Dr. AIX's POSTS — 24 February 2014

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Digging back in to the past for exceptional performances and performances is an important segment of the music downloading business. There are number of websites that have made this their central mission…to locate the best masters and bring them back into the market as higher quality digital music files. There’s just something special about the interpretation of Beethoven’s nine symphonies under the baton of Sir Georg Solti that makes them timeless and worth resurrecting. But in spite of the praises written about the “golden age” of recording, the reality is that many…if not most…of these treasured masterworks don’t deliver the level of fidelity that we could produce with today’s equipment and techniques.

This brings up the age-old argument of which is more important…the performance or the fidelity of the recording. As an engineer, this is a challenging question. We certainly can’t tolerate a truly substandard performance presented as a high-resolution 5.1 surround Pure Audio Blu-ray disc. But once you’ve experienced something of that recording fidelity can you really go back and “enjoy” a digital file that originated as a 78-rpm lacquer master? I think both extremes are unacceptable. What we really deserve in this age of real high-resolution audio capture and delivery is the proper balance of both.

The recording I did at the New Jersey Performing Arts back in 2001 of Zdenek Macal conducting the NJSO performing the “Beethoven 6th Symphony” and the Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” may not be up to the performance standards of the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan, but I would argue that the actual sound experience of the AIX Records project exceeds that of the vinyl LPs put out by Deutsche Grammophon. In fact, I know it does! When I played the final 5.1 product for the Maestro many years ago, he was absolutely beyond words. He told me that this was the first time he had ever experienced a recording that sounded like what he wanted. Obviously, I was pleased with his assessment.

Is it possible to elevate “fidelity challenged” recordings of great performances? Can clever and skilled audio engineers coax better fidelity out of a historically important recording during a new transfer and possibly some reworking? I know I’m not alone in thinking that it is possible…but within limits. There are tools like the Plangent Processes technique that allows analog to digital tape transfers to be properly time aligned. There are other tools from other vendors that correct pitch problems that can occur when transferring analog tapes…especially those that have been stretched or are otherwise inconsistent (I’ll write a post about Capstan soon).

Of course, a restoration engineer can remove some of the obnoxious things that older formats suffered from like hiss, distortion, clicks, pops, crackle and rumble. There’s the obligatory adjustment of equalization across the entire frequency spectrum. This is the art of mastering and many times it results in a “different” sounding recording. It all depends on the skill of the mastering engineer, the aesthetic that is being used during the session and the quality of the equipment used in the studio.

But does it mean that an engineer should push past the traditional boundaries and start mucking with the actual substance of the album or tracks? For example, would you want me to add reverberation to a classic performance because my taste says something sounds too dry? Or maybe I should synthesize stereo out of a monophonic track?

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part II.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(4) Readers Comments

  1. Hello Mark, I was talking to someone about this very subject a few weeks ago.
    Of course people will say “don’t muck about with a classic”. But what constitutes “mucking about?” To my mind, many of the classic albums could benefit greatly from a “serious” remastering and that includes EQ. The Beatles were responsible for turning me on to the music profession and I remain a huge fan ( I cannot wait for LJ’s album, by the way. ) Who can forget the long decay of that final piano chord in “A Day In The Life” on Sgt. Pepper?
    Yet the engineers on that track say that the chord was still ringing when they cut it short, as no equipment ( monitors ) could reproduce it at the time. I am confident that a lot of frequencies that “went to tape” are still hiding there and it’s mouth watering. I have listened a lot to Gerry Rafferty of late and if ever a catalogue needs remastering, it is his and it would benefit greatly. Anyone who listens to the 5.1 release of The Beatles “Love”, will glory in the virtues of modern technology and if we the end user…( who pays by the way ) is fed anything less, it is at best “lazy” and at worst opportunism.
    Mark, your 5.1 recording of Jennifer Warnes remains one of my favourites. “Somewhere, Somebody” is fabulous. Jennifer’s CD “The Hunter” is one of the great albums and I once tried to contact Elliot Scheiner who engineered it to offer my thanks. What a 5.1 album that would make.

  2. This is all very reminiscent of the milking marketing of old Hollywood movies on various platforms over the years – VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, 3D, etc. The consumer is being asked to buy the same old work – often at full price, as in ‘Disney Classics’ – over and over again, with the promise of some quality improvement to justify the cost each time. Upgrade fatigue will set in after a while. Just look at the outstanding sales figures for Blu-Ray and the widespread take-up of domestic 3D. (/sarc)

    I think that attentively listening to restored and tweaked old recording masters is a minority sport, comparable with watching those colour-tinted old black and white movies you sometimes see in the corner of the DVD shop.

    • To be sure there are certainly some improvements that are possible using new state of the art tools, but I would generally agree with you. I would argue somewhat with your assessment of Blu-ray…the numbers are actually more impressive that you imagine. The real question for me is should “restored” releases go beyond stripping of noise and boosting of bass and highs?

  3. I think it will be a growing, but still minoriy sport. I think consumers will buy software to achieve the result. Mark wrote about DSP a few weeks ago. At some future date, engineers or scientists will figure out what causes listner fatigue and DSP will be sold to assist audio enthusiasts in fine tuning their music library—track-by-track if they wish—to get tonal balance that pleases. Who knows whether much more is possible than tonal balance. I remember dBx sold dynamic range expanders and lower octave restoration devices in the seventies. Today Dick Burwen is selling software which he claims will abate some of the screech heard on early Beatles recordings.

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