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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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.

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