Bit by Bit: What Is This “Re-mastering” You Speak Of

Posted: February 24, 2010 in Bit by Bit (Digital Audio), music
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

When a CD claims to be re-mastered, what does that mean? Generally speaking, mastering is the art of taking a mix and polishing it to make it sound as good as possible before release. So you would think that re-mastering implies starting that process again, maybe from a fresh mix, to restore the intended sound quality.

The truth is there is no definitive, generic definition of what re-mastering is in the context of digital CDs made from albums originally released in vinyl. To a large extent, it depends on the intentions of those responsible for the release, and what materials they have to work with.

I’ve discussed re-mastering in the context of the Beatle’s White Album, and how a spectacular re-mastering job made it sound pleasantly like the vinyl release. To me, that should be the definition of re-mastering, at least in the context of vinyl to digital conversion.

However, re-mastering can also imply making older recordings sound louder by compressing them, which also produces the adverse effect of flattening out the dynamic peaks and valleys, so that even the “quiet sections seem loud. Whether you’re aware of it, this is one of the ways in which the music industry has been dumbing down your ears over time.

Why are they doing this to our old records? Because that’s what they do to modern recordings. Dynamics used to be a significant tool that record producers would use to evoke feeling. Now, compression is used as a marketing tool to make sure that a track jumps out and grabs your attention while you’re driving 120 KPH down the motorway with the windows down, for example. The track is screaming “pay attention to me!” Problem is, most of the tracks are doing that these days, clamoring for your attention like bored and restless children in the backseat.

It’s exactly the same as when you’re watching TV, and there’s a soft, romantic part, and the man and the woman are whispering so that you can barely hear, and then the HARVEY NORMAN AD COMES ON AND IT BLOODY WELL SOUNDS LOUDER THAN THIS!!!!!! That is compression at work (and in this case, a loud, annoying announcer), and that is what modern pop is giving you on a daily basis. If you’ve been around as long as I have, you shouldn’t be surprised. 40 years ago, Pete Townshend was saying that you had to keep getting louder (i.e. upping the ante) to keep commanding people’s’ attention. Ha ha, remember when the Who were the upper extreme of loud.

If you want to prove this point to yourself, take out some CDs that you’ve had for 20 years and play them next to CDs that have come out in the last few years. I know this is a gross generalization, but in most cases the discrepancy should be obvious.

The best advice I can give you as a CD buyer is this: For a given “re-mastered” album, your best bet is to go online and see what comments or criticisms you can find from listeners, then add a few grains of salt.

Next time: Can’t they just leave the old CDs alone?

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