Friday, March 03, 2006

Re-mastering: Is it worth it?

The thing today is to remaster and be damned! A whole roster of back catalogues have been dusted off, re-mastered, re-packageded and re-sold. Some have been worth the trouble, others have not. Yes, digital technology has come on leaps and bounds since albums were mastered onto CD for the first time. Then, very little thought was given to how the CD’s should sound or how they should look. The belief was that the CD was a miracle, sounded perfect and would last forever. The push was to just get those old ,tired back catalogues onto the those shiny little discs as quickly as possible. It was a huge boost to the market as people replaced their LP’s with CD’s.
Over the last few years people are now replacing their original CD’s with even better sounding ones. So there was no such thing as perfect sounding CD’s then!! The lure of extra tracks, enhanced packaging and 24-bit, SBM, DDD, dogs-bollocks mastering is re-generating money to be made in back-catalogues. Again!

I mostly applaud some of the back catalogue remastering that has gone on. What people like Mark Powell and his team have done for the likes of Caravan, Camel, VDGG, Jack Bruce and others has taken the genre from purely a repackaging/remastering exercise to something more to do with lovingly archiving these recordings for posterity. The attention to detail is quite impressive. However, there have been a few instances that have had me scratching my head a bit! First example is Brian Eno’s back catalogue. This lengthy program of re-releasing Eno’s Virgin back catalogue has been undertaken by the excellent engineer Simon Heyworth. Not so much remastered but re-transferred as he has taken the original masters and re-transferred them to the CD format. The sound is good, no doubt about it. But the back catalogue has now gone from being available as reasonably good sounding, mid-price CD’s with ok packaging to fully priced CD’s, with no extra tracks, no enhanced packaging, just in digipack format which is not to everyone’s liking. So for me I don’t think upgrading in this case is of much benefit.

Second example is the imminent re-release of Wire’s first three albums. Like Eno’s back catalogue these are to be in digipack format. These were originally remastered in 1994 with each album having extra tracks and booklets including lyrics. These new 2006 releases according to the blurb have been “all returned to the original vinyl release running order (no inappropriate extra “bonus” tracks) therefore honouring the conceptual clarity of the original statements – and are presented as digipack replicas of the original vinyl sleeves with a 12 page booklet”. Fair enough. But I am also led to believe that the enclosed booklets will not include lyrics which the original albums did. So how is this “replicating the original vinyl sleeves” then or “honouring the conceptual clarity of the original statements”. And all at full price too!! I’ll stick with my mid-priced issues with extra tracks and lyrics and which sound pretty good to these ears, jaded they may be.

There does seem to be a tendency of late to re-release for the sake of it. Does the cost of replacement outweigh the benefits to be had? That is the question I ask. There are some glaring examples out there of artist’s work that definitely needs dusting off and sprucing up. Off the top of my head some that have been mooted but nothing concrete as yet are Steve Hillage and Peter Hammill.


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