How the CD and Remastering Have Taken Over Music
A modern day blight in the music industry for audiophiles is the growing reliance on re-mastering an album, often with compression and crushed dynamic range as a result. Especially with people my age growing up in the 1990s, suddenly there has been a spate of re-issued CDs from original CDs on top of various Deluxe Editions usually tacking on a few more tracks and maybe a DVD to grab another $15-$20 out of the pocket of the consumer.
What is a Re-Master?
Albums go through a long, grueling process whereby a band shows up at a recording studio with the Producer. They’ll help the band with the song arrangements, tweaking of lyrics and song styles, and inclusion or exclusion of various instruments. The Engineer is tasked with twiddling the knobs and making sure the mic placements for the instruments sound good and that the initial instrument stems for the mix come through okay. They usually are the “first” step in terms of creating a mix with all the instruments that gets sent to the Mastering Engineer. Sometimes the Mixer will do their job as an outsource if a band or label executive feels that the song or mix isn’t quite catching the ear just right. The Mastering Engineer is the “second” and usually final step, working on balancing the tracks to one another for the cohesive album and adding any EQ tweaks to the individual songs themselves.
A re-master is exactly that, usually done by somebody outside of the initial circle involved with the production of the original album. They’ll usually work from the original mixes and master the album as if it was just being released for the very first time. Sometimes the clamor for a re-master comes from the fans who simply want a better sounding album that may have been mastered poorly the first time around or the band may feel that the album wasn’t quite done to what they had envisioned initially. Although there are also studio executives who simply want to make a buck and request a re-master be done for an album just to get another variant out there to try and capitalize on the market of that band’s fandom.
The Introduction of the Compact Disc
Vinyl LPs had been the mainstay of the music industry relying on 33″ and 45″ RPM grooved discs since 1948 when Columbia Records introduced the LP with the ‘golden era’ largely being the 1950s and 1960s with the revolution from musicians and bands such as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles. By 1957, the Mono LPs were being challenged by stereo sound systems from Audio Fidelity, which would soon make the stereo sound system a national staple by the 1970s as bands and producers began to experiment more with a stereo sound field through their albums.
In 1979, Sony and Phillips met and came up with the compact disc including relying on 74 minutes of runtime to fit Beethoven’s 9th Symphony without the need to change out the disc itself. One of the knocks on the LP was that due to the various designs, runtimes tended to vary with most being able to play for only 40-45 minutes total and required a flip after 20-25 minutes to play the other side of the album. This also impacted most songwriting in the era, requiring shorter songs or limited track lists to properly fit on a vinyl LP. By 1984 and 1985, the growing demand for CDs began to heat up and as a result, the LPs which had been so dominant in the previous decades began to fall off sales wise until it was nearly an afterthought in the recording process by the late 1980s.
A lot of the bands that became famous in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s had only released their work on vinyl, which required a transition to the new media of CD. As a result, executives initially were transferring the vinyls over to the CD without tweaking anything and allowing for the listener to experience the same quality of sound on this exciting format. However, by the early 1990s it became clear that executives and marketing people were become shrewd to the possibility of financial compensation by remastering the CDs and getting new purchases from fans who wanted to hear the “improved” sound of an album that was originally recorded in the 1960s or 1970s. Initially, the re-mastering process was pretty straightforward with a Mastering Engineer asked to master a well known, usually quite popular album without much in the way of other bells and whistles. As the 1990s crawled into the 2000s, the music started being packaged with new, unheard tracks and packaged with labels such as “Collectible Edition” or the more all-encompassing “Deluxe Edition.” One prime example was the 2002 release of “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye which featured 26 tracks spread out over 2 CDs including a live performance and original mixes of the album tracks.
A Timeline of Re-Mastered CDs
1986: The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat (Re-Mastered by Greg Calbi)
1987: The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (Unofficial Release, Re-Mastered). Japan also saw an official 1987 Re-Master.
1989: Metallica – Ride The Lightning (Re-Mastered by George Marino). This is especially unique as the album was released just 5 years earlier on CD through Elektra.
1990: The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (Digitally Re-Mastered in 1987). Released with 3 Bonus Tracks
1992: Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (Re-Mastered by Steve Hoffman).
1992: Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde (Re-Mixed and Re-Mastered by Mark Wilder). Released as “Limited Edition”
1992: The Eagles – Hotel California (Re-Mastered for CD by Steve Hoffman). The LP was also Re-Mastered and released as a “Limited Edition”
1994: Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Re-Mastered by Gavin Lurrsen). The initial CD release came out in 1986 by Motown Records.
1994: The Beach Boys – Surfer Girl (Re-Mastered). Japan saw a CD release in 1989.
1996: Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (Re-Mastered by Ray Staff). Released in the UK. He also Re-Mastered Paranoid in that same year.
1996: The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (Re-Mastered). Europe saw a Re-Mastered release in 1989.
2001: Madonna – Like a Virgin (Re-Mastered). Released with two bonus dance mix versions of album tracks.
2001: Michael Jackson – Off the Wall (Re-Mastered). Released as a “Special Edition” w/Interviews and a few Demo Songs. Michael was one of the earliest revolutionaries behind the run in CDs as the initial release came out in 1983 on CD despite the LP coming out in 1979. Thriller also saw a release in 2001 but interestingly, Bernie Grundman did the Re-Master and he was behind the original Mastering.
2008: R.E.M. – Murmur (Re-Mastered by Greg Calbi). Released together with a live performance.
2011: Nirvana – Nevermind (Re-Mastered). Digitally Re-Mastered and released to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the album’s release.
It is interesting to see that while there was an immediate boon between music videos and burgeoning careers at the advent of the CD (mainly Madonna and Michael Jackson), even in the middle of the 1980s there was awareness to Re-Master tracks more so in countries like Japan and release those albums as their own, unique release different from the original releases. Even prominent stars of the 1980s and 1990s have started seeing their records Re-Mastered in the 2000s ranging from a wide variety of genres including Country, Hip Hop, Hard Rock, Metal, and Pop. Stars such as Garth Brooks are no longer immune despite that CD coming out in 1991, it was already Re-Mastered just 14 years later.
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