t worry, I’m not going to do another review of this album. Many of us have read too many of them by now and my conclusion is that it’s something that one either “gets” or doesn’t. Instead I’d like to offer an insight on my experience of the album as a musical piece.

It’s an album I’ve always wanted to understand, and perhaps even grow to like, yet until this evening I had never heard it in a context or from a source that does it justice. I’ve owned a copy on CD since around 1990 I think, when I first became sentient and started to realise I love music. I remember getting that CD home and trying to listen to it on headphones and just… hated every moment of it. It wasn’t that the music itself was uninspiring, or that it needed concentration to really get the most out of, it was more that I felt I simply couldn’t hear enough of what it was made of for it to make sense. Perhaps this then was the start of my interest in audio?

Fast-forwarding through memories of several life stages accompanied by several audio playback systems through the last 20 years or so, up to the present moment. I find I have on the shelf a “well-loved” 1980’s pressing of the album on 12″ vinyl. My head hurts, life is what I might call “full” right now and some escapism is most welcome. So I put this on the deck and let it play out.

And I’m absolutely gobsmacked. For the first time I feel like I’m actually hearing the work. I can hear the timbre of the instruments and the arrangements. I can feel moods change, and I can appreciate the random non sequiturs that actually add to the intended mood rather than distracting away from it. The work feels right. And so I shut my eyes, listen, and am taken on an obscure journey that has completely set me to rights. Just wonderful.