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Remixes & Remasters Vs. Originals: No Easy Answers (Part 1)


Recently somebody suggested an idea to me which I thought was pretty cool: do a little “analysis” — in the loosest sense — of whether certain re-mixes and re-masters are better or worse than the original mixes. As I dove into writing this I seem to have opened a bit of a Pandora’s Box of thinking, while not having a conclusive answer to the question.  But it is still worth discussing since the topic is obviously on some of your minds as well, Dear Readers. 

This is a touchy subject which I’ve seen divide scores of collectors and even friends… Really, this is surprisingly a quite personal topic which objectively has no “correct” answer, at least as far as the listener is concerned. My tastes and desires are unique from yours, both equally valid.  

That said, I swing both ways when it comes to the argument of originals vs. remasters and even remixed versions of favorite recordings. There are so many variables to consider — from how the remaster or remix was created to simply relative availability of an original copy. 

As I pointed out in my review of the recent Blue Note Tone Poet reissue of Kenny Burrell’s 1956 debut (click here to read that) finding an original in any condition is very difficult and the new version actually presents more of the music that was originally captured on tape.  That isn’t to say I wouldn’t want to own an original pressing for some of these albums — I’m holding onto my Kenny Burrell album even though it is beat up! — but having the new edition is a great close second, this side of finding a pristine original. 

Many people who are fans of a particular beloved recording feel it should remain untouched. Others get very upset somehow thinking that when an album gets remixed it immediately means that the original is no longer in existence (I’m not kidding folks, I’ve encountered this perspective from people many times over the years!). Some people get upset when they learn that what they’ve been listening to actually is a remix and not the original.

I’ve even gone to some extremes on social media (if you will) talking some people down from the ledge to calm them down, particularly when The Beatles’ albums were being remastered.  Forget about talking to some of those folks about the remixes, but do remember that you can always still play your original vinyl pressings of those albums, of which there are millions of copies around the world to choose from. No one is taking them away from you. 

The impetus for this article believe it or not came about as a result of a Facebook post I made about The Grateful Dead’s third studio album, Aoxomoxoa.  Discussions arose about the remix of that record which the band made in the early 1970s  (as well as to Anthem of the Sun) as to whether one was better or worse than the other? And of course, the answer to that is, inconclusively: it depends on your perspective

If you are a purist and want to hear the specific vibe the band crafted in the 60s, then the original mixes are the way to go. If you are looking to just hear the music in as clean a presentation as possible, the remixes might well be better for you.  The remix definitely sounds more like a 1970s mix than even one from a just a couple of years earlier.

In some instances a remix can be justified. For example, on the digital Stereo remix of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, you can now hear much more detail as the many tracks of music that went into making that album are now mixed in first generation quality. The resulting drums and bass in particular sound fuller and more dynamic than before. Interestingly, the overall vibe is closer to that of the original Mono mix — the mix the Beatles themselves put their energies behind at the time.  But… to get that one pays the price of listening to music from a digital source which ruffles the feathers of many an analog purist.  You can click here to read my review of that mix if you are interested.

Those Grateful Dead albums which Phil Lesh remixed in the early 1970s are generally fine but most serious fans of the band seem to prefer the original mix.  You can read about them on the Wiki (click the titles following):  Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa

When it comes to Aoxomoxoa — one of my favorite Dead albums — I lean toward the original, if only to hear the choir on “Mountains Of The Moon” (which neatly pre-echos the end of side one of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells!). I haven’t spent enough time with the Anthem of the Sun remix to make a definitive choice. And you know what? There is no reason to. If you like a particular album a lot you will probably want both versions!

There is also the question of whether remasters are “better” or worse than the originals? Many people are justifiably gun shy these days having endured a seemingly endless barrage of remasters of favorite albums over the years across a multitude of formats and music delivery platforms — from LP to cassette to CD, SACD, DVD-A, Blu-ray, HD Downloads, Streaming. If you are a regular purchaser of music, you have no doubt seen the buzz words whizz by you on hype stickers applied to the packaging and promotional materials for albums over the years: analog, digital, DMM, Half-Speed, Ultradisc One Step, DSD, PCM, Quiex, etc. It is confusing at times as these are diverse processes and technologies, some unique to the vinyl production process and others used in preparing the actual original final recordings for release. Some are used separately or simultaneously. Some are great. Some have delivered mixed results.

So, take a deep breath…. As I said earlier, there are no easy answers to this question…

Having done a fair amount of recording myself I understand the value of both re-mastering of older recordings and new mastering of new projects. There have been significant progressions in technology over the years with certain capabilities that can actually improve the final sound of a recording if handled properly.  Recent remasters of albums by Frank Zappa, XTC and others have been at times revelatory. 

Tune in tomorrow when we’ll explore more of that in Part 2 of this series…

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