Thursday, August 08, 2013

Dan Hersch On Mastering Love's Long Lost Black Beauty

Love's Black Beauty lineup. Photo by Herbert Worthington III.

As I mentioned previously, I was extremely impressed with the recent High Moon Records issue of Love's Black Beauty, a previously unreleased Love album recorded for Buffalo Records in 1973. It's a strong set of songs from Arthur Lee, a great artist whose 70s output was frustratingly uneven, that remained officially unreleased until earlier this year.

Music aside, I was impressed by how good the record sounds, especially after learning the audio had been sourced from an acetate. I have heard releases transcribed from acetates before and typically it is not hard to tell the audio came from a less than ideal source. Curious to know more, I had a conversation with mastering engineer Dan Hersch of d2 mastering on the restoration process that went into the album's release.

Dan is one of the most respected mastering engineers in the music business. If, like me, you have a sizable CD collection, you will likely find Dan's name in the credits of hundreds of your favorite CDs. He is particularly known for the work he did in conjunction with Bill Inglot on many of the high-quality Rhino Records CD reissues in the 80s and 90s.

Me: What is an acetate?
Dan: I started out mastering in a vinyl disc cutting studio. We would cut an acetate, or a reference lacquer, which is the same cellulose nitrate material that, ultimately, the  master would be cut upon. The difference is that the reference lacquer would be a twelve inch disc (the master is larger) for an LP, so that the artist or producer could take it home, put it on their turntable, give it a listen, and then make the changes they wanted or  just give it the thumbs up. We'd then cut the master lacquer which would then go to the pressing plant where they would make the metal parts and then ultimately stamp out the records for the consumer.
So the reference acetate was the original reference medium for artists and producers. The acetate that came to Diane Lee, Arthur Lee's widow, was one that belonged to Arthur,  that he had come back from the mastering studio with back in the day and then had found its way onto a record shelf in someone's apartment, and had been played repeatedly.
The rule of thumb used to be after a period of time, because this lacquer material was soft, the sound would change a bit over time. Obviously being played repeatedly would not be good, and dirt and dust could get embedded in it.  I own some lightly played reference lacquers that were cut 30 years ago that still sound pretty darned good to me, but generally speaking, acetates aren't usually as hardy as an actual pressing.
Unfortunately the tapes [for Black Beauty] have gone missing, whether they're with someone or unrecoverable, or whatever. The only thing left from the Black Beauty assembled album was this acetate or reference lacquer.
Album cover for Black Beauty. Photo by Herbert Worthington III.
Me: From what I understand there were actually three acetates that were located. Did you handle them yourself or did someone else do the analog-to-digital conversion?

Dan: I don't know if you're familiar with Bill Inglot, he's a reissue producer who worked at Rhino for a long time. Bill has a very good record cleaner in his production studio, and he did the initial transfer of the acetate to digital files. Originally all I received was a reference audio CD-R of that transfer that sounded to me like someone  had tried to do a quick and dirty denoising. I think the original intent was just for Diane Lee to listen to the acetate and  try to find a label that would be interested in releasing it.

So I got that reference CD. It sounded kind of swirly, it just sounded a little weird, so I asked them to send me over the original files. I got the original files of the acetate, and, in comparing the raw transfer and the first CDR I heard, I could sort of hear the process of what they had done in an attempt to minimize the noise and to make it a better listening experience. But they had totally changed the stereo image, and had done a few things that I felt were inaccurate and unrealistic sonically.
Arthur Lee. Photo by Herbert Worthington III.
Me: When you take noise out, it's easy to take music with it, isn't it?

Dan: Absolutely, but I think in this case, there was some damage in the left channel of the acetate, and rather than attempt to deal with the damage, they just took the right channel and then put the mono signal through some stereo effect device to bring the stereo back. So in my mind it was not how I would do it, and it wasn't something I wanted to perpetuate. And again, I don't believe the person who originally worked on this had the intention of releasing it like that. I think it was just a quick and dirty job to get Diane a reference disc. So I thought it best to get back to the original transfer and figure out another way to present the material.

Me: Was the original file hi-res digital? ["Hi-res" denotes digital audio with greater bit depth and higher sampling frequency than the 16 bit/44.1 kHz CD standard.]

Dan: I can’t recall. Probably 24 bit, maybe 48khz or 96khz. The source was obviously pretty low-fi.
Me: What did those raw files sound like? How noisy were they?

Dan: There were some scrapes that were kind of bad. Ticks and pops are pretty easy to deal with, but when you have long duration scraping noises, those cause the most noticeable effect when you try to process them because you have to deal with a larger sample. Ticks and pops are usually fine. It's inner groove distortion, scraping, things that take a few frames of information that are hard to process. But I'm never sure what the de-noising and de-crackling software is going to do. Sometimes I'll send a sample through and I'll think it's going to be a problem, and it will come back totally clean. And then sometimes something I think will be simple doesn’t work out. Then it’s back to the drawing board with a different approach to the problem.

Me: What was your approach to dealing with that noise?

Dan: A little bit of background…in the remastering business you run into all types of labels and all types of budgets, and the budget dictates how much work you can do. Some labels aren't willing to spend the money or the time to do that. And then you have to budget your time and say "we'll do the best we can." But High Moon was very interested in trying to do the best they could. They didn't mind spending a little money on this. They never said to me "can you do this for x amount of dollars." So that allowed me to do a lot of hand de-clicking and really get in and spend some time with each song. That's really what it takes. It takes time.  As an engineer there's only so much you can do when you're on a tight budget. But High Moon allowed me to do whatever was necessary to do the best job possible. The song that starts the second side, "Beep Beep," has a lot of dead air and little quiet parts in the arrangement which can really expose the noise of the storage medium. It was quite a battle. I think when you listen to "Beep Beep" maybe you can still hear that it was an acetate source, but you're not totally smacked in the face with it.

The nosier more raucous tracks, it's easier for the noise to be masked. But it's always better to go in and manually deal with that stuff rather than just hitting a button that says "de-crackle." Not to overly toot their horn, but High Moon was really willing to spend the time and money to really do a high quality job. They've shown that with their vinyl pressing and by having Doug Sax cut it. They also went with the heavier vinyl. I know they did a lot of test pressings, they even switched pressing plants a couple times so that they could really put out a high quality product.

Me: You can see and hear the care that went into this on every level, the stock of paper they used for the cover, all the photographs from the period they included in the booklet, it's clear they didn't hold anything back.

Dan: Hopefully consumers will respond positively and encourage High Moon to continue doing things in this manner. Hopefully, more labels will follow suit.

Me: It helps to do research. You can't assume a newly remastered title is going to sound better than previous issues.

Dan: That’s true. Sometimes you are buying a copy of something previously released with a bonus track added or something. Perhaps knowing whether the remastering was done from the original tapes would be helpful to the consumer.  I've seen labels do releases on the same artist over and over again. When I first started doing CDs in the early 80s, we would receive an EQ'd copy of the (vinyl) master to use as our source for the CD. That  vinyl EQ really didn't hold up with the new possibilities of CD. But they (the labels) really didn't want to go back to the original master tape. The fear was somehow the original “mastering” was being undone: "this is what the artist had approved, this is what the producer had approved, this is what we're putting out." I think that's what really hurt early CDs, the consumer was getting vinyl cutting EQ'd copies, just digitized. We hadn’t had the opportunity to go back to the master tape and really take advantage of what they did in the recording studio.

A lot of times the first time an album got reissued on CD it was from a copy like that. And then the second time around, maybe they got the original master tapes and hopefully they got a guy like Bill Inglot or Andrew Sandoval, someone who really understands the recording process and really understands the original intent of the artist, who would get the original vinyl pressing vinyl to compare, make sure speeds are right, make sure levels are right, make sure the sound is in the spirit of the original vinyl. And then the reissues were done correctly.

As the same albums are released again and again with new marketing gimmicks, consumers really need to look sharp before buying. As is true with any product, “new and improved” isn’t always the case.

So when you have a label like High Moon that comes to me and says "sorry all we have is an acetate, can you make something good from it?" And you tell them, "it's gonna take me a week, and maybe I can," and they don't blink and say, "Fine, do it,” then the consumer is going to benefit. That allowed me to make something listenable.

Unfortunately, sometimes tapes go missing. Sometimes someone gets sticky fingers, or things get thrown away. There are some very famous bands where, once stuff got digitized in the 80s, they discarded all their original analog tapes. It's hard to imagine, but at the time a lot of people thought "now it's perfect" we don't need this old, crappy analog tape anymore.

I know George [High Moon owner] searched high and low for where those Black Beauty tapes might be, but unfortunately they couldn't be located.
Photo by Herbert Worthington III.

If you haven't picked it up already, Black Beauty is an essential purchase for any Love or Arthur Lee fan. Dan's observations about High Moon are spot on. It is obvious that a lot of love [no pun intended] and care went into this release. For those of you who don't have a turntable, there is a CD release coming from High Moon, although no release date has been announced as of yet.