Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Dark Side of Remastering, Part 1.

     Hello, underlings! The time has come to discuss the Dark Side of...what the title said.

     "Remastered" has become a buzzword in the music industry, and casuals (aka people who don't know shit about music) have been misusing it for years now. Fortunately, some people have been wising up to the whole thing, and becoming informed. And right now, YOU TOO can become informed! I will explain the basics and bullshits of remastering, in less than 9,000 words! So, gentlemen and gentleladies, THIS IS WHAT REMASTERING IS ALL ABOUT!

     And before you walk away from this frightening wall of text, let me remind you that you do have time to read all this. All those cat videos on YouTube can wait.


     First of all, let's get back to basics. Let's go back in time. A long, long time ago, there were no computers, and no hard drives. All audio was stored on magnetic tapes (archival) and vinyl records (personal use). The former decays over time unless treated chemically, and the latter lasts for many decades (plastic decays real slow). Magnetic tapes sound freaking amazing (providing music was recorded with GOOD microphones and cables). And don't let the slight hiss distract you from what's important: professional magnetic tapes can store sound in theoretically infinite resolution. Before the invention of digital storage, tapes were the shit. Vinyl records are limited by time (only about 25 minutes on each side) and have a hard time holding overly compressed (all loud and zero quiet) sound, but sound about as good as the tapes, proving your player isn't shit and the speakers are not too shabby. Sure, vinyl degrades slightly with repeated use, but you have to pay some price for quality.

     Now, let's get to the meat of the businesses. In the olden days of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, high quality music was first always recorded on tapes, and then transferred to vinyl through a process called mastering. Basically, in the best case, you recorded the instruments and vocals on separate tapes, and then record those tapes on a single and final one. That final tape, be it mono or stereo, was called the master tape. Why? Because it was the final finished version, and from it, all the copies would be made. Think of the master tape as a painting: after you put all the colours together, you are DONE done. No retouching. No going back. Finished. And that finished version of yours could be copied for different museums.

     Let's take a half step back, and explain the mastering some more. Once you record your instruments on multiple tapes, making one tape of them all is not an automated process. You need to decide which instruments are louder, which are quieter, which should sound smoother, which ones harsher. The act of putting the separate tapes into one requires skill and lots of professional machinery, and making the result not sound like shit is called mixing. Ever heard of the word? Well, now you know what it means. The mixer can mix the tapes in a gazillion different ways, and therefore must make the tough decisions. Mixing audio can be quite stressful because of that.

     After the mixing has been finished, and you got your final master tape, you transfer the audio to a metal disk. That disk will be used to physically press the individual copies of vinyl albums.

So, let's look at the complete picture. This is how the sound traveled in the good old days, from the musicians, all the way into your ears:

Instruments & vocals
Recording equipment
Individual tapes
One tape/master tape
Metallic master disk
Vinyl record(s)

     One last thing for this chapter. This is important! >:( The quality of the musicians' performance, quality of the instruments, quality of microphones, quality of cables, quality of recording equipment, and quality of the tape stuff is recording to: it ALL is CRUCIAL. The better each component of this sound chain is, the better sounding recordings you will get. And once the recording is done, the tapes are your ONLY copies that you end up with. The musicians performed in the past, everything but the tapes exist in the past. Everything is gone, forever. Except the tapes, which you must guard like the most precious treasure. For they are the best sounding copies that exist for now, and ever.

     More in Part 2, coming soon!

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