Remastered or butchered?

You know how it is.

You walk into a record shop (or if you’re really mod conned, browse a music site) and notice an album you bought years ago looks slightly different and has text that alerts you to it being remastered and bolted with bonus tracks.

The said album is recognised as a bonafide classic and you agree with it.

‘I’ll buy that.’ you think.

So, you take it home and put in your player, listen to it and form a variation of one of two opinions:

a) Good job, it sounds better than it used to.
b) The bonus tracks are interesting, if inessential, the artwork and packaging has been treated with fair respect…but what’s up with this sound?

If you think option A for almost all remasters you won’t care about my post. I’m here to grieve with those who think option B.

I was a 90’s teenager, so with musical awareness in bloom then, it’s obvious that the format of choice was CD over vinyl or cassette because of the perceived clean sound quality, compactness and ability to skip songs at a button. To the vinyl generation, the CD was an aberration. They loved the roomier sound quality and found the odd pops and crackles added character. I can sympathise, but not fully appreciate.

We both probably dislike tapes though.

And now as a noughties young adult we’re in the iPod era (which was mooted to have been the MiniDisc era) where music is now more compressed and available as files which can be shared on the net. or purchased with Digital Rights locks. I still don’t mind because now the portable CD player and bulky disc wallet has been replaced by a unit that can store tons of decent quality songs (and videos); convenience is now even more portable.

Yet the CD isn’t dead, we use them in our hi-fi’s or to rip from, we buy them because we still like a tangible product. So how to market the CD with a slump in CD sales? “I know.” thought some one not too bright. “Let’s remaster them, like films!”
It won’t be too long when albums are remade, like films, because the film industry decides to milk golden old ideas thinking they’re a certain route to money in days of dire movies, while the fan says “I preferred the original and/or the book.”

Now that I’m old enough, remasters of albums I grew up with are appearing; either prematurely or with no need. Anything after the mid 80’s is generally of clean audio quality and anything after the mid 90’s is too recent to meddle with.

I bought a greatest hits album of a band I liked as a teen. I was intrigued by the CD because I haven’t got all their stuff and was intrigued by the promise of remasters, even of songs I had. The said band didn’t always have the best quality of sound, but I came to realise that that sound quality defined the album as it was and made it good.

The thing I realised in this case was that remastering meant:

1) A raising of overall volume.
2) The obvious re-recording of some pieces of music.
3) The raising of things previously lower or unheard in the mix.
4) The dubbing of instruments.

Now, the said CD was still good because I love the songs and could tolerate the difference enough…But when I ripped the songs to my MP3 player I got an earache as too much treble, jarring sounds and the loss of professional ‘seamless’ production really irritated my ears. That is one album I cannot play through earphones anymore. It made me love the original songs even more. It’s no different to wishing your partner looked better on an odd say, but wish you’d shut up when they returned with trout pout or cling film stretched skin.

The fairest treatment a good album can get would be similiar to books; change the jacket (CD art), add a foreword or epilogue (bonus tracks), and possibly unabridge it (replace single edits with extended/normal versions).
What you’ll realise is you can forever update a piece of art, but you risk breaking the magic when you do it. An album that came out and made an impact in XXX1, then ‘butchered’ (my opinion) in XX26 detracts from what made it good in the first place, imperfections included. Any art is also a time capsule, you should know when, where and why it came from.

That’s not to say all remasters are bad, and indeed someone hearing a remastered album first mightn’t care as they can’t compare with the often deleted original – but don’t have the fortune to hear it as it was, and may then erroneously prefer the remaster as it’s given them their first impression – but the ones that work are ones that don’t mess much with the original; so what’s the point? Rejigged artwork and bonus tracks are allowable, that’s it. Only if an album was a mess in the first place (i.e. it was crap in all ways) is it worth performing audio surgery.

The more things progress, I understand vinyl lovers. At the end of the day the consumer cares about song and sound quality, not unnecessary bells and whistles.

And don’t get me started on “making of” bonus DVDs.