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.