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Mastering DVD-Audio: Get it Right the First Time

Jeff Partyka

August 2000 | The designers and sellers of DVD-Audio products have a lot to learn from the story of the compact disc. Everyone's losing sleep over copy protection during this Napster-crazy year, but other issues need attention as well.

As an unabashed audiophile, I've become quite sensitive to the quality of audio mastering on CDs. Most people I know--none of whom are audiophiles--can't be bothered with such subtleties, and tell me they honestly can't hear much difference at all between a CD mastered in 1984 and the same album remastered on a disc reissued in 2000. "It's all digital," they say. "It's zeros and ones. They all sound the same." That's why, they add, it's pointless to buy those twice-as-expensive 24-karat-gold-plated CDs from companies like DCC Compact Classics and the now-defunct Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. "There's no difference."

Hogwash. While it's true that the words "digitally remastered" have become virtually meaningless from overuse, the mastering step is perhaps the most crucial in the development of a CD, or DVD-Audio disc. And, in truth, great strides have been made in CD mastering since the first discs appeared on the market in the early and mid-1980s, which have led to the second (and, in some cases, even third or fourth or more) CD release of many albums. And anyone who truly listens to an A-B comparison of an original 1980s-era CD release and a more recent remaster will, I guarantee, hear some significant differences.

An example? Let's take Elton John. Most of the hit albums he recorded during his 1970s heyday were originally released on MCA Records, which handled the first CD issues of those albums in the 1980s. At the time, the novelty of clean, crackle-free performance and the many other attractive features of the CD format overshadowed what was in truth rather poor sound. A listen to my original MCA CD of John's 1973 classic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (a double-LP set that MCA initially issued as two CDs) reveals virtually no bass content, noticeable tape hiss, a grating harshness to the cymbals and many of the vocals, and a generally thin sound overall. This is typical of a large number of CDs issued in the first few years of the format's existence.

The reason? In their haste to supply compact discs to the market, many record companies used LP-equalized copies of master tapes, rather than the master tapes themselves, for their first CD releases. Amazingly, a great number of these early, inferior-sounding CDs have never been removed from the market and replaced with remastered versions. Columbia (now owned by Sony) is one of the chief offenders; although the label has done an admirable job remastering and reissuing the Byrds and Billy Joel catalogs on CD (to name but two), it's pitifully neglected Bruce Springsteen's albums and most of Bob Dylan's as well. (It's bizarre and ironic that you can get beautifully mastered versions of a large number of Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A.-era B-sides and outtakes on the 1998 boxed set Tracks, but we're still stuck with the album itself as mastered--quite poorly--for CD back in 1987!)

That's why audiophiles like me appreciate DCC and Mobile Fidelity discs. These releases are not just gold-plated versions of their aluminum counterparts. They are meticulously remastered from original, unequalized tapes. DCC engineer Steve Hoffman in particular deserves kudos; he is widely respected in audiophile circles for his remasters of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark, and countless other pop, jazz, and hard-rock titles. Many of these remasters have been made available in both high-quality vinyl and limited-edition gold CD versions. These companies do not mass-produce; they may release a dozen or fewer titles a year, which means they can spend more time, money, and effort on each release, and the results justify all of it. Put on Columbia's 1980s-mastered CD of Highway 61, and then put on Hoffman's DCC gold disc. You'll be wowed.

But I digress. By the mid-'90s, Elton John's MCA-era albums had been remastered and issued for the second time on CD, this time by Polydor. The sound was much better, if not quite up to the standards of the gold CDs Mobile Fidelity had issued of three of the titles, and Yellow Brick Road was even squeezed onto one CD (which Mobile Fidelity had also accomplished). This didn't preclude yet another go-round in 1996, this time on John's own Rocket label with even better remastering (involving original producer Gus Dudgeon), extensive liner notes, and bonus tracks.

Are we going to have to go through this again with DVD-Audio? I'll strike a tone of cautious optimism and say probably not. For one thing, the format's foremost promise is high-quality sound; we've already experienced the indexing and durability that constituted as much of CD's appeal as improved sound. The format's unique ability to deliver multichannel, 96kHz, 24-bit sound--in addition to, one would hope, the lessons the industry has learned from its CD-era stumblings--should discourage record companies from grabbing the first master tape copy they see lying around and employing a hack team to make a new DVD-ready master from it. The surround sound requirements alone will necessitate starting from scratch as far as mastering is concerned. The art of mastering has improved so substantially that it's hard to believe the record companies won't get it right the first time.

But maybe I'm being overly optimistic. Part of me wouldn't be surprised at all to see Goodbye Yellow Brick Road reissued four more times in the next 20 years. Just don't expect me to buy 'em this time.

Jeff Partyka (JeffJP@yahoo.com), a former associate editor and current Waxing Digital columnist at EMedia Magazine, is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer currently employed at the Alzheimer's Association of Eastern Massachusetts.

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