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Mastering for the Breath of Life
As a mastering engineer, Steve Hoffman has worked on many classic recordings, but very few of them would be considered standard CD or LP releases. After working at MCA on reissue CDs from Buddy Holly and The Who (among others), he entered the audiophile world. He is currently a free agent, working on SACDs for Audio Fidelity and LPs for S&P Records. He made his name as the mastering engineer for DCC Compact Classics. Throughout the '90s, DCC specialized in producing 24-karat gold compact discs. They released gold disc versions of albums by The Doors, Paul McCartney, The Beach Boys, Miles Davis and many others. Even non-audiophiles feel that these discs are the definitive versions. Indeed, the first time I heard his work on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, I felt as though I was hearing what Dylan heard in the control room during playback. Steve's trademark is what he refers to as the "breath of life" - recordings that are dynamic and natural sounding. You don't have to have a $50,000 system to hear the difference.
On your website, you specify your title as "audiophile music restoration specialist" instead of, say, "mastering engineer." Can you tell me what you think the difference is, and what you feel your job is?
I always like to use the word "audiophile" in there because nowadays a "mastering engineer" is someone who mangles the sound to the lowest common denominator. In other words, so that their CD is just as loud as everybody else's out there. Sort of the old "my radio station is louder than your radio station" thing. My personal opinion is that there has to be a bastion of good sound out there and many of my jobs entail much more than mastering. There are all different kinds of restoration, from old records to old tapes to this and that. I didn't want to be lumped in with the mass of guys out there who just follow orders now and compress the hell out of everything.
What do you mean by "just follow orders"?
I'm lucky because somebody who hires me is interested in getting the best sound they possibly can. Usually that is a record company that has an audiophile leaning. In other words, they are not worried about competing with the loudest CD out there. It's more of, "What sounds the best on a $50,000 stereo?" You'd be surprised at how bad most modern compact discs sound on really good equipment. It'll make your ears fall off after half an hour. When they hire me, they know that I'll keep the dynamic range intact, and try to add my trademark "breath of life" to everything.
Can you define the "breath of life"?
It's a sound that the ear, so easily fooled, would accept as something that sounds pleasing and real. Like if you were standing there singing rather than a recording of you. The magic is in the midrange. I don't add top end to the vocals, and I don't flatten them out because that's not real life. So when I get to work on an album by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra or even Bob Dylan, I always make sure that in the magic midrange there's a lifelike sound to the vocals and main instruments. Sometimes at the expense of everything else in the track. I always center it around the vocals. If you hear any of my 2000 CDs, no matter what it is, there's something on there that sounds lifelike. Even on something that's been so heavily processed like the last Metallica album I did [Ride The Lightning]. This is a processed album! By my generous use of older vacuum tube technology, I managed to bring something to the performance that is certainly not on the mainstream version of it - at least I can't hear it. So I did that much without altering the rest of the sound or changing the intent of the original engineer or producer. I never do that.
So how did you get into all this?
I started out in radio broadcasting. Then I made the leap over to working at a record company, compiling greatest-hits albums. Bing Crosby, or The Andrew Sisters, or Buddy Holly... people like that. I was the catalog administrator. I basically dealt with, you know, what the Rhino guys do so well: making interesting packages. Never heard the finished product until it was actually in the stores. I was always appalled at this crappy sound quality on so many of these reissues. I made it my business to become a real pain in the butt amongst the engineering staff, and went out there and learned all I could about tape. There's only one master tape, and everything is made from that. There could be like 25 copies of the same song in the vault, and the guys in the vault have no idea which one is the right one so they just go "eeny meeny miney moe." I discovered that half the battle was right there: find the right tape and you're almost home free. I eventually just wormed my way into that, having had a lot of broadcast engineering experience, working with limiters and compressors and EQ. I wasn't alienated by any of it, so gradually I just demanded that I was the one in charge of remastering as well as compiling. I made a lot of enemies doing that.
What was the first release that you mastered yourself?
Well, the first compact disc I did was an album by Buddy Holly called From the Original Master Tapes. It's an album where the mastering part took about three hours, but actual research, finding the right tapes, took maybe half a year. Spread out all over the place, I found everything, brought them all together. That was 90 percent of the battle. When I mastered that album, I was sitting right there with the mastering engineer, who was a really nice guy, and I said, "Look, all these things sound great just the way they are. Do we have to master them? Can't we just transfer them straight?" And the guy said, "Transfer them straight? Well, I hear a cloud on the bass a little bit here. And I hear this and I hear that..." I said, "Well, if you take the cloud out, his voice just doesn't sound right. Leave the bass cloud in, worry about the voice, and my name's going on it, so if there's a problem I will take the heat." And he said, "Okay, we won't do anything." So I just did it straight, trusted my instincts, and it's the album that I'm most noted for because... [sighs] I had nothing to with the sonics of that album. It was all Norman Petty's engineering back in New Mexico in the '50s. He did it right, and I saw no reason to tamper with it.
Are there any requirements that you need from a label?
Over the years, especially working with Marshall Blonstein and the DCC Compact Classics guys, and now with Audio Fidelity and Analog Productions, we always just want the same thing. Is there a master tape? Is it playable? If so, let us worry about it and we'll take it from there. Record companies understand now what we need. We can't use a production copy, we can't use fake stereo; if that song came out in mono, it's going to stay mono. And they've let us do what we want. Usually.
You see "From the Original Master Tapes" on every reissue CD now, and you pretty much coined that term with your Buddy Holly compilation.
The thing is, it matters not a hill of beans if something is from the original master tapes if it's been destroyed in mastering. That's my soapbox for this year: Why bother to use the original master tapes if the final product sounds nothing like the original master tapes?
I read an interview where you described the long, hard struggle of getting master tapes for Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. What were the most difficult master tapes for you to locate?
I'd have to say Jethro Tull's Aqualung. I believe we waited seven years. That was an album that was recorded in one place, then a tape copy was made for America and a tape copy was made for England, and these tape copies are the ones that are marked "master". They've been EQ'ed, and they've been compressed... slightly, in a good way. But, nonetheless, they were not the original masters. They kept sending us all these tapes marked "master". I kept saying to them, very kindly, "No no no, not this, not this, not this..." Finally, we got a hold of Ian Anderson, who said, "Oh yeah, I have those in my garage." That was about five years into the project. At about seven years into it, he finally got around to sending us Aqualung. It was a long struggle, but the project came out nicely. It's not that [the tapes were] lost, it was just that no one there realized that was what we wanted. They couldn't understand. "Well, here's a perfectly good tape that we used to make the LP. Why don't you just use that?" Well we don't want this $30 CD to sound like the LP because, personally, I didn't think the LP sounded that hot!
What was the hardest one to master?
The Eagles' Hotel California. In fact, when we finally got those master tapes from Criteria Studios in Miami, it was like I wanted to cancel the project. We had already paid Elektra/Asylum all the advance money and everything. But I didn't understand how something could sound so muffled and bass-heavy, and be the actual master. So I thought, 'Maybe it's been destroyed.' So I got the safeties, and they were 1:1 copies. They sounded exactly the same way. So I thought, "It must be the way they were mixed." I went in search of [engineer] Bill Szymczyk's JBL monitors (not the exact same pair he used, but a similar pair). I stuck them out in the middle of the room without any bass re-enforcement [like at Criteria in 1976]. "Oh, okay, that sounds more like it!" All that boomy bass was gone, and it started to take shape. I had one or two choices at that point. Either sell a pair of JBL studio monitors with every gold CD, or master the thing the way it should be sounding on everyone's stereo, like it sounds on those JBLs. So that's what I ended up doing. But let me tell you, I scratched my head a long time trying to figure out how to make that sound good. I used a lot of EQ on those. I didn't add any EQ, I just subtracted. Sometimes -14 db at 100 cycles. That's a lot! And even then, it was still pretty boomy.
I know that you don't like to divulge your techniques too much. You have your "secrets". But is there some specific gear that you like to use?
For tape playback, it all depends on the tape that I'm working on. The tape machine might be an Ampex ATR100, a solid-state machine, or maybe it will be one of my vintage Ampex vacuum tube machines, like a 350 or a 351. Depending on what the tape sounds like. If the master tape sounds pretty sterile and needs a little vacuum tube help, then I will use the vacuum tube machine. If it's already luscious enough then I'll use the solid-state machine. If I'm going to EQ anything, I have vintage EQs, I have Universal Audio EQs, I have George Massenburg Labs parametric, I have a Sovtek parametric. Pretty much the standard tools of the trade. I usually unplug most signal processing gear that I need. I never use [Sonic Solutions] No Noise, I never use any kind of digital workstation. It's all straight analog until the very last minute, until it goes right onto the CD master. I ain't gonna tell you what A/D converters I use because they're homebrewed. But it's pretty much all the gear that anyone else could use if they wanted to. I'm probably one of the few mastering engineers who doesn't use a digital workstation. In most mastering rooms right now they don't even have volume controls anymore. It's just all on computer. I've always found that once I dump everything down to a computer, although it makes it easier to do fade out moves and stuff, the sound just becomes kind of bleached. So I try to stay in analog all the way to the bitter end. And if I'm not going to use any EQ, I'll just plug the tape machine right into the A/D converter and if I have to do any minor EQ, if it's a vacuum tube tape machine, I'll just EQ by switching out the input tubes in the tape recorder, from Mullards to [Amperex] Bugle Boys to Telefunkens. They change the sound just enough. That's one of my little tricks. Unplug everything, and if you need to do any EQ, just change your tubes, and you can get more high end, or less high end, or a more linear bass response, or a little more luscious bass response, just by changing the tubes. Then you don't have to plug anything else in there and degrade the sound anymore. If you use an original master tape and you want everyone to hear what it sounds like, the less processing gear, the better. I never use No Noise, I never reduce the hiss. I've never felt the need for that, and [whispers] I never will!
How do you know that you've set up the tape at the correct speed at which it was recorded?
I always have a piano or synth around me. I always adjust for natural pitch. Unless they've sped it up or slowed it down for a reason. If they did that, then I don't touch it. Usually. But if it's off a little bit, because of varying tape speeds... those Ampex machines were not the most accurate. If I know that the guy is doing a horn solo in Eb, and it's not quite on Eb, yeah, I'll move it right there. If it doesn't change the tempo or the feel of the song, then I'm okay with that.
I know that when cutting audiophile-quality vinyl, you're going for something specific. What's your philosophy on mastering for vinyl?
Actually, it's the same philosophy I have in general: Get that breath of life in the vocals, and don't worry too much about the "top top" and the "bottom bottom." And just try to keep everything as linear sounding as possible. My cutting partner is Kevin Gray, who works out of RTI Acoustic Mastering. I've been working with him for 20 years. His philosophy is my philosophy: the less you have to do, the better it's going to sound in the long run. [We try to] cut it on the record without compromising this or that, or without the stylus not being able to track it properly. The one nice thing about LPs is that there's a certain set of rules and regulations that you have to follow. You can't add a ton of high end and you can't add a bunch of low thumping bass, because you just can't! Unless Einstein was all wrong, there's just a certain type of groove that you can cut. And that groove can only have so much of this and so much of that. In one way, that's a good thing, because that keeps engineers honest. They can't screw around. On the other hand, it's a pain in the butt. You want to get as much level as you can on the record, so the music is louder than the surface noise of the record. So you want to get it as loud as possible. But in order to preserve dynamics, you need to make sure that you're not overmodulating anything. In the '50s and ' 60s the engineers just reduced the dynamic range by using analog compression, which is what is on most EQ cutting masters of master tapes. The ones marked "master" are the ones that they used to actually cut the LPs, the ones that have been dynamically compromised. So that's how they got away with it. They kept the levels above the surface noise of the record just by reducing the dynamics. In order for me to sleep at night, I want to use the original master tape, which has dynamics. So then what do I do? It's just compromise. You get as hot as you can, and as low as you can without losing it to surface noise and just hope that the stylus will stay in the groove and that everyone will be happy. Most people are happy with our purest approach. Nobody's complained that the dynamics are too wide. Audiophiles love that stuff.
How did you get involved with The Pixies?
A friend of mine and I wrote a surf song that the Pixies heard, and they wanted to record it for their Bossanova album. So they contacted me. They said, "Hey, we love this song called 'Cecilia Ann'. Can we record it?" It's the only instrumental they did, and it's right at the beginning of Bossanova. When it came time to master their album of pre-Elektra stuff (the self-titled EP on spinART, a.k.a. "The Purple Tape"), they thought of me. That's how I got involved, with a song called "Cecilia Ann" by The Surftones.
When was that originally released?
That came out in the 1960s when I was a teenager. Then I revived it again for an album I did on DCC called Surf Legends and Rumors. This was a CD compilation I did of stuff recorded locally here in L.A. Stuff like "Pipeline" by the Chantays. And I wanted a song to start the CD off that had that sound. So I thought, "Hey, I'll just put my own song on here! It's got that sound." How they found a copy of Surf Legends, I don't know. But I was humbled. That is actually a sample of me kicking my Fender amp at the beginning of the Pixies version, [sampled] right from the Surftones version.
What kind of tapes did you get from the Pixies for mastering?
It was a 30 ips half-inch reel of tape. It sounded great.
Did you have to do much to it?
Not really. I ran it through one layer of vacuum tubes to take some of that "project studio" sound out of it and add a little resonance in the lower midrange. That's all I did to it. I didn't change the sound, I didn't alter anything, I didn't compress it, I didn't add any bass, I didn't take out anything. I just added that lower midrange resonance via Telefunken 12AX7s.
You also compiled and mastered that Joe Meek compilation, It's Hard To Believe It: The Amazing World of Joe Meek. Didn't Meek just bounce tracks constantly? How would you approach a recording like that?
Every layer that he overdubbed, the sound got more and more wonky, until he had what he wanted. Now whether he did that by choice, or that was the only way that he could, I don't know. But he liked the sound, and everybody else liked the sound - hyper-compressed. It's instantly recognizable when you hear "Telstar" or "Have I The Right" by the Honeycombs. You hear it and think, "Joe Meek must have done that." There is no dynamic range. However, it sounds like there is because his analog compressor was an old vacuum tube unit used by the BBC and it had character. When it hit, it changed the sound into some sort of other complex thing. He liked that sound, and even on a really good stereo it still sounds pretty good. So I didn't have to do much there.
What was the source for that collection?
Let's see, there's like 20 songs on there. Some came from analog tape, some came from DAT, there was one off a record... all this stuff was thrown in the dumpster after he shot himself. Some were tape copies. Instead of using the ninth generation overdub I used the tenth generation copy. It's about the same thing once you get past four dubs. It doesn't really much matter. But for the main songs, like "Have I The Right" and "Telstar", we managed to get the actual so-called master (if you can call that many generations down a master) from Polygram, and "Have I The Right" came out of Abbey Road. Still, they all sound the same. They sound like Joe Meek. I enjoyed working on it, but it was sad at the same time because he was such a genius, yet so troubled.
When you say you run something through a layer of tubes, are these just preamps?
None of your business, pal! [laughs] I have a machine. It's a piece of proprietary gear, almost like a vintage preamp, but not really. It has five layers that can be added. So if your tape sounds really dry and solid state, you zap on one layer of tubes, or two layers or three layers. Sort of like triode/pentode. Sometimes it helps the sound a lot, sometimes it kills the sound. I never know what it's gonna do, but I always try it.
What about the person who says, "Well, I listen to stuff in my car, on my boombox or my home stereo. Why should I care about the audiophile's point of view?"
There will be a day, when this person is now a rich and famous rock star, and he or she will be able to afford a really nice stereo. And when that happens, all the warts that made your mix sound good on that $100 boombox are going to be sticking out like a sore thumb. So what you want to do is plan for the future and not take everything to its lowest common $100 boombox, just make sure that you leave some for someone with a really nice stereo. Another thing I want to mention while I have this little soapbox is never mix really loud. Mix at a lower volume. Mixes that are loud are thrown off by the equipment going into hypershock. You'll never get the right amount of bass. The bass always tends to distort loud, and it starts to sound louder, so you turn down the bass. But when you play it at a normal volume, there will be no bass. Your ear is totally compressing it as it's playing back and you're not getting the full picture. Try mixing it at a normal volume. If your mix sounds lousy at a normal volume then you're doing a lousy mix. Fix the mix. The end. [laughs] The readers are gonna hate me, but it's true! What can I say?