If we look at our music collections honestly, particularly audiophiles with a long history of collecting, much of the music we like and enjoy may easily be decades old. Many of our favorite works went out of print long ago. Anyone like myself who has LP’s dating back to their high school days, or at least thirty or more years ago, may conceivably have an LP that is somewhat worn or with a lot of scratches and surface noise. CD’s are not immune either. They could have also become scratched and let’s face it, many early 1980’s CD’s were not that well recorded to begin with. What, then, does an audiophile do if a favorite LP purchased in 1974 now sounds terrible – or that CD bought in 1982 sounds much worse than modern recordings? One unfortunate choice is learn to live with the disappointment. Another is to buy a modern version if it exists.
In the LP world, availability of reissues represents potential new markets. When I look through the new albums at my local record store, I see many titles I already own but purchased years or decades ago. One I noticed the other day was a reissue of Deep Purple “Made In Japan.” This release originally came out in 1972. Clearly it stands to reason the brand new, sealed, pristine copy I recently held in my hands at Manifest Records had not been hanging around for forty-seven years. Obviously it was a reissue. I have nary a clue what I paid for my version purchased when originally released, but undoubtedly it was substantially less than the $50.00 Manifest was asking for the one in their racks. While the reissue market for LP’s is pretty obvious, CD’s are not being left out as reissues are available for them as well.
Some releases are redone because the artist wanted it so. One great example was Billy Joel’s “Cold Spring Harbor.” First released in 1971 by Family Productions, the mastering was not correct and was a little fast. Joel remarked he sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks and was so incensed, if the rumor is true, threw the album as far down the street as possible. Production was ceased and the few rare copies that made it out to the public do sound undeniably wrong. I know, I have one. A 1983 remix has the speed problem corrected. Not only did I purchase the reissue LP, I also have the CD version. I keep wondering if I would have spent all this money if the album had been done correctly in the first place.
Recently, I read about a Steve Wilson remixed version of Jethro Tull “Aqualung.” I have the original 1971 release on LP and I also purchased a CD version – although I’m not sure how long ago. When I saw “Aqualung” had been remastered by the very talented Steve Wilson, I decided to buy both the remixed versions of the LP and the CD and compare them to the original LP and CD I already own. This, I reasoned, should tell me if the cost of these reissued works was justified. Hopefully, I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Without going into a full music review, I can report the reissue was worth the price – at least to me. The remixed LP version is in almost every way a more enjoyable recording. Same can be said for the CD although the difference is not as dramatic. This raises a couple of questions in my mind. Let’s agree the remastered LP is much better than my original LP. Let’s also agree the CD is marginally better than the CD I have, purchase date unknown. While the older CD has likely not degraded all that much, it is highly conceivable the original LP has. I have been playing this record for years, decades even. It has had ample opportunity to lose quite a bit of sonic excellence.
So, is the remastered LP so much better because it actually is, or was it superior because my comparison of the new version was performed the first time anyone had ever played the record? Would it sound so much better if the remaster was not brand new? Would it sound anywhere nearly as well made without the benefit of decades of improved technology?
Sometimes, remastered works seek improvements on marginal past recordings. While I do not have the original, it is my understanding the remix of the Beatles “Seargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is a dramatic improvement over the 1969 original. If Giles Martin actually spent one year on the remix, as he is rumored to have done, the result should sound remarkable. I do have the reissue and it does sound fantastic. I cannot make any comparative judgements since I do not have the original – which is perhaps flawed due to stereo recording being relatively new in 1969.
So what purpose do remastered works of long ago releases actually serve? Is it simply to remake something that was once popular and hope it will be again?
Or are recording engineers attempting to correct mistakes made long ago? Is this a spurious effort on the part of the record labels to enhance sales? If you like LP’s, and many audiophiles do, and you have a record you paid, oh, say $5.00 for back in the day, how likely are you to shell out $30.00, $40.00 or more for that brand new version? How willing will you be to accept sonic mediocrity as opposed to increased cost for the new and improved?
Of course, the elephant in the room not mentioned is streaming. If you are a digital proponent who prefers streaming, none of this really matters. However, if you in any way enjoy vinyl, how willing are you to purchase something intended to correct past problems – or problems you yourself created by simply having an LP for so long? When is the status quo not good enough?