Whats Wrong With Oldies CDs And What Is Being Done
By: Doug Hess, Jr.
When CD's first
hit the market around 1982, there was talk of the crystal clear sound that was as close to
having the original master recording right in your own listening room. Unfortunately, that
is not the case when it comes to some CD's released of older recordings. Most studios are
all digital now, so this is how it USED to work.
A group would go in the studio with their producer and record their songs. In order to make sure they could control the volume of each individual instrument and voice, they would use tape machines that have 16, 24 or more tracks. After the songs are recorded, they are copied from the multi-track tape down to the two track stereo format we have in our homes. This is the first generation mix-down tape. That tape is the actual true original master recording of the songs on the album.
Next, since LP's and 45's don't have quite the dynamic range as the original master tape (as much space between the quietest and loudest parts of the songs) a compressor or fancy automatic level control is used so things don't get quite as loud or soft as they did originally. In addition, corrections were made with a device called an equalizer. This device can very accurately increase or decrease the highs and lows much more selectively than the standard Bass and Treble on your home stereo. After this "tweaking" is finished, that copy is called the official "studio production master" which is what will be copied onto LPs and 45s, etc. If this special mastering wasn't done, the needle would fly off of the record as soon as it got to a part to loud and the noise would be such on the soft parts that you couldn't hear the music.
Remember we are using all standard analog tapes and machines with noise reduction like Dolby®, DBX®, etc. to keep things quiet. So no matter how good our equipment is, we are now using a copy of the original "Studio Master" (sometimes called Lacquer Master for cutting lacquers used in vinyl production) or second generation master. Most studios have more than one pressing plant where they made the LP's and 45's. So, 2 or 3 copies of the second generation "studio master" are made and sent to the pressing plants. And of course each record bought in the store is then yet another copy. So, now our LP is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of the original multi-track recording of the band. I don't care how good your analog equipment is, something gets lost in all of those copies.
Now with that in mind, here comes the Compact Disc. Regardless of the subjective views of the ambiance, etc. the CD is touted as having no noise and super dynamic range so it can reproduce all of the loudest and softest moments just like the original multi-track tape so no compressor is needed. In addition, all of the highs and lows will come through just like the original tape so no equalization is needed. The main culprit was time. The CD players hit the market in the early 80s and there was a demand for the discs to play. So, the record companies called their studios who pulled what was labeled the "Master Tape" of several of their best artist's albums and put them out on CD. Unfortunately, what they got was the LP master. So now we have a Compact Disc version of an album that sounds about like the actual vinyl LP except for the clicks and pops. Granted, this was far superior to what we had for the most part, so the crowds cheered. It wasn't until years later, however, (and at a premium price I might add) that CD's began to sound like they should. Sure, many groups started recording in all digital studios so all of the studio copies, etc. were exactly like the true master tape, but the engineers were still used to the old way, and those early CD's didn't sound that great. In addition, since a lot of people listen to jam boxes or inexpensive stereo systems, the CD's sounded so much better than LP's or Cassettes that nobody seemed to notice.
Now, however, this is being corrected. Many of the record companies have gone back to the actual original stereo mix-down tapes or even the actual multi-track recordings and are starting over and reissuing titles. These new CD's of old albums sound superb like I believe CD's should have sounded like to begin with. So, how do you know which copies of which songs sound the best? That's where the fun is. Until recently, there have been no markings to tell what tapes were used for making a CD unless it is a special edition. Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs® has for years been putting out their Original Master Recordings® line of records, cassettes and CD's until they went bankrupt in November of 1999. In addition, some other companies like SONY®, MCA®, Rhino®, Capital® and DCC® have been issuing special edition CD's, but you have to be careful. So far, only DCC Compact Classics certifies that if they can't get the original first generation tapes, then they won't issue the CD. The rest just make some claim of "digital remastering" or mention the original tapes, but they aren't too specific about exactly which tapes they used.
Since my first player in December of 1984, I have amassed several hundred CD's--especially oldies. During my quest to get certain favorite songs, I ended up having some duplicates across the different discs (like 4 copies of "Radar Love" by Golden Earring). My first copy came on a collection of rock and roll classics from MCA. It has the most noise. I also have copies on Rhino and Time-Life collection CDs. They sound a little better, but that is probably due to the person remastering the tape using an equalizer or an APHEX® Aural Exciter which can make the tape sound clearer. The best sounding copy is from a series called "REELING IN THE YEARS" and later called "ROCK OF THE 70s". This 5 volume set was mastered by Steve Hoffman from the first generation two track mixdown tape, which we learned earlier in this article is the best place to get a song for CD. Steve used to work for MCA and before leaving for DCC Compact Classics, he remastered some super discs.
I would also like to mention that ALL CDs are DIGITAL because the process of transferring songs to CD is called DIGITAL MASTERING whether its live, analog tape or a scratchy 45. In other words, having a label on a CD that says DIGITALLY MASTERED is like you saying youre a human being...so. It has nothing to do with the quality as some companies like K-TEL and their DIGITAL MASTER label implies. It is in the remastering of the audio that goes on the CD that is the key. Also watch out for K-TEL, DOMINION and some other labels that like to round up whats left of the original group that recorded a song from the 60s or 70s and have them re-record their hit songs. Most of them are labeled something like: "New Stereo Recordings by one or more of the original members of the group", but some of them have no such labeling. Ive yet to hear one of those that sound anything close to the original hit song that your buying the CD for. I dont understand why they even go to the trouble to re-do the songs anyway except to deceive the public. I'll admit the version of "The Twist" and some others are actually re-recorded versions, rather than the original, but it's not the same thing as those companies I mentioned are doing.
Finally, some master tapes may have been lost over the years or dont sound too good. Below are several links to companies that have helped over the years. Sonic Solutions has some computer software called NO NOISE ® that can filter out unwanted tape noise or even clicks and pops from records if thats the only way to get a song for a CD. Another company doing that was the Waring FDS system which also used computers to filter out noise. Also used along with equalizers and other enhancers is a device called the Aural Exciter® that I mentioned earlier that has been used over the years to make songs sound better. One of the major complaints over these systems is that if noise was part of the original master tape due to how long ago the recordings were made-- filtering it out is tampering with what was there. This has been compared to taking a famous painting and not only restoring it to look as it actually did...but trying to "improve" it for today's listeners who are used to the perfect quiet of digital recording.