Mother of reinvention
They’re remastered and re- released, but does messing with Led Zep’s classics make them sound any better? Dominic Maxwell risks his hearing to find out
IS Led Zeppelin’s new album, Mothership , a rip- off or a revelation? The recently released two- CD best- of heralds the 1970s rock gods’ live reunion with a track listing remarkably similar to their previous twoCD best- of. Remasters , released in 1990, sold in airshiploads, thanks to the acclaimed restoration work by the band’s guitarist, Jimmy Page. Seventeen years later, he has done it again, with a new remastering engineer.
Has some 21st- century sonic hoodoo been applied to these blues- rock anthems? Are all previous versions of these songs now secondrate, redundant? Or is this remastering lark all just a bit of a gimmick?
Opinion, so far, is divided. The album is a must, argues Uncut magazine, for those who wish to hear Zep at their heaviest, deepest, softest and crispest’’. The influential American music site pitchformedia. com also digs the new sound:
revelatory on even the shittiest stereos,’’ it assures us. At amazon. co. uk, though, at least one little boy reckons the emperor has no clothes:
You’d have to have ears like K- 9 to hear any perceptible hike in quality from Remasters .’’
So who’s right? In the Abbey Road studios, north London, the chief remastering engineer, Peter Mew, and I are trying to find out. Using Mew’s 40 years of experience and his seriously expensive playback equipment, we’re searching for the ultimate listening experience. We have Mothership , Remasters and — just for fun — some old LPs to compare. And we’re not leaving the room until we figure out if Led Zep are really rocking harder than before.
One thing’s for sure: they’re rocking louder than before. We start off listening to the 1990 version of the hard- riffing 1971 number Black Dog. Mew listens intently, then nods approvingly: Fairly close to the original master tape,’’ he says, without much done to it.’’ It’s dynamic, clattery, rock n’ bloody roll.
Then we stick on the new mix. It comes out of the speakers like a steam train. Which one do you prefer?’’ asks Mew. Well, the new one is more appealing initially, I say. More powerful. Then again, maybe it’s just louder. Yeah, it’s louder,’’ shouts Mew disapprovingly. And to make it louder, you have to compromise on some of the detail, because there’s only so much information a CD can process.’’
The trend for CDs is to make them very loud. Mastering engineers do that by reducing the difference between the very quiet bits and the very loud bits, so that everything occupies a muscular middle range. It reduces subtlety and finesse. But like television adverts, which use similar compression techniques to be louder than the programs they interrupt, it sure as hell makes an impression. This becomes clear when we play Good Times, Bad Times from 1969. On the LP, the drummer, John Bonham, sounds like a hyperactive giant swinging a sledgehammer around a quarry. Then we hear the 1990 CD version. Doesn’t quite make it, does it?’’ says Mew. It doesn’t. But I can’t quite work out why.
Mew explains using sonic compression means that when the snare drum kicks in, the cymbals fade. There’s not enough room for both of them at the same time. That still happens when we hear the 2007 version, but less so. This time the detailed, upfront sound really delivers. Not bad,’’ Mew concludes It’s better than Remasters , not as good as the vinyl.’’
We play the Middle Eastern- infused Kashmir , first released in 1975. Mew raises a weary eyebrow at the 1990 version — Not a very powerful sound’’ — but we both find the new version irresistible. It’s more vibrant, more articulated, loud but not careless. It’s got more life to it,’’ Mew says. Doesn’t really need the extra level, though.’’ Then we stick on a crackly vinyl version. It’s not as in- yer- face, not as detailed, but it has a flow and a sense of space that you didn’t realise you were missing before. It gives me goosebumps. You could listen to that all day, couldn’t you?’’ Mew says. But why? Because it hasn’t had digital things done to it.’’ Mew does digital things to old albums for a living. He has remastered David Bowie, Deep Purple, Bob Marley and Syd Barrett. His aesthetic, he says, is to get as close as possible not to the vinyl version or even necessarily to the master tape, but to what the engineer and producer heard at the time, maybe with a little bit of updating’’.
What does updating mean? Fashions in sound change,’’ he says. People expect a slightly more compressed sound, slightly brighter.’’ So has he mastered CDs that improve on the original LPs? I have had people come back to me and say that they are as good as the vinyl but without the clicks and pops. Sometimes people tell me it doesn’t sound as good as the vinyl; well, hey, I try my best.
I have to make my judgments based on selling as many records as possible. That’s my brief. So even though there might be audiophiles who say you shouldn’t do this, well, I’m sorry, audiophiles, you’re a very small part of the market.’’
The leader of the audiophiles is the maverick American remastering engineer Steve Hoffman. I wonder if Mew has been on Hoffman’s internet forums ( www. stevehoffman. tv), where his work has been criticised?
Don’t talk to me about Steve Hoffman!’’ Mew says. I don’t want to criticise other people, but . . . hold on, yes I do, he hates me.’’
Hoffman’s heresy is to suggest the less you mess around with the original master tapes, the better the remaster. Which means, he suggests, that some 80s CDs sound better than their upgrade. You just have to turn them up a bit. So if you’re reinventing a back catalogue, as Mew did for Bowie, or as the producer Nick Davies has done for Genesis, mind your back.
It hurts me when I listen to some things on the Hoffman forum,’’ Davies says. They’re so offensive.’’ He has spent the best part of three years remixing Genesis’s albums, helped by the band’s keyboard player, Tony Banks. Working for new formats such as 5.1 and SACD, which boast twice the frequency range of CD, they’ve gone back to the original multitrack tapes, remixing rather than remastering.
Their aim, suggests Banks, has been to make the songs sound superficially similar to the old versions yet offer more depth and detail on a closer listen. But the further you depart from the vinyl versions that your fans grew up with, the more you risk polarising opinions. I went on Amazon,’’ Banks says, and I read five- star reviews, and then I saw one guy giving one of the new versions zero stars, complaining it was too highly compressed. I honestly think there was something wrong with his system.’’
Perhaps they should have tried the Hoffman way, saved themselves some grief, just transferred the tapes flat? Davies sighs. That,’’ he says, just sounds awful.’’
Back at Abbey Road, listening with Mew to the various versions of Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Bonham, one thing becomes apparent. While the vinyl soothes the soul, they all sound pretty bloody good. But as soon as you change formats, suggests Mew, you have to intervene.
I’m trying to second- guess what the original engineers would have wanted with these modern facilities at their disposal. All the time you have to make judgments.’’
Mew is fairly impressed with Mothership; he would have made it less in- your- face, he suggests, but that’s just personal taste’’. Further listening, he suggests, should reveal a cleaner sound than Remasters , more detail.
But while he finds Mothership fatiguingly loud, he admits he would have upped the volume from Remasters . Why? Because of fashion. No other reason.’’ So current ideas of how a record should sound can seep into even the most loyally archival process. We tried not to do too much of that,’’ says Tony Banks of Genesis, but I suppose part of what we’re doing is making something old acceptable to a contemporary ear. Maybe in 20 years’ time someone else will come in and change it again.’’
Should loyal Zep fans rush out and buy a bunch of songs they already own? They’ll certainly get a different take on them albeit one that, after a while, they’ll struggle to differentiate from the previous versions.
It’s true,’’ says Mew, it only takes about 30 seconds of listening to something and it sounds like the best one.’’ But if you miss this Mothership , don’t fret. There’ll be another one along in a couple of decades.