Remastering any album is a challenge quite different from actually making the original duh), but working on something you haven’t touched in many years is also quite the slice. A slice of about, oh…, three months of my life.
I approached this work with much the same tack I take on colonoscopies: I know it needs to be done. I’m thankful for the good result. I ‘m glad it only needs to be done once in a great while. Come to think of it, I was unconscious for my last colonoscopy; so perhaps I enjoyed that procedure even more. (Sorry, younger readers, even Mick Jagger has a colonoscopy. Lady Gaga probably has one every weekend just…well…just for kicks?)
Alas, I digress.
The point is–it ain’t the most fun thing in the world. Remember: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’? You have to re-live every mistake you ever made. Many times over. And in the case of Positive, the original tracks were recorded loooong before the release. Some bits were recorded as early as 1993. So the recording quality was not, shall we say, of the first water. So I learned a lot about the wonderful world of restoration.
One dirty little secret of the audio world is that there is very little in the way of ‘backward compatibility’. Unlike recording tape, or photographs, there is no single standard for storing digital audio projects. Many of the songs (which were recorded on 1/2″ tape, or ADAT or into a computer, were compiled into an early version of Steinberg’s Cubase software. I loved the software so much I jumped at the chance to endorse the products.
Unfortunately, be careful when you step inside the kitchen, oh foodie! One dirty little secret of the audio software world of ten years ago was an almost contempt for backward compatibility. We take for granted with, say Microsoft Word, that as we upgrade to newer versions of Word, we can still open old documents. No corporation would consider buying a word processor that couldn’t open older letters. Such is not the case in audio. Every new version of the software ran the risk of being incompatible with projects from as recent as the previous year. The idea was that music productions were far more ephemeral than printed documents. When you were done ‘producing’ a song? You were done with it, right? Why would you want to revisit it a few years later? This mode of thought was almost pervasive.
So in addition to the fact that the original tracks needed a lot of clean-up, there was real trepidation (which in several cases turned out to be well-founded) that the original projects would not be compatible with the current software.
And then there’s the case of the backups. When was the last time you tried to restore from a backup CD or DVD? If it’s been a while… and if you have any material that you’re concerned about? You should do a test-drive tomorrow. Do it before you eat a hearty breakfast, because otherwise, you might lose it shortly after the test. The number of DVDs that I’ve run across in the past ten years that have not been ‘restorable’ has been much larger than I would have ever guessed. These things degrade! So in addition to the aforementioned issue of compatibility, I also ran into the problem of several key files simply not being able to read from the original discs. Oy!
Peaks And Valleys
The biggest mixing problem with Positive was an almost complete disregard for compression on the lead vocals. There were almost no songs on the record that didn’t have at least one spot where I would reflexively reach for the volume knob. So a lot of attention was paid to this most basic problem: making the vocal ‘sit’ better in the mix. I kept going back and forth and forth and back with the mastering engineer on this–trying to tame those peaks and valleys, without losing the ‘passion’ in the performances. I had several sessions with him and each time I thought going in that I had it nailed, I would soon thereafter realise to my horror that I had gone much too far; and had such the life out of the track.
The thorniest issue for me was the running order. What I never quite understood was the fact that almost everyone I ran into hated the original running order—opening with Commitment. (The biggest comment I got during the polling for Nice Cuts was not actually about Nice Cuts; it was telling me that I should dump Commitment as an opener for Positive.) At first, I thought it was because of the frankly crap mix quality on that track. I actually based the whole ‘arc’ of the album around opening with Commitment. So I was well motivated to keep things as they are and simply correct the mix issues. But there was another problem with this opening track.
Not Even Your Friends Will Tell You
As with body odor, there is a way people have of em>not telling one when something’s just not right, without saying a word. Having a slow opening to the album was a complete turn-off for reviewers. As grinding as that is to me, I felt like I had to take that ‘initial impact’ into account—especially if I was asking listeners to consider what is, after all, not something new, but merely ‘improved’. We settled on This Time, followed by Mr. Parker in order to give reviewers two quick ‘snapshots’ of the album—as one person put it, “the passionate side, then the mental side.” Fair enough.
Get A Room
The biggest change in the ‘sound’ of Positive (2010) has to do with two different rooms. When I first mixed Positive I was in this big open room with no organised attempted made to discover, let alone improve it’s acoustic deficiencies. I cannot stress enough how important it is to mix in a room where one can hear clearly. (Notice that I did not write record; I wrote ‘mix’. You may be able to recover from well-played tracks that were done in a less than forgiving environment, but if you can’t hear properly when you mix the recording? Fawgeddaboudit.
This time (no pun intended), I had several things going for me. First, I had a better room in which to audition the mixes as I went. I’d spent a lot of time improving the acoustics so what I ended up delivering to the Ed The ME was much more balanced when it showed up in his room. And secondly, when we got to his room, I knew more about how to get the sound in my head onto the CD. I could ask Ed the ME for help and direct more than just be led around.
And The Moral Is?
I’m glad I did this and of course I hope, Dear Reader, that you are as well. Each time I redo an earlier record, I realise why ‘big’ artists do not. There’s little financial incentive—unless of course we’re talked re-packaging with some fabulous coffee table book display. But since I can I do. This is software after all, and obvious errors in software can and should be fixed. That’s really all Positive (2010) is—a bug fix. But as with all good software, those little nigglies can make the difference all the difference in how one experiences the ‘product’.
One cannot make bad software ‘good’ (We have a saying in Ireland about “polishing the turd”.) But often one can radically improve the amount of time users want to spend with the thing with some apparently minor tweaking. I sincerely hope the changes in Positive (2010) which may seem so minor on paper, can do that for your experience—make you want to spend a lot more time with it.
That was the idea anyway. 😀