Classic Music in the Digital Age: Thoughts on the Art of Remastering

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We live in a world dominated by music. Music dominates advertising, movies, bars and clubs, travel by car…. But how often do we know what we are listening to? Music has an intense sense of history and cultural preservation, but this does not always pop out to us when we first listen to a song or purchase an album. Given the recent explosion of popular music – which has really only existed in its present form since the 1950’s – it becomes necessary to search for historical context. The recent remastered series by Led Zeppelin got me thinking about what it is we are actually listening to when sit down and turn on music. What is the relationship between what is being heard, what the listener intends to hear, and what the producer or artist wants to be heard? And how does changing the content of the album affect this relationship?

Initial rough mix of “Trampled Underfoot” off of Physical Graffiti:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9uTmnQn_4c

Any album that is “remastered” is inherently not the same as the original album that came out. Take Physical Graffiti, for example – it was released in 1975 as a double album on vinyl. The intention of the listener would have been very different then than it could be today. Without the hindsight of Zeppelin’s later albums – including numerous artistic triumphs, as well as some lower points (specifically drummer Bonham’s death and Page’s heroin addiction, which began around this time) –placing the album into context would have been difficult and somewhat unnecessary.

But, for a second, let’s forget about the listener. Now there is the actual issue of what is actually on the record. When an artist issues a remastered copy, they physically manipulate the recordings – either to improve the quality to redirect the overall sound of the album – which means that the album is no longer the same album that was released previously. In many cases the difference is negligible and there are just minute changes to improve the sound of the record. However, in some extreme circumstances, an album can take on a whole new light. There are many great examples where older albums are rereleased as CDs containing studio outtakes or other material that was not even on the original.

When we listen to remastered albums, are they the same as the one that was originally released? When you say “I own a copy of Physical Graffiti”, should your friend’s reaction be: “Oh I love that album! Which copy: the 1975 Vinyl; the 1976 collectors edition; the 1994 cassette; the remastered 1997 CD; the remastered 2015 box set?” This response would be something that could be expected from a hardcore audiophile Zeppelin fanatic, in which case look from some new friends. But is it really that absurd?

One of the most interesting examples of remastering was the reissue of the final Beatles album Let It Be. In this case, the album was almost completely thrown out and was composed by mixing old studio and live recordings.

The Beatles were suffering some significant creative strife as they headed into the studio for the last time, and they had actually broken up by the time the album was released in May of 1970. In 2003, Paul McCartney released Let It Be…Naked, which was a remixed and remastered version of the original. Many of the songs, including the ubiquitous “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Across the Universe” sounded radically different.

“Across the Universe” from the 1970 version:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN9n1bAahg4

And the “naked” version:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOfRD8zO2MQ

McCartney’s purpose was to undo some of the mixing that producer Phil Spector added to the original recordings. McCartney said the band wanted a more acoustic sounding folk theme to the album and presented the original in a “naked” version without a lot of the overdubbing and orchestral or choral sounds. Much of the substance for his material came from the Beatles’ famous “rooftop concert”, their last performance as a group in 1969.

One of my first exposures to the Beatles was the album Let It Be… Naked, which my parents bought on CD when it first came out. I actually had not heard the original album until last year when I went to look up one of the songs on Youtube, which was actually quite shocking to hear. The difference is immense; I much prefer the reissued album to the original. This is true to the extent that in my iTunes library, I renamed the album to just Let It Be almost as if I was trying to convince myself that it is the “real” version released in 1970 (which is the goal McCartney seemed to want to accomplish).

How do we come to understand this relationship? The Let It Be that existed for 33 years and that many people come to know is not the “true” Let It Be in my opinion, but regardless there is a case to be made that the reissue is so radically different that it could be considered a separate album. I place it in the frame of the Beatles discography that ended in 1970, but could just as easily be placed within a larger discography that extends all the way until 2003.

This album really gets into the heart of artistic creation. Paul McCartney is not just editing the album to make it sound better, he was also a sixty-year-old man looking back and changing the recordings of his younger self. With almost 40 years of experience behind him – as well as half of his band dead – he could absolutely dictate the direction of the new album. In this case, it seems that if the other members were alive they would have agreed with his decisions, but this wouldn’t necessarily be the case for other groups.

This process reminds me a lot of the restoration of art – when the frescos of the Sistine Chapel were restored in the early 1980’s, the goal was to protect the paintings as they would have appeared during the Renaissance. Modern viewers are not viewing the original work of Michelangelo, yet without it we wouldn’t have the same access to the original masterpiece. From a unique point of perspective, we can carefully cater the piece to what we believe the artist would have intended.

Given our more modern understanding of preservation, technique, and motivation, we have a unique vantage point from which we can manipulate the world around us. In much the same way – though in a much less extreme sense – remastering albums achieves the same end. McCartney is a sonic architect, reviving an ancient masterpiece from a weak foundation.

Music isn’t an inherently stable platform. Records scratch and fall apart; CDs get misplaced; hard drives crash. Regardless of the physical medium, the actual sounds of individual songs and albums cater to the whims of their owners and can change dramatically as the years go on. Most artists probably do not create their music with the idea that people will continue to listen to it decades down the line, so maybe we shouldn’t listen to it this way. Music, as is most art, is defined temporally and should be experienced as such. Experience music as a work of art, but understand it as a fluid entity that is subject to the spirit of the times.

 

What We ThinkTom Bonan