Abbey Road Studios and remastered music: Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Van Morrison and Phil Collins all do it | The Independent
“Can you hear it?” I can not. “Here it is.” I still can not. I can see it on the screen, but for my life, I can’t hear it. The man next to me can, though. It’s Ian Jones, one of the best engineers at the world’s most famous recording studios, and he’s helping on a quest that began with another remastered music review CD arriving at The Independent: I’ve been asked if I could hear the difference between remasters and originals. “Not really,” I said. Which started me on my quest to find out what’s so special about remastered music.
Nor is it a useless pursuit. There’s a lot of money at stake. Each of the remastered releases in Led Zeppelin’s catalog has placed them in the Top 10 over the past 18 months, including three at number one in the United States.
The Last, Greatest Hits Compilation Mothershipwas released on November 6, just days after a remastering of the Van Morrison classic Astral weeks, which comes out on the same day as a remaster of Garbage’s debut. Meanwhile, Phil Collins is releasing remastered albums, as is his former mucker Peter Gabriel. Last month, David Bowie’s remastered releases included Hunky Dory, Pin Ups and The Man Who Sold the World. etc Are these shinier versions of the things we already have worth shelling out for?
I’m with the awesome Jones in his suite at London’s Abbey Road Studios, staring at a colorful representation of the audio on his computer. “The!” he said, brushing off a thin stain. “Can you hear he’s gone?” I still can not. He digitally removed and filled in a “dropout”, a short moment of silence, from a Lloyd Cole and the Commotions track. “It’s like the audio version of Photoshop.”
There are two huge reel-to-reel tape recorders behind us. They were standard equipment in studios until the mid to late 80s and could record in great detail. But background noise and dropouts, sometimes caused by the tape rattling away from the heads when recording sound, were common. When the music was put on vinyl, which had its own surface noise, you couldn’t hear them. But digital formats don’t have masking noise, says Jones, who was responsible for remastering many of EMI Classics’ Great Century recordings and Great Artists of the Century.
He always takes the original master tape – “the closest thing we have to what was played and what the producer wanted” – and transfers it to a file on his computer. This removes the drastic bass reduction that vinyl needed, so the needles wouldn’t jump when playing a record. But that can irritate fans: “They might compare remasters to a record and say they sound different. Well, they do – you don’t get it on a restricted medium anymore. Jones wants “what you hear is what they heard in the control room”.
It does not delete everything. “I’ve been working on recordings from the 1940s and I heard this dog yelp. I could have spent days removing that, but: why? It’s a real recording in the Berlin room. I love it these artifacts. He also worked on recordings of Maria Callas in which “we hear Vespas. They are part of this historical document.
Oddly enough, it sometimes adds sound because one of the things you notice about digital formats is silence – the absolute, incongruous silence, for example, of a silent “leader” tape inserted between the movements of a symphony classic, as many engineers did. “So we’ve revived the atmosphere,” says Jones. “Noise from the bedroom. Effectively it’s whistling. It’s man-made but worth it. Whether people know it’s there or not, I don’t know, but they would know if it wasn’t not because it would ruin the experience.
Jones doesn’t like to follow the modern fad of making music as loud as possible – using so-called compression and limiting – although, he admits, “you have to do it”. Engineer and musician Jude Rawlins agrees. He tells me about a record company insisting it produced remasters that were “half a debel louder” than a rival’s.
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“They didn’t care about the quality, they just wanted it to be stronger. This is wrong, and on the radio they compress everything for broadcast anyway.
Rawlins recently worked on the back catalog of revitalized former topper Lene Lovich (for whom he also plays guitar). It includes music recorded in early digital audio which, like early digital cameras, could not capture as much detail as we can now. It was 16-bit, meaning that each little bit (or sample) of sound has 65,536 different volumes at which it could be measured. Sounds like a lot, but once you start processing that sound – adding effects etc. – you start to run out of information and you risk being distorted.
So remastering engineers like Rawlins and Jones import the audio for processing at 24-bit (the current standard), which has almost 17 million different volumes and produces a much smoother result. All new remasters should be 24-bit, but older ones may not be, so it’s worth checking out.
Rawlins accepts that fans may be upset by scrubbed recordings. “You artificially modify the material. On ‘Lucky Number’, which was a huge hit, there was an audible cut on the tape that they couldn’t do anything about at the time. So we fixed it – and fans didn’t notice any dropouts, which means we screwed up with it!”
But the fans can score a point. Artists can take advantage of this to “improve” the material. Ian Jones remembers a famous singer-songwriter moving verses around and even deleting some.
Buyers should beware especially when considering a remastered compilation. The tracks should sound “one piece” even though they may all come from different sources. “When you start EQing, you make huge differences from the original sounds, but compilations just wouldn’t work if you didn’t,” Rawlins explains.
Can we hear the difference remasters make when we listen to music through headphones on our smartphones? Jones is abundantly clear that while he’s remastering for audiophiles with state-of-the-art equipment, the answer is “yes.” Which is just as well, because I’m going to play that Lloyd Cole tune over and over on my iPhone until I can hear that dropout.
Or the lack of one.
‘Collected Recordings 1983-1989’ by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions is now available. Lene Lovich remasters are available at www.lenelovich.net