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Remixes & Remasters Vs. Originals: No Easy Answers (Part 2)

In Part One of this series (click here in case you missed it) I began to explore an idea which somebody suggested: do a little “analysis” of whether certain re-mixes and re-masters are better or worse than the original versions. As I dove into writing it I realized it is a touchy subject which really is very personal in nature and has no “correct” answer.  I’ve seen the topic divide scores of collectors and even friends… 

That said, I swing both ways when it comes to the argument of originals vs. remasters and remixes. There are so many variables to consider — from how the remaster was created to simply the relative availability of an original edition (be it on vinyl, CD or even a streaming source).

In support of remastering and remixing, in general with the improvements in modern turntables, there is arguably no need for some of the levels of compression and constraint imposed on the recordings in making the original pressings (especially when it comes to streaming and high resolution digital downloads).  In theory, if we can get back to that master recording before the album compression, we may be actually able to hear more of what the original producers and engineers actually recorded back in the day. 

On the flip-side, part of the sound of those recordings as we know and love them are a result of that compression applied on the final mastering stages. This is part of why some remasters may sound significantly different. So it is very much a two-edged sword.  

Remember what I said about there being no one answer… 

When it comes to vinyl these days, in many instances the materials used for pressing the albums are better now than what was used in the past, at least at pressing facilities like RTI, Pallas and QRP.

So many variables to consider…

When it comes to digital technologies that can improve a recording, the technology from Plangent Processes comes to mind. This has been particularly notable in its ability to  improve and correct for speed fluctuations in the original master tape recording that resulted in significant audible problems in the final recording. Plangent has been used on many newer reissues by Bruce Springsteen, The Grateful Dead, Erroll Garner and others with quite dramatic results. You can click on those artists’ names to jump to reviews I’ve done previously here on Audiophile Review.  I think a lot of artists’ albums could benefit from the Plangent Processes technology.  I hope to explore more Plangent-restored recordings here in the future, so stay tuned on that front…

Following is a quick rundown of some recent faves (and some editions to avoid!) in the area of remixes and remasters. This list is by no means comprehensive.

Frank Zappa — I’m going to start with a very old issue from the 1980s as a point of example of just what can happen. Zappa fans certainly know about what I am about to mention but the general public and newer fans may have no clue. So, back in the early days of digital, Zappa was an early believer in the technology, which was generally a cool thing. However, it became awkward for the fans when our musical hero issued some ill-judged remixes on CD and even vinyl. 

You see, some of his multi-track master tapes had been permanently damaged in storage, so in preparing his first wave of CD (and deluxe boxed set vinyl) editions of his early catalog, Zappa decided to dramatically reinvent some of his classic albums from the early 1960s which were recorded for MGM Verve.  The problem was not the remix as such. The issue was that since some of the tracks had been damaged on the multi-track master recordings — particularly the drums and bass — after transferring the salvageable tracks to digital, he then hired current band members from the 1980s to re-record new parts.

To the fans, these new additions sounded totally inappropriate —  modern drums and fretless bass didn’t fit the context of the rest of the recording made in a different time, place and mindset. From a fan perspective, the original versions are definitely better, even if the best available version that remains is a first generation safety copy. Indeed, there was so much fan complaint at the time, Zappa eventually issued the albums again (on CD) made from first generation safety copies from the master mixes which he had in his archive.

For newer fans just getting into Zappa, there are a great many variants in his catalog across CD and vinyl incarnations so it is worth doing some research to understand what is what. I have reviewed most of the excellent newer vinyl reissues over the past several years so please use the search feature here to seek those out. Also, there are Zappa fan websites which are very handy at breaking down many of the variants (click here and here, the latter especially on exploring the many variants across the CD era reissues). 

Of those fine new 21st Century editions, the Zappa estate recently issued a wonderful restoration of Joe’s Garage which had been half-speed mastered incorrectly back in the day, a problem which had long bothered Zappa. I found the restored version to be a revelation, a night and day listening experience. It was such an improvement that it made me completely reconsider my appreciation for the album, as it was one that I never really liked very much back in the day and now I know why! Click here for my review of that album. 

XTC — One of the more striking remastering restorations of recent memory was released several years ago by England’s XTC. When they were working on a remaster of their landmark album Skylarking — produced by Todd Rundgren — their new engineer discovered that every original pressing of the album, both on CD and vinyl was approximately 30% inferior due to a “polarity” issue that was discovered in the original mixdown tape. It is a fascinating and complex tale but worth taking the time to read about to understand.

So the new 200 gram 45 RPM version of the album is certainly the definitive version today. Click here for my review of that version of the album which explores the restoration process in understandable language. Also, check here to read about the excellent remaster of one of their other sonic masterpieces, English Settlement.

The Beatles — It is fairly common knowledge these days that the Stereo remasters of the Beatles’ catalog which were done in the past 10 years were problematic, especially when it came to the vinyl editions. But the subsequent Mono remasters were created fantastically in an all analog process that sounds quite stunning. Save for finding pristine originals from the UK (which are very expensive), the Mono album remasters are essentials for all Beatle fans. Remember also that those were the mixes which the Beatles themselves put most of their energies behind back in the day — everything up to the the White Album was mixed primarily for Mono then.

The new version of Magical Mystery Tour in particular is technically far superior to any of the Mono versions that came out in the 60s. Now every track is presented in first generation fidelity (vs. 2nd or 3rd generation tapes used to create the original album in the 1960s, which only came out in the United States initially). I have reviewed the Beatles In Mono boxed set extensively here on Audiophile Review as well as many of the newer Stereo and Surround Sound remixes of the later albums (Sgt. Pepper, The White Album, Abbey Road), so please do use the search feature here to find those reviews if you are interested in reading more about them. 

Tone Poet/Acoustic Sounds Jazz Reissues — The recent remaster series of reissues from Universal Music via their Blue Note Tone Poet and Verve Acoustic Sounds imprints have been quite revelatory. Both are very high-quality productions inside and out, from the mastering and vinyl pressing to the physical cover design/manufacturing.  These series editions are great as they give fans a chance to own recordings that were previously very rare (and often expensive to find in top condition) and now quite affordable. And while these are not exact duplicates of the mastering style of the original pressings, in many ways they are better.  Please do search out some of my reviews here for artists such as Kenny Burrell, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Jackie McLean and Lou Donaldson. I will be reviewing more of these in the near future so please keep an eye out for those!

Yes – In some instances, a remaster can make a night and day difference in how one appreciates an album. Please click here to read my experience re-discovering the 1980 album by progressive rock pioneers Yes — called Drama — and how that led me on a journey of searching out rare versions of the album to compare and contrast, eventually settling in on the fine new Kevin Gray remastered edition. 

And… What About Surround Sound?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention surround sound here.  As far as remixes into surround sound, I think people need to look at those objectively as an additional way to experience your favorite music. Save for newer artists like Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) who often records his music with surround sound in mind, for the most part, the surround remixes are not intended as a replacement but simply a new way to go much deeper inside favorite music. That said, there are many fantastic surround sound remixes out on the market that I absolutely love and have reviewed here. These include seminal albums by Yes, King Crimson, Tears for Fears, The Beatles, The Band and XTC. 

For the record, I also love the mixes which drummer-percussionist Mickey Hart did on The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead albums back in the early 00’s and issued on DVD Audio Disc.  Someday maybe those mixes will get reissued on Blu-ray Disc, but at the time, even as cool as they were they apparently freaked out some fans who didn’t like the expanded and dramatically remixed approach to presenting the music. They missed the point — again, it was not a replacement but a new way to experience old favorites and gain new insights into the making of the album. 

One of my all time favorite surround remixes is the 5.0 remix of David Crosby’s debut solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name. It is a stunner and one of my favorite demo discs. While completely different, I hold it right up there with Queen’s Night At The Opera as essential surround sound listening experiences.

I could go on like this forever babbling away but I think you get the idea that there is no one easy answer to any of these questions. And nor should there be!  That is part of the fun of our hobby — discovering what you like best! 

To that point, let us know what some of your favorite remixes and remasters are below in the comments section. We’re all ears! 

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