How to do a remaster / rerelease properly

Following Tom’s choice at round six of Devon Record Club the other week, I ordered a copy of Crazy Rhythms by The Feelies on Thursday (it’s my birthday tomorrow, and I deserve a present), took advantage of a free trial of Amazon’s Prime service, and had it arrive at work yesterday.

The only copy available was the 2008 remaster on Domino Records, which suited me fine, though I was a little wary as Amazon didn’t list the tracklisting, and I’d seen something about one release appending an (allegedly pretty good) additional song at the end, that wasn’t from the same era as Crazy Rhythms; as The Feelies have spread their career out over quite some time, often with big gaps between records, I didn’t want something from another era intruding on the nine songs I had heard at Rob’s house, and that I liked enough to want to own (even though their sound isn’t meant to have varied much over the decades!).

As I cooked dinner last night I opened the cellophane and stuck Crazy Rhythms on the CD player, and was delighted to see that there were no bonus tracks appended to the original tracklisting. I was also delighted to find, and a little impressed at the initiative of, a little credit-card sized… card… with codes to download a handful of bonus tracks – a single edit, two demos, and two recent live recordings (plus a download version of the album proper – which seems pointless as why not just stick it in your computer and rip it? Presumably this card comes with a vinyl release too…).

I doubt I’ll ever download these tracks, but the thought struck me as good, and innovative, and the kind of thing that, alongside a sympathetic remastering job and decent (but not ostentatious) packaging, makes for a good rerelease. I’m not bothered, as a rule, by bonus discs and demo versions and live versions and fancy box sets in the shape of the guitarist’s head and artwork postcards and gold-coloured vinyl and 5.1 surround sound DVDs and recreation t-shirts and USB sticks full of .wav files and mono versions and all that novelty bumf. At the risk of sounding like some kind of godforsaken hippy, I just want the music, man, on a CD, in a case that doesn’t prevent me taking it out easily enough to play as often as I want for fear of tearing the packaging or scratching the disc.

Maybe, if I really like a band, I might be interested in all the b-sides (and possibly related non-album singles) that accompanied the album being rereleased; it might be nice to have Paperback Writer and Rain tacked onto the end of Revolver, for instance (even though they should, chronologically speaking, be tacked on at the start); but I’m not complaining, at all, about having them together with We Can Work It Out and Hey Jude and so on in the Past Masters release – not being able to get hold of them at all (except for on a prohibitively expensive box set, perhaps), would be the thing that infuriated me here. Hello The Stone Roses and Silvertone records.

I know it seems like a luddite thing to say in 2011, but I still like the integrity of an artist’s intent (or an A&R man’s, perhaps…) regarding the sequencing of an album; having to rush to press ‘stop’ after I Am The Resurrection finishes because I’m not in the mood for Fool’s Gold is an annoyance (so a few seconds of added silence in which to do so is a good thing, fyi remastering engineers and product managers). Bonus materials as a rule, and especially putrid demo and live versions, should be stuck on a separate disc so I never have to listen to them unless I want to. Saying that, 5-10 seconds of silence followed by some choice, well sequenced b-sides, isn’t going to upset me.

As for the actual remastering, well… despite some perceptions, I’m not as fascistically anti-dynamic-range-compression as some might think. Certainly I don’t just want to hear a scuzzy, indistinct version with the levels pumped up towards digital zero – I want improved clarity, imaging, impact – but I’m not averse to things being made a little more beefy and modern, as long it’s sympathetically done, and they don’t end up tediously loud or, and this is especially important, digitally clipped.

Some serious audiophiles I saw online circa the remastered Beatles albums release in 2009 were getting haughty that the CD versions weren’t quite as good as some rare Japanese vinyl release that costs $600 or whatever, but to me, they were pretty spot on in terms of what I wanted. Likewise the Sly & The Family Stone and CAN remasters from a few years ago, and the recent Stone Roses, Paul’s Boutique, and Screamadelica rereleases. The 2003 Talking Heads ones maybe pushed things a half-step too far, likewise the Funkadelic series from approx 2005 perhaps, but neither is rendered anywhere near the kind of unlistenability achieved by Kanye’s Dark Twisted Fantasy; they might be loud, but they’re not distorted, to my ears.

Another thing to consider is whether something needs remastering or not; the 3CD set of Giant Steps from The Boo Radleys doesn’t mention anything about remastering on the cover, spine, or in the liner notes, which is great, because the original version I have still sounds utterly fantastic, and didn’t need anything doing to it to my ears (I don’t know what Martin Carr thinks regarding this, however). (I did buy the new version and give away my 15+ year old original, though, because, well, two discs of b-sides!)

(As a side note, both The Beatles and Sly & The Family Stone had their studio album remaster rereleases bolstered, a few months later, by the remastered rerelease of seminal compilations – Sly’s 1969 Greatest Hits set, which was my introduction to the band, and The Beatles’ epochal Red and Blue collections – for many people, compilations like this are how you get to know an artist’s work, and they can be just as revered as the ‘proper’ albums; it’s a shame when they’re forgotten amidst a flush of remastered studio LPs.)

The only major artist I can think of who I’m still waiting for remasters of is Prince. Heaven only knows if he’ll ever get his thumb out of his ass long enough to make peace with his record label and sort this out. I’m sure there are plenty of other, lesser-known but no less talented, musicians awaiting sympathetic rereleases. I’ll hear about them in time, I suspect. What I could really hanker after, though, is ‘fixed’ versions of albums from the last ten years or so that have been released with shoddy sonics on CD in the first place. Whether that will ever come to pass or not, I don’t know.

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5 responses to “How to do a remaster / rerelease properly

  1. Pingback: Remastering – my blog « My Writing Diary

  2. I share your desire for aesthetic wholeness/integrity, but I can also assure that an artist who reissues without adding bonus tracks will suffer considerably at the register. More people will say “why should I buy this? there’s nothing new on it” than will care about whether the remaster itself brings something new and valuable to the table. I don’t think artists add bonus tracks to reissues without some regret, but in an ever-contracting marketplace, one can’t afford to make an aesthetic gesture which might reduce sales as significantly as “just reissuing the same record” might.

  3. If bonus tracks are tacked on the end of a reissued album, they are usually best off separated by 10-15 seconds of silence IMO. Especially if the last song on the album is an obvious album closer.

  4. That’s a very salient point, JD, and one I should have considered. I wonder how the remaster of Paul’s Boutique suffered, as they couldn’t append any bonus tracks without having to then pay to clear all the samples, which would, presumably, ruin even AdRock etc financially.

    I imagine the £100+ super deluxe vinyl & CDs & t-shirt & slipmats & so on box sets are real money spillers too, as extravagantly pointless as I find them myself.

    I just want the Stone Roses b-sides remastered all on one disc, damnit!

  5. I do believe those little cards with download codes with bonus materials are generally the same put in CD copies as the vinyl release, hence the full album download also… but they also come in handy if your CD drive has given up and you keep misappropriating funds to replace it to buy CDs instead, as has happened to me.

    Definitely agree with a period of silence preceding bonus tracks if they aren’t on second disc, it ruins perfectly good end tracks having to anticipate turning it off before the improper track starts in.

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