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Can Normal People Tell the Difference Between the Remastered Album and the Regular One?

Despite all those ‘deluxe’ anniversary reissues cluttering up iTunes, reclusive mastering engineers are still the unsung heroes of music

Quality is a slippery concept. We always say we want more of it in our art and entertainment — a good many of us will insist that we insist on it. But then you have someone like Martin Scorsese imploring Netflix viewers of his movie The Irishman, “If you ever want to see one of my pictures, or most films — please, please don’t look at it on a phone, please…” Perhaps it’s because he knows that what really motivates the marketplace has little to do with careful craftsmanship, deft artistry, attention to detail and the like, and instead is driven by much more basic needs: Impact, convenience, instant gratification, refined sugar. We see ourselves as selective and discerning when it comes to our cultural choices, but as any celebrated veteran auteur will tell you, when we consume en masse, we’re basically toddlers.

This dissonance between how we think we like to be entertained and the brute realities of what sells is even more pronounced in the music business. And it’s something that Scott Hull, owner of Masterdisk — a leading mastering studio with a stately reputation in the industry — has been grappling with for much of his 37-year career. Lately he’s been taking photos when he’s out shopping to document how “the word ‘mastering’ or ‘mastered’ is showing up in the stupidest things.” Like the mysterious “mastering” process for bottled water Hull recalls seeing in a store recently, or the thing he spotted around Halloween: “There was a pumpkin ‘mastering’ kit. The word has become so meaningless.”

Whatever mastering a pumpkin might involve (lipstick? fire-retardation?), the term’s modern function as a slap-on marketing cliché is a far cry from its original meaning in the recording industry. As Hull articulates it, his contribution to the recorded work, in making an album’s final mixes sound consistent, vibrant and ready for commercial release, involves a high degree of expertise and no small amount of aesthetic judgement: “It’s an oversimplification, but the mixer creates the artwork; the mastering engineer finishes the frame and makes sure it’s lit well. How it’s presented to the world in its final form — that’s the mastering engineer’s part to play.”

Hull came into the industry in 1983, and over the years heavyweight artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Donald Fagen, Dave Matthews and Sting have entrusted him with putting the final shimmer on their records. He also mastered the Grammy-winning album Two Against Nature for Steely Dan, Fagen’s precisionist band who, aside from being hands down the finest proponents of popular music anywhere ever on this Earth (all opinions expressed are author’s own), were always famously exacting about their recorded sound. So coming from Hull, a brief lament about how the name of his craft is being taken in vain is slightly heartbreaking to hear.

But he’s got a point: Google the word “remastered,” and alongside some recent marquee reissues from stars of the 1980s (a Toto box set, as well as Kate Bush’s big back-catalogue refresh from 2018), you’re confronted with “remastered” sneakers, men’s jackets and eye-shadow; “remastered” office furniture; and “remastered” SpongeBob SquarePants coasters.

Its gratuitous overuse today is testament to the huge commercial dividends the music industry has reaped from the expression, especially in its heyday of splashing it around record stores in the 1990s and early 2000s. “Basically, it’s all about money,” says Dan, who spent some years working for a major label in the U.K. before moving to the DVD sector, where he says, “my job was to come up with ‘special edition’ product to flog the same film to people who already own them.” 

In pop music by the late 2000s, says Dan, a “remastered” tag had come to mean much the same thing: “With the death of transactional consumption by young people (they just stream their films and music now), it’s become all about getting older people, who still like to pay for a physical product, to re-transact. Traditionally, you’d try and tie this in with an anniversary — say 20, 30, 40 or 50 years since release — and maybe throw in a new audio remaster.”

For many consumers, shelling out for a subtly retweaked version of their favorite record might seem a baffling waste of earnings. But cynical double-dipping on the part of the record companies aside, there’s clearly a healthy appetite for remastered audio out there, even as music marches on into the digital era. In 2009, EMI’s release of The Beatles’ back catalogue as digitally remastered albums broke chart records around the world, selling 2.5 million globally in the first 11 days. Earlier this year, when the U.K. album chart for 2019 up to October was compiled, at 29 was the remastered edition of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 Rumours album, while at 13 was Queen’s Platinum Collection, a 2011 remastered version of a multi-album compilation that was originally released in 2000 — which itself was essentially a remaster of three greatest hits albums Parlophone put out in the 1990s. 

Masters of the Tune-iverse

Fiddling around at the fringes of a finished album might exhilarate the audiophiles, but for the average, untrained music fan, does it really have much of an impact? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer to this is very much Yes, no matter how tone-deaf you might believe yourself to be. The nuances in EQ and incremental adjustments in remastered records have more of an effect on you than you might think — in fact, gradually accumulated over the decades, those increments have had a tectonic influence on the whole landscape of popular music and how we perceive it.

If you’re mystified by this, a useful entry point is via a studio snafu from 2008 that has become notorious among metal fans and professional engineers alike. That year, the band Metallica released their ninth studio album, Death Magnetic, on CD, initially to a good deal of acclaim. But it wasn’t long before the band’s fans started complaining, in anguish and at length on internet forums, that there was something noticeably off about its overall sound. One listener went so far as to get in touch directly with the record’s mastering engineer, who sensationally responded by disowning the project, agreeing that the final sound wasn’t to his taste either, adding, “Believe me I’m not proud to be associated with this one.”

An initial insistence from Metallica’s management that 98 percent of fans were happy with the album’s “exciting” sound was undermined somewhat when an alternative version of the album slipped into the public domain, as noodle-repertoire for the PlayStation 3 game Guitar Hero. This rendering of the record, apparently a pre-mastered mix, gave fans a golden opportunity to compare its overall tone with the official commercial product. More than 22,000 of them signed an online petition for the CD to be remastered, their verdict being that the video-game version was the fuller, less grating, more authentic-sounding article — and that, yes, even to ordinary fans’ ears, mastering really can make a world of difference.

The songs that ended up on the CD had apparently undergone an extreme dose of “compression” or “limiting” — audio processes that are often used to “squash” the very loudest moments, or peaks, in a track to make them quieter; this, in turn, creates the headroom for volume levels across the rest of the music to be ratcheted up without causing the signal to distort. The result is usually a song that, overall, feels louder and more intense — typically qualities that form a major part of a mastering engineer’s remit. But “smashing” a track in this way comes with a cost, since it can seriously affect the complexion of the final mix.

“Among the first things to go is the low end — you tend to lose punch from stuff,” explains Julian Tardo, at Church Road Studio in Hove, England, who also teaches mastering to music-technology students at a nearby college. “Snares tend to lose the bass out of them — they start to just sound like hard claps. Everything starts to get a bit mushy the more you squash it.” The more overall volume you squeeze from the music, he says, the more “you have to repair the byproducts of that, by adding more EQ to clean things up again. And you’re ever having to go around this vicious circle of trying to undo the terribleness that the limiting imparts in order to somehow keep it sounding transparent — and it’s just bloody difficult.”

Who Started the Loudness War?

The controversy over Death Magnetic is a window into something few of us are aware of, but has been steadily eroding our collective perception of popular music for the last 30 years or more. In mastering circles, it’s known as the “Loudness War,” and it’s turned the areas of mastering and remastering into hotly contested quasi-ethical battlegrounds.

As Tardo explains, it all stems from mastering’s history and its intimate relationship with the formats on which audio is mass-produced. “The thing about cutting a record to vinyl is that you have a very prescribed dynamic range,” he says, noting that “dynamic range” — loosely, the safe zone in any given medium between the very quietest and the very loudest signals it’s able to accurately reproduce — “is the 101, the kernel, of what mastering is all about.” Imagine that on the road there’s a long tunnel with a height restriction ahead (and I hasten to point out that this is my analogy, not Tardo’s); your job, in essence, is to carefully park a truck load of noisy zoo animals inside it without decapitating any of the giraffes, ostriches or flamingos.

When you move on from vinyl and enter the realm of digital reproduction, that loudness ceiling gets substantially higher. So as the new digital CD format began to supplant LPs in the second half of the 1980s, mastering engineers found themselves on a new frontier of dynamic possibilities, with way more available space to tweak their tones. Initially the idea, says Tardo, was “that you could continue cutting as you had been to vinyl, at much the same dynamic range, but you’d have even more headroom to play with, and so you’d really not have to worry about overs” (i.e., hitting the noise threshold at which the recorded sound would begin to distort). 

For a while, then, it was business as usual. Tardo cites early CD releases by Prince as good illustrations of this, or the landmark 1985 release by Dire Straits, which was one of the first albums specifically aimed at the CD market: “Import the songs from a CD of Brothers in Arms [into music-production software], and the audio is just incredibly quiet. So, clearly, the original master was based on the analogue cut, for the vinyl.”

“We spent a lot of time working on Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms at about that time,” recalls Hull, who has fond memories of his early years assisting the Chief Engineer, Bob Ludwig, at Masterdisk. “That was either the first or the second CD I bought. Bob had mastered the original, and then we remastered it and made hundreds and hundreds of copies of that over several years in different versions.” Back then, says Hull, being enlisted by a record label to make a master specifically for the new CD format was a rare privilege, largely because it was so expensive: “The machine to make a recordable CD was $50,000,” while “at the very minimum it was $500 to transfer an analogue tape to digital and do the encoding [for] CD. That’s with no creative work whatsoever.”

But from around 1988 onwards, hi-fi manufacturers were selling CD players at household prices, and gold-rush economics set in. “That was the moment when the labels all realized, ‘Wow, we have to take our entire back catalogue and get it prepared for CD,’” says Hull. “They hurried to get product out the door as quickly as possible. And about a year or so later, there started to be this horrific backlash because people’s CDs didn’t sound as good as the records that they had. There were problems with levels, some were distorted. They had literally taken the tapes out of the vaults — sometimes not even the right tapes — and handed them to a copy clerk who worked for the label. They made a quick copy, and they slammed it out on CD.”

To evade the record-buying public’s ire and save their shiny new format, record companies began approaching mastering studios to get their catalogues refitted properly for the compact-disc era, triggering a boom period for studios like Masterdisk. “They coined the phrase at that point, ‘remastering’ — or ‘remastered for CD,’” says Hull. “That was literally what remastering meant.”

More Gain, More Pain

What’s all this got to do with ultra-compressed rock albums and the looming Loudness War? Well, in re-inserting outlandish notions like quality and attention-to-detail into their release schedules, record-company executives began to pick up on something the studio engineers already knew. A cognitive quirk of the way our brains interpret sound means that virtually everyone tends to equate “louder” with “better.” “In my workroom, if I’m comparing two sources of music that are absolutely identical,” explains Hull, “but one is a tiny bit louder than the other one, the listener often doesn’t hear it as louder: They hear it as punchier, brighter, with better definition on the bass and more emotional.”

Transfer this deceptive psychoacoustic phenomenon onto the airwaves, where newly released singles have to compete for listeners’ attention, and those records mastered that little bit bolder started to sound like they had a strong competitive edge. Cottoning on to this, the labels nudged their output meters up, hit single after hit single, and the race toward mutually assured saturation was on.

“Of course, as a mastering engineer, you’re reacting to your client,” says Tardo. “The client wants it loud, you make it loud. You’d liase with the A&R person who’s saying, ‘This might be a hit record: We want it banging.’ And so you’re just going to smash the dynamics and get it louder.”

Tardo’s musical career began as a member of the band Insides, who released two albums on cult indie label 4AD back in the 1990s (and who recently got back together to work on a new one); he recalls this as a period when exploiting the dynamic possibilities of CDs evolved into an art form in itself. “By the time you hit, let’s say 1995, levels are definitely hitting the point at which, on digital, you could clip [distort] the music,” says Tardo. “So at that point, even more compression comes in, more limiting, and all sorts of ingenuity from the mastering engineer to try and make it loud without it digitally clipping.”

In the two decades since, music has trapped itself in an ever-heightening clamor for more cowbell, but few of us have noticed; in fact, audiences’ ears adjusted to the ultra-squashed sound of hit records over time, and as consumers, we’ve now come to expect it from our artists. It’s a situation that many audio experts feel is absurd, and this perspective is summed up succinctly on the website for Dynamic Range Day, an awareness campaign run by the British mastering engineer cum sonic activist Ian Shepherd: “The effect is now so extreme that we have reached a bizarre situation where Justin Bieber’s new CD is louder than Motörhead, AC/DC and The Sex Pistols!”

“We consume and move on so quickly,” agrees Hull, “and I’m certain some of that has to do with the fact that the music kind of assaults us on the first listen. And we don’t go back to dig in deeper because frankly, you can’t hear deeper into the mix.”

In certain musical contexts, of course, such as the gut-twisting end of EDM, a heavily compressed, sonic pounding is exactly what the music requires and can produce exciting results. But where detail and nuance are important, it’s hard to see why this apocalyptic butterfly-crushing has been allowed to go on for so long. “The reason it hasn’t gotten corrected,” Hull suggests, “even though every professional audio dude and woman on the planet understands the caveat, is that the decision-makers are still Pavlovian in their reaction — or I should say they’re Spinal Tap in their reaction: ‘This goes to 11, so it’s better.’”

“In many cases I can spend hours explaining the technical details,” he adds, “and the whys and wherefores, but at the end of the day, the decision-makers go, ‘Ours needs to be just as loud as everyone else’s record, or we’re going to feel ridiculous; we’re going to sound ridiculous.’” 

Remastering to the Rescue?

There are signs, though, that the industry’s fetish for loudness is wearing thin. Strong commercial arguments have emerged against pushing productions to their dynamic limits, and they’re beginning to cut through. The climb-down is being driven by two big trends over the last five years or so, which have yet again transformed the way we consume music.

The first of these, as you might have guessed, is the dominance of streaming services in our listening lives. The pre-eminence of platforms such as Spotify, Tidal and YouTube has brought with it a useful side-effect known as “loudness normalization” — essentially, hidden volume dials that are cleverly automated to ensure the songs on your playlists output at similar levels in your headphones (on Spotify, this is the “Normalize volume” switch in “Settings”; in iTunes it’s the “Sound Check” tick box). Enforcing a level playing field online means that one-upmanship becomes pointless, and much of the incentive for driving up volumes in the mastering studio drains away. 

More than this, in the arena of loudness-managed streaming, says Tardo, “The track whose dynamics you smashed, now it only sounds good when it’s played super-loud. When you turn it down, it sounds rather like a slightly rounded-off, soggy version of itself. So played against other tracks that were less compressed, those tracks now sound better than yours.”

“In many ways, streaming is the savior of the mastering engineer’s craft and aesthetics,” he suggests — because, when producing masters that are destined for online audiences, “now I feel that I can have it sounding more the way I want it to sound personally, rather than having to kowtow to unsubtle, crude expectations.” 

The second market swing that’s allowing music to decompress back toward its natural state is the surprise resurgence of vinyl in the past few years. According to a report from the Recording Industry Association of America, in 2017, streaming accounting for 65 percent of the U.S. market for recorded music as CD sales continued their steady, 20-year decline. Meanwhile, revenues from vinyl LPs were up 10 percent from the previous year, and in 2018 they jumped by almost 15 percent more, a revival that’s nudged physical revenues ahead of digital downloads for the first time since 2011.  

Renewed interest in the old format has triggered another lurch for our wallets from the record industry. Says Dan, in no uncertain terms: “The boom in vinyl means that record labels have totally milked it and are re-releasing any old shit for no reason whatsoever, other than they can make some money off people in their 30s and older trying to relive their youth. I mean, not to single them out, but take a look at the stuff that Universal is churning out.”

Unfortunately for the major labels, until recently, vinyl had been something of a neglected child, lost somewhere in the late 1990s amid the Loudness War and the shiny-thing lure of CDs; many albums created in that period had never had an original vinyl release. So during the past five years, record companies have once again been busy transferring their catalogues on to a lucrative “new” format, albeit one that’s been around since the 1930s. 

Did they do it right this time? “Believe it or not, the labels made exactly the same mistake they made the first time!” says Hull. When turntables and LPs came back into vogue, he sighs, the labels simply sent their CD masters out to a cutting and pressing studio in the Czech Republic, “because it’s ridiculously cheap, and ridiculously fast.” Though he caveats: “They actually do do really nice work there, but if a client says, ‘Do it cheap and fast,’ well, they’ll do it cheap and fast. And the end results are these records now that look good but don’t sound that good. They made the same mistake by hurrying the process, and by not putting the best professionals in the game.” Just like before, the labels are having to backtrack and revisit to address the quality deficit they created, and so, says Hull, “there’s now a remastering step for vinyl.”

For him at least, this is a welcome development. It’s allowed him to concentrate more on the format that he loves and the aesthetic sculpting that comes with it. “I’m very enthusiastic about making vinyl from original analogue recordings, and I’ve been doing more original recording of live instruments in live studio spaces to analogue tape,” he says. He’s embarked on a podcast called Making Vinyl, and one of his recent projects has seen him return to Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature — which happens to be one of those peak CD-era albums that didn’t make it onto wax — to lovingly remaster it for its long-overdue debut on vinyl.

As a marketing confection, “remastered” has meant different things over the decades, then. Occasionally, the word’s appearance on album art has been little more than music-industry gaslighting. But on the whole, it can be seen as something more like an intervention — a phenomenon whose impetus has been to keep mass-market music authentic, to respect (if on the second bounce) the music and the people who created it, and an attempt at least to prevent the major labels from ripping off their own ears so they can insert them into their bottom lines.

From the point-of-view of a good mastering engineer, though — one who cares passionately about your enjoyment of the finished article — it’s shorthand for quality and a valuable assurance of something done right. When that Steely Dan vinyl makes its way to stores, says Hull, “You’ll see the Masterdisk stamp on the piece of plastic when you buy the record, and that indicates that it was actually cut at Masterdisk, and my initials are on it. That’s the pride in the craft for me.” 

Music in the 2020s is likely to need sensitive and skillful remastering more than ever. Especially since, as another of Hull’s famous clients once pointed out: “Gentleness, sobriety are rare in this society.”