08 April 2009

 

Yes, master

There's been a bit of hype over the new re-mastering of the Beatles music catalogue, for a new set of CD releases and a Beatles version of Rock Band coming in September. The press release says that Apple Corps. (the Beatles record companies) are:

...delighted to announce the release of the original Beatles catalogue, which has been digitally re-mastered for the first time...

(My emphasis.) That's a marketing lie. The catalogue was digitally re-mastered in 1987 for the first CD releases. It had to be. You can't make a CD (or any other digital music medium) out of analogue audio without digitally re-mastering it first. Unless EMI and Apple Corps. consider the 1987 occasion the "first digital master" and the new ones the "first digital RE-master," which is a "that depends on what your definition of 'is' is" kind of semantic distinction.

What are mastering and re-mastering?

Mastering is the phase of audio production where you prepare audio files for their final medium. In the days of LPs, mastering engineers evened out the levels of different songs so their average volume didn't vary too widely, then applied various types of equalization to the master tapes, designed for the way record players were manufactured, and to prevent heavy bass frequencies from causing the needle to hop out of the grooves. Setting standards for those masters were one of the things the Recording Industry Association of America used to do before it turned to suing its customers for file sharing.

There would need to be different masters for cassettes or eight-track tapes, by the way.

Engineers mastering for CDs didn't have to worry about the groove hopping, but for music recorded on analogue equipment (i.e. tape machines), they did have to digitize it into ones and zeroes using what's known as an A/D (analogue-to-digital) converter, as well as still making sure the various songs were of comparable average volume. That's the digital re-master.

Digital and analogue masters

These days pretty much everything is recorded digitally, either directly in a computer or by digitizing signals from microphones and guitar cables right at the source, so for new recordings the digital master is the first one. Re-mastering might be done later to make it sound different—or, with a bit of irony, to convert it to analogue for special LP pressings or DJ vinyl singles. That would be an analogue re-master.

So it's true that these new Beatles CDs (and, with luck, eventually iTunes tracks) will be new digital re-masters, but they won't be the first ones. If you already have a complete collection of Beatles CDs from those 1987 digital re-masters, these new ones will probably sound different, maybe better. But they could sound worse.

Avoiding the Loudness Wars

The trend in the past decade has been to master or re-master pop recordings to sound way too loud, and to crush all the dynamics (the difference between the loud and soft parts) out of songs. That's why listening to a top-hits radio station, or a playlist of current top pop hits, can actually be physically exhausting. Your ears never get a break. It's called the Loudness Wars, and we've talked about it a lot at my Inside Home Recording podcast. While it has seen a bit of a backlash recently, the risk is that EMI's engineers might have succumbed to the trend.

It happened a few years ago, when Genesis released re-mixed and re-mastered versions of many of their albums (even in surround sound). The audio compression wasn't especially extreme, and the re-mastering was useful for some very early recordings and bootlegs with poor sound quality, but many of the band's well-known albums from the '70s and '80s sounded too modernized—and, for die-hard fans, simply wrong, almost like cover-band versions of the tracks, or the "Greedo shoots first" special editions of the Star Wars movies.

I haven't heard the Beatles results yet, but I find it encouraging that EMI has also gone to the trouble of making new mono re-masters of the Beatles catalogue as part of the current set. If they're willing to be that retro, I suspect they've probably avoided over-compressing the stereo mixes too. I sure hope so.

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Comments:

1) EMI has a pretty good rep for sound quality. At least, they did back in the early days of CDs. That's when I bought some of their offerings, which were head and shoulders above anything else on the market in terms of delivered, polished, sophisticated and refined sound. I have a number of CDs from the early days that are nothing special to the ear today, but the EMI stuff still holds its own with anything produced today.

2) Did you hear the remastering that was done for the Cirque du Soleil Beatles' show, called 'Love'? It was as if I'd never heard the Beatles before.

3) To sell a Beatles' collection at this point in time, you'd have to offer up something pretty special. There's just no way EMI does not know this.

So I think, yeah, this is a big deal.
 
I have a feeling that this is more than just 'remastering.'

For 'Love,' they went back to each of the original takes that was used in the final recordings, as opposed to just remastering the final mixes. Some of the recordings we're used to have tracks that went through several generations before reaching that final mix.

What these 'remasters' may gain is the clarity lost in the degradation from bouncing tracks to successive mixes.
 
You can't make a CD (or any other digital music medium) out of analogue audio without digitally re-mastering it first.

(...)

Engineers mastering for CDs didn't have to worry about the groove hopping, but for music recorded on analogue equipment (i.e. tape machines), they did have to digitize it into ones and zeroes using what's known as an A/D (analogue-to-digital) converter, as well as still making sure the various songs were of comparable average volume. That's the digital re-master.


Just checking levels and passing the final stereo mix tape through A/D probably does not count as a "remaster" proper.

If:
(a) that is the only thing that happened in 1987,
and
(b) we have full-blown mastering done now, EMI is right to boast about the "first digital remaster".

That's a whole lotta ifs, though.
 
"Finally, as is common with today's music, overall limiting - to increase the volume level of the CD - has been used, but on the stereo versions only. However, it was unanimously agreed that because of the importance of The Beatles' music, limiting would be used moderately, so as to retain the original dynamics of the recordings."

Source: http://www.beatlesnews.com/news/the-beatles/200904071242/complete-details-remastered-beatles-on-9909.html
 
What I'd really like to know is when we can listen to these on Blu-Ray. 16-bit 44.1kHz PCM is not a particularly wonderful format. I'd pay twice as much for access to these on Blu-Ray with uncompressed linear PCM at 24-bit 192kHz or 96kHz. Hell, I'd pay twice as much for FLAC files, nevermind the package and the artwork.
 
Just checking levels and passing the final stereo mix tape through A/D probably does not count as a "remaster" proper.

Almost anything counts as a "remaster" proper, which is why the term is meaningless except as a marketing tool. There are "masters" created all through the manufacturing chain for a release: the master multitrack session tapes, the master copy of the mono/stereo mix, the RIAA EQ'd master tape that's used to cut the LP (which cutting is, in itself, used to create the master copy of the plates used to press the record), the digital master tape/CD-R containing the audio + subcodes/index points used to create the CD, the glass master CD created from that tape/CD-R...it just goes on forever. And creating another version of any of those masters in the chain technically qualifies as "re"-mastering in somebody's book.
 
remember the note on your old CD's about DDD, ADD, and AAD? my bet is that they're being perfectly honest in a very technical sense, and that this is the first ADD-process beatles release.
 
God, I hope Dan at Nonsuchwork's quote is true. This is such a great opportunity to preserve such an important part of our history. It would be so great to hear it not butchered.
 
"16-bit 44.1kHz PCM is not a particularly wonderful format."

Horsepucky. It's a fine format, and will resolve more detail than was heard in the original releases.

If you really think you'd get much more from a higher bitrate and depth, you're kidding yourself.

You've essentially exposed yourself as a technology masturbator, rather than a music listener. It should be about music, not your sense of numerical superiority.
 
Thanks for the comments, everyone.

I was very pleased to read the BeatlesNews quote -- it bodes well for the quality of the final product. And yes, EMI has done a good job with the catalogue in the past.

I do really like what the team did with the "Love" album, but that's more of a mashup-remix concept than a re-master we're talking about here. It could (and did, and should) sound very, very different from the original versions, because it's a re-imagining.

I was simply worried that the Beatles re-masters would head in the direction of what Genesis did, which I didn't like because (I think, at least) those recordings sacrificed some of the character of the original releases in trying to make them more modern.

Also, I was grossly oversimplifying what the mastering process involves, especially for LPs. There's a lot more to it than just EQ and RIAA curves, but I'm no expert in that, so I'd only hang myself if I tried to explain it in detail.

Finally, it will be great to get the mono re-masters out there, because right up to "Sgt. Pepper," the mono masters of the Beatles recordings were the ones most people heard, and perhaps the ones the EMI engineers spent the most time on. The stereo mixes of all the Beatles albums, even "Abbey Road," sound gimmicky because of the strange and extreme placement of instruments (all drums on the left, all bass on the right, etc.).

Anyway, we'll see if the changes are enough to impel me to re-buy any of the Beatles stuff I already own, which is almost all of it.
 
Oh, I should also point out that the old triple-letter system for CDs was in this order: Recording, Mixing, Mastering. So an ADD version of Beatles recordings would be the first digital re-mix. That would mean taking the original individual tracks (a lead vocal track, a bass track, a drum track, a rhythm guitar track, or whatever instruments were recorded together onto a single tape track) from the original studio tapes -- as much as they still exist -- and assembling them together again, and using equalization and various digital clean-up techniques to improve the sound.

It's possible that's what EMI did, but I'd call that the first digital re-mix and re-master instead. That process is a huge undertaking, especially if they're trying to improve the fidelity of the recordings while accurately reproducing the balance of instruments and voices, without damaging the overall sound we all know so well. Simply getting the Mellotron keyboard slightly too quiet or with the wrong equalization in "Strawberry Fields Forever," for instance, could radically alter how the song sounds.

Personally, I doubt they did a full procedure like that, but it may indeed be somewhere between it and a traditional re-mastering.
 
I too enjoyed the "Love" CD very much, and agree that it represents something very different from a remaster - more a mashup and remix. But the bottom line is that it just sounds great and turned both of my kids (ages 10 and 14) into rabid Beatles fans. Hallelujah!

As a musician old enough to have suffered for 30 years with vinyl, I do not worry about any resolutions beyond PCM 44.1kHz - the old analog tape gear was fine in its day but decidedly low in detail. Adding greater digital resolution really won't help, old recordings like that are simply very limited in bandwidth, noise floor and distortion. Not that they sound bad, but they sound like ancient low-res technology, which they are.

I know there is a good deal of nostalgia for analog recording, but I harbor none at all. Been there, done that, I'd rather listen to music.
 
And if you're like me, your hearing probably isn't what it used to be either. 16/44.1 is just fine by me.
 
44/16 is fine for distributionIt's especially important to use higher bitrates during the A to D process and subsequent EQ and dynamics management. The effortless sound of 24bit or 32bit material is preserved to a reasonable, even surprising degree if the 44/16 resampling takes place after these manipulations. Despite that holy fact, however, lower ear fatigue and a higher sense of reality that comes with 92/24 or above is indeed evident to those of us fortunate to compare. 44/16 IS good enough...but higher bitrates can be enjoyed by humans, as well as canines and bats. BTW, analg multitrack acquistion is still favored be plenty. It's tape noise provides, in the opinion of some, a superior dithering for minute details and can smetimes go through A to D mastering WITHOUT digital dithering at 44/1.

Rustyd100
 
Anonymous@08 April, 2009 17:56, where does your vitriol come from. You've obviously never auditioned 24/96 digital material, nor I must say ever listened to 15ips tape. Tape has frequency response WAY beyond 22.05kHz, and the 24/96 or 24/192 format can fully represent the performances captured on those tapes. Also as has been amply demonstrated in the JAES human hearing is capable of distinguishing sounds over a dynamic range of 120dB, which is well beyond the capabilities of the 16-bit CD format.

There's nothing magical about the CD. The depth and sample rate were set for reasons technical and political at that time. Basically it exists so you can get 70 minutes onto a 5" disc using 1978 optical technology. The format was not chosen for optimal playback, nor for reasons of human hearing.
 
I stumbled on this discussion, and as a person who masters audio for a living, would like to clear up a few things.

The first time the Beatles catalog was transfered to a digital encoded medium, technically qualifies as a master as was pointed out earlier, but this does not equate to the EMI marketing of "Re-Mastered". In the old days, you had to compensate with compression and EQ for various delivery formats to keep the songs as similar to the original 2 track stereo master as possible. This was not a matter of increasing volume, changing the mix etc. It was a simple match to match process. You wanted the LP to sound as close as possible to the original 2 inch tape master, that was all. Mastering in the digital domain has become a slightly different monster, the main goal seems to be to make it as loud and big on various speaker systems as is possible these days with the liberal use of advanced peak limiting, MS compression techniques, and various EQing of the stereo mix thru multiband compression and actual EQ processes. Multiband compression and advanced peak limiting are the main culprits to blame for todays lack of dynamic music. On top of that, by the time it hits a radio stations own compression/EQ branding mix..the material is "brick walled" with little in the way of peaks and valleys in the audio waveform. The original goal was to take your mix to an acoustically "flat" room with high detail monitoring gear and the mastering engineer was more or less an audio inspector, and for the main guys in the biz, everything you heard on the market went thru this fairly small group of engineers, assuring a contiguous product control on final output. Aside from the obvious goals of matching outputs, and overall EQ so that the album is consistent with itself, everyone has become RMS happy..and in the process..everything sounds equally flat and uninspiring.

In a nutshell..what these "re-masters" involve are some engineers taking the original stereo 2 tracks, re-encoding them with the latest greatest analog to digital converters available, which are far better in quality than the original convertors back in 1987 I guarantee..and in all likelyhood, using his ear and advanced knowledge to apply some of the latest and hopefully best techniques to increasing the clarity, punch and fidelity of the catalog. I do not believe these will be smashed and cashed. I can understand peoples apprehension about it, but really it will require the remaining Beatles approvals..and you can argue forever rather George Lucuas should have digitally remastered his original movie prints. It reamains to be seen..did they (Beatles) simply restore the material to pristine condition, or did they put some new digital trickery in there just because they could, i.e. digital Cantina dance number in Ep 3. I am willing to bet that everybody involved in this project are the tops in their fields. It's not going to be a poor product, just different. Hopefully, with enhanced colors and claritiy.
 
sorry I meant episode 4
 
Hi Derek, I'm a little late to this post... I found it searching for information on the re-masters in 24/96 or 192!

I have to say, I've been in the audio biz for over 30 years, and a Beatles fan since before they were on Ed Sullivan, so yes, my ears aren't what they once were. But I could easily hear the difference between the CD version of Love and the DVD-A version, played through a modest player that can play that format.

Sorry Anonymous (if that's your real name) everyone I played the two formats for heard the difference. It's not an apples to apples comparison I know (no pun intended), but I don't know anyone with experience in audio who doesn't agree that 24/192 doesn't sound superior to 16/44.1.

A note to Apple Corps and EMI - The world will be a better place if you would also release uncompressed, hi-bit versions as well. Release them on BluRay with the same packaging, and a segment of the population will pay $30 per disc for them - misguided souls though we may be to some people.

And Derek, I agree that limiting or compressing the audio on the stereo releases as seems to be the case, no matter how little as they claim, is a shame. It's simply not needed.

BTW, according to many, the mono versions are superior to the stereo versions in some ways, but that's a subject for another thread!

Best to All from Portland, and start saving your pennies now! If you're like me, you'll want both sets!