This is the final installment of my thoughts on the article in the Wall Street Journal on “Hi-Res Audio Hijinx” by Wilson Rothman. His bottom line? “The trick is knowing that not all hi-res albums are created equal.” To that I would add, that there are even fewer hi-res albums that are actually hi-res. The final section of his article says it all. What’s happening in the labels is decidedly not the release of new high-resolution audio projects. They are preserving the past.
Wilson’s description of the “hi-res versions of albums recorded decades ago” discusses the problems that record labels have ensuring that their vast catalogs of analog masters get brought properly into the high-resolution digital future. They’ve all got to deal with this. There are large temperature and humidity controlled vaults that house the crown jewels each label. There is a very critical step in getting from the analog tapes to a PCM, high-resolution digital file.
What is happening at Blue Note, ECM, Warner Brothers Records and all of the others is the laborious task of future proofing the catalogs of analog tapes. In the case of Blue Note, which is run by a fellow Detroit refuge and acquaintance Don Was, they’ve been transferring older analog master recorded prior to 1972 to digital. According to Wilson’s article Don is intent on doing these transfers for the last time.
But there’s a wrinkle in their approach, in my opinion. The goal of the new transfers was “to create as neutral a digital facsimile as possible.”
“That transfer, however, ‘doesn’t feel the way you remember the records feeling,’ said Mr. Was. The next step is to replicate the vibe of vinyl by applying subtle equalization and compression. Mr. Was and his team listen to the original vinyl records alongside the new mixes to ensure they are capturing that Blue Note sound. Only then is the album released for sale.” Wow, I’m surprised to hear that modifications are being done to sound of the analog tape masters in search of the “vibe of vinyl”.
This is another case of changing the “artist’s intent” during the final mixdown session to comply with a compromised format…namely vinyl LPs. Adding equalization and compression to the sound of the two track analog master is a wrong headed thing to do. Blue Note is going through such pains to get the very best transfer from the aging tapes, why in the world would they then apply sonic changes that are only required for vinyl LPs? Give me the raw transfer, please. The analog tapes are much better than a vinyl LP.
These labels have the responsibility to “preserve” the past…not color the past according to someone’s personal fidelity preferences. Audiophiles and music enthusiasts want the very best sounding files they can get. Steve Wilson had it right. When the final mixing session is over and the production team deems their work complete…there shouldn’t be any additional dynamic or timbral changes made to the tracks. Go ahead and change the order, set the gaps, establish the relative volume of the tracks but avoid anything and everything else.
Imagine if an art restorer decided to change the colors of the Mona Lisa instead of cleaning it? That’s not preserving a masterpiece, it recasting it according to the preferences of the time.