The least surprising thing about the 2017 release of the Giles Martin remixed version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is that its sonics – indeed, its very existence – was heavily and passionately debated. Audio engineers who work on historic recordings know they have to be tuned into that sweet spot, where presumed aesthetics need to shine through and residual noise is tempered enough to slip into the background, or slide away entirely. Even then, there are always fans who will prefer the original, fans who will clamor for the new release, and fans who won't hear the difference. The reissue market is massive, and so is the number of recordings in need of preservation, restoration, and remastering. Aging rock stars are repackaging their catalogs. Labels like Numero Group, Light In the Attic Records, Anthology Recordings, Captured Tracks, Awesome Tapes From Africa, Omnivore Recordings, and many more are digging up lost or forgotten recordings, demos, B-sides, and long neglected catalogs. Mastering reissues is a specialty with its own set of considerations, technological tools, and audience expectations. In the broader world of record making, we all have the same goal: to make it sound great. But how do we do that when our sources are damaged tapes, well-worn LPs, or even cassettes that have been buried underground for years? I asked three other mastering engineers who have restored and remastered many reissues, in addition to mastering plenty of new recordings:
Jessica Thompson: Philosophically speaking, what should a reissue sound like? My take is the Hippocratic
Oath version of remastering: first,
do no harm.
Michael Graves: It should sound great. That's really the one constant I can think of.
Josh Bonati: Equal to, or better than, the sound of the original release.
Maria Rice: Why don't we just digitize a copy of the original masters, send it to Disc Makers, and call it a day? Is it because some limitation of the original recording medium impedes the intended expression of the material (like noise, grossly imbalanced frequencies, excessive distortion; or intermittent artifacts of age, such as dropout, clicks, and pops)? Are we pulling many different sources together for a compilation, or creating a replica of one particular album? Is the intent to modernize a recording to fit in with current mastering aesthetics?
JT: Recently, I was working from a cassette of this total knockout record from South Africa in the mid-1980s. I was so entranced by the music, it took putting on my mastering engineer hat to realize how crappy that cassette sounded. The cassette had been created from an LP source, so there was this accumulation of LP noise, cassette noise, and age noise. I called the producer, and he reached out to his network to source a pristine copy of the original LP. I was blown away by the difference in quality between those two sources. We had to bump the release date, but it was worth it to take the extra time to find the best-sounding source.
JT: Describe a remastering scenario where the source material is damaged or sounds compromised and you were able to repair the audio for new audiences.
JB: A label discovered some special unreleased material on a lacquer disc – not a test pressing, not an acetate (dubplate), but a lacquer. This is the kind of disc I cut vinyl masters on for manufacturing. This disc had been cut 15 years ago on a lathe and never sent off. It had been stored inside a thin plastic file folder and was filthy. I have a VPI record cleaner for LPs, but lacquer discs are far more delicate than pressed records, plus the lacquer was 14-inches in diameter and wouldn't fit in my cleaner anyway. I have a good relationship with Desmond Naraine, from Mastercraft Metal Finishing in Elizabeth, NJ, who does the electroplating work for most of the records I cut. I took the lacquer there and had it washed in their pre-plating bath. This is a mechanically tilting tank that gently washes any dirt or dust off of lacquers before they enter the plating process. The resulting clean lacquer played and transferred like a dream – almost "digital" in its lack of surface noise.
MR: I can think of a particular instance when a track was transferred from an aged 1/4-inch tape that had suffered from significant shedding prior to arriving at our studio. As we had done all we could in the analog domain – baking and rewinding the tape, finessing the tape deck – we reached out to the label to see if they had an alternate source for the track. Unfortunately, ours was the only copy. So we had to operate. We used CEDAR Retouch to fix the microscopic dropouts – these were tiny little dropouts that aren't usually audible to the listener; but when you have many of them in succession, repairing them greatly improves the perceived quality of the sound. Then we needed to address some more audible dropouts where whole syllables, or even an entire beat, were missing. While I typically avoid making invasive edits whenever possible, in this case I performed some creative surgery in our SADiE DAW, cloning tiny pieces of drum hits and vocals. Editing a transfer from tape presents a special challenge, as two seemingly identical sounds will never have the same waveform due to tiny variations in speed, tone, and noise level. Also, working with so much audible damage has the potential to become overly complicated and heavy-handed, which puts us in danger of going too far. Therefore, if an edit didn't sound completely undetectable, I left it...